Nietzsche on Moral Progressivism: Stupid, Deceptive, False

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This article is about moral progressivism (MP)—the idea that human morals consistently improve over time—and what Friedrich Nietzsche thinks about it. I shall spend some time attempting to refute a certain inner attitude of my own, to undermine the logic of a certain internal archetype that I might call ‘the inner self helper’—the fixer: repairman, policeman, fireman. The most basic question, What is moral progressivism? can only be answered after I set some parameters on the discourse. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols:

We stop valuing ourselves enough when we communicate. Our true experiences are completely taciturn. They could not be communicated even if they wanted to be. This is because the right words for them do not exist. The things we have words for are also the things we have already left behind.

Nietzsche also values his own ability to use language:

To create things that stand the test of time; striving for a little immortality in form, in substance – I have never been modest enough to demand less of myself. I am the first German to have mastered the aphorism…my ambition is to say in 10 sentences what other people say in a book, – what other people do not say in a book. . .

So, I should start the article by saying that, for Nietzsche, there are two ways that we can speak about moral progressivism. The one, the intelligible and everyday sort of communication in which people talk about, e.g., it being ‘the 21st century now’, et al.; the other, true depiction: image, aphorism, poetry. I use the word poetry poetically. The latter, the refusal to use language about progressivism as a zombie would… instead, to conceptualize the that-I-am-using-language. This conceptualization of language as language keeps the word from becoming flesh. The former, to remain trapped in the view of a localized language and culture as reality schema.

Now, if MP were true, it would not be ‘describable’ in ordinary syntax. The kind of argument that could show someone that MP is at least in some sense true would have to consist in experiential images that seal themselves into memory. Nietzsche is right to say that everyday discourse about moral progressivism, then, consists in a vulgarization and intelligibilization of the regions of spirituality within which no argument can genuinely be made without first having the experiential content that gives one access to the argument’s meaning.

So, already we see that, if MP were true, it wouldn’t be merely ‘heard about’ but would consist in a lived experience that involves multiple sensory and intellectual angles. To show MP would then require a robust and complex motion image, as that which one finds in a Greek tragedy. This leads Nietzsche to a series of paradoxes that follow from the idea that any ordinary discourse ‘about it’ is really ‘about’ something else. A petty attempt to exert dominance over other human bodies: that something else only ever is the human body that emits moral discourses.

It should now be roughly clear that no ordinary talk about morality is sensible in any sense of the term… it is the synthetic sum of perception-intellect-emotion. And no propositional depiction can make sense without a rich experience of what those words signify.

So, what are some key properties of the moral progressivist outlook? Nietzsche observes that every age thinks itself the authentically moral age. He reports that, after having written Beyond Good and Evil, he was ‘told to consider the ‘undeniable superiority’ of the modern age when it comes to ethical judgment, our very real progress in that area.’ (211) The German milieu that reacted against Beyond Good and Evil cited their own morality as infinitely superior to that of the Renaissance. But Nietzsche thinks that 1) the modern man has no access to Renaissance life as such and 2) that modern morality simply constitutes a different form of maturity and 3) that that maturity itself is grotesque, idiotic, and manipulative.

But how idiotic, manipulative, grotesque? What Nietzsche doesn’t like about modern morality is its rampant codependence. He writes that modern morality amounts to:

“the loss of any hostile instincts that might arouse mistrust[, which] represents just one of the consequences of a general loss of vitality… This is why people help each other, this is why everyone is sick to some extent, why everyone is a nurse. This is called ‘virtue’ –: with people who still knew a different sort of life – one that was fuller, more extravagant, more overflowing – it would have been called something else, maybe ‘cowardice’, ‘misery’, or ‘old lady morality’.”

There are actually words for this in everyday psychological discourse: the one that immediately comes to mind is codependency. American culture enforces codependency / people-pleasing as a virtue and punishes in a still very Christian way any sense of pride. Lying on the ground, feigning weakness: these are the noblest possible applications of all your strength… especially your intellectual strength.

I use the word codependency because the sickness of the other becomes the sickness of the self. The inner self helper is responsible for another’s “malaise”—to react to that malaise becomes the self’s “moral duty”. You purge your own instincts to strength and self-protection (always in the name of higher ideals) in order not to touch another’s wounds. Or even to credit oneself with having healed another’s psychological laceration.

But recall that wounds are healthy for Nietzsche. Not only does a ‘helper’ come off his own path in a self-debasing way, but the ‘helper’ also enforces the other’s (usually socially constructed) sickness. This certainly marks a dimension of American culture that kinds of Christian spirituality still dominate… even among those who think themselves ‘past’ and ‘smarter than’ Christianity.

The idea is to avoid telling the wounded that they have been wounded. No healing, no convalescence, no strength. Open the wounded’s wounds… keep them like trophies that signal one’s own “goodness”. Oh, look at how many I have helped! But how many have you really helped? How many could you have helped by directly embodying your fullest strengths? How many have you really helped? Certainly not yourself… perhaps not even the wounded… at last, perhaps no one at all.

