The Darkest Enlightenment

The concept of moral equality – the idea that every human being has a right to be treated as an equal to all other human beings and has a corresponding duty to treat others as equals – forms the horizon within which we debate about what is morally right and what is just. Debate, both within philosophy and outside, focuses on what the best conception of moral equality is: what does it mean to really treat one another as equals, rather than whether it is in fact a good thing for the concept of equality to play such a central role in our moral and political thinking.

This has by no means always been the case; but the depth and pervasiveness of our commitment to it can be seen by the fact that when moral equality is challenged we find it difficult to take the challenger’s argument seriously. (We simply do not take seriously any arguments that would defend slavery, or show that it is better that certain groups of people’s interests (Blacks, Jews) not be taken into account when deciding what to do.) One reason for this may be the ubiquity (at least within moral and political philosophy) of reflective equilibrium as a model of ethical thinking. The model of reflective equilibrium requires that we test our moral theories against our considered judgements – that is, judgements about which we are most confident that we are not judging wrongly.

The judgement that we ought, in some sense, to treat one an other as equals, is now our most fundamental considered moral judgement. Any theory of right and wrong which is in disagreement with such a deep and fundamental part of our intuitive moral framework will tend, if we apply the standard of reflective equilibrium, to discredit itself through this very fact. Thus, if we stick to the model of reflective equilibrium, it is rather difficult to set up a useful confrontation between Nietzsche and the views of someone who takes for granted the moral equality of human beings (someone who in Kymlicka’s words stands on the ‘egalitarian plateau.’) For his part, Nietzsche is simply not bothered with debates which seem important to anyone who believes that the concept of equality should play a central role such as whether a utilitarian or a Rawlsian society better fulfils the promise of treating human beings as equals. Conversely, for the moral egalitarian, Nietzsche, by the very fact of not adhering to the principle of moral equality, puts himself beyond the pail.

Nietzsche puts forward his objections to egalitarianism most clearly in the chapter ‘What is Noble’ of Beyond Good and Evil. His basic objection requires us to compare two different types of society: societies where aristocratic values predominate, and societies where non-aristocratic values predominate. A system of values is aristocratic if it maintains orders of rank: that is, if it maintains that there is a natural pecking order of human beings, and that those at the top of the pecking order are superior as human beings to those at the bottom of the pecking order. Non-aristocratic values systems are egalitarian value systems: they believe that there is no order of rank: all human beings are equal as human beings. We are so steeped in non-aristocratic values that it is easy for us to miss what Nietzsche has in mind. In Nietzsche’s conception of an aristocratic society, those lower on the order of rank are not deemed important for their own sake. They are entirely expendable: creation of beings of the highest rank enjoys a lexical priority over the comfort or flourishing of those of lower rank. — Wilson. Nietzsche and equality

Brief commentary: The issue concerns value egalitarianism, which involves both aesthetics and ethics and many less well categorized forms of valuation, appraisal, assessment, and evaluation. By value egalitarianism, I mean the demand that we ought not, without qualification, create intraspecific human ranks, morally or mentally. Consider the following, not unfamiliar, manifestation of value egalitarianism: Racism is morally wrong and should felt to be noxious; racism is the belief that some races are inferior or superior to others.

Here, the concern extends beyond just proper social actions. Involved also is a concept of good mental hygiene and of good taste. With regards to value egalitarianism, Nietzsche’s argument, which was made everywhere and nowhere in his works, was elegant: The first part: The idea of human value equality, like the idea of the otherworldly, stems from a learned mental doubling — the distinguishing between the accidental and essential, between acts and actors. These ways of thinking are permutations of the same unhealthy mental habit of dis-integrating the world. (Nietzsche’s project is the unlearning of this habit. Both metaphysically and morally this means unlearning the distinction between the world of experience and the world of being.) The second part: Making evaluation, that is, ranking and ordering, is natural; and individuals differ in valuable traits. (In regards to this, Wilson notes: The non-aristocratic (egalitarian) society will, of course, agree that some human beings are better than others in certain respects, and that it can be morally legitimate to construct an order of rank for human beings in these particular respects….But the egalitarian denies that it is possible or morally appropriate to attempt to rank people as human being.) The third part: Since there is no fundamental — one might say “essential” — difference between characteristics and characters and since some characteristics are inferior, it follows that some characters are also inferior. The fourth part: Repressive is the demand that we see/think/feel/conclude that all characters are, essentially, the same — that we split our reality into what we experience and what it is said to be, that we act unnatural. The Fifth part: value egalitarianism, in demanding that we adopt — and necessarily act on — this repressive, unnatural way of thinking, is tyrannical.

