What is the object of Nietzsche’s critique of Morality and is his critique convincing?


I will, first of all, delineate what constitutes Nietzsche’s object of critique, i.e., whether it is morality as such, or a specific morality (good/evil morality). I will then explicate that his object of critique is ‘good/evil morality’, which is threefold: genealogical, ontological and teleological. I will argue that his analysis of moral genealogy is vulnerable to challenges from a non-western perspective and is unsuccessful in proving soundly the connection between the ‘internalisation of punishment’ and the emergence of ‘morality’.


Nietzsche believes that all concept has two aspects in terms of genealogy, viz., the permanent and the fluid, as he wrote about the genealogy of punishment: ‘…we have to distinguish between two of its aspect: one is its permanence, the custom, the act, the ‘drama’, a certain strict sequence of procedures, the other is its fluidity, its meaning, purpose and expectation, which is linked to the carrying out of such procedures.’[1] Whereas the values and purposes of morality, which amount to its fluid part, are subject to change and discontinue with the passage of time, Nietzsche gathers that there is a permanent element in morality, i.e., the practice of evaluation, which Leiter names it ‘anthropocentric evaluative practice’[2]—I shall hereafter call it ‘morality qua system of evaluation’.

A distinction has to be made between taking the term ‘morality’ in a broad sense, i.e., as ‘morality qua system of evaluation’, and, in deflationary sense, as a specific value system that involves inculpatory connotations.

Nietzsche does not criticise morality qua system of evaluation, but merely as a specific value-system that involves inculpatory connotations[3]. What Nietzsche had in mind was to attain a vantage point ‘beyond good and evil’ from which he can revaluate morality which transcends the artifice of history and culture (‘a freedom from everything “European”’), free from ‘the sum of the imperious value judgements that have become part of our flesh and blood’[4]. He does not take ‘morality’ in a broad sense (qua system of evaluation) when referring to it as his object of critique: what he has in mind manifestly is a specific view based on which he criticises morality as system of ‘imperious value judgements’, as Berkowitz suggests, ‘Nietzsche’s Genealogy is not value-free; indeed, it affirms an order of rank governing desires, states of the soul, and forms of life.’[5]

One can see a clearer picture of what constitutes Nietzsche’s object of critique in Beyond Good and Evil, in which he divides the course of history into three ‘periods of humanity’[6], viz., ‘pre-moral’, ‘moral’, and ‘extra-moral’ periods.

In the pre-moral period, the value of an action is derived from its consequences; it is a period in which actions are judged either good or bad, as designated by the nobles with the spirit of self-affirmation and sense of superiority to those who do not have the qualities they perceive[7]. When men get to know themselves through self-consciousness—developed from the dominance of aristocratic values, and the belief in ‘origin’, the moral period emerges as men adopts the prejudice to judge in accordance to one’s intention. His object of critique on morality is that which is prevalent in the moral period of humanity, i.e., ‘European’, ‘Judaeo-Christian’, ‘plebeian’ morality, as oppose to the good/bad system of valuation that he named ‘master morality’—a non-moral mode of evaluation[8]. Schopenhauer wrote:—

‘The fact that, by the principle of knightly honour, the reproach of lying is taken as so very serious…does not rest on the lie’s being wrong…rather it rests on the fact that…force is really the ground of right. So someone who resorts to a lie in order to carry out a wrong, shows that he lacks force or the courage needed to apply it. Every lie testifies to fear.’[9]

Schopenhauer’s explication of ‘knightly honour’ is on a par with Nietzsche’s ‘master morality’. It expounds the distinction between one being wrong and morally wrong in two different systems of evaluation. The difference between a non-moral mode of evaluation, e.g., ‘master morality’, and, morality qua Nietzsche’s object of critique (i.e., good/evil morality), is that the latter is a value system which, in addition to being a system of rules or prohibitions, involves the idea of blame-worthiness. As the ‘good/bad’ system of evaluation, unlike its ‘good/evil’ counterpart, does not have any recourse to moral concepts, it should not be considered as a moral distinction[10].

