Sunday, December 13, 2009

Will the real Nietzsche please stand up?

If you've been following the comments, in my last vegetarian post, my friend Gary brought up Nietzsche.  And no offense to Gary, but I think he has Nietzsche a bit wrong.  So here's my interpretation of Nietzsche, tempered a lot by Robert Solomon's What Nietzsche Really Said.

Nietzsche is a virtue theorist.  He's telling us that there is a particular kind of character that we should be developing, and he calls it the Ubermensch.  Now this is not within reach of everyone, only a few people have what it takes to become this.  So how does one try to achieve this character? 

Unlike Aristotle, Nietzsche doesn't know what the Ubermensch is like, because the Ubermensch is beyond human.  We must transcend our human natures to become more than what we are.  He says that at best we can contrast it with the Last Man and say what he is not.  He is not a follower, he is not a sheep, he is not a person who disappears into the comfort of conformity.  Essentially, the Ubermensch must be authentic, in the existentialist sense.  Someone who will be genuinely themselves, not renting their lives out to a kind-of-life.

But this is not enough to become the Ubermensch.  The Ubermensch is a creator as much as he is a destroyer of old values.  Overcoming the traditional christian, and Aristotelian ethic, the Ubermensch must then forge a new system of virtues.  This system of virtues and values will be a life affirming one, instead of a life denying one.  Life-affirming for Nietzsche is to embrace the Will to Power.  Power, not being literally strength, but an intensification of life. 

Probably the best analog to the Will to Power is art.  Art is an intensification of beauty or expression, and even better, it is the result of a creative re-invention of the world.  Nietzsche wants us to all to become works of art.  But like all works of art, not all of them are going to be great.  There will be lots of mediocre works of art, and none of those will be the Ubermensch.  But the fact that people are trying to be works of art, is better than those who are purely satisfied with what they are. 

Works of art force us to re-evaluate ourselves, and the world that we live in, through the artist's lens.  This is how the Ubermensch is to be viewed, in terms of generating new values.  His is a work of art so masterful, that it creates a new movement in the artworld entirely.  It necessarily means that the Ubermensch is inspirational in character, but not purposefully, otherwise he just becomes another preacher.  But through the strength of his character, people will want to imitate. 

So what would Nietzsche say about eating animals?  Absolutely nothing, just like Aristotle says nothing on the subject.  His ethic is one of character development, not of evaluation of actions.  And even if there was something to be said by Nietzsche about animals, he would tell us to disregard it, because he is not the Ubermensch, and merely following in Nietzsche's footsteps would necessarily mean that you're a sheep, never striving for authenticity.  Perhaps the only thing we can say about Nietzsche and vegetarianism would be this:  If it is a creative re-interpretation of the world for you to eat or not eat meat, then it is good. 

Here's where I'll interject and say that I think its far more sheep like to simply continue eating meat, than to be a vegetarian.  But, only be a vegetarian because of authentic reasons.  Likewise, be a meat-eater for authentic reasons.  If you can authentically say that it doesn't matter how you get your taste buds to tingle with pleasure, then by all means, eat meat (according to Nietzsche).  I can't authentically do that because I care about others' suffering. 


  1. Perhaps I misrepresented my understanding of Nietzsche. I agree with some of your points above. Nietzsche as a virtue theorist and being not the Ubermensch himself, what he said about vegetarianism wouldn't matter. But, what he says about master and slave moral systems, I think, falls in line with what we're talking about in the debate about vegetarianism. Master moral systems value strength, health, power, wealth and dislike weakness, herd-mentality, sickness and poverty. Slave morality defines the world as good and evil; the good is meek, pious, charitable and merciful. Evil is cruel, selfish and aggressive. One might (as I do) view this in terms of predator and prey. Predators are strong, healthy, powerful (and aggressive); prey, when in the presence of their predator are not as strong or powerful (and tend to flock in groups for safety). In short, wolves and sheep. These animals are born into their status, as humans are born into their status as the top of the food pyramid. Humans are more like wolves than sheep, they are predators not prey. Predators are carnivorous or omnivorous, prey tend to be omnivorous or herbivores. Still, you bring up a good point in that the Ubermensch will overcome his human nature, to be something distinguishable; to master his appetites, go beyond them. Does this mean that the vegetarian is the next step in the evolution of man? Perhaps. But Nietzsche extols life-affirming values; a wolf in sheep's clothing is not being authentic; original, artistic even, but not true to its nature. Life-affirming is not being merciful to the weak, it is the strong controlling the weak, whether through devouring or social subjugation. This, the slave morality despises, calls evil, seeks to eliminate.

  2. Gary- But the values that you place on the master moral systems are values that can be re-evaluated. I'd argue that Ghandi was a Master, rather than a slave. In some ways, animal husbandry is an exhibition of master morality better than your typical predator, since it involves sublimation of the will to power.

    Arguably, a greater sublimation of the will to power would be to re-evaluate the now standard animal husbandry practice and overcome it to a more humane farming practice, or even embracing vegetarianism, overcoming our mere human animalistic brute force desires for a greater payoff... the greater payoff being the ethical payoff.

  3. Ghandi is an exception, not the rule. He was an example of the Slave morality in a masterful position of power; he wanted good for all, not best for himself and he was self-sacrificing. This is not master morality.
    Sure, animal husbandry is master morality, we are the master and they are mastered.
    But, I disagree that the will to power should lead us to re-evaluate standard animal husbandry practice to more humane methods. Husbandry was more humane even a century ago and the methods were adapted to make them more efficient and fruitful. The ethical payoff is a concept of slave morality not master morality, except in the case that the quality and quantity of my product is concerned. For example, if a steak produced humanely and organically is determined to be significantly more nutritious, tastier and more healthy for you (less bad for you) than one non-organic steak produced through typical methods, I would argue that it is in the masters best interest to consume the organic and humane steak, not the lesser and likely cheaper one, because this lends to increasing health, strength, wealth, etc.
    As far as the value in master morality being overcome, you are correct. All values will eventually be overcome... perhaps even vegetarianism, veganism, philosophical interest in being ethical, etc.