Every age considers itself the authentically moral age. The American idea of morality—socialism, sociality—is to reconstitute Christianity into a materialist-deist mode. The principle of ‘giving’… life as a series of neurotic efforts not to let your serious feelings leak into open air. The Jonestown principle of ‘giving’; the principle of mass suicide. Never let others convalesce and grow spiritually, always interfere and see what credit you can win for their development, and in so doing abandon yourself. Charity. Love.

Charity and hope. Justice. These are the ‘virtues’ in the unphilosophical sense to which one might aspire. Not strength, honor, dignity: but why the former triad above the latter? This is key for Nietzsche: strength, honor, and dignity involve one’s own person. They involve one’s own body, the ego, the Ich, the I. But charity, hope, justice: these are impersonal (Unpersönlichen) views of reality. The third person, subjectless perspective: this is where the ultimate truth lives. This is the kind of information that the modern moralist cites—you know, no information. The kind of abstraction that can always be predicated and never be predicated. Social norms that have a pure external construction as a ground. Groundless social practices—or social practices grounded in themselves, no matter what they historically resemble—that decide for you what you are worth, what you are allowed to be… because how else should we run things? Within this framework—the only framework I am educated to refer to—I see no alternative… no alternative but to be a docile body, a ‘good’ employee. Show up, shut up, sit there, collect. Overtime not required. Actually: overtime forbidden. Or at least strongly discouraged.

The moral progressivist thinks that ‘we’ (a first person plural which is always really a daydreamed sitcom in which the subject stars as the goofy but lovable and serious when he needs to be protagonist) are increasingly on our way toward that 3rd person, immaterial and (merely linguistic but of course always ultimately) material, ethereal view of “right action”. The perfect way to control all the challenges that beset human existence…

Nietzsche finds all this gross. This kind of progressivism is a theater of decadence. It is funny as is the self-deprecating humorist whose life is genuinely falling apart. It is the tragic as is the oedipal tragedy–meddling, interference, self-imposition… spiritual blindness. This is the moral progressivist’s idea of the “morality” as “reality” to which moderns have privileged access. FOR NIETZSCHE. #fornietzsche

Perhaps the progressivist has a point! But even in the event that there is personal value in the third person perspective no such hypocrisy can be innocent. Especially vis à vis réssentiment.

And we find a symptom of the working toward a third person spirituality in higher education; Foucault, somewhere, began thinking about the humanities as sciences that produce forms of knowledge that capture impersonalized bodies within them. School, like Agamben’s camp, teaches you that you are ‘permissible’ and ‘legal’ insofar as you have the kind of being that ‘the authorities’ require of you. School—at all levels—is a place where you go to become institutionalized in such a way that is meant to lessen the probability of an social ‘outburst’. Outbursts are inefficient—not productive. Let’s avoid feeling that way, even if we can’t—man’s highest ideal. Toughness? Swallow it. NB: a deadened spirit pairs well with spirits.

The class periods, the homework, the ‘exams’. What do you think you are really examining? The students gazing at the clock… waiting patiently to be through with the workday. But patient nonetheless—an instance of virtue. Technologies of instructing the self not to be a self… Higher ed: technologies of attempting to piece together a safe-self out of whatever is left.

Nietzsche, all-too-Nietzsche. As he quotes Horace: aere perennius. It is well that he uses Latin, for he owes his moral pessimism to the Roman historians. He means to create something eternal—to stand apart from his own age. Latin authors offer him a meta-analytic view of himself as an ethical agent. The Romans had precisely the opposite view of the moral progressivist: things were getting worse, worse, and mo’ worse. And it was the trading of Roman martial virtues, the sacrifice of the martial tenacitas for the mollitia that allows one to become socially popular qua so inoffensive (i.e., a non-self) that no one can come up with a good reason to hate you.

Boy, Nietzsche does damage, doesn’t he? He makes an offhand point that I think right to close on: the value of egoism or selfishness is only as valuable as the self that is valued. And it is unknowable whether or not one is really fit to place those third person ideals in question—or as Nietzsche says, to shoot at morality. To choose what is not harmful to oneself—the personal virtues over the impersonal—is to call attention to oneself; it is either brave or rash when the institution gets annoyed at being forced to notice that you are real. But what would practical intellectual virtue—φρόνησις in the Aristotelian sense—really mean without the possibility of suspending high-fallutions for the sake of the practical being of the self? A call to give infinitely of the self in which the gift a) in the eyes of the recipient remains unintelligible and personally instrumental… and b) in the eyes of the giver is of negligible importance.

A culture in which the will to power is entirely desublimated ‘back’ into entirely selfish ends would be raw brigandry. Imagine a body of social norms in which weirdos, fools, and champions all fiercely insist on their own value… We now enter into difficult territory: for what is the weirdo, who is the fool, the champion? What argument verifies the value of what the champion wins? Nietzsche, I think, made his arguments so as to create the space for suspending (his own) inner self helper and to analyze the psyche and the body as the substrate of moral judgments. If anything, the Nietzschean tremor exposes weaknesses and vulnerabilities—and so forces convalescence—by the very act of wounding morality to begin with.

Nietzsche on Moral Progressivism: Stupid, Deceptive, False
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Nietzsche on Moral Progressivism: Stupid, Deceptive, False
Nietzsche's Twilight offers a critique of moral progressivism: the idea that morality just keeps getting better. Read to find out why.
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