May 7, 2012

Understanding Nietzsche on Ethics


Hedonism, pessimism, utilitarism, eudemonism – all these systems that measure the value of things
taking into account the pleasure or pain that go along with them, that is to say, according to any noncore
condition or facts, are seen as if they do not go in depth and being naive. Any man with
his constructive faculty in place and a conscience of an artist can only regard this with irony and pity
from a distance.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
TOPIC
(1) UNDERSTANDING THE CONCEPTS BEHIND THE QUOTE:
The man uses a certain set of guidelines, a set of ideals and principles to direct himself in the course of his
life. The man bases his beliefs upon certain ideals or principles which he considers to be existent or true.
The principles or the set of guidelines form a school of thought which is called an –ism. In a particular
situation, the school of thought or the –ism forms the point of view of a person. The person forms his
thoughts and develops his beliefs and ideas which are consistent with this school of thought. The person also
tries to achieve the good and acts accordingly as per the –ism. For example, let us take the case of two –isms
and compare them in order to find out how a person who follows one out of two –isms will formulate his
ideas. Consider the following schools of thought: a dualist and a realist/idealist1. Before I give an example, I
shall first explain what the schools of thought preach or propagate. A dualist is of the view that our
perceptions of the world are just reflections of the real world. According to them, we cannot not perceive the
reality but merely imagine that matter exists around us. The real world (not equivalent with the world we
perceive) contains the real objects-real matter. On the other hand, a realist would believe that what we see,
what we perceive is the reality – the truth. An idealist would suggest that the thoughts in his mind are real
and hence, everything he thinks about is real. Now, consider three men – Bob (a dualist), Alex (an idealist)
and Steve (a realist). The three men are sitting on the dining table, discussing the properties or the
characteristics of the table. Steve says that the table appears to have different shades of brown – dark in
some areas, light in other areas of the table. Alex also perceives the same difference of colours. However, he
knows that the difference of colour is apparent due to properties of reflection of light and due to the uneven
distribution of lighting in the room. Hence, according to Alex, the table would appear to be of the colour
brown. But, Bob is under the impression that the table he perceives actually does not exist in the position he
considers it to. The real table exists in a different world that cannot be comprehended or perceived. Hence,
he is not able to comment on the colour of the table. The purpose of using this example was to illustrate that
people develop their ideas/thoughts/opinions based on the certain principles (which are also called –isms).
Here, it is important to note that the man, for example Bob, does not say that the table, he perceives, is just a
product of his imagination because he is a dualist. Instead, he is considered to be a dualist since he believes
that the real table exists in a different or the real world. It is this difference in the school of thought that
makes philosophers different from one another (Of course, there are other factors such as their way of
argumentation which make one philosopher different from the other. However, the point of view is different
because of their different schools of thought). Apart from dualism, realism and idealism, various other
schools of thought exist like rationalism, hedonism, eudemonism, nihilism, hedonism, pessimism etcetera. I
will explain those –isms relevant to the quote in detail.
Let us now focus on those schools of thought relevant to subject of the quote. In order to understand the
quote better, it is recommended that I define the following –isms – hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism and
eudemonism. As I mentioned earlier in my essay, a person acts such that he is able to achieve the ‘good’ as
defined by the particular school of thought. The person, before performing the action, would think whether
the action would be consistent with the ideals of his/her –ism. Since the ‘good’ defined by different –isms
are dissimilar2, I will try to explain these –isms by the ‘good’ they represent. While defining the –isms, I
will ask the question – what value does this –ism think is most important? Here, value refers to that which
we can gain and keep. I shall dive further into the topic of value in the coming paragraphs.
I will now classify the relevant –isms with the help of a chart as depicted below.
1 I do not consider realism and idealism to be equivalent. However, for the purpose of this example, the two schools of
thought give more or less the same result.
2 If the ‘good’ of any two isms is represented in the form of a Venn diagram, there could be intersections. However,
according to me, no two isms propagate the same or equivalent ‘good’
With the help of this diagram, I shall now explain the terms – Hedonism, Simple form (of hedonism),
Epicureanism, and Utilitarianism. In the most general form, hedonism and all other sub-categories of
hedonism are subjective i.e. although all the individuals following this -ism aim for the same kind of value,
the value depends on the individual. For Hedonism:
• Maximizing individual pleasure is the ultimate good.
• All hedonistic philosophers aim for individual pleasure.
The simple form of Hedonism advocates:
• Those actions that shall result in the attainment of physical pleasure.
• For example – For a person X, driving a fast sports car gives him physical pleasure. So, his act of
spending money in order to buy a sports car is simple hedonistically appropriate.
In contrast to the simple hedonistic form, Epicureanism3 suggests that:
• Mental pleasure is more important then physical pleasure.
• Hence, the act of consuming alcohol in order to de-stress your mind is more favourable than the act
of buying a sports car.
Utilitarianism is a slightly different concept when compared to the simple hedonistic form and
Epicureanism.
• As the name suggests, Utilitarianism favours the ideal of maximizing utility. More the utility, more
is the ‘good’ achieved. Also, more the utility more is the happiness achieved.
