Should Nietzsche be characterised as an immoralist?

Nietzsche’s moral code is considered to be an extreme example of using the power of moral push to determine your actions and behaviour, meaning the motivation behind them is down to self-improvement and benefitting oneself rather than feelings brought on by others. He presented his views at a time when Judaeo-Christian virtues, which were more based on moral pull and acting in favour of other people, were particularly popular and therefore he was thought to be an ‘immoralist’ as his ideas were opposed to conventional morality.

Nietzsche was highly critical of Judaeo-Christian virtues as they focused more on virtues that encouraged acting for the benefit of other people. Some examples are the virtues of benevolence, sympathy, generosity and kindness. He felt that by valuing the lives of others, it meant devaluing one’s own life and this disrupted the ‘natural order’ of society. According to Nietzsche, people were either ‘lambs’ or ‘birds of prey’ and this would determine whether you were capable of being the ideal man or superior being in Nietzsche’s mind. Those who are ‘birds of prey’ are the ones at the top of the social hierarchy and ‘lambs’ are all the common people. Having a social hierarchy is right and natural due to the Will of Power, which is the will to win in the competition that is the natural world (essentially the idea of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest). This natural state was being threatened, in Nietzsche’s mind, by Christian virtues because of how it resulted in ‘the increasing domestication of humans and degradation of their animal instincts’ and ‘tends to fix the human type as it now exists and prevent the rise of anything different and higher’ .This would make it difficult for those capable of becoming superior to actually be that higher type as the virtues needed to develop oneself into this person are not similar to those being encouraged by society.


The crucial aim for acting morally well for Nietzsche was the strive for excellence rather than the pursuit of happiness. This differs from popular moral theories such as utilitarianism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics, where excellence and happiness are used more synonymously. He refused ‘to take happiness (sensation of any kind) as the final measure of what is desirable’ and uses it as another way to distinguish between the ‘lambs’ and ‘birds of prey’ as he thought that ‘it is the commoner sort of man who especially seek pleasure…the strong man is not after happiness’. As attractive as being excellent may be, happiness and pleasure is something we intuitively desire and often helps make our choices. This makes the idea of disregarding happiness and only aiming for greatness unrealistic and therefore unlikely to be implemented in society.

The harsh and unfair view Nietzsche has on how the majority of people are considered ‘lambs’ and therefore incapable of being the ideal person simply because they are not born into a higher social class makes it easy to label him an immoralist. He is not open to the idea of everyone having the opportunity to become a morally good person if they wish to take it as he felt the future of an individual would be determined at birth. He believed that ‘the fundamental facts about one’s character and personality are fixed by natural facts, and thus how one responds to differing circumstances and environments is also causally determined by natural facts’. He even thought that this group of people would have a feeling of ‘ressentiment’ which is the ‘resentment and hatred felt…toward those better off’ that would be developed and could turn into acts of revenge. His negative opinion about most people and restrictive criteria to be a ‘good’ person in his sense makes it easy to intuitively dislike his moral view. It is not open to the public and therefore could not be seen as a conventional moral code to follow in any society, making it one to be described as immoral.

Nietzsche’s dismissal of moral pull and disapproval of acts that are done for the benefit of others makes it difficult to picture a society where conventional morality does not revolve around caring for and helping those in your community. He can easily be categorised as an egoist as to him, ‘morality is a question of power; specifically, of who has it and of what consequences their having it has for the individual’. Placing a much higher value on the development of oneself over feelings of sympathy and kindness towards others could potentially lead to a less friendly society filled with go-getters who are oblivious or inconsiderate to one another. This is not the sort of society we would view as a morally good one and we would not expect, what we would think as, morally good acts to occur frequently. This means that we would have to classify Nietzsche as an immoralist as it is unlikely his view will ever not be against conventional morality at any period of time.

nietzsche 2

The kind of person that individuals, who have the access and capability to do so, should aspire to become is what Nietzsche describes as an Ubermensch, which is sometimes translated to ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’. He goes over the characteristics of an Ubermnesch mainly in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ as traits that should be attained in order to consider oneself as an ‘overman’. There are five main ones and these are: solitary, responsibility, healthy, life-affirming and self-reverence. These are all ‘sufficient to make someone a higher type’ but not certainly necessary.

The idea of solitude highly reflects Nietzsche’s view on the importance of moral push. The value of oneself is placed so highly in his moral code that it emphasises the lack of space for any kind of moral pull in his theory. Reserving time and energy for oneself is seen as crucial in our lives but Nietzsche’s disregard for others comes across when he states that ‘A human being who strives for something great regards everybody he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and hindrance – or as a temporary resting-place’. This implies that he felt as though one should only deal with other people instrumentally which is often regarded as being morally wrong, even by philosophers such as Kant who was strongly against using other people simply as a means to an end.

The other characteristics he mentions start to have a positive idea attached to them and it is here where I believe you can start to question whether Nietzsche’s moral code is completely wrong or not. The next trait is to do with seeking ‘burdens and responsibilities, in the pursuit of some unifying project’ as Nietzsche felt that nobility involves ‘instinctively seek[ing] heavy responsibilities’. You can take the ideas of self-improvement and assertiveness in terms of active involvement in projects from this which are traits generally considered beneficial to an individual and, although this is moving away from Nietzsche’s justficiation behind it, can also be beneficial to others in the same community. The motivation behind acting in this way for Nietzsche may be selfish but the side-effects of these actions could involve improving the welfare of others surrounding the ‘ubermensch’ and therefore it may not be a negative move for individuals to learn from Nietzsche here.

The general idea of the ‘ubermensch’ can, at first, seem like it is demanding and it is only limited to those lucky to be born with the social status and capability to become this superior being. It asks for the individual to always uphold himself to a standard that could be seen as unrealistic and to have very limited connections with other people, which can be argued goes against our natural instincts as humans are generally considered to be social animals. However, Nietzsche may have disguised some important life lessons in his work that we can take and learn from. Some of the points he raises by describing what a ‘superman’ should be can actually be considered somewhat inspiring as he is asking for the individual to be independent, ambitious, determined and have perseverance. He believes in the idea that ‘If we will the end, we must will the means, whether they strike the fancy and please us or not’ and in the end, the ‘ubermensch’ is the ‘full realization of individual human instinct, power and capacity’ which can possibly be linked to Artistotle’s idea of humans flourishing and continuous self-development. Rather than disregard all of Nietzsche’s ideas due to it being considered immoral, we can pick certain aspects of it and improve it to make it more adaptable in the society that we live in.

At the time of Nietzsche’s writing, his ideas starkly contrasted the virtues that were made popular by Judaeo-Christianity and therefore he was quickly characterised as an immoralist. His emphasis on moral push would be seen as more extreme when virtues such as generosity and sympathy were becoming increasingly accepted as crucial virtues to have due to the higher importance society was making on moral pull. However, rather than label him as someone with completely incorrect moral thoughts and disregard them, we can actually take some of his beliefs as potentially inspiring or important to oneself but alter it in a way so that it does fit with the conventional moral code. The principles behind most of his moral philosophy will likely always be opposed to what is generally considered morally good in society, especially as moral pull seems to be increasingly emphasised with the rise of more human equality and rights, so perhaps ‘we should not call him a moralist in the ordinary restricted sense of that term’ but I would not say that he got morality completely wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.