nietzschean morality

Alasdair Macintyre (in After Virtue) appears to maintain that Nietzsche abandons morality in attributing it to will to power.

He also compares contemporary moral discourse to the Polynesian values of taboo, a form of observance whose origins and purpose had been forgotten by the nineteenth century and could therefore be easily abolished.

If he means to suggest that explaining the dubious origins of modern morality is necessarily to discredit it, we could accuse him of committing the ‘genetic fallacy’. On Nietzsche’s principles a discourse, what Wittgenstein called a language game, that serves someone’s power and interest cannot be disposed of just by showing its origins in something very different. One would at least need to demonstrate clear errors of fact, lies or falsification of reality. A language game has a logic of its own. So morality neither in a positive nor a negative sense is to be so easily got rid of.

Reading the seventeenth and eighteenth century British moralists, we get a view of morality that was by no means altogether objectionable to Nietzsche. They disagreed with each other. Shaftesbury objected to the egoism of Hobbes; Butler followed Shaftesbury; Mandeville (actually a Dutchman) wrote about private vices producing public benefits; Paley put forward a theological form of utilitarianism. Nietzsche speaks quite favourably of such people at the beginning of The Genealogy of Morals.

Unselfishness to them was not altogether what a later age understood as such. Here is Copleston:- “…Shaftesbury does not define obligation in terms of obedience to divine will and authority. One might perhaps expect him to say that the moral sense or conscience discerns obligations and to leave the matter there. But in considering obligation he tries to show that concern for one’s own interest and concern for the public interest or common good are inseparable, and that virtue, to which benevolence is essential, is to the advantage of the individual. To indulge in selfishness is to be miserable, whereas to be completely virtuous is to be supremely happy. This answer to the problem of obligation is influenced by the way he states the question. ‘It remains to inquire what obligation there is to virtue, or what reason to embrace it’. The reason which he gives is that virtue is necessary for happiness, and that vice spells misery. Probably one can see here the influence of Greek ethical thought.”

Kant’s categorical imperative was, according to Schopenhauer, a hangover from the authority of the Christian God. Nevertheless it had a vigorous life of its own. By the middle of the nineteenth century Kant’s ethics appeared to have generally won out and displaced the eighteenth century view.

In his Descent of Man (1871) Darwin explicitly repudiates 18th century egoistic derivations of morality, writing:- ‘It was assumed formerly by philosophers of the derivative school of morals that the foundation of morality lay in a form of Selfishness’ he writes. Darwin refers ethics to the Golden Rule

From a seemingly anti-religious work one may have expected for a measure of Gibbonian irony. One might at first suspect this in the chapter Moral Sense, his excursion into ethics, where he comes out as a follower of Kant. Even what he calls ‘the noblest of all the attributes of man’, his moral nature, he reduces to what his
opponents would have regarded as base animal origins. However he appears to be serious. Kant has done his destructive work.

Nietzsche says that the German obsession with morality is ultimately of French derivation, an anti-Helvetian cult fostered by Rousseau and drawing inspiration from the contemporary French habit of imitating antique models, in this case the Stoics. Helvetius had brought the English ethical philosophy to France where it played an important part in the enlightenment.

Nietzsche did not reject ethics, he rejected a form of moral poison he called morality of the weak, which he associated with certain fundamental ideas of Christianity. We might call it moralism, to distinguish it from the sort of moral judgement his attack leaves untouched. Notwithstanding his occasional loose talk, his philosophy is distorted when his objection is misrepresented and reinterpreted as an objection to any morality as such. His egoistic interpretation of morality is a respectable enough philosophical opinion, and should not be condemned by the standards of very different interpretations. Everyday ethics remains mostly intact. It can further be shown that interesting moral questions can arise from a starting position of immoralism and individualistic assertion. Even we have to stop calling the pale criminal wicked, that does not mean that we are no longer to speak of moral corruption or raise complex moral questions, some of which bear significantly on the nature and direction of our own modern society.

Both Shakespeare and Aeschylus portray instinct brought into confrontation with hard reality. Moral situations arise out of the conflict and interaction between the actions and objectives of different people. Guilt itself does not have be understood in terms of disobedience to some given rule. In the court at Ellsinore Claudius, Gertrude and also perhaps Polonius, all suffer from bad conscience, and even if they did not, their weakness, stupidity and vulnerability would all help to make them immoral from Hamlet’s point of view. They obstruct life, especially in view of the power they possess, they are small minded and confused.

Rather than ‘bad’ characters we are shown people who arouse hostile feelings in others. The greatest literature rarely goes in for Victorian style moral endings. The Orestian trilogy is about justice, but it reflects human psychology, as for that matter does the character of Milton’s Satan.

