This paper was presented to the Nietzsche and Naturalism Conference, Cardiff University September 20th 2010
Master Morality and Ugly Truths
From some points of view there are many kinds of morality. For example there are pharisaic morality, and Little Jack Horner morality, our tartufferies, as Nietzsche sometimes calls them. How are these to be classified? Are they master or slave? In addition there are several varieties of morality of the weak. Not everywhere does Nietzsche polarise all morality into master versus slave. In places he distinguishes other forms of morality of the weak, such that of the canaille, or that of the herd.
But from the viewpoint presented in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals, the choice is simply between master or slave, serving yourself or serving others. Slave morality is indeed something it will be possible for you to choose. You may decide to take all your values from others, submitting to the rules that have been derived from their interests. Or you may choose to be in charge of yourself, to pursue what is clearly your own will. There can be no compromise, no hybrid. Conflicting principles on this level would simply mean confusion.
I begin by discussing a type of interpretation which I believe to be wrong. I have put this together from various sources but it represents a view which seems to have wide currency. Then I attempt to point out its flaws. The focus is on the Genealogy of Morals, particularly the first essay, but very similar disputes arise about other texts.
In this interpretation the argument of the Genealogy is taken as an attack on morality, rather than as a criticism of a particular type and interpretation of morality. Nietzsche’s object is seen as the reconstruction of morality from first principles. For this thesis the suggestion that his criticism leaves much morality intact is irrelevant and therefore disregarded. Arguments for the derivation of ordinary morality from egoistic motives are not considered.
It is said that he has shown, perhaps convincingly, a lot of negative consequences of morality to do with ugliness and unhealthiness. He has not, however, it is contended, given a clear idea of the superior values he wants to see, but hints at how they need to be created.
His critique, it is said, has the effect of undermining all moral judgements, so fomenting a state of moral nihilism, from which he means to rescue us by the creation of new values. It is maintained that he is proposing a new idea of a good beyond ressentiment and rooted in life affirmation.
"for Nietzsche, goodness arises in a creative act moving beyond reaction and ressentiment"- that is a not untypical view taken from the publicity for a book comparing Nietzsche and Levinas.
Such interpreters go to complex and quite humourless lengths to imagine what such an act might be. They write about the aspiration to total life affirmation, and draw much on the ideal of eternal recurrence.
It gets even more complicated when they want to continue with their moral judgements after Nietzsche has shown the origins of some of them in ressentiment. They are concerned to preserve not only their desires and valuations but also their current ways of thinking and feeling about them, while absorbing, or believing they have absorbed, Nietzsche’s criticism. There are complex tasks for philosophers here, much scope for virtuoso solutions in trying to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.
It must be conceded there are sentences in Nietzsche’s books which may on first reading appear to support this interpretation. As well as his central argument, whatever we take it to be, there is much rhetoric, persuasive, poetic and ironic, some of which may be mistaken for his core message. Read differently, adjusting the weight put on certain statements, much of it can be taken as supporting a somewhat different interpretation. It must be admitted that he can appear full of paradoxes.
Nietzsche addresses an appeal to current prejudices. Some arguments for the desirability of a change appeal to the old values, rather than expressing directly the logic of that change. The argument is for a choice between slave and master values. How can we evaluate the value of a value except by a value? Nietzsche gives us his own noble values and wants us to prefer them.
Some of his rhetoric is concerned with ideas of health. He does describe a state of affairs he thinks would be healthier. We are nevertheless missing his point if we set this up as a standard in criticism of our own as distinct from other people’s desires, as if morality has to be in conflict with desire, or as if we need to be told what to desire or aim for. The healthiness of the nobles he depicts is a recommendation, for us, his readers as we are at present, still half bewitched by slave values, not the principle behind the change.
In places there is indeed the suggestion that all morality will be put in doubt. This could be seen as a historical prediction, incidental to his main argument. Or it may even be loose speaking. At the end of the third essay Nietzsche does talk of the disappearance of ethics, and at the end of the second of what sounds like the need for a redeemer to show the way, and this is his Zarathustra. He is John the Baptist to Zarathustra’s Jesus.
