Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morals

Morality is concerned with right and wrong, good and bad. While there are a number of different moral systems and they all justify their values in different ways, few of them disagree on exactly what those core values are. Whether kindness is good because it maximises happiness or because it’s what a virtuous person would do or because we can will that it should become a universal law, no moral system worthy of the name ‘morality’ goes so far as to question the value of kindness itself. This is where Nietzsche comes in. In his On the Genealogy of Morals he does just this, calling our values into question by attempting to uncover exactly where they come from and, in the process, showing us that, far from tenets carved in stone we are beholden to, they are contingent rules we have ourselves devised. In this essay, I will outline and critically discuss a few of the key concepts from the book.


Good, Bad, and Evil / Ressentiment / Slave Revolt in Morality / Will to Power

Originally, the knightly-aristocratic class – the courageous, healthy, prideful, strong, beautiful, honourable, powerful; i.e. those Nietzsche calls the noble – were the ruling caste and they defined the ‘good’ with reference to their own qualities. ‘Bad’ then, was, purely by definition, the opposite; i.e. the meek, sick, humble, weak, and poor. Note that there are no ethical arguments given here, no appeals to rationality or logic. The good is good because the ‘nobles’, by fiat, deem it so.

The priestly caste, on the other hand, were subordinate to the nobles and therefore unable to raise themselves up and inflict suffering on them the way they inflicted suffering on the priests. Nietzsche calls this desire, but inability, to hurt others ressentiment.[1] Their solution was to effect a moral revolt; the infamous slave revolt in morality. What this entailed was inverting the moral values of the nobles. ‘Good’ became the humble, meek, and sick, while ‘bad’ was the healthy, strong, and beautiful. In addition, they renamed the opposite of ‘good’, from ‘bad’ to ‘evil’. This was presumably because the word ‘bad’ wasn’t strong enough. ‘Bad’ sounds more like a contingent description of a single action or behaviour whereas ‘evil’ seems first, aimed at the core of the person (not just an action) and second, a permanent trait (i.e. not something contingent or changeable).

An important point to note here is that the values of the nobles were initially derived from a consideration of who and what they were. They looked inward to define the ‘good’ and only afterwards took ‘bad’ as the opposite. This makes the nobles’ values a positive affirmation of the nobles themselves; what Nietzsche calls a saying “Yes” to oneself, and a movement from the internal to the external. The priests, on the other hand, got their values from outside themselves, looking to the nobles first and resentfully declaring their qualities ‘evil’, only subsequently defining their own qualities as ‘good’ in relation to this. This morality is therefore initially a “No”, a refusal of the qualities of the nobles, and moves from the external to the internal.



Nietzsche’s master-slave morality narrative is certainly interesting and appealing. The problem is, while elements of it are certainly correct, as a whole I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. His claim here is a specific historical one that purports to explain how the modern Western values of kindness, compassion, equality (which ultimately led to democracy), etc., came to dominate in society. His answer is that they were promoted by the priests; i.e. Jews and Christians, precisely because they lacked the strength to overcome the courageous and honourable, but somewhat savage, warrior caste through direct confrontation.

Most of Nietzsche’s criticisms of religion are completely on the money. The clergy used their doctrine to put the fear of God into people. Holding the keys to heaven (or so they told the people), they amassed an obscene amount of wealth and power all the while extorting the faithful, persecuting the heretics, and supressing independent thought. No doubt there is a positive side to Christianity as well (a loving Creator God, eternal life in heaven, do unto others, the good samaritan, etc.) but Nietzsche was quite right to point out the corresponding negative half (original sin, punishment, hell, sacrifice, etc.). He was also right to question the Christian valorisation of ‘life-denying’ traits like meekness and poverty. Whatever else you may think about them, there is nothing particularly virtuous about being meek or poor. Where Nietzsche’s story breaks down is when he tries to fit this depiction of Christianity into a larger narrative about the evolution of morality.

Before I offer my critique, I should highlight an important feature in the story as I’ve laid it out here. The motive driving the main actors (the priests and the warriors) is the will to power; i.e. the drive to overcome, dominate, and subjugate others. The priests are driven by this will just as much as the warriors are. The only difference is in the way the two castes go about achieving their aim. The knightly-aristocrats, in being prepared to openly and honestly throw-down and let the spoils go to the victor, are overt, unashamed, and unrepentant in their striving for conquest. The priests, on the other hand, being weak and frail, know they can’t win in a fair fight, so they have to employ cunning and deception to prevail over their ‘betters’.

