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How to Go Beyond Good and Evil (and Why You Should)

Nietzsche on the Mistakes of Morality

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Friedrich Nietzsche is known for a view on morality that most of us find rather repugnant. He regarded morality and the notions of good and evil as fictions, and saw himself “beyond” these dogmas for the herd. Furthermore, he actually argued that morality, as conceived today, is actively harmful to society and the individual.

This may be a hard one to swallow, or even entertain for some. On the surface, it seems like a recipe for chaos and cruelty. But Nietzsche is also known for this quote:

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who couldn’t hear the music.

My goal in this video is to help you hear the music of Nietzsche’s campaign against morality, so you’ll understand why I personally share Nietzsche’s view and believe a better world would exist “beyond good and evil.”

“Morality, insofar as it condemns for its own sake, and not out of regard for the concerns, considerations, and contrivances of life, is a specific error with which one ought to have no pity – an idiosyncrasy of degenerates which has caused immeasurable harm.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Psychitects – I’m excited to take you into the darkest depths of my personal philosophy. I’m going to share with you the reasons why I oppose moral systems, how many people I’ve murdered, and how you can cultivate robust wisdom in the place of rigid moral rules.

Three thousand years ago, Zoroaster, also known as Zarathushtra, first proposed the good/evil dichotomy. And ever since then, religions have preached of omniscient judges and karmic cycles to lead us to believe we would face supernatural consequences for our actions.

Philosophers like Bentham and Kant tried to convince others, and themselves, that moral demands were imposed by the very structure of logic. And today, otherwise astute thinkers like Sam Harris continue to promote contrived metaethical systems in the hopes of creating a more virtuous world.

Now it’s true: Nietzsche made quite clear that he despised the morality of his day, and often referred to himself as an immoralist. This might suggest that he supports an “anything goes” attitude toward our actions. Be an overman, exert your will to power, and conquer all, even if it means cruelty toward others.

But this is a caricature of his actual view. In his work Daybreak, Nietzsche makes the following statement:

It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged—but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.

So no, he wasn’t in favor of doing everything your most barbaric impulses urged you to do. But he was a moral anti-realist. For a quick primer:

Moral realism is the metaethical stance which holds that moral properties exist, independently from people’s judgments. A moral realist will likely believe that killing someone has the property of wrongness, and that the claim “murder is wrong” is objectively true, regardless of the individual actor or culture.

The claim that we have a moral obligation to keep our promises, for a moral realist, is not fundamentally different from the claim that water molecules contain one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms – both would be the types of claims that can be definitively true or false.

Moral anti-realism, which Nietzsche subscribed to, holds that there are no moral properties or truths. There are no factual statements about what one ought to do in the strictest sense or is morally obligated to do. For the moral anti-realist, the types of claims moral realists make, like “murder is wrong” are either subjective claims, mistaken objective claims, or not coherent claims at all. Moral anti-realism includes a number of more specific, overlapping stances you may be familiar with:

  • Subjectivism: Moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes opinions, conventions, or preferences.
  • Relativism: For something to be morally right is for it to be approved of by society, meaning different things are right for people in different societies and different periods in history.
  • Non-Cognitivism: Ethical claims do not express coherent propositions, so moral knowledge is impossible. A number of variations aim to explain what moral language actually refers to. Some of these are emotivism (“murder is wrong” = “boo murder!”), prescriptivism (“murder is wrong” = “don’t murder!”), and fuctionalism (“murder is wrong” = a useful fiction).
  • Moral Skepticism: Moral knowledge may or may not exist, but no one has access to it regardless.
  • Moral Nihilism: There are no moral truths, no objective values, no real good or bad, right or wrong. All ethical claims are false.
  • Error Theory: A combination of cognitivism and moral nihilism – moral language expresses facts, but is in error because no moral facts exist (“murder is wrong” = false).

Now like Nietzsche, I fall firmly into the moral anti-realist camp. I’m the realest anti-realist in the game right now, and you can quote me on that. But this doesn’t mean I’m against benevolence or honesty or compassion, and neither was Nietzsche – it’s the reasons, or lack thereof, behind those behaviors that anti-realists object to. Here are some of Nietzsche’s reasons to oppose common morality:

 

Compassion

You may have heard that Nietzsche was against compassion – and yes, he spoke very critically about a certain, very common type of compassion, which we might also call pity, calling it a “religion of snug coziness.” But contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t critical of the idea of helping others—he actually referred to the “gift-giving virtue” as the highest of all virtues.

