Nietzsche’s normative account

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche successfully attacks Christian morality and persuasively calls the value of moral values themselves into question. He thus advances a normative vision of a new morality which affirms the individual’s fundamental will to power and finds its justification in broad aesthetic appeal. Though compelling, Nietzsche’s normative project falls short. It fails to derive normative significance from the will to power and to establish an objective basis for aesthetic valuation, at least one of which would be necessary to give his normative ambitions a firm explanatory basis.

Nietzsche begins his account by discussing the inversion of values brought by the rise of Judeo-Christianity. Nietzsche attributes the moral paradigm of good versus evil to Christian morality’s victory over its classical antecedent. The Christian or “herd” morality prizes impotence, meekness, sickness, and mediocrity as good; in contrast, the powerful and mighty aristocrats are viewed as cruel and evil (BWN, 470). These values dominate Nietzsche’s Europe and by their preference for the weak constitute a slave morality. Nietzsche asserts that the victory of this slave morality required a slave revolt, namely by Egypt’s Israelites. The Jews “dared to invert the aristocratic value-equation” and put forth a morality driven by vengefulness and hatred of the ruling nobility, what Nietzsche calls ressentiment (BWN, 470–474). The slave morality replaced the nobles’ morality in which the nobles cast themselves as good and the common person as bad. The key distinction lies in the use of evil versus bad. The nobles’ morality was positive and self-affirming; their strength and power were inherently good, so those who lacked it were bad. This good-bad antithesis arose merely from the pathos of distance which led the nobility to view the common man as different “with no inculpatory implication” (BWN, 464). The slave revolt instituted a negative morality instead, one whose basis in hatred of the enemy made it fundamentally reactionary rather than self-affirming (BWN, 472–473). In recounting this inversion of values, Nietzsche forcefully questions the value of Christian notions of good and evil; he effectively turns the model on its head.

Nietzsche continues his account by tracing the development of the bad conscience. According to Nietzsche, the bad conscience developed out of the creditor-debtor relationship once humans were organized in societies. For much of human history, violations of creditor-debtor agreements led creditors to vent their anger onto someone else (not necessarily the debtor). This was more an expression of humanity’s proclivity for cruelty than an attribution of responsibility to the debtor. Eventually, responsibility was attached to the debtor, which helped create the equivalence between injury and pain foundational to the idea of punishment (BWN, 499). Once organized in societies, humans could no longer discharge their cruel impulses so freely; consequently, they were internalized. This was the origin of the bad conscience: the turning of cruelty inward upon oneself in the form of shame (though not immediately guilt) for failing to meet the creditor’s standards (BWN, 523). While humanity’s first creditor-debtor relations involved revered ancestors, over time God developed into the supreme creditor with humanity as his debtor (BWN, 526). Christianity hyper-moralized this relation by convincing it that failure to live up to certain ascetic ideals was an immoral breach of its relation to God. Seduced into the futile pursuit of these ideals, humanity experienced perpetual guilt on account of its perpetual failure to live up to God’s standards. Since natural human instincts violated the ascetic ideals and were thus immoral, humanity no longer merely felt shame at its foolishness; it felt guilty about its nature. This was the birth of the guilty conscience.

Nietzsche’s principal objection to Christian morality is its inhibition of the “will to power”, perhaps the cornerstone of his normative project. “Life” and the “will to power” both represent a positive affirmation of human existence. According to Nietzsche, Christian morality revolves around ascetic ideals that require people to self-abnegate — in essence, to reject life. These ideals, such as limiting exploitation and violence, represent a “mutiny against life” because they oppose natural human instincts and by their nature condemn life (Twilight of the Idols). A morality based in adherence to ascetic ideals is therefore a negative valuation of life symptomatic of humanity’s degeneration.

Nietzsche gives a clear picture of the will to power in several places. In Beyond Good and Evil, he counters the typical physiologist’s position (that self-preservation is humanity’s main instinct) by arguing that it is instead merely a consequence of life and the will to power (BWN, 211). In other words, self-preservation just accompanies the drive toward life and various forms of power which are themselves the main human instinct. Nietzsche gets more explicit later in this work when discussing the idea of limiting exploitation. This, he argues, is inimical to life, since life is mostly a struggle to impose oneself on others, dominate weaker beings, appropriate, and even exploit to survive (BWN, 393). Nietzsche views the will to power as the essence of human existence, the composite force of all these drives and actions which are themselves neither moral nor immoral but rather natural and necessary.

