Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nietzsche, Darwin, and Christian Morality

It is remarkable that religious believers who fear Darwinian science as a threat to religious morality can quote Friedrich Nietzsche as supporting their position. I have noticed, for example, that whenever I defend a Darwinian conception of morality, some religious believers will remind me of what Nietzsche said about David Strauss and George Eliot.

Nietzsche's long essay on "David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer" (1873) was published as the first of four essays collected under the title Untimely Meditations. It is a scornful attack on Strauss's book The Old Faith and the New.

In 1835, Strauss's book The Life of Jesus provoked intense criticism and even violence against him, because he denied the historical reality of Jesus and argued that he was a purely mythical creation of the early Christian community. (This book was translated from the German into English by George Eliot in 1846.) Nietzsche's reading of the book as a theology student in 1864-65 helped to convince him to reject his Christian faith and to refuse to take communion at Easter 1865.

The Old Faith and the New extends Strauss's reasoning by rejecting any conception of a personal God and by arguing that the moral teaching of Christianity can be preserved as part of the "new faith" in Darwinian science.

Nietzsche dismisses Strauss as a foolish philistine who does not understand that in rejecting Christianity, he has rejected the foundation for a Christian morality of universal love that cannot be sustained by Darwinian science. Strauss does not realize, according to Nietzsche, that a truly Darwinian ethic would be based on a Hobbesian "war of all against all" with the rule of the stronger over the weaker. Instead, Strauss declares: "Do not ever forget that you are a man and not a mere creature of nature: do not ever forget that all others are likewise men, that is to say, with all their individual differences the same as you, with the same needs and demands as you--that is the epitome of all morality." But this ignores the fact that, according to Darwin, man is "precisely a creature of nature and nothing else."

Moreover, Nietzsche notes, Strauss fails to see that Darwinian science does not support his metaphysical belief in the moral character of the cosmos, his belief "that everything proceeds according to eternal laws out of the one primeval source of all life, all reason and all goodness--that is the epitome of religion." By contrast, Nietzsche explains: "Modern natural science and study of history have nothing whatever to do with the Straussian faith in the cosmos."

In the Twilight of the Idols (ix.5), Nietzsche makes the same point in ridiculing George Eliot:

"G. Eliot. They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females a la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

"We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth--it stands or falls with faith in God.

"When the English actually believe that they know 'intuitively' what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English moraltiy has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem."

But notice the crucial assumption here in Nietzsche's reasoning--his agreement with those Christians who claim that human beings cannot know what is good for them unless they receive Christian morality as a command from God. I reject this assumption, because I believe that human beings can know what is good for them from their natural moral experience. And in rejecting Nietzsche's assumption, I also reject his conclusion--that Christian morality cannot rightly be sustained if one no longer believes in the Christian God.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin says that "to do good unto others--to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you--is the foundation-stone of morality," and he claims that even primitive human beings might act according to this principle as impelled by "the love of praise and the dread of blame," because they care about how they appear to others (1:165). He writes: "The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need not say anything on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to show that the social instincts--the prime principle of man's moral constitution--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule. 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;' and this lies at the foundation of morality" (1:106).

That Darwin here quotes the statement of the golden rule from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12) might be taken by Nietzsche as evidence for his assertion that Christian morality depends on Christian faith. But notice that Darwin presents this rule as flowing "naturally" from human experience as combining social instincts, social habits, and intellectual activity. In referring to the social instincts as "the prime principle of man's moral constitution," Darwin has a footnote citing Marcus Aurelius, which suggests that the recognition of this moral sociality does not depend on Christian theology. Elsewhere in the Descent, Darwin explains the golden rule as a conclusion from the human experience of reciprocity--the natural tendency of human beings to respond in kind, rewarding those they trust and punishing those they don't. Consequently, when Jesus states the golden rule, he is not commanding something that human beings could not have figured out for themselves. Rather, he is reinforcing a lesson of human practical experience. Given our evolved human nature as social animals, our socially evolved habituation, and our intellectual powers for reflecting on our natural inclinations and social habits, we can understand the wisdom of the golden rule as "the foundation of morality."

