On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

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On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Architektonikon on Tue Feb 22, 2011 2:20 pm

What I am about to rehearse is a historical argument postulated by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals. I feel compelled to rehearse this because it was one of the arguments which intrigued me so greatly that I switched my major to philosophy when I was an undergraduate.

Nietzsche begs us to seriously think about what the words 'good', bad', and 'evil' really mean and how they came to mean what they do. In order to do this, he suggests that we look at what these words first meant and then trace their meanings through history til now. He first looks at the classical languages. In both Greek and Latin, the words 'good' and 'bad' have a strong social connotation. 'Kalon' (the Greek word for 'good'), for example, meant not only good but beautiful, fine, and noble. The noble classes in antiquity were the ones who were literate and created the language, words, and their usage. In turn, they gave the name 'good' to describe themselves. Hence, 'good' in antiquity means the clean, the few, the healthy, well-born, the strong, the smart, the rich, etc. Correspondingly, 'bad' meant the many, the common, the poor, the dirty, the sick, the weak, the dumb, etc. (if you remember the 'noble' lie from our last discussion, the word 'noble' here in Greek literally means noble Wink ). So, to recapitulate, in ancient times the words good and bad were given by the royal or noble classes. These words were used to describe classes in their societies. Good corresponds to the noble class and Bad to the underclass.

These designations, Nietzsche thought, make sense. For the noble lived a completely different way of life than the commoner. The noble were well fed, could afford to groom and bath, and were educated. The noble culture loved a challenge and manifesting their strength in physical contest, e.g., chariot races, jousting, the Olympics, etc. If you recall, only the wealthy and noble were allowed to participate in all of the above games. They did not mind facing an enemy or competitor, on the contrary, the held them in reverence. They lived by the phrase, 'let the best man win'. Think of the story of the last Spartan 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae. Accordingly, moral words for 'good' were meant to reference this way of noble life, and the opposite is for words meaning 'bad'.

Yet, somewhere in history these words took on a new meaning and there was an invention of a new word, 'evil'. This word arose the same time as Christianity gained its power. There was a new class that arose in history, the priestly caste. This caste, moreover, became just as powerful as the noble class. But what is different about this caste is that they did not have to be well born. In fact, the people of this caste were commoners. The raise of the priestly caste is what Nietzsche thinks causes what he calls the 'slave revolt in morality'. This caste changes the meaning of the words 'good' and 'bad'. And they do so out of some sort of resentment for the noble class. The priestly caste changes the word 'bad' to 'good'. They advocate values such as pity, humility, equality, and the rest of christian morality. Yet, all of these values contradict the once 'good' and noble values of the upper class. In fact, Nietzsche asserts, they take the values which were once called 'good' and now call them 'evil' and give them slanderous connotations, e.g., the confidence of Achilles or a knight is now called arrogance, or one should feel bad for... well... those who were once called 'the bad'. "Everyone gets a chance to be rich, strong, healthy, and they get it in heaven", a priest would say, "do not worry about your poor health and poverty here." And so on. These statements are the opposite of what a noble would say. For, the nobles have these virtues here on earth.

Nietzsche analogizes the nobles as birds of pray who feed on the sheep (the lower classes) of a field. The sheep (the 'bad') hate the birds of pray (the 'good'). They resent them. They find them evil and wish they had a chance of revenge, whereas the birds do not hate the sheep. They are just naturally stronger. One might even say that they love the sheep for what they are. They need them to survive, just as a noble needs his serfs. Nietzsche, however, thinks that the sheep got there chance at revenge on the birds of prey, and they did so through the slave revolt in morality. The priestly caste got its chance at revenge and did so through their new found power. They took what was once good and demonized it by calling it evil. They changed bad to good and good to evil. Nietzsche thought they took everything the nobles loved and their way of life and made it unethical or immoral. He finds this to be the ultimate revenge committed by a suppressed class who hates its rivals and enemies and festered in resentment. Nietzsche finds this to be why our words good, bad, and evil mean what it do. They are the direct result of the slave revolt in morality.

What do you think of this argument? This line of thought can be very dangerous, not just to Christianity but to all of moral thought, can you see how? Do you see how it might match up with our discussion of the noble lie? Do you think morality is this determined by convention?
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Cool Egg Sandwich on Tue Feb 22, 2011 2:51 pm

I think this argument is very interesting, although one must be careful to ascribe full faith. First, I think it would be fair to admit that Nietzsche's feelings about the church were shaky, to say the least. Since it is generally known that Nietzsche had "mixed-feelings" regarding religion, more specifically the Catholic Church, it would be fair to assume that his portrayal of the Church would be in a 'dishonest' light.

With that aside, I do believe that this argument has quite a bit of relevance. While it is not only "dangerous" to the perceived infallibility of the Catholic Church, it is also dangerous to the existence of our supposedly undeniable moral code. Just as much as a thesis such as this casts down the Church, it casts down our very moral code, held sacred by many and felt to be "timeless" and "unchanging".

In terms of matching up with the concept of a "noble lie", this thesis appears to bolster that concept. If one understands a "noble lie" as being a concept of the 'good' telling the lie to the 'bad', then the concept makes much more sense.


