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.

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5 comments on “The Genealogy of Morals

  1. Joanna says:

    Gosh that\s deep for an early Tuesday afternoon. I too agree there are a set of objective and universal moral truths but I do wonder at times if we have added unnecessary layers to it. In Revelations 7:9 it says

    “I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

    It makes me wonder what it was that would make them stand out as every tribe, people and language? There must be cultural differences and yet they were still able to worship the lamb. Culture plays such an important part in our values, so what are acceptable differences and what are non-negotiables? Would we be surprised at what other cultures find abhorrent in ours? It would be good to hear rather than living in our own bubbles don’t you think? 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, well said. I do think there are some non-negotiables. Things like slavery, human sacrifice, infanticide, female genital mutilation, etc. may be perfectly acceptable in some cultures, but to my way of thinking (admittedly a product of my own culture) they are objectively immoral and should be opposed regardless of how the native culture feels about them. And I do think that most of us would be surprised at some of the things other cultures find abhorrent about ours. It’s a fascinating subject.

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      • Joanna says:

        One cultural difference I heard was an African who found it abhorrent that the cemeteries in England were in the churchyard. Not sure why this was an issue though.

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  2. Mediator says:

    For anyone willing to share, I’m interested in learning what people feel are objective and universal moral truths?

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    • Bill says:

      I should have probably been more clear about what I meant by that. There may not be any truly universal moral beliefs (Freud argued that the prohibition against incest was one, but even that doesn’t seem to be truly universal). What I meant was that there are some moral beliefs that I take to be objectively correct and that therefore should be universalized. The basics for me are non-aggression, honesty and fair-dealing (which are certainly not universally accepted by all cultures). There is good evidence that some moral beliefs are innate. Even very young children recognize and object to unfairness, for example.

      Having said that I recognize that my own moral compass is a product of Judeo-Christian teachings and the British Enlightenment. Lately I’ve been wondering if some of the things we call virtues (such as, for example, industriousness and obedience to authority) derive from our cultural location and might not be necessary to good character in other cultures (among hunter-gatherers for example).

      Liked by 1 person

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