Religious belief can reinforce our recognition of moral principles such as the golden rule, and that's why, as Darwin indicates, religion is important for moral history as contributing to our moral habituation. But still that morality can stand on its own natural ground even without any specific religious doctrines.

That's why I disagree with those like John Hare, Carson Holloway, and Peter Lawler, who agree with Nietzsche that there is no natural ground for Christian moral principles like the golden rule. (As I have indicated in some recent posts, it was only in his "middle period" that Nietzsche could see how morality could be rooted in evolved human nature without any need for a transcendent moral cosmology.)

A couple of previous posts on these points can be found here and here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

I find your blog very interesting. Your entire thesis that human morality does not require religion is provocative.

However, I must ask, is the morality you speak of- reciprocity and various iterations of the "Golden Rule"- merely utilitarianism in the absence of a transcendent deity?

I confess that I do believe Nietzsche's critique (at least in its practical implication). Further, I think he is the greatest critiquer in the last two centuries. His vision of the "Last Man" is haunting. His vision of the "abyss" and what happens as you stare into it is also haunting.

He sees better than almost anyone what men become without God. Unfortunately for him, his preferred solution of transvaluation of values and "Ubermensch" can't escape the primal need man feels for ethereal transcendence.

I do not believe nature is good enough. At best, it seems to be a complement to morality, not a justification solely on its own terms.

Roger Sweeny said...

In The Descent of Man, Darwin says that "to do good unto others--to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you--is the foundation-stone of morality," and he claims that even primitive human beings might act according to this principle as impelled by "the love of praise and the dread of blame," because they care about how they appear to others (1:165). He writes: "The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need not say anything on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to show that the social instincts--the prime principle of man's moral constitution--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule. 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;' and this lies at the foundation of morality" (1:106).

This sounds so much like Adam Smith's "impartial spectator" and James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense.

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, of course. Darwin read Smith's THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS. And Jim Wilson's account of the "moral sense" draws from both Smith and Darwin.

Encounter said...

In this view of things, seems like good must be defined as something akin to "live according to determined nature".

Am I far off? If the above definition I gave is your definition (or your world view's definition via logical outworking) of good, then Christianity (and religion in general), and naturalism are arguing for different things.

(forgive me if I'm way off)

Rafs said...


I think your post is a very well-written one. However, I disagree with it. I think the thesis you defend, that one can deduce an altruistic morality through naturalistic premises, reflects a very precocious position on the matter.

To present my reasons, I need to commence with a rather long introduction. (By this, I don't mean to imply that you don't know the things I expose here, however, in order to make my case more persuasive, and for myself to follow the reasoning I develop, I feel I need to write all those things.)

First of all, ontological naturalism implies the following question when one takes its premises to ethics: where does one derive all notion of good and evil, if, in a universe constituted only by matter and energy, there is not, and there cannot be, ethical facts independent of the thinking mind? (Transcendental religions and metaphysics don't need to bother with such questions. Platonism, for example, presupposes an Idea of the Good that is independent of the material world; and Judaism and Christianity derive all notion of good and evil from the laws given by God. Neither of these alternatives fit a naturalistic worldview.)

There are two possible answers to the above question: first, that those notions are derived from circumstances which man finds himself in, and as such they (the moral notions) are mutable along with those circumstances; and second (and this seems the position you defend here), that the content of such notions are innate to human mind.

Nietzsche preferred the first answer over the second for the following reason: because the variability of the moralities produced by different societies, religions and philosophies, doesn't testify to any stable notion of good aprehended by human mind. Homeric poems - of which it is said that they informed education in classical Greece - offer a notion of the good action that is different from the Bible's; Greek and Roman philosophers also thought morality to have a different end (personal happiness)* from that which Christians professed to believe (the neighbor's well-being or obedience to God), etc.