• Many Utilitarinists like Bentham and John Mill are of the view that the pleasures/pains of everyone
affected by the action should be taken into account. According to them, the greatest good for the
greatest number of people is better.
• Also, Hume was under the impression that utility is measured only through others’ approval.
Now that we have covered two of the four schools of thought that Nietzsche has mentioned in his statement,
let us now discuss pessimism. According to me, pessimism consists of those principles and ideals that
encourage a person to have negative thoughts and to expect a negative option for any situation. A pessimist
has contradictory views with an optimist. A person can be said to be a pessimist when:
• Out of any two options, he would expect the less favourable (by the people and not on probabilistic
bases) disregarding the probability of each of the other options to occur.
• For example – consider a person appearing for a job interview. Even though he must have had
valuable previous experiences and graduated from a prestigious university, he will not expect the
interviewers to offer him a job, despite the fact that the chances of him being offered a job are quite
high.
3 Although Friedrich Nietzsche has not mentioned Epicureanism in his statement, I included this school of thought
since it is generally considered to be a sub-category of Hedonism.
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After pessimism, let us now move on to eudemonism. As far as eudemonism is concerned:
• The actions performed by a person are decided based on their capacity to produce happiness.
• Although, this might not appear to be subjective, it actually is. It has not been specified as to whose
happiness needs to be measured while deciding whether one should perform a particular action or
not. But, it is usually the person who performs the action whose happiness is measured.
• The ideals of Eudemonism is, on a general scale, parallel to Aristotle’s ethical theory4 since one tries
to fulfil life by the doing the best one can.
It is important to keep in mind that I have, yet, not criticised these schools of thought and have also not,
provided the opinion of Nietzsche against them. Here, I have tried to explain what these schools of thought
generally refer to. Nietzsche, in his statement, also mentions and emphasises on the word – constructive
faculty. What does Nietzsche refer to when he says ‘Any man with constructive faculty….’? Faculty of a
person can refer to the mind (if we consider the mind and brain to be separate). If such is the case, then, the
mind is the non-physical thinking part of the body whereas the brain is the physical non-thinking part. Even
if do not consider the mind and the brain to be separate, the faculty of a person indicates towards the
thinking part – the fraction that can formulate thought, ideas and solve problems. So, by constructive
faculty, Nietzsche, must have pointed towards the minds (or the non-physical thinking body part) that
generate productive thoughts – thoughts or ideas that are backed by rationality and help us understand the
world better.
(2) WHAT DO WE UNDERSTAND FROM THE QUOTE? NIETZSCHE’S ARGUMENT AND MY
ARGUMENT IN SUPPORT OF NIETZSCHE
From comparing the definitions of the –isms – Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Pessimism and Eudemonism, do
we find certain similarities? According to Nietzsche, we see the following implications:
• The –isms stated above all regard either the pleasure or the pain associated with the actions
(performed under the ideals of the –ism) as the ultimate value.
• Since they only consider pleasure/pain as the factor to decide whether an action should be
performed or not, they are thought to be lacking depth. Here, depth refers to the effort involved in
arriving at a conclusion. In this context, it also refers to how basic or primitive their values are.
• According to Nietzsche, any person who has a rational/logical thought process can understand that
these –isms are completely in conflict with that of theirs.
• He also says that, for a person to understand the point above, needs to have a sense of right and
wrong similar to that of an artist.
According to me, these schools of thought - Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Pessimism and Eudemonism have
certain flaws or loopholes. Let us consider these –isms Hedonism, Utilitarianism (and Epicureanism) first
since they stem from branch of Good – to arouse a desirable subjective stage. After looking at the
definitions of these schools of thought, the first thought that crossed my mind was – Whose pleasure were
they referring to? Whose utility were they trying to maximize? Whose happiness would be measured in
order to check whether one should perform this action or not? Was the answer to this question the people
who were performing the actions? Or was it the people being affected by their actions? But, since the
definition assumes that the basis for hedonism is individual pleasure, it would be safe to assume here that
the pleasure, happiness and utility in question are of the person performing these actions or acting according
to these –isms. This shows us that these –isms or schools of thought or ethical systems are not normative
(i.e. taking the societal norms as factors), but purely subjective. The above argument clarifies this point.
But, now, since these –isms are subjective in nature, the general argument against subjectivism also poses
itself before these schools of thought. What is the actions of two people (who are acting in consistency with
the –isms) contradict each other? What if the consequence of one of these actions requires the compromise
of the other? Although this argument works against any subjectivist theory and therefore, is not specific; it,
however, questions the foundation of such schools of thought. For example – consider the problems
associated with the construction of a large dam. The people living in the to-be inundated regions have to
move their household away from that area, leaving the comfort associated with the availability of fertile soil,
4 According to Aristotle, a ‘good; action signified maximum use of one’s potential. His ethical theory is often referred
to as Perfectionism.
evergreen water supplies etcetera. These displaced people are forced to migrate to areas far away from the
dam. Hence, they begin to face difficulties regarding the availability of water, fertility of soil etc. This, not
only, deprives them of physical pleasures, but also, of mental pleasure. They are under the constant pressure
of finding new modes of living. On the other hand, for the people living in the urban areas, the construction
of the dam provides them with more comfort. The dam would be used to produce electricity and channel
water towards the urban area for domestic use. Hence, the dam sacrifices the physical and mental pleasure
of one section of the society to increase the level of lifestyle of another section of the society. I have
presented this example to illustrate that the action of one according to the ideals of his school of thought
(here, hedonism, utilitarianism etc.) may go against the action of another also according to these –isms. This
is the fundamental problem of all subjectivist theories.
