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On Nietzsche’s MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE / DAYBREAK / DAYBREAK: THOUGHTS ON THE PREJUDICES OF MORALITY / DAWN OF THE DAY / THE DAWN / Friedrich Nietzsche DAYBREAK
by Joseph Suglia
“I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity.”
—Joseph Conrad, Victory: An Island Tale
M = Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; second edition: 1887). The numbers refer to the numbers of the paragraphs that are cited.
D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Cambridge University Press, 1997. The numbers refer to the pages of the text.
Those who read Nietzsche in English translation have been lied to, deceived, seduced, hoodwinked by dishonest translators and commentators. My intention here will be twofold. First, to correct some of the horrifying misinterpretations in the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; 1887), entitled Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (first published in 1997). I will hose off the slime with which Nietzsche’s great book has been slathered and amplify what Nietzsche actually writes. This will not have been, then, an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Daybreak but an attempt to illuminate and magnify his writing so that it becomes more legible.
* * * * *
Daybreak is Nietzsche’s inaugural attack on morality. The argument is not that human beings should be immoral but that they should be moral for different reasons than have been traditionally presented. His attack on morality is based on the critique of voluntarism (the theory of the free will) and the critique of altruism that was launched in Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1880). The goal of Daybreak, as Nietzsche writes in the Preface to the 1887 edition, is to “undermine trust in morality” (Vetrauen zur Moral zu untergraben). Nietzsche does take pains to acknowledge that his own stance is self-contradictory, inasmuch as his critique of morality is itself “moral,” in a sense, coming, as it does, from an uncritical trust in rationality. The fact that Nietzsche cites Hegel approvingly in this regard shows us that Nietzsche exists in closer proximity to Hegel than is customarily acknowledged. Nietzsche uses the figure of the scorpion to describe this movement of turning-morality-against-itself ([der kritische Wille] gleich dem Skorpione, den Stachel in den eigenen Leib sticht [M Preface]), though I think a more felicitous figure would be that of the amphisbaena, a serpentine creature in Greek mythology that has two heads, one of which dangles at the tip of its tail and which can sometimes be seen biting the other head. Why? Free spirits are forever shedding their opinions, much in the way that the snake sloughs off its skin. All of Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally self-contradictory.
Morality is based on two false presuppositions: that human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them, and that human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
The first false presupposition of morality: Human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them.
We are not in control of what we think or what we feel. We are not in control of our minds because we are part of our minds. Our minds are more powerful than we are. Every conscious thought issues from the unconscious mind: “All of our so-called consciousness,” Nietzsche writes, is “a more or less fantastical commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, yet felt text” (all unser sogenanntes Bewusstsein [ist] ein mehr oder weniger phantastischer Commentar über einen ungewussten, vielleicht unwissbaren, aber gefühlten Text) [M 119]. And all unconscious data is formed by our history, by our environment, by tradition, by mood, by our physiology, by our heredity (though Nietzsche did not live to see the discovery of genetics), not by some nonexistent “free will.” There can be no moral thinking or immoral thinking insofar as we are unconsciously compelled to think whatever we consciously think and are therefore not responsible for our thoughts. Morality implies responsibility—and if we are not responsible for what we think, consciously or unconsciously, how could we be held responsible for the alleged “morality” or the alleged “immorality” of our thoughts?
Consider the hypnagogic state—what the Italians call dormiveglia, that twilight between alertness and slumber. You are neither awake nor asleep. Your thoughts rush and gush. How could one be responsible for the rushing and gushing of thoughts when the mind is in this semi-conscious state? And if one is not responsible for such thoughts, for which thoughts is one responsible, and why?
If there is no freedom of thought (and there is none), there are no free actions, either. No actions are good or evil—for surely, goodness is voluntary goodness and evilness is voluntary evilness. People are neither voluntarily good nor voluntarily evil, which means that they are neither good nor evil. As a result, we should perhaps stop pouring people into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL and develop richer and more complex ways of evaluating human behavior.
If people are constrained to perform good deeds, then praise is never earned. The Australian taxi driver who returns $500,000 to the Japanese businessman who left the money in his cab does not deserve to be heroized. If people are constrained to perform bad deeds, then neither is punishment ever deserved. Criminals should be pathologized, for criminality is a pathology [M 202], not the result of sinfulness [M 208]. And why should anyone feel guilt or regret for something that one did? It makes as little sense to feel guilt or regret for something that you did not choose to do as it does for someone else to blame you or to praise you for what you did not choose to do.
