Under what conditions did men invent for themselves these value judgments good and evil? And what inherent value do they have? Have they hindered or fostered human well-being up to now? Are they a sign of some emergency, of impoverishment, of an atrophying life?
Or is it the other way around—do they indicate fullness, power, a will for living, courage, confidence, the future?
Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface to the Genealogy of Morals
Why is this work a genealogy of morals? Nietzsche does not ask for the origins of good and evil as essences. Nor even does he ask for the conditions of possibility for good and evil as judgments. In fact, he proposes a third and entirely more subtle question, concerning the “conditions” under which these value judgments (“good” and “evil”) were first invented — he presumes that they were invented by human beings — and perhaps owing to this assumption, he immediately turns to question the inherent value of these value judgments themselves. To be precise, he asks what inherent value they possess — whether, for instance, they have so far hindered or fostered human beings.
We already grasp here in rough outline a critique of the metaphysics of morality — what we may perhaps call an extrusion of the irrational “core” or “substrate” of moral valuations — which seeks to question the value of morality itself. To put it briefly, this “question mark so black” asks about the worth of the “unegoistic,” the value of the pity-instinct — in short, it questions the value of ascetic values. The problem of pity is not an isolated question mark, but in fact demands a critique of moral values whose first object is to question the very value of these values. In other words, we need “a knowledge of the conditions and circumstance out of which these values grew, under which they have developed and changed” — the kind of knowledge which not only has not been available until now, but has not even been wished for.
The value of moral values has been taken as given, self-evident, beyond dispute — i.e., that “good” men are more valuable than “evil” men — but Nietzsche asks us to pause before common sense, and consider the possibility that the opposite were true: “What if in the ‘good’ there lay a symptom of regression, something like a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, something which makes the present live at the cost of the future?”
But what is this thing of which the “good” is a symptom — and how could it make the present live at the expense of the future? How could morality have become the “danger of all dangers”? And, finally, in what sense could the knowledge of the conditions of the invention of “good” and “evil” allow a kind of diagnosis?
Why, for instance, does psychology (instinctively or voluntarily) grope for the most shameful parts of our inner life, seeking to dredge them out into the foreground? Nietzsche suggests that it is so they can seek there for “the truly effective and operative force which has determined our development” in “the very place where man’s intellectual pride least wishes to find it” — Nietzsche offers the examples of the force of habit, forgetfulness, the blind association of ideas, or even “something else purely passive, automatic, reflex, molecular, and completely stupid” being advanced as the active force of human development. What, indeed, drives all the psychologists in this same reductive direction?
Nietzsche seems to imply that the psychoanalytic situation is overdetermined — which is perhaps why they search both voluntarily and involuntarily — and gives us at least several different but inter-related reasons (for their singular fixation on a psychic ‘automatism’ or ‘fetishism’):
- A secret and malicious common instinct (perhaps even one which is self-deceiving) for belittling humanity
- A pessimistic suspicion — the mistrust of an idealist who has become disappointed, gloomy, venomous and green
- An underground hostility and rancor towards Christianity and Plato — which perhaps is still completely unconscious
- A lecherous taste for what is odd or painfully paradoxical, for what in existence is questionable and ridiculous
The answer to this question is probably, as he suggests, a little bit of each of these — “a little vulgarity, a little gloominess, a little hostility to Christianity..” What is more, owing to the fact that they tend to think in the traditional manner of philosophers — that is, as Nietzsche argues, unhistorically — they have no access to the conditions of the invention of moral values, and are completely incompetent at producing genealogies of morals. And when they do attempt to develop these, the issue is simply to determine the origin of the idea or of the judgment “good”! Nietzsche ironically imitates the sorts of proclamations such historians of morality are apt to make:
“People… originally praised unegoistic actions and called them good from the perspective of those for whom they were done, that is, those for whom such actions were useful. Later people forgot how this praise began, and because unegoistic actions had, according to custom, always been praised as good, people then simply felt them as good, as if they were inherently good.”
