Neitzche’s Morality

I’m reluctant to write on Nietzsche because there is a very high chance that anything I say will be wrong.  But what else do I advocate then live and learn, so onward!

Nietzsche is one of the most ambiguous philosophers in existence.  He regularly contradicts himself, he criticizes anything and everything, and his work is unsystematic and poetic.  These traits can make it quite fun to read his work, but they do not lend themselves to straightforward interpretation.  That being said, I do think that I have at least a tenuous grasp of one of his most famous lines of thought – his ideas and conceptions of morality.

Nietzsche is generally considered to be a anti-realist on the subject of morality.  He thinks that morality is something that we make up, a non-empirical fantasy.  Another way of putting it is that he thinks that you can fully explain someones morality by looking at their lives; our morality are codes that are ‘good’ for us in the sense that they benefit us.  Nietzsche rails against ‘slave morality’, slave morality being the moral codes adapted by the herd.  This slave morality probably aligns with morality as most north American’s today think of it – be nice to people, be humble, don’t be greedy, etc.  In short, it is the morality of the church.  Nietzsche thought that this kind of morality was a morality that was good for weak people, and that they used this morality to constrain strong people who would be much better off acting otherwise then dictated by this slave morality.  Thus he issued a call to action of sorts.  He proposed a different kind of morality, his ‘will to power’.

I’m going to leave aside talking about moral realism for the moment – I’ve touched on the topic several times recently.  What I instead want to look at is Nietzsche’s proposed moral system, one that emphasizes greatness over kindness.

Though Nietzsche was proposing this system in opposition to what he perceived to be a majority morality, by my current conception of his system I think that it is much more compelling then many will probably first think.  Is it better to live a great life or a kind life?  Though I think I’m inclined towards the second, I cannot help but hesitate.  Human existence seems like it would be quite bland without excellence (though it would likewise be rather unbearable without kindness).  Nietzsche’s system does not eliminate kindness, he is advocating that the great not allow themselves be tied down.  Greatness, I must say, has its own unique pull that kindness does not bring to the table.  In the end I don’t think I could subscribe to it, but it isn’t a simple choice.

Morality is not usually considered a matter of personal benefit – that is what differentiates Nietzsche’s meta-ethics from more traditional ethics.  I think, though, that even within the traditional normative ethics framework there is space to argue the value of greatness.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

via Blogger


13 thoughts on “Neitzche’s Morality

  1. Nietzsche is a nut. In addition to everything you said here, he posited that Christianity and the beginnings of morality came about due to man thinking that the infinitely powerful God used his power to perform the selfless act of forgiving man. A selfless act goes against the animalistic instincts of man to the effect that the values of the maximally powerful – and therefore to be feared – God are those that are not animalistic. Thus, as God has spared man of his infinite debt in a selfless act inconsistent with the animal instincts of man, man feels guilt when he acts or desires to act on his animal instincts because of the example set by God in forgiving man of his debt.

    Now, I’ll admit that I might have feelings and sentiments without knowing their true origins. But this explanation for my moral emotions just seems extravagant . I think the evidence suggests that we know we have good reason to act morally, and when we feel our animalistic instincts we feel moral guilt because we know it would be irrational to act on them. Here, I’m only speaking of those animal instincts that conflict with our moral beliefs.

    Would it be inconsistent to drop this part of Nietzsche’s philosophy but hold onto the parts on greatness? No, but I think it should make us wary.

    I’m interested by your thoughts on greatness. What makes it a hard choice?

    • That is not quite how I’ve understood Nietzsche’s account of morality, but as I said I do not consider myself a Nietzsche scholar. What works would you site as the source for your interpretation?

      My understanding of Nietzsche (which I base upon ‘Beyond good and evil’ and the Stanford encyclopedia article on Nietsche) takes his account as considerably more direct – moral codes such as kindness and humility are beneficial to weak people at a societal level, and these codes constrain or hobble strong people. Though I disagree with his count, I don’t really disagree with the description so much as the tone. If we get rid of the normative tone, his description seems quite accurate to me – today’s generally agreed upon normative claims are beneficial to the mass of society, and are in many ways detrimental to the people that Nietzsche would call supermen.

      It does follow from Nietzsche’s general outlook on morality that this account is not objectively true, because he does not believe in real morality. Instead, it is his account of his preference.

