Kant and Nietzsche on Morality

Published 05 Dec 2016

Two modern day thinkers have deeply influenced major world leaders that helped shaped our history. These thinkers are Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. We will assess the thoughts of these two, identify their similarities, and finally, discern their differences. This is to help us gain insights on how certain world leaders viewed morality and made major decisions and actions based on the thoughts of these two thinkers.

In Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant evaluates morality from a metaphysical plane. This is analysis that considers many views to explain what should happen in one central idea (3, 4). Kant also expounds that an empirical plane is a study of what have happened (1) while intelligent common sense usually jumbles what happened with what should have (2). Kant prefers metaphysics as a method of analysis for the simple reason that a philosopher specializes in a carefully mastered area of knowledge (2). On the other hand, the ideas of empiricists are prone to corruption because these may fail to explain other things. Meanwhile, those with intelligent common sense are jack-of-all-trades (2).

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For example, a manufacturer of bio-chemical weapons sets up a factory in a small town. Let us call this town, SmallVille. Of course, the residents of SmallVille will have different opinions on the benefits and disadvantages of the plant. Likewise, SmallVille will have different stakeholders, each with their own point of view. How will Kant evaluate the morality of setting up this facility?

Kant will start with one point of view, say, from a farmer who has no idea that people will use bio-chemicals as weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, the era is in the 1750s. We have no televisions or national newspapers. Moreover, only a few highly-specialized scientists know that bio-chemicals are now useful as weapons. Under these conditions, the farmer will naturally conclude that the factory is good if he derives a direct benefit from it. Like say, the plant manager offers to buy tons of the farmer’s cow dung for the breeding of Anthrax. Let us assume that only one person, the in-house scientist, knows what Anthrax will do to an entire population.

Next, Kant will evaluate the point of view of the plant manager. The plant manager’s circumstance, in this case, is unstable. He used to live in New York City. His stockbroker wife is about to divorce him because he accepted the job and she has been left out all alone in New York pursuing her career. He greatly loves his wife. Moreover, he is not used to the inconveniences of rural life. Yet, he chooses to take the job. His reasons are: a) the factory creates new jobs that the U.S. economy needs; and b) the U.S. President personally told him that the factory will help in the country’s war effort with Spain.

Finally, Kant will evaluate the point of view of the in-house scientist. The scientist’s situation is that: a) He is now working on his dream job; b) The company president charged him with quality control in the production of Anthrax and the design of various delivery systems for the virus; and c) He is fully aware that his work will make the U.S. a superpower. In this case, the scientist thinks that he has made a good moral decision and is working diligently in perfecting the most efficient weapon of mass destruction.

Working on the three points of view, Kant will prescribe that the good that we do is essentially valuable based on our motivations or will (7). When we do a certain action and accidentally benefit from it as in the case of the farmer, we are not exactly moral because we have done something good that would benefit ourselves or our family (8). When we do our duty, even though we don’t like doing it, we are morally good (8). In the theoretical scenario we have presented, the case of the plant manager is the ideal. In the case of the scientist, Kant will say that the scientist is amorally evil. This is simply because he is doing something that basically fulfills his desires yet is fully aware of the negative implications of what he is doing (8).

Thus, Kant prescribes that it is our moral duty to do something that will be good to certain groups of people, even though we don’t like doing such duties (9). Kant suggests standards for the evaluation of our moral duties. These standards are: a) We must consider several theoretical perspectives (4); b) We must consider the benefits and costs of certain theoretical decisions that we must make (7); and c) We must consider our motivations before acting on a particular decision (9).

In the First Essay On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemical Tract, Nietzsche evaluates morality based on the origin of words, or etymology, with support from historical events and biblical references (Section 4). This is analysis that considers how certain words evolved to describe the concepts of good and evil. Nietzsche supports this analysis with historical facts (Sec. 5) and certain references from the bible (Sec. 7). Nietzsche’s method is revolutionary in the sense that while empiricists only study what has happened, Nietzsche studies the evolution of the human language to explain what is happening. He suggests that certain concepts or word meanings change at different time periods (Sec. 7).

For example, the present day moral concepts of good, evil, guilt and punishment took a 360 degree turn at a certain point in human history. Nietzsche asserts that what was thought to be good in ancient times is now perceived as evil. He supports this assertion by analyzing the meaning of the word “good” which means “noble.” Nietzsche then evaluates the meaning of the word “noble” and ascribes its meaning to the concept of the nobility, aristocracy or ruling class. From here, based on some examples from Roman history, Nietzsche asserts that “good” at a certain point in human history denotes strength, action and the will to accomplish things or succeed (Sec. 6., Sec. 10).

Through time and because of the rapid proliferation of Christianity, the word “good” presently denotes ‘weakness’ through the biblical concepts of loving your enemies and Jewish resentment or guilt against its neighboring conquerors, ‘inaction’ by leaving things to fate or God and ‘pity’ for failure to accomplish noble things or failure to take revenge by leaving punishment of the evil man, or the noble class, to God (Sec. 13). Nietzsche suggests a re-evaluation of our morals precisely because of this 360 degree turn in our concepts of morality.

