History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
<<< Previous Next >>>

Nietzsche Lecture 1

I. The first sentence of Genealogy of Morals indicates Nietzsche's theme. ``We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason: how can we ever hope to find what he have never looked for?'' We are ignorant of ourselves and the sources of our own ideas. In particular, Nietzsche seeks to argue that the main features of our moral outlook, our conceiving of ethics in terms of the categories of morality---of good as opposed to evil, right as opposed to wrong, and vice as opposed to virtue, has a particular genealogy, knowledge of which leads to radical critique. Specifically, morality is an ideology. We can believe it only if we ignore why we do.

Nietzsche believes our moral categories are an historical reaction to an earlier ethos.

i. There is nothing necessary about these categories, they are a contingent manifestation of certain specific historical circumstances.

ii. They are a reaction to an earlier set of ideas, and a reaction fuelled by negative, life-denying emotions such as resentment, envy, and hatred.

Thus: ``We need a critique of all moral values; the intrinsic worth of these values must, first of all, be called in question. To this end we need to know the conditions from which those values have sprung and how they have developed and changed: morality as consequence, symptom, mask, tartuferie, sickness, misunderstanding; but, also, morality as cause, remedy, stimulant, inhibition, poison.'' (155)

II. Historically, the original dimensions of value were not good, as opposed to evil, but, rather, a notion of good, as opposed to bad, which Nietzsche terms the ``aristocratic ethos''. The reason for this characterization is that goodness is identified with nobility, with having those features that characterize "the noble, mighty, highly placed, and high-minded''. It is a notion tied to rank and class, to those who are above. And it contrasts with "all that [is] base, low-minded and plebeian''. (160)

In this scheme, the affirmative notion is that of goodness or merit, what is worthy of esteem of looking up to, and what is bad is the negation of good, what is base or worthy of contempt, looking down on. Nietzsche thinks the reverse holds with morality.

Goodness consists in those features that make for natural dominance---strength, wit (but not too much (``Among the noble, mental acuteness always tends lightly to suggest luxury and over-refinement. The fact is that with them it is much less important than is the perfect functioning of the ruling, unconscious instincts or even a certain temerity to follow sudden impulses, court danger, or indulge spurts of violent, rage, love, worship, gratitude, or vengeance.''), vitality, courage, and so on. What is good or noble is simply what is the natural expression of the activity of the higher class. Goodness is the affirmation of natural power, vitality, health, and strength.

The attitude of the nobles towards what is base is nothing like hatred, Hutchesonian condemnation, nor even repulsion; it is more like contempt. They regard the base as simply beneath them, it is not of them. They don't regard it as a part of themselves to be rejected---it is alien. Thus Nietzsche speaks of the ``pathos of nobility and distance''.

III. Now a theme already implicit here, by contrast, is that things are otherwise with the concept of evil. We are repelled by evil, we condemn it, we reject it. This seems to be part of the very concept; to think of something as evil is to think of it as something to be hated, held off, repelled by, condemned, etc. Notice how different this is from the concept of the base in the aristocratic ethic. One important difference, is that the nobles simply find the base alien, whereas it may be crucial to the very idea of evil that we see it as arising from something we have in ourselves as well. We hate it, we are repelled by it, precisely because we cannot regard it as simply alien to us---it is charged for us because we take it to be something in us that we must reject.

Nietzsche writes that the aristocratic ethos ``grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an `outside' an `other', a non-self, and that `no' is its creative act.'' (171) But this ``other'' cannot simply be other; the base is other to the noble. Rather it must be seen as a threat to the self. But the ultimate irony, is that this threat is actually within the self. The rejection involved in our distinctively moral notions is a self-denial.

IV. Nietzsche argues that the distinctively moral idea of good as opposed to evil arises as a reaction on the part of those who envy the nobles, a ``priestly caste''. Motivated by envy, resentment, and hatred of their betters, this caste inverts the value scheme. What was noble becomes an object of hatred. The self-affirming naturally dominant strength of the nobles becomes defined as cruelty, and pride comes to be conceived as a vice. Whereas in the aristocratic ethos the primary notion is goodness, in the slave or priestly ethos, the primary notion is evil. What is good is what is not evil. Just as in the aristocratic ethos, what is base is what is not good.

Defining this reactive ethos, including our modern conception of morality is:

A. An egalitarian thrust: there are no natural superiors, that we are all equally moral agents, and that we all, equally, make a moral claim on each other; and

B. The notion of responsibility: the evil are responsible for their wrongs.

V. Nietzsche thinks, then, that the ideal of morality is sustained by the envy and hatred the weak have for the strong, and the hatred they have for their own weakness. They are not, however, able to face this envy and hatred, for the personal emotions that they are. Rather, they depersonalize, or impersonalize their emotions. They create a category, the morally condemnable, which is really an impersonalized expression of a personal hatred and anger:

"`We, the good ones, are also the just ones.' They call the thing they seek not retribution but the triumph of justice; the thing they hate is not their enemy, by no means---they hate injustice, ungodliness; the thing they hope for and believe in is not vengeance, the sweet exultation of vengeance (`sweeter than honey' as Homer said) but `the triumph of God, who is just, over the godless'.'' (182)

Because this hatred is not acknowledged, because it is depersonalized and intellectualized, it cannot be honestly felt, expressed, and satisfied. Left to fester as the sustaining prop of our ideas of good and evil it poisons and corrupts: ``the evil that has risen out of the cauldron of unquenched hatred''. (174) Of the noble man, Nietzsche writes that when he feels resentment ``it is absorbed in his instantaneous reaction and therefore does not poison him''. (173) Example: the lambs and the birds of prey.

<<< Previous Home Next >>>
Bentham Lecture 3   Nietzsche Lecture 2