      As to greatness, I consider myself to be answering the following question: would you rather be a good person or a significant person? Though in the end I give the nod to goodness (I find any internal strife about the goodness of my actions quite painful), I cannot deny to myself that I want to be significant. I would really like, for example, to write a piece of philosophy that people read hundreds of years into the future (or even read a lot just today).

      • I don’t claim to be a Nietzsche scholar, but I think my interpretation is consistent with the scholarship. For the primary source I’m interpreting On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), the book that expands the several single page aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) into a full treatise. Most Nietzsche scholars consider On the Genealogy of Morals as Nietzsche’s most important, and focused, critique of morality.

        A secondary source that backs up my reading is Brain Leiter’s book, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality. Which Stanford article did you read, the one titled “Nietzsche”, or “Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy”? The latter article is by Brian Leiter, so I take it he is a reputable Nietzsche scholar, and thus, his book is a good source.

  2. Hmm my last comment might have a tone I didn’t intend; my apologies if it came off as curt.

    Anyways, you are quite right that Nietzsche is an anti-realist. But it’s hard to say if he thinks moral propositions are the expression of preferences, a branch of non-cognitivism called expressivism. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche does a good deal of etymological analysis of moral terms to find how they came to have the semantic content that they do. That moral terms are laden with semantic content diachronically suggests that we inherit moral beliefs from past generations, such that his undertaking this analysis suggests an endorsement of cognitivism but given his denial of “slave” morality, motivates reading him as an error theorist. This just means that we made up morality and that some other theory of teleological rationality based in self interest would better serve us if we have to make something up to guide our actions. Nietzsche thought we should act to promote our own flourishing, as we see fit, taking those actions that would realize ourselves. Nietzsche says to take by force what you need from your neighbor; rationally all you are meant to do is acquire those goods that will allow you to flourish and prosper. This is the return to a master morality. Inevitably the weak will be trampled by the bold masters who take what they want for their own flourishing. Really the question comes down to: if we are going to create a system to justify our actions do we want to live by a master morality or a slave morality?

      • I’m saying that Nietzsche’s view implies that we have the choice of slave or master morality. I favor non-natural moral realism, so I don’t think we have a choice; what he calls “slave” morality is made true by moral properties that supervene on states of affairs regardless of our recognizing those nomological supervenience relations. When “master” morality was in favor it was just that we were wrong about these relations, due to self-interested biases.

      • I think there may be an interesting divide to explore within moral realism. I consider myself much more process oriented then ‘right action’ oriented. In other words, I think that the way in which we come to our moral conclusions is much more important morally then what we actually believe (to leave the subject of Nietzsche behind for a moment).

      • Interesting, I’d like to hear more about this view.

        In what way do you mean that this process of coming to moral beliefs is morally important? I can see how it is epistemically important, reliabilist justification criteria do seem to get at an important criterion that our final epistemological theory should include. But how is this process morally important? For the consequences our beliefs might have? That seems to over explain the fact that our actions are morally significant; Occam’s razor looms.

        Do you mean that the process is itself valuable, in constituting morality? If this is so then your position is not of the moral realist camp. A true-blooded moral realist thinks that nomological supervenience relations obtain between moral properties and non-moral properties as a matter of logical necessity. To say otherwise would be to maintain that two states of affairs could have all the same non-moral properties but different moral properties, which is ludicrous.

        If our process of forming moral beliefs is morally significant because that process metaphysically constitutes morality then it follows that without human beings there would be no such thing as morality. Due to their insistence on nomologically necessary supervenience relations, the moral realist denies that possibility.

        Your view nonetheless sounds naturalistic, in the sense that it would not posit existences beyond the scope of the natural or social sciences. But anti-realist views are all naturalistic; indeed most philosophers accept anti-realism just because of a presumption that naturalism is true and moral realism does not fit into a naturalistic philosophical research program.

        I probably jumped the gun on these comments though. Can you tell me more about your view, or link to a previous entry in which you developed that view?

      • Hey Ausome, did you see my reply? You may not have received a notification because I posted it as a reply to the original post, instead of as a response to to this thread.

