Friedrich Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals

Morality & its Origins

Many have noted the ambitious project of Nietzsche’s Genealogy; in it, Nietzsche attempts to trace the origins of law, society, morality, religion, and so much more.

Genealogy is a history of us, of our attitudes and biases, as we have them in the present. And Nietzsche does not disappoint!

We often mistakenly view these values as universal metaphysical objects that are unchangeable. This would be a very simple reading of history, Nietzsche argues. Therefore, Nietzsche’s study of genealogy looks at our bias of assuming that our values are unchanging; he analyzes why this cannot simply be a linear progression but rather dependent on previous thought.

This method is most beautifully seen in examinations of topics that have obviously changed over the centuries, such as femininity and masculinity. For Nietzsche’s purposes, this method starts with morality which directly relates to our understanding of epistemology (the study of knowledge in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology).

If our understanding of our moral values is flawed, then it logically follows that our understanding of other seemingly well-understood issues in politics and reality may also be flawed. Nietzsche’s task in this volume is thus very important.

Nietzsche & Morality

Nietzsche questions morality because he believes our morals are accepted without much scrutiny. Our epistemic certainty surrounding them has to do with their repetition throughout history.

He believes that because of our a priori acceptance of morality, we are not prepared for the nihilism of the future. He further writes that we were all born into a moral condition “irresistibly” and “uninvited.” We view most of our morality as uniquely “pure” and “symbolic.” Nietzsche argues that these are illusions and that, in fact, our symbols are deeply “unsymbolic.”

The “pure man” in prehistoric times may have simply been a man who washed himself. In Nietzsche’s day, the pure man may have been someone who was an aristocrat with high status. Nietzsche views these concepts not as permanent but expanding and changing.

Our perceptions of the world are largely dependent on the personal feelings we have.

Good and evil are therefore false ideas because they stem from our personal prejudices which are largely based in the customs of the day.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Certainty & Moral Prejudices

Nietzsche begins his analysis with a Cartesian assumption: “[w]e don’t know ourselves.” For Nietzsche, if we reveal the chaotic origins of what we now consider universal unchanging values, then we can reveal the instability of our episteme.

For much of history, our morality, laws, and customs had to be binding and ‘universal’ ‒ if we were to live in close proximity and harmony with one another. Here Nietzsche distinguishes between slave morality and master morality in order to show morality’s arbitrariness.

Nietzsche calls slave morality “the prudence [Klugheit] of the lowest order.”

He argues that the aristocratic class defines moral virtue for the rest of society, making the aristocrats gate-keepers. The rhetoric surrounding the noble class creates an illusion of prestige. This illusion depends on terminology that describes the aristocratic class in a way that enhances its moral positioning.

The good originates among the aristocrats, the nobles, the-high minded. Whereas, the peasants are repeatedly described as the “low-minded,” “vulgar,” or “plebeian.” The higher races “come into association” with the lower races. Greek nobility describes Greek peasants as “unhappy” and the “vulgar man” or the “labour-slave.”

Real goodness in people was not associated with altruistic acts as it should be. Instead, goodness was associated with social positioning at birth. Aristocrats did not need to be moral or truthful; they merely had to name themselves “the truthful.” Thus, the aristocrat creates good spontaneously from within and then defines evil in relation to their arbitrary definition of good. The Jews were the first to argue against the aristocrats claiming that the “wretched” are the good. The men of power are the evil.

Photo by Europeana on Unsplash

Then, How Can Morality be Universal?

In all of this, we have forgotten where this morality came from, yet we have made it universal. Nietzsche writes that the origin of morality, or altruism particularly, came from us performing actions unselfishly for others because it was “useful” to them.

Later on, we forgot why we were performing these altruistic actions and kept doing so because we receive praise when we are altruistic. Therefore, our perception of actions as “good” came from us providing instrumental value to others. In other words, there is no intrinsic worth to morality, despite the Western widespread desire for objectivity. The collective did not decide on what actions were useful.

This “pathos of distance” between the “low-minded” and the nobles or the “powerful” is crucial to understanding the origin of morality.

Both explanations of morality rely on the assumption that our morals came from an arbitrary place. Nietzsche, however, assumes that this origin was much more self-interested. In his critique, Nietzsche reveals his primary problem with the episteme of objectivity: our inability to separate from our subjective perceptions.

It is primarily this thesis that makes the “good” aristocratic class “evil” for those they oppress. Revolution may be “good” for the lower classes because it emancipates them, yet is inherently evil for the aristocrats because it creates anarchy.

We Forget the Origins of Morality & Cannot Induce its Objectivity

In conjunction with our inability to separate from our subjectivity, Nietzsche views ‘forgetfulness’ as among the most important components to slave morality.

Nietzsche thinks that the only reason Christians have adopted these binding moral codes is because they have forgotten where they came from. In the words of Nietzsche, “forgetfulness” is a “positive faculty of repression.” However, it should be noted that Nietzsche offers some contradictory views on this repression.

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

For one, Nietzsche opens his Genealogy with the infamous phrase “[w]e don’t know ourselves,” which I quote above. He then proceeds to provide an elaborate account of knowing himself and why people are repressed. This criticism seems to rely on the paradox of knowing what you do not know, noticeable even with one of the founders of Western philosophy, Socrates.

Nietzsche here does not offer a historically accurate depiction of the genealogy of morals. He promises to provide an a posteriori account of our morality and instead brings an a priori account. Nonetheless, we should not dismiss Nietzsche’s analysis so quickly. It is indeed possible to study ourselves accurately and not fall into the same trap Nietzsche has.

In order to show how, I will discuss where Nietzsche’s epistemology fits in the Western canon in my next blog post.

This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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