Nutshell Nietzsche – Is Nietzsche immoral?
There are plenty of misconceptions about Nietzsche (‘N’), so I would like to address one of them – that Nietzsche was immoral.
Here I am going to argue that Nietzsche was not immoral – at least on his terms, (and certainly not amoral).
(It’s liberating to be able to write about Nietzsche without the strictures of formal academia – hopefully I can get away with a few shortcuts, characterisations, simplifications. These are, in any event, necessary, to make Nietzsche more fun, and ‘digestible’. So, in academic philosophy, you might be picked up on referring to N being ‘digestible’ because presumably I meant to say that I wished to make his philosophy more digestible, not N himself! And when I ask ‘is Nietzsche immoral’ some would point out that N is dead, so can’t be anything. That’s the kind of petty pedantry up with which one has to put – in academia – like not ending sentences with prepositions! Personally, I think it’s because a lot of philosophy has little else to do than play about with semantics.)
In passing, let’s just mention nihilism.
The Charge of Nihilism
This bit’s pretty easy. Nihilism, in essence, dictates that there is nothing. Nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for, nothing to live for. It’s kinda bleak.
Nietzsche does not believe this. Nietzsche is not a nihilist.
For, despite the truth, perhaps, of a lot of nihilistic assertions, there is a cure: self-actualisation – that is, being the best ‘you’ you can be. And how you do this is? By getting to know yourself (and how weak and feeble you are), realising what you could be, and achieving this by being brave and working hard. Try hard enough, and you might even become an Ubermensch (‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’).
Piece of cake…
Be brave, work hard, be the best ‘you’ you can be…That’s one of the big ‘takeaways’ – worthy of a ‘fridge magnet at least, surely…or a bumper sticker.
Was Nietzsche moral?
I remember when I was studying science, we were told that the first thing one had to do when trying to solve a problem, was to write down the “Data Given”.
By analogy, in philosophy, you need to set out first exactly what you are talking about. So, when we ask whether N was ‘moral’, we have to think carefully about what ‘moral’ means. Is a view ‘moral’ if it privileges the good of the species, over the good of the individual, for example? Or visa-versa? Is an action morally good if, although ‘bad’ in the short-term, it yields morally good long-term results? Or is an act intrinsically good or bad, regardless of the result?
Is murder wrong?
Let’s suppose you are alive in 1935, in Germany. It’s pretty easy to see what Hitler’s up to. You murder him. Is this a good act or a bad act? Whilst murder might be wrong, murder here seems OK doesn’t it? After all, we all flocked to see Tom Cruise playing Von Stauffenberg, the guy who tried to assassinate Hitler. I don’t recall anyone at the time asking ‘hang on a minute, murder is wrong – why are we glorifying it?’ The reason of course is that the simple answer is “look mate, it’s Hitler! Get off your high horse!”.
Even if you buy John Rawls’s idea that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few (Rawls of course famously played Spock in Star Trek…), and therefore that, by killing Hitler, you have prevented the deaths of millions of people, you have still committed murder, right? And murder is bad. Or is it? Always?
What is Morality – a thumbnail sketch
Let’s consider two kinds of morality. (Judeo-) Christian morality and, let’s call it, ‘Nietzschean’ morality.
I will characterise Christian morality along broadly Rawlsian lines – that is, that all lives have equal value, and that the ‘few’ should give up all their stuff to help the ‘many’, or as N calls them, the ‘many-too-many’. It’s the old socialist mantra ‘To each according to his need, from each according to his ability’. So, by extension, sacrificing one life to save thousands makes sense. This is, after all, what Christ did. This must be right – well, unless Christ is your son, your brother, or your dad, in which case…well, see below. It’s just a matter of numbers. More lives are ‘worth’ more, ethically, morally, than fewer.
N turns this on its head, and argues that the ‘many’ should give up their stuff, their labour, even their lives, to benefit the ‘few’. For N, when deciding who lives and who dies, we need to look at exactly who is living, and who is dying. Different people have different values, different worth. Surely, we would rather have one Shakespeare, one Goethe, one Napoleon, one Mandela (or whoever your hero happens to be, and whichever attributes you choose to privilege) than 100 ordinary folk…or a thousand…or ten thousand…How many…? Well, that’s up to you.
Mere numbers don’t cut it – it’s about quality, not quantity.
Yeah, ugly, right? Well, we’ll see…
For Nietzsche, man is merely a ‘bridge’ between ape and what N calls the ‘Ubermensch’ – the ‘Overman’ or Superman’. The ubermensch is, essentially a high-quality individual – that is, what man could become if he set his mind to it, indeed, what man should become. He is the next step in the evolutionary chain. Why should man be the last evolutionary ‘word’?