The second false presupposition: Human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
Why does anyone behave morally to begin with? People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition. Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.
(Parenthetical remarks: All morality is arbitrary: Every age has a different sense of what is “good” or “evil,” what is blameworthy or praiseworthy [M 2]. The ancient Jews believed that wrath was a virtue (as evidenced by the Hebraic Bible); the ancient Greeks believed in the virtuousness of envy (as evidenced by Hellenic mythology) and of revenge (as evidenced by the Oresteia). Dissembling once counted as a virtue (as evidenced by Homer). The ancient Greeks despised pity (as evidenced by Aristotle) and hope (as evidenced by Hesiod) and praised shame (as evidenced by Plato). Our culture, by contrast, despises shame (consider the all-pervasive campaigns against shaming in our culture of timidity) and extols pity and hope (as evidenced by the 2008 presidential campaign) as virtues.)
Every human being is self-directed (though, as I have stated elsewhere, Nietzsche did not believe in a hypostatized or substantialized human self). Everything that you do, you do for your own benefit or pleasure, even if that pleasure is a dark pleasure or a negative pleasure or the pleasure that comes from denying oneself a pleasure. Compassion is selfish because life is selfish.
Despite what the editors of the Cambridge University Press translation write about him, Nietzsche never claims that there is such a thing as a “moral motive” or a “morally motivated action” (xxv).
The introduction to the Cambridge Daybreak is nameless. Who typed this text? It is impossible to say with conviction, though it was likely put together by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, the editors of the volume. If I had written such an atrocity, I would not have put my name on it, either.
The agenda of Clark and Leiter (I will assume that they are the writers of the introduction) is to turn Nietzsche into someone who believes that the human animal is a self-sacrificing animal that can be dedicated absolutely to “the Other.” As I will argue, Nietzsche is not suggesting that there are other-centered impulses, and he is hardly repudiating the necessary existence of egoistic instincts.
The passage that the editors make hash browns out of is Paragraph 103 (“Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit”; “There Are Two Kinds of People who Deny Morality”). The passage is worth citing in its entirety in German:
Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit.—“Die Sittlichkeit leugnen”—das kann einmal heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Motive, welche die Menschen angeben, wirklich sie zu ihren Handlungen getrieben haben,—es ist also die Behauptung, dass die Sittlichkeit in Worten bestehe und zur groben und feinen Betrügerei (namentlich Selbstbetrügerei) der Menschen gehöre, und vielleicht gerade bei den durch Tugend Berühmtesten am meisten. Sodann kann es heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Urtheile auf Wahrheiten beruhen. Hier wird zugegeben, dass sie Motive des Handelns wirklich sind, dass aber auf diese Weise Irrthümer, als Grund alles sittlichen Urtheilens, die Menschen zu ihren moralischen Handlungen treiben. Diess ist mein Gesichtspunct: doch möchte ich am wenigsten verkennen, dass in sehr vielen Fällen ein feines Misstrauen nach Art des ersten Gesichtspunctes, also im Geiste des La Rochefoucauld, auch im Rechte und jedenfalls vom höchsten allgemeinen Nutzen ist.—Ich leugne also die Sittlichkeit wie ich die Alchymie leugne, das heisst, ich leugne ihre Voraussetzungen: nicht aber, dass es Alchymisten gegeben hat, welche an diese Voraussetzungen glaubten und auf sie hin handelten.—Ich leugne auch die Unsittlichkeit: nicht, dass zahllose Menschen sich unsittlich fühlen, sondern dass es einen Grund in der Wahrheit giebt, sich so zu fühlen. Ich leugne nicht, wie sich von selber versteht—vorausgesetzt, dass ich kein Narr bin—, dass viele Handlungen, welche unsittlich heissen, zu vermeiden und zu bekämpfen sind; ebenfalls, dass viele, die sittlich heissen, zu thun und zu fördern sind, — aber ich meine: das Eine wie das Andere aus anderen Gründen, als bisher. Wir haben umzulernen, —um endlich, vielleicht sehr spät, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.
