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 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.

Ron 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 Ron, 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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In comparing the perspectives of Nietzsche with the teachings of Jesus I have no doubt that Jesus is the better man. Jesus is seeing matters from a 360 degree perspective while Nietzsche is exposing his blindside and lack of complete knowledge . It is true that the hierarchical ecologies of lower animals, as created by the Elohim creator geneticists, are based on dominance factors involving death of the weaker which are dominated and are killed as food for the stronger. Starting with the aquatic ecology, the first sea-dwelling creatures were formed (gen.1:20)and seaweed was the food of small fish who reproduced in very large numbers. The numbers of these small fish were kept in check by larger fish for which they were food. On land thje herbivores atre kept in check by the carnivores, so that the earth ecologies remains stable andthe planet is not overrun by any one lower lifeform. Some prominent thinkers therefore extrapolate from this life and death existence in the lower- animal domains to assert that such conditions exist and indeed should be even encouraged among the various cultures. societies of Homo sapiens. This is very much like social Darwinism which motivated the 20th century Nazis ti welc ome a struggle in war to the death in order to prove who was the fittest to survive. Mankind is obviously different. Firstly , we are indeed predators; we are created with instincts impelling us to commit despicable crimes of every sort , but we are also possessed of a “compassion factor” - a very powerful instinct which has saved us from the brink of self destruction in the past. It will not work well in the present era of nuclear weapons , since a slight miscalculation can end civilisation. Here is where the teachings of Jesus far exceed in wisdom and foresight the ramblings of Nietzsche, and othere of like ilk, who see man’s ONLYdestiny in strugglesw for dominance, by whatever means. Jesus knew the evil capabilities of the human brain, that is, the instincts from the brain stem structures , for good or ill. Jesus calls us to live up to the better part of ourselves.

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I have always thought that Nietzsche’s writings do not make much of a contribution to hermeneutics. Having read about 550 works on hermeneutics in the last few years, I have only sampled Nietzsche, principally his On Truth and Lies. I was very pleased last night to stumble upon an essay written by Jean Grondin, a student of Gadamer, that largely confirms my feelings about Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s nihilism is informed by the linguistics of Johann Georg Hamann, the father of the Counter-Enlightenment. Nietzsche’s rejection of teleology can be traced back to Johann Gottfried Herder. Hermeneutics is also informed by Hamann and Herder, but it takes a more optimistic path toward meaning and truth, culminating of course in the writings of Gadamer. I hesitate to ground Nietzsche’s nihilism solely on philosophical naturalism, not only because of these alternative antecedents to this thinking but because so many other non-believers went in another direction. Gadamer laments that he is not a believer. I could not find any indication that Ferdinand de Saussure is a believer. He and Nietzsche went to the same school and had a common teacher, Georg Curtius. But de Saussure makes a lasting contribution with his Structuralism that continues to inform notwithstanding Post-Structuralism, particularly the deconstruction of Derrida, that comes afterwards. We do not see a crippling refutation as we move from the Enlightenment to the Counter-Enlightenment, from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism. What we do see is a burgeoning of important thought that does not seem to be necessarily informed by theism, by the idea of the supernatural.

Preparatory to a showing that philosophical naturalism leads inexorably to nihilism, shouldn’t there be a showing that philosophical naturalism leads inexorably to a failure of the hermeneutical endeavor? I think the latter showing would be a difficult feat. There is so much about hermeneutics that informs our theism, our understanding of Scripture, and how we grasp meaning and truth. We are comfortable in acknowledging that language is a human construct. If we concede that interpretation and understanding are also human constructs, then I think we concede the entire argument. But to date, no believer has offered a Christian or biblical philosophical hermeneutics, even though there no doubt must be such a thing.

I suppose at some point we need to speculate that the bold and courageous advocacy of human rights by philosophical naturalists we witness from time to time must be caused in part by a Sustainer who works in mysterious ways.

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Thank you for your interesting review of Ron’s critical approach to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Few philosophers are as disputed as Nietzsche. Whereas Ron prefers a “crude reading of Nietzsche” focusing on an implied Nietzschean socio-biology, I prefer a friendlier reading. My claim is that there are alternative readings of Nietzsche’s categories, especially his “will to power”, to the one that Ron pursued in his book, and which are more in line with his (Nietzsche’s) overall philosophical project. In the following I will draw a slightly different picture than Ron’s on Nietzsche’s naturalism, his view on Darwin, nihilism and the meaning of will to power.

