Commentary Magazine


Topic: Friedrich Nietzsche

Whose Morality?

In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

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In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

But as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, while some of what we learn is mere convention (like whether we drive on the left or right side of the road), much of what we learn is (like mathematics) based on real truths. “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality,” Lewis wrote, “or Christian morality to Nazi morality.”

Over the years I’ve asked acquaintances of mine (including Peter’s late brother, Christopher) the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. How does one make the case against injustice if you begin with two propositions: the universe was created by chance and it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? And just what is the response to someone who says, “Your belief is fine for you but it’s irrelevant to me. God is dead and I choose to follow my own path. It happens to include gulags and gas chambers. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can base your claim.”

It’s never been clear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and His transcendent truth. 

To his credit, this question troubled even Friedrich Nietzsche (though it doesn’t seem to much trouble the so-called New Atheists). Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, has written, “From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.”

One final observation on all this: The reason Real Morality exists isn’t based on divine censoriousness, arbitrary and capricious, whose intention is to stamp out pleasure wherever it is found. It’s to create moral norms that are based on the design of human nature. The purpose is to advance human flourishing–for us as individuals to lead more fulfilled lives and to repair the brokenness that exists in all of our lives. In the debate about moral truth this fact is too often overlooked.

It probably doesn’t help that over the years some of those who have been vocal advocates for Real Morality are less winsome than they are “wound tight with anger,” in the words of the author Philip Yancey. Nonetheless the moral law within us, like the starry sky above us, exists; and its Author, who created us, cannot be wished out of existence by any of us.

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When Man Puts God in the Dock

In response to a piece I wrote on Nietzsche and intrinsic human worth, I heard from a college student, who wrote me this:

We read Nietzsche in philosophy last semester, so it was fun to hear him strongly taken to task. However, while this is a terrific argument about why atheism/agnosticism is an unsustainable world view, my problem with it is that I’ve heard it used too often … as a rebuttal to the Problem of Evil, despite the fact that this doesn’t really do anything to defend our worldview from the Problem of Evil. As a believer, one of the hardest philosophical questions for me to overcome is how can God be perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent and allow for evil in the world. So, I guess my question is: how do you deal with this problem philosophically as a believer?

That is a very important, difficult, and age-old question, and one I’m planning to respond to in short order. Suffice to say the matter of theodicy is among the more challenging ones for people of faith to grapple with. I should add that as someone whose own pilgrimage of faith has often been marked by intellectual struggles and even, from time to time, doubt, I have great sympathy with the question posed by this student. (C.S. Lewis once referred to the “incurable intellectualism of my approach,” which he meant as no compliment.)

My own view has been to never discourage honest inquiries from anyone, either believers or those who have no religious faith at all. The words of the Lord found in the book of Isaiah — “Come now, let us reason together” — have been something of a touchstone for me. And the examples of anti-intellectualism, and even obscurantism, that one finds within some strands of Christianity have long troubled me.

But over time I have come to some preliminary (and thoroughly unoriginal) conclusions, one of which is that faith, while certainly not at odds with reason, goes well beyond reason. Faith is, after all, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Jesus put it blunter still: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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In response to a piece I wrote on Nietzsche and intrinsic human worth, I heard from a college student, who wrote me this:

We read Nietzsche in philosophy last semester, so it was fun to hear him strongly taken to task. However, while this is a terrific argument about why atheism/agnosticism is an unsustainable world view, my problem with it is that I’ve heard it used too often … as a rebuttal to the Problem of Evil, despite the fact that this doesn’t really do anything to defend our worldview from the Problem of Evil. As a believer, one of the hardest philosophical questions for me to overcome is how can God be perfectly benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent and allow for evil in the world. So, I guess my question is: how do you deal with this problem philosophically as a believer?

That is a very important, difficult, and age-old question, and one I’m planning to respond to in short order. Suffice to say the matter of theodicy is among the more challenging ones for people of faith to grapple with. I should add that as someone whose own pilgrimage of faith has often been marked by intellectual struggles and even, from time to time, doubt, I have great sympathy with the question posed by this student. (C.S. Lewis once referred to the “incurable intellectualism of my approach,” which he meant as no compliment.)