There are those, Nietzsche tells us, who deny that anyone is capable of a moral motive. This first kind of philosopher (Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) is opposed to those Pharisees whose morality lies in their words, not in their hands: the sanctimonious, the sophists, the takers, the verbalizers, the hypocrites. The second denier of morality denies that morality is based on objectively true presuppositions. This second category of philosopher understands that all morality is misbegotten. Nietzsche belongs to the second camp.
The editors are fond of the following sentence (rendered into English): “Here it will be conceded that the motives of action are real, but that it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, drive them to their moral actions.” The editors assume that this sentence implies that Nietzsche believed that people can have good, moral intentions: In this passage, they write, Nietzsche “admits the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi). They think that Nietzsche is the precursor of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, that he is someone who has the greatest piety for the Thou or for the Other. When he wrote Human, All-Too-Human, then, Nietzsche was a sinner who thought that people were self-interested. Now, he undergoes an epiphany as he travels on the road to Damascus: “In Daybreak, by contrast, we can begin to see the shift in Nietzsche’s strategy: he explicitly raises the question about the value of unegoistic actions, at the same time that he begins to move away from the psychological egoism of Human All Too Human” [xxiv-xxv].
According to this (mis)interpretation, the Nietzsche of Daybreak has rejected Human, All-Too-Human, with its reduction of all altruism to human selfishness, in favor of an interpretation of morality that allows for moral impulsion. The editors call attention to “Daybreak’s [alleged] repudiation of the thoroughgoing psychological egoism of Human, All Too Human” [xxv]. In Daybreak, Nietzsche has seen the Light of Day: “The passage [cited above] thus functions to separate Nietzsche’s new position from his earlier one: he no longer denies the existence of morally motivated actions, but claims instead that these actions, when they occur, are based on erroneous presuppositions” (xxv).
This is nonsense. Even worse, it goes against the thrust and tenor of Nietzschean thought. It violates the grain of the text. Nietzsche wants us to undeceive ourselves of the false assumption of “moral motives.” He wants us to think in luculent manner. He wants a world that is unalloyed by the false presupposition that moral intentions are possible.
The correct interpretation of the passage cited above is as follows: Human beings might believe that they have moral impulses that entrain them to perform moral actions, but nowhere in Daybreak does Nietzsche write that their moral motives are anything other than modes of self-deception.
Nietzsche writes (to translate): “I also deny morality: [I do not deny] that innumerable human beings feel themselves to be immoral, but [I do deny] that there is any ground in truth for them to feel this way.”
The most important word in this regard is fühlen (“to feel”). Human beings feel themselves to be immoral or moral, but this does not mean that they are immoral or moral. To turn to the alchemy metaphor: There are those who identify themselves as alchemists, but this does not mean that alchemy is anything other than a quack pseudo-science or that alchemists are anything other than quackpots. Many human beings feel that they are performing moral actions, but do I really need to write that the feeling that one is performing a moral action is not the same thing as a genuinely moral intention? Human beings might feel that they are self-responsible moral agents who are morally impelled to perform moral actions, but they are being self-deceptive in having such feelings. They might explain to themselves that they are moral beings, but this does not mean that they are moral! The unconscious impulse behind their “moral intentions” is always, for Nietzsche, selfishness.
The writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do not separate consciousness from the unconscious mind, even though Nietzsche consistently does precisely this, especially in the passage in which he affirms the “non-knowledge of the self” (Das, was den Menchen so schwer zu begreifen fällt, ist ihre Unwissenheit über sich selbst) [M 116]. The idea of “moral intentions” becomes questionable when we consider the unreadability of the self to itself. Sadly, the editors seem to have forgotten the sentence of Nietzsche in which he declares that moral actions are never what they appear to be to the subject who performs them: Die Handlungen sind niemals Das, als was sie uns erscheinen! [Ibid.]. We are not what we appear to be to ourselves, never mind how we appear to other human beings. “We are strangers to ourselves”: This is the premise of Toward the Genealogy of Morals. The core of the human animal is unknown and unknowable to that same animal. What distinguishes us from all of the other animals is that our essence is unknown and unknowable to us—this insight made Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis possible. If one does not understand these points, one does not understand Nietzsche.