In Ecce Homo he does describe the Genealogy as preliminary studies to the transvaluation to be tackled in his forthcoming book. However this can be understood in different ways.
How ought we to imagine the situation once the battle has ended with a favourable outcome? When he writes of the creation of new values, what does that mean? Is he talking about new cultural opportunities or is he describing the solution to everything? Whatever he means by the creation of new values, it cannot be the solution to the problem of the disappearance of morality. More probably he is talking about art, the culture of the future, new aesthetic values, all the work that would need to be done. With the abolition of the ascetic ideal new concepts and principles will be discovered to give meaning to our suffering.
On this interpretation I am criticising Nietzsche’s basic problem is understood as that of nihilism resulting from the rejection of Christian morality. If the solution to that is to set up a new standard, with prohibitions on resentment and life negation, what would this be but a 'new idol'?
In the preface to Ecce Homo Nietzsche writes “Above all do not mistake me for someone else. I am, for example, by no means a bogey or a moralistic monster…..No new idols are erected by me; let the old ones learn what feet of clay mean.”
It seems that Nietzsche anticipated some of the misinterpretation to which he would be subject.
When he says ‘No new idols erected by me’ we should take it he means to deify neither truth, nor affirmation, nor freedom from resentment.
Readers of Nietzsche differ much on how much weight to attach to this warning.
Those whose interpretation makes him into a moralistic monster happily disregard it.
Nietzsche is loaded with a number of arbitrary makeshift principles invoked to make sense of his argument. Each of these would be in need of justification. I pick out four.
1. Nietzsche overthrows morality.
The first is the idea that Nietzsche overthrows morality. This goes against his explicit stated intention. Even if it were true it would need to be shown how what he does say should have this effect. The question is not resolved simply by quoting what he says, since different meanings can be read into his words, but also what makes sense.
To analyse morality into will to power is not to overthrow it. If my own moral values are understood as springing from my own will to power that is not in itself an objection to them. Why should it be? The eighteenth century derived morality from self interest. That was not generally understood as destroying morality. Even if we think the interpretation is mistaken, then it would just be a wrong analysis. Undermining one way of understanding morality is hardly to destroy such a firmly rooted human practice.
What is overthrown is only the form of morality that depends upon what we can show to be dishonesty about itself and its motives. If, for example it has been shown that vengeance and hatred are the real motives inspiring some judgment, and it is essential to that judgement that this inspiration be denied, then the judgment loses its hold on us. That is surely obvious. However, if that kind of judgement is all we are able to understand as morality, then we are quite out of sympathy with Nietzsche.
Much remains. Rather than needing to be reconstructed from first principles morality grows out of normal human interaction. If one has no morality one steals from one’s friends. Much of the Genealogy is about keeping promises and justice. When its argument is taken as an attack on morality, rather than as a criticism of a particular type and interpretation of morality, the idea that Nietzsche's criticism would leave much morality intact is just disregarded. But Nietzsche himself says famously that he is not writing beyond good and bad.
Superior values are given from the start,
they are what Nietzsche calls master morality. Missing a central point, as is so
common in Nietzsche interpretation, many modern commentators are led into
convoluted, tedious and mind numbing speculations. (Or brilliant and original
flights of imaginative exegesis according to taste.)
2. We must get rid of resentment
This is sometimes held to be the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s reconstructive project.
When it comes to the objective of getting rid of resentment more questions are raised than are answered. Resentment, what exactly is it? What is the objection to it?
A resentful person will denigrate the standards by which he does not measure up. Often this may be harmless enough, and neutralised by normal human competition. We may for example identify resentment in the journalist who wants to blur the distinction between journalism and fine literature. Resentment is objectionable when it distorts truth that we want to assert. That is all. We may think of it as setting up false idols as an obstruction to what we want to think and feel. I don’t want to be constrained unnecessarily by someone else’s feeling. It appears that Wagner resented Brahms, and Nietzsche may even have resented Wagner to some degree.
