The Ironies of Nietzschean Moralizing

Traditional moralizing is frowned upon as the hobby of the smug and small minded. Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that ethics are mere convention, fixated on infractions against meaningless taboos. The nineteenth century atheist lamented the hypocrisy and complacency that surrounds many outwardly respectable activities, saying that “submission to morality can be slavish or vain or selfish.” Undoubtedly there is a grain of truth in this. We are often frustrated by human imperfection in our more eager moods. But a man who inveighs against objective truth hasn’t much right to complain about bad morals, or even bad moral systems. I would say of Nietzsche what he said of Schopenhauer, that his philosophy “remains the reflection of ardent and melancholy youth.” Such theories reflect an evanescent fashion.

Nietzsche was a nominalist. He liked to claim that things are made “evil” only because we label them as such. Hence strict prohibitions merely intensify the lure of vice. This, however, seems a precocious assertion. If we did not censure things like theft, plenty of people would still find excuses enough to steal from their neighbor. There is in fact a point at which the amoral pundit becomes the worst sort of prig in damning everyone around him while heaping scorn on the most apparently innocent of motives. One could compile a long list of philosophers since the Enlightenment who have condemned “hypocrisy” while missing the irony of their own double-standards and pretense.

As I noted awhile back, there may something to be said for tolerating hypocrisy in the old fashioned sense. After all, I think it’s better that my neighbor obey the law, regardless of his inner inclinations, rather than let him commit outrages with the utmost sincerity. It goes without saying that Nietzsche and like-minded iconoclasts have benefited (in a rather ungrateful fashion) from a law-biding bourgeois society with lets them publish tracts while courting fame in comfort.

That is not to say that one should be satisfied with mere decorum in human conduct. But contrary to what the antinomians put forth, laws do have a higher purpose behind them. At the very least they protect the good from the bad, and for those who are patient enough to see, it is possible that over time moral strictures will even dissuade us inwardly from evil and incline us to pursue goodness for its own sake. That is how parents teach their children. For all its flaws, no one has ever come up with a better system.

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