As in literature so in life. Fascinating moral issues surround the subject of treason, which from this perspective is far more interesting than simple murder. Taking the modern example of the Cambridge spies, Philby, Burgess, Blunt etc, there are lessons in guilt and its absence, in the combination of snobbish elite values and communist ones, and the different ways they were seen in Moscow and London. Loyalty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends and loyalty to principles.

Related questions concern the disillusion that arises from the working out of passionately held political ideals. Usually these are strongly altruistic. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a current of thought that identified enthusiasm, not selfishness, as the true source of evil.

Arguably this rather than selfishness is the source of the immorality of twentieth century genocide and terror. There is instructive drama in the story of Stalin and the purges, in the fates of old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Bukharin. Recent historians have described the blood lust that influenced not only Stalin but several of his subordinates. They appeared possessed by an irrational reason, a killing mania comparable to that of the Nazi holocaust.

When Solzhenitsyn called on the Russian people to repent, what would we take this to be for? Surely not for unselfishness.

“The nation is mystically welded together in a community of guilt, and its
inescapable destiny is common repentance. We all bear responsibility for the
quality of our government, for the campaigns of our military leaders, … for the
songs of our young people.”

The repentance would be for enthusiasm for being carried away by collective emotion.

I would not mean to imply that a Nietzschean position gives final judgements on all this. Apparently there was a group of Stalinist Nietzscheans, who benefited from the revolution and mostly survived the purges.

To understand Nietzsche’s position we must first get rid of the idea that that all possible morality is contained in the idea of ‘duty to neighbour’ and that the only alternative is some self indulgent atomistic quest for fulfilment. Given atomistic hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the sole good in life, it should presumably be easy enough to forgo one pleasure for the sake of another. Will to power restores something that was contained in the old idea of duty to God. The idea behind that was that if you disobeyed it the results would be disastrous. The consequences of ignoring your destiny or your inner voice are not merely painful but logically have the ultimate effect of making you feel completely in the wrong.

Nietzschean conscience is a stronger and worthier motive than the Rousseauite ‘authenticity’ discussed by Bernard Williams in his book on truth as one alternative to an altruistic model. Nietzsche’s immoralism is a repudiation of ‘morality’ for what can turn out to be ultimately moral reasons. His initial impulse may be defiant, even satanic, but the effect ultimately is a highly moral critique of culture and society.

Worthwhile moral judgements remain untouched. They spring from will and what it encounters. We should distinguish judgements on which moral philosophy might have any significant bearing from those which just express political desires.
Here are some tasks for moral philosophy. We could look at the moral ideas, rules and principles that are important at the present time, and identify the precise way they express our own will to power. We can examine values, taboos and ethical assumptions that influence the minds of modern academics and analyse their precise nature and origin. Sometimes that may not be altogether creditable. If for example we regard the objective of further promoting equal rights as an imperative moral principle we can situate this belief in its genuine psychological basis and try to understand what sustains it. What are the real motives that influence us as individuals happily to endorse such values? Is it our benevolence, aesthetics, conditioning, conformist pressure or what?

Morality of the weak

Objecting to moralism does not mean admitting to being amoral or immoral. The demand to conform your mind is for something fundamentally impossible. You are being asked to adapt yourself to other people’s ideas, to beliefs that are not your own. How can you live and work by principles against which you revolt emotionally, by something you feel to be wrong? Your whole being recoils from it as Luther and Solzhenitsyn recoiled from they were expected to believe. Yet those compromised refuse to understand or admit the imperative of this recoil.

By what Nietzsche calls master morality certain situations are simply unacceptable. Living by conscience, by your ‘true will’ you revolt viscerally against moralistic constraints you can feel no adequate reason to accept. Moralism is by your standards immoral. It is intolerable, unjustified constraint. This perception can lead to an interpretation of the God of the Jews and Christians as moralism personified.


The popular idea of evil is to interpret it simply as abuse of strength. But there is another perfectly honourable view. In this understanding of the word evil is something it is impossible to desire, a state of inevitable ignorance, pain even, which was the way Socrates saw it. Bad conscience arises naturally from the inconsistent working out of principles, not just the breaking of some rule. An action or condition brings feelings of guilt not just because it has had bad conscience joined to it by association, and not just because it has been accepted what its enemies say about it.

One wishes to reduce suffering, of a particular kind to be sure, but one has to specialise. Nietzsche was very concerned to reduce, not suffering in the abstract, but a particular form of it, such as that that springing from slave morality. To minimise moral evil and secure certain ‘good’, that is certain manifestations of happiness, it is desirable that man should become more ‘evil’, that is that the consciously selfish will should increase.
Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago describes a scale of evil undreamt of by De Sade. But then what De Sade treats in his novels is arguably not really moral evil at all. If one thinks of the psychopathic sadist as the epitome of evil one is missing what is most intersting. Evil in that sense might arouse ferocious indignation and moral outrage. But such an ‘evil’ man may be quite happy to live by his own values. He may have a good conscience. To call him evil is to say we find him dangerous.