Where does this account seek and establish the origin of the “good”? In those to whom “goodness” is shown! So what does such an account really aim for, and what ideas hold it together? For the first, a certain kind of pride is taken from moral values, these evaluations in turn being founded upon an original “usefulness” which subsequently becomes “habit,” which is then “forgotten” and so finally becomes simply an “error.”
But of what value is man’s own evaluation, when he has not yet questioned the evaluation of value? Nietzsche says such pride should be “humbled,” such evaluations “emptied of value” — for they seek the origin of moral judgment not in “moral people” themselves but in reverse, that is, in terms of the “usefulness” of moral judgments for the recipients of “ethical” actions. But nowhere in such an account is the actual morality-crafting, rank-ordering creation of values itself considered.
This is why Nietzsche argues “usefulness” is irrelevant — “good people” are not concerned with usefulness, such considerations seem to them as “foreign and inappropriate as possible.” In fact, the origin of the opposition between “good” and “bad” results from the right of the master to give names, a right which extends “so far [that] we could permit ourselves to grasp the origin of language itself as an expression of the power of the rulers: they say ‘that is such and such,’ seal every object and event with a sound and, in so doing, take possession of it.” (I.2) Thus the word “good” isn’t bound to “unegoistic” actions, but to the “instinct of the herd” which gets even its very language itself from the contrast between “egoistic” and “unegoistic,” this “moral” prejudice impressing itself ever more firmly into human awareness.
What is the best way of going about destructuring the very metaphysics of morality? Nietzsche tells us he was given a hint towards a fundamental insight by the following question: What do the various meanings of “good” in different languages really express, philologically speaking? He discovers in the field of this problem a universal coherence: all of the meanings lead back to the “same transformation of ideas,” that everywhere the fundamental idea out of which “good” necessarily develops is “nobility” in its social sense, or “aristocracy.” So what does a common etymological origin of the “good” indicate?
Simply, those in command, the “nobles,” are always found to have named themselves after their own typical characteristics — calling themselves, for instance, the “fine,” “powerful,” “truthful,” or “rich” — so that the words developed for these characteristics indicate according to a root meaning not only who a man is, but in fact who is authorized possession of reality itself, who really “exists.”
The origin of the “good” is thus a kind of subjective transformation wherein (for example) true humanity is indicated as the “truthful man.” This is how phrases like “the truthful” become slogans and catchphrases for nobility (as it did for the Greeks) and subsequently how their sense shifts entirely over to “aristocracy.” It is in this way that the “good” originally marks a distinction from the ignoble, just as the “truthful” marks the distance of pathos between the spiritually-elevated aristocracy and the dishonest common man. Over time, for example through lyrical poetry, certain words for the aristocracy (like “the truthful”) tend to “ripen” and intensify their designation of spiritual nobility…
As I see it, there are (at least) three ways to challenge Nietzsche’s position here. In the first, obvious and conservative method, we question the premise that the value of morality is questionable. What is the best way to answer such a critique? Examples of moral hypocrisy (Christianity and its relationship to imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism for instance) may help to convince us that there is at least something questionable in ‘unquestionable’ moral values. In other words, this objection raises a question which Nietzsche is actually answering through the production of a genealogy of morals.
A second possible method of challenging Nietzsche’s theses is to question the division into higher and lower men. This is a “liberal” or “democratic” objection to Nietzsche’s hypothesis. In terms of answering this objection, a possible response might be to ask in what sense “equality” can really be asserted concerning human beings in any kind of self-evident way.
A final challenge would accept both of these points (that the value of morality is questionable, and even the division into higher and lower men) but would question the third moment in Nietzsche’s theory: that ascetic ideals are poisonous. This is a kind of moderate critique which asks really for clarification. In response, it could be said that Nietzsche’s position isn’t really that ascetic ideals are bad for humanity per se but that they are simply life-negating, pessimistic, etc. (They may, in the long run, have unforeseen and positive consequences — a potential Nietzsche not only allows, but underscores.)