So, if Nietzsche’s story is correct and we got our modern day values from Christianity, we got them only as a result of being duped by the clergy. The priests, motivated by greed and envy, and seeking power and glory for themselves, preached the inversion of the ‘master’ morality only to win over the masses (us) and effect a revolution. While preaching the brotherhood of man, love for thy neighbour, and the nobility of poverty, they were quietly amassing power and riches, burning their critics alive at the stake, and systematically eradicating independent thought. If we accept Nietzsche’s story as read, modern values may indeed have come from the priests, but only ironically because the priests lost control and became victims of the very values they promoted solely to engage the masses and wrest power from the noble aristocracy. As society changed and average people (formerly the weak and uneducated masses) became educated, wealthy, and influential, they saw the chasm between what the priests preached and what they did, and revolted, just as the priests had earlier done to their knightly-aristocratic foe.

Of course, this is only if we accept Nietzsche’s story. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can. The main reason is it’s just too simplistic. Like all sweeping narratives that purport to explain centuries of progress in a nutshell, it earns its explanatory power only by excessively generalising and riding roughshod over important details. In particular, it treats the ‘nobles’ and the ‘priests’ as homogenous totalities – all of the ‘warriors’ were proud, arrogant, and uncaring towards their inferiors (which is obviously false), while all of the priests were underhanded, scheming, and power-hungry (also obviously false). It’s just as misleading as, to offer a couple of contemporary analogies, saying all Muslims want to create a global caliphate or all Mexican immigrants are rapists, murderers, and drug-dealers. The idea that the values Nietzsche despised suddenly emerged one day in the priestly caste and were used to overthrow the ruling elite might make a good movie plot but doesn’t really pass muster as a lesson in human history.

This raises an interesting, albeit slightly tangential, question. Can’t we say that while the Church, as an earthly institution filled with human representatives, may have failed us, Christianity, as a body of beliefs, provided the intangible supports that eventually led to our modern values? Unfortunately, no. First, if you take the time to actually read the Bible (as few Christians have), you will be surprised to discover (as I genuinely was) that there is just as much barbarism, chauvinism, elitism, violence, fear-mongering, and questionable moral pronouncements, as there is love, compassion, and charity. This means of course, that those who saw through the nonsense, and read love, compassion, and charity in the text, actually brought those values with them rather than finding them in Christianity. Secondly, virtually every culture that has ever reached a certain level of cultural/societal development has had champions of these values. The people who promoted these values were sometimes priests but just as often not. The bottom line is we didn’t need religion to decide that it was good to be nice to each other. If we hadn’t figured that out, we would never have gotten together in large enough groups to create religions in the first place.

Another criticism of Nietzsche’s account of moral development is that the whole theory is built on his belief that the will to power is natural, and more importantly, that because this will is natural, it is right. I have two problems with this. First, if the efficient force of all life reduces to the will to power (a claim Nietzsche makes in Beyond Good and Evil), then how is it that the priests supposedly fostered the opposite? The mere fact that people can reject the will to power as a guiding principle means that, far from being a foundational tenet of life, it is just another option on our moral menu. And if that’s all it is, an inclination from our evolutionary past, there is absolutely no reason for elevating it to the status of a moral good.

Secondly, even if we grant Nietzsche that his will to power is, in fact, the driving force in the universe, this doesn’t mean we ought to abide by it. Conscious beings are, by definition, beings whose being is a question for them. If their being were fixed, they would be things, not conscious agents. Even if all life for all of history had desired power, even if life could only have evolved by virtue of the will to power, none of this is binding on conscious beings who are concerned in their being about their being.


Bad Conscience and Guilt

Originally, punishment wasn’t about influencing future behaviour; rather, it was based on the idea of contractual obligations, specifically, the understanding that every injury has an equivalent that can be paid back (an eye for an eye). This suggests that inflicting pain (which is what punishment originally comprised) could satisfy a debt, which itself implies that there is some pleasure in causing suffering, or at least watching someone else cause suffering. (Although our modern sensibilities aren’t up for this so much anymore, Medieval tortures and executions were often public and a spectacle for jeering crowds). Since we naturally enjoy making others suffer, this is an attitude we ought to foster and encourage.

However, over time we turned from our savage, barbaric ways to peace and civility as society and culture tamed us. Being “reduced to [our] consciousness” in this way (our “most fallible organ” according to Nietzsche) meant that these original, primitive instincts were turned inwards in what Nietzsche calls the internalisation of man. This is the origin of bad conscience, which is the repression of the desire to inflict suffering on others.

