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Nietzsche and Morality

Roger Caldwell responds to an analysis of Nietzsche’s morality.

For many, Nietzsche and morality make an unlikely conjunction. Certainly, for all his challenging views – or perhaps because they proved all too challenging – he was until recently absent from traditional philosophy courses on ethics. To those who ask ‘what is the nature of good?’ he has little to say, except that they’re asking the wrong question. He’s an anti-realist about values: that is, for Nietzsche there are no moral facts, and there is nothing in nature that has value in itself. Rather, to speak of good or evil is to speak of human illusions, of lies according to which we find it necessary to live. He tells us that “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” That is, we are compelled by our biological natures to see the world through moral lenses, judging it in terms of good and bad, although the world is neither in itself.

The essays in this book look at a broad range of Nietzschean themes, including the will to power and the genealogy of Christian ethics as a slave morality. But there’s nothing on eternal recurrence (so dear to a former generation of Nietzsche exegetes), and the Übermensch (‘superman’) scarcely gets a mention. However, none of these themes is central to why Nietzsche often strikes us as uncannily prescient, and why he is so relevant to con temporary debates driven by evolutionary biology about human nature and morality.

First and foremost, like Spinoza before him, Nietzsche is a naturalist and a determinist. Human beings are not privileged over other animals – rather, like them, we are part of “a causal web that comprises the whole universe.” Where other writers speak of the freedom of the human will, Nietzsche tells us that the will is neither free nor unfree, but rather strong or weak. For Simon Blackburn he was the first philosopher to try to assimilate Darwinism. Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals is an exercise in ‘animal psychology’, studying (in Nietzsche’s own words) “the physiology and evolutionary history of organisms and concepts.” In a number of other central works Nietzsche embraces science as providing access to what he sees as ‘the real world of nature’ – whereas our religious, moral and aesthetic sentiments belong only to the surface of things. Through our need to see the universe as existing for the sake of human beings, in effect we create a merely apparent world, which for Nietzsche is “the value-laden world as error.” (Human, All Too Human, §29.) To what degree we can live in truth not error is another matter, of course: in some moods Nietzsche praises the value of art precisely as that it protects us from reality. He dares us to be superficial. But it is nonetheless a central intention in his writings precisely to strip us of our illusions – not least the fundamental illusion that we are rational creatures.

For instance, Nietzsche denies that we can be rational deliberators in the way demanded by such philosophers as Kant. Kant sees us as choosing to act on the basis of reasons. Being the determinist he is, and taking the viewpoint on human nature he does, Nietzsche can have no truck with this. We are not for the most part conscious deliberators: rather, he tells us, “by far the greatest part of our spirit’s activity remains unconscious and unfelt.” (The Gay Science, p333.) Knobe and Leiter take the unusual step of seeing to what degree recent experimental findings in psychology support either Nietzsche or Kant. They have little difficulty in showing that Nietzsche is largely vindicated. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards. In Nietzschean terms, the body acts, and, f illed as it is with “phantoms and will-o’-the-wisps,” the mind then falsely appropriates that action for its own justificatory purposes. Generally speaking, Nietzsche takes delight in showing us how we deceive ourselves.

For Nietzsche we act like other animals, primarily by our instincts. By contrast, the gift of reason is a late addition to those instincts, and by comparison only weakly efficacious. Nietzsche presents us with a fractured self: each of us is a site of competing biological drives without a controller in overall charge. Freud – a reader and admirer of Nietzsche – similarly presents the human being as a sort of battlefield between the ego, the superego and the id. More radically, Daniel Dennett [see p24], drawing on the findings of neuroscience, presents us with a ‘pandemonium’ view of the human psyche, where the self emerges from what he sees as so many ‘multiple drafts’ of reality as a sort of ‘fiction’. Dennett’s ‘fictional self’ is very much in accordance with Nietzsche’s views, as Dennett acknowledges. But even a ‘fictional’ self is still a choosing self, and not a merely passive receptor of experience. Here Nietzsche’s admonitions to “live dangerously” or to “multiply perspectives” seem adventitious. There is a tension in his work between his deconstruction of morality and his readiness to prescribe for us how we are to live.

Nietzsche has a tendency to throw out themes and leave us the task of seeing how they cohere. Many of the essays in this book try to tie up apparent loose ends, and make him say what he should have said if he had followed his insights through. We are entering a new era of Nietzsche studies. While the French-interpreted Nietzsche of recent years emerged as an out-and-out relativist and precursor of postmodernism, a number of the essay writers here see his views on morality from the perspective of his ‘biologism’. This is the very trait for which Heidegger once berated him, although there seems little reason why a philosopher should not draw on well-founded science.

If these essays open up a number of new perspectives, there are nonetheless opportunities missed. We have little sense of Nietzsche’s relation to his contemporaries or forebears. In particular, the perfunctory treatment in Risse’s essay of his relation to Spinoza, one of Nietzsche’s small ‘pantheon of the elect,’ is disappointing in view of the remarkable congruences between the two. Both replaced God by the laws of nature; saw human beings as an incidental part of nature in a deterministic universe; reduced good and bad to human (biological) needs; and denied the freedom of the will. For all their differences of style and temperament, there is surely much to be said for reading the immoralist Nietzsche with – and against – the arch-heretic Spinoza.

© Roger Caldwell 2008

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden (2001), is published by Peterloo Poets.

Nietzsche and Morality, edited by Brian Leiter and Neil Sinhababu, Clarendon Press, 2007, 320pps, £35, ISBN 0199285934

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