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Nietzsche's Morality in Plain English

In 1924, Clarence Darrow’s eight-hour plea for Leopold and Loeb blamed the universities and scholars of Nietzsche (who died in 1900) for their influence on Leopold:

He became enamored of the philosophy of Nietzsche. Your honor, I have read almost everything that Nietzsche ever wrote. A man of wonderful intellect; the most original philosophy of the last century. A man who had made a deeper imprint on philosophy than any other man within a hundred years, whether right or wrong. More books have been written about him than probably all the rest of the philosophers in a hundred years. … Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it?

Nietzsche is popularly associated with Nazism and even before this with “the superman … free from scruple” that Darrow describes, but he was also popular among the left-anarchists and the Left generally. Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen reports that “if you meet [an intellectual non-Leftist, increasingly they are Nietzschean” (whatever that means). Common sense demands that some of these people are misreading him.

Pinning down a moral theory that we can engage faces some initial hurdles:

  1. Nietzsche’s views changed over time. His works appear to make contradictory claims.
  2. His writing is notoriously poetic and obscure.
  3. Huge volumes of notes left behind after his 1889 mental collapse were compiled into The Will to Power and the Nachlass notes. It’s unclear how to consider these since he wanted his notes destroyed after his death.

I favor Brian Leiter’s approach and conclusions in Nietzsche on Morality. He offers practical solutions: identifying his works starting from Daybreak (1881) as “mature work,” working to extract philosophical content from even his esoteric output, and avoiding claims that depend on unpublished notes, in part just because they’re low-quality.

Nietzsche’s overarching project is the “revaluation of all values”: a critique of herd morality (which he typically just refers to as “morality”) on the grounds that it’s hostile to the flourishing of the best type of person.

First his broad outlook. Philosophically, he supports a methodological naturalism where philosophy aspires to be continuous with natural or social scientific inquiry. Metaethically he’s an anti-realist about value and would ultimately admit to defending his evaluative taste.

His psychological views can be strikingly modern. He argues that our beliefs are formed from the struggle of unconscious drives which compete in our mind so that our conscious life is merely epiphenomenal. He advances what Leiter calls a “doctrine of types” where everyone is some type of guy and the type of guy you are determines the kind of life you can lead, and that you’ll hold whatever philosophical or moral beliefs will favor your interests. He doesn’t hold any extreme “determinist” position but is broadly fatalistic about how your type-facts circumscribe and set limits on the kind of person you’ll be and the beliefs you’ll hold, within which you can be influenced by your environment and values.

From here we can proceed to herd morality, the general class of theories associated with normal morality. Nietzsche criticizes three of its descriptive claims (quoting exactly from Leiter):

  1. Free will: Human agents possess a will capable of free and autonomous choice.
  2. Transparency of the self: The self is sufficiently transparent that agents’ actions can be distinguished on the basis of their respective motives.
  3. Similarity: Human agents are sufficiently similar that one moral code is appropriate for all.

In line with Nietzsche’s theory of psychology, these empirical beliefs are held in support of herd morality’s normative beliefs: free will is needed to hold people accountable for their actions and transparency of the self is needed to hold people accountable for their motives. Without invoking any strict determinism, Nietzsche’s fatalistic view of human types contradicts (1). His beliefs about the epiphenomenalism of consciousness attack the transparency of the self. Against (3), Nietzsche holds that what is good for someone must depend of their interests, and therefore on the type of guy he is.

In particular, herd morality is harmful to the “higher type” of man in service of the lowest. This concern is more essential than the descriptive claims. A few points:

  1. Who are these higher men? They’re mostly creative geniuses exemplified by Goethe, the person mentioned most in Nietzsche’s writings—Beethoven, Napoleon, and Nietzsche himself also qualify. Besides their genius, they share attitudes: they’re solitary and self-interested, using others for their benefit while maintaining a dignified and superior bearing; they demand great responsibilities; they’re resilient, energetic, and not pessimistic. Importantly, they would support the “eternal recurrence,” the repetition of their life forever.
  2. How does herd morality hinder their flourishing? a. It tells them that suffering is bad, so that otherwise great men who might suffer and create pursue pleasure instead. b. It encourages altruism, while really the higher men should pursue their demanding obsessions instead. c. It advocates for equal regard and treatment, which removes the motivation to improve and create since even if you do you’ll be no better than you were.
  3. How does this benefit the lower men? People believe things that serve their interests, and so per Nietzsche, the “lowest order” makes these rhetorical moves (quoted from Leiter): a. their impotence becomes “goodness of heart”; b. their anxious lowliness becomes “humility”; c. their “inoffensiveness” and their “lingering at the door” becomes “patience”; d. their inability to achieve revenge becomes their unwillingness to seek revenge; e. their desire for retaliation becomes a desire for justice; f. their hatred of the enemy becomes a hatred of injustice.
  4. Why is the flourishing of higher men important? Life is hard to justify with all of its suffering and striving interspersed with brief respites of pointless satisfaction. Nietzsche rescues life only by appeal to the aesthetic spectacle of genius, which he elevates to the most important business, the only thing making life worthwhile.

This straightforward description of his thinking sheds light on some aspects of his work. Some notes:

  • Nietzsche’s pessimistic view of human rationality helps explain the poetic and rhetorical style of his writing.
  • His metaethical views support his esoterism. He sometimes says outright that he’s writing for a particular kind of person and not for everyone.
  • Nietzsche’s higher man is an archetype well-suited specifically for artistic and creative work (Leiter describes “a penchant for solitude, an absolute devotion to one’s tasks, an indifference to external opinion”). He may also be unhappy, though Nietzsche seems a bit unclear about this.
  • Nietzsche explains past philosophers’ views with their alleged psychology and self-interest, so it’s tempting to subject him to a similar analysis based on his disruptive health issues and unrequited love.

The initial puzzle of which supporters are misinterpreting Nietzsche seems answered. Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind argues that the kind of life that Nietzsche values is compelling enough to be absorbed by different ideologies.

But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the latest models of modern democratic or egalitarian man find much that is attractive in Nietzsche's understanding of things. It is the sign of the strength of equality, and of the failure of Nietzsche's war against it, that he is now far better known and really influential on the Left than on the Right.