Tuesday 15 October 2013

Nietzsche on Good and Evil/Bad

Since today is Nietzsche's birthday, I thought it would be a good idea to compose a blog post in his honour.  

In his essay, “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’”, Nietzsche describes the evolution of two different sets of moral codes: the “knightly-aristocratic” or “master” morality and the “priestly” or “slave” morality.  He takes as his point of departure the genealogical accounts of the “English psychologists” who he criticises as lacking the “historical spirit.”  As Nietzsche describes them, the English psychologists claim that our concept of “good” is actually derived from our concept of the “useful”, though we eventually forget this initial association.  By Nietzsche’s lights, the psychologists’ account is unhistorical in at least two respects:  First, it projects the psychologists’ own preoccupation with “utility” unto the subject of their enquiry, giving rise to a theoretical anachronism in their history of morality.  This prompts them to mistakenly conceive of the goodness of a deed as originally determined from the point of view of the recipient of the deed rather than that of the doer.  (Nietzsche, by contrasts, argues that the goodness of an action was initially defined from the perspective of the actor, a novel and fascinating idea I will not take up at present.)  Second, by ignoring the historicity of their own preoccupation with utility, the psychologists give the impression that the moral concept of the “good” is unilateral, singular and fixed.  By contrast, Nietzsche argues that moral codes are fluid, so that what was once considered “good” may literally come to be considered “bad” (or “evil”). The upshot of Nietzsche’s analysis is that our present evaluation of what is good is historically contingent, and a story needs to be told about how and why we have the particular moral code that we do.

Nietzsche sets out to tell just such a story.  To this end, he argues that our present moral code is actually a product of Jewish ressentiment, or resentment.  This claim presents a two-pronged challenge to Nietzsche’s German audience.  First, it implies that the morality that pervades modern Europe is the morality of the slaves and the weak; hardly a flattering indictment.  Second, the claim that the values in question are of Jewish origin is a remonstrance against Christian anti-Semites who tend to think of their own values as distinct from, and even opposed to, that of the Jews.   

Even if one were sympathetic to Nietzsche’s overall goals, one might have some reservations about the rhetorical manoeuvres Nietzsche employs towards achieving them.  For one thing, Nietzsche’s distinction between the morality of the weak the morality of strong seems racist in the most literal sense of the word.  That is, Nietzsche seems to depict the various groups of human beings as different in some essential sense, akin to the difference between a bird of prey and a lamb.  This observation, if accurate, amounts to a criticism of Nietzsche, not because racism is inherently problematic (i.e., it violates our contemporary standards of political correctness), but because it seems uncorroborated by the bulk of recent scientific work on the subject. 

However, it is not clear that it is mandatory to attribute to Nietzsche such strong racial essentialism.   According to the anti-essentialist, we can imagine a state of affairs in which the Jews were the masters and the Romans were the slaves.  In such a case, Nietzsche may well insist that the Jews would be the ones exhibiting the master values.    Thus, the fact that it was the Jews that played the part of representatives of slave values is a matter of historical accident.  Of course, Nietzsche seems to think that the Jews were specially equipped to accomplish this task in that they, unlike other oppressed groups, were willing to take on the task of supplanting the master values.  But again, this may simply be a function of the level of hatred the Jews had for their masters (which in turn was a function of there singularly oppressed position), rather than a reflection of some essential trait of the Jewish race.  Thus, it seems as if Nietzsche’s position may be divorced from any type of empirically implausible racial essentialism.   (There is a further and equally interesting question, which I will not get into here, of how the above anti-essentialist reading of Nietzsche relates to his thought that there are only deeds but no doers.)

There is an additional problem with regards to the self-consciousness with which Nietzsche seems to suggest that the Jews went about the task of overthrowing the values of their Roman masters.  This is most clearly brought out in his discussion of Jesus’s crucifixion as the event that clinched the deal in the overthrow of the master values.  One is left with the impression that the crucifixion was just the final step in some masterfully orchestrated conspiracy in which the Jews got their enemies to appropriate their (i.e., the Jews) values by making it appear as thought it wasn’t really their (i.e., the Jews) values.  The suggestion that the Romans were basically duped into accepting priestly morality via a clandestinely orchestrated bit of historical reverse psychology seems, to say the least, a stretch.  However, perhaps we may remove the initial implausibility of this idea by taking these events as purely descriptive of what actually happened, without suggesting that the Jews arranged for things to happen as they did.  On this purely descriptive account, the crucifixion, though not a premeditated strategy in an elaborate ideological chess-game, was just the sort of event needed to distance Jewish priestly values from their original source, thereby bestowing them with a certain faux neutrality, ahistoricity and authority. 

Significantly, even if we did accept the conspiracy reading of Nietzsche, one would need to exercise some caution in attributing belief in such a conspiracy to Nietzsche himself.  Given Nietzsche’s rhetorical goals, it may very well be that Nietzsche deliberately leaves room for (even if he doesn’t explicitly advocate) the conspiracy interpretation.  The suggestion that the values which Nietzsche’s German readers have embraced may be the product of a Jewish conspiracy would serve to heighten their discomfort since it further underscores the possibility that they may have been duped.  The upshot of Nietzsche’s analysis may be put as follows:  not only is the fact that we have the values we have a matter of historical accident, and not only are our values that of the nebbish, weak and insipid, but we have all been bamboozled into accepting them. 

This reading of Nietzsche’s rhetorical goals offers an interesting spin on his often disparaging remarks about the Jews.    By belittling priestly values and emphasising their Jewish origins, Nietzsche infuses his criticisms of his complacent (and in some instances anti-Semetic) German readers with even greater force.  If you believe a morality born of weakness and resentment is inferior, then how much worse must be those who have been hoodwinked into accepting such a moral code by the very one’s described as weak and nebbish. 

Significantly, the reading of Nietzsche adumbrated above fails to take a stand on whether or not he was personally opposed to priestly morality.  For all that has been said, it may very well be the case that Nietzsche himself thinks of master and priestly moralities as simply different, with neither inherently better than the other, or he may view priestly morality as deeper and therefore superior to master morality.  However, by adopting a rhetorical stance against priestly morality and then showing how priestly morality has been blindly embraced by his German audience, Nietzsche attempts to challenge their self-gratifying smugness.  One suspects that it is German complacency, rather than priestly morality per se, that constitutes the real target of Nietzsche’s criticisms.