Nietzsche’s dependence on the will to power for his normative project encounters two difficult obstacles, both outlined by Raymond Geuss. Each concerns the explanatory justification for the concept. It seems the will to power cannot simply be explained as some kind of biological mechanism responsive to natural urges. As understood in the context of politics or art, the will to power inevitably requires one to deny biological urges (i.e., toward rest, sexual desire, safety) at certain times (Geuss, 12). Even if the will to power had clear biological significance, a physiological account would raise a further challenge: the familiar philosophical problem of deriving normative significance from purely descriptive phenomena. Without a clear biological grounding, we are left to consider metaphysical explanations for the will to power. It is not clear that the will to power is measurable according to certain common criteria. Nietzsche touts such disparate figures as Napoleon and Goethe as higher types, presumably because he simply admires their ambition, talent, and so on. With admiration as the main justificatory principle, and with no common standard for this admiration, the will to power is left without much in the way of explanatory metaphysical content (Geuss, 13). The issues inherent in either a biological or metaphysical explanation of the will to power therefore limit its utility as a normative standard for Nietzsche’s project (though it certainly functions to shock people into new ways of thinking, as he intends).

Having shown the difficulty of deriving normative significance for the will to power, Geuss is left to conclude that morality rests solely on patterns of admiration and disgust. As with the will to power, there appears to be no single standard for admiration and disgust toward people and their actions. If this is so, then we are left with a rather “anarchic doctrine” (Geuss, 15). Masses of people feel admiration and disgust toward different things for entirely different reasons, people either conquer or are conquered, and they either succeed or fail in their various endeavors. Geuss suggests that people with more mature understandings of these patterns might be capable of conforming to the examples of admired types, thus gaining admiration themselves (Geuss, 15). It should be noted that Geuss does think that some distinctions between better and worse people or actions can be made, mainly by judging the success or failure of a person’s endeavors. This is not a complete cure to the relativism here, however, as he acknowledges that definitions of success often differ depending on perspective.

Geuss thus arrives at a very relativistic conception of Nietzsche’s thoughts on morality. There are ultimately no common criteria for admirability, and no human endeavor is self-justifying in every case. Therefore, morality rests on a sea of different perspectives with only limited grounds for common standards of judgment. Various “oughts” and “ought nots” arise, and sometimes it is beneficial to institutionalize certain of these to prevent behavior commonly viewed as disgusting (Geuss, 16). This is not always justified according to Nietzsche, however, especially in cases of a clash between behavioral regulations purportedly designed for the good of society and certain admirable behaviors that they would prohibit. Any morality, says Geuss, represents an almost arbitrary conglomerate of the many possible forms of admiration and disgust (Geuss, 16–17). Their design is in any case to encourage the development of admirable higher types.

This conclusion is naturally unsatisfying in view of the force with which Nietzsche attacks Christian morality in the Genealogy. Even though he cannot prove it by the will to power, Nietzsche still seems to believe some moralities are better than others. He clearly views the morality of the higher types for which he advocates as superior to Christian morality, since the former affirms life and embraces humanity’s natural impulses while the latter denies it, leading to degeneration. It is a matter of locating the justificatory basis for this view. Geuss does a credible job of showing that a framework of admiration and disgust is susceptible, at least partially, to the issue of subjectivity. Still, perhaps he is not as charitable as he could be. It might be the case that Geuss’ interpretation is too relativistic and that he fails to acknowledge what objectivity might exist within the mechanisms of admiration and disgust. For example, it seems plausible that some figures, say Napoleon, inspire an automatic reaction comparable to admiration in most or all people (even if they do not consciously admire him). Insofar as Napoleon’s assertiveness, power, or aura evoke this reaction in nearly everyone, Nietzsche has at least some objective basis for judging the moral value of certain qualities and actions.Nevertheless, Geuss succeeds in showing that the general admiration and disgust model is not foolproof.