What distinguishes nasty malevolence, from healthy aggression? Nietzsche speaks of reactive forces, meaning primarily malevolence and hatred. We may easily feel the same class based contempt for this sort of thing, as we do for the attitudes and opinions conveyed in a type of popular newspaper, which we presumably consider to be, in Nietzsche’s language, base, plebeian and low minded. We discern ressentiment in the punitive predilections of the masses, cynically exploited by democratic politicians. Depending on our political preferences we may also deplore as ressentiment the levelling objectives of the socialist, or the programmes of the aggressive feminist, and the frustrated nationalist. Impotent old age resents and tries to restrain the freedom and vigour of youth.
So apparently there is healthy aggression and nasty resentment. It may be proposed that we are to object to aggression or resentment which is lying and untruthful, but has it been established what truth is in this area? How are we to tell subjectively what is good resentment and what bad? It is all very well to talk about the difference between active and reactive forces. How are we to know whether the aggression we feel is reactive or not? And why should we be so concerned about truthfulness?
Any prohibition on resentment would need to avoid prohibiting the good Eris, the healthy aggression upon which Nietzsche sets such high value.
In his autobiography he explicitly denies the existence of resentment in himself. In Why I am so Wise §6 he claims to be free from all such low motives
Having done this he dignifies his hostile feelings by the name of 'aggressive pathos'. Rather than taking this entirely seriously, we may prefer to treat it as a Nietzschean joke. Nietzsche presents himself as the most noble and generous of beings. That is how we may all tend to see ourselves in our most elated moments. What you call my resentment, I call my aggressive pathos. Whether there is actually any failure of self knowledge here is an interesting question. The master defines what is noble, and it is whatever is like himself.
3. The foundation of the new values is life affirmation
This is another misconception. Nietzsche’s first principle is will to power, not life affirmation. The idea of transvaluation is linked to this. He is for competitive drive, Eris, struggle, not some ideal by which to judge others. He is far from proposing an ideal to which we must subordinate everything and derive all morality.
Life affirmation is the anticipated by-product of accepting will to power and renouncing the ascetic ideal. To aim for it directly would be like aiming directly for happiness, which Nietzsche, following conventional wisdom, though with a characteristically perverse twist, would see as counterproductive. As Zarathustra says in Of Old and New law Tables.
"For enjoyment and innocence are the most
bashful things. Neither like to be
sought for. One should have them,- but one should rather seek for guilt and
Actively seeking guilt, isn't that a strange precept? What can he mean?
4. Understanding morality as will to power means nihilism
This is another makeshift and arbitrary idea. Once again not only does it contradict what Nietzsche explicitly says, but it would need to be justified and explained.
Alasdair Macintyre, who has been described as a Nietzschean, appears to be saying (in After Virtue) that Nietzsche abandons morality in attributing it to will to power. Macintyre writes about a moral crisis that is certainly not the one Nietzsche is concerned about. In the first essay there is no suggestion of moral nihilism. What Nietzsche means by nihilism is differently defined. Nihilism is a word used quite loosely and in different senses. In the Genealogy he describes it as the desire for nothingness, extinction. For him slave morality is itself nihilistic for its tendency to promote this.
Get rid of slave morality, and there remains non-slave morality, which if we have followed Nietzsche’s argument we may adopt and interpret in terms of our own will to power. This will be master morality.
It is simply not true that Nietzsche fails to give examples of how this can work. He shows justice as originating in a conscious will to power. In the second essay he describes how malevolence and hatred were normal, and contributed to the foundation of many of our institutions. He attacks Dühring’s theory of vengeance as the source of justice. Instead he explains justice as springing from an aggressive will to overcome, imposing a pattern that surmounts vengeance.
Wherever justice is practiced and maintained we see a stronger power intent on finding means to regulate the senseless raging of rancour among its weaker subordinates.