The other person is unknowable to us, moreover, except insofar as he or she leaves an impression on us: Wir begreifen Nichts von [dem Nächsten], als die Veränderungen an uns, deren Ursache er ist [M 118]. Other people will attempt to leave imprints upon you, as if you were a ball of wax—and yet you will know nothing of them other than the psychic impressions that they leave upon you. We can neither say that the other human being is “good” or “evil” in himself or in herself. “Good” and “evil” are names, labels, deictic markers that we attach to the other human being. A person is nominated as “good” inasmuch as s/he pleases us; a person is nominated as “evil” inasmuch as s/he displeases us. And yet this person is neither good nor evil in him- or herself. In this fashion, Nietzsche moves away from Stirner, who some think of as Nietzsche’s predecessor. The Stirnerian moral-ego system is one in which what pleases me is right and what displeases me is wrong. We know from Iva Overbeck that Nietzsche read Stirner (cf. Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114): Here he is moving beyond the naivety of Stirner and not defining “good” as that which is good to me, nor is he defining “evil” as that which is evil to me. Both “good” and “evil” are mystifications, abstractions, and misinterpretations of the human mind.
Clark and Leiter do not seem to be conscious of Paragraph 148, wherein Nietzsche asserts that there are no moral actions, if morality means “other-centeredness.” The moral intentions behind such actions would be other-centered, as well. We never do anything purely for the other person or without self-interest, and our will is constrained by mood, by the unconscious, by degrees of sickness, by degrees of health and the feeling of well-being, by our memory of the past, by hunger, and/or by the need to urinate.
In an unpublished fragment from the summer of 1880—which, as far as I know, has never before been rendered into English—Nietzsche writes:
“Will to urinate,” that means: There is, first of all, a pressure and a compulsion; secondly, a medium through which to release oneself; thirdly, a habit to be exercised, after it has been given from the intellect to the hand. In itself, the pressure or compulsion has nothing to do with the alleviation of the bladder: It does not say, “I want.” It says, rather, “I suffer” [translation mine].
Let me make a simple remark that every child could understand: Although one might choose when to urinate, no one chooses whether to urinate. And the discomfiting and discomforting need to urinate can shape one’s decision-making process, perturb one’s attention, and determine one’s words and actions. The insistent and persistent existence of the need to urinate in itself invalidates the hypothesis of the free will, for who has absolute power over urination? One has no more control over one’s thoughts as one has control over whether or not one has the need to urinate. If the need to urinate were subject to some “free will,” wouldn’t most people have willed away or scheduled their micturition sessions?
Furthermore: If he admits “the existence of moral motivation” [xxvi] in Daybreak, why are all of Nietzsche’s examples of moral actions examples of egoic, self-interested behavior, of extreme vaingloriousness, of vanity? There is the nun who flaunts her chastity in order to punish fleshlier women with the image of her stern and proud virginity, her freedom from the desire for a man’s touch, her austere holiness: Die Keuschheit der Nonne: mit welchen strafenden Augen sieht sie in das Gesicht anderslebender Frauen! wie viel Lust der Rache ist in diesen Augen! [M 30]. There is the artist who declares his greatness and champions his excellence in order to excite envy in his contemporaries: Dort steht ein grosser Künstler: die vorempfundene Wollust am Neide bezwungener Nebenbuhler hat seine Kraft nicht schlafen lassen, bis dass er gross geworden ist, —wie viele bittere Augenblicke anderer Seelen hat er sich für das Grosswerden zahlen lassen! [Ibid.]. If I may submit an example that Nietzsche does not give: The man who gives money to a beggar does so not out the desire to help the beggar, but out of the desire to feel superior to the beggar and out of the desire to advertise his superiority over the beggar—though, as Nietzsche points out in this very book, he will become irritated afterward for having done so, as he would have been irritated for not having done so. In each case, the striving for distinction (Streben nach Auszeichnung) [M 113] is at the same time the striving to dominate another person—it is not an isolating experience, though it ends in a self-relation. The moralist attempts to annihilate the other human being by the assertion one’s superiority and then attempts to recuperate oneself through this annihilation. One injures the other in order to injure oneself—and then triumphs over both pity for the person one injured and over self-pity in order to exuberate and luxuriate in the feeling of one’s own power. Such is the magnetic glory of the martyr.
Not only is absolute other-directed agape love for the other human being impossible; it would not even desirable if it were to be universalized [M 143]: It would create a nightmare world in which everyone fervently loved everyone else, a frenzy of mass-love that would inexorably lead the beloved to languish for lovelessness [M 147].