So, there are two messages really – the first is that man as a species should move towards becoming a new species (the ubermensch) – this is what, according to some readings, N argues in ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’. The second is that all individuals should try as hard as they can, on an individual level, to be more ubermensch-like. There have already been some ubermenschen (N thinks Napoleon, Goethe, and Caesare Borgia – you might say Einstein, Mandela, whoever) but these have arisen by chance. We should stop relying on chance and make it happen – push both ourselves and the species towards ‘ubermenschdom’.
So, in our ethical conundrum of who stays and who goes, keeping the Ubermenschen going might, for instance, help the ‘many’ in the slightly longer term. Let’s suppose you have to sacrifice 100 people to support some rich, powerful guy who can (with all his influence, power and resources) later save 101 of the many-too-many. Or 1,000, or a million. If ‘numbers’ is really the name of the game, why not? (This is the problem with a lot of philosophy, there are more questions than answers, so, according to Wittgenstein – and the Logical Positivists – we shouldn’t really bother thinking about this stuff. But it’s fun, isn’t it? Well, I think so – many Hollywood movies have been predicated on this kind of question!).
Consequently, you may take the view, even if you buy the Rawlsian argument, that helping the ‘one’ here (by sacrificing a few of the ‘many’ now) actually benefits the many, in the long-term, so the sacrifice is ‘moral’. (That is what some consequentialists might argue, but we don’t have time to talk about consequentialism – broadly and crudely, that the ends justify the means) … you might though be a bit less keen on this argument if you were one of those that had to be sacrificed! But if killing one to save many is wrong, why were you in favour of killing Hitler a few paragraphs ago? Because he is bad? Who decides? On what basis? Hitler is a pretty uncontroversial example, but you can see the slippery slope… So, it does seem to depend on who the ‘one’ is (or who the ‘few’ are), doesn’t it, …
Next, N does not buy Rawls’s argument of course. N would probably save the powerful individual anyway. This powerful individual is probably worth 10,000 peasants! Before you turn purple and your head explodes, consider how you would probably (hopefully!) privilege the life of your child, your spouse or your parent, over the life of the next kid, your boss’s spouse or a stranger’s parent…Or choose the life of your child over the lives of two other children, or ten, or a thousand…how many? What’s the magic number? For the reason that human souls – including yours – have been ‘branded’, over millennia, with our Christian morality, you would probably ‘feel’, at some level, that the life of any child has (or should have) an equal value to the value of the life of your child, right? But really? If push came to shove? Really?
But of course, N is not saying ‘save the Ubermensch, he’s my dad’, he’s saying ‘save this guy because he just has so much more intrinsic value than these peasants…’ So, it’s different…
Also, if we sacrifice the few for the many, the necessary corollary of this, if carried to its logical conclusion, would be that the ‘few’ would eventually be wiped out. That, to N, would be like sacrificing the roses to save the weeds…N’s formulation, on the other hand, is more like ‘dead-heading’ the dying or weak roses, to save the entire rose bush – surely perfectly sensible. Problem is, this looks pretty disgusting in the real world – witness the Holocaust (even here, you would have to accept that Jews were the ‘weeds’, and the evidence suggests, actually, that Jews are, on average more intelligent (necessarily more ‘valuable’?) than non-Jews – hence the paradoxical-perverse (?) claims of some elements in Zionism.)
Would you not accept that a morality that seeks to improve the species as a whole is superior (more moral) to a morality that privileges mere individuals?
You might argue here ‘Yeah, but humans are not roses’…Ok, but in what relevant way? Culling the inferior for the sake of the superior just makes sense doesn’t it, whether you are talking about humans or roses? Nature does this all the time! If, in some sense, we are ‘superior’ to roses and therefore that, somehow, different rules apply, what is that sense? Wouldn’t such a claim be ‘speciesist’ or ‘genusist’ (I’m making words up now!)?
Ah, yes, but humans, as animals, are more important than plants, right? OK, what about other animals? Would you sacrifice ‘weak’ flies to save strong ones, benefiting flies as a whole? Maybe better flies means better spiders, and so on up the evolutionary chain (I’ve no idea how it works..).
