Nietzsche on Morality

Though many of the entries I’ve posted on this blog have been elucidations of a general theory of moral realism, I have admitted that looming skepticism does make moral nihilism plausible. In fact, for some time I accepted something close to an error theory, with the minimal metaphysical and epistemological commitments of contractualism, though I based this stance on general philosophical assumptions, and not from consideration of the work on moral realism. Since immersing myself in the realist literature I have come to be convinced that either an intuitionist non-naturalism is true, or an error theory is true. Having read a good deal of writing on realism, I have decided to start another phase of reading on moral skepticism, and entries on the material I have been reading are soon to follow (though I am still finishing an entry on Wedgwood’s fantastic realist treatise, which will come first). As a sort of segue way into what will be a period of entries on skepticism, today I’m going to share some thoughts on Nietzsche’s take on the origins of morality. I will note that I think his methodology is completely misguided, and invalidate his conclusions entirely. Still, his anthropological theory is interesting, so long as one recognizes that it is not a work of metaethics but anthropology.

Of the most provocative of Nietzsche’s theories is that many social functions were undertaken without a conception of morality, such that it was only after the creation of the Christian God that guilt came into the world. Nietzsche supports this claim by looking to the amoral interactions between the creditor and debtor that led to the formation of the conscience and the amoral reasons for the pain caused by a bad conscience. He postulates that with the creation of God man became the debtor and God the creditor in such a way that made more excruciating the pain caused by a bad conscience, and this for Nietzsche is the guilty conscience. This paper will explicate Nietzsche’s thinking on the historical development of the creditor-debtor relation as culminating in such a relation with God and as that which makes a bad conscience a guilty conscience. It will then be briefly concluded that while his theory is convincing one of the conclusions he draws is problematic.

Nietzsche begins his investigation into the origins of morals by considering an unlikely subject, man’s propensity to forget. He posits that in order to experience emotions in the present moment man must be constantly forgetting his past (On the Genealogy of Morals [hereafter GoM], essay 2, section 1). Yet such a natural function of the mind conflicts with the act of promise making. Nietzsche comments that here is the beginning of the conscience, which he understands as responsibility as made possible by memory (GoM, essay 2, section 2). A conscience is instilled in man by his memory to do something, which in turn creates the responsibility to do that thing, such that for Nietzsche, responsibility depends on our ability to remember. Given that man has a natural propensity to forget Nietzsche posits that what grants man the ability to remember is pain.

The next piece of the puzzle for Nietzsche is that, “the major moral concept Schuld [guilt] has its origin in the very material concept Schulden [debts]” (GoM, essay 2, section 4). That moral responsibility has its roots in fiscal responsibility and that responsibility depends on pain leads Nietzsche to consider how pain as punishment could lead to the development of fiscal responsibility. Nietzsche rejects that man has always been punished to be reformed for an alternative theory that debtors that broke their promise were punished so that the creditor could be compensated in the enjoyment of his power to cause the debtor pain (GoM, essay 2, section 5). As such, Nietzsche holds that punishment was originally not for the reform of the debtor but for the compensation of the creditor. Men remembered the horrific pain inflicted upon them such that they remembered to keep their promises, but the real purpose of the punishment was to compensate the creditor. Thus, a conscience is that faculty in man that enables him to remember to repay debts and keep promises. This faculty was developed in the amoral relationship between creditor and debtor, such that it is the power of the creditor to inflict pain that leads to the development of a conscience in debtors. Therefore, an external implementation of power as pain in market transactions caused the development of responsibility, with moral responsibility to develop later.

In his search for the origin of guilt and the guilty conscience Nietzsche finds that a bad conscience developed from the conscience involved in making and keeping promises. While a conscience was developed in order for men to succeed in their limited market interactions, Nietzsche holds that a bad conscience sprung in the individual when they were cemented, “within the walls of society and peace” (GoM, essay 2, section 16). The animal instinct to do what is necessary to flourish and survive is greatly stressed by the limitations on freedom created by the state.

It is important to note that while in this state man is limited in acting on his instinct to flourish the ‘slave revolt in morality’ has not yet occurred. In the state that Nietzsche is describing it is still the rule of the master morality, which is to say that it is ruled by master nobles who act in violent and bold ways so as to flourish by doing what is good for them, such that they affirm their actions as good. As it is their brave acts that make them good, the simple and common acts of the slaves and peasants make those persons bad. The slave revolt in morality is when the base persons react from ressentiment (resentment) against the masters and decry their values as evil, such that in contraposition it is they, the slaves and peasants, that are good (GoM, essay 1, section 10).