So what was his issue with common compassion? Imagine you are talking to someone who hasn’t eaten in days. They are extremely hungry, but they inform you that they are intentionally fasting as an exercise in self-mastery and spiritual growth.

Then another person objects, yelling out “No, you have to eat! You are suffering over this, and that is causing me to suffer. You must eat immediately to resolve my discomfort.”

You probably wouldn’t see this person as particularly kind, wise, or even compassionate. Completely captivated by their compassion impulse, they are selfishly demanding that the other person make them feel better at the expense of the other person’s wishes.

It was precisely this type of compassion that Nietzsche criticized. He spoke out against those with an inability to tolerate another person’s suffering, even when that suffering may serve the greater good and their deeper well-being.

What’s important is that our compassion be directed toward another person’s long-term well-being. We should not foster a reactive impulse to instantly eliminate the suffering of others in order to ease our own. We should develop a deep understanding of well-being and let our kindness overflow in the service of others.

In Nietzsche’s allegorical work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a hunchback approaches the protagonist and asks if he is able to cure his deformed back. Zarathustra refuses and replies “If one takes the hump from the hunchback, one takes his spirit too—thus teach the people.” It may seem cruel to refuse to cure a disability if he was able, but in this case, the decision comes from a place of genuine compassion.

He thought simply removing obstacles from someone’s life was a lazy way of helping them. It did more, he thought, to help the helper feel superior than to actually benefit the person struggling. And it failed to take a unified account of genuine well-being. Nietzsche, like the Stoics, thought that if you truly wanted to help someone, or help yourself, your efforts must aid in the cultivation of character.

The character-cultivating power of hardship is exactly why the Stoics were known to wish bad luck and betrayal on one another. It’s why Nietzsche said “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities.”

And it’s why Martin Seligman and the research he cites on post-traumatic growth suggest that individuals who have experienced difficult and painful events in their lives end up with stronger character, more intense strengths, and higher well-being than those who haven’t. Our character, like our muscles, can only be strengthened by being exercised.

A loss scarcely remains a loss for an hour: in some way or other a gift from heaven has always fallen into our lap at the same moment—a new form of strength, for example: be it but a new opportunity for the exercise of strength!

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Dogmatism

To get to an even bigger problem with morality, Nietzsche felt that believing we all should do certain things and all shouldn’t do others, simply because we’ve been told they’re moral or immoral, was dogmatic – blindly trusting of the customs set forward before our time.

So does this mean anything goes? Should we really condone the acts of serial killers, sadists, or people who listen to music on their phones out loud in public? No. Remember, he said we should do or avoid certain actions for actual reasons. So what kind of non-moral reasons are there to do “moral” acts or avoid “immoral” ones? Let’s look at an example.

You’ve got a test tomorrow, for school, for a skill certification, for whatever seems most relevant to you. There is a lot of information you don’t know, you really don’t feel like studying, and you’re not even sure if you could master it in time if you did.

It occurs to you that you could cheat on the test fairly easily, perhaps by sneaking in a cheat sheet or looking over your studious neighbor’s shoulder. Should you do it?

Morality generally tells us that cheating is wrong. So if you want to be a “good person,” you’ve got your answer. Don’t cheat.

But what would happen if we completely threw morality out the window and just made the decision based on practical consideration? In other words, wisdom. It might look something like the graph on the right:?


You see, morality is a lazy way of making decisions. It doesn’t require you to think for yourself or understand the reasons why you should or shouldn’t do something. It asks you to simply trust the word on the street that certain things shouldn’t be done. Why? Because stop asking questions, that’s why.

I have referred to morality as “training wheels for wisdom.” The problem is when the training wheels keep people from actually learning how to ride the bike. And Nietzsche says something very similar:

Morality makes stupid.- Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the development of new and better customs: it makes stupid.

Some will argue that this is a matter of definition. Why can’t we call the chart on the right “morality?” Perhaps we could – but it really isn’t consistent with the way the term is used, today or throughout philosophical history. Morality carries with it a normative weight. A non-negotiable “should.” A categorical imperative.

See Nietzsche took issue with the idea laid out by Kant, that there is a set of sacred obligations that exist independent of our personal motivations and desires.

When you act out of morality, you do so “despite of the private desires and advantages” that acting otherwise might serve. You ask “what would be the best thing to do?” And then you ask a second question, “is it morally acceptable?” If it is “wrong,” a good person will choose not to do it, even if it does seem to be the most strategic path toward their goals.

