Genealogy as Critique

I think it is significant, then, that in the preface to the Genealogy Nietzsche avoids the earlier problems of The Gay Science and does not suggest that his genealogy of morals is just a perspective. Calling genealogy an art of reading and interpretation rather than a science does not mean that "anything goes." On the contrary, he says "no" to every aspect of Paul Ree's genealogy, thus implying he believes genealogies can be wrong, and that his own is better than any alternatives of which he knows. Of course, there are different ways for genealogies to be wrong. They may be wrong by not corresponding to the facts, but they may also be wrong by being shallow and leaving important questions unexplained. For instance, Ree and Spencer take for granted the value of altruism, without asking the question why altruism should be morally valued. Nietzsche's criticism of Ree is reminiscent of Kant's complaint that teleological, heteronomous moral theories (like Hume's, for instance) do not explain why helping others is moral. Hume's genealogy of morals traces our moral beliefs back to personal sentiments, such as sympathy for our fellows, and then argues that these sentiments are universal. Thus, Hume's genealogy of morals goes into great detail about how moral qualities are useful to ourselves and others. His genealogy itself will have some effect on our moral actions, since by having a clearer idea about the origin of our actions we may decide to cultivate certain qualities rather than others. For example, in describing virtue according to the degree of usefulness, Hume says we may be inclined to give money to beggars because of our desire to help them, but may cease giving money if we find out that we are not really helping but hurting them by encouraging habits not really useful to them.[11]

Although this example is not one of Hume's more felicitous ones, I cite it because it is especially susceptible to Nietzsche's criticisms of the utilitarians. In Daybreak (230) Nietzsche complains against the utilitarians that

sentiments crisscross, and what seems useful to one person will seem wrong to another for that same reason. Genealogy thus cannot stop with identifying what is useful, but must identify that in terms of which we can say something is genuinely useful or not. Neither utility nor pleasure are stable and informative enough to provide a ground floor for a universal ethical theory.

While this objection to Hume echoes Kant, Nietzsche is equally critical of Kant's universalistic moral theory. Kant's conception of moral personality points beyond the phenomenal world to a noumenal or intelligible world we supposedly inhabit as well, and from which we give ourselves our moral laws. Nietzschean genealogy follows Hegel's and Schopenhauer's criticisms of this idea of reason as an autonomous law-giver. Genealogy undercuts the motive behind metaphysics by showing that Kant's projection of a two-world view as the presupposition of morality can itself be explained as an attempt to escape the recognition that the phenomenal world is for us the only intelligible world.

Although Nietzsche shares Kant's rejection of Hume's appeal to utility and pleasure, Nietzsche's "method of ethics" goes beyond both Hume's and Kant's. Kant's arguments are transcendental ones. That is, they start from some feature of experience we take as essential and then argue that if we are to speak, think, and act as we do, we must also believe certain other features also obtain. Thus, for the Kantian if we make moral judgments, we must believe we are free; and since as phenomenal beings we are not free, we must believe we are free in some other world than this one. While Nietzsche's critical arguments are sometimes transcendental in form, their purpose differs from that of these conceptual ones. Nietzsche's arguments do not simply confirm that our ways of speaking, thinking, and acting are intelligible in the same terms in which we describe them to ourselves. Genealogy tends to find an incoherence in our own self-understanding (for instance, between our various self-descriptions, or between the way we think and the way we act) and then to show how that incoherence is produced from within us. Rather than confirm the adequacy of our present self-descriptions and the coherence of our practices, genealogy makes us more intelligible to ourselves by showing us the inadequacy of our present self-understandings and practices, and then giving an interpretation of how such an inadequacy could have come about.

I stress that Nietzsche is giving an interpretation, not an explanation of the sort that would deduce a single necessary conclusion from universal principles and observable facts. Furthermore, there are counterfactual elements in the interpretation. To understand how something could have come about implies that a different outcome was also possible. But even Hume's genealogies do not result in interpretations in this sense. He calls his reasoning experimental, in that moral ideas can be traced back to moral sentiments we can identify in ourselves. He believes further that a sentiment

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