On the Origins of Good and Evil
Written by Shawn Funk
“What is good?–All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
What is bad?–All that proceeds from weakness.” Friedrich Nietzsche–The Anti-Christ
From a very young age, we know the difference between good and evil, and we willingly accept the ‘truth’ that underlies these concepts. For most of us, myself included, the justification for ‘the good’ probably goes something like this: the good is good because it’s good, and likewise, for its opposite. Great argument! If I go any deeper than that, contradictions arise besides a tautology is always true! Okay, so my point is that we give very little thought to the origins of our judgments. Like brainless automata, we submit to what has been impressed upon us without question. The question remains, what is the basis for our moral judgments? Does saying something is good make it so?
In On the Genealogy of Morality, Friedrich Nietzsche seeks an answer to where our moral judgments originate. Nietzsche suggests that the history of good and evil is rooted in aristocratic self-affirmation, called master morality, and the ressentiment of the powerless, which births an opposition to master morality called slave morality. These two kinds of morality serve as the basis for Nietzsche’s argument.
Nietzsche argues that the concepts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ find their origin in the master morality of the ruling classes, who used their power, strength, and industry to create their values in distinction from those of the lower classes, who were seen as powerless, mean, and stupid. Nietzsche states that it “has been ‘the good’ themselves, meaning the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good . . . in contrast to everything lowly . . . It was from this pathos of distance that they first claimed the right to create values and give these values names . . . that is the origin of the antithesis ‘good’ and ‘bad’” (Nietzsche, 1997). Thus, those acts that affirmed their strength, power, and knowledge were called ‘good’ and were justified through their power. Saying does make it so! Indeed, the moral landscape is brought into existence through the power of the ruling class.
In contrast to master morality, slave morality is life-denying in its definitions of the good. In essence, slave morality transforms lowly, base, and mean people into those of the highest virtue. Nietzsche despises this morality for its passive acceptance of suffering and its appeals to the weak, the sick, the poor, the ugly, and the lame. His criticisms are sharp but cleverly wrought.
According to Nietzsche, the origin of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is reactionary, originating from the Christain morality of the underclass who were oppressed by their Roman rulers. Evil is, thus, an afterthought, borne from the resentment of the oppressed to exact an imaginary punishment against those who have caused them pain and suffering. Nietzsche states that the “beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge” (Nietzsche, 1997). This imaginary revenge consists of a reversal of values and introduces the concept of evil. Thus, to the underclass, evil becomes the active outflowing of strength that the ruling class considers ‘good,’ and ‘good’ becomes that which the ruling class despises, namely, passive weakness. For instance, a line from Blake, “Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy” (Blake, 2005). Now contrast that with the epigram from Nietzsche at the top and his aptly named “aristocratic value equation (good=noble=powerful=beautiful=happy=blessed)” (Nietzsche, 1997).
This reversal of values had a profound impact on the psyche of humans. According to Nietzsche, the suppression of our instincts has led to a slavish existence where we deny our inclinations and exalt our weaknesses; however, in our desire to curb our impulses, we created another monster: bad conscience. Nietzsche suggests that the powerful, noble ones, who first derived a table of values in relation to their strength had very little use or need for a “conscience”, for their acts were justified by their strength. However, a reversal of values occurs when man is “tamed” by state forces (Nietzsche, 1997). Old values based on strength and instinct become new evils that are meted out through harsh punishments. Nietzsche states that these punishments “had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself . . .Animosity, cruelty, the pleasure of pursuing, raiding, changing and destroying – all this was pitted against the person who had such instincts: that is the origin of ‘bad conscience’ ” (Nietzsche, 1997). In other words, we feel the bite of consciousness because of our inability to affirm our basic instinct to dominate the objects of our environment; thus, turning our destructive tendencies inward.
Ironically, and to his great disappointment, Nietzsche admits that in the end, Christianity got its revenge, outlasting the Roman state and still growing with members worldwide. It seems the imaginary revenge of the powerless eventually bootstrapped its way into reality, not unlike the origins of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from the so-called ‘noble’ ones.
Nietzsche’s argument for the origins of moral judgment is bolstered by his etymological investigation into the words ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ This is where things get very interesting. Nietzsche shows that the word ‘good’ develops from noble or aristocratic terms while ‘bad’ develops from low, plebeian, or common terms (Nietzsche, 1997). The root word for ‘peasant’ is ‘villain.’ The German word for ‘bad’ is schlecht while schlicht means plain or simple (Nietzsche, 1997). It is easy to see the connections here. These examples are just the surface, but this investigation allows us to see how language reinforces moral judgments on an unconscious level while revealing that having the power to name things and put them into language gives them the authority to exist. Indeed, language itself plays a huge role in maintaining the justification of an ongoing subjugation of a lower class.
The big takeaway from Nietzsche’s Genealogy is that power is the coordinating principle from which all else flows, and the production of morality is inextricably linked to the power centers that envelope our existence. Indeed, there is no fixed meaning of the terms ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ and ‘evil.’ Nietzsche insists that “[t]here is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena,” suggesting that morality does not exist beyond the human mind (Nietzche, 1997). Whether you agree, it is important to take everything Nietzsche wrote with a grain of salt. After all, he did say he wrote to be misunderstood.
Blake, William. (2005). Selected poems. London: Penguin Group.
Neitzsche, Friedrich. (1997). Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Neitzsche, Friedrich. (1997). On the Genealogy of Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Neitzsche, Friedrich. (2003). The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin Group.