My own view has been to never discourage honest inquiries from anyone, either believers or those who have no religious faith at all. The words of the Lord found in the book of Isaiah — “Come now, let us reason together” — have been something of a touchstone for me. And the examples of anti-intellectualism, and even obscurantism, that one finds within some strands of Christianity have long troubled me.

But over time I have come to some preliminary (and thoroughly unoriginal) conclusions, one of which is that faith, while certainly not at odds with reason, goes well beyond reason. Faith is, after all, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” in the words of the author of Hebrews. Jesus put it blunter still: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

There is, in other words, something about the nature of faith that requires a leap of faith. One can believe Judaism and Christianity are historical faiths, for example, while also acknowledging that they cannot be proven to be true in an indisputable, scientific, empirical way. That will never happen – and it was never meant to happen.

The second insight into the matter of faith and doubt was underscored to me once again while re-reading Lewis. In one of his essays, when asked to write about the difficulties that people must face in trying to present their faith to modern unbelievers, Lewis said this:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

Lewis, perhaps the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century, would have been the last person in the world to denigrate a person for asking tough questions about the nature of God. (Lewis, in fact, helped found The Oxford Socratic Club, whose guiding principle came from Socrates, who exhorted men to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” The purpose of the Club was to apply that principle to one particular subject matter – the pros and cons of the Christian religion.)

Still, Lewis was making an important point, which is that questions about faith are one thing; calling into question the fundamental character of God, or acting in arrogant judgment of Him, is something else again.

These are not easy matters to sort through. After all, if one believes some of the actions of God are unjust – for example, God calling for the complete destruction of the Canaanites, including children — that will, for some people, reflect on how they perceive the character of God. Lewis himself, besieged by grief after the death of his wife, gave voice to his own fears. “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

Some theologians I know found Lewis’s book, and his struggles, to be troubling. I never have and, in fact, I appreciate his candor and honesty. I also took some comfort in the fact that even Lewis was not immune to doubt and to struggles. We shouldn’t pretend these things are virtues; but neither should we deny that they are fully understandable, and in some respects entirely predictable. There is no shame in wrestling with doubt.

In the end, Lewis regained his faith. At the conclusion of A Grief Observed, Lewis quotes his dying wife Joy as telling a chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She then smiled, but not at Lewis, who ends his book with these words: Poi si torno all eterna Fontana (the words come from Dante and translated mean, “Then unto the eternal fountain she turned.”)

Man was no longer on the bench, and God was no longer in the dock.

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Nietzsche vs. Intrinsic Human Worth

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

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Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

Nietzsche was right to wonder, and Ranter-Rosenhagen’s work raises an old and enduring set of questions. Is there such a thing as a universal moral law, truths that are objective and permanent rather than subjective and contingent, ethical codes that are anchored in God rather than human choice, human desires, and human invention?

During the years, I’ve asked friends of mine, including several very intelligent and well-read atheists, the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”?

To press the point a bit further, why would a materialist or a relativist have any confidence that their beliefs are (a) rooted in anything permanent and (b) applied to themselves and to others? It’s not obvious what the response is to a Nietzschean who says, “Your belief is fine for you, but it is simply non-binding on me. God is dead – and I choose to follow the Will to Power. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can make your stand.”

Steve Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once told me something that adds an important layer to this discussion. We believe we have worth because we are created in God’s image, he said. But even more basic is the declaration that we have value simply because God values us. Gold is valuable because someone values it, not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of worth.

Sure, gold is aesthetically beautiful and has particular physical qualities which set it apart (it is highly conductive, non-corroding, et cetera). But gold would not be valuable if it were not thought to be so by someone. In this case, value is attributive. Similarly, human beings are of worth simply because we are valued by God. Indeed, God demonstrated the value of humanity by His continuing involvement with us.

It is the attributive quality of worth which underlies Christian and Jewish anthropology. Comparative worth opens the door to an economic or utilitarian assessment of the value of an individual. Intrinsic worth may also be open to some debate. But attributive worth, according to Hayner, is not derived from culture or circumstances. Here, worth comes from the understanding that all people are precious in God’s sight.

It’s still unclear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and transcendent truth. I’m not claiming it can’t be done; I’m simply asking what a non-theistic moral code would be grounded in. Those who embrace atheism/anti-theism and the philosophy of Nietzsche would do well to understand, as he did, just how ugly and terrifying a world after moral absolutes would be.

It turns out taking a hammer to God doesn’t damage Him; but it does damage us.

 

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