And, if this kind of argument is attractive, why not sacrifice oh, I don’t know, chickens for the sake of better, healthier humans? Oh, wait a minute, we do this already…If you really think that all humans have equal value, then you ought to be ‘genus-consistent’ and agree that all animals have equal value to humans, and each other, and become vegan immediately! And then, again for the sake of consistency, you’d better not eat plants or vegetables either – if you were asking ‘what’s so great about humans?’, why not ask ‘what’s so great about animals?’. Save the broccoli! A true and consistent ‘cross-genus’ egalitarian would soon be dead! So, we can sympathise with Emerson’s injunction that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. Besides, the Bible tells us that God put all this stuff on the earth for us, right? It would show bad grace to refuse such magnanimity. It would be like throwing a gift back in God’s face…discuss…:)
But there is one important way in which we are different to all other forms of life, isn’t there, as N points out. We can choose. We have power, intelligence, reason. All the other organic life has to wait millions of years for nature to kill off the weak specimens (‘exemplars’) in order that their species can ‘move up’ to its next iteration… We can, and should take matters into our own hands, for the benefit of our entire species! Maybe we should because we can! At the risk of ‘anthropomorphising’ nature, that looks like what nature intends. Why give us this reason, this power and ability to choose if we can’t do something important with it?
I hope you’re feeling uncomfortable…
I would argue that N is not immoral, on his account of morality. In essence, lower-order individuals need to be sacrificed to save higher-order individuals, and this benefits the species as a whole (as well as all the individuals – well, the ones that don’t perish, anyway!), in exactly the same way that dead-heading crappy roses helps the rose bush as a whole, by allowing the stronger exemplars to flourish. What is wrong with this argument?
Well, we might start by saying ‘OK, N is moral on his account, but his account is wrong!’ If so, why exactly is this? It seems plausible, but we just sense, somehow that there’s something wrong with it. But what, precisely? And surely our sense that there is something wrong here is predicated on the very Judeo-Christian morality that N critiques – a morality that has been branded into the human psyche over millennia – forced on people with auto-da-fes and so forth? That’s not a very moral thing to do is it?! Or do we want to argue that all the horrors carried out in the name of Christianity (including, but by no means limited to the conversion of the whole of South America) yields a fabulous moral system? The dunghill is somewhat unpleasant, but yields beautiful roses…the ends justify the means again. But if we examined the roses closely and peeled away the beautiful petals, would we not just see dung, in the kind of ‘reverse alchemy’ that N refers to? Also, we might ask of Nietzsche ‘OK, who gets to choose who lives and who dies?’ – who is the ‘wheat, pray, and who the chaff? And how do we choose who does the choosing?! Such arguments though address only practical difficulties, not the underpinning moral system itself…
On the other hand, on a Christian account of morality, N is, of course immoral. How can it be right to privilege the good of the few over the good of the many?!*
But this does not hurt Nietzsche, because his entire point is that Judeo-Christian morality is just plain wrong, and is detrimental to the species**. Indeed, N would argue that it is detrimental to the individual too – there’s just one life, live it! (Another bumper sticker!). If you take actions, or avoid actions, on the promise of punishments and rewards in the next life, and there is no next life, you are living like a slave, or a fool.
If, on the other hand, N is right, we dead-head the roses, have a great time living a full (and selfish?) life, and we benefit, not only as individuals, but as a species.
(I should mention here that although Christianity takes the brunt of N’s wrath, I really take him to mean all religions, or at least most religions, as they all say pretty similar things.)
If N is right about Christian morality being, at the very least, flawed, he is not immoral. If he is right that the good of the few outweighs the good of the many (for the greater good of the species), again, he is not immoral. His morality is, in fact, more moral than Christian morality because, although ‘the few’ are the short-term beneficiaries of his prescription, the species as a whole is the long-term beneficiary.
Ultimately, the beneficiary is mankind.
If however N is wrong, and Christian morality is right, N is immoral – in fact, he’s a monster, isn’t he?
But he is certainly not amoral – he has a moral code and it’s perfectly coherent. It’s just not very palatable. Or perhaps just plain disgusting.
Can Nietzsche be both right and disgusting at the same time?
* How can you advocate killing ‘the weak and the botched’ for the sake of the human species as a whole, as this is exactly what N advocates…(in The Antichrist – a work that was published after he had his mental breakdown…but which was written before that…). Christians and Jews, and indeed most of the rest of us, would never accept this. And we didn’t! We started a war over this – well, after a couple of years sitting on our hands…This is the subject of another paper, to follow: “Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi?”
** To be fair, and accurate, N doesn’t really diss Christian values as such. It’s more like we should not accept them uncritically just because society, our parents, our teachers, or a priest says so. He says of them, in ‘The Gay Science’:
“Deny these good things, withdraw the mob’s acclaim from them as well as their easy currency; make them once again available to solitary souls”.
As always, Nietzsche likes to keep us guessing…
(As any Nietzsche scholars will have gathered, I do not buy Conant’s ‘Kantian’ interpretation of ‘exemplar’ (Ref SE: 6). Whilst fun, and really interesting, Hurka demolishes it in a paragraph… a ‘biologistic’ reading of SE: 6 is surely right – but if so, how does N answer charges of proto-Nazism?)