There is a far more insidious form of evil that is associated with fear and bad conscience, which is what is found in a nation of stool pigeons. The debasing effects of tyranny have been known since ancient times. This was the atmosphere of Claudius’s court at Ellsinore.

To call either De Sade or Nietzsche moral nihilists is unhelpful. Their opposition to Christian values, even what might be called their condoning of the psychopath (taking the Ubermensch as a type of psychopath), does not mean they lack sensitivity to evil in the fuller sense. The man Nietzsche would deplore as a moral nihilist is not a supporter of barbaric or royal Assyrian values, he is someone without any loyalty to any principles, persons, or ideas whatever, who is willing to live with a bad conscience and to see the rest of society doing so. The Christian devil is not the enemy of all moral standards, only the Christian ones. An egoistic morality, even an antinomian morality, can still be coherent in that it identifies forms of evil to which it is opposed.

In fact the Christian concept of man as a sinful creature in need of periodic repentance is fully compatible with real moral nihilism in Nietzsche’s sense. A society riddled with bad conscience, might be thought of as the ideal Christian starting point. It was the bad conscience which Nietzsche and De Sade were so concerned to get rid of.

Zarathustra tells us that some eople say morals are necessary when they mean only that the police are necessary. For Nietzsche, it is not the task of moral philosophy to lay down rules or propose some general idea of the good. It is to criticise morality of the weak and expose the falsification in which it is involved.

On an invisible hand model, people who wish to satisfy their selfish urges may be far less dangerous than people who believe they can do good. If everyone was prepared to do evil their wills would cancel each other out. One may still use the word evil, mindful of a certain ambiguity. In wishing for man to be more evil one wishes to do good.

Express your desire and much of the worst will be neutralised. If everyone is more honest, open and direct, even in their destructiveness, we will not get the peculiarly abject conjunction of power and weakness that Nietzsche finds most offensive. The worst cruelty comes not from immorality but from morality, from people who think they are observing the Kantian categorical imperative, as Adolf Eichmann once said he had always tried to do.


Macintyre upholds the idea that there is a distinctive way of being moral that does not have to revolve around the egoism/altruism distinction and which has its own principles. However he departs consciously from Nietzsche.

Though he counts himself an Aristotelian he says he prefers Aquinas to Aristotle. The former was writing at a time in the middle ages when institutions were being created. Now Macintyre is worried about the way institutions corrupt virtue. This is a sort of soft Marxism. He sees a major moral problem here which is not the one Nietzsche sees. He devises an alternative moral system to express it. For Nietzsche morality of the weak is the moral problem, for Macintyre it is ‘utilitarianism’ in a sense of something like self-regarding capitalism.

One could say he exaggerates the moral confusion of modernity. There are decision making procedures which work, that is democracy. For his own political reasons he dislikes the conflict intrinsic to that and wants to bring about consensus.

Accordingly he locates the good in the search for a common ‘telos’. But this embodies one huge and very contentious assumption. The idea that it could be possible that the perverse refusal to accept it is legitimate is ignored or discounted. So his idea that it is possible to find a common ‘telos’ breaks down in dishonesty. Looking genealogically, one may point to a presumably Catholic background that underlies all his beliefs and feelings on this. Instead of healing the fragmented nature of modernity we would end up more divided than ever.

Nietzsche is not to be refuted by pointing out the excesses of individualism. His objection to moralistic coercion is moral and fundamental. Loathing is not too strong a word for his reaction to it. His moral objection is misrepresented if made out to be a merely political one. He does not reject morality of the weak merely on the grounds of individualism, but with the aim of establishing a satisfactory ground for sincere moral decisions and judgements whatever they are to be. To accuse him of imbalance is like saying some newly discovered truth needs to be balanced with an old error.
Many of Nietzsche’s opponents on the left deny there is a problem with morality of the weak, suggesting it does not even exist, while clearly applying and upholding it. In practice they attack egoism as vice, and make Nietzsche out to be an advocate of anarchy and chaos.

Another moral philosopher with a Nietzschean tendency is Stuart Hampshire. In his book Justice is Conflict he goes some of the way in admitting will to power. What he gives is like a Nietzschean framework but without a Nietzschean motive, that is without the sense of oppression by the massed power of the weak with its falsification.

Hampshire promotes the idea of remedying ‘great evils’. He appears to hold the view that female subordination is such an evil and that it is progress to identify it as such and decide to eliminate it. I think this shows a degree of confusion. One is not talking about obvious suffering, but about desire, in this case someone else’s. To nominate great evils, is substantially to beg the question given that there are incompatible conceptions of the good. If a conception of ‘the good’ comes down to a bare matter of personal feeling, it has no hold on anyone else.

