Sunday, April 11, 2010

Potential Challenges for Nietzsche

In the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche reveals that questions about the origins of good and evil have haunted him since childhood. Extending this early curiosity, he begins to raise doubts about some of our most basic moral assumptions. In particular, he questions a supposition than I’m sure most of us share—that the good man, the moral man, is of greater value than the evil man (20). He considers the possibility that such suppositions have been nothing more than ill founded, yet contagious, ideas that have polluted human thought for centuries.

In the preface, he doesn’t go much further than simple consideration. However, presumably he wants to say, “yes, this is all that morality is.” I’m guessing that by the book’s end, his conclusion will be a more developed version of this extremely bleak picture. However, in ultimately making this claim (and again I am only predicting that he will), it seems that there are several other controversial claims that are going to have to be made.

First of all, he is going to have to argue that there is nothing better about the good, in itself, than the bad, in itself. In other words, he’ll have to convince his readers that goodness has no inherent value, because if it does then the assumption he is questioning is obviously correct. The good man is more useful than the bad one, because goodness is simply better than badness.

In addition to this challenge, he’s going to have to prove that our species has no biological ties to the good. He’s going to have to show that there is nothing inherent in us, humans, that makes us feel a certain way about the things we categorize as good. If there is—for instance, if the fuzzy feeling we get from helping someone in need is a result of nature rather than a product of nurture—then his inquiry is doomed. For if this is the case then, regardless of any brilliant argument, we are going to remain unchanged, because we’ll have no choice. It’s simply the way we are. If he’s unable to hurdle this obstacle, then his argument is about as meaningful and effective as one that tells us why we shouldn’t be hungry.

I don’t know much about biology, but it seems that something along the lines of this second challenge—that we might have a natural affinity for helping others—could be tested. Would that not potentially shut the door on Nietzsche? Any biology people out there that can shed some light?


  1. Two things, I guess: first, Nietzsche's consideration of the etymology of "good" and "bad," which takes place in the first few pages of the first section, really does a lot to form a foundation for his argument. Once we understand that words like "good" or "pure" had their beginnings as descriptions of social circumstance rather than moral judgements, Nietzsche's argument that morality isn't grounded in any a priori or foundational facticity makes a lot of sense.

    Second, there's a book by the evolutionary psychologist Frans DeWaal called Primates and Philosophers in which he attempts to establish a biological grounding for empathy (we read it in senior sem last semester; I'm not sure whether Pat is having y'all read it this semester). Though I don't really buy DeWaal's argument, it's definitely a movement toward "shutting the door" on perspectivist arguments like Nietzsche's (and mine, for that matter).

  2. In general you raise a good concern. Obviously Nietzche is going to make a bold claim that our conception of morality is flawed and that what we consider inherently good isnt "inherently good" at all. This is in no doubt posses a big problema (ok, not that funny) to our notion of morality. But what's important to note about Nietzche's critique to morality is how he originates his claim against our conception of morality. This I find acceptable. For one, Nietzche is going to identify that our misconception of "good" is wrongly derived in the "upper class" notion of nobility. In other words, Nietzche argues that because the term "good" is a socially constructed, it should be treated as such; a socially constructed word. Thus, I find that he does raise a good point, despite his rude nature.

  3. I like your consideration and points. A biological explanation empathy or some sort of good alters Nietzsche's claim. It would not in my mind, however, establish an a priori morality. Nature is incredibly interesting and indeed useful to study in many cases. Many of man's greatest achievements, however, seem to fly in the face of nature. While this is not Nietzche's point, might not overcoming our morality of good and evil be a similar accomplishment?


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