Chapter Two of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human shows gives to us a radically different account of human morality than has traditionally been presented in philosophy. It is founded in psychological and sociological analysis that focuses on the most fundamental factors of social order. It approaches such things as the origin of ethical behaviour, of the concept of justice, of evil and the social instinct in human beings which makes us all amenable to acting in a certain way together rather than going off in all directions. A central theme that Nietzsche brings out is morality as a trumped up extension of social necessity. He also questions the question of justice, which is a central theme to the ancient Greek philosophy to which Nietzsche looks so often in his work. I contend that while it is a popular notion that Nietzsche is a “destroy everything” nihilist who wants to tear apart all belief in goodness and society, Nietzsche is not proposing this at all. Rather, I see him as only wanting us to tear apart the illusions surrounding our moral values so that we are not trapped in believing that these values are somehow intrinsic or inherent. If we allow this to happen, then we can become subjugated to moral values that have become twisted and useless over the course of thousands of years and we will be unable to pursue our lives to their utmost potential. Here, I will look at some of Nietzsche’s analysis in Chapter Two and comment on them in order to show that he does not believe that morals are an utter fiction, only that the way in which they are conceived is one. Indeed, Nietzsche proposes that at the very centre of all moral values is the desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain, which is a perfectly natural, and indeed, animal impulse.

In the works of Plato, one central concept is that of justice. This theme runs throughout plenty of philosophy in the ancient world; Nietzsche himself mentions Thucydides in saying that justice is synonymous with fairness, and that it “originates among approximately equal powers” (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, p.64, §92). In Book Two of The Republic, Plato writes that

it is according to nature a good thing to inflict wrong or injury, and a bad thing to suffer it, but that the disadvantages of suffering it exceed the advantages of inflicting it; after a taste of both, therefore, men decide that, as they can’t evade the one and achieve the other, it will pay to make a compact with each other by which they forgo both. They accordingly proceed to make laws and mutual agreements, what the law lays down they call lawful and right. This is the origin and nature of justice. It lies between what is most desirable, to do wrong and avoid punishment, and what is most undesirable, to suffer wrong without being able to get redress; justice lies between these two and is accepted not as being good in itself, but as having a relative value due to our inability to do wrong. For anyone who had the power to do wrong and was a real man would never make any such agreement with anyone - he would be mad if he did (Plato, The Republic, p.45)
This is in accordance with what Nietzsche wants to draw out through his meditations. He calls the character and nature of justice a “barter” (Nietzsche §92), and tries to emphasize that it is based in an agreement which actually goes against what is natural. Thousands of years of human society have blurred these origins and caused us to think that things were always this way and that behaving in a just manner is just something that has always been present for us as human beings. In fact, Nietzsche sees our social and intellectual tendency as an important factor in having caused us to “have forgotten the original purpose of so-called just, fair actions, and particularly because children have been taught for centuries to admire and imitate such actions, it has gradually come to appear that a just action is a selfless one.” (Nietzsche §92) This is something that we have all experienced; when we are being raised by our parents, they are certainly not inclined to tell us it is good to be nice to other people because we are trying to maintain an unspoken social contract that prevents us from killing each other. Of course, they tell us that we should be nice to people because it is the right thing to do. This comes across as an intrinsic value, and western society (for instance) uses the Christian philosophy and religion as a touchstone for this train of thought. If we look closely at the concept of justice, however, Nietzsche contends that we cannot and will not find an intrinsic value to it.

Ethical behavior is inextricably tied into justice. If justice is the traditional contract between people in a society, then ethical behavior is that which adheres to what is considered just (the laws of the land. If justice has been transformed over time from a matter of social order and necessity into an absolute good, then ethical behavior (and consequently those who behave in that way) has undergone the same transformation. “We call ‘good’ the man who does the moral thing as if by nature, after a long history if inheritance - that is, easily and gladly, whatever it is (he will, for example, practice revenge when that is considered moral, as in the older Greek culture)” (Nietzsche §96). Nietzsche’s recognition of the fact that different cultures adopt different social mores is important. When societies are in a stage of development at which they have not yet had very much interaction with other cultures, then the faith in their morals has no reason to be shaken; however, when interaction with other cultures becomes more involved and in-depth, then the discovery that they all have different ethical codes can definitely cause problems. It will eventually lead to the same kind of questions that Nietzsche is asking, and a relativist stance is more easy to adopt. The one theme that runs throughout them all is the “purpose of maintaining a community, a people” (Nietzsche §96); it is just that all societies arrive at different ways of ensuring that this purpose is achieved. All of these social codes are long standing traditions, and are always in a process of growing and changing. This is another way of showing that justice and goodness are not inherent; what was not accepted by society at large twenty years in the past may be considered perfectly “good” and acceptable now. The belief in our overall ethics remains strong, though, and we consider the gradual changes to be improvements on our current system. The history out of which we come is our foundation; we never see the real causes for our ethical and moral values:

each tradition grows more venerable the farther its origin lies in the past, the more it is forgotten; the respect paid to the tradition accumulates from generation to generation; finally the origin becomes sacred and awakens awe; and thus the morality of piety is in any case much older than that morality which requires selfless acts (Nietzsche §96)

