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.”

What does Nietzsche mean by this: “To admit a belief merely because it is a custom – but that means to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy! – And so could dishonesty, cowardice and laziness be the preconditions of morality?”

As he often does, Nietzsche omits a premise required by his syllogism, leaving to the reader the task of filling it in.

Let C = admitting a belief because it is a custom, let DCL = being dishonest, cowardly, and lazy, and let M = morality. Nietzsche’s observation takes this form:

If C, then DCL.
If DCL, then M.

Obviously, we’re missing a premise:

If M, then C.

By morality, Nietzsche seems to have in mind beliefs, values, and practices that are adhered to merely because it’s customary to do so. This is contrary to the leading principle of the Enlightenment, according to which something should be done only if it is rational to do it.

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