Nietzsche and equality

In Gudrun von Tevenar (ed.), Nietzsche and Ethics. Peter Lang (2007)
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Abstract

The idea that there is something ethically corrupt or ethically corrupting about Nietzsche’s work is an anathema to Nietzsche scholars today. Although there are some serious moral philosophers, such as Philippa Foot, Jonathan Glover and Martha Nussbaum who write about Nietzsche whilst finding his position ethically deplorable, most Nietzsche scholars tend to focus rather more heavily on his positive aspects. This means that negative ethical assessments of Nietzsche now tend to be relatively few and far between, and given that they tend to be composed by people who know the texts less well than the dedicated Nietzsche scholars, these criticisms can usually be swatted away quite easily. There are two halves to this paper. The first half sets up the problem for the Nietzsche interpreter: the moral equality of human beings is the basic idea through which we (now) think about morality; and Nietzsche’s views on the nature of human ethical life commit him to opposing the moral equality of human beings. The second half of the paper examines Nietzsche’s critique of moral egalitarianism in more detail. Nietzsche’s critique, I suggest, is composed of two parts: a negative and a positive. The negative part (the slave morality thesis) argues that (a) we should make a distinction between moralities of affirmation and moralities of denial; and (b) all moralities which have the equality of human beings as their fundamental value are moralities of denial. The positive part, which, following Nietzsche, I shall call the pathos of distance thesis claims that human greatness requires a feeling of great height from which the great person looks down in lofty contempt on others. I shall argue that it is false to claim that all moralities which have the equality of human beings as their fundamental value are moralities of denial, and that the pathos of distance thesis is either false or question begging or both. Hence there is no reason, even being as generous to Nietzsche as we can be, to think his critique should force us to give up moral egalitarianism. However, even if not all egalitarian moralities are moralities of denial, it is certainly true that some are, which leaves us with a very difficult question: how do we ensure that our belief in the moral equality of human beings forms part of a morality of affirmation rather than one of denial?

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James Wilson
University College London

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