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Nietzsche on Slave Morality
He wasn't merely against it
On this week’s Moment of Zen, we discuss effective accelerationism and the AI debate.
Speaking of AI, on this week’s Cognitive Revolution we discuss the BLIP-2 paper.
Cool to see Moment of Zen chart at #65 and Cognitive Revolution at #88 on top tech podcasts.
Note: This is part 2 in me trying to summarize Brett Andersen’s ideas, this piece quotes and summarizes from this piece. Read Brett for the full dose.
Last week we discussed how slave morality won: The logic of violence and governance changed. Slave Morality appeals to the masses. Rulers needed to get buy-in from the masses in order to fight wars and to even keep power in the first place.
What led to the justification for these two philosophies? For Master Morality, the evidence was self-evident. The stronger were better than the weak because they could defeat them. QED. We’re naturally drawn to better people and better ways of doing things, so master morality was largely in sync with our existing instincts and inclinations.
Now, slave morality is a great inversion of master morality. It’s not something new, it’s just the exact opposite of master morality. But, unlike master morality, slave morality isn’t self-evident and thus doesn’t occur as naturally, so we needed to invent a whole new metaphysics to justify it. This would be known as the two-worlds mythology, or otherwise known as religion.
In other words, slave morality sometimes went against our instincts. This isn’t crazy — sometimes biological norms conflict with social/cultural norms. Because we evolved in a context that is so different from the one we currently inhabit, our evolved psychological dispositions are often at odds with what is optimal in the current environment. After all, our hardware (biology) was designed for society ten thousand years ago, and society has changed in some fundamental ways since then, which is why we’ve developed software (culture) to meet it. For example, people’s sexual norms thousands of years ago were different than they were today, so we have all sorts of norms around restraint that go against those sexual instincts. Same with our craving for sugar, and many other cravings that helped us back then but hinder us today.
Instincts that might be good for the individual’s interest might also be bad for the group. Therefore cultural norms have evolved to (sometimes!) suppress our natural inclinations for sex, envy, anger, etc., in favor of more pro-social behaviors. He saw the overriding of our instincts as unsustainable: the tension must eventually be overcome.
Nietzsche was worried about this instinct suppression that slave morality enabled. He feared it would lead to the rise of the most despicable kind of person — the last man. “The last man seeks comfort above all else. The last man no longer understands the value of suffering and chaos and so avoids them. This makes him weak and ineffectual, but the last man calls this “happiness”.”
“Nietzsche is often accused of wanting to go back to a more master morality worldview, in which we are able to vent our anger, envy, cruelty, desire for power, and violence at will.” This is a misread of Nietzsche.
Sure, he believes that we lost something of importance with the advent of Christianity (and therefore the rise of “slave morality”) in the Western world: our instincts, our strength, our vitality.
But Nietsche also believed that something was gained in this transition to Slave Morality: A rich inner-life. The inner conflict created by the tension between group-beneficial social norms and self-serving instincts drove us to create great art in an attempt to reconcile those tensions. This inner conflict led us to become philosophers, psychologists, novelists, etc. There’s no Woody Allen or Larry David or Dave Sedaris in Master Morality.
Nietzche certainly doesn’t want the pendulum to shift all the way back to master morality. To the extent he focuses his critique on slave morality, he does so because slave morality has so thoroughly taken over (and this was a few hundred years ago, imagine if Nietzsche was alive today?)
Brett Andersen describes it well: “...Nietzsche does not want us to go back to anything, but to move forward into a new worldview that does not suppress the instincts but sublimates them in the service of a higher value. Nietzsche criticizes slave morality (i.e., the morality that turns itself against the instincts) because it attempts to cut the human being off from natural inclinations toward aggression and sexuality, which are important sources of human creativity.”
What Nietzsche wants is a synthesis of the two, what he called “The Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul”.
Reconciling master morality and slave morality — egalitarianism and meritocracy — is something we’ll unpack further in the months ahead.