  3. You might be right. My suggestion may simply be a position opposed to moral realism, I’m not sure.

    What I would argue is that I care much more about how people come to have beliefs then what their beliefs actually are, though i do think that there are certain trends in what kind of beliefs people will develop if they develop their beliefs in the way that I want them to. I would characterize moral consideration as essentially the same kind of activity as science – an infinite project of model building. This may or may not be properly characterizable as a moral system – true ethical virtue is non-dogmatism. As I’ve said before in one of the posts that you commented on, I kind of combine epistemology and ethics, therefore epistemic and ethical virtue are essentially the same. Here is one of my related posts:

    I’ll also respond to your questions directly:

    Q: Process is valuable in constituting morality? A: I don’t think the process makes things moral.

    Q: metaphysically constituting morality? A: I’m not sure about my answer to this one. As you’ve read in my previous posts, I think that all reality as we know it is constituted of experience. This, I am inclined to say, is the rational world. When we explore this world, we are exploring our own experience. I would say that morality is real because it is an inevitable part of agency – it is a fundamental aspect of our world that the primary constitution of objects and reality is that of something that we act in relation to.

    So… what camp do I fall into 🙂

    Thanks for your comments, you’re making me think,


    • Glad to be having this conversation!

      It’s hard to say exactly where your view falls but I think that it doesn’t fit with a robust realism in the sense that you say “all reality as we know it is constituted of experience”. Strong moral realism is modeled off of strong scientific realism, that being the idea that there is a set of brute facts about reality that would be true even if there were no conscious beings to be aware of them, and this independently sustaining reality is what causes our theoretical knowledge to become more true over time, as we gain more thorough knowledge of it. Insofar as you maintain that all reality is is phenomenological data of experience and rationality, it seems your view is not ‘realist’ in this sense.

      Your view strikes me rather as a rationalistic constructivism. Many views are constructivist, ranging from Kantianism and Rawlsianism to cultural relativism and subjectivism. The criterion these views have in common is the thought that there are objective moral truths, but these truths are made true by humans. Kant thought that the moral realm of facts is made true by rational human agency, Rawls thought that the moral realm of facts was composed of those principles that persons behind the veil of ignorance would agree to live by, cultural relativists think the moral realm of facts is made true by what the majority of a society think is true, and subjectivists think that individual moral judgments are objectively true.

      So you can see that constructivism covers a lot of territory, and I include cultural relativism and subjectivism, views that are not popular among philosophers, to suggest that constructivism as a whole rests on shaky ground. It seems to me that your view is similar to Kant’s, which I will concede is the most plausible of constructivist views.

      The problem is that constructivism has sprung up as a middle option between “implausible” moral realism and depressing nihilism, and depending on your leanings, is a watered down version of one side or the other. The question just becomes, if our rationality gives us knowledge of moral truths, why is it our rational thinking capacities are wired in such a way that we create morality? Is the more powerful explanation that our rationality gives us insight into a moral realm that would exist without our rationally constructing it? This dilemma was posed about piety in the Socratic Euthyfro dialogue, but it extends to all forms of constructivism. If constructivism is true then our moral beliefs could be radically different, but this doesn’t seem possible, given that rape and humiliation are always morally wrong, and mercifulness always good, so constructivism must be false, leaving us to turn to realism or nihilism.

      • My current thought is that all experience is inherently ethical in nature in that all experience is inherently action oriented – all ‘objects’ (in the loosest sense of the term) within experience are things we act in relation to. Morality is therefore real in that it is inextricable an aspect of experience – all experience belongs to agents, and all agents must decide how to act (ignoring any problems animals may pose for the moment). Morality cannot be avoided – in every moment of experience we act, to exist is to make choices. Epistemology and ethics therefore are a singular activity (though we can direct ourselves differently within it), because examining ‘what is’ is also to examine ‘what is to be done’. Morality is therefore not so much ‘created’ by us as it is an aspect of us. I think that within this framework there are two main modes of being. The first is to act as the world dictates (i.e. not really acting as an agent), and the second option is to be autonomous (to be autonomous is to intentionally explore the world and act as one thinks one should within that world). I guess that means that my principle is something like ‘to be good is to explore the world and, at any particular moment, to act as your understanding dictates that you should.’

        It seems to me that I could argue my way into either camp. I’m proposing something that I would tentatively call ‘true’ independent of the existence of agents to think it (i.e agents don’t need to think about themselves to have properties). On the other hand, all that I have just proposed I would place under the umbrella of ‘tentative idea that will surely vanish into the river of time, as all things do,’ which I take as my broader philosophical principle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s