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Nietzsche as Immoralist


Nietzsche as Immoralist


in conversation with Maudemarie Clark

Part One

Why did Nietzsche think that morality is harmful to humanity? In this two part interview philosopher Maudemarie Clark talks to four by three about Nietzsche’s ethics, morality as an internalized form of cruelty, and the importance of genealogy as a tool for ethical criticism.

Throughout her work on Nietzsche, Maudemarie Clark has explored many facets of his thought, from his conception of truth and metaphysics to the influence Schopenhauer’s philosophy had on his work. However, in her most recent collection of essays, Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics, it is his ethical and political philosophy that is put under examination. Regarded by some as an anti-democratic, misogynistic and egoistic thinker, others see Nietzsche as showing the way to a richer ethical and political life. In part one of our interview with Maudemarie, we spoke about Nietzsche’s critique of morality, the influence of his thought on contemporary ethicists such as Bernard Williams and why Nietzsche saw nihilism as a fundamental threat to the modern world. 


Some of your best known works on Nietzsche have focused on his metaphysics and epistemology. However, your PhD thesis and a subsequent strand of your work has also scrutinized his ethics and politics. What first drew you to these aspects of Nietzsche’s work and what, in retrospect, led to it being a continuing strand of your research?

I am sure part of what initially drew me to Nietzsche’s writing on ethics was how radical and daring it seemed.  Nietzsche was apparently rejecting everything most people hold dear, but in a way that seemed extremely life affirming.  So it encouraged me to think that I could live without many of the beliefs – especially religious ones – that had provided my basic intellectual framework, but in which I could no longer believe.  It has become a continuing strand of my research because of the many questions it continued to pose and how illuminating the answers turned out to be.  This is still going on.  I only now think I am beginning to really understand his Genealogy of Morality, which I thought I understand perfectly well when I was 20.  

As to Nietzsche’s writings on politics, it was a very different matter.  In this case, I was not attracted to what appeared to be Nietzsche’s position and I was only drawn to look at it carefully to see if it there was anything to be said for it.  It continues to be of great interest to me because, having come to see that Nietzsche’s views are not what they initially appeared to be, I now see his politics, which includes his theory of education, as what may be most important to him.  

Above all, Nietzsche was attempting to help readers think through our current situation, how we got here, where we could and perhaps should go from here.

The essays in your most recent collection, Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics, do not appear to argue for a systematic re-construction of something like his position on ethics or on politics. In contrast to his forbearers and akin to his contemporary inheritors such as Bernard Williams, Nietzsche often seems to reject a systematic ethics or political philosophy. What do you think Nietzsche was trying to do in his writings on these topics? And what kind of a philosopher of ethics do you take him to be?

Williams argues that Nietzsche’s books are “booby-trapped” against the recovery of theory from them, and against “systematic exegesis that assimilates it to theory.”  I agree that there is no ethical or political theory in the traditional (normative) sense to be recovered from Nietzsche’s texts.  I do, however, think there is a genealogical theory to be found in his work. Above all, Nietzsche was attempting to help readers think through our current situation, how we got here, where we could and perhaps should go from here.  

But he does not make it easy to figure out his genealogical theory or to lay it out in a unified way. I think that’s at least in part because he believes that most modern readers are terrible readers, and that, even if they bothered to read him, they would see in the text largely what they wanted to see in it. So his later and best works are concerned above all with trying to educate readers (at least some of them).  First, of course, he had to induce them to read him, so many of the louder elements of Nietzsche’s style are designed to appeal to the bad instincts of his readers for the purpose of drawing them into his texts and their problems.  But after that I think his later works are designed primarily to engage in the tasks for which he says educators are required, especially the first two, learning to see and learning to think.  The “essential feature” of learning to see, he says, is learning “precisely not to ‘will’ – to be able to suspend decision” (Twilight: “Germans” 6).  This is how I see many of the insults that pepper Nietzsche’s work.  Just prior to what I just quoted, he writes: “That is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality: not to react at once to a stimulus, but to gain control of all the inhibiting, excluding instincts.”  If one can resist the impulse to react at once to Nietzsche’s insult, “learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides,” one will often be rewarded with being able to see something new, initially a new way to interpret Nietzsche’s words, ultimately a new way of seeing the issues with which he is concerned.  And this reward educates by reinforcing whatever impulse induces one to look again at his apparently insulting comments.

