Nietzsche’s Positive Ethics (Not his Genealogy)

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Ecce Home, Nietzsche refers to a distinction between his no-saying philosophy and his yes-saying philosophy. The book which has been most discussed in recent years, On the Genealogy of Morality, is listed as no-saying and we cam take it that genealogy is part of his no-saying philosophy. Three books are listed as part of his yes-saying philosophy: Dawn, Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There’s certainly nothing wrong with studying the Genealogy or the wave of work concentrating on it, but we should be wary of taking that book as definitive of Neitzsche’s ethics. It might be definitive of his diagnosis of ethical illusions, but not of the ethics he is offering. Recent studies of the Genealogy may sometimes recognise it as a diagnostic work with regard to previously existing, but tend to stop there rather than move onto any kind of fully considered positive ethics in Nietzsche. Where Nietzsche is considered as an ethicist with a positive ethics, this often becomes Nietzsche as moral élitist or Nietzsche as aesthete of life. Neither position is necessarily wrong, but there could be more work on the details of what Nietzsche has to offer.

One problem is that at least some of the time, Nietzsche is saying that ethics, or morality, as such is an illusion, and a barrier to life. With that in mind, it could be said that Nietzsche has a philosophy of life rather than an ethical philosophy. However, I don’t think it is necessary to do this, as Nietzsche sometimes distinguishes between better and worse ethics rather than denouncing ethics as such. If we do resort to talking about ‘enhancement of life’, we risk talking about ethics, while calling it something else. In any case, ‘enhancement of live’ sounds like ‘virtue ethics’, though in that context the phrase ‘flourishing of life’ is more normal. It’s useful to discuss Nietzsche in the context of ‘virtue ethics’, and he fits better into that category than the other normal categories of moral theory, nevertheless Nietzsche should also be seen as challenging virtue theory, as it has normally been defined with reference to Aristotle, or maybe Plato, or the Stoics. A complete discussion of virtue theory would bring in (Saint Thomas) Aquinas, certainly complicating things. That’s not something I can go into now. What I do have is a list of points about Nietzsche’s ‘yes-saying ethics’, largely inspired by a recent reading of The Gay Science, Book III.

Virtues are something we should learn to be sceptical about, with regard to defining ourselves with regard to courage, generosity etc.

Virtues begin with adaptation to herd living in the earliest stages of human existence. Later stages of human existence break up the herd, and lead to more individualistic moral systems, or systems of virtues.

The separation of individuals from each other is progress in the human species and leads to progress in ethics. Growth, abundance and variety and signs of natural strength.

Ranking, and comparative evaluation, are necessary and admirable activities. It is important to say what or who, is better or worse than some other thing or person.

We can expect a future in which art, science and ‘practical wisdom’ are unified to create something which would make current law givers, doctors artists, and scholars, look petty (Gay Science 2nd edition, 113). The reference to ‘practical wisdom’ looks like a reference to phronesis in Aristotle, which includes ethics, an impression reinforced by Nietzsche’s reference to law givers, who by Aristotle’s standards are engaged in phronesis, or practical wisdom.

The loss of the world of God based ethics, particularly ethics based on Christianity, creates a sense of being lost in an ocean, and being on the verge of the infinite (Gay Science 2nd edition, 124).

The sense of moral scepticism advocated by Nietzsche partly comes from Christianity because of its scepticism about Ancient virtues. The sceptical work is taken further in Enlightenment’s scepticism about Christian virtues.

Christianity gives use the sense that Ancient virtues of courage, generosity etc, conceal sin, or in Nietzsche’s terms undermine any idea of perfection in a personality dominated by any one virtue (Gay Science 2nd edition, 122).

Nietzsche does not advocate a return to Ancient ethics, he says that it looks childish to us now, and as we have seen thinks Christianity has done a useful job of undermining Ancient ethics.

One criticism Nietzsche has of Ancient ethics is that is morality based on mores (der Sittlichkeit der Sitte), which was challenged by Plato and others, when they tried to introduce new moralities. Nietzsche criticises any ethics which is just a following of existing customs. (Gay Science 2nd edition, 149)

Nietzsche regards the different moralities of different nations as evidence of illusion about the nature of ethics. He also advocates new ethics, and the multiplication of ethical views. This apparent contradiction can perhaps be resolved by thinking about the value Nietzsche gives to the integration of multiplicity and conflict into one organism, or one work of art.

Every experience, and every judgement, is moral, because always embedded in our sense of honesty and justice (Gay Science 2nd edition, 114). This is one reason why Nietzsche is not arguing overall that we can abandon ethics, even if we try to expose ethical illusions. We are always concerned with what justice and honesty are.

One thing that justice requires is to see that different people are not the same and are not equal. Presumably different morality, or different virtues, are good for different people.

I don’t see that Nietzsche is saying that some people should be denied rights, though he does think some people are better others. These are two distinct points in any case.

Nietzsche is against altruism, we should not do something because it is good for someone else, and we should not wish to sacrifice ourselves for that reason. Some of what comes about through altruism may still come about through a self-interested desire for strength, growth and health. Individual health may be associated with generosity and indifference to injury.

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One thought on “Nietzsche’s Positive Ethics (Not his Genealogy)

  1. Nietzsche’s morality is Dionysian (versus Apollonian) both of which are very ancient ethical attitudes and that never changed in Nietzsche. Starting from the Birth of Tragedy all the way to Antichrist, Nietzsche developed an ethics of affirmation before negation. Nietzsche was too much of a Spinozian not to have understood that “every affirmation involves a negation” and it is the order of thought by starting with affirmation to understand the world before negating it and thereby getting closer to life before imposing our “will to power” which must become the ultimate ethical goal. To suggest that there is some commonality between Nietzsche and Christianity and Platonism is preposterous. His whole life was dedicated to show the nihilism in Socrates, Plato and Christianity. I have yet to see a British language philosopher who understands Nietzsche – who I see as the most relevant writer for understanding our modern day malaises. Perhaps because he makes fun of the “unphilosophical British” in the Antichrist that they never forgave him for showing their “soullessness”. Walter Kaufman’s translation are full of misleading terms like the confusion of the term power and potential. The most laughable and tragic “interpretations” or “evaluations” are when “analytic philosophers” try to dissect Nietzsche and come up with full length books which are taught at universities ethics courses. I would recommend to those interested to genuinely understand Nietzsche’s thoughts from a practical point of view and its relevance to for countering our contemporary meaninglessness to start with Kolossowski’s “Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle” and then read the short but great book (his second book) by Gilles Deleuze called simply “Nietzsche” before attempting to read Nietzsche’s most important work (according to Nietzsche): Thus Spoke Zarathustra – for a minimum of 3 times. Enjoy!

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