Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

8. Morality

Nietzsche’s criticism of morality is perhaps the most important and difficult aspect of his later philosophy. Calling himself an ‘immoralist’ - one who opposes all morality - he repeatedly insists that morality ‘negates life’. He turned against it, he claims, inspired by an ‘instinct that aligned itself with life’ (Birth of Tragedy Preface 5 [ Werke III.1: 13]). Whatever Nietzsche might mean by suggesting that morality is ‘against life,’ his point is not that morality is ‘unnatural’ because it restricts the satisfaction of natural impulses. He finds what is natural and ‘inestimable’ in any morality in the hatred it teaches of simply following one’s impulses, of any ‘all-too-great freedom’: it teaches ‘obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction’ ( Beyond Good and Evil§188 [ Werke VI.2: 110–11]). Nietzsche analyses the directive to ‘follow nature’ as commanding something that is either impossible (if it means ‘be like the nonhuman part of nature’) or inevitable (if it means ‘be as you are and must be’).

His objection to morality sometimes seems to be not that it is ‘against life’, but that it promotes and celebrates a kind of person in which he finds nothing to esteem: a ‘herd animal’ who has little idea of greatness and seeks above all else security, absence of fear, absence of suffering. To complicate matters still further, he sometimes uses ‘morality’ to refer to what he approves of, for instance, ‘noble morality’ and ‘higher moralities’.

The last of these interpretive problems can be resolved by recognizing that Nietzsche uses ‘morality’ in both a wider and a narrower sense. Every ethical code or system for evaluating conduct is ‘a morality’ in the wider, but not in the narrower sense. A system that determines the value of conduct solely in terms of ‘the retroactive force of success or failure’, for instance, is an instance of ‘morality’ in the wider sense, but Nietzsche counts it as ‘pre-moral’ in the narrower sense ( Beyond Good and Evil§32 [ Werke VI.2: 46–7]). And it is the narrower sense Nietzsche is using when he commits himself to ‘the overcoming of morality’ and claims that it ‘negates life’. His immoralism does not oppose all forms of ethical life. Although he opposes morality in the narrower sense, Nietzsche accepts another ethical system in terms of which he considers himself ‘bound’ or ‘pledged’. Indeed, he claims that, contrary to appearances, ‘we immoralists’ are human beings ‘of duty’, having ‘been spun into a severe yarn and shirt of duties [which we] cannot get out of’ ( Beyond Good and Evil §226 [ Werke VI.2: 168]).

Why didn’t Nietzsche just say that he opposed some moralities and call his own ethical system his ‘morality’? He undoubtedly thought that would be more misleading than his use of the term in a dual sense because it would trivialize the radical nature of his position. He called himself an ‘immoralist’ as a ‘provocation’ that would indicate what distinguishes him from ‘the whole rest of humanity’ ( Ecce Homo IV: §7 [ Werke VI.3: 369]). And it could so function, he thought, even though he actually opposes morality only in the narrower sense, precisely because this is the sense ‘morality’ has had until now. That word has been monopolized, he thinks, for a particular kind of ethical system on which all our currently available choices for an ethics are mere variations.

Genealogy provides a genealogy of morality in the narrower sense (the sense ‘morality’ will have hereafter in this entry) and a complex and sophisticated analysis of that concept of morality. Although there is no agreed-upon definition, we all have a feeling for what ‘morality’ in this sense means. But both the feeling and the ‘meaning’ are actually products of a complicated historical development that synthesized meanings of diverse origins into a unity, one that is difficult to dissolve or analyse and impossible to define. If conceptual analysis were a matter of formulating necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of a term, we might analyse the concept of morality by specifying the characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to qualify a code of conduct as ‘a morality’. But this approach has never delivered great clarification, and Nietzsche’s understanding of concepts explains why: our concepts need clarification precisely because they are products of a complicated historical development. Different strands have been tied together into such a tight unity that they seem inseparable and are no longer visible as strands. To analyse or clarify such a concept is to disentangle these strands so that we can see what is actually involved in the concept. History can play a role in analysing a concept because at earlier stages the ‘meanings’ that constitute it are not as tightly woven together and we can still perceive their shifts and rearrangements. Looking at the history of the corresponding phenomenon can therefore make it easier for us to pick out the various strands that make up the concept and better able to recognize other possible ways of tying them together. Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality aims to show that there are distinct aspects of morality, each with a separate pre-moral source, which makes the synthesis we call ‘morality’ something that can be undone, so that its strands might be rewoven into a different form of ethical life.