“Where we should go from here” is obviously a normative matter.  What basis does Nietzsche have for making normative claims?  Well, his genealogical theory gives him a diagnosis of how we got into the situation we are in now and reasons for thinking it is not particularly conducive to things we might care about – philosophy, art, and higher culture in general.  Further I think he has a philosophical psychology, a theory of the soul, one modelled on Plato’s theory but with a naturalistic basis.  And that theory may have implications for a theory of the virtues, although I cannot claim to have worked any of that out yet.

It is only among thinkers who take ideas so seriously, like Nietzsche himself, and among the deeply religious if they lose their faith, that basic nihilism is likely to take hold.

In several places, Nietzsche remarks that Western Morality leads to the imminent threat of nihilism. What, for you, does Nietzsche mean by this term in relation to morality? Do you find this a helpful starting point for thinking about Nietzsche’s ethics and this aspect of his philosophical project?

There may be other meanings of “nihilism” in Nietzsche’s work, but in the basic sense, nihilism is the denial that anything is of value, “the radical repudiation of value, meaning, desirability,” as Nietzsche calls it in the collection of notes called “The Will to Power.” He adds that it is rooted in a particular interpretation, “the Christian moral one,” and that scepticism regarding morality, the end of the moral interpretation of the world, is what is “decisive.”  Further, he calls himself “the first perfect European nihilist who has even now lived through the whole of nihilism to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.”  

Here is my interpretation.  The Christian moral interpretation (in the idealized form in which Nietzsche presents it) is inspired by the ascetic ideal, which denies that anything that is merely natural can be of value.  Whatever is of value in our world gets its value by connection to something that is the opposite of the merely natural world (the one that science studies).  As natural beings, human beings must turn against what is merely natural in them, in order for their lives to be of value.  One thing human beings – or at least the thinkers among them – have turned against in obedience to this interpretation is the forming of beliefs on the basis of what they would like to believe, what would make them happy.  And that has led to them to reject the existence of God, of an immortal soul, of any kind of other world – all of the things that were supposed to give value to the natural world.  So now it looks like nothing is really of value.  I think Nietzsche went through this in his early work.  The conclusions he reached were that nothing is true (everything is illusion) (in the essay “Truth and Lying”) and nothing is of value (in Human, All-too-Human).  How did he leave this nihilism behind?  By recognizing that his nihilistic conclusions were driven by an ascetic interpretation of truth and value - e.g., the assumption that truth is correspondence to the thing in itself, hence cannot be accessed empirically, and that nothing of value could be merely “natural” – and overcoming those and other hidden remnants of the ascetic ideal in his own thinking.

But I doubt that Nietzsche believed that most people would ever cease to value everything they typically value: e.g., family, friendship, success, pleasure.  It is only among thinkers who take ideas so seriously, like Nietzsche himself, and among the deeply religious if they lose their faith, that basic nihilism is likely to take hold.  What Nietzsche foresaw and feared was that the nihilism of these thinkers would filter down to the majority in a more limited form, that the majority would come to doubt the value of “higher things” – e.g., art, philosophy, great virtue of a non-conventional kind, things that are not easily accessible because they require great training and effort.  I think this is what Nietzsche is talking about when he says (also in “The Will to Power”): “What does nihilism mean? That the higher values devaluate themselves.”  The “higher values” are simply things accorded a higher value than the common things that everyone is naturally inclined to value.  Among the things that count as “higher values” are justice, reason, the various virtues, philosophy, spirituality.  The higher value of such things has been supported by the ascetic ideal’s interpretation of them as having a source in non-natural capacities.  But when, in obedience to the demands of these higher things (as ascetically interpreted), thinkers come to believe that everything is merely natural, the majority of people - who are not (or not yet at least) in a position to appreciate these higher things on their own terms - lose the respect they had for them.  In this way the things that are of higher value (in Nietzsche’s eyes) devaluate themselves in the eyes of the majority.  They lose the protection they once had from being dismissed or held in contempt by the majority, and this also harms the chances of attracting the young to undergo the long training it takes to truly appreciate them.  

One thing Nietzsche is doing in his work is trying to offer a new form of protection for these “higher things,” certainly for philosophy.  But in the meantime, we are in danger of becoming like the “last man,” who cares only about comfort and pleasure, above all, the comfort of acting and talking like everyone else around him.  Is this nihilism?  Well, it may differ from the basic kind, but is also a result of it, and is what I think Nietzsche is really worried about.   

As to whether nihilism is a good place to start thinking about Nietzsche on ethics and politics, I am not sure. It may be too easy to get lost and confused unless one already has a good grip on his genealogy of morality.  But it is certainly a central aspect of his thought on these topics and may well be a good node around which to try to organize that thought.  