Also, stemming from the above argument against subjectivist theories, it is obvious that subjective theories
lack objectivity. For example - The importance of an object or its value does not remain constant for a
subjectivist at all given times. In times of greater need, the value or the craving for the object increases and
vice-versa. This is not the same as the economic rule of demand and supply. Here, the demand or rather the
wants of a single individual and not a region/society is taken into consideration, unlike in the case of
economics.
Now, I will frame specific arguments against the –isms we have been taking into considerations:
• I agree – there will be many instances when the values these –isms seek intersect or overlap with the
values other –isms such as rationalism, perfectionism also preach. But, this, according to me,
happens only due to co-incidence. The guiding principles of these –isms are very different and in
conflict with those of other –isms which are backed by rationality, logic and depth of thought. To
illustrate why I am against the set of guidelines these –isms propagate, let us go back to the example
I used to explain the simple form of hedonism. A Person X5 derives physical pleasure from driving a
sports car. In order to do so, he may buy or rent a sports car. However, the price of these cars is
exorbitant. In the process of attaining physical pleasure, the person X spends a substantial portion of
his wealth. After this incident, it may become very difficult for him to sustain his daily requirements
and pay for a medical emergency, if one arose. The point which I wish to make is that these schools
of thought satisfy the immediate needs (pleasure) of the people and hence, do not give a thought
about the future requirements of the person. To illustrate this better, consider an obese person who
has been given strict dietary requirements by a doctor. If this person is a hedonist or a eudemonist,
he will follow those thoughts that have the capacity to make him happy. So, this person will still dine
out and eat items that are forbidden to him. In this case, he attained physical pleasure by doing so,
but, it has ultimately had an adverse effect on his health.
• Parallel to Nietzsche thoughts, it is important to notice that these –isms preach very primitive values.
According to many philosophers, the main distinction between humans and animal forms is
rationality and the ability to comprehend and decide. However, these elements of distinction seem to
be absent here - the values of these –isms are also sought after my animal life forms.
• Another point which I wish to make is that these –isms do not lead to quantifiable or measurable
values. I am not saying that the logic behind rationality or faith behind mysticism is measurable. My
point, here, is that Hedonists, Utilitarinists and Eudemonists cannot deduce what path to choose, or
what action to perform when the two options provide the doer with the same amount of happiness or
pleasure. If this situation is presented to a rationalist or an objectivist, he will deduce from the
options given to him.
(3) SOME ADDITIONAL REMARKS:
The only objection that one could have against Nietzsche’s argument is that, according to him, only those
with the conscience of an artist (and a constructive faculty) will be able to argue against these –ismatic
points of view. But, to argue against Nietzsche, I first have to explain what I inferred from the word –
conscience of an artist. According to me, conscience refers to the sense of right and wrong in the individual.
In a more general sense, it could also refer to the principles of the person. So, how does the conscience of an
artist defer from that of someone not involved in the field of art – a physicist for example. First, it would be
5 I am considering Person X to be of limited means i.e. in terms of wealth. Also, in this example, Person X
is a hedonist.
important to note that there is nothing called ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in art. But, perhaps, Nietzsche took this
concept of conscience, not to the context or the subject of the artistic artefact, but to the process of
producing art i.e. for example – painting scenery. A third-party artist would be able to criticise the work of
another artist by observing the confidence in the strokes, the texture but not by arguing against the theme of
the artwork – hence removing the element of subjectivity6. This can counter the argument presented by
those in conflict with Nietzsche’s statement. Why Nietzsche must have mentioned the conscience of an
artist specifically? – As I mentioned above, criticism against an object of art can be done by observation
itself. It does not heavily require the process of deduction. However, the sense of right and wrong in a
physicist is developed by the process of experimentation, correspondence to reality and the reasoning
behind a phenomenon. So, according to me, Nietzsche must have meant that anyone (with a constructive
faculty and the conscience of an artist) would be able to see how primitive the values sought by these
subjective –isms are by mere observation which did not require high amount of deducing.
(4) CONCLUSION:
In this essay, I started by explaining what schools of thought were. Then, I focussed on the –isms in context
here and proved that they were purely subjective and not normative in nature. After highlighting the
loopholes in subjective theories, I argued specifically against Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Eudemonism and
Pessimism and supported Nietzsche. Ultimately, I presented the possible counterarguments against
Nietzsche and showed how Nietzsche was still consistent with his thoughts. Now, I would like to conclude
by emphasizing on the fact that objective schools of thought provide a more rational and meaningful life.
NISHITH KHANDWALA

6 A person’s opinion towards the theme of an artwork can be subjective. However, as far as the texture of a painting or
the confidence of strokes in an artifact is considered, the criticism can only be objective