It is important to bear in mind that Nietzsche’s philosophical project was at its core propelled by a critique of not only imperial Christendom, but also of Modernity (Descartes, Kant, Hegel, i.e. Western culture as we know it for the last 2000 years. This included a critique of the latter’s emphasis on the hegemony of Enlightenment reason’s logical structures, valid representations, instrumentality, and universal laws of causality. Nietzsche was a radical nominalist, denying the existence of an abstract universe and objects. Only what physically exists in time and space (in ‘body’) were real for him. He despised the dualism of Descartes detached “thinking thing" (mind), Kant’s unknowable ‘thing itself’ vs. mere appearance, and Hegel’s epistemic overreach implied in his notion of ‘Absolute Spirit’, as much as he despised institutional Christianity for its false promise of a world beyond. He even claimed that religion was indispensable for modern science rather than its antipode (Babich).

Therefore, to identify the naturalism of Darwin (with its universal categories) with Nietzsche’s naturalism is a fallacy.

Many scholars, especially in the Anglo-analytic tradition, have associated Nietzsche with Social Darwinism (Richardson, Small). These readings are also closely related to associating Nietzsche with Hitler, Nazism, and racism. Darwinian theories had a powerful influence in Germany in Nietzsche’s days, yet Nietzsche himself rejected the premises of Social Darwinism: the Malthusian “struggle for existence” and Spencer’s notion of “the survival of the fittest”. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich argues that Nietzsche "points to Darwinian Theory as an instance of the scientific fondness for combining the ‘smallest possible effort and the greatest possible stupidity’”. Further, in Unfashionable Obersevations he attacks the “apeologists”, and elsewhere he “associates the admiration of Darwin” with “stupidification” in the sciences (Babich).

The background for this is, as Babich argues, that whereas Social Darwinism was a philosophy of scarcity, Nietzsche’s outlook was a philosophy of abundance. As Nietzsche, wrote in The Gay Science (§349): “In nature, it is not distress which rules but abundance, squandering, indeed to the point of senselessness. The struggle for survival is only an exception, a temporary restriction to the will of life….).

Nihilism, the will to power and human existence:
When Nietzsche spoke about nihilism, he meant the nihilism of both Christianity and Modernity. He argued that philosophical nihilism is largely inherited from Kant’s epistemology and can be traced back even further (Babich). His philosophical project was to counter this nihilism, not to bless it. Nietzsche is therefore an anti-nihilist philosopher. The parable he bequeathed to posterity is: “The parable of Life becoming itself by overcoming itself”, and “life on this new earth enfolds infinite ideals in itself, if only we will to embody them.” (McCullough). This “will to embody infinite ideals" is exactly how his ‘will to power’ should be understood. Not as dominance and exploitation; not as some Malthusain struggle for survival and scarcity in a Darwinian sense, but as an affirmation and will to life in a fuller sense than has been on offer in Christendom and Modernity – a life that transcends life.

A key concept here is Nietzsche’s transcendental notion of ‘pro-creation’, which according to McCullough is nothing less than “energy expended towards creating a new earth”, because “the will to power” in its highest human form does not manifest itself as a Darwinian struggle for survival and dominance”, i.e. “life is more than mere existence”. Life for Nietzsche is a life of fullness and flourishing, not on the margins of brute naturalism. For him, the ‘will to create’ is the ‘will to power’ that transcends the givenness of mere existence for the sake of a new creation - existence is more than survival.

Related to this is Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘erotic’. Whereas the late modern ‘erotic’ is a purely immanent eroticism of mere existence; of Darwinian scarcity, Nietsche’s ‘erotic’, in contrast, is an eroticism of abundance; the will to pro-creation of a life overcoming itself.

For me, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ echoes the Dostoevskian pathos of transcending oneself. Much more could be said, but I’ll leave at this.

Yi Shen, I appreciate your close reading of Ron’s book and your incisive analysis of Nietzsche’s ideas and their appropriation, Christian or otherwise.