One thing Nietzsche is doing in his work is trying to offer a new form of protection for these “higher things,” certainly for philosophy. But in the meantime, we are in danger of becoming like the “last man,” who cares only about comfort and pleasure, above all, the comfort of acting and talking like everyone else around him.

One of the most striking claims you’ve argued for is the view that Nietzsche was an immoralist: that he thought that morality was itself something bad, or harmful for us. What do you take ‘morality’ to mean for Nietzsche, and how he could make that negative judgement without himself moralizing morality?

It’s a little tricky to start with what Nietzsche means by “morality.” He distinguishes a wider and a narrower sense of the term, and it is clearly the latter against which his immoralism is directed.   I think it is the same sense of the term that Anscombe was referring to when she suggested that we jettison the idea of a specifically moral obligation or goodness.  But Nietzsche doesn’t just want to jettison these ideas; he wants to understand them, so that we can see what we had and what we need now.  He denies that we can illuminate or pin down that use of “moral” through a definition, or set of necessary and sufficient conditions, claiming that only a genealogy will help us to unpack it.  

But from the onset it should be clear that because he holds morality to be bad or harmful, he must do so from the viewpoint of some set of values that he accepts.  So he can’t be a nihilist in the basic sense.  And in fact, he begins his “attack on morality” only in Daybreak, which is also the beginning of his recovery from the nihilism of Human, All-Too-Human.  

When I began studying Nietzsche, sympathetic interpreters took account of this point by interpreting his immoralism as a rejection of one kind of morality – say Christian morality or altruistic morality – from the viewpoint of another morality.  Philippa Foot was one of the first interpreters to take Nietzsche at his word, that he rejected morality itself and not just a particular morality.  She thought we could make sense of this by taking him to reject morality – which she understood in terms of a commitment to justice and the common good – from the viewpoint of aesthetic values, in particular, from an interest in producing more beautiful or splendid human beings.  I argue that Foot (and others) were forced to go in this direction because they do not recognize the relevance of Bernard Williams’ distinction between ethics and morality.  They did not recognize, that is, that there are other options for ethical life than morality, hence that there could be non-moral versions of justice and a concern for the common good.  And, from Nietzsche’s point of view, this is because they were under the influence of morality’s presentation of itself as the only possible form of ethics.  

I take from Williams that an ethics is a set of practices “for regulating the relations between people that works through informal sanctions and internalized disposition,” adding from Nietzsche (as I think Williams would agree) that such practices will include ones that differentiate the goodness of types of persons and their characteristics, as well as the permissibility of types of actions.  Morality, as Williams and Nietzsche understand it, involves a specific interpretation of such ethical practices – or better, a set of such interpretations - inspired by a particular ideal.  Williams refers to it as morality’s “purity,” whereas Nietzsche refers to it as “the ascetic ideal.”  The upshot is that morality – for both Williams and Nietzsche – is the ascetic interpretation of a set of practices that constitute ethical life.  Better, it is such sets of practices as ascetically interpreted.  


A keystone in your account of Nietzsche’s critique of morality is a reading of his Genealogy of Morality. You suggest that it should be understood as a conceptual account of what ‘morality’ has come to mean for ‘we moderns’ which is not merely descriptive or analytic, but has a critical function. In what sense do you take this text to engage in a form of conceptual analysis and what does it expose about morality?

Yes, as I interpret it, Nietzsche’s Genealogy aims to illuminate both the concept and the history of morality by tracing morality’s descent.  In a postcard to his friend Overbeck, Nietzsche characterizes morality as a complex structure formed from multiple and independent roots, adding that each of the three treatises that comprise the Genealogy brings to the fore one of these roots, artificially isolating it from the others, with which it is in actuality intertwined.  I argue that each of the treatises traces back one of these roots to a non-moral ancestor. The first treatise traces the idea of moral goodness or worth back to the noble idea of goodness.  This is clearly an evaluative notion: the good or noble are the superior ones, in contrast to the bad or common, who are inferior.  But, as Nietzsche presents this orientation, we should be able to see that it does not involve our idea of moral worth, which is perhaps most obvious from the fact that the bad are not held responsible for being bad, and certainly not thought to deserve punishment for it.  And since the virtues are simply the characteristics that distinguish the good from the bad, there is also no tie between virtue and reward.  In addition, some of these virtues, say, being rich and powerful, do not seem like moral virtues to us.  And so the possibility of a non-moral idea of virtue is revealed, something that Nietzsche thinks is likely to be hidden from us.

