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  • Nietzsche's Ethical Revaluation
  • Simon Robertson

Nietzsche's most sustained philosophical contribution is his ethics. Yet, for a variety of reasons, stylistic and substantive, its reception within mainstream moral philosophy has long been circumspect at best. But things are gradually changing. Skepticism about content withstanding, there is a growing appreciation that, however novel his methods and radical his conclusions, many of Nietzsche's central concerns arise from and engage with the same traditions that shape contemporary ethical thought; and so it is a welcome sight to see an increasing number of commentators connecting his ethics to ongoing topics of contemporary inquiry. This article examines some points of contact, to make clearer where Nietzsche's contributions to ethics may lie.

It takes as an organizing theme Nietzsche's "revaluation of all values"—a multifaceted project, both critical and positive, normative and metaethical.1 Negatively, it involves a critique of prevailing morality, which in turn has two elements: one evaluative, in which the value of morality and moral values is called into question; the other metaethical, by which Nietzsche challenges the objectivist foundations underpinning morality's claim to authority. The positive component then presents some alternative demoralized ideal. This much should be—relatively—uncontroversial. It also indicates where Nietzsche's central contributions lie, namely, in challenging both the value and the authority of morality and in presenting an alternative conception of ethical life. Yet even this broad outline raises a number of obvious issues, the details of which provoke considerable scholarly disagreement. Before turning to specifics, it may be useful to first locate some of these interpretative disputes.2

Nietzsche is perhaps best known as an ardent critic of "morality." Two issues have received particular attention in recent literature. One concerns the scope of Nietzsche's critique. Given that he both criticizes morality and endorses some alternative ideal, any account needs to distinguish these and thereby circumscribe the critical target while leaving the positive ideal immune to whatever objections inform the critique (Clark 1994, 2001; Leiter 1995, 2002, especially chaps. 3–4; Owen 2007; Robertson forthcoming). The second concerns its content. Undeniably, Nietzsche's primary objection is to the effects he believes morality has. But any more than this is moot—for instance, whether he thinks morality disvaluable because of its effects on certain people (and then who these people are—be it all of us [Owen 2005, 2007; Ridley 2005] or only those few capable of the highest forms of human flourishing [Leiter 1995, 2001, 2002]), [End Page 66] whether he instead objects to the ways morality frustrates impersonal goods like excellence (Hurka 2007), and how exactly morality generates the relevant effects (be it through the content of its values [Leiter 1995, 2002, chap. 4], the structural features like obligation holding them in place [Clark 2001; Robertson forthcoming], or certain conceptions of agency [Clark 2001, 105ff.; Leiter 2002, chap. 3; Owen 2005, 2007, especially chaps. 5–7; Williams 1993]). For Nietzsche's critique to prove defensible, it then needs to be shown that morality does generate the effects he objects to and that its doing so is objectionable.

Regarding his positive program, Nietzsche has been variously read as a proto-existentialist (Jaspers 1965; Magnus 1978), egoist (Foot 1994, 2001; Nehamas 1985; see Hurka 2007 for criticism), virtue ethicist (Hunt 1991; Solomon 2001), quasi-aesthete (Foot 1994, 2001; Leiter 2002), consequentialist (Hurka 2007), and more (though see Williams 1993 for an argument against Nietzsche holding a systematic positive ethics). A significant core of philosophers now regard Nietzsche's positive ideal as a form of perfectionism, at least in the very broad sense that he advances a conception of human good consisting in or significantly involving the realization of excellence. But even the barest contours of such a perfectionism are disputed—whether, say, it marks a radical individualist ideal (Leiter 2002, chap. 9) or some wider sociopolitical agenda (Clark 2001; Hurka 2007; Owen 2007; Ridley 2005); what exactly excellence consists in (cf. Hurka 2007; Leiter 2002, chap. 4; Reginster 2007); and how elitist, inegalitarian, and "immoral" Nietzsche's ideal is (cf. Conant 2001; Foot 1994, 2001; Hurka 2007). Views on these issues in turn yield contrasting views about the role of morality after...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4594
Print ISSN
0968-8005
Pages
pp. 66-90
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-02
Open Access
No
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