Nietzsche provocatively labels himself an “immoralist”. This is something gleefully seized upon by theists who absurdly think that the logical result of atheism is a total rejection of all morality. Possibly the most famous and unapologetic of all philosophical atheists himself declared himself an “immoralist”! And the word “immoralist” is simply assumed to mean “one who rejects all morality”. So, there you have it. The greatest, most famous, and most honest of all atheist philosophers admits that atheism logically leads to a rejection of all morality. Atheists who claim morality is possible without God are just in denial. Checkmate, atheists!
But does Nietzsche concede all of this when he calls himself an “immoralist”?
An actual look at Nietzsche’s usage of the word in context indicates that he doesn’t. In fact, Nietzsche actually counts the original Christians themselves as predecessor “immoralists” in their own historical and cultural context. But in what sense could a moralistic religion like Christianity be considered an “immoralism”? What could Nietzsche even mean by that? And what exactly could both Christians and their fiercest critic have in common that makes them both “immoralists” in their critic’s mind? To understand, we need only look at Book I, section 9 of Nietzsche’s book Daybreak, where he spells this all out. The section is titled “Conception of the Morality of Custom” and that’s an accurate description of its theme. Nietzsche argues that for thousands of years primitive cultures’ moralities were matters of rigid customs, governing huge swaths of life including “education and hygienics, marriage, medicine, agriculture, war, speech and silence, the relationship between man and man, and between man and the gods”. He stresses that above all conformity was the primary imperative. The decisive feature of a moral action was that it was deferent to tradition for tradition’s sake:
morality required that a man should observe her prescriptions without thinking of himself as individual. Everything, therefore, was originally custom, and whoever wished to raise himself above it, had first of all to make himself a kind of lawgiver and medicine-man, a sort of demi-god—in other words, he had to create customs, a dangerous and fearful thing to do!
The idea here is that laws were superstitiously believed to require supernatural sources and that to presume to deviate from the gods’ laws in any way was to act instead by one’s own laws. But since only a god could make a law, making a law for oneself would be presuming oneself some sort of demi-god. And this is, of course, a terrifying sort of responsibility and presumption for a mere mortal. It would be better to just conform to the received law. This theme of being threatened with an overwhelming burden to become “gods” returns in Nietzsche’s most famous section of writing, The Gay Science 125, wherein a madman declares that humanity has “killed God” and describes our predicament in having done so as follows:
How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers ? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife,–who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us ? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event, — and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”
The psychology is clear here. People who have internalized the idea that the only source of genuine law must be from some supernatural divinity will be terrified by the challenge to be lawgivers themselves. But, Nietzsche’s not a pessimist about this situation. He doesn’t think it’s an impossible task and one for doom and gloom. Future people will be born into a higher stage of humanity, one wherein we are now taking more responsibility for ourselves. This break with customary morality and rejection of the idea that tradition rules even at the expense of the individual is not some Nietzschean revolutionary anomaly. It’s a core theme in the development of Western morality.
It is harder to find two greater paradigms of Western philosophical moralism than Socrates and Immanuel Kant. And no religious tradition has shaped the Western mind as Christianity has. Immanuel Kant famously argues that autonomous reason is the moral lawgiver. Morality requires no irrationalism nor supernaturally derived and delivered arbitrary dictates. Each autonomously reasoning individual can think out the true moral precepts by assiduously attending to the implications of reason itself and legislate morality accordingly. (Also paradigmatic of a great deal of secular morality is utilitarianism, which highlights the importance of both group and individual happiness.)
And one of Socrates’s fundamental projects was to call Athenian customs to account and demand that they make sense of themselves according to reason lest they lose their claims to legitimacy. And, as Nietzsche tells the story, Christianity placed individual salvation at the center of its narrative in a way that prioritized the good of the individual as a matter or primary importance, rather than the preservation of the group the way older customary religions would have.
These mindsets in which tradition is not an unquestionable, authoritarian, divine mouthpiece that demands the individual totally subsume herself obediently to the customary way of life of the group, even at the expense of her own ultimate interests, are seen as fundamentally evil and opposed to morality itself by the lights of the morality of custom that equates group conformity with morality itself. So, Nietzsche identifies his predecessor “immoralists” essentially as quite mainstream and clearly pro-morality figures like Socrates and traditions like Christianity:
Let us not be deceived as to the motives of that moral law which requires, as an indication of morality, obedience to custom in the most difficult cases! Self-conquest is required, not by reason of its useful consequences for the individual; but that custom and tradition may appear to be dominant, in spite of all individual counter desires and advantages. The individual shall sacrifice himself—so demands the morality of custom.
