The flow of Nietzsche’s thought is notably distinct from more systematic philosophers (e.g., Kant) in that his perspective on moral value does not advance from previously defined epistemological and metaphysical conceptions. In fact, a reverse progression is evident as he begins his inquiry with a question of value (GM:3) while epistemological and metaphysical outlooks emerge only later from his skepticism on the original subject.  In observing this priority of the ethical/moral issue, this writer believes Nietzsche’s thought can be appropriately traced in pedigree to demonstrate the ethical/moral presuppositions which chart the course for his broader worldview, as well as some perhaps significant inconsistencies which may undermine the practical value[1] of his project.

Operating from the framework of Geuss’ five characteristics of pedigree[2] ((1) seeks a positive valorization of some item, (2) starting from singular origin, (3) an actual source of value, (4) tracing an unbroken line of succession from origin to item of value, and (5) steps preserve value)) this article traces a pedigree of Nietzschean thought.



Philippa Foot in her discussion of Nietzsche’s Revaluation of Value appropriately observes that “a confrontation with Nietzsche is a difficult thing to arrange”, and further describes his valuation project as “intrinsically puzzling” (how can one value values?).[3] Geuss attempts just such an arrangement in his assessment of Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals.[4] Geuss defines genealogy for his particular usage in contrast[5] to a pedigree composed of five elements: (1) seeks a positive valorization of some item, (2) starting from singular origin, (3) an actual source of value, (4) tracing an unbroken line of succession from origin to item of value, and (5) steps preserve value). While Geuss’ concern is genealogy, pedigree[6] nonetheless could play a valuable role in a discussion of the development of Nietzschean valuation, particularly as a device to trace his ethical presuppositions and resultant epistemological and metaphysical conclusions to their culmination in Nietzsche’s crowning achievement – a prescriptive moral doctrine, the import of which is not lost on his interlocutors, as Salter says, “…he does propose a constructive moral principle [emphasis mine], and it is likely that this will be counted his chief significance in the future.” (Salter, NMA, 1915).


(1) Seeks a Positive Valorization of Some Item

Arguably, Nietzsche’s journey begins at the age of thirteen with a valorization of an “immoral or at least immoralistic a priori”. (GM:3) “Brought up on strict religious principles, he had learned to set up a particular value on veracity, regarding it oddly as a strictly Christian virtue…” (Benn, 1908). His skepticism of absolute moral value is perhaps the central presupposition grounding his project. His three stage view (premoral, moral, ultramoral)[7] of history shows the primacy of his moral skepticism. As in Marx’ five stage[8] economic view of history which culminated in Marx’ ideal, so Nietzsche’s historical panorama likewise culminates in his own ideal of beyond good and evil:


Is it not possible, however, that the necessity may now have arisen of again making up our minds with regard to the reversing and fundamental shifting of values, owing to a new self-consciousness and acuteness in man-is it not possible that we may be standing on the threshold of a period which to begin with, would be distinguished negatively as ultra-moral … ?[9]


Nietzsche’s pursues justification for his moral skepticism with, as Bakewell suggests, religious fervor:


nietzscheNietzsche is not primarily a philosopher, not a scientist, but, rather, a poet, a poet with the mission to preach a new philosophy which shall be, as no other philosophy is, or ever has been, in accordance with science and reality. But this new philosophy is also a religion, and Nietzsche is its prophet. (Bakewell, 1899)


Arguably, Nietzsche shows a prior commitment to this skepticism, and he maintains it consistently throughout his canon. In particular, he shows opposition to morality in the pejorative sense (MPS[10]) on the following grounds. First, MPS views happiness as good and suffering as bad. But happiness, or well being is not an appropriate end in itself, as Nietzsche would strongly disagree with Aristotle’s virtue ethics which concludes in favor of happiness as final end. Happiness eliminates life’s rough edges, reducing man, in Nietzsche’s fitting analogy, to sand. Well being quickly makes man ridiculous and contemptible. On the contrary, Nietzsche views suffering as necessary and prerequisite for human excellence. Nietzsche credits dealing with suffering as creating all enhancements of man thus far. Clearly, happiness provides quite an antithesis to Nietzsche’s formula for success in life, and MPS is a fundamental contributor to this flawed system of valuation. Additionally, MPS favors altruism and un-egoism  – a tendency which furthers pity and other herd tendencies. Finally, MPS favors egalitarianism which is roadblock for the higher man.