I’m wondering about the prospects of legitimate “friendlier” readings of Nietzsche, as Ole puts it, based on the recognition that one of his major targets is, in fact, modernity, which presents its own set of challenges to Christian theology. In other words, what if we differentiated and disentangled “Nietzsche’s war on objective truth and Christian agape”, as you put it, as two separate issues? When it comes to “objective truth”, modernity perpetuated the idea that such a perspective was possible to attain by humans through the correct use of method, or straight-jacketed all claims to truth to the standards of a narrow, naive empiricism. Nietzsche, in championing the perspectival nature of all truth claims, opens the possibility of taking Christianity seriously as a a legitimate perspective. To undermine “objectivity,” especially in the hubristic sense, in other words, is not to the same thing as undermining Christianity, which affirms that only God sees things truly objectively, i.e. from “the perspective of eternity.”

Regarding the ethical impact of Nietzsche “war on agape,” one thing I appreciate about engaging him is that he helps one come to grips with what the ethical alternatives actually are and what society might actually be like if Rome was never Christianized–definitely a colder, harsher, and more brutal place. (I highly recommend an essay by Martha Nussbaum entitled “Pity and Mercy”, which presents Nietzsche as a virtue ethicist, seeking to revive warrior/Stoic ethics. This point has me reflecting on the rich and varied interaction between Christianity and Stoicism through history, starting with the apostle Paul.) In addition to helping Christian better understand and appreciate the virtues emphasized in their own tradition, i.e. charity, kindness, etc., he helps Christians better understand the ethical implications of their own doctrinal affirmation, i.e. creation and incarnation; reading Nietzsche can cure one of the Gnosticism that has also infected much Christian thinking.

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Ole, thanks for your continued close engagement with my book. I appreciate the seriousness and depth of reflection you are bringing to the conversation. I argue that the “crude reading of Nietzsche appears to be the correct one” with reference to two things: the positivistic thinking just beneath the surface of his sociobiology, and his enthusiasm for the project of eugenics, both of which are quite explicit and by no means merely “implied”. I don’t believe Nietzsche was writing ironically or equivocally, for example, when he declared, “There are cases in which a child would be a crime: in the case of chronic invalids and neurasthenics of the third degree.” However, in other areas I also argue against crude readings–including any simple identification of Nietzsche’s project with Darwin’s. I quote Nietzsche’s statements mocking Darwin and Spencer and call attention to the tensions between the idea of natural selection and the idea of will to power. If you refer to my footnotes you will find a number of helpful sources on these questions, including John Richardson’s book Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 2004). I would also challenge any reading of Nietzsche’s writings as merely a critique of “imperial Christendom”. That was Walter Kaufmann’s claim in 1950 when he declared that Nietzsche would never have dreamed of challenging the “spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.” But such generous (if not domesticating) readings of Nietzsche as a misunderstood friend of Jesus (which would have to also mean a friend of the weak, the sickly, the outcasts, and the poor) collapse the moment we actually turn to Nietzsche’s own writings. What we find in book after book is a sustained attack not only on Christendom (like Kierkegaard gives us) but on the person of Christ and on true Christianity. I think we must allow Nietzsche the full integrity of his revolt rather than trying to appropriate him for our own Christian or liberal purposes. This is my push-back against a book like Suspicion and Faith by Merold Westphal, despite my agreement with much that Westphal very helpfully highlights in Nietzsche’s project. As I wrote in my book, “Christian uses of Nietzsche should not cause us to forget the Nietzschean difference lest we in the end come to forget the Christian difference as well.”

The sad thing about Philosophy is that its leading thinkers are rarely great communicators. As a result, most attempts at explaining their insights to a larger public degenerate into a debate between experts about the nature of those insights. In the case of Nietzsche, From Yi Shen’s review, I gather that Osborn does focus on the disturbing lessons that many people have drawn from Nietzche, including the appalling social attitudes of Trumpian Christians. While there may be a theoretical distinction to be made between Nietzsche and Darwin, supremacists of gender and ethnicity do not make such a distinction. To them, it is all about scarcity and preservation of turf, whether real or imagined.

Unlike Nietzsche, Christian and most secular supremacists, believe in moral values, but their concept of right and wrong (often attributed to the Bible) only apply to their own tribe. They are moral at home but Nietzschean in their attitude to the outsider.