On the other hand, those moralists who, like the followers of Socrates, recommend self-control and sobriety to the individual as his greatest possible advantage and the key to his greatest personal happiness, are exceptions—and if we ourselves do not think so, this is simply due to our having been brought up under their influence. They all take a new path, and thereby bring down upon themselves the utmost disapproval of all the representatives of the morality of custom. They sever their connection with the community, as immoralists, and are, in the fullest sense of the word, evil ones. In the same way, every Christian who “sought, above all things, his own salvation,” must have seemed evil to a virtuous Roman of the old school.
So being characterized as an “immoralist” to Nietzsche has nothing to do with being an actual rejector of all morality. It has to do with having a morality that is perceived as an evil rejection of all morality by some preeminent, dominant morality that presumes to define all morality according to itself. Any morality that says, “Only this particular formulation of moral rules or only this particular approach to the essence of morality shall count as good, and any deviations in opinions or emphases shall count as evil” will wind up calling simple dissenters about the substance of morality or rival theories of morality evil and outright immoralist on account of such deviation, non-conformity, and attempt to reason for oneself or look out for one’s own interests. And by the old school Roman mindset the Christians would look just as immoralist as Nietzsche looks to Christians. That’s his argument. (Though in fact, whether Nietzsche realized it or not, there were many mystery religions on the scene in the Roman empire already making this shift to religion being about individual salvation before the Christian version emerged as just another syncretic variation.)
Finally, as one last key contextual observation, it’s worth noting that Nietzsche frames the entirety of section 9 as a demonstration of his idea that, in general, the entire present age (and not just outliers like Nietzsche who criticize the dominant morality) would look to the standards of thousands of years prior like an era of great immorality “because the power of custom has been weakened to a remarkable degree, and the sense of morality is so refined and elevated that we might almost describe it as volatilized”. So, just by having a refined, rational, situationally sensitized morality that takes into account variables and the needs and rights of individuals (as both Christian and secular morality of the time would be more likely to do than more ancient moralities would) Nietzsche thinks the whole modern age winds up seeming “very immoral” to that old morality’s perspective.
With this precedence, we have justification in assuming when Nietzsche owns the word “immoralist” for himself that he is merely preemptively “owning” and ironically re-appropriating the slur that he knows he will be subject to as a conscientious critic of received morality. He’s saying essentially that when he criticizes morality the conformity-enforcing tendency of morality will reemerge even in the modern context. In the big picture though even the mainstream modern moralities are “immoralisms” to the actual historically dominant way of thinking. So Nietzsche calling himself an “immoralist” is no different to me than atheists who ironically call themselves “heathens”, “apostates”, “heretics”, or “sinners”. And no different from LGBT people who call themselves anything related to “queer”, or feminist women who reappropriatively call themselves “bitches”, “sluts”, or “witches”. On and on we have numerous examples of this standard practice of reappropriating a denunciatory term that mocks the term and defies those who want to stigmatize with it by instead turning around and wearing it as a badge of honor.
So I don’t think Nietzsche’s at all ruling out all moralities whatsoever as valuable. I don’t think he’s rejecting all moralizing either. In fact, there are plenty of places where, despite his countless attacks on received morality as though it were morality itself, he nonetheless both points towards and ostensively models ways of judging some moralities better and others worse and, therein, gives standards that constructive Nietzschean moralists can learn from and build upon in order to create moral conceptions he’d be more likely to approve of. Whether or not it’s a good idea to follow his judgment is another question. My only point is that “Nietzschean moralities” are theoretically possible and neither oxymoronic nor inherently contradicted by his “immoralism”. For more on this theme in Nietzsche’s work (and specifically in the Daybreak), check out my post, Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies Of Moralities.
If you’re curious to delve further into Nietzsche, consider joining my online Nietzsche class!
I earned my PhD and taught 93 university classes before I went into business for myself. My online classes involve live, interactive class discussions with me and your fellow students held over videoconference (using Google Hangout, which downloads in just seconds). Classes involve personalized attention to your own ideas and questions. Course content winds up tailored to your interests as lively and rigorous class discussions determine where exactly we go. Classes are flexible enough to meet the needs of both beginners and students with existing philosophical background
My classes require no outside reading or homework or grades–only a once weekly 2.5 hour commitment that fits the schedules of busy people. My classes are university quality but I can offer no university credit whatsoever. New classes start up every month and you can join existing groups of students if you want. Click on the classes that interest you below and find the course descriptions, up-to-date schedules, and self-registration. 1-on-1 classes can be arranged by appointment if you write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.