We can say he admires Rome not for its brutality but for its justice and humanity. It is Rome he praises, not the blond Teutonic beast. He says we should look for the spirit behind the fragments it has left behind. These are master values, his antithesis to the priestly impulse.
Every vestige of them…. is a sheer delight provided we are able to read this spirit behind the writing.
He describes the autonomous individual as the summit of social evolution. If we place ourselves at the terminal point of this great process, where society and custom finally reveal their true aim, we shall find the ripest fruit of that tree to be the sovereign individual, equal only to himself, all moral custom left far behind. These are the strong, who hate being organised, for whom as he writes:- it is as natural to disaggregate as for the weak to congregate. Even on this central Nietzschean principle though he is not obviously consistent. For elsewhere, like a good Prussian, he extols conscription.
A natural question arises. If everything is will to power what can be special about admitting to it? To what exactly can we be committing ourselves? Even though every position does involves will to power, conscious recognition of it does offer a distinctive perspective, which excludes many others. The contention is that only this perspective is capable of fully confronting and sustaining truth. Other positions deny their own roots in will to power. It is highly questionable how much a choice of slave morality could be compatible with honesty of any kind. Schopenhauerian negation is dubiously honest.
He reminds us that Schopenhauer’s philosophy was the product of a young man of twenty six, with the powerful frustrated urges characteristic of that phase of life, and that Schopenhauer himself derived great satisfaction from his philosophy and its propagation.
But why should we care about or be constrained by truth? Why not dispense with truth altogether in the pursuit of your will?
The answer to this is that as sovereign individual you belong to the solitary species, and are therefore weak when faced with the combined strength of the individually weak, that is the herd. Your greatest strength is in the insistence upon what to others are ugly truths. These are uncomfortable facts that are inescapable realities. They are hailed at the end of the very first section of the essay and their existence is certainly to be borne in mind throughout the book. Ugly truths derail alternative perspectives. Positions incompatible with the will to power perspective may be held but not without demonstrable error.
Thinking of the motive to establish the kind of ugly truths that Nietzsche has in mind we can make little sense of it if we take the idea of truth as an ‘ideal’ behind a cooperative enterprise. There would be no motive to explore or reveal them, so they would be unlikely to be revealed. So how do ugly truths ever get to be established? If they were merely unpleasant why not leave them forever unsaid? What is the interest in discovering an ugly truth? There are many more convenient facts out there on which scholars may choose to expend their energies.
In the third essay, concluding what may seem the extreme and rather one-sided attack on ascetic priests, he attacks scholars for their attachment to an ideal of truth. Yet this cannot be taken as contradicting the opening of the book where he has invoked ugly truths, which he insists do exist.
They are invoked in support of master morality. Ugly truths include unpleasant revelations about human nature, including the truth behind certain stereotypes that it seems only decent to deny. It appears that the motive to uncover such truths is not so much a delight in ugliness as individualistic will to power, conscious of the war of all against all. This is more than just the desire to establish master morality. These truths have not been discovered specifically to defeat the opposition.
What defence could be made of slave morality against Nietzsche’s objections? If everyone forgot about ethics and just did what they pleased what difference would it make? Zarathustra has told us that some people say morals are necessary when they mean only that the police are necessary.
It is usually argued that slave morality is necessary to restrain the cruelty of the strong. Are we then the weak who need to be defended against that? Morality of the weak scarcely even succeeds in restraining cruelty. There are better tools for doing that if that is what we want. Its principal effect has been to satisfy feelings of vengeance in the hope of bringing excluded groups to power. Without it nothing of value need be lost.
Slave morality appeals not only to fear, but to the powerless. But Nietzsche’s readers are presumably not the powerless. Perhaps for some of them conventional values serve a function in cementing a hierarchy. They are an orthodoxy, as were once the dogmas of religion, and it may be in your interest to observe them on pain of social ostracism. You may even be able to exploit them in service of your own ambition. Face this and admit it, if only to yourself, and you are not observing slave morality.