As we have seen in recent years there are clear dangers in being too assertive about the moral superiority of our own fashionable rights and concerns. How far should we take it? As far as the neo-conservatives with a full blown war on Islam?


From a Nietzschean viewpoint there are flaws in democracy, but not those that Macintyre identifies. We each have our own situation and our economic interests. To explain what is wrong with democracy is to show how it can operate as a morality of the weak. While one may happily give full assent to it as a political system, it needs balancing by a counter agent, which is the role Nietzsche assigns to art.

One of his suggestions is that modern Weltschmerz, the sense of life’s meaninglessness, arises from the mixing of the classes. It happens when morality of the weak is imposed on those who are not weak, and alien demands as to how one should live and the value one is expected to get from life acquire the force of morality. For those Nietzsche calls the strong this is a troublesome and restrictive demand, an ideal of life far removed from the reality of their own desire, something that disagreeably conflicts with it. Yet for the weak the ideal precisely expresses desire, it is commensurate with their own perceived strength.

You are told that life should be about respecting desires your whole purpose has been to resist. To give the force of morality to a non conflict doctrine of human interaction when a conflict model is more honest and discriminating, will simply obstruct clear understanding. We have been brought to this by the logic of democracy, which also claims to be the logic of morality. It is not clear why the insistent demands of various groups that have reached some position of historical strength can logically be seen as the universal voice of morality.


It is part of the nature of coercive morality that a moral principle expresses the desires of some people and aims to restrain those of others.

The idea that ‘you ought not to do’ something or other is often presented as a description of the way things are. This can be true to the extent that it is descriptive of a particular society, and the principles it lays down. Where the prevailing moral pressure is felt as a constant ugliness, a mere obstruction to desire, it should be the function of art to give a strong enough alternative perspective. It may seem that our art fails to do that.

In identifying morality of the weak as what is wrong with modern society Nietzsche is speaking of a demoralising principle that purports to express the way things are. There is nothing unique to our age about the prevalence of such forces. Christianity throughout history has helped to provide a vehicle for it. The solution has usually been the creation of a coexisting alternative space, which is the realm of art. Partly the liberation that is effected just by the establishment of the artistic perspective gives rise to a form of playfulness, with relaxation from the pressure of will.

He writes:-

‘in what then does the superiority of culture over want of culture consist- of the renaissance for instance over the middle ages? In this alone: the greater quantity of acknowledged Immorality’ (Nietzsche, Will to Power P II p203)

It might seem he is preaching a straightforward doctrine of salvation through sin. What does this immorality amount to? Is it essentially a matter of taboo breaking? How many taboos do I need to break? Do I need to become a parricide and a matricide, to slaughter my children my women and my pets?

Pope Alexander IV seems a very kindly man in comparison with Stalin. But presumably Stalin’s was unacknowledged immorality. On the other hand, one would expect the police thug to be quite happy to acknowledge his own immorality to the man he beats up. One can see there a simple justification for some Nazi behaviour.

I think we know what Nietzsche means but his words are open to misunderstanding. His concern is primarily with art and aesthetics. We could apply it to Italian painting. He is stating a problem, not offering a full solution, let alone a political solution.

Our society generates ideas and cultural forms based upon what Nietzsche identifies as a decadent moral principle. To the extent to which you yield to the pressure to accept these ideas and participate in these forms, you are living in a way which opposes your own beliefs, your own will and strength. This threatens not only art but with it our capacity to find solutions to whatever moral dilemmas and problems face us. It is something which negates the value of your own opinions. You may experience modern culture as a massive pressure to accept mediocrity and to submerge even your own opinion as to how things might be better. That your will should be frustrated is hardly something you can complain about. That you should be confused and depressed by ideas is something you have it in you to put right by developing and entertaining counter ideas. That is the great cultural task.

The assertiveness of the excluded is surely one of the great movements of the past two hundred years. To a more belligerent Marxist than Macintyre the eighteenth century wisdom in which virtue and happiness coincided was merely bourgeois. Full human liberation will come when the point of view of the excluded comes to prevail over all.

If you think this expectation is in some way justified, maybe you think slave morality is a good thing. There may be arguments to show that what we are discussing is not slave morality, that virtue and desire still coincide. After desires have been ranked in proper order, it might be said, or after Marxist philosophy has been understood, it will be seen that desire and happiness still coincide as they did for the Greeks and the eighteenth century British moralists. The bourgeoisie will die out as a class, and egalitarian values will satisfy all. Then nothing I have said here will have any meaning.

John S Moore 2010

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