Unlike what I take to be Osborn’s view, I don’t believe in an Archemedian point from which we can leverage moral values. God (or more correctly, our concept of God) is certainly no such point, if the Bible or historical Christendom is anything to go by. Our values, like our politics, are attempts at balancing the interest of the individual with that of the community, and there is no model for that in nature. Call it arbitrary, if you will, but all we have are our minds and certain altruistic instincts with which to guide us in an attempt to break with biology and the jungle and build a society designed to promote ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Occasionally we read about elephants and tigers in the developing world barging in from the jungle to wreck mayhem on these unnatural communities that humans congregate in, and metaphorically that is also what happens from time to time in the developed world.

Values are vulnerable because they are so weakly anchored in our psyche. In an article about torture, Michael Ignatieff wrote the following dismal lines in the New Republic (Dec 9, 1985):

“As Elaine Scarry points out in her brilliant and difficult book, no one actually feels the pain of another. We live in certainty about our pain, in doubt about the reality of another’s. There is nothing natural about empathy; it is a rope bridge of language suspended across the abyss that separates us from the skins of others. Cut the bridge of language, and men will stare out across the abyss at each other, as if they were gazing on racks of meat.”


Aage, it seems from your note that you do in fact believe “in an Archemedian point from which we can leverage moral values,” namely, linguistics and some version of what Habermas would call “discourse ethics”. You write that your position may be “arbitrary”. But to say, as you then proceed to, that “values are vulnerable” or “weakly anchored” is still to say that values are sufficiently clear to be defensible. A weak anchor is still an anchor. Values cannot be “vulnerable” unless they are first and foremost real. You therefore seem to be trading back and forth between two positions in the “three-cornered fight” of our “secular age” (as Charles Taylor describes it). On the one hand, you agree with the central claims of the pessimistic anti-humanists who dismisses all talk of human dignity, equality, and rights as sheer language games masking the arbitrary pursuit of power. On the other hand, you still retain key tenets of the optimistic secular humanists who think we can somehow construct freestanding bridges, without any metaphysical support, across the abyss of barbarism. Taylor identifies an intermediate position between anti-humanism and secular humanism that he calls “heroic humanism”. His exemplar is Camus, who thought that values were essentially arbitrary but who continued to side with humanistic values as a stoical act of defiance flung into an abyss of the absurd. That is a noble position although not one that I think is consistent, coherent, or sustainable in the long-run (including over generations). Ignatieff, however, is neither a Nietzschean nor a “heroic humanist” like Camus. He is a classic liberal who, no matter his darker ruminations, is still committed to notions of democracy and human rights that any thoroughgoing Nietzschean would reject. Ignatieff is right: there is nothing “natural” about empathy (or at least nothing that makes empathy any more “natural” than cruelty). But neither is there a precarious “rope bridge of language” that can somehow “anchor” our values and deliver us from Nietzsche’s challenge. After Nietzsche, all of secular liberalism’s frayed rope bridges have been cut. Dionysus vs. the Crucified. Here, Nietzsche insists in Ecce Homo, is the archetypal and inescapable divide.


Ron, I don’t dismiss “all talk of human dignity, equality, and rights as sheer language games.” Nor do I endorse Ignatieff’s ‘dismal view’ as an overarching truth. There is love and empathy at the heart of humanity, as seen for instance in the bond between a mother and her child. The problem is that this intrinsic altruism rarely extends beyond the narrow circle we draw around kith and kin. Ignatieff is speaking about My Lai, Srebrenica and Rwanda where people indeed did view those they considered ‘the others’ as nothing more than racks of raw meat. What I consider Jesus’ greatest contribution to ethics was his insistence on ‘the others’ being our ‘neighbors,’ that the old circle of exclusion must be expanded until it includes everybody.

What I do consider a mere language game is the reference to metaphysical values. For what we consider metaphysical values are nothing more than an arbitrary selection of ethical principles derived from an alleged divinely authorized text. Martin Luther introduced the concept of ‘Was Christum treibt’–what conforms with Christ–as a criteria for identifying divine principles in the Bible, but that does not make these divine values any more arbitrary (as the Jews of Luther’s day would find out). I agree with the Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert who argues that anything we ascribe to things ‘above’ originated ‘below.’

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Aage, forgive my confusion for concluding that you were quoting Ignatieff because you agreed with his statement about the “rope bridge of language” as an overarching truth. From your comments I now gather that your Archemedian point for leveraging values is not language so much as some kind of hope in “intrinsic altruism”, perhaps rooted in our biologically inherited traits of mammalian sociality. The primatologist Frans de Waal makes an eloquent case for this position.