Hrmm, as to the question whether morality is defined by convention, I would say that it is. I am not a believer in someone's biological / genetic material determining their behavior / personality etc. Instead, like most, I believe that environment / upbringing has a lot more to do with a person's development. On that same token, morality is not something that is innately true, ingrained into us, waiting to be let out. Morality is something we learn; from our parents, relatives, friends, teachers, priests, celebrities, athletes etc. Just as behavior is learned, so is morality.

I suppose the truly important question, which this thesis serves to answer is: Who created the concepts of 'good', 'bad', and 'evil', and WHY?

If we trust the 'slave revolt of morality' argument, then we are confronted with an 'artificial' moral code, and a corrupt church. I can buy that...

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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  United Midwest on Tue Feb 22, 2011 7:53 pm

I have to agree with Cool Egg's point on how we "learn" what is "good", "bad", and "evil". That is a fully nuture over nature, I do not believe anyone can truly be "born bad". And as far as the perceived infallibility of the Catholic Church is concerned, they HAVE been proved to be fallible, when they apologized about denying the Holocaust is one major point in that respect. But we're not here in a debate about theology.
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Cool Egg Sandwich on Tue Feb 22, 2011 9:40 pm

Central Speaker Berard wrote:I have to agree with Cool Egg's point on how we "learn" what is "good", "bad", and "evil". That is a fully nuture over nature, I do not believe anyone can truly be "born bad". And as far as the perceived infallibility of the Catholic Church is concerned, they HAVE been proved to be fallible, when they apologized about denying the Holocaust is one major point in that respect. But we're not here in a debate about theology.
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Well, in a sense, we are here to debate theology. One of the main tenets of Nietzsche's thesis is that the Catholic Church [religion] manipulated the perception, and meanings of concepts of 'good' and 'evil'. Therefore, if we consider this information true, then this debate must become theological, since that is what is at the root of the issue.

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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Architektonikon on Tue Feb 22, 2011 10:02 pm

You both have valid points. Maybe we should talk about them more. When I first read Nietzsche's On the Genealogy, I was convinced. I still think he is right. (I was raised catholic, Central.) I said that this line of thought was dangerous. What i meant by this was that Nietzsche and this argument was used by the Nazis. Can you understand how and what it justified? But what is so difficult is that it seems right! Do you find it as right as I do This is what we must be sure of first.
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Cool Egg Sandwich on Tue Feb 22, 2011 10:14 pm

rbaumill wrote:You both have valid points. Maybe we should talk about them more. When I first read Nietzsche's On the Genealogy, I was convinced. I still think he is right. (I was raised catholic, Central.) I said that this line of thought was dangerous. What i meant by this was that Nietzsche and this argument was used by the Nazis. Can you understand how and what it justified? But what is so difficult is that it seems right! Do you find it as right as I do This is what we must be sure of first.

Well, one can clearly see in the Nazis case that they used this thesis, at least in part, to "re-glorify" the nobility of the past which materialized itself in the concept of the Aryan race.

While I find this argument interesting, I do not necessarily think that it is a justification for Eugenics, and other policies that attempt to "improve genetic stock of a nation". The reason being is that if you ascribe to the belief that human beings are created and shaped by their surroundings / environment, then a person cannot be EITHER noble or common (good or bad in Nietzsche's thesis), they must be BOTH, or have the capability to be both.

As a child who is born into poverty, but then adopted into and raised by "modern-day nobility" (I'm looking at you Angelina...), humans can "change class". Therefore, you have to assume that every person has the capability to transcend their status as "common". I could just be thinking about this in the wrong manner, but if every person has the capability to transcend their status, then how can an argument based on the innate difference on classes of humans be relevant?

I'm kind of just playing Devil's advocate here, mainly because I am curious as to what you have to say about this, Ron...

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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Architektonikon on Thu Feb 24, 2011 7:17 pm

Yes. His thesis is about who created moral concepts and why. His answer, in short, is that the ancient nobles created good and bad as just simple descriptions whereas the Christians changed their meaning for more dubious ends. I now realize I may have placed too much weight on whose who created the values and not the values themselves. Nietzsche was chiefly concerned with the values themselves. The values he wanted to promote were those of the ancients; values which promote this world and this life, the live you are living. As for christian values, they promote another world and another life. They, in his words, are 'life-denying' values and the former are 'live-affirming'. The former are better for a person and what he ought to do. Create owns own values, like the nobles did. I should also note that Jesus created his own values. This is why Nietzsche holds him in reverence. He just did not like jesus' values for the above reasons. The rest of the Christians just take on his bad values, which makes them even worse.

Whether Nietzsche thought values are created by convention or by nature, I am not sure (I have my answer, but I am not an expert). But, I will contact one of my colleagues on what he thinks. As for the question in general. Some values certainly do seem to be by convention, e.g., how many wife one can have. Yet some do not. For example, everyone seems to think murder is wrong, or genocide. On a more historical note, the founders of classical liberalism all believed (although they disagreed what they were) that humans all have some sort of natural values which must be promoted and not violated. One, that is, ought not to violate someone's 'natural rights'. This notion of natural rights inherently ethical and not at all conventional. Everyone, at least in America, has the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. (if I correctly remember, Hobbes thought it was just life, Mill & Rousseau thought it was all three, and Kant thought it was just life and liberty.)