(Parenthetical remarks: What good is a virtue if it cannot be displayed? Why be virtuous at all if one cannot delight in dramatizing virtues in front of an audience for the sake of their approbation? Today, people call this (too often, for my taste) “virtue signaling”: Was nützte eine Tugend, die man nicht zeigen konnte oder die sich nicht zeigen verstand! [M 29]. And yet there is a darker side to the performance of one’s moral uprightness. Morality is cruelty. It is an attempt to inflict misery and the perception of one’s own superiority on another: Man will machen, dass unser Anblick dem Anderen wehe thun und seinen Neid, das Gefühl der Ohnmacht und seines Herabsinkens wecke [M 30]. Moralistic language is the perfect license for a mean-spirited person to release his or her pent-up aggressions upon another—consider the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Antifa protesters for relatively recent and recent examples of this.)
The reflection on pity (Mitleid) is inarguably the center of Daybreak. If this is true (and it is), then how could one claim, as the writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do, that Nietzsche believes in selfless motives?
Pity is the affect of morality, not respect (Achtung), as it is for Kant. This allows Nietzsche to show the sadism and the lust for power that lies at the foundation of all morality. Pity implies a relation to transcendence—not the transcendence of God or of a supersensible morality but the surpassing power and dominance of the one who pities. It is always possible to withhold pity. If it is always possible to withhold pity, then we are exercising power over the piteous. If we want to feel our power, we can either withhold our pity or threaten to withhold our pity. One pities dogs, one pities cats, one pities university professors—creatures to which one feels oneself superior. If we see someone drowning and have the power to save his life, we might save him out of pity—but this is selfishness and a counterstrike against one’s own feeling of fragility and powerlessness [M 133]. Pity potentiates the one who feels pity.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity—Nietzsche almost writes this. An enemy is an equal—one does not pity one’s enemies. If you want a rivalry to end, pity your enemy. This does not imply that pity equalizes or levels the distinction between the one who is piteous and the one who is pitiable but rather that it introduces an unsurpassable distance between the one who pities and the one who is pitied, between the one who has the power to dispense pity and the pitiable.
Nietzsche enjoins us to “Wake up!” (Wachen wir auf!) [M 464]. We should awaken from our intellectual benightedness into intellectual enlightenment—Daybreak is a text that belongs to the European Aufklärung. We should move from the dreamfulness of morality, religion, and metaphysics to the wakefulness, to the awakeness, of rationality.
The title, Daybreak, alludes to the dawning of a world in which humanity will be undarkened by morality, religion, and metaphysics. Nietzsche enjoins us to disencumber ourselves of all of these things, to pierce the encrustation of moral, religious, and metaphysical prejudices. It will be a world in which no one believes in any beyond, in any otherworldly transcendence. Human life will become at long last meaningful when our successors recognize that there is no reason for them to judge one another or themselves, that they are fundamentally innocent. (There is no reason to judge what is involuntary. The free spirit believes in the innocence of all opinions, as s/he believes in the innocence of all actions [M 56].) It will be a world in which polyamory will replace monogamy, a world in which suicide will not be criminalized or moralistically condemned, a world in which criminals will be permitted to choose their own forms of containment [M 187], a world in which the criminal-justice system will be founded on the idea of deterrence and rehabilitation, not punishment, a world in which no one will be considered guilty of anything, a world in which no one will be considered responsible for anything that one does, a world in which it will be generally recognized that all human thought and action is necessary and beyond one’s conscious control. It will also be a place of regular gymnastic exercise, if we believe the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human. Much like the future that is evoked within the pages of the greatest of all Nietzschean novels, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, the future in which all of this would take place is heralded yet never directly shown. Its promise is described purely negatively. What will this world look like? Nietzsche never tells us. Nietzsche (and Lawrence) criticizes the conditions of the modern world and opens the doors to an extra-moral, extra-religious, and extra-metaphysical future without ever being explicit in his vaticinations.
