Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

In Beyond Good and Evil §228 Nietzsche says: “I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious.” What’s so boring about moral philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the fundamental assumption underlying the moral tradition (and the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) is the idea that things ought to make sense. Nietzsche denies this premise. For Nietzsche, the deep truth about the human condition is that, at bottom, it’s senseless and without meaning. This is something, he thinks, we learn not from philosophy but rather from art – above all from ancient Greek tragedy, precisely what Plato, the father of philosophy, abhorred.

Any philosophical doctrine that fails to face up to the deep senselessness of the human condition, Nietzsche thinks, is doomed to superficiality. The moral philosopher is convinced that there are universal principles that ought to guide human conduct, that we can rely on our ability to reason impartially to work out what these are, that we can choose to act in accordance with them, that if everyone does so things should go well for us, and that, as reasonable beings, we should all want things to go well.

This, Nietzsche believes, is a banal view of the human condition, and it’s the moral philosopher’s banality that makes him or her boring. Stories about impartial do-gooders who see one another as equals and treat everyone fairly are sleep-inducing. Far more interesting are stories about people as they are – conflicted, partial, egoistic, ambivalent, given to misunderstandings, and, so far as morality is concerned, as Kenneth Burke put it, “rotten with perfection.”

3 Comments Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

  1. Philip Kuberski

    Modernity, as Baudelaire inadvertently reveals it, leads to a demand for novelty and sensation. In fact, modernity demands and encourages distraction and sensation. I think ethical teaching from the Axial Age makes another point. Human beings, once they find some center in restraint and generosity to others, become tedious–but only to youngsters and profligates. True wisdom, far from anything Nietzsche knew, leads to equanimity and renunciation.

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  2. Dan Coyote

    Isn’t it always a struggle between what we want to do and what we know we should? That struggle is far from banal, it is rare and full of epic suffering, sacrifices, and disappointments like Don Quixote. Was that superficial, or boring? …and I might switch that Burke quote to say, perfect in our rottenness, because we rarely rise to the occasion of banal morality in practice. Is it our animal nature that wants what it shouldn’t have that makes it rotten or our higher mind that regulates the animal that is boring? Maybe we’re conflating what makes good entertainment and what makes a good life? Entertainment (theater) is part of a good life, but the theater of life operates on principles that only seem banal when expecting entertainment.

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  3. Frederick M. Dolan

    What’s tediously superficial for Nietzsche is the morality of good versus evil, and pointedly not the struggle between good and bad. Nietzsche’s target is universal, one-size-fits-all morality, which he believes draws our attention away from the problem of what is good and bad for a unique individual. Nietzsche worries that reason’s presumption of and bias towards intelligibility obscures the value of high-risk creative activity that’s bound to strike most as senseless and irrational. He’s all for epic (and lyric, and tragic) suffering and sacrifice, so long as no attempt is made to justify it other than aesthetically.

    He could have made these points without attacking equanimity. Conflict, Nietzsche thought, keeps us young – but perhaps it keeps us childish as well.

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