Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nietzsche on Morality

[Although I’ve never been a fan of Nietzsche (read my blog The Nietzsche Blues), he did have some interesting thoughts about morality. Through the course of his writings, he makes a case for extreme moral relativism and you’ll see what I mean in this examination…]

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche touches upon morality, offering reasons why we (or some of us) ought not to engage in moral judgement. His reasons begin to appear early in the
Nietzsche & his silly mustache.
second book when he takes to task the Realist interpretation of reality as being nothing more concrete than any person’s particular explanation of reality. Nietzsche remarks that the Realist is just as full  of  “prejudice, irrationality, ignorance, fear” (57) as anyone else and  as  such,  this prevents any true interpretation of the world. Later, in Section 116, Nietzsche writes that morality is, “the expression of the needs of a community or herd,” and we can take from this to mean that as an agent in one of these communities, the agent is not an impartial evaluator of morals. Nietzsche also sees that individuals within these communities tend to regard themselves as valuable only insofar as they serve a function within the herd, a view of one’s self that is antithetical to Nietzsche’s free-spirit or overman.

Nietzsche’s view of morality begins to become clearer in Section 301, where he points out that, “Nature is always worthless,” in the sense that morality is not born of or inherent in the natural world but that it is man who creates morality. The failure of men to recognize this creates errors in valuation. In sensing that there is something defective about current concepts of morality, Nietzsche chides historians of morality for not coming to a similar conclusion and as such historians are guilty of not critically evaluating morality. [Their lack of insight perhaps due to acquiescing to tradition or plain and common prejudices.] Nietzsche calls these historians childish, for when they think they are evaluating morality they are actually evaluating people. Thus, it should not be the job of historians to evaluate morality.

Scientists are likewise not to be arbiters of meaning in the world. It is the scientists’ view of the world that would be worst of all in Nietzsche’s opinion, for the scientific view would be the view most devoid of actual meaning. “An essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world,” he writes, adding how worthlessness a scientific evaluation of music would be (373). To Nietzsche, only a philosopher could possibly investigate such a human construct as morality.

A more precise formulation of morality is exactly what Nietzsche presents in On the Genealogy of Morals. In Genealogy, Nietzsche explains there are two types of morality. [This is not to say there are only two types, but the two types obvious within Western civilization.] There is Master morality—morality in which actions are either good or bad—and Slave morality, which evaluates actions as being either good or evil.

Master morality is characterized by a self-affirmation that they, the Master, are good. This, the self, is where (a) morality begins. If Masters begin by viewing themselves as good, what they value is likewise good: Nobility, courage, open-mindedness, truthfulness—these characteristics are helpful to Masters, insofar as they help Masters maintain their status, and that creates the value of such characteristics. We see then that Master morality is consequence-based; that which does not promote or advance their positions as Masters is deemed bad. [There is at least one notable exception to this rule: Enemies. Enemies are not held in contempt by Masters because Masters see themselves in the enemy. The enemy is trying to do the same as any Master—be a Master—and this, to any Master, should be viewed as honourable.]

Born in response to Master morality is Slave morality, a morality that holds intentions to be either good or evil. The Slave morality comes from weakness, out of being oppressed by Masters and as such does not seek what is good for (strong) individuals, rather it seeks what is good for the entirety of its community. The Slave morality holds that the characteristics Slaves do not possess (those characteristics common to Masters, for example) to be evil since such characteristic can give rise to injustices such as slavery.  Amongst the Slaves then, something such as  humility,  which would be bad as far as Masters are concerned, would be called a virtue by Slaves when in fact Slaves are humble not by choice, but precisely because they do not have a choice, being at the mercy of Masters. Slave morality is a form of resentment aimed at those who they cannot be like or whose goals they cannot assent to. Ironically, Slaves need Masters to define themselves; Masters do not require Slaves in this way.

To Nietzsche however, these formulations of morality are simply the inventions of a given society or culture to advance its own cause. What is good, for example, is merely the expression of whoever wills that conception. There is no metaphysically true morality. We can be fooled into thinking there are moral truths though, perhaps through conditioning or familiarization with the traditional meanings of morality such as they exist in Western civilization. Nietzsche believes that Slave morality has become triumphant in Western civilization, first through Christianity and then through democracy, and this is cause for worry.

Having conceptualized the overman prior to On the Genealogy of Morals, it is not difficult to sense why Nietzsche would be opposed to the triumph of Slave morality. If Slave morality seeks to cast all persons in the same context with the same values, individuals cannot assert any will to power. The Slave’s system of morality favours the interests of the largest numbers of persons, not the few who wish to flourish. An individual cannot create their own values if conditioned to believe tradition-based interpretations of morality. That said, we should make note that Master morality is not without fault either. It is as traditionalist as Slave morality and thus, can be opposed to change and opposed to (other) free-spirits.

Nietzsche thinks there can be morality, but it must come from within us as individuals; morality is never divorced from individual will. Only individual will, the fundamental drive within us, can assign value to anything. Our will to power is the origin of morality. However, if we accept beforehand that morality has fixed meaning(s), we can never aspire to independence and thus, we are surrendering ourselves to other wills. How would we ascend to the overman then? It will not be possible for as long as Slave morality remains embedded to reign over the free-spirit. To Nietzsche, Master mentality is clearly moral and Slave mentality is not because Nietzsche believes in the importance of individuals over any collective mentality. We cannot take Nietzsche to task for this view since he is the origin of morality as much as anyone else.

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