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Nietzsche's Critique of Utilitarianism

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 29, Spring 2005
pp. 1-15 | 10.1353/nie.2005.0002

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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 29 (2005) 1-15

Jonny Anomaly

Tulane University

Nietzsche's scattered, caustic remarks on utilitarianism pervade his philosophical corpus and tend to be sweepingly critical. Until recently, however, scholars have generally ignored Nietzsche's critique because it consists largely of undeveloped arguments and ad hominem attacks against particular utilitarian proponents. This is unfortunate, since his critique of utilitarianism is linked in important ways to his critique of Christianity, and moreover it exemplifies Nietzsche's adeptness at attacking views he opposed by exposing concealed assumptions and turning the assumptions of its proponents against the principles they defend.

This essay examines the main sources of Nietzsche's fierce opposition to utilitarianism, without considering at length any alternative normative position he may have advanced. The absence of sustained discussion in this essay of a positive alternative should not, however, be taken to imply that he rejects morality tout court. Nietzsche parries this common interpretation in Daybreak by conceding, "in this book faith in morality is withdrawn—but Why? Out of morality!" (D 4). Instead of criticizing utilitarianism by contrasting it with his own moral values, however, Nietzsche primarily attacks utilitarianism by querying its internal coherence, and by raising the possibility that utilitarians are driven by motives at odds with their overt concern with the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The charges of theoretical and motivational inconsistency, which I discuss in Sections 1 and 3, respectively, comprise Nietzsche's main objections to utilitarianism. In Section 2, I discuss a more general argument, loosely related to Section 1, according to which Nietzsche criticizes English utilitarians for failing to countenance the "evil" that utility maximization requires. In Section 4, I attempt to fortify the interpretation of the first three sections by exposing the weaknesses of a recent account of Nietzsche's critique of utilitarianism advanced by Frank Cameron. Finally, in Section 5, I begin by staving off another alternative interpretation of Nietzsche's critique of utilitarianism, and then proceed to characterize Nietzsche's hostility toward English utilitarians as typifying his general suspicion of any attempt by a particular group to impose a single moral standard on all people.

1. The Utility of Neighborly Love

In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
—John Stuart Mill

In interpreting Nietzsche's attacks on utilitarianism, it is crucial to understand the (often tenuous) connection Nietzsche makes between utilitarianism and Christianity. Because Nietzsche considers utilitarianism a secular offspring of Christian morality, many of his global attacks on utilitarianism resemble his more familiar critique of Christian "slave morality"—the morality of the herd. In particular, Nietzsche contends that utilitarianism inherited Christianity's commitment to the equal worth of each person, and perpetuated its erroneous assumption that a timeless, universal criterion for morality is tenable.

Nietzsche's preliminary account of the difference between master morality and slave morality in Beyond Good and Evil culminates with the conclusion that "[s]lave morality is essentially a morality of utility" (260). Although Nietzsche develops the notorious distinction between master and slave morality most fully in the Genealogy, he articulates the sense in which he considers utilitarianism a form of slave morality in a revealing passage in Beyond Good and Evil. Here he speculates that the noble, aristocratic man first identifies himself and those like him (powerful, proud, distinguished men) as good, and then contrasts himself with those he contemptuously regards as "the cowardly, the timid, the petty" and, above all, "those who think only of narrow utility" (BGE 260). The noble's power consists not only in his ability to exploit others with his superior acumen or physical strength but also in exercising "power over himself," by refraining from acting on the inclination of pity that characterizes those whom he despises. The slave, conversely, identifies himself negatively; he is part of the group that resents those who unabashedly exercise their power. Nietzsche scorns slave morality because its proponents meekly resign themselves to whatever master morality is not, and yet consider their own moral principles...

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