Kant’s and Nietzsche’s thoughts on morality are similar in the sense that both have realized the limitations of studying concepts on morality solely on the basis of things that have happened—historical facts. The same historical facts can both positively and/or negatively support a concept. For instance, what is thought to be good in ancient Rome will now be presently considered evil. By supplying a Nietzschean explanation to a Kantian argument on the proneness to error of empirical conclusions, we find a strong similarity in the line of thinking of these two great thinkers. Another similarity is the desire of both thinkers to find explanations beyond the surface of established thinking or norms.

Kant and Nietzsche have been brave enough to present arguments that presented ideas and answered problems differently. In fact, the two gave mankind two methods of highly sophisticated critical thinking that are now often taken for granted in the Internet Age. Many will be surprised that what is often thought to be the superiority of empirical research over other methods of research that are academically acceptable has already been challenged by both Kant and Nietzsche. Both thinkers are revolutionary. Kant gave us the foundations for ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis,’ the concept of the ‘moral imperative,’ and a clearer exposition on the concept of ‘political will’ while Nietzsche gave us the concept of the ‘political correctness’ of words and a sophisticated awareness that language, like humans, adapt and evolve.

In his Prologue, Nietzsche literally disagreed with Kant in how Kant places a low value on the morality of pity (Sec. 5). For Kant, pity has a low value if it just serves as a means in doing a moral duty. It achieves a higher value when the same moral duty is done with self-sacrifice (8). For Nietzsche on the other hand, pity is a desirable quality of the noble for it connotes the strength of being “good.”

Another disagreement or difference is on the concept of self-sacrifice. Kant places a high value on self-sacrifice. Kant based his ideal on the concept of moral duty around this. Without self-sacrifice, Kant’s principle on the evaluation of morality does not hold water (8). Meanwhile, Nietzsche suggests in his First Essay that Jesus Christ’s ultimate self-sacrifice by being nailed on the cross strengthened the present day concepts of good and evil. Self-sacrifice became a tool of the weak, resentful Jewish against the strong rulers and conquerors surrounding Israel or Judea who made Jewish life miserable in Biblical times. Christ’s self-sacrifice serves as a turning point in the drastic change in what is formerly known to be good and evil (Sec. 15). This way Nietzsche positioned Kant’s concept of self-sacrifice as an invention of the weak, common people which ultimately displaced the ancient Roman concept of what is good based on nobility, strength and the drive to succeed.

Finally, both thinkers differ in the method they use to analyze and evaluate morality. Kant uses metaphysics while Nietzsche uses genealogy through the careful mix of etymology, historical analysis and biblical references. Kant’s method essentially involves theoretical thinking to balance a variety of perspectives. Meanwhile, Nietzsche’s method appears to be an empirical variant which creatively uses the origin of words to explain the present day concept of morality. Kant would basically describe Nietzsche’s method as that of intelligent common sense where theoretical and practical concepts are primitively jumbled.

However, Nietzsche method is far from being primitive in the sense that he provides a revolutionary variation by offering an alternative form of analysis by assessing the evolution of words against history. Nietzsche method only becomes primitive in the sense that some biblical references that he uses to support his ideas are the simple opinions and musings of persons that cannot be considered events in fact.

Looking back in history circa World War II, we will find how two major world leaders made their decisions based on the methods and thinking of Kant and Nietzsche. Imagine President Harry Truman as he weighs his options before deciding on authorizing the development of the atomic bomb and practically dropping it in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman would have theoretically weighed the costs and benefits of his decision for a bomb that has never been made or dropped in earlier history. That would have been a hard decision that Truman did not like to make but has to be made because it was Truman’s moral duty to do so. Moreover, recent films on similar scenarios have already been made and authors like Tom Clancy have created stories leveraging on Kant’s method of metaphysics yet we would have not imagined that such story lines were based on the thoughts and ideas of Kant.

Imagine Adolph Hitler’s moral judgments as he decides on annihilating the Jews, thinking that it was his moral duty to do so to cleanse the world of this weak race. We would have thought that this idea is repulsive and morally evil but scheming beyond the surface, we would have seen an alternate point of view that seems to be reasonable, yet disturbing. Imagine the word “kill” and its ‘politically correct’ 21st Century equivalent, “neutralize.” Better yet, imagine the sentence “She provides excellent leadership,” and its plain translation to: “She gives good head.” This example suggests some naughty sexual connotation but in world diplomacy, a failure to understand Kant’s or Nietzsche’s concepts on morality, metaphysics and/or genealogy would not simply turn into trivial jokes but would likely result in world changing events, like war yet hopefully, we would always want to shape this world through peace.

Works Cited

  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. Jonathan Bennet. July 2005.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemical Tract. Ian Johnston. British Columbia: Malaspina University-College. 21 December 2001.
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