To return to the second paragraph of this commentary: Nietzsche does not advise us to be immoral; rather, he advises us to be moral out of different reasons than out of deference to a convention or belief in the supernatural. We should become the self-legislators of morality—and if this means endorsing polyamory, suicide, and revenge, so be it. Let us no longer be camels (moral agents), to forecast the language of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Let us become lions (critics of morality), and thereafter we shall transform into children (inventors of a morality of irresponsibility and a morality of innocence). It is time, and high time indeed, to rethink, to accept, to refuse to condemn impulses that are unavoidably human (envy, covetousness, disobedience). Then, perhaps we would do what comes naturally without a bad conscience, as Nietzsche writes: Wenn der Mensch hört auf, sich für böse zu halten, hört er auf, böse zu sein [M 148]. He exhorts us to praise egoic actions and to devalue the so-called “selfless actions” until things balance out.
Nietzsche replaces good and evil with gradations of power. All is power. (This is a flaw in Nietzschean thought: If everything is power, then nothing is power. Nietzsche’s power-absolutism leads him to tautologous formulations.) Everything can be understood in terms of relativities of power (this is a point that Nietzsche will enlarge upon in the Nachlass): Every human being has the desire for dominance over all other human beings. And what better way of dominating another human being than by flaunting one’s moral superiority? Every human being has the desire to become God.
“Love always occurs beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche will write in Beyond Good and Evil: He means self-love, which eradicates Christian guilt. Remember that pride is the deadliest sin. Self-love exists outside of the categories of sin and redemption. Another way of saying this: The one who loves himself or herself has no need of Christianity.
One of Nietzsche’s Mistakes
Nietzsche appears to believe that credo quia absurdum est (“I believe it because it is absurd”) is the motto of the Catholic Church. And yet this statement was never made by Tertullian or by any of the Church Fathers. Tertullian writes, rather, credibile est, quia ineptum est (“It is credible because it is inept”). As always, when Nietzsche makes an error, it is a productive error.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile
Prospective suicides will not commit the act, if they think that no one will care.
Words are not solutions; they are problems.
If you want your rivalry with someone else to end, pity your rival.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity for the rival.
Steve Harvey and Dennis Prager believe in the existence of objective morality because they have the emotional need to believe this—as if their self-preservation were something essential.
Saving a drowning man presents one with an advantageable situation: It allows the rescuer to be worshipped as a hero.
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Thank you for this. I think Nietzsche’s purpose is not to clarify but to raise cogent questions to undermine smug self-righteousness … the downside being that people justify performing heinous acts.
If one defines mortality as a series of completely selfless acts, certainly it cannot exist. But people are capable of acts that help others at some cost to themselves … although these cannot be entirely selfless. There is some balance, i.e., if I do or don’t do this, I could not live with myself; I would not be the being I believe myself to be.
Confession: I have risked my life to save another who would surely have died, and I ran the above risk/reward assessment through my mind. I did not consider it to be a selfless moral act; I chose not to risk my moral identity.
“People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition. Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.” This is too simple. Selfless or not, some moral acts take a great deal of time and effort and cost. The easy, well-lit path is often the one that leads only to indulgence. There are identities that require self-less behavior to gratify themselves. Being gratified by helping others could be an alternative definition of morality.
In the duality of self identity, some see themselves as fallen angels … undermined by a reality out of their control that pulls them down. Some see themselves as risen beasts … undermined by a selfish (bestial) nature also out of their control. But being aware of this duality enables some conscious awareness.
I for one am dying to have an everyday, random, bland conversation about nothing with you. 🙂
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Thanks for this. There is plenty here to think about.
I have read the article with great interest. Although I’m a great admirer of Nietzsche and his arguments are extremely robust, I think modern science has provided some further information on the processes of the human brain which call into question some of his views on morality. Jonathan Haidt is probably the most prominent scientist that has recently attempted to delve into the subject of morality and I must confess I find it hard to reconcile his views with those of Nietzsche.
Haidt developed a theory about morality from both a neurological and an evolutionary perspective. He claims that in the course of evolution humans developed a series of biologically hardwired ‘moral intuitions’ which he groups into 5 modules:
– suffering: it is good to help rather than harm others.
– reciprocity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. generalizes as fairness.
-hierarchy: respect the elders and those in positions of authority
-purity: praise cleanliness, forbid contamination and carnal behaviour
Moreover, Haidt and other neuroscientists identified a particular area in the prefrontal cortex which inhibits personal interest and reduces the impact of egotistical desires when making moral decisions. They also identified many other moral circuits distributed all across the human brain, implicitly evaluating moral dillemmas, allowing us to empathise with others and have certain emotional reactions which inform our moral judgements.
