The Good, Bad, and Evil — A Look At a Few Nietzsche’s Philosophies.
The Divine Comedy, Die Niecht, Thus Spoke Zarahustra — these are some of the most famous texts in philosophical history, and they all came from the least god-fearing person to ever walk the planet — Friedrich Nietzsche.
Today I want to talk about a few of Nietzsche’s key philosophies. All quotes are sourced from articles on Nietzsche from Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Nietzsche and Morality
If I asked you what morals you have, how would you answer? Maybe with ‘never tell a lie’, or the golden rule: ‘treat others the way you want to be treated.’ No matter what your morals are, we can agree that as a society, we use morals to keep each other in check and from committing atrocious acts.
Is it possible that our morals are actually harming us? Nietzsche thinks so.
His thought process is that “the moralization of our lives has insidiously attached itself to genuine psychological needs — some basic to our condition, others cultivated by the conditions of life under morality — so its corrosive effects cannot simply be removed without further psychological damage.”
I agree that our morals are inherently attached to our psychological needs. In order to see why, let’s take a look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Under love and belonging (which comes third tier on the pyramid), we have family, friends, connection — all things that give us community. History and evolution make it clear that community is a basic psychological need, especially for survival. Therefore, any act that, at its most basic, reduces that number, such as murder, is harmful because it decreases the amount of community we have. Hence, “Don’t kill other human beings.”
Looking at the lower tiers, we have the most of basic needs such as food, water, and financial stability. Any act that takes any amount of those things away, such as stealing, is also harmful, because it decreases the amount of those basic needs available to us. Hence, “Stealing is wrong.”
Any act that reduces the ways our needs are being met is inherently harmful towards our physical and/or mental well-being.
As I understand it, the corrosive effects of morality occur especially when we adhere too ardently to said morals to view the larger picture and empathize with ‘bad’ people.
Some of my friends have recently become obsessed with watching true crime documentaries on YouTube. There’s a morbid (pun not intended) fascination in their eyes when they watch the stories of twisted scenarios and individuals. Watch too much, and you start to understand the thought patterns of these people a bit too well. How long before the “monkey see, monkey do” effect kicks and you can’t even recognize who you are anymore?
Realistically, this rarely actually happens. But in many ways, when we empathize, we suspend our morals to gain a better understanding.
Society indoctrinates these morals in our head, almost from birth, and they’re things that can be taken for granted, in the same way that we take blinking or breathing for granted. Losing your morals when you don’t even know why you hold them as morals, does have the capacity for damage. I should know, I’ve spent countless sleepless nights wondering if I was the same after watching a few true crime stories myself.
Is there a point then to having morals at all? Of course there is — it’s not the best idea to go around doing whatever you want when it can harm yourself or others.
What matters most is that your morals are your own — meaning you came to resonate with your chosen morals through thinking through them. You don’t t accept them just because society says they’re morals, or that everyone should have them.
Nietzsche, Oppression and Differences Between Good and Bad and Evil.
People who suffered from oppression at the hands of the noble, excellent, (but uninhibited) people valorized by good/bad morality — and who were denied any effective recourse against them by relative powerlessness — developed a persistent, corrosive emotional pattern of resentful hatred against their enemies, which Nietzsche calls ressentiment. That emotion motivated the development of the new moral concept evil, purpose-designed for the moralistic condemnation of those enemies.
This quote confused me for a while, and it left me wondering: what is the true difference between bad and evil?
When I think bad, I think about food that’s gone rotten, or something that’s wrong but may not make a significant moral difference in the long run. Evil, on the other hand, means something that you can’t atone for. You can atone for stealing by giving what you stole back to its rightful owner, but there’s no way to give life back once it’s gone.
What Nietzsche believes distinguishes bad from evil is how modern notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are inherently tied to altruism. ‘
Good’ means using positions of power and high class privilege to help those who are disadvantaged and at a lower position in society than us.
‘Evil’ then, is the exact opposite, and ties in with oppression. This is where ressentiment comes in. Ressentiment is defined as “a persistent, corrosive emotional pattern of resentful hatred against [one’s] enemies.”
The concept of ressentiment begs the following questions:
Do the oppressed understand their own hatred towards these oppressors? And if they do, is it conscious or subconscious?