Did I answer you concern?
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  TheRonald on Fri Feb 25, 2011 4:54 pm

I am reading the Genealogy now, and I find the arguments to be both interesting and rather convincing. I am not too far into it yet, so my views may change, but I definitely think the concepts of "good", "bad", and "evil" had to have been constructed by humans at some point in history. Even since the shift from "good and bad" to "good and evil", it seems that some things that had been considered evil or sinful in the past have changed throughout time and today may be seen as perfectly normal behavior. Nietzsche has some good arguments, and I'm sure I will have more to say as I get further into the book.

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A word from an expert

Post  Architektonikon on Mon Feb 28, 2011 8:59 pm

So as promised, I contacted one of my colleagues who is a preeminent scholar of Nietzsche. We should trust his view on what Nietzsche really mean, for, this is why he makes the proverbial big buck (on the subject at least). This is what he wrote regarding the question I raised above:

"What is given in nature is never what should be, only what is. Nietzsche is explicit in a number of places on this point. He is no moral realist [values, such as 'good', do not exist in the world independent of humans], but I think that's obvious. So it seems like convention/culture/intersubjective [loosely meaning 'normative'] agreement would have to be the basis of ethics or values. But these things are in turn mostly products of nature. Reason, instincts, resentment, art, are all both parts of nature and constitutive of values. The question, I guess, is to what extent is the genius a part of nature? Early Nietzsche thinks that the genius is essentially a medium for nature's self-expression. Later Nietzsche [of which the Genealogy is] seems to think that the higher man practices moderation in his use of reason and in instincts, not being excessive or negligent in either. But does that doesn't seem to mean that a man is not a product of nature. I suppose free will would have to be presupposed in order for the genius to really be free from nature. And Nietzsche wisely holds that question open. So, I guess I would say that, ultimately, it's at least mostly nature that, through convention, creates values."

What do you think? What does this add? Does this help clarify?
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Cool Egg Sandwich on Mon Feb 28, 2011 9:14 pm

Okay, I think I understand what your colleague was saying. Essentially since culture is "both parts of nature and constitutive of values" we must not forget nature's role in shaping culture/values, or what have you.

I think he put it perfectly by saying "So, I guess I would say that, ultimately, it's at least mostly nature that, through convention, creates values"

The way I understand this argument is that it's really both aspects [nature/nurture] that determine a person; however, it should be understood to be more so nature because convention and culture is largely formed from nature, in the first place.

Is this an accurate understanding of what your colleague was getting at, Ron?

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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Architektonikon on Mon Feb 28, 2011 9:34 pm

Yeah. I asked him a couple clarification questions myself (e.g., what is with all the 'genius' talk), but that is exactly how I took what he said. Does everyone think we are reading my colleague right? Do you think his position is right? (I must say that he thinks Nietzsche is right regarding pretty much everything, and my colleague and I disagree on a lot of issues--so, speak up!)
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Serenel on Mon Feb 28, 2011 9:37 pm

I will comment further at a later time, but i am curious.

by genius does he mean Nietzsche's Ubermench (sp)?
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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Cool Egg Sandwich on Mon Feb 28, 2011 9:44 pm

Serenel wrote:I will comment further at a later time, but i am curious.

by genius does he mean Nietzsche's Ubermench (sp)?

I'm not quite sure that is what he was talking about. The Ubermensch was Nietzsche's concept of 'beyond-man' that humanity should seek for itself. It is basically an opposite pole to the celestial, almost other-worldly, nature of religion and the Christian Church.

I'm pretty sure Nietzsche wrote about the 'Ubermensch' in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it was less a concept of a "superman" as it was an ideal for humanity to embrace, or value rather, the "worldliness" of man here on Earth.

Correct my if I am wrong on this one, but I always understood the Ubermensch to be a concept of the true man, embracing "life and the Earth" as opposed to otherworldy comforts i.e. heaven.

Does that sound about right, Ron?

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Re: On the Geneology of Morality and the meaning of words 'good', 'bad', and 'evil'.

Post  Serenel on Mon Feb 28, 2011 10:08 pm

well i only took one class on the history of philopshy, so it isnt a strong suit of mine.

but from what i gathered, when Nietzsche declared, in the mad scientist, that 'God is dead' he was speaking to that fact that religion can no longer give us values, and social standards, and as such we had to seek them out in another form, this form would be the Ubermensch, which as you stated, is a sort of 'goal of humanity', but almost places the individual above regualr society. So it wouldnt be a polar opposite, but an ideal to use as a subsititute since god is dead.

also, i could be wrong, but i seem to remember reading something like "and the Ubermensch shall swing free, on the schafolds of life" which means he is above everything, and denotes s/he is free to play around with whatever they want.

iunno, like i said, i took one class, and we only spent about two weeks on Nietzsche's, and that was last year.
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