In order to explain such variability, Nietzsche decided to treat the content of human moralities as a product of two variables: the external circumstances of the men and the people who thought such moralities (e.g., their social status and condition); and their inner facts (their personal psychology or, in Nietzsche's terminology, their physiological health or decadence). Also, for Nietzsche, the psychological fact that best summarizes the tendency of human instincts is will to power - which is comprehensible only as an innate tendency to egotistic and expansionist pursues - because, by assuming a different essence in man, for example one impelled by self-conservation primarily, or an inherently sociable, altruistic one, it is not possible to understand the course of history, marked as it is by wars, corruption, slavery, oppression by the ruling classes of society over the inferior ones, etc.

As for Darwin's reasoning on why man would necessarily conclude the golden rule, it fails to explain all the historical and social facts that Nietzsche, and the thinker who did it before him, Schopenhauer, adduces when concluding the psychological facts that produced those different types of morality. It also fails to explain why there are those different types, for most societies have never presented an ethical principle such as the golden rule before the advent of Christinaity.

* Even the Stoics, the philosophical sect which Marcus Aurelius belonged to, should be included in this group.

Rafs said...

Darwin might have had a conception of ethics and morals that is close to the Christian one, but he doesn't explain where he derives it. For even his explanation of why primitive man would act in a moral, sociable way - because he responds to praise and criticism by his fellows - presupposes that egoistic drives guide his actions. Egoist interests cannot be a safe source from which to derive ethical principles, especially altruistic, sociable ones - either from individual men or whole communities - because such interests might vary in accord with circumstances. Different types of behavior might be potentially useful to the egoistic interests of men in particular, and societies in general, and, as such, in what respects to the primitive man in question, nothing can guarantee that his behavior will necessarily follow what his community determines as praiseworthy - if it is in his interest to betray his community, or if he can conceive for himself a good that is greater to the admiration of his fellows - and nothing guarantees that what his community determines to be done - what Darwin presupposes, without any given reason, to be something similar to that which the golden rule predicates - will be equal through time as its needs varies.

Larry Arnhart said...


What do you think about my recent arguments that Plato (or Plato's Socrates) does not really endorse any moral cosmology? It is not clear that Socrates supports the sort of cosmology set forth by the Athenian Stranger or Timaeus, or even the Idea of the Good in the REPUBLIC.

Darwin stresses the natural sociality of human beings that lead them through social instincts to develop morality. Edward Westermarck elaborates this idea.

Larry Arnhart said...


What do you think about my posts arguing that Nietzsche in his later writings showed his religious longings by suggesting that a new morality would require a new religion (Dionysian)?

Anonymous said...

This seems to me a highly misleading post. As I'm sure you must know, Darwin was notoriously inconsistent when it came to moral questions, and to the category of the "natural." Cherry-picking quotes is a game that can be played to support all kinds of positions. So, for example, we also find him saying this in the Descent:

"Nor is it probable that the primitive conscience would reproach a man for injuring his enemy; rather it would reproach him, if he had not revenged himself. To do good in return for evil, to love your enemy, is a height of morality to which it may be doubted whether the social instincts would, by themselves, have ever led us. It is necessary that these instincts, together with sympathy, should have been highly cultivated and extended by the aid of reason, instruction, and the love or fear of God, before any such golden rule would ever be thought of and obeyed.)"

in other words, without religion, the social instincts on their own would not have "naturally" produced something like the golden rule. Note he's not saying (as you do) that religion is "important" for the development of the golden rule, he is saying it is necessary.

We might also note this passage:

"It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely-different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering."

Which strikes me as approaching a radical form of moral relativism.

He's not consistent on this score, but that's my point. The category of "the natural" is a problem for Darwin, one we can see him struggling with throughout his entire writing career. To pretend otherwise is to do his work a disservice.

--JP Musselboro

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Musselboro,

I have responded to the points you make in many posts on this blog.

Anonymous said...

My mistake then! If you could just point me to them, I'd be obliged.

- JP

Larry Arnhart said...

Look here, here, here, and here.