My take: I think ressentiment occurs on both a conscious and subconscious level. Conscious because the oppressed actively feels the weight of the actions of their oppressors. That rage is justified, especially because the blood of the oppressed lays on the oppressors’ hands. Blood that was once spilled cannot be given back (in a physical sense, yes, but also in the metaphorical sense).
The hate becomes subconscious when the pattern of oppression is repeated and exacerbated through repetition, which Nietzsche alludes to. The repeated oppressive acts fuel the response of hatred so much so that it becomes instinctual in the oppressed. Historically, this hatred is generally justified, but we also have to be careful about how exactly we define oppression (a topic for another article, perhaps).
But where did the idea of ‘goodness’ come from? Nietzsche postulates that ‘the idea of goodness came from social privilege.’
To an extent, this makes sense. Being higher class means there’s less of a struggle for survival because money is secured and day-to-day life is stable. Being poor often means that you don’t know where your next meal is going to be and where you’ll sleep tonight. You always have to be on guard.
Let’s say you were in a fight for a piece of food. The other person’s just as hungry as you are and it’s clear that neither of you are willing to let go. You might have to hurt that person in order to secure your food.
This act would be seen as ‘evil’ in higher class eyes — hurting someone is the exact opposite of helping people, which is where the ideal of ‘good’ comes from. In this situation, you aren’t thinking like that at all. You don’t have the privilege to help others in the same way that higher society does. To you, as long as you get to survive, any manner you take to ensure your survival.
All of these notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ and the differences between them, not to mention how society complicates them by never really differentiating between them, are quite the kerfuffle to wrap your head around. This shouldn’t really be that difficult to understand, right?
It’s really only difficult when, instead of exercising free thought, you keep chewing on whatever society spoon feeds you. It’s possible to transcend from that spoon-fed state into what Nietzsche calls the “Over-man.”
Nietzsche’s Over-man: Transcending Slave Morality.
To understand what the Over-man, we first need to understand what Master and Slave morality is.
Essentially, Master morality is a ‘yay-sayer’ attitude that thinks of good and bad meaning ‘noble’ and ‘despicable’ respectively. Masters are the ones who create value.
Conversely, slave morality is a ‘nay-sayer’ attitude, and they are those who can’t create their own value. These individuals are always chasing after praise from the master even though they don’t feel they deserve it.
In many ways, these two attitudes coexist in modern society, meaning that a person can act as if they operate under a slave and a master morality. (though in reality, looking for praise from the herd only means one is truly operating under a slave morality).
Let’s look at social media like Instagram to better understand how these two can seemingly coexist.
You post a picture of you and your friends in Bali, lounging on the beach, mango milkshakes in hand. It’s the perfect day, and you want to show your followers you’re having a good time.
The problem is, all of the posts on your profile are of you having a good time. In fact, Instagram’s basically a highlight reel of your life.
Who are you really posting these pictures for? Is it for you, so you can look back on all the good times you’ve had? Or is it so you can brag to the rest of the world how great your life is?
In this case, you are the ‘slave’ to the validation of others and your followers are the ‘master’ whose approval you’re seeking in the form of little red hearts and comments. You’re simultaneously the ‘master’ when you’re the one hitting the like button and commenting “so cute!!” on a friend’s post. (Do you even know that person that well?)
In theory this should hold true, but the true difference between master morality and slave morality is that master morality breeds strength and independence. Master morality doesn’t rely on the opinions or validation of others to create value — once again, they create value and recognize the inherent value they possess. (As an aside, it is absolutely doable to use social media in this way! As long as you’re mindful of why you’re using it to begin with.)
The ultimate goal is then to rise above the slave morality. I believe this is possible once we recognize that we inherently create value simply through being ourselves. Yes, our actions won’t matter ultimately. They do however, matter in this life. Understanding these two axioms is what being an over-man means.
Nietzsche believes that morality = mediocrity, therefore, we must stand beyond good and evil.
It’s time we introspect to go beyond preconceived notions of what good and evil and think for ourselves to decide what our own morals and values should be.
Thanks for reading my reflection article on some of Nietzsche’s key philosophies! If you’d like to chat, I’d love to get in touch! You can find me on Linkedin or reach me through my personal email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time!