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Have We Regressed into Nietzsche’s “Moral Nihilism”?

Where's the Moral Outrage?

The events of last week where at least 50 people were killed and 50 wounded in an attack targeting two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch was despicable. The admissions cheating scandal in the U.S. raises serious questions whether the large group of people involved know the difference between right and wrong or even care about it. Where is the moral outrage?

These events and so many others turned my attention to whether we have, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, devolved into a world where moral nihilism is the brand of “ethics,” or no ethics at all exists. If so, we are well on our way down the moral slippery slope and headed for ground zero.

A brief examination of the theory of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is useful if for no other reason than to understand his objections to conventional morality. Nietzsche rejected the idea that moral judgments must be based on either the consequences of an act, the intentions of the acting person, or one’s duty to others and society – all of which define conventional morality.

Nietzsche did not think people sought happiness as an end in itself putting him squarely opposite those who believe in virtue ethics and consequentialism. Instead, he was dedicated to the idea of finding meaning in life. That’s fine but for Nietzsche the meaning sought is done without concern for others.

Nietzsche’s view of morality assigns great intrinsic value to the flourishing of “higher man.” Higher types are solitary and deal with others only instrumentally. Thus, a human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets along the way as a means to an end, in direct opposition to Kantian ethics. Could this be a good characterization of all the crazies in the U.S. who have shot up schools, places of worship, and in the workplace? 

Nietzsche challenges the idea of a morality as bound up with obligation, with codes and rules. He encourages individuals to think for themselves beyond conventional morality. His brand of ethics has been referred to as moral “nihilism.” Nihilism comes from the Latin nihil, or nothing, which means not anything, that which does not exist. By this view, ethical claims are generally false. A moral nihilist would say that nothing is morally good, bad, wrong or right because there are no moral truths. So, murder is not wrong, but neither is it right. Moral nihilism

Nietzsche criticizes the concept of universality as objectionable because agents are relatively different so a universal morality must necessarily be harmful to some. He believes that a culture in which moral norms prevail, such as Kantian respect for persons, utilitarianism, and altruistic behavior, will be a culture which eliminates the conditions for the realization of human excellence – the latter requiring concern with the self, struggle, and suffering. So, happiness, according to Nietzsche, is not an intrinsically valuable end because suffering is positively necessary for the cultivation of individual development and a fulfilling life – which is the only thing that warrants admiration for Nietzsche. Here again the characterization seems appropriate for the crazies.

Instead of the belief that there are a set of values or course of action for all individuals, as assumed by conventional ethical reasoning, Nietzsche believed in one’s sovereignty – the ability to make our own choices based on our search for meaning. He believed that each of us needs to gain understanding, examine our own perspectives, and reflect on our experiences. Skepticism, in the sense of questioning and challenging our existing beliefs and values, according to Nietzsche, is part of a radical reevaluation of our values and transformation of who we are, which is an ongoing process all devoid of ethical concerns.

Perhaps the best way to sum up objections to Nietzsche’s theory is that he seemed interested in promoting the development of human potential without regard for any specific morality or even type of morality. His subjective and individualistic perspective was that each individual should seek meaning in life for reasons unrelated to any ethical theory. The problem is if each of us pursues our self-interest without regard to norms of behavior then how can we ever go beyond improving our own well-being and improve the well-being of others?

The bottom line is we no longer see ourselves as members of a moral community. Its each person pursuing his or her own interests without concern for others. How else could we explain the in-your-face mentality of so many people and groups? How else can we explain the wanton violence around the world, especially in the U.S. Moreover, someone please explain to me how companies like Wells Fargo (set up fictitious customer accounts), Volkswagen (developed a cheating advice to skirt carbon emissions standards), Johnson & Johnson (asbestos-causing-cancer baby powder), and so many other companies continue to ignore the needs of the public. And, don’t even get me started with our morally-bankrupt political leaders.


Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 19, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.