According to Nietzsche, the noble idea of goodness and virtue was transformed into the idea of moral goodness through what he calls the “slave revolt in morality.”  This “event,” which Nietzsche makes clear was led by priests, not slaves, seems to me an abstraction from real history.  It is what the history of morality looks like if we concentrate simply on what is happening to ideas of goodness or virtue, while ignoring other components of morality, especially ideas of right and wrong.  Most interpreters focus on the difference the “slave revolt” made to the characteristics that were regarded as marks of the good: originally, the characteristics of nobles (e.g., pride); after the revolt, the characteristics of slaves (e.g., humility).  It is equally important, however, to see the difference in terms of the explanation it offers of how virtue became connected to both free will and ideas of reward and punishment because this helps us to recognize the possibility of separating these notions once again. And such recognition is important because once that connection became established, the weakening of belief in free will, and in a God who rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious, is bound to make virtue seem illusory.  So one of the critical things Nietzsche’s genealogy exposes about morality is that, in our secularized world, holding on to its moralized conception of goodness is damaging to the recognition of and respect for goodness and virtue, and ultimately to their very existence.

One of the critical things Nietzsche’s genealogy exposes about morality is that, in our secularized world, holding on to its moralized conception of goodness is damaging to the recognition of and respect for goodness and virtue, and ultimately to their very existence.

Part of your analysis of the Genealogy (in “Bernard Williams’ Debt to Nietzsche”) looks at the way in which, on Nietzsche’s account, various social obligations (such as that of paying back one’s debt) become moralized and in this way harmful. What, for Nietzsche, was wrong with a moralized form of obligation and responsibility?

As I suggest above, Nietzsche does not claim that our ideas of ideas of right and wrong, responsibility and obligation, result from a slave revolt. Such ideas belong to the second (and older) root of morality and play no role in his account of the slave revolt.   Chapter Two of the Genealogy traces ideas of right and wrong back to a “morality” of custom, which hardly belongs to ethics, much less to morality, since following the customs or rules is due to instinct and fear, not “internalized dispositions” or values.  Then an idea of duty or obligation as a debt owed to others develops.  The individual is obligated to the community for benefits received – protection above all – and owes in return obedience to the laws that make the community possible.  One who reneges on his obligation and breaks the law owes a substitute repayment in the form of punishment, which is the suffering the community is now allowed to inflict on him.  The lawbreaker is held responsible for breaking the law simply in the sense of being the one who performed the action and as owing or deserving punishment on that basis.  These ideas of obligation and responsibility clearly belong to the realm of ethics, since they are based on an idea of fairness (mixed in with other things, including a strong dose of aggression or cruelty).  Yet they do not amount to our ideas of a specifically moral obligation or responsibility – the ones Anscombe urges us to jettison – because they are not tied to one’s worth as a person, much less to one’s moral worth, which is not yet in sight here.  

Given the moralized idea of obligation, on the other hand, reneging on one’s obligations reflects one’s lack of moral worth, one’s evil heart or character  (for the “bad” of noble morality has been transformed into “evil” through the slave revolt).  So the punishment one now deserves is owed not simply for the crime one committed, but for the evil character it reflects.  To deserve punishment on the basis of one’s character, however, one must be held responsible for that character, and this gives us the idea of free will in what Nietzsche calls “the metaphysical superlative sense,” the idea of oneself as causa sui, cause of oneself.  Nietzsche calls this “the best self-contradiction” so far, a “sort of rape and perversion of logic” (BGE 21).  

So one thing wrong with moralized notions of obligation and responsibility is that they are tied up with illusory notions, such as the causa sui idea of free will.  Yet this cannot be Nietzsche’s deepest problem with these moralized notions since he says that such errors “do not so much as touch the problem of [morality’s] value” (GS 345).  The problem of morality’s value comes into play, however, insofar as morality itself has contributed to the weakening of belief in the illusory notions, such as free will, to which its conceptions of obligation and responsibility are tied.  That is bound to weaken the hold of ideas of obligation and responsibility because the moral conception of them has been accepted as the only one.  

One thing wrong with moralized notions of obligation and responsibility is that they are tied up with illusory notions, such as the causa sui idea of free will.