When you outgrow morality, you don’t stop taking actions that most would call moral or start doing those most would call immoral. You simply integrate those actions into a hierarchical tree of reasoning rather than doing them simply because they are “right or wrong.” You ask “what would be the best thing to do?” And then you do it.

You make every decision through a complex chain of hypothetical imperatives. But where does this chain lead? What is the ultimate consideration to which all smaller decisions must connect?


Virtue

Now I know what many of you may be thinking at this point. If this is all true, why shouldn’t I steal, cheat, and murder every time it seems expedient for my goals? Wouldn’t this be the most strategic way to act? Extremely unlikely.

See, doing whatever seems convenient in the short-term often neglects the long-term consequences of our actions, both external and internal. The external is rather obvious – you’ll get caught, you’ll be ostracized, you’ll be punished. But what are the internal consequences?

Though he is best known for his negative ethical stances, Nietzsche was very much a virtue ethicist. He thought measuring good by some mathematical calculation of utility or universal law was crazier than store-bought pesto. Good was something that grew out of a person’s character. And he thought the good life was fundamentally tied to our personal virtues and values, and how thoroughly we cultivate them in our lives and actions.

The development of virtue, for Nietzsche, was a dynamic process of self-becoming. This process inevitably involved overcoming the resistance in yourself to affirm your life and “bring style to your character.” And reaching the highest level of virtue actualization required a never-ending journey of creative self-experimentation.

In Schopenhauer as Educator, he says:

Set up the things that you have honoured in front of you. Maybe they will reveal, in their being and their order, a law which is fundamental of your own self. Compare these objects. Consider how one of them completes and broadens and transcends and explains another: how they form a ladder which all the time you have been climbing to find your true self. For your true self does not lie deeply hidden within you. It is an infinite height above you — at least, above what you commonly take to be yourself.

This process, I believe, is what Nietzsche was referring to when he implored his reader: Become who you are. By coming to know our unique, individual values, our impulses of admiration and pride, we could gradually learn to embody them, until the reality of our character came to resemble the template of our ideals.

Proponents of virtue ethics have argued that consequential and contractual principles that state certain things are objectively right or wrong disconnect our reasons for action from our innate human motives toward growth, health, and happiness.

It has been argued that even if it were possible to perfectly follow the modern mandates for ethical agents, this would ironically result in a world in which no one was truly thriving. And that when we disregard character in favor of contracts and consequences, we flatten the entire landscape of human health, fulfillment, and virtue down to a superficial hedonic computation.

From the perspective of our values, it becomes clear that the internal consequences for our actions are entirely real and acute. The reason to act in accordance with your values, the reason to return that wallet you found, even when no one is watching, is that you are always being watched by the most important person: yourself.

You are constantly measuring yourself by your behaviors, and even though you may consciously deceive yourself into believing you measure up to your standards, you cannot trick yourself on every level. To achieve this alignment, the correspondence between your actions and your ideals must be genuine.

What the wise realize that fools don’t is that these brutal shortcuts don’t actually lead to where you want to go. If you fail to take account of your own innate values, if you live a life without love or humanity, taking your actions out of short-sighted expediency, the good life will always elude you. This is why I have personally killed, zero people – so far.

Wisdom is all about having a coherent hierarchical tree of reasons for all of your actions, not a fragmented set of rules. Most people have been taught that there are things that are right and things that are wrong, independent of context. That these moral concerns represent a separate consideration from practical ones.

If you have cultivated wisdom, you may refrain from lying, not because it’s “wrong,” but because you have learned that telling a lie almost always results in more complications, damaged relationships, and worse outcomes. You try not to hurt others, not because that would be “wrong,” but because you have made the introspective observation that these actions make you feel worse about yourself.

I would like to encourage you to consider the pros and cons of clinging to morality. Consider the differences between this archaic framework, and the more unified, more enlightened version: wisdom.

Morality comes from above and imposes itself upon you. Wisdom comes from within and expands out to the world.

Morality is about rules and violations. Wisdom is about understanding and strategy.

Morality is a separate consideration from pragmatic concerns. Wisdom is an integrated consideration of all concerns.

Morality is self-sacrificing. Wisdom is self (and other) serving.

Morality evokes guilt. Wisdom evokes pride.

Am I making sense? Can you get behind this transcendence of morality? Can you at least see that Nietzsche’s argument isn’t the barbarous carelessness that it is so often mistaken for?

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