Philippa Foot offers an alternative explanation that could rescue Nietzsche from this dilemma. In order to justify Nietzsche’s preference for the morality of the higher types, Foot grounds his evaluation of morality in aesthetics. One result of Nietzsche’s questioning the value of our values is his assertion that no quality or action is significant in itself. In other words, qualities and actions are not good or bad for all people in all cases (Foot, 147). Instead, Nietzsche believes that qualities and actions have value insofar as they help or hurt the ‘ascending type’ who embodies the morality of the higher types. For the development of this morality, and possibly even of the Nietzschean ‘superman’, the ascending type must be encouraged and kept from the negative influence of the ‘descending type’. This model of ascending and descending types is crucial to Nietzsche’s aestheticism, because he believes the value of the former lies in aesthetic appeal. The strength, nobility, and self-discipline of the ascending man have value because they appeal to most people and inspire their admiration (Foot, 147). This is clearly an aesthetic rather than moral justification for Nietzsche’s preferred morality.

Foot develops this aesthetic justification to counter overly relativistic readings of Nietzsche. Aesthetic values are useful here for two reasons: they appear to offer some objective grounds for evaluating moralities, and they help to solve the normativity problem of the will to power. Foot points out that the phenomenon of “patterns of reaction” to individuals with qualities like strength of will or independence of mind suggests a universal code of aesthetic valuation (Foot, 89). It seems, at first glance, that these patterns of reaction reveal something objective about aesthetic valuation, some common standard by which all humans admire or despise. It is not the moral value but the aesthetic appeal of the higher types, who style themselves as works of art in ways that the common person does not, that has objective grounding. The aesthetic argument also seems plausibly to help with the normativity problem. This is because aesthetic values are normatively laden and fall within a normative domain. Beauty and aesthetic value more generally seem to have an inherent normative significance that the will to power lacks.

Though compelling and in step with much of Nietzsche’s thought, Foot’s aesthetic justification is flawed. This is because it does not entirely solve the subjectivity problem Geuss identifies in Nietzsche’s explanation; in other words, Foot’s case needs to be more objective.

This is not to trivialize Foot’s argument, for she does offer a strong counter to Geuss. Even so, Foot does not offer sufficient justification for her presumption that a code of objective aesthetic valuation common to all humans exists. This is problematic since her justification for Nietzsche’s preferred morality of the higher types depends on the presumption of their objective aesthetic appeal. Foot does show that patterns of reaction to certain qualities suggest some degree of objectivity in human aesthetic valuation. Still, she does not overcome the possibility that some aesthetic values could be subjective, just as patterns of admiration and disgust seem to depend on personal preference. This returns us to a relativistic picture. Had Foot shown such an objective basis to exist, however, another tension would have emerged. Nietzsche did not care whether the common man admired Goethe, for example, since to him Goethe simply was great. In other words, Nietzsche did not seem to think that a consensus on the aesthetic value of the higher types was necessary as Foot does; this would have conflicted with his perspectivism.

In questioning the value of our values, Nietzsche first wants to shock humanity — specifically, the capable ‘higher types’ — out of blind allegiance to Christian morality and toward a positive, self-affirming kind of morality. But he is not purely nostalgic for the morality of ancient Greek and Roman nobility. Instead, Nietzsche wants to show that morality itself should not be taken for granted, something he vehemently criticizes his philosophical predecessors for doing. Rather than assuming a priori that qualities or actions are significant in themselves, Nietzsche questions whether it is meaningful to think like this. Nietzsche instead advances a new way of understanding morality based on a combination of the will to power and aesthetics.

This project’s impressive achievements are held back by its scattered composition. It is too difficult to square all the strands of Nietzsche’s thinking, and justifying his ideas often proves complicated. This partially owes to Nietzsche’s style, which favored attention-grabbing prose over careful arguments. Nietzsche’s major normative assertion is that a morality of the ‘higher types’ is superior to Christian morality, which is the primary source of humanity’s degeneration. Its superiority lies in its alignment with the will to power, Nietzsche’s term for the fundamental drive of human life, and in the aesthetic value of the higher types who exercise this drive most admirably. Both ideas have some justificatory value for Nietzsche’s preferred morality. It is hard to shake the idea that a morality which suppresses the individual’s fundamental drive toward self-justification is appropriate or ideal. Such insights alone demonstrate that Nietzsche succeeded in challenging the conventional wisdom on morality and that his ideas will always have to be dealt with by philosophers, because he raises questions which cannot be ignored. That said, neither his notion of the will to power nor his aesthetic justification conclusively answer those questions. Nietzsche fails to provide the sound explanatory justification for the morality of the higher types necessary for a truly persuasive normative project.



History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.