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Nietzsche: Beyond Morality

Life and Works
. . Transvaluation
. . Slave Morality
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German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shared Kierkegaard's conviction that philosophy should deeply reflect the personal concerns of individual human beings. But for Nietzsche, this entailed rejection of traditional values, including the Christian religion. Nietzche's declaration of "the death of god" draws attention to our culture's general abandonment of any genuine commitment to the Christian faith.

According to Nietzsche's Die Götzendämmerung (Twilight of the Idols) (1889), Western philosophers since Socrates represent a degeneration of the natural strengths of humanity. A noble taste for heroic styles of life can only be corrupted and undermined by the interminable debates of dialectical reason. Traditional Western morality philosophy—and the Christian religion in particular—therefore opposes a healthy life, trying vainly to escape unfortunate circumstances by destroying native human desires.

Only perverse tenacity and cowardice, he believed, encourages us to cling to this servile morality, It would be more brave, more honest, and much more noble to cut ourselves loose and dare to live in a world without God. In such a world, death is not to be feared, since it represents nothing more significant than the fitting conclusion of a life devoted to personal gain.

All of this is, of course, a variety of nihilism. Nietzsche insists that there are no rules for human life, no absolute values, no certainties on which to rely. If truth can be achieved at all, it can come only from an individual who purposefully disregards everything that is traditionally taken to be "important." Such a super-human person {Ger. Übermensch}, Nietzsche supposed, can live an authentic and successful human life.

Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche offered a quasi-historical account of the harmful consequences of traditional ethics in Zur Geneologie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals) (1887). "Good" initially and properly designated only the right of those individuals with social and political power to live their lives by sheer force of will. But a "priestly" caste, motivated by their resentment of their natural superiors, generated a corrupt alternative that would appeal to "the herd" of less capable persons, turning values inside-out. In the "slave morality" endorsed by religious establishments, Nietzsche argued, forceful action which should be admired gets labelled as "evil," while the cowardly tendency to think through everything in advance is transformed into the supposed virtue of prudence.

Genuine autonomy, Nietzsche maintained, could only mean freedom from all external constraints on one's behavior. In this (natural and admirable) state of existence, each individual human being would live a life without the artificial limits of moral obligation. No other sanction on conduct would be necessary than the natural punishment involved in the victory of a superior person over a vanquished enemy.

But the wish of lesser people to secure themselves against interference from those who are better gives rise to a false sense of moral responsibility. The natural fear of being overwhelmed by a superior foe becomes internalized as the self-generated sense of guilt, and individual conscience places severe limits on the normal exercize of human desire. Thus, on Nietzsche's view, the fundamental self-betrayal of the human race is to submit its freedom to the ficticious demands of an imaginary god. Afraid to live by the strength of our own wills, we invent religion as a way of generating and then explaining our perpetual sense of being downtrodden and defeated in life.

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Last modified 12 November 2011.
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