The three essays of Genealogy separate out for examination three main strands of morality: the good (in the sense of virtue), the right (or duty), and a general understanding of value. Each essay focuses on the development of one strand without paying much attention to the other two, even though any developed form of ethical life will actually involve all three aspects in some form and interconnection. The overall account of morality constitutes a ‘genealogy’ precisely because it traces the moral version of each strand back to pre-moral sources - thus to ancestors of morality. Its upshot is that what we call ‘morality’ emerged from these pre-moral ancestors when the right and the good become tied together under the interpretation of value provided by the ascetic ideal. This explains why Nietzsche claims that morality ‘negates life’: morality is an ascetic interpretation of ethical life.

The first essay in Genealogy finds the central pre-moral ancestor of morality’s idea of goodness among politically superior classes in the ancient world whose members called themselves ‘the good’ and used ‘good’ and ‘virtue’ as their marks of distinction, the qualities that distinguished them from commoners or slaves. ‘Good’ and ‘virtuous’ were the same as ‘noble’ in the sense of ‘belonging to the ruling class’; their contrasting term was ‘low-born’ or ‘bad’ (the German, schlecht, originally meant ‘simple’ or ‘common’).

As Nietzsche uses ‘bad’ (he does not claim to reflect contemporary usage), it involves no connotation of blame, whether applied to the poor person or the liar. ‘Bad’ certainly expresses a value judgment: that the person so described is inferior. The nobles regard themselves as superior and look down on the bad (sometimes with contempt, sometimes with pity). But they do not blame them for being inferior, or think that the inferior ought to be good (much less that inferiority deserves punishment or goodness a reward). Such judgments make sense only if one is judging inferiority in moral terms - that is, if ‘bad’ has become ‘morally bad’ or ‘evil’.

To explain the origin of the good/evil (the specifically moral) mode of valuation, Nietzsche postulates a ‘slave revolt in morality’, a revaluation inspired by ressentiment (grudge-laden resentment) against the nobles. Nietzsche does not claim that the nobles’ actions were considered wrong because they were resented. He is dealing only with ideas of goodness or virtue in this essay; he seeks to explain how goodness became connected to praise and blame, reward and punishment. His postulated ‘slave revolt’ was led not by slaves but by priests, the ‘great haters’ in human history precisely because their spirituality is incompatible with the direct discharge of resentment and revenge. They hated the nobles not because they were oppressed by them but because the nobles considered themselves superior and had been victorious over them for the respect and admiration of the people. Because this hatred could not be expressed directly, it grew to monstrous proportions until it finally found an outlet in revaluing the nobles and their qualities as inferior. As a result, certain qualities - useful to those in a slavish or dependent position - were called ‘good’, not because anyone found them particularly admirable, but from a desire to ‘bring down’ people with the opposite qualities. Simply ‘looking down’ at the nobles and their qualities would not have done the trick, especially since the majority envied and admired them. Only through the transformation of bad into evil, of inferiority into something for which one could be blamed, could the revaluation succeed. Pent-up ressentiment could then be vented in acts of blaming and moral condemnation, which Nietzsche sees as acts of ‘imaginary revenge’ that ‘bring down’ hated opponents ‘in effigy’ and elevate those who do the blaming, at least in their own imagination. Blaming, for Nietzsche, evidently involves the judgment that the person blamed is deserving of punishment, in this case for their inferiority. Therefore, once ‘bad’ is transformed into ‘evil’, God and his judgment along with heaven and hell can be used to support the revaluation by winning over to it those who would not feel sufficiently elevated by mere moral condemnation of the nobles. Nietzsche suggests that this is how the issue of free will became connected to morality. Blaming or holding people responsible for their actions does not raise the issue; it is raised by holding them responsible for what they are. And that is precisely what was required for the revaluation of noble values.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Morality. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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