To be clear, the distinguishing between “unequal in some respects” and “unequal, as such” doesn’t directly lead to value egalitarianism. It just provides egalitarian natural law theorists the space to propose metaphysical principles of equality and provides egalitarian philosophical liberal theorists the room to play conceptual games. One might wonder why the world happened to be such that individuals were meta-physically equal — or happened to be such that equality as such (but, of course, not in some respect) was the rule. But to wonder that is to wonder why the world is such that the philosophers who devise these proofs tend to be overwhelmingly value egalitarian. From a strictly logical perspective, value egalitarianism is, in most meta-ethical systems, indefensible; the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic inequality doesn’t alter this state of affairs; rather, it undermines the elegant animal reason on which elitist thinking is based.

The trouble with Wilson’s defense of egalitarianism is captured in the following statement: “So Nietzsche’s critique does nothing to force us to give up on moral egalitarianism”. Wilson takes value egalitarianism as the moral default position. A default which can only be dislodged by strong reason. But Nietzsche’s argument is that this way of thinking is based on a bad habit, an argument which is developed across works and which critiques simultaneously metaphysical, epistemological, and moral otherworldlyism. Elucidating the “essence” of Nietzsche does not require Heideggarian tomes. Nietzsche’s penetrating thought is simply that being is superficial. There is no deep reality — no forms, no transcendents, no ding an sich — and no Hegalian becoming of being. There just is. It’s all hangin’ out there.

Now, when it come to the ranking and ordering of people, it’s somewhat misleading to characterize Nietzsche as saying that some individuals are unequal as human beings, as Wilson does. As human, after all, seems to imply a human form that some individuals can actualize more than others. It’s clearer to just say that some individuals are unequal. Unequal in what? Put your Zen hat on: No in. But does this argument — or rather, this call to unlearn bad mental habits — work? Epistemologically, for example, why privilege the unthinking of the accident-essence distinction with the status of the default position. I think it does work, insofar as value egalitarianism represents an assertion about how all people should estimate. Nietzsche felt that it is unhealthy to think egalitarianly and therefore not tall-standing and therefore, in a sense, improper — but this sense of improper is quite different from the moral categorical sense, which represents an imperative or demand. Value egalitarianism demands something — is an imposition — and therefore requires justification beyond just saying that it is one of three conceptual possibilities.

And, at least within the liberal framework, there doesn’t seem to be any possible means of justification for this position. One can talk about “reflexive equilibrium” until one is blue in the face, but this talk is even hollower than Nietzsche’s world — since it pretends to be otherwise. It’s a cosmos that’s all cosmetic but which doesn’t admit to it. From a Nietzschean perspective, this is womanly. And being seduced by a woman is weak and contemptible. Another way of putting this is that value egalitarians can’t justify value egalitarianism — they can only connive conceptual tricks. Nietzsche, on the other hand, doesn’t need to justify elitism as a demand that all think elitely. He demands this no more than a carnivore demands universal carnivorism. Elitist thinking works just fine along side egalitarian thinking; and it works fine in exclusion of egalitarian thinking. For Nietzsche, the problem comes when the egalitarians demand that everyone assess as they do — when egalitarians demand egalitarianism — or at least when they are in a position to enforce this demand.

Nietzsche characterizes this demanding as being motivated by resentment. And Wilson challenges this characterization and he thinks, therefore, the argument. But Nietzsche’s arguments does not depend on the motivation. It depends on the demand being unjustified and in instances coercive and restraining of higher types insofar as this promotes the lower types — in contrast, healthy behaviors in Nietzsche’s system are unjustified and in instances coercive and restraining of lower types insofar as this promotes the higher types. Note here that the difference between Nietzschean elitism and liberal egalitarianism is disturbingly subtle. The latter is, twicefold, merely a womanly version of the former. But we are not interested in evaluating either, as such — but rather in evaluating egalitarianism as the horizon within which we debate about what is morally right. But I already passed sentence of this in the one immediately above. Egalitarianism, at least of the non-transcendental sort, has no claim beyond that of Nietzschean elitism. The deception is unmasked simply by recognizing the possibility of unlearning the distinction which undermines value elitism.

This isn’t to say that liberal value egalitarianism can’t compete as a morality of power. Surely, if that’s all that values are then by many metrics it can hardly said to be weak. Recognized as it is, one might even admire it — from the perspective of power.

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