I have hitherto expounded what Nietzsche considers to be his object of critique, namely, morality that involves inculpatory connotations (good/evil morality, I shall denote it, with inverted commas, by ‘morality’ hereafter). I shall now move on to discuss the grounds of his repudiation. His critique is threefold: first, to Nietzsche ‘morality’ is, genealogically, objectionable insofar as it is ‘unhistorical’ and ‘habitually’ received as an axiom[11], which embodies values that are regarded as ‘good as such[12] and unconditionally valid[13]; second, ontologically he gathers that ‘morality’ is but a reactionary system of valuation[14] which stems from the ‘slave revolt’ and ressentiment—pathological envy of the plebeians for the nobles in the world of ‘master morality’, and enforced by ‘bad conscience’; and, third, teleologically[15], it is an impediment to the attainment of ‘life-enhancement’ insofar as it thwarts individuals from actualising their highest possibilities[16]. Nietzsche wrote: ‘We…want to become those we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves’[17]. I shall examine his critique of ‘morality’ on close inspection to these three aspects of his repudiation.

Before furthering the discussion I shall briefly explain the background of his postulation with respect to the emergence of ‘morality’. Nietzsche repudiates ‘morality’ genealogically by rejecting what he calls the ‘unhistorical thinking of the English psychologists’, which consists in ‘projecting onto other cultures and periods one’s own moral sensibilities and categories.’[18] By the method of Genealogy, Nietzsche makes an ontological claim that ‘morality’ is but the product of plebeians’ ressentiment to the privileged status of the nobles; it is enforced by ‘bad conscience’, the origin of which lies in the ‘internalisation of men’[19]. Upon the formation of an organised society, which Nietzsche refers to as the ‘enclosure of society and of peace’, human beings were alienated from the habitat in which they were naturally designed to dwell with ‘their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives’, and incorporated into an organised society in which they have to abide by oppressive rules and the ‘punctiliousness of custom’[20]. Owing to the fact that men were succumbed by the pressure of external inhibition, the external discharge of man’s instinct was obstructed and turned inwards, i.e., ‘internalisation of man’.

Nietzsche attributes the emergence of ‘conscience’ to such ‘inward-turning of instincts’. He gathers that ‘conscience’, which he defines as the ‘will’s memory’, is subject to the influence of ‘forgetfulness’ with which we are all endowed, whence it followed that, instead of being innate, ‘conscience’ is but something that was ‘bred into us’[21].   On that account the categorical nature of ‘conscience’, on which moral judgments are made, should therefore be called into question:—

‘…why do you listen to the voice of your conscience? And what gives you the right to consider such a judgement true and infallible? …Your judgement “this is right” has a pre-history in your instincts…“How did it originate there?” you must ask, and then also: “What is it that impels me to listen to it?”’[22]

Nietzsche argues that ‘conscience’ is nothing categorical and unconditional in nature, for it stems from the internalisation of hypothetical imperatives[23] through punishment. He wrote:—

‘With the aid of such images and procedures, man was eventually able to retain five or six ‘I-don’t-want-to’s’ in his memory, in connection with which a promise had been given, in order to enjoy the advantages of society.’[24]

‘Bad conscience’ hence evolves into the feeling of guilt and enforces ressentiment through moralisation of the conception of ‘good and evil’.

His genealogical interpretation of ‘bad conscience’, which is based on his observations about Judaeo-Christian morality’s emphasis on guilt and indebtedness, puts forward the claim that ‘conscience’ stems from ‘the internalisation of punishment’. Yet it fails to justify soundly that ‘conscience’ is necessarily a result of ‘internalisation’, which is essential in refuting good/evil morality outright, given that there exists non-Judaeo-Christian, non-western ‘moralities’ that also involve inculpatory connotations, yet they do not have such a genealogical lineage that embodies guilt and indebtedness. Oriental philosophers, for instance Mencius, suggested that empathy, which constitutes a part of ‘conscience’, is an innate natural endowment that can be observed, he wrote some two hundred years before the birth of Christ, in whomever ‘[s]uddenly seeing a baby about to fall into a well…would be heart-stricken with pity: heart-stricken not because they wanted to curry favour with the baby’s parents, not because they wanted the praise of neighbours and friends.’[25] That [empathy] is whereby, he remarks, ‘man differs from the beasts’[26].

