How often have we heard the belief that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. In assessing the views of Kant and Nietzsche regarding history’s importance in moral issues, one can see that Kant sees morality in “the enjoyment of life and happiness” (Kant 1), while Nietzsche uses morality as “value judgment (where) good is historically untenable” (Nietzsche 3). Perhaps what is interesting to note in terms of the differences between the two is that Kant approaches morality from his background in theology and as a professor, while Nietzsche is disaffected with the hypocrisy of his fellow humans. The most basic conflict concerning the historical background of morality is that Kant tends to search out the reasons why Man can be “good” while Nietzsche sees morality and “good” as not being able to be handled by an ordinary man (hence, his idea of the “Superman”).
History, according to Kant Second Section 1), does not give us proof that any action is based strictly on moral grounds or a sense of duty. In fact, he is quite adamant in saying that nothing “could be more fatal to morality than we should wish to derive it from examples” (1). This, so it seems, indicates that we cannot use the past to justify moral (or immoral) behavior in the present. He even goes further: “Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection” (1). Again, we cannot use what happened in history to either justify or negate our own moral values and actions. This could very well give rise to some modern philosopher’s saying that just because it was (or seemed) right historically does not make it right or moral today. Value judgments change. To bring this to the very lowest common denominator, it is almost as if this were Playboy philosophy: we cannot be bound what morals were like generations before.
Nietzsche agrees, but for a different reason: He sees value judgments and moral values imposed in history by “privileged, aristocratic, the truthful”. He assumes that morality was dictated throughout history by what he considers “the spiritually noble” (Nietzsche 4). He is concerned that morality in the past was dictated by what he refers to as a :”priestly aristocracy” (5). It is obvious that, unlike Kant, he firmly believes and tends to prove, that the ordinary man is either incapable or not interested in formulating morality. Ordinary man leaves these decisions to the spiritually noble, and Nietzsche seems to resent this taking over, historically, of definitions and laws regarding morality.
Kant believes in the noble idea of “pure reason”. He sees it as a sort of substitute for a “genuine supreme principle of morality” (Second Section 1). On the other hand,. Nietzsche seems to blame the Judeo-Christian belief in forgiveness and what be calls “aristocratic value equations (good =noble = powerful = beautiful = fortunate = loved by God)” (7). It seems obvious that he sees this belief in God’s moral values as being created out of weakness, by literally handing over one’s individual rights to and judgments about morality to some Supreme Being (whose existence he somehow doubts). Nietzsche goes even further, accusing ancient Jews of fomenting hatred and vengeance as part of their morality, and that, so to speak, the Judeo-Christian civilization turned this into some sort of love.
One has to be fully aware that Kant is discussing what he refers to as a sort of enlightened “pure reason” while Nietzsche sees only the dark side, seeing that value judgments and morality were imposed by some sort of priestly or other aristocracy.
Kant also sees the fact that it is difficult, at best, top evaluate morals based on historical examples because he claims that the teachers are either not well prepared, or unprepared to teach this subject. Unlike Nietzsche, who blames or accused ancient aristocrats of imposing value judgments, Kant seems to believe that anyone with reason has had an influence on the morality of his time: “All moral conceptions have their seat and origin completely a priori in the reason” (Kant 2). One can therefore imply that Kant sees reason as a historical precedent, something that spans the ages and remains- even resists change.
When one also implies that Nietzsche sees only the dark side, from the time of the Greeks and Romans, through the “barbarians”, one can sense that he is searching for some proof that his ideas are wrong: “grant me a glimpse, grant me a single glimpse into something perfect, something completely developed, something happy…” (13). If there is no existing proof, then he seems to believe that historical evidence of the “goodness” of man, of his adherence to morality is either non existent or irrelevant in the sense that it is not provable. Again, one needs to reiterate that what were yesterday’s beliefs about values and goodness and morality, may not be today’s.
Does this vast difference in approach to Man, as well as to history’s role in morality and value judgment set these two men worlds apart? There should be no doubt. Of course, the fact that these two lived a century apart also has a bearing on matters. Kant was in a far more enlightened era, while Nietzsche surely began to feel the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and man’s dedication to mechanization rather than sobering but valuable thought. Kant seems (in his writings at least) to project calm and logical reasoning. Nietzsche is what today might be considered a truly Angry Man. Kant accepts the failure of some moral and judgmental aspects in history. “Looking back now on all previous attempts tom discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder why they all failed. It was that man was bound to laws by duty…” (Second Section 10). Nietzsche would argue that failure was due to the source of the laws: the upper classes, the priestly do-gooder aristocracy, those who fervently believed that God helps the weak and meek. In fact, he considers that “development is the history of the origin of responsibility. The task of breeding an animal with a right to make promises…” (Nietzsche Second Essay 2). One can interpret this to mean a denunciation of God’s “creating Man in his own image” as just a sort of vanity, but more likely Nietzsche’s idea that Man no longer is in charge of being responsible, and that he has turned over (throughout history s it seems) the responsibility and morality and value judgments to some sort of religious “elite”.
