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.

Link of the Day: Flanagan on Virtues and Narratives

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

‘Moral Science? Still Metaphysical after all These Years’ by Owen Flanagan.

Hat tip PhilPapers. This paper on Flanagan’s wesbite at Duke University is a version of chapter he published very recently in Personality, Identity and Character, edited by Darcia Narvaez and Daniel K. Lapsley (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

The idea of virtue theory in moral philosophy, is that morality comes from habits of character rather than from pure principles. Flanagan defends the idea that moral virtues are real, in the way that Aristotle understood, from John Doris and Gilbert Harman who have questioned the idea of stable character traits. Flanagan compares virtues with dispositions in physical nature, to establish their ontological status. He reviews the revival of virtue theory since the mid-20th Century, and comments on the way that non-virtue theorists like Kant and Mill appeal to virtues except in their most theoretically pure moments.

Flanagan then moves onto the role of narrative in morality. He comments both on the distorting framing effects of narrative, and its value in providing simple memorable accounts of the virtues. Some of this is taken up with the competing narratives we have about free will and determinism.

A lot of his discussion of distortions from framing refers to what Flanagan believes is an excessive American tendency to believe that hard work leads to wealth and that property is absolute. I agree with Flanagan, that these are unsatisfactory frames in their most radical form: hard work does not always lead to improved economic fortunes; our property ownership does depend on the existence if a stable community with strong basic institutions which have to be paid for with taxes. However, Flanagan’s argument goes further than this in finding arguments for strong redistributionist tax policies and high rates of taxation, implying that we have very little right to think that our property is largely ours and not common property. The extreme property righys and American Dream narratives are not quite as influential as Flanagan suggest: the USA now has high rates of of corporation taxes and top bracket income tax compared with Europe.

What would be really interesting is if Flanagan extended his exploration of competing narratives from free will to property rights and American Dream narratives, so that he also critically explored the framing narratives of social democracy, welfarism, left-liberalism, communitarianism, and so on. That would be an interesting way of approaching issues of political choice and ideology.