Take them seriously and you should recognise that in their origin and essence slave values are addressed to fear, but not your own apprehensions; for those they are not a remedy. A stronger and more significant inspiration than fear is the hatred and resentment felt by the low. Only your pity might offer an honourable motive for deferring to that and that would be irrational. This would be pity for the frustration and suffering of the resentful weak, which threatens to unman you. Even less honourable motives are hypocrisy and sycophancy, the need for respectability.
Pity and disgust, he maintains, are the effect of slave values on the noble minded individual. He writes of this as a mixture of loathing and pity for mankind. If this seems extreme and excessive it expresses something of the misery of demoralisation. Pity in this sense has the effect of turning you against your own will and desires, renunciation, even of your own beliefs as to what is right. The logical conclusion of that is self hatred and desire for extinction, what Nietzsche does call nihilism.
Nietzsche’s response to the fear argument is this appeal to the herd:-
Who would not a thousand times prefer fear when it is accompanied with admiration to security accompanied by the loathsome sight of perversion, dwarfishness and degeneracy?
This might be taken in an unfortunate political sense. It sounds like he is asking us whether we would happily cripple our masters. Leaving aside the question of how effective such measures might be in actually reducing oppression, we may feel some reservations here. Would we really rather fear where we can also admire? One thinks of fascism or rule by Russian gangsters. It is too spectator orientated.
Presumably this is not how the masters, or we as masters, would look at the matter. We are not faced with the question of whether we should prefer to admire and fear or simply despise. As autonomous sovereign individuals we have our own projects with our enmities and alliances and do not need to be told what we ought or ought not desire. Nevertheless we are vulnerable to the threat of demoralisation from slave morality. Slave morality is oppressive and depressing and our object is to refute it, defeating all the wiles with which it endeavours to insert itself in our minds and souls. This, not moral nihilism, is the fundamental problem that drives Nietzsche’s investigation.
Those who identify their interests with the herd are also expected to follow his reasoning. However comfortable they may find their current ways of thinking presumably they do not want to live in illusion. The slaves may be beyond redemption, but their principal weapon is to be decommissioned.
The Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche makes clear that the discussion of historical reality which he says he began in Human all too Human takes second place to the value of moral judgments, which it is his primary concern to assess. He writes of a slave revolt in morals which originated with the priests, and achieved final victory in our own times. Yet this does not mean that master morality has disappeared from our culture. In many quarters the battle is still going on. The victory has been ideological, something like the triumph of a religious orthodoxy, It is not the case that the other values have been annihilated, anymore than sin and heresy have been abolished in Christian countries. All the best minds are divided, he says.
For his readers, who follow his argument, there is either master or slave, no hybrid. The conflict has raged for millennia, he says. His concern with the value of moral judgements is with how they look from the point of view of nineteenth century enlightenment, not, for example, from that of those who believe moral injunctions are the commandments of God. How they actually feel to those who embrace them is of secondary significance. Thus his history of the ascetic ideal may make it sound worse than it was.
The difference between the two forms of morality is not a simple question of the different objects that are valued or not (like how you rate unselfishness) but of the source of those values. Do they come from within yourself, identifiable as your own will, or do they come from some external ideal to which you submit yourself? All have will to power but there is a slavish way of exercising it which is involved in falsehood and illusion. Even with inhibiting morality you pursue your own will, it is just that then your will is divided against itself.
One may attack unselfishness on utilitarian grounds. This would not be the revolution he has in mind. Even to commend that for its utility would be to invoke the old values.
He writes that:-
The noble minded spontaneously creates the conception of the good and later derives from it the concept of the bad
Such noble mindedness is still entirely possible. There was evolution from the blond beast to Romans, and in this place Nietzsche is not talking about sublimation. That the original form of master morality was barbaric, does not mean that the will of civilised men must be insipid by comparison, at least not for this argument.
Selfishness of will to power
The counter movement from slave back to master morality is not a question of choosing different objects of desire. Any generous or charitable motive may be retained. There is no necessary diminution of goodwill.
