Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

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

9. Morality (cont.)

Priests did not invent the idea of ‘evil’ on the spot, however. The notion of blame required for the revaluation emerged in a quite different sphere, that of right conduct or duty, the development of which Nietzsche sketches in the second essay of Genealogy. The pre-moral ancestor to which this essay traces moral versions of right and wrong, duty or obligation, is the ethics of custom (Sittlichkeit der Sitte), an early system of community practices that gained the status of rules through the threat of punishment. These rules were perceived as imperatives, but not as moral imperatives: violation was punished, but not considered to be a matter of conscience or thought to incur guilt.

Nietzsche finds an ancestor of guilt in the realm of trade, in the creditor-debtor relation. Guilt arises, Nietzsche claims, when the idea of debt is put to the uses of the ‘bad conscience’, the sense of oneself as unworthy, which develops when the external expression of aggressive impulses becomes restricted to such an extent that they can be expressed only by being turned back against the self. This internalization does not take place automatically, however; human beings must learn techniques that promote it, and Nietzsche views priests as the great teachers in this field. One such technique exploits the idea that a debt is owed to ancestors (who eventually come to be perceived as gods) for the benefits they continue to bestow and for violations of community laws which represent their will. Priests use this idea to teach the people that they must make difficult sacrifices to the gods - for example, to sacrifice one’s first-born - and that certain instances of apparent bad luck and suffering constitute the extraction of payment for violations of divine law, hence are deserved punishments.

So conceived, the debts are still mere debts, material rather than moral ‘owings’. The moralization of debt (and thereby of duty) removes the idea that it can simply be paid off and connects it to one’s worth or goodness. This moralization takes place by means of the third strand of morality analysed in Genealogy, the understanding of value, which in the case of morality is guided by the ascetic ideal. We enter what Nietzsche calls the ‘moral epoch’ only when the divine being to whom the debt is owed is considered the highest being and is conceived in non-naturalistic or ascetic terms, as a purely spiritual being and thus as a repudiation of the value of natural human existence (see §§6–7 of this entry). What must now be sacrificed to the divine is ‘one’s own strongest instincts, one’s “nature”’ ( Beyond Good and Evil §55[ Werke VI.2: 72]). The affirmation of these instincts is conceived as rebellion against God, and the normal sufferings of human life as punishments for this rebellion. The debt is now owed precisely for what one is and continues to be, for being part of the natural world. This debt can no longer be considered material, a mere debt, for while it is owed and payment must be made, it can never be paid off. And the punishment one deserves is now completely bound up with one’s (lack of) goodness or virtue, which is interpreted in ascetic terms as self-denial, the denial of one’s natural impulses, or at least as selflessness.

The priest now has the notion of ‘evil’ required for the revaluation of the noble values: the moralized notion of virtue as self-denial provides the standard against which the nobles could be judged inferior, whereas the moralized notion of debt provides the basis for blaming the nobles for that inferiority. Both notions (of virtue and duty) were moralized by being tied together under the understanding of value provided by the ascetic ideal. Morality connects duty and virtue in such a way that blameable violations of duty are taken to show lack of virtue and lack of virtue is blameable (luck has nothing to do with it). Because he sees this connection as having been brought about by means of the ascetic ideal, Nietzsche regards that ideal as a major element of morality.

His own ideal is a very different one. Named after the Greek god Dionysus, Nietzsche’s ideal celebrates the affirmation of life even in the face of its greatest difficulties, and thus gives rise to a doctrine and valuation of life that is fundamentally opposed to the one he finds behind morality. Committed to finding the sources of value in life, he rejects all non-naturalistic interpretations of ethical life, those that make reference to a transcendent or metaphysical world. It therefore seems likely that what he opposes in morality is not the idea of virtue, or standards of right and wrong, but the moralization of virtue and duty brought about by the ascetic ideal. Morality ‘negates life’ because it is an ascetic interpretation of ethical life. By interpreting virtue and duty in non-natural terms, it reveals the assumption of the ascetic ideal: that things of the highest value must have their source ‘elsewhere’ than in the natural world. This is why Nietzsche says that what ‘horrifies’ him in morality is ‘the lack of nature, the utterly gruesome fact that antinature itself received the highest honours as morality and was fixed over humanity as law and categorical imperative’ ( Ecce Homo IV: §7[ Werke VI.3: 370]).

But how is this connected to Nietzsche’s complaints against ‘herd morality’? ‘Herd’ is his deliberately insulting term for those who congregate together in questions of value and perceive as dangerous anyone with a will to stand alone in such matters. He calls the morality of contemporary Europe ‘herd animal morality’ because of the almost complete agreement ‘in all major moral judgments’. Danger, suffering, and distress are to be minimized, the ‘modest, submissive, conforming mentality’ is honoured, and one is disturbed by ‘every severity, even in justice’. Good-naturedness and benevolence are valued, whereas the ‘highest and strongest drives, if they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience,’ are slandered and considered evil ( Beyond Good and Evil §§201–2[ Werke VI.2: 123–7]).

This morality does not seem to involve the ascetic ideal. In fact, it is more likely to be packaged as utilitarianism, which offers a naturalistic, and therefore presumably unascetic, interpretation of duty and virtue, in terms of happiness (see Utilitarianism). We might, in fact, formulate Nietzsche’s main objection to herd morality as a complaint that there is nothing in it to play the role of the ascetic ideal: to hold out an ideal of the human person that encourages individuals to take up the task of self-transformation, self-creation, and to funnel into it the aggressive impulses, will to power and resentment that would otherwise be expressed externally. Although it horrifies him, Nietzsche recognizes the greatness of the ascetic ideal. It is the only ideal of widespread cultural importance human beings have had so far, and it achieved its tremendous power, even though it is the ‘harmful ideal par excellence’, because it was necessary, because there was nothing else to play its role. ‘Above all, a counterideal was lacking - until Zarathustra’ ( Ecce Homo III GM [ Werke VI.3: 352]).

The problem is that the ascetic ideal is now largely dead (as part of the ‘death of God’). Nietzsche thinks we need something to replace it: a great ideal that will inspire the striving, internalization, virtue, self-creation that the ascetic ideal inspired. ‘Herd animal morality’ is what we are left with in the absence of any such ideal. It is what morality degenerates into once the ascetic ideal largely withdraws from the synthesis it brought about. The virtuous human being no longer is anything that can stir our imagination or move us. For Nietzsche, this is the ‘great danger’ to which morality has led: the sight of human beings makes us weary.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Morality (cont.). 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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