Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nietzsche and "Morality as Animal"

My new book project will probably have to include a chapter on Friedrich Nietzsche, because Nietzsche was one of the first philosophers to think through the moral and political implications of Darwinian science.

Nietzsche shows two opposing positions in his responses to modern science generally and Darwinian science in particular. In his early and late writings, Nietzsche worries that the scientific teaching of evolution is "true but deadly" because it denies the transcendent norms that motivate human greatness. In his book On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1873), he warns: "If the doctrines of sovereign evolution, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines that I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place, systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future."

But in Nietzsche's middle writings--particularly, Human, All Too Human (1878) and Dawn (1881)--he explains that while he rejects the possibility of the "absolute truths" assumed by "metaphysical philosophy," he affirms the "unpretentious truths" discovered through the scientific investigation of historical reality. Since "everything has evolved," and "man has evolved," everything is historically contingent, and therefore there are no eternal truths. And yet a properly historical science of evolution can discover the "unpretentious truths" of historical development. So, while human nature is not eternal, because it has evolved as the product of a historical development, we can draw historical generalizations about human beings that are true for as long as human beings exist in their present form. Although the historical knowledge that comes from science is limited and contingent, it is a genuine kind of knowledge. "True science," Nietzsche believes, is "the imitation of nature in concepts."

At the beginning of HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN, Nietzsche writes: "Everything essential in the development of humanity took place in primeval times, long before the four thousand years we more or less know about; during these years humanity may well have not altered very much. But the philosopher sees 'instincts' in man as he now is and assumes that these belong to the unalterable facts of humanity and to that extent could provide a key to the understanding of the world in general: the whole of teleology is constructed by speaking of the man of the last four millennia as of an eternal man towards whom all things in the world have had a natural relationship from the time he began. But everything has evolved: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently, what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty."

This historical science of human nature includes a natural history of morals. By Nietzsche's scientific account, morality does not elevate human beings beyond the natural world, because human morality arises from the natural evolutionary history of animal life. In Dawn, he explains: "The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery--in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues--are animal: a consequence of that drive that teaches us to seek food and elude enemies. Now if we consider that even the highest human being has only become more elevated and subtle in the nature of his food and in his conception of what is inimical to him, it is not improper to describe the entire phenomenon of morality as animal."

Explaining "morality as animal" conforms to a Darwinian science of human beings as animals shaped by a history of natural evolution. But many human beings regard such an explanation as a degrading view of human beings, because it denies their spiritual character as elevated above the natural world by some divinely instilled longing for eternal redemption.

Nietzsche shows this same fear in his early and late writings when he worries about Darwinian evolution as "true but deadly." The religious imagery of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the teaching of eternal return satisfy Nietzsche's religious longing for transcendence by "eternalizing" earthly life. This religious motivation in Nietzsche was seen by Lou Salome, one of his closest friends and the woman who rejected his proposal of marriage. As a skeptical free thinker, Salome agreed with Human, All Too Human and the other books from Nietzsche's middle period of writing for "free spirits." But in his later writings--particularly, Thus Spoke Zarathustra--she saw a religious mysticism that she rejected, and which she attributed to a religious yearning that Nietzsche could never overcome. This seemed to be confirmed by the fact that Nietzsche described his experience in writing Zarathustra as "inspiration" and "revelation."

In my chapter on Nietzsche, I will defend his evolutionary science of morality in Human, All Too Human and Dawn as sensible; and I will reject the atheistic religiosity of his transcendent longings as unreasonable.


Ben Austin said...

Human transcendent longings, which at all appearances appear to have no external referent, should be considered in the same category as sexuality and the desire to use recreational drugs.

While it is unclear exactly how the latter began, it continues because it is an activity that people find useful for social or subjective, experiental reasons.

Religion is a recreational activity with a cult following. Like many non-religious cults, religions have myths to rationalize and organize their activities. These myths tend to assert things that are demonstrably false, for social and psychological reasons.

Anonymous said...

You may want to read, if you haven't already, Jean Gayon's helpful essay "Nietzsche and Darwin" in BIOLOGY AND THE FOUNDATION OF ETHICS, edited by Jane Meienschein and Michael Ruse.

At the beginning of it, he says, "Nietzsche's serious commentaries on Darwin and Darwinians began in HUMAN ALL-TOO-HUMAN (1878) and developed uninterruptedly from then on. The high point of that one-sided 'dialogue' was the GENEALOGY OF MORALS (1887), a book explicitly written against the Darwinian view of the origin of morals and published shortly before Nietzsche's definitive descent into madness (early 1889."

It seems then you would have to take seriously not only HATH but also GM.

Anton Rays said...

The best religions describe reality without literalism. It goes without saying that most religions can't live up to this high standard.

Choosing to reject all religion, because most fail, is what is unreasonable.

I think Nietzsche knew this, but was cut short before he could fully develop his ideas.

Larry Arnhart said...

To understand Nietzsche's relationship to Darwinian science, one needs to study his friendship with Paul Ree and the influence of Ree's moral Darwinism.

Robin Small has written about this in his book NIETZSCHE AND REE: A STAR FRIENDSHIP. Small has also translated Ree's PSYCHOLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS and ORIGIN OF THE MORAL SENSATIONS.

This is an important episode in the develoment of evolutionary ethics.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that Nietzsche's views were greatly influenced by his Pietist Christian upbringing, which included a highly negative, Augustinian-Calvinist view of human nature. When he abandoned Christianity he unfortunately kept much of its views on human psychological motivation, and so for this reason, among others, was not open to a Darwinian view of natural right.

-- Les Brunswick

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the concept of eternal return was meant to be taken literally. Rather, it was meant to amplify a sort of "yes-saying" to this life--a life that one lives to the fullest, and with no regrets--because if the events of your life were to play over and over again (note the use of the subjunctive--I'm pretty sure Nietzsche didn't intend this to be taken literally), you would want to live with no reservations or regrets. And that's what Nietzche meant, I believe. While Also Sprach Zarathusta might be religious in its own sense (as any work of art invariably is), it is firmly grounded in this world. Nietzsche shows nothing but contempt (or pity, though that's not quite the right word either) for other-worldliness in Also Sprach Zarathustra because it undermines the metaphorical concept of eternal return, and all its implications. But that's just me--his writing can get so cryptic that any interpretation is simply reduced to speculation--albeit some interpretations are better than others. I look forward to this book project. New perspectives are always appreciated. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I struggle with understanding eternal recurrence as non-literal - the cosmological vs. Existential Models. He identified it as one his most important thoughts in EH. Modern developments in Qunatum Theory add surprising validity to the idea. However, to be meaningful, one would have to have some kind of cosmic counter when the deamon whispers in your ear in the GS.
Secondly, I don't think Amor Fati is about living without reservation or regret. It is about embracing all of your regrets as part ofe everything that is what you are and what you will become - once again the Gay Science Aph 270: You should become who you are.