Thus, after the formation of the state it is only the aristocrats and nobles who are able to act on their instinct to flourish, while all others in the lower classes are forced to follow the laws given to them by the masters, making them base and lowly. It is in these conditions that the bad conscience emerges. As the base people cannot fulfill their instincts in society to do what is necessary to live and flourish, those instincts must be manifested by being directed internally. Nietzsche explains, “Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction – all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the bad conscience” (GoM, essay 2, section 16). For Nietzsche man has an instinct to do what is necessary to flourish and when he is not able to fulfill these instincts in society he directs them internally to the effect that he sates his instinct for hostility by being hostile to himself. A bad conscience emerges because man feels the pull of his animal instincts and yet cannot act on them externally such that he implements them internally. Thus, man does not have a bad conscience when he has done moral wrongs, but rather when he cannot act on his animal instincts, such that a bad conscience is not tied to morality. Therefore, a bad conscience is the amoral implementation of an internal power to cause internal pain not because of moral guilt, but merely for man to fulfill his animal instincts.

It is his purpose to find the origin of the negative moral feeling of guilt, but as his search into bad conscience reveals amorality, Nietzsche looks elsewhere for the origin of moral feeling. This leads Nietzsche to consider tribal communities and the observation that the then living generation was indebted to their ancestors for the sacrifices they made for the current generation’s existence. For this reason Nietzsche posits that the current generation was the debtor to their creditor ancestors such that they sacrificed much to honor those ancestors. He draws attention to human sacrifices as compensating the ancestors with the pleasure from having the power to cause pain to their descendents, which is consistent with his postulation that the creditor-debtor relationship is grounded in compensation by power (GoM, essay 2, section 19).

Nietzsche thinks that these violent actions for the ancestors evince fear of the ancestors in the current descendents. The descendents made sacrifices to their ancestors because they feared that their ancestors would not protect them in their battles with other tribes. Yet as the tribe grew stronger by the aid of the ancestors the current generation’s reliance and fear of the ancestors grew stronger as well. As the fear of and reliance on the ancestors grew so did the power of the ancestors in the minds of the current generation, to the effect that these ancestors were seen as gods in their divine power. In correlation with the increase in power of the tribe growing to be a state, the gods increased in power until the culmination of divinity in the most powerful god, the Christian God (GoM, essay 2, section 20).

As the power of the Christian God is infinite man’s debt to God is likewise infinite, such that man is a debtor who cannot repay his creditor, God. Nietzsche thinks that infinite debt to God was necessary for the development of morals because it was the thought of God’s selfless act of forgiving man for his debt that justified the values of the bad conscience, such that the bad conscience and God combined to create the guilty conscience. Nietzsche articulates the Christian ideal of God’s selfless sacrifice as being consistent with the values of the bad conscience when he remarks, “God himself sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind, God himself makes payment to himself, God as the only being who can redeem man from what has become unredeemable for man himself – the creditor sacrifices himself for his debtor” (GoM, essay 2, section 21). For Nietzsche the allure of Christianity and the beginning of morality comes from the thought that the infinitely powerful God used his power to perform the selfless act of forgiving man. A selfless act goes against the animalistic instincts of man to the effect that the values of the maximally powerful – and therefore to be feared – God are those that are not animalistic. Thus, as God has spared man of his infinite debt in a selfless act inconsistent with the animal instincts of man, man feels guilt when he acts or desires to act on his animal instincts because of the example set by God in forgiving man of his debt.

Nietzsche posits that the guilty conscience is the convergence of the bad conscience and the concept of God. His thinking is that the concept of God allows man to multiply the pain he can cause himself by feeling guilty and evil for his animal instincts rather that merely just feel bad with a bad conscience. This point is described most provocatively when Nietzsche propounds, “this man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him” (GoM, essay 2, section 22). Thus, the origin of guilt and thereby morality is from the use of the external power of the Christian God to make more powerful the animal instincts fulfilled internally in man.

Recalling all that has been said, Nietzsche first argues that the conscience of the debtor was developed for the amoral reason that if he did not keep his promises he would owe the creditor compensation, such that he desired to keep his promises for financial and not moral reasons. As such, the conscience developed because of the power of the creditor to be compensated for the debt of the debtor. Nietzsche continues with the fact that as states developed some men were prohibited from acting on their animal instincts because of their low rank in society. He posits that when these lowly persons were pained by a bad conscience due to their desires to be hostile towards others it was not from immorality but rather because their hostile instincts were turned on themselves in order for them to be fulfilled. In this way Nietzsche posits that a bad conscience develops because of the power of man to meet his animal instincts by turning inwards, such that the pain caused from his animal instincts and therefore the feeling from a bad conscience itself is amoral.