To get deeper into what is problematic about the moralization of obligation and responsibility, we have to consider the internalized cruelty – the redirection of aggressive and cruel impulses, originally directed towards others, back against the self – that Nietzsche holds responsible for the moralization.  GM II tells a story about how this came about once human beings were “enclosed once and for all within the sway of society and peace” (GM II: 16). This complete enclosure within society or civilization – undoubtedly an abstraction or idealization, as we can tell when we consider our own societies - is made possible only by placing severe restrictions on the expression of aggressive impulses.  Partially civilized societies (e.g., the noble societies discussed in GM I) restrict such impulses against societal members, but allow them to be re-directed towards foreigners, whereas complete civilization means that one is not allowed to express aggressive impulses (openly) towards anyone.  Nietzsche suggests that this situation was only realized when nomadic “half animals who were happily adapted to wilderness, war, roaming around adventure” – were suddenly forced into civilization by a conquering force.  They could no longer rely on the natural organization of their drives and there was no time for natural or cultural selection to develop a new organization.  The result was a depression and heaviness (GM II: 16), which, Nietzsche claims, it is the “main concern” of “all great religions” to combat (GM III: 17).   

Religions combat this depression in various ways, but the one that brings about the moralization of responsibility and organization involves promoting the internalization of aggressive impulses, their redirection against the self – that is, against other impulses of the same organism.  For Nietzsche such internalization is not itself bad or problematic.  It makes it possible to hold oneself to certain standards when one has strong impulses to go against them, thereby establishing the possibility of having and acting on the basis of one’s own values or commitments (i.e., “internalized dispositions”), as opposed to acting only on the basis of instinct, fear, and mere self-interest.   In fact, Nietzsche thinks internalization makes possible the human soul, which he understands as a commonwealth of drives or impulses in which some command and others obey (BGE 19).  And it is certainly a brilliant solution to the problem of how to deal with aggressive impulses that cannot be expressed towards others.

The problematic aspect of internalization concerns how it was brought about, namely, through the ascetic ideal.  For, as stated above, aggressive impulses are directed against the self by being directed against other impulses.  But how does this occur?  Aggressive impulses can’t just beat up other impulses.  Instead they motivate the acceptance of ethical norms that reject the kind of behaviour that satisfies the other impulses.  And the ethical norms that did the trick were ones that had been developed by ascetics (who had found in ascetic practices a way of dealing with the depression that resulted from a contemplative life-style).  Aggressive impulses that could not gain external satisfaction motivated the acceptance of ascetic doctrines, which place restrictions on the satisfaction of other impulses (e.g., sexual ones, but also aggressive ones) in the name of an ideal that denigrates natural human life.  Nietzsche is here explaining how ordinary (non-contemplative) human beings who were not intrinsically drawn to asceticism (e.g., who have no interest in placing restrictions on their sex lives) nevertheless accepted the ascetic ideal: because it gave them a way of expressing aggressive impulses that they could no longer discharge against others.

It is their need for ever more internalization of aggression, hence self-denial, that has led them to sacrifice the belief in God, in free will, in any kind of other world that could redeem this one.

What’s the problem with that?  The basic problem is that internalizing cruelty or aggression by restricting the expression of other impulses only produces more aggression, with three possible results (or some combination thereof).  The new aggression can be tamped down, with a resulting general loss of vitality, it can be internalized, or it can be externalized, directed against others. I can’t go far into this complicated matter here, but I take Nietzsche’s view to be that (some of) the descendants of the contemplatives who invented the ascetic ideal take the second route.  It is their need for ever more internalization of aggression, hence self-denial, that has led them to sacrifice the belief in God, in free will, in any kind of other world that could redeem this one.  Nietzsche is not against the views that they have arrived at, of course.  They are his views - he is one of the contemplatives who took this path – and they are what truth demands.  But he denies that truth is enough, insisting that we need a new life-affirming ideal to develop new interpretations of the ethical notions that are now in danger.  Without that, what will remain for higher culture to do is simply to continue undermining more of its own basis. To quote from my book, Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics, (p. 73): “Using the conception of virtue derived from the slave revolt in morality as a basis for further internalization of cruelty, it turns against the desire for and belief in distinction, thereby depriving higher culture of much capacity to inspire, and depriving less spiritual types of any belief in the possibility of a higher type of human than they themselves are. Lower culture becomes unleashed from the ascetic ideal, becoming cruder and more oriented toward material things. Morality is now reduced to ‘herd-animal morality,’ based largely on prudence and conformity. The reign of the “last man” threatens because we now lack any ideal that could inspire us to care about much beyond our own happiness.”

Part two of this interview: Nietzsche as Political Thinker


Maudemarie Clark is Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside in California. She has written numerous works on 19th century German Philosophy, with a focus on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her books include Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (CUP, 1990) and Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics (OUP, 2015).