According to this, we actually put more emphasis on the tradition rather than the idea of being selfless; however, when we engage in discourse about morality, it is the virtue of selflessness that we talk about. There is more at work here than a simple belief in and respect for tradition, though. If we go back to basics again, we once find the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain at the root of our moral habits and behavior. As social creatures, it is easier and more pleasurable for us to cleave to habitual activities passed down to us from our forebears and participated in by our contemporaries. We feel as though we are a part of something and that we have a function in the larger social mechanism. “One does habitual things more easily, skillfully, gladly; one feels a pleasure at them, knowing from experience that the habit has stood the test and is useful” (Nietzsche §97). This is interesting to note because the pleasure taken in conforming to tradition seems to function as a mechanism in itself; once the social contract that eventually becomes “justice” is in place and has been working for a period of time, the desire to feel pleasure maintains its functionality and perpetuates it from generation to generation. Then we have dual reasons for sustaining our set of social mores. First, we have the argument from tradition, which is tied into the idea that morals can eventually be traced back to some divine origin; secondly, we have the argument from individual interest and preference, which works from the bottom up and explains why most people follow the traditional moral parameters of their society. “And thus,” writes Nietzsche, “social instinct grows out of pleasure” (Nietzsche §98).

Nietzsche also ventures into some particular aspects of moral requirements and standards. In what I think is a direct contrast to the pleasure of partaking in a community’s traditions and habits, he talks about shame as something that prohibits us from acting against the social mores of our community. This falls in line with the pain-avoidance tendency that Nietzsche has posited in his analysis. The feeling of shame and guilt is a powerful motivator in making someone act a certain way, or more importantly, in making someone not act a certain way. This is intimately tied into religion and spirituality, because the presence of an omniscient God who controls your fate (and the idea of the afterlife is crucial here) acts as an invisible observation tower to those who might act against the social code of his or her community. Nietzsche says that

Everywhere there were circumscribed areas, to which divine right forbade entrance, except under certain conditions: at first these were spatial areas, in that certain places were not to be trodden upon by the foot of the unconsecrated, who would feel horror and fear in their vicinity. This feeling was frequently carried over to other relationships, to sexual relationships, for example, which were to be removed from the eyes of youth (for its own good), as a privilege and sacred mystery of the more mature. Many gods were thought to be active in protecting and furthering the observance of these relationships, watching over them as guardians in the nuptial chamber (Nietzsche §100)

This ability to observe extends over the whole sphere of moral activity, and is highly effective in exerting the proper pressure over individuals who are subject to it. In today’s society, there are more people who adopt an atheistic or agnostic stance and thereby escape from this particular sort of influence, but historically speaking (and yes, there are still millions of people alive today that still adhere to a religious belief system with the same degree of devotion), religious authority was the be all and end all of moral judgments and requirements. Nietzsche also posits a similar type of moral authority in political figures, and specifically mentions the authority of monarchs, who can have the same type of effect upon his subjects. When you have a figure such as the “Holy Roman Emperor”, for instance, you have a political sovereign who is also a representative of God, and then the power is twofold. Furthermore, Nietzsche says that this power is used not only to ensure that people continue to act in accordance with the “just” laws of the land, but also to not question these laws or the judgments they hand down. Again, the power of religious authority has historically been such that the fear of contradicting it, and the shame of being disgraced in its eyes, has been more than enough to keep people in line.

To fully accept the truth of the matter, to recognize that morality as we see it today is a misinterpretation of its original form, Nietzsche says that we must accept that man is fundamentally innocent. We are not above nature, despite the fact that we can engage in intellectual activity. Instead, we are subject to basic desires and aversions like any other creature on the face of the earth. We have to recognize this, says Nietzsche, even though it is difficult for us to reconcile ourselves with our animal nature.

Man’s complete lack of responsibility, for his behavior and for his nature, is the bitterest drop which the man of knowledge must swallow, if he had been in the habit of seeing responsibility and duty as humanity’s claim to nobility. All his judgments, distinctions, dislikes have thereby become worthless and wrong: the deepest feeling he had offered a victim or hero was misdirected; he may no longer praise, no longer blame, for it is nonsensical to praise and blame nature and necessity (Nietzsche §107)

If this traps us in the world of nature and animal existence, though, it also liberates us from absolutely having to be obedient to a morality that proclaims itself as intrinsic and fundamental. It is important to note that Nietzsche never once condemns the idea of a social contract which finds that middle ground between the desire to inflict wrong and escape punishment for it and the desire to avoid suffering pain. In fact, he seems to fully support it, so long as it is recognized for what it is. If Nietzsche is interested in personal fulfillment and betterment (and I think this is what he advocates), then he sees the social contract as something necessary if we are to pursue our own projects successfully. Also, he thinks that the moral authority imposed upon individuals by secular and religious traditions has caused a lot of damage in that they have made people feel shame and fear unnecessarily. Again, in this reading, Nietzsche is not saying that acting toward each other in a certain way that is called “just” is a bad idea (and I certainly don’t think that Nietzsche would discount the possibility of actually caring for another person or group of people in such a way that you would never do anything harmful to them), he is just looking at the underlying causes for these beliefs, traditions and mores, and striving to reach a more accurate analysis that will actually benefit us in terms of enabling us to live our lives without shame or fear.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann (1984; Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (1955; London: Penguin Books, 1987).