The Genealogy of Morals

In his book On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche examined the history, or what we might now call the evolution, of morality. Most famously he argued that the moral framework of Christianity is a “slave morality,” invented by the weak out of resentment of the powerful, as a way to justify their condition as being morally superior to that of those above them. Nietzsche claimed that the original human moral dichotomy was good/bad, with the condition of the powerful being “good” and the condition of the poor/weak being “bad.” According to his argument, in order to find virtue in their condition the weak inverted the dichotomy, making the condition of the weak and powerless “good” and the condition of the strong and powerful “evil.” Essentially Nietzsche imagined the poor/weak reasoning that “because we are weak, weakness must be morally superior to power and the powerful must therefore be morally evil.” And to explain why they (the morally superior yet weak) seemed to have worse lives than those of the evil, they created the notion that justice isn’t immediate, but is deferred to the afterlife, where the weak/ poor will receive the reward of their superior moral condition and the rich/powerful will be punished for being evil.

Leaving aside the specifics of Nietzsche’s controversial argument, which is easy to critique, it seems to me that his general idea is good food for thought. To what extent does a dominant culture (even if only numerically dominant) create a moral code to conform to its circumstances, so that its condition is necessarily “moral” in opposition to other cultures? To what extent are the things we consider virtues, simply things that are culturally preferable in our social condition? Are the things we consider virtues necessarily universal?

Of course these are the questions pressed by moral relativists and post-modernists.

Even for those who believe, as I do, that there are a set of objective and universal moral truths, it is interesting to ponder their origins. And trying to imagine a culture functioning under a completely different set of values is an interesting thought experiment.

Just some food for thought, for any so-inclined.