By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Friedrich Nietzsche believed that the language we have developed has trapped us, with primary surface manifestation of the problem being our continued captivity to the language of good and evil. For Nietzsche, the language of good and evil—especially the language of evil—manages to suppress humans, keep them down, and keep them ordered in a certain way.
According to Nietzsche, the language we have developed limits us by making the central moral issue for ethics guilt and the avoidance of guilt. Nietzsche thought that the main moral issue for people caught in the language of good and evil is the struggle to avoid getting blamed for things and getting evil attached to them.
Psychologically, this actually does have some purchase on our lives. When we think about the world and think about the ethical choices we have in the world, do we sometimes not catch ourselves asking “What is the thing to do here that will help us avoid blame in this situation?” or “What is the thing that most adroitly enables us to avoid feeling guilty?” rather than asking “What is the good thing to do here?” or “What is the right thing to do here?”
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Replacing the Language of Evil
Nietzsche thinks that asking such questions—asking how we are to avoid negative feelings, negative emotions, and negative judgments—is in some important way unhealthy and destructive of ourselves.
We should always be asking: “What is the good thing to do?” “What is the beautiful thing to do?” and “What is the truly expressive and noble thing to do?”
That is why he proposes that the language of ‘evil’—which oppresses humans and confines us in a certain way—be replaced with a different language. That language should be less freighted with the heavy theological connotations which tie evil directly to demonic illusions and the notion of Satan.
Learn more about morality as located in the human will.
A Language of Bad
Nietzsche wants to say that we don’t want a language of evil anymore, but a more pragmatic language instead, a language of ‘bad’. In Beyond Good and Evil, he says,
Look, in getting beyond good and evil, I don’t mean to be getting beyond good and bad, I don’t mean to be punting on the idea of there being an evaluative framework to assess the successfulness or the fruitfulness of our actions. We’ll need that; we’ll always need some way of judging whether what we’re doing is wise or not. In fact, I, Nietzsche, need that in making this case at all.
But in talking about a language of good or bad, we have to find some other more authentically organic basis on which to ground that language to talk about the fruitfulness of our actions. Nietzsche thinks, following Darwin, that one very powerful way of organizing that language would be around the language of health.
Cultivating our Lives
In Beyond Good and Evil, he says we have to ask, “To what extent [an action] is life-promoting, life-preserving…even species-cultivating?”
That is the criteria we want to use: How do we cultivate our lives and our species? If we attack the fundamental metaphysical faith—the faith in opposed values such as good and evil—we can see that the real problem with that dichotomy of good and evil is that it serves to keep humans stuck in particular stale patterns and ruts of behaviour. It constrains the development and the exercise of their power, both intellectual and physical, in unhealthy ways.
It is unhealthy because it basically paralyzes humans; forces us not to exercise the full range of our capacities. It also deters us from asking fundamental questions in the fear that they will expose certain kinds of forbidden knowledge.
Additionally, it hinders us from exploring certain kinds of relationships or certain kinds of actions in the world because we are terrified that by doing that we will be contaminated or corrupted in some irremediable, irredeemable way.
Learn more about the dualism of good and bad.
Nietzsche categorically dismisses all this as crazy. He strongly believed that humans are, more than anything else, explorers. He warned us that if we are trapped beneath the heavy weight of an external standard that has nothing necessarily to do with our own lives, where we are right now, we are never going to be able to figure out where we will be in the future.
Common Questions about Nietzsche and the Ethics of Guilt
Nietzsche thought that the main moral issue for people caught in the language of good and evil is the struggle to avoid getting blamed for things and getting evil attached to them.
Nietzsche thinks that one very powerful way of organizing language could be around the language of health.
According to Nietzsche, the real problem with that dichotomy of good and evil is that it serves to keep humans stuck in particular stale patterns. It constrains the development and the exercise of their power, both intellectual and physical, in unhealthy ways.