Nietzsche on the Moralist’s You Should

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What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s view on the moralist’s “You should…” This article will use a section from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols to explore the epistemic, ontological, and psychological commitments that are necessarily held by a moralist who says “You should do x (instead of y).” There are three questions about the moralist that I shall raise from the Nietzschean perspective. 1) the epistemic: what does the moralist know about the world? 2) the ontological: what is there “in the world” on the moralist’s view? 3) the psychological: what is the moralist’s frame of mind? I shall take these three questions in turn. Consider the following passage:

…let us think how naïve it is to say ‘this is the way people should be!’. Reality shows us an enchanting abundance of types, a lavish profusion of forms in change and at play: and some worthless idiot of a moralist sees all this and says: ‘no! people should be different from the way they are’!? (175)

These are complex questions, so think of the following as a sketch that depends on circumstances that are too dynamic to characterize in 1000 or so words if in words at all.

What does the moralist know about the world?

The moralist might offer an absolute moral rule like: Always respect your physiological elders; When in an elevator, push only the button for the floor you’re traveling to; Never shout the word χεζητιῶ at a cotillion. Now, one must know a great deal about the world and about the human place within that world in order to emit this sort of general advice. The moralist that utters the ‘you-should’ lays claim to a special awareness of the crucial details about reality. Because there would be no point to telling someone something that he already knows, the moralist also claims a species of privileged access to these dimensions of reality. So, the epistemic claim is twofold: 1) I have privileged access to the most salient dimensions of human moral life. I know what people ought. 2) You don’t. And these two claims are drawn together into a single ‘ought’ in the form of a ‘you should do x instead of y.’

I should like to couch these two features of the epistemic claim in terms of grammatical person. Consider the claim: you should never melt coconut oil in order to drink it. This claim has its basis in a form of folk knowledge that cites scientific studies about heart disease. That citation consists in the third person claim. It is a ‘there is such and such fact or series of facts about the world’ claim. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. The moralist then either witnesses someone ignorant of this feature of reality (or anticipates that someone will be ignorant of it) and informs them of that feature of reality by telling the ignorans: you really ought to do x instead of y (because of some citable fact about the world, if you would like to know). The actual edict consists in the second person claim—the moment when that impersonal knowledge is as it were ‘thrown’ at another ethical subject like a dart at a dartboard.

The moralist both claims a piece of knowledge about some impersonal fact about reality and then claims another piece of knowledge—that someone else ought to heed that fact.

What is there in the world on the moralist’s view?

The answer to this question consists in different ontological and metaphysical levels. I shall first consider the level of universal moral claims—those that serve as a call to action for the whole of the human species. Like those knuckle tattoos that say ‘F E A R G O D !’. Exclamation point because of the eighth knuckle. Or I suppose one could extend the r for emphasis—F E A R R G O D. But then you’d have R G O D on the right hand. Should you lose your left hand, the right would become incoherent. You could do G O D D, too, but with just the right hand it would sound like you are exasperated. Anyway, this is a fine example. Let us assume that someone who makes this kind of claim—Fear God!—does so in a way that is meant to be true of all people, though they may well F E A R G O D in a humbler and gentler way that respects the religious beliefs of others. The universal form of the F E A R G O D impetus involves a threefold ontological and metaphysical claim: 1) There are things in the world that are of human kind. 2) There is a certain kind of God. 3) The relational aspect: that this kind of God is the sort of thing of which humans ought to be afraid.

What about the coconut oil example? Never drink coconut oil. This involves a naturalist assumption about human physiology. People with high cholesterol are at risk of cardiovascular disease—and that sort of physiological disorder is deadly, brother. Coconut oil has high cholesterol. If you drink coconut oil, you’re as good as dead.

The greatest commonality between these two sketchy examples is the assumption that the ‘human being’ is a natural kind. Qua natural, a thing’s being human entails that it has roughly identical properties to all other humans. All people ought to fear God because they are mere people; nobody should drink coconut oil because that is bad for the human body. And the list could go on. But rather than affirming differences between human beings, the moralist imposes a universal onto all other human beings as though all other human beings are reducible to the human ‘type’, or as though reduction to this human ‘type’ were a metaphysical feature of the thing that allows him to know about its essence. Hamlet says, You would play upon me. I am now entering the psychological dimensions of the moralist’s view…

What is the moralist’s frame of mind?

Let me recap the picture that I have already offered: first, the moralist claims knowledge about some fact and then claims that someone else ought to pay attention to that fact; second, the moralist believes that identity in terms of sameness characterizes the human species. Once one knows certain facts about one human being, he know facts about all humans. If he reads an article that begins “Study finds that bee stings help with allergies”, then he will soon be recommending to his sniffly companions that they might try getting stung by bees, for the study found it.

The best way into the moralist’s psyche involves reframing the ontological and epistemic questions that I asked earlier. Namely, what does the moralist not know? Nietzsche writes that the moralist:

…paints a picture of himself on the wall and says ‘ecce homo!‘.

By this, Nietzsche means that the moralist really speaks about the projections that occur within the walls of his own mind. The third person epistemic claims that are meant to represent homo sapiens as such really consist in a self-portrait—Nietzsche artfully reduces what the moralist couches as third and second person utterances as a thoroughly self-centered view. And there are serious consequences to this kind of moralizing, so Nietzsche does not stop there:

An individual is a piece of fate, from the front and from the back; an individual is one more law, one more necessity imposed on everything that is coming and going to be. To say to an individual: ‘change yourself’ means demanding that everything change, even retroactively… And in fact there have been consistent moralists who wanted people to be different, namely virtuous, who wanted to have people in their own image, which is that of an idiot: and to this end they negated the world!

Nietzsche thinks that the life of an individual—no matter how “well it goes” by oftentimes arbitrary social standards—has an intrinsic value insofar as it is part of the perceptual world. By the ‘perceptual’, I merely mean that the human being is generally part of our sensory experience, unless he is hiding in the bushes. That perceptual space consists in all there ever really is. Now, the moralist knows this on some level and denies it on another. When a moralist urges that some other ethical subject radically change themselves, he rages against the way the world is. He wishes that the world not be so. For Nietzsche, this constitutes a hatred of life, a ‘negat[ion of] the world’.

Despite that it is hypocritical for a moralist (who oftentimes professes a profound love), why not negate the world? I might argue that hating the world—wishing that it be otherwise than it is—is a recipe for psychosis. Why? Because, as he says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the will cannot will backwards. Memories can be reconceptualized, reconstituted, reconfronted, but the situations that impress themselves onto memory can never actually be changed. If one esteems that the cycle of moralizing be broken, then even the ugliest regions of one’s past must be loved just as the daintiest are.

To think that the individual ought to change is to desire that the world not have been as it has and is. This hangs together with another important Nietzschean concept—réssentiment—insofar as the desire to change the other constitutes a self-negation on the part of the moralist. The moralist feels his own pain at what he thinks the other is. Instead of resolve his own pain, or even love it, he offers a ramification of that pain to another person in the form of a ‘you should’.

I left a lot out and not on purpose—you should definitely read Nietzsche yourself.

Nietzsche on the Moralist's You Should
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Nietzsche on the Moralist's You Should
This article explores three philosophical dimensions of the mind of a person who tells another: "You should". I use Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche to trace epistemic, ontological, and psychological dimensions of the "you should."
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