The trouble with every attempt to defend and expand humanistic values by way of appeal to a metaethics from “below”, as you call it (whether we try to ground values in biology or in socially and/or linguistically constructed rules of the game), is that in order for the project to get off the ground we have to assume as a given precisely what Nietzsche calls into question.

Another word for this kind of assuming is in fact metaphysics, but it is bad metaphysics because it is insufficiently self aware about its own hidden assumptions. What I am arguing here (and also argue in Humanism and the Death of God) is that there is no such thing as a metaphysically free or neutral position. The difference between theology and philosophical naturalism is that the former makes its metaphysics explicit while the latter prevaricates, equivocates, and conceals its metaphysics, offering itself up as simply synonymous with “reality” while continuing to sneak metaphysical assumptions in the back door.

Appeals to the “love and empathy at the heart of humanity”, for example, are simply question begging after Nietzsche. Why, after all, should love and empathy be normative for how humans ought to behave in situations where these traits do not serve one’s interests or the interests of one’s tribe? Or what about the fact that cruelty and domination can also be a source of pleasure? As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

We are of the opinion that harshness, violence, enslavement, danger on the street and in the heart, seclusion, stoicism, the art of the tempter and every kind of devilry, that everything evil, frightful, tyrannical, predatory, and snake-like about humans serves to heighten the species “human being” as much as does its opposite.

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Ron, if I understand you correctly, you’re arguing that any ‘ought’ is inherently metaphysical, since, as Nietzsche says, nature itself is blessedly free of ‘oughts.’ I don’t have any problems with that. I don’t believe that life has an overarching, cosmic meaning, a metaphysical context that gives sense to our lives and a fixed point to anchor our values in. But while I don’t believe in the meaning OF life, I believe that there is meaning to be found and developed IN life, and the same goes for ethics.

While agreeing with Nietzsche’s analysis of reality, I refuse to accept that our choice as humans is Dionysus or Christ. (Incidentally, this was Paul’s view, too. Were we to conclude that Jesus had not risen from the dead, he argued, we might as well eat, drink and be merry, knowing that all we had to look forward to was death.) History has demonstrated that it is possible to create good and decent societies based on humanistic ethics. In other words, I believe that it is possible to rise above nature by means of values and principles that we impose upon ourselves. History has also demonstrated that societies that base their ethics on ‘revealed’ values, anchored in metaphysics, are by no means qualitatively better. Antony Flew’s gardener still hasn’t won any gardening prizes.

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Aage, you continue to make very puzzling statements. You say that you agree with Nietzsche’s “analysis of reality”. But you clearly do not agree with Nietzsche, or else do not understand him, if you also imagine that “it is possible to create good and decent societies based on humanistic ethics.” For one thing, Nietzsche would say, with the death of God we are beyond good and evil, so your very notions of “good and decent” are themselves now entirely suspect and problematic. We cannot go on talking about liberal or humanistic values as self-evidently “good”. Nietzsche’s own ideas about what is “good” incline (for aesthetic rather than moral reasons) toward the kinds of hierarchical values found in ancient Greece and Rome–not the placid egalitarianism (“herd morality”) of, say, Scandinavian societies with value structures and moral imaginations formed over centuries through deep immersion in the Christian narrative.

This leads to a second point of conflict between your statements and Nietzsche’s philosophy. He calls his approach to morality “genealogical”, which is to say, he is making a historical argument. And Nietzsche’s historical/genealogical excavation of the sources of liberal values is fundamentally an inverted retelling of the effects of Christianity on Western societies. Ideas about inviolable human dignity, equality, and rights are in fact historically contingent, according to Nietzsche, and must be traced back to their true source: the story of the God who stands with the weak, the lowly, the poor, and the marginalized. Nietzsche sees this as the most audacious revolution in human history and one that profoundly transformed human consciousness to the point that even “secular” people now find it almost impossible to imagine a return to the agonistic and hierarchal values of the classical world. But in Nietzsche’s telling, the Christian subversion of pagan values was not a triumph but a catastrophe, a result of the “resentment” of the weak toward the strong, producing unhealthy guilt among the noble few and conformity among the many.