It is from here that Nietzsche uncovers the origin of the guilty conscience as being something of a combination of conscience and bad conscience under the guise of God. The guilty conscience emerges because of man’s relation to God as that of debtor to creditor, such that man is indebted to God in such a way that God as creditor should be compensated by man as debtor. Yet in a self sacrificing act God relinquishes his claim to compensation, which makes man ashamed of his animal instincts that would not allow such a selfless action, bestowing in man a bad conscience that is all the more painful because of the guilt that the infinitely powerful God acts in ways he does not, creating in man a guilty conscience. Nietzsche has therefore forcefully argued for the historical development of the amoral creditor-debtor relation between men, to a morality creating creditor-debtor relation between God and man.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on June 30, 2014 - 7:11 pm

    Thanks for describing Nietzsche’s views on morality. Very interesting.

    His views seem to have two broad assumptions. First, that morality as we understand it began with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Second is that we are born blank slates with our conscience completely formed by cultural forces and rational formulations. Given the knowledge of his day, I can see how he came to those conclusions, but it definitely seems like our current understanding of history and science hasn’t gone in his direction.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on July 1, 2014 - 12:37 pm

      My pleasure, thanks for the comments, the blank-slate theory you point to in Nietzsche’s work seems to definitely be implicit there, so thanks for the observation. It does certainly seem that his hypotheses are not vindicated by current theory. It’s interesting to me that you note that the evidence does not support his theory, because it implies that you agree with his methodology. I certainly don’t agree with his methodology, but from what I know of your general philosophical views, it wouldn’t surprise me if you did agree with his methodology, as it certainly does aim to be naturalistic in looking to empirical evidence of cultural development, and attributing the origins of morality to our more basic desires.

      • #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on July 1, 2014 - 1:39 pm

        I’m not sure if it would be accurate to say I agree with his methodology. Certainly, when looking for a descriptive understanding of morality, I think looking at how things are in nature is instructive. But I don’t accept that we should necessarily base our normative conclusions from that.

        For example, humans seem to have an innate xenophobic instinct. An instinct which probably provided survival benefits 10,000 years ago. But I wouldn’t accept that that means we should regard xenophobia as a virtue today.

        I don’t think Nietzsche’s views of human nature are correct, but even if they were correct, I wouldn’t agree with his normative conclusions. I guess I think Nietzsche was wrong all around.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on July 1, 2014 - 2:39 pm

        Fair point, that does seem consistent with what you have said in some of your recent entries, my mistake.

        Sounds like we agree on disagreeing with Nietzsche. Cheers!

      • #5 by SelfAwarePatterns on July 1, 2014 - 3:06 pm

        No mistake on your part. I can definitely see how you would have concluded it.

  2. #6 by jmeqvist on July 2, 2014 - 11:19 pm

    This post does a good job of explaining Nietzsche’s thoughts on morality.

    Besides disagreeing with Nietzsche’s meta ethical perspective, I am also troubled by the simplistic reductionism of his anthropology. In essence, even if one accepts that morality (slave morality) is an arbitrary historical construction, morality is far more complex, than the image that is given by Nietzsche of slave morality, and the guilty conscience. I wonder if Nietzsche’s own faith, in his earlier life, may have provided him with a very peculiar, and simplistic image of the moral that is fundamentally tied to a notion of original sin, and the guilt that goes along with it. The question then becomes what argument does Nietzsche have for those of who do not experience the moral in his terms?

    In a way Nietzsche is a lot like Rousseau. Both thinkers are extremely important, but they both tend to wish reduce all phenomena to an extremely basic set of principles, at the expense of genuinely giving an account of these phenomena.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on July 7, 2014 - 7:41 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, and I’ll note that I am completely in agreement with you in regards to the simplicity of his anthropological approach. While some words certainly have Germanic origins it seems incredible beyond belief that complex psychological phenomena can be explained by the similarity between two Germanic words. In no way is that a useful premise in an argument for reducing morality to psychological phenomena — it could be a coincidence that the world for guilt and debt are similar without it following that guilt was a development of debt. I think you are right that Nietzsche is one of those philosophers who cannot be considered apart from their biography.

      That’s interesting that you draw a connection between Nietzsche and Rousseau. Both also strike me as pessimistic about human nature, if not them, then at least to the rest of us.

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