Although these processes are unconscious, it is not apparent that the underlying motivation for every decision is egotistical. As Haidt points out, some brain modules specifically inhibit egotism and personal interest. Who’s to say that egotism derives from altruism or viceversa? Dawkins claims there are selfish genes (not individuals) which replicate at all costs, even the sacrifice of individuals for the good of the herd. Becoming cynical because everyone (even the religious saint) is just a selfish bastard in disguise, animated by some mystical will to power seems to me just as metaphysical as believing in true agape.
The fact that we are under the tyranny of our biological needs does not invalidate the idea of personal responsibility. Being responsible doesn’t mean we are able to do whatever we wish, cancel, schedule or reinvent our phisiological processes; it simply implies the ability to consciously evaluate all the contradictory desires and stimuli and put them in a coherent order of priorities based on our rational evaluations and our hierarchy of values. After conducting a series of experiments, Benjamin Libet, researcher in the physiology of human consciousness, concluded we might have something he called ‘free won’t’; that ‘we could consciously VETO nonconsciously initiated action of which we become aware’.
It also seems to me that the total denial of personal responsibility implies the denial of rationality. Nietzsche advocates for the awakeness of rationality and the ‘true’ morality of the free spirit. How is that possible if rationality and scientific knowledge are nothing but lies we tell to ourselves to feel like we’re in control? Rationality implies some personal responsability; one should not procrastinate but make an effort to question their ideas, falsify their hypotheses, abandon their groupthink and sheep morality and think hard in order to produce scientific knowledge rather than conspiracy theories.
My second argument is against the idea that traditional morality is totally flawed and that we should manufacture from scratch our own morality as free spirits.
As Haidt pointed out, we are evolved social beings and our moral intuitions (the 5 modules he discovered) are biologically hardwired. Natural or artificial selection didn’t do away with them, which means they are somewhat evolutionary robust and going against them could have consequences.
As a self-proclaimed free spirit I could decide that, instead of helping other humans, I should provoke them suffering. My hardwired moral intuitions would protest against such deeds; I would suddenly feel pity, empathy and simpathy for those poor beings; I would end up traumatised for torturing them. What if I decided to ignore the strong sense of reciprocity and fairness? My brain would protest hard and I would feel guilty. But as a free spirit I need to suppress my guilt, for I know that I’m not responsible for my actions and therefore it was inevitable to become an ubermensch and do all these apparent wrongdoings.
I could also actively try to undermine all hierarchies, betray my own family, kinship or ethnic group, ignore all moral intuitions related to purity, praising cleanliness and dignity and simply be a filthy perv – all these as a rational statement advocating a radical change of society.
We evolved to consider ourselves unified individuals responsible for our actions; it doesn’t matter whether this strong sense is a delusion, an illusion or a reflection of the real thing. We simply can’t help but unconsciously assume agency; unconsciously feeling guilty when we’ve violated our moral intuitions; unconsciously feeling moral outrage when we encounter antisocial and dangerous individuals. For pragmatic reasons I think that a society which builds its conventions upon these hardwired attitudes is safer than one which claims to be radically Rational and truly Moral. I can’t see any reason why in such a society the absolute authority who decides what is pathological and what not, what is trulyrational and what is slave morality wouldn’t simply ban reactionary philosophical systems based on notions such as voluntarism, individuality, guilt, shame, the desire for reward/punishment.
I picked up a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” based on Marcus Crassus reference to him. I am not familiar with Nietzsche. I probably did not pick up the main argument, but here are some thoughts about free will and altruism.
Some metaphors I find suspect. The metaphor that we are “hardwired” is one of them. I think we should stop using it entirely. First, although I’ve never looked inside anyone’s brain, I am pretty sure there are no wires there. Second, our brain seems to motivate us to act in particular ways through rewards of pleasure or punishments of pain. I am relying on what I remember from Larry Young and Brian Alexander’s “The Chemistry Between Us” to make that claim. If that’s true, giving someone a carrot or a stick to get the desired action implies that person has the ability to choose not to do what we want. We don’t give our computers carrots or sticks. We type a letter. That letter appears on the screen. There are wires in a computer. We need better metaphors that “hardwired” to describe what happens to us when we make a choice.
