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A Few Words About Nietzsche II

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As promised, a more personal follow-up to the encyclopedia-derived material of yesterday.

It interests me because it relates, in an ambivalent way, to the controversy over "compatibilism."

Intuitively most people (but not most philosophers, or I would guess most neurologists) would say that a person can only be blamed for an action if she could have done otherwise.

So if there are no actions as to which one can accurately say that she could have done otherwise, she is not responsible for anything, there is no real distinction between actions per se and mere events. Given a thorough going determinism, then, conventional notions of moral responsibility, of perhaps of morality itself, go out the window.

That inference is, as I say, intuitively appealing but very controversial. Back on Feb. 9th I shared with you a recent survey of contemporary academic philosophers on this subject among many others. It indicated that a clear majority of those asked said that they are "compatibilists," that is, that they believe that notions of moral responsibility are compatible with determinism.

The incompatibilists, meanwhile, are split quite evenly between those who say, "yes, they are incompatible, we must reject one of them, so let's reject our notions of moral responsibility" and those who say the opposite, "yes, they are incompatible, so let's reject determinism."

What does Nietzsche say on this point? If I understand correctly, Nietzsche was an incompatibilist in one sense, a compatibilist in another. As I noted yesterday, Nietzsche sometimes uses "morality" in a pejorative sense, for what he is attacking. Sometimes, though, he uses it favorably, for the trans-valued system of values he is promoting. Determinism is a fact, he contended, and is inconsistent with moral responsibility, thus with morality in the pejorative sense. Hey hey, ho ho, MPS has got to go.  (Because I had to type that.)

The kind of morality that can and should survive after determinism sinks in is a morality without praise or blame, a responsibility-free sort. The "higher man," one who embraces this higher morality, will be good without crediting himself for goodness (it has been predetermined after all) and will separate himself from the herd without blaming the herd for the need for this separation.

Morality becomes a sort of aesthetic judgment after MPS goes, as it should.

That is Nietzsche's take. Or Stanford's take on Nietzsche's take, though it is worded so as to encourage the inference that some scholars of FN's works would disagree on some of these points.

And he would certainly have disdained the lame visual pun implied in the illustration I have employed for this post.


  1. I have not studied the philosophers' writings on this issue, and was not even aware of the terms "compatibilist" and "incompatibilist." Rather, I assumed that free will was, by definition, incompatible with determinism.

    I have given the subject of free will much thought, however, and have settled on my own belief. Let me describe it and then you can tell me where it fits in the compatibilism spectrum. I do not believe that free will exists, or even that the concept is coherent. If asked whether we want a vanilla or a chocolate ice cream cone, we can choose the one we want, but we cannot choose which one to want. Likewise with respect to moral choices: We can choose not to commit murder, but we cannot choose to want to not commit murder.

    One might conclude that, therefore, we have no moral responsibility. But we can and should assume that we do and impose punishments on people who commit murder. Even though we cannot choose to want to not commit murder, fear of punishment will become a factor in whether we want to commit murder, and therefore will affect our choice whether to commit murder.


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