Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Genealogy of Morals

In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche offers a theory of how morality emerged and evolved over the ages, suggesting that the concept of evil was the clever creation of otherwise weak-willed humans who resented being dominated. These "slaves" called themselves "good," in the moral sense, and their masters "evil." Meanwhile, their masters called themselves "good" in the effective sense and the slaves "bad," or ineffective. The masters, according to Nietzsche, didn't spend time thinking about morality or the people they dominated—they lived relatively cheerful lives without feeling guilty about their sometimes violent ways. In contrast, the slaves spent their lives resenting the power of their masters, eventually adopting religious paradigms as an escape from their circumstances in this world.

Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche book Read more reviews on Amazon I must say that I find this theory to be compelling. Though most modern people talk about morality, their behavior often seems to follow this master/slave dichotomy. Imagine the wealthy CEO who hardly even thinks about his ill-paid workers, who in turn become bitter and ultimately obsessed with the CEO. Who is more likely to become pious, the powerful or the disenfranchised?

Nietzsche suggests that with the transition to agriculture, masters and slaves alike turned their animal instincts inward, with their own "souls" as the new wilderness to struggle against. Though I think Nietzsche is on to something here, his theories aren't easily testable. In the work he criticizes English historians for equating the origin and utility of morality, but then fails to provide evidence for his own historical theory of morals. Nietzsche is also heavy on amor fati, the love of fate, almost universally insisting people's circumstances are an expression of their inner nature. I think he misses how fluid these roles and paradigms can be, especially in the ever-confusing modern world.


  1. Given the way our understanding of morality has changed over resent decades, I think he'd have to be a man way ahead of his times to have much worth reading about today, like looking to Edison to learn about electronics.

  2. True, if you want to learn about the biology of morality. As for the psychology of it, I think we can still learn from him. For instance, evolutionary biologists would say animals seek self-preservation and reproduction. Nietzsche would say they seek power over their environment and over others. Different perspectives I guess, though I think the will to power can explain behaviors that would confuse biologists.