Regarding free will, I assume the claim that we do not have free will means the following: NO action we perform is the result of free will. The negation of that statement would be: THERE EXISTS at least one action that we perform that is the result of free will. I think it is more reasonable to assume that we do have this minimal free will. Indeed, anyone who claims we “should” do something or other given the assumed fact that we do not have free will, assumes we have the ability to make the choice to do what we “should” do. If one admits that “there is some control over when to urinate”, then we have that minimal free will. The fact that we can’t control everything is irrelevant. As I see it, it will be very difficult to show that we do not have this minimal free will. We will need to find those metaphorical wires in our heads and our hearts.
Regarding altruism, I think the basic problem here is the belief that we are individuals. What difference does it make if we benefit from the good we do to someone else? Why is this a concern? We are all members of the same species. We should be helping each other out and we should get pleasure out of doing so. The only difference I can see is if we believe that we are NOT members of a species, but are individuals who got here without having been born. Just like “hardwired”, I find reference to “individual” suspect.
Just some thoughts.
When Haidt says that a certain moral reaction is hardwired he doesn’t mean we are fully determined, to act in a certain way; he rather points to specific modules in the brain which generate moral judgements or inhibit certain behaviours or make us feel guilty. The activity of these modules is independent of our conscious thoughts; for efficiency none of their computations are transmitted to the conscious sphere, except for the end result – the value judgement (e.g. “incest is wrong”). We might then attempt to rationalise that end result by appealing to our philosophy, ideology, dogma etc. In the conscious sphere we could even choose to ignore the strong moral feeling or act upon it (the mere fact that humans were able to develop neurosciences suggests that rationality can override or deny unconscious drives). Benjamin Libet also considered we have the ability to consciously VETO nonconsciously initiated action. I would suggest that dignity is not dependent on free will, but rather on free won’t. Acting with dignity implies being able to say no to temptations.
I’m at the third chapter in Haidt’s book and his presentation is convincing. Thanks for referencing him, Marcus. I do hear the “wired” metaphor occasionally and I cringe when I do. Although one can explain that this metaphor does not mean that we are fully determined, that is precisely what I hear. This is why the metaphor should cease.
If might also be worth considering that our choices occur within the intuitive part of the mind which contains cognitive features, according to Haidt’s model, rather than waiting for the reasoning part of the mind to act. Then Libet’s conscious veto process in the rational part of the mind would be only one aspect of the choice that we make. We could then assume that free will exists in any species that has the carrot-stick chemistry that our species has in its brain. I am not concerned with “dignity” so much as avoiding determinism.
You’re welcome. I should probably mention that I first became familiar with Haidt by reading an excellent book written by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, ‘Who’s in Charge’. The book is concerned with free will primarily and touches the subject of morality only in a single chapter. Really useful for getting a glimpse of how consciousness works.
Concerning the ‘wired’ metaphor I think one can replace it with ‘built-in’, ‘biological’ or ‘innate’ and keep its meaning. I believe Haidt uses it in the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, emphasising that the basis of our morality is not entirely cultural.
Thanks for the reference to Michael Gazzaniga. Marcus. His Gifford Lectures are on YouTube. I will try to watch them. I am enjoying Haidt’s book.
Would you like a copy?
At a metaphysical level of conceptuality Nietzsche’s morality argument conflicts with the LOGOS. Nietzsche in a post modern sense has done a lot to free the signifier from the signified. To think beyond good and evil is the essence of being human. Do moral standards need to be established in a democracy to avoid chaos and anarchy? A biographical introspection reveals that Nietzsche kept up the standards of morality and did not live a profligate life.Freud has said that we must avoid incest and murder to further civilization. The moral question remains debatable as metaphysical one and a rational ontological one. Anand Bose from Kerala
Morality is a moral code to guide YOUR choices and actions. By “established in a democracy” do you mean enforced by men with guns?
My questions are: Did HL Mencken accurately translate the material he used in “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche?” Are his observations objective and undistorted? I finally found it on Gutenberg after years in fruitless search for a bound copy.
Very interesting and thoughtful essay on one of my favourite philosophers, (Along with Diogenes) though I’m not sure I’d agree with all your conclusions. Certainly you do right to draw attention to the perils of mistranslation, as always the translator leaves their fingerprints all over the crime. One question re the impossibility of performing a moral action; surely it could be argued that one could commit to living a moral Life as an act of Will?
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