With regard to Antony Flew, it is very interesting that near the end of his life he abandoned his atheism for some kind of deism even if not a full-blooded theism. Perhaps someone pointed out to him the central fallacy of his famed story of the invisible, undetectable gardner–namely, that any god so conceived, as a being among beings walking in the garden, could only be the god of the onto-theologians. The question of the existence or non-existence of God, properly understood, is the question not of the existence or non-existence of one additional being (even if a Super Duper being) somewhere “out there” in the cosmos. It is the question of the relationship between contingency and necessity, the finite and the absolute, and being and Being. Philosophical naturalists are by and large committed to the view that there is no Ground of Being and that all of existence not only can but must be described in terms of sheer contingency (perhaps giving to some set of simple physical laws the attributes of the Absolute, without explaining how these laws could in and of themselves generate contingent beings from out of themselves). Whatever else one might say about a naturalistic worldview that makes contingency itself into an absolute, it is a fundamentally metaphysical one.

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Ron, since my knowledge of philosophy is limited to the headlines and at best the first paragraph, I shall no doubt continue to puzzle you. As to Nietzsche, while I agree with what I understand to be his analysis of reality, I certainly don’t think we should even attempt to model politics and ethics around it. In the same way, I agree with the Darwinian analysis of how life developed on earth (leaving aside the question of biogenesis), but I utterly reject social Darwinism (unlike Evangelicals, who reject evolution as science but embrace it as ethics). In my opinion, we can construct our lower-case ‘oughts’ without using every ‘is’ as a building block. We don’t look to biology or cosmology for ethics.

You argue that Northern Europe, in particular Scandinavia, owes its “placid egalitarianism” to centuries of “immersion in the Christian narrative.” That begs the question, Why are these countries doing so much better than the the United States when it comes to taking care of its own? Why have immigrants to the US from Northern Europe, with the same cultural immersion in Christian values, tended to embrace values very much at odds with those that are considered basic in Northern Europe? What made the difference in Europe was its devastating experiments with militarism and political utopianism. The social and economic success of Northern Europe is of recent date; it all took place after WWII. Alliances (European Union, NATO, UN) between countries and consensus-based politics catering to the many instead of the few transformed this region of Europe. Europe rejected ‘is’ as a model for its ‘ought.’ The fatal flaw of Christendom has been its natural tendency to go along with whatever status quo the powerful have embraced, from slavery to intolerance to today’s obscene (another lower case ‘ought’) distribution of power and wealth.

Finally, while it is possible to speak in general terms about upper-case metaphysical values, what are they and where do we discover them?

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Aage and Ron, please forgive my intrusion here, but Aage if one accepts Darwinian as a mechanism for “life development” on what basis is there to reject it as a philosophy or political system?

Aage, I still do not understand what you mean when you say you agree with Nietzsche’s “analysis of reality” since you proceed to plainly disagree with him. Nietzsche’s analysis of reality is an analysis of history. Based on his analysis of the history and origins of liberal values, which he traces to Christian claims about the meaning of personhood, he concludes that the death of God must also spell the death of the image of God in the Other…and all that went with it. I can’t help but feel that you are still not reckoning with or grasping Nietzsche’s challenge, which is a challenge not only to Christianity but to secular humanism as well.

You would be on stronger ground, I think, to say that you in fact reject Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. You would then need to provide your own alternative account of the long, slow, but inexorable transformation of pagan values into liberal or humanistic ones, engaging not only with Nietzsche but also with a number of contemporary historians. For example, what were the origins of medical philanthropy and hospitals in the Western tradition? Do you agree or disagree with Gary Ferngren’s conclusions in his book Medicine and Healthcare in Early Christianity (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Or what were the origins of ideas about freedom of conscience in the West? Are you persuaded or at least suitably provoked by Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual (Harvard University Press, 2014)?

We agree, however, that it is ironic that many self-described “creationists” are also social Darwinians when it comes to their political views. I think this demonstrates how far American religious life is from any kind of authentic Christianity, and how deeply entangled most believers are in the alternative faiths (idols, I think we can say) of nationalism and capitalism. But I don’t want to minimize or casually brush aside your critique. It should be a source of constant shame and anguish to the church that it has so utterly failed to produce Christians who behave even remotely like Christians.