Nietzsche also seems to believe that history has changed our perceptions of morality: “All good things were once bad things; every original sin becomes an original virtue” (Third Essay 10). He uses marriage as an example of something now being a “virtue” where once what he calls “to arrogate a woman to themselves” (10) as being sinful.
Where Kant sees an evolution of spirit and reason, Nietzsche sees a revolution, and a costly one at that. “Nothing has come at a higher price…than the small amount of human reason and feeling of freedom which we are now so proud of” (10). History has taught us that the price of freedom comers high, and is seldom guaranteed. We need only to look at the changes since 9/11 to prove that man’s inhumanity to man extends well beyond terrorism and war. We are now challenged by the so-called “Patriot Act” which permits the government to go so far as to snoop in bookstores to see what customers are buying and/or reading. Would Kant have ignored this sort of historical precedent? Or would he have, as surely Nietzsche would have done, fly into a rage to prove that man’s use of authority often exceeds his grasp.
Having read these totally different versions of morality and value judgments, reason and lack thereof, Kant is a conversationalist, Nietzsche a ranter. Yet, looking at our current moral climate, one has to side with Nietzsche. Not that he is right, of course, but that in today’s morality issues, he is more alert to both moral and immoral behavior and their rationales than Kant. Nietzsche, in all his “black-and-white-and nothing-in-between” philosophical thoughts is far more attuned to the dangers and complications and changes of our current generation. As I will shortly explain, the moral values set up centuries ago are often no longer truly valid in today’s society. Science and technology are replacing religion and family values as final arbiters of our life-styles. Peer pressure dictates our morals, even our sexual behavior. Many of today’s generation would rather “look good” than “be good”.
A brief explanation of my “decision” is proper here: We live in a time when others- whether they are “priestly aristocracy” or elite, such as politicians- legislate morality. Such personal matters as abortion, euthanasia, same0sex relationships, even which church is “superior” are legislated. Decisions are made over which we have little or no input. Muslims hate Jews. Islam is seen by some as “evil”. Sex scandals in the Catholic Church may be due in part because of the inability to observe priestly celibacy laws. Yet, the Church will not permit married priests, or women in the priesthood. We are still monitored by parents and/or family, and when questioning their attitude are told “Because I said so!”. I watched “The West Wing” on NBC this week, where the fictional President visited a town ripped apart by a tornado. A fictional school bus driver, having said she lost four of the children on her route, rhetorically asked “Why did God permit this? We go to Church every Sunday. We try to do what is right…”. Nietzsche would reply that there is no so-=called God who causes or avoid tornados or other disasters. It is Nature. And, there is no such thing as avoiding natural disasters by prayer or church attendance.
Religion, per se, is no longer the strong bastion of morality. We can no longer turn to our pastors, priests, rabbis or Imams for moral solutions to difficult and personal questions. We are experiencing, as Nietzsche clearly points out “the pressure of a system of values” (10). One has to wonder what Nietzsche would have thought of the Internet as a seeming progenitor of moral values. The chat room is replacing the confessional. We live vicariously with screen names instead of well-deserved honest upright reputations. Anonymity is our security blanket.
Someone once said “You cannot legislate morality”. Yet, the efforts continue to be made. What was immoral in, say, Salem, in the 1600s may not be immoral today. The goal, as Nietzsche would surely agree, is to provide the means for Man to live in safety and relative stability, without outside pressures value judgment laws imposed by self-appointed moral monitors. Instead of a critique and belief in pure reason, we have the Moral Majority. Instead of philosophical discourse and reasoned, even if impassioned, argument, we have arson and mayhem, even murder against those whose values differ from ours. Nietzsche calls much of a life of self-sacrifice as something of “hostility and contradiction to nature” (12). In short, my greater adherence to Nietzsche is that he points out, even warns us, against man’s cruel nature. Morality cannot be decided with platitudes or an ascetic life or what he calls “the most disgusting species of vain people” (15). It is almost as if he were saying Be careful whom you trust. I would love to see a debate between Nietzsche and Jerry Falwell.
Kant, I. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” (First, Second and Third Sections)
Nietzsche, F. “On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemical Tract (First and Second and Third Essays)