It is too tenuous an ontological statement to assert ‘instinctiveness’ and ‘animality’[27] as the intrinsic nature of man and consider attributes (or ‘virtues’) that are contradictory to the ungrounded ontological assertion of man as ‘bad conscience’, given that oriental philosophy, which is free from ‘everything “European”’ and the influence of ‘the sum of the imperious value judgements that have become part of our [Europeans’] flesh and blood’[28], holds a view on the essence of man on a par with that of Judaeo-Christian tradition nevertheless.

That being granted, Nietzsche’s ontological and teleological views on ‘morality’[29] should be taken with a pinch of salt. The ‘slave revolt’ postulation, hence the ressentiment theory, can only be established if the values of ‘slave morality’ are invented and employed for the attainment of power of the week over the strong. If those values are innate, ‘morality’ then should not be considered as a reactionary system of valuation and repudiated for being contradictory to the intrinsic nature of man, for neither being compassionate (or ‘weak’) is an illness, nor is ressentiment the origin of a moralised conception of ‘good/evil’, which constitutes the core of Nietzsche’s critique; and, there is no point in refuting ‘morality’ teleologically on the ground that it is an impediment to ‘life-enhancement’ insofar as it thwarts individuals from actualising their highest possibilities, in the sense that ‘morality’ is not alienating in nature and therefore does not have ‘deleterious effect on higher man’[30]. To conclude, Nietzsche critique of morality on the grounds of genealogy is not convincing, for he confines his genealogical evaluation to the exposition of Western—especially ‘Judaeo-Christian morality’. He failed to address to the challenge that there exist ‘moralities’ that also involve inculpatory connotations—they, nevertheless, do not have any genealogical lineage that embodies punishment, guilt and indebtedness. His incomprehensive analysis of moral genealogy, which is unsuccessful in proving soundly the connection between the ‘internalisation of punishment’ and the emergence of ‘morality’, renders his critique feeble to challenges from a non-western perspective.

[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, On The Genealogy Of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 52 (§13).

[2] Brian Leiter, Nietzsche On Morality (Oxford: Routledge, 2015), 138.

[3] Richard Schacht, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 16.

[4] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 342 (§380).

[5] Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 69.

[6] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 32 (§32).

[7] Loc. cit.

[8] Loc. cit.

[9] Arthur Schopenhauer, The Two Fundamental Problems Of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 215 (Section 226).

[10] Schacht, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality, 25.

[11] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 11-12 (I:2).

[12] Loc. cit.

[13] Nietzsche, Gay Science, 263-264 (§335)

[14] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 20 (I:10).

[15] See: Simon May, Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on ‘Morality’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 18-23.

[16] Op. cit., 104-107.

[17] Nietzsche, Gay Science, 263-264 (§335).

[18] Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 72.

[19] See Bernard Reginster, “The Genealogy of guilt,” in Nietzsche’s Genealogy, ed. May, 63; and, Nietzsche, Genealogy, 57 (II:16).

[20] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 56-58 (II:16).

[21] Bernard Reginster, “The Genealogy of guilt,” in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Simon May (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 56-77.

[22] Nietzsche, Gay Science, 263-264 (§335).

[23] Maudemarie Clarke, Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 35.

[24] Op. cit., 39 (II:3).

[25] David Hinton, trans., Mencius (Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1998), 55.

[26] Op. cit. ‘Li Lou II’, §47.

[27] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 57 (II:16).

[28] Nietzsche, Gay Science, 342 (§380).

[29] See §5

[30] Leiter, Nietzsche On Morality, 99.



Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Clarke, Maudemarie. Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Leiter, Brian. Nietzsche On Morality. Oxford: Routledge, 2015.

Mencius, Mencius. Translated by David Hinton. Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1998.

May, Simon. Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on ‘Morality’. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good And Evil. Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann; edited and translated by Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On The Genealogy Of Morality. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson; translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Reginster, Bernard. “The Genealogy of guilt.” In Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, edited by Simon May), 56-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems Of Ethics. Translated by Christopher Janaway. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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