Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
6 November 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Beyond good and evil

If humanity is to reinvent itself, it must learn to overcome the prejudices of 'morality'

By Keith Pearson

Nietzsche’s philosophy is best approached as one huge intellectual experiment with a laboratory of new methods, concepts, and thought experiments. As I have mentioned, it has two main aspects: purification and dedication.

Humanity is to reinvent itself and learn to know itself for the first time. We are not what we take ourselves to be, either as knowing subjects or moral agents; or, as Nietzsche says, we knowers are unknown to ourselves.

We are seekers of knowledge and want knowledge – this is true of Plato, of the Christian, and so on – and yet we don’t know where to find it. We’ve been looking in the wrong places (the afterworld or the hinterworld).

Nietzsche promotes what he calls ‘the gay science’ – living life as a means to knowledge with the reward of serenity or a rich cheerfulness – and invites us to think ‘beyond good and evil’. There are two sets of prejudices that need to be worked against here and defeated: those of ‘morality’ and those of the philosophers. Nietzsche promotes himself as an immoralist but knows also that he is a great moralist.

He calls for ‘the self-overcoming of morality’, and although this sounds grandiose, even pretentious, Nietzsche stresses that his taste is for more modest propositions when it comes to ‘morality’, and adds that we perform this task ‘out of morality’.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

In short, his critique of morality is an ethical one. It involves learning to think beyond the belief in the absolute opposition of values, that is, not treating values – true and false, good and evil, egoism and altruism – as if these denoted pure (metaphysical) entities uncontaminated by each other and historical mixtures.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

A philosophy of ‘good and evil’ would hold that what is ‘good’ is pure, uncontaminated by empirical or historical sources and origins. When Nietzsche thinks ‘beyond good and evil’ he is, at least in one important respect, thinking in direct opposition and contrast to the fanatic.

The free spirit is the opposite of the fanatic. The moral fanatic is someone who holds, with frightening naiveté, that the good can grow only out of the good and upon the basis of the good. The moral dogmatist holds that there is a pure realm of morality where we can readily disentangle the non-egoistic and the egoistic drives and affects.

Perhaps they also take a morality of guilt and punishment to be a real feature of the world and a real agent, as when someone tells you that you deserve your current suffering or misery, or that natural events are the will of God.

When we honestly examine what is often taken to be the summit of the moral in philosophy – the mastery of the affects – we discover that there is pleasure to be taken in this mastery. I can impress myself by what I can deny, defer, resist, etc. It is through this mastery that I grow and develop.

And yet ‘morality’ as we moderns have come to understand it would have to give such ethical self-mastery a bad conscience. If we take as our criterion of the moral to be self-sacrificing resolution and self-denial, we would have to say, being honest, that such acts are not performed strictly for the sake of others; my own fulfilment is at work (my pride).

On the basis of a completely unscientific understanding of ‘morality’ – so-called ‘unegoistic actions’ – a false ethics gets erected, buttressed by religion and metaphysical monsters, and the shadow of these dismal spirits in the end falls across physics and the entire perception of the world.

Nietzsche wants us to appreciate our ethical complexity, not posit an unrealistic conception of ourselves, which has such harmful effects. We think we have an adequate understanding of moral agency, e.g. that we have properly identified moral motives and located the sources of moral agency. The opposite, Nietzsche argues is, in fact, the case: we completely lack knowledge in moral matters.

For Nietzsche the good virtues and the evil vices two are reciprocally conditioning: all ‘good’ things have arisen out of dark roots through sublimation and spirtualization, and they continue to feed off such roots.

Morality expects a person to be dutiful, obedient, self-sacrificing in their core and at all times: this demands ascetic self-denial and is a form of refined cruelty (it’s pretty stupid too). In every ascetic morality, Nietzsche writes, the human worships a part of itself as God and then needs to diabolize the other part.

Nietzsche continues to affirm the need for morality in the following senses:

-As techniques of physical-spiritual discipline.
-As an instinct for education and cultivation. He wants this ‘unconscious instinct’ to be placed in the service of new individuals and not, as we have he thinks now, that of ‘the power-instinct of the herd’.
-An aspiration towards autonomy (this might be the prerogative of the free spirit).