Nevertheless in the light of all possibilities that have been suppressed conscious will to power manifests as selfishness, just as honest speaking can come across as brutality. In the ordinary sense it need not be selfish at all. Any reasonable objective can be interpreted in terms of serving your own will to power. The opposite perspective of universalised idealism always involves illusion. Clearly these universalistic ideals may be formulated, but they conflict with those ugly truths which it is our business and ambition to establish.
Made his case?
Surely Nietzsche has made his case? What rational opposition could there be to his ideas about morality? Should not anyone with a pretence to enlightenment accept them? Nevertheless there is much resistance. In principle the change over should be straightforward. Nothing important need be lost. Why then do many find his revaluation so hard to follow or accept? Despite the difficulty some have in accepting revaluation there should be nothing to fear. There is no requirement to renounce decent feelings, or any rational motive, only illusion.
Some of the problem seems to be with abandoning a settled pattern of thought. This is often a personal and psychological difficulty rather than strictly intellectual.
Modern academics, scholars and atheistic enlighteners are not the ones to be entrusted with transvaluation. This includes most scholars of Nietzsche.
Some commentators appear to identify the values peculiar to their own class with the whole of morality. The eighteenth century philosophical egoism that won Nietzsche’s qualified praise was bourgeois in origin, opposed to the aristocratic ideals which were still a significant social force. The life of the modern academic is constrained by social considerations, often including a degree of political correctness that may be hard to bypass.
It is important to remember that Nietzsche
is not a team player. Any established untruth is objectionable not for
idealistic reasons, but because it gives an authority which may be contested.
Many interpreters of Nietzsche are team
players, and try to understand him in those terms, making much heavy weather of what may be understood much more straightforwardly. Nietzsche calls on the scholars to respect ugly truth though they are unlikely to discover it.
For those in the English tradition who interpreted morality in terms of self interest, he expresses the confessedly unlikely hope:-
that these microscopic examiners of the soul may be really courageous, magnanimous and proud animals who know how to contain their emotions and have trained themselves to subordinate all wishful thinking to the truth- any truth- even a homespun, severe, ugly, obnoxious, un-Christian, unmoral truth. For such truths do exist.
The sovereign individual fighting for himself, keen to propagate his own ideas and creative efforts discovers them in the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. The examples held up to us are Nietzsche himself and his fictional alter ego Zarathustra, who is so ambitious he aspires to be a god.
He finds them by bloody minded perversity, refusing to acquiesce in unjustified authority in which he has no share. No unsubstantiated demand can be allowed to stand in the path of his ambition. For him will to power is not something to be treated as an item of faith, it is a practice, an aggression, understood in a particular way. This is the good Eris, agon, ruthless competition between ideas. Ugly truth so discovered brings certainty that sustains master morality against attempts to undermine it. Anti-Nietzschean perspectives must fall before it, undoubtedly including the Aristotelian/Aquinean consensus Macintyre proposes as an alternative to will to power.
We may understand Nietzschean enlightenment as the disabling of certain weapons, comprising what we call the morality of the weak, which are currently employed in the war of all against all. He does this by trying to show their clear incompatibility with demonstrable matters of fact. Beyond that we pursue our own personal and political objectives in the light of our own interests and desires. My politics is part of my strength.
To deny that Nietzsche means to guide us more closely than that is hardly to deny that he has standards of his own, only that they directly follow from his rejection of slave morality. The foundation of morality is will to power, and that it remains. Recognition of that gives an adequate foundation for our own values. The specific foundation of Nietzsche's own values is the interest of the solitary species, to which he belongs, against the pressure of the herd. He fights for this by demonstrating truth, which supporters of the opposing values are concerned to deny. He does not need to be saved from nihilism by the establishment of a new faith to underpin all his ambitions. Naturally there will be more new values as the consequences of transvaluation, meaning acknowledgement of universal will to power, make themselves felt throughout the culture.
John S Moore 2010
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