The emergence of guilt is a slightly different story. Primitive tribes had always recognised a debt to their ancestors but as they became more powerful, their ancestral spirits also had to grow in power. This progression eventually led to the conception of an infinitely powerful spirit (the Christian God) and an equally infinite (and therefore unpayable) debt. From this we got the ideas of guilt and eternal punishment. In the final step, this guilt is directed against a single individual (Adam) or even existence itself (Buddhism, nihilism).



Like Nietzsche’s history of morality, this is an interesting account that is full of deep psychological insights and while elements of it are certainly plausible, again, as grand narratives, they tend to suffer from the same deficiencies I outlined earlier. Let me address bad conscience and guilt separately.

‘Bad conscience’ reminds me of the paradox Freud articulated in Civilization and its Discontents where the greatest cause of human unhappiness is the decision to forego the satisfaction of many of our instinctual desires in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a civilised society. It is hard to find fault with the concept of the ‘internalisation of man’, which is essentially a repression of urges and behaviour which may have been integral in our evolutionary past but are no longer so.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are two points we can question Nietzsche on here. First, Nietzsche talks about savagery and cruelty as if this were the most essential, authentic part of the human psyche. Undoubtedly, all human beings carry the primitive, savage legacies of our evolutionary forebears within us and we all have the potential to release them in the right (or wrong) circumstances (history provides us with more than enough examples of this), but there is absolutely no good reason for thinking that just because these inclinations predated our current ones, they are better. Why should we discount our present, intellectual, consciously reasoned inclinations in favour of our past, savage, instinctual ones?

This brings me to my second point. I think Nietzsche carries his worship of ‘natural’ instinct and dismissal of the intellect or consciousness (our “most fallible organ”) too far. It is true that he was reacting to a fairly hostile Enlightenment establishment which glorified reason, and there is of course a degree of truth to his criticisms, but his wholesale dismissal of consciousness dismisses the very thing that makes us human, i.e. not ape, in the first place.

Nietzsche’s description of the emergence of guilt undoubtedly also contains much truth but we might want to distinguish between religious guilt and regular guilt. As with his account of the history of morality, Nietzsche wants to trace everything back to (i.e. blame) religion, as if no creature could ever look at the suffering of a relative or friend, empathise, and build on this to develop more robust notions of morality (including conscience, guilt, etc.), without believing in a Dictator in the sky. Clearly, religion played a pivotally important role in human history but factors other than the exhortations of the priests were also at work. Nietzsche has certainly quite nicely captured what we might call religious guilt and the way this evolved into notions of irredeemable sin and inherent unworthiness before being focused onto some unfortunate person (Adam, and let’s not forget Eve) or thing (existence itself). But does all guilt stem from this?

In my opinion, the Genealogy; rather than giving us a genuine genealogy of morality, offers an ingenious, but narrow, account of the way Western morality has been influenced by Judaeo-Christianity.


Final Thoughts

Reading Nietzsche always makes for an interesting experience because he doesn’t really argue for a position nor is he necessarily concerned with constructing an internally coherent system. Like his knightly-aristocratic nobles, he just tells you what he thinks and tries to beat you into submission with his provocative and rhetorical writing style; philosophising with a hammer, as he once described it. This also makes him difficult to summarise – you only really get a sense of him through reading what he wrote.

Nevertheless, we can certainly draw some conclusions. Nietzsche was quite clear that, far from being a nihilist (someone who rejects all moral principles), he endorsed a hard morality that valued strength, supremacy, contest, and struggle. I don’t think one can seriously dispute this. However, while this might make us think of military leaders as exemplars of his ideal – Nietzsche praises people like Alcibiades and Napoleon – he also valued artistic creativity, speaking highly of people like Mozart and Mendelssohn. This suggests that we can’t simply write Nietzsche off as supporting dictators and military strongmen.

In fact, the best way to think about Nietzsche’s system (as far as we can call it a system) is that it is elitist and all about fostering individual genius; letting the best among us rise to their rightful place above the mediocrity of the masses. Naturally, the ‘best’ includes the warrior caste, where the ideal is the military genius, not a committee of generals, but it also celebrates the artistic genius who towers over his or her peers. In general, I think it is fair to say Nietzsche would celebrate creative genius in any discipline, as long as the individual in question embodies his aristocratic, ‘noble’ moral values.


[1] Presumably, Nietzsche uses the French word for ‘resentment’ her to distinguish it from the ordinary meaning of the word which is a more general indignation at being treated unfairly.

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