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Summer Reading Group: “Equality After Nietzsche”

This is the fourth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

We live in a Nietzschean age. I do not mean, of course, that Nietzsche’s philosophical works are widely consumed by the general population or that Western political and social institutions are founded on Nietzschean premises. Rather, what I mean is that we more or less take for granted many of Nietzsche’s philosophical proposals. Even if we do not want to admit it, we live and breathe Nietzsche.

It is not uncommon to hear echoes of Nietzschean perspectivism in our everyday conversations with friends and family. “We are all entitled to our own truths,” we often declare to one another. If you are a Christian, you might have heard something like “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, but this is just my personal opinion.” Such statements, innocent as they may appear, are indicative of a deeper concession that truth is something we impose on reality instead of something we discover in reality. Although we often justify this perspectivism by appealing to its supposedly liberal and tolerant implications, ethicists have long pointed out that there is no necessary connection between perspectivism and epistemic generosity, as we shall see in Nietzsche.

On a more sinister level, Nietzsche’s war on objective truth and Christian agape strikingly correlates with our post-truth political era, the celebration of aggressive masculinity, and the widespread disdain for the needy. Within a cultural context, where even many Christians are dressing up Nietzschean values with the language of the Gospel, Osborn’s critical engagement with Nietzsche’s ideas could not be more pertinent.

In previous chapters, Osborn frequently alluded to Nietzsche as the philosopher who understood what adopting a naturalistic worldview would mean for society's cherished humanistic values. In the current chapter, he seeks to demonstrate why Nietzsche is the most intellectually honest and consistent defender of philosophical naturalism.

Unlike Darwin and Marx, Nietzsche lacks the optimistic hope that “social progress” could be ushered in by the death of God. According to Osborn, rather than compassion and equality, Nietzsche sees in nature only exploitation, competition, and hierarchy. Just so, he exposes the preference for humanistic values like compassion and equality on the part of liberal naturalists to be arbitrary. In fact, he faults Christianity for promoting values that repress the natural human impulse to dominate and overpower the weak—impulses he admires and celebrates—and so for holding human beings back from reaching their true creative potential (139-140).

Osborn’s use of Nietzsche to advance his argument against naturalism is not without obstacles, though. First, many contemporary “postmodern” political philosophers, such as William E. Connolly and Romand Coles (among others), continue to mine Nietzsche’s philosophy for progressive, humanistic projects. However, Osborn finds these attempts largely counterproductive:

Appropriations of Nietzsche as a champion of pluralistic concern for the Other may serve to insulate us from his intended political meanings for the sake of an ersatz political usefulness and so deprive us of an encounter with a critical thinking whose values are radically other than those of liberal humanists [emphasis in original] (138).

At best, Osborn points out, such appropriations merely service moral values already taken for granted. At worse, mining Nietzsche for liberal purposes dampens his critical edge and prevents us from facing the real import of his revolt against said values.

Second, Nietzsche’s criticism of liberalism could be understood to result from his problematic and outdated anthropology. Osborn explains that for Nietzsche the mistake of liberal naturalists is that they are not scientific enough. What Nietzsche means is that although secular humanists like Darwin and Marx claim to have dispensed with the illusion of religious metaphysics, they continue to fall prey to the superstition of teleology—that is, the view that nature is evolving in a particular direction. This attachment to teleology is what undergirds their liberal optimism and, for Nietzsche, arbitrary privileging of social solidarity and equality over competition and domination.  

Nature, Nietzsche argues, is inimical to any sort of teleological rendering because “there is no Archimedean point from which to judge reality, for reifying notions of causality, and for forgetting that their own conceptual schemes for understanding the world also emerge from biological impulses for power and domination” (140-141). Here, Osborn argues, Nietzsche seems to run into a fatal contradiction (151). If there is no teleology in nature or Archimedean point from which to arrive at an objective understanding of reality, how could Nietzsche justify his admiration for the will to power and “natural” hierarchy over liberal equality? Nietzsche’s perspectivism seems to undercut his own understanding that domination and exploitation is the “objective law” that governs human nature (152).

The internal contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought seems to justify a counter-reading, like that of Coles, which allows neo-Nietzscheans to leverage his thinking for humanistic ends. In other words, perhaps Nietzsche’s deconstruction of objective truths opens the door for an ethic of radical generosity toward the other without metaphysics, as defended by both Connolly and Coles.

Osborn rightly argues, however, that Nietzsche’s inconsistency shows that metaphysics is inescapable. Even if Nietzsche’s positive moral project of the will to power is not necessarily supported by his rebellion against metaphysics, he has successfully shown that the rejection of metaphysics and Christian metaphysics in particular has serious consequences for those who continue to hold on to humanistic values.

To make his point, Osborn juxtaposes Nietzsche’s view of nature with that of Christianity. Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian values, according to Osborn, stems from his distaste for what he takes to be the “unraveling of the heroic cultures of pagan antiquity” (150). In the biblical narrative, from the story of Cain and Abel to the crucified Jesus, the Judeo-Christian story lifts up the virtues of mercy, compassion, humility, and love while proclaiming the senselessness of violence. Nietzsche takes this to mean the rejection of what makes human beings truly marvelous: aggression, stoic callousness, and the will to dominate.

Osborn points out that Nietzsche’s celebration of these violent “pagan” virtues is motivated by a problematic fatalism that sees human beings as necessarily determined by nature—whatever one takes nature to be (153). Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims the possibility of human beings transcending (sinful) nature and thus their fate. Closely related to this understanding of transcendence, Christianity defends a rival conception of human flourishing that focuses on nonviolence and solidarity with the poor. This rejection of violence and concern for the marginalized is yet another example of Christianity’s rejection of fate or the status quo of “nature,” something Nietzsche finds pathological and emasculating.

Osborn’s argument in this chapter is complex, but he manages it with grace. By juxtaposing two opposing accounts of human nature, he highlights Nietzsche’s most important contribution to the critique of liberalism. Putting Nietzsche’s anti-humanistic ethics on display, Osborn cleverly shows that two naturalists, sharing common premises, can look at the same “nature” and come to radically opposite ethical conclusions.

This means that the aforementioned postmodern philosophers who accept Nietzsche’s rebellion against Christian metaphysics while leveraging his thought in defense of liberal values are doing so with no less arbitrariness. The wider implication of this is that those who continue to defend human rights in a Nietzschean age might have good reason to suspect their suspicion of Christianity. As Osborn eloquently puts it, “We are living on borrowed moral capital. If we can no longer see this fact, it is only because the Christian triumph over the values of pagan Greece and Rome was so thorough many of us now find it almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to return to them” (158-159).


Yi Shen Ma is Associate Pastor of L.A. Chinese Seventh-day Adventist Church and a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont School of Theology. He is also an adjunct professor of religion at La Sierra University. Prior to this, he served in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist and volunteered as development director of Adventist Peace Fellowship. His research focuses on the theology of the common good and Christian social witness in a secular world.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press


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