At the same time, I trust you would not casually brush aside a religious faith by only paying attention to its worst abuses. It is worth recalling that in the infamous Scopes “monkey trial”, William Jennings Bryan opposed Darwinian theory largely because of his opposition to the social Darwinism that was running rampant at the time and from a deep concern for defending the poor and oppressed. Bryan fought against evolutionary theory because in his day it was being widely used to advance Nietzschean ideas about “natural” human inequality. In the United States, Darwinism was being pressed into the service of race eugenics, while in Europe it was being pressed into the service of German nationalism and militarism. It was socially progressive, anti-imperialist, anti-racist Evangelical Christians like Bryan who offered some of the most forceful resistance to these essentially atheistic and materialistic ideas–ideas that helped unleash some of the worst bloodletting in human history in the form of National Socialism in Germany and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia flowing into Stalinism and the gulags (both of which took on the form of their own ersatz secular “religions”).

This leads to your question about why it is that ostensibly “secular” Scandinavian countries are not turning into totalitarian states and are “doing so much better than the United States when it comes to taking care of [their] own”. Leaving aside questions about population size and relative cultural and linguistic homogeneity, which seem to make a difference in the kinds of social policies that are both practically and politically attainable, it is in fact problematic to characterize Scandinavia as unambiguously “secular” just as it is problematic to describe the United States as unambiguously “Christian”. We are talking about a modern political culture that traces some of its central values to a period not very long ago when many political parties across northern and western Europe still called themselves Christian Social Democrats (in distinction to the individualism of pure liberalism on the one hand and the collectivism of pure socialism on the other). And it was only in 2016 for the first time ever that more people polled in Norway said they didn’t believe in God (39%) than those who did (37%). According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s research on atheism in Denmark and Sweden contains some surprising results:

The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church. Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism…At one point, he queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture. Jens replies: “We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”

This brings us back to Nietzsche. A culture such as Zuckerman is describing has not yet encountered the death of God. Even “secular” liberal societies, in Nietzschean perspective, can still be living on borrowed Christian moral capital. The question for a noble unbeliever such as the old man Jens, then, is not whether or not he will personally go on helping his neighbors from out of his atheist but still Lutheran soul. It is whether his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will do the same as they come to forget what Lutheranism ever even meant.

Darrel, you wouldn’t base your ethics and politics on a description of the cell’s energy cycle (ATP-ADP), would you? It is perfectly possible to study how nature and biology functions without elevating biological processes to that of philosophy of life.Whether Darwin was right or wrong is immaterial as far as ethics goes. Nature is ‘beyond good and evil.’ There is no right or wrong way to be a lion or a kidney. Nature is about survival, about winners or losers and that is what makes a nature-based ethics so destructive of community. Nature is about Lazarus the loser and Dives the winner. You can’t build a good and thriving society on the law of the jungle or a study of liver enzymes. I hope you get my point.

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You are quite right Aage. The naturalistic fallacy or Hume’s Law still holds. We cannot get from “is” to “ought”–at least not if by “is” we mean some set of brute material facts. But when materialism evolves from a methodological assumption for exploring material facts and physical processes into an all-encompassing metaphysical worldview, there is no non-arbitrary basis for making “ought” statements of any kind. I hope you get my point.

Aage, thank you. It seems you might be being coy. Dr. Michael Ruse founder of the journal Biology and Philosophy, is clearer than I:

“Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.”
“I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

Of course one can try to make the case that evolution has made us moral or that there are attempts to make morality “materialistically” grounded, but really evolutionism is like Freudianism, you can make the theory say or explain whatever you like—

So the problem is: “Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive – except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed – except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.”

Philip S. Skell, "Why do we invoke Darwin?" The Scientist, 19 (August 29, 2005): 10.

Darell, I think you have put this well. Believers sometimes leap to the conclusion that Darwin’s theory of natural selection must inevitably result in an ethic of “might makes right”, but as you make clear, this is actually not the case. The problem with Darwinian ethics is not that it leads to the wrong set of values but that it is endlessly malleable. Here is what I write in Humanism and the Death of God after tracing some of the history of this malleability:

Darwinism could be pressed into the service of communism, capitalism, imperialism, racism, abolitionism, democracy, totalitarianism, egalitarianism, or anti-egalitarianism. What it could not do was provide normative criteria to judge between such conflicting political ideologies. The theory of evolution by natural selection lacked the philosophical depths and the moral resources required to resist its own misappropriations.

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