Notably, he is not merely attempting to cast down MPS, but is seeking to replace it as the central interpretation of the human condition, offering an alternate explanation of human experience, and one which he certainly considers superior – on the basis of its avoidance of moral absolutism and the accompanying conceptions of noumenal reality[11] apart from phenomena. While one could conduct a biographical inquiry into Nietzsche’s background and circumstances in order to discover some motivation for such an a priori commitment, no such account of his motivation is needed. It is enough to assert that the agreement between his initial skepticism and resulting doctrines shows an (at least) a posteriori valorization of the value of immoralism or skepticism of moral absolutes.


(2) Starting From Singular Origin

Robinson describes Nietzsche as “a classic example of a philosopher motivated from the beginning and throughout his career by an ineradicable and insane prejudice against all forms of religion, and especially of the Christian religion”.[12] While Salter believes Robinson to have far overstated this prejudice, it is a noteworthy theme in Nietzsche and seems to represent a unifying premise for his overall project. Foot characterizes this special objection as to Christian morality rather than simply Christianity per se[13] noting that it is the one professing Christian virtue (not Christianity itself) who is “a sick individual, deeply malicious to himself and others”.[14] And as Leiter observes, “Nietzsche’s concern is with MPS as an ideology – not the prevalence of actions in accord with MPS”. (Leiter, 2002, 86) In support of Leiter’s reading is Nietzsche’s discussion of the priestly-aristocratic method of valuation (GM:7-9) in which Christianity is simply emblematic of a greater and overarching problem. Regardless of the specific object of disdain, MPS is assuredly in view, thus Nietzsche’s ‘immoralist a priori’ offers the grounding for his entire project.

Foot describes aptly N’s purpose in assaulting Christianity on account of the perception that it favored the weak at the expense of the strong and was thus the most vital of instruments in the degradation of humanity. Foot identifies two prongs of attack: (1) what appears praiseworthy as Christian virtue is a farce, and is instead motivated by malice, and (2) even as judged by its own aims it is a ‘bad’ morality – as it is driven by pity, by pity a great deal of harm is done. The system is thus the epitome of MPS and is highly destructive.[15]


(3) Actual Source of Value

For Nietzsche there is a standard for measuring truth and goodness (Salter, 1915): valuable in serving life but not governing it – ‘truths’ not affirming life have no binding authority:


If the highest reach of life is the measure of things, then good comes to be what tends that way, and bad what tends in an opposite direction. There are lines of procedure now, possible actions, feelings, thoughts, institutions, laws that harmonize with movement toward the desired goal – they are then to be furthered; other courses are to be opposed. (Salter, NMA, 1915)


If Nietzsche’s standard is binding, alternate (traditional) morality is problematic, and has a less than objective base and questionable authority: “morality is nothing more (therefore no more) than obedience to customs, of whatever kind they may be; customs, however, are the traditional way of behaving and evaluating.” (D:1:9)

The correspondence theory of truth identifies as truth that which corresponds to fact, being objective and absolute. Clearly, Nietzsche is opposed to the absolute value of truth. The coherence theory of truth posits that the more consistent the system, the more truthful. Nietzsche seems to take no interest in consistency or coherence, leaving the pragmatic theory of truth – that which works is that which is true – as the remaining option. But Geuss rightly observes that Nietzsche views things both true and untrue as useful at times, thus the pragmatic theory seems not to fit Nietzsche’s perspective of truth either. Geuss suggests that Nietzsche is uninterested in theories of truth, but is instead occupied with the question: ‘How and why does the will-to-truth come about’.

The question seems to fit Nietzsche’s project, but to disregard the question of the nature of truth as having no relevance seems to gloss over crucial steps that might have otherwise either strengthened or destroyed his argument.

Leiter here recognizes a potential conflict in Nietzsche’s critique of truth and his clear prescription of his moral theory as truth, but he solves the problem through a charitable reading, reminding the interlocutor that Nietzsche’s critique of will to truth is on grounds that the truth uncovered is harmful to life, while his moral theory represents (a) truth which is life affirming and noble. (Leiter,  2002, 280)


(4) Tracing an Unbroken Line of Succession From Origin to Item of Value

How can Nietzsche’s thought be traced from origin (anti MPS sentiment) to item of value (immoralist a priori)? While these two conceptions are closely related, they remain distinct as the immoralist a priori is the valorized presupposition, emerging at the first in anti MPS sentiment. It is at this point that Nietzsche’s epistemological and metaphysical grounding facilitates the promulgation of the presupposition through anti MPS sentiment: in short, agreeable cognitive theory and metaphysical considerations are needed to justify the validity of the end result as emerging from the beginning point.

Leiter observes that Nietzsche has little concern for theories of knowledge and has in fact no fully developed theory of mind. (Leiter, 2002, 87). Any binding theory of knowledge would require an acknowledgement of relevant noumenal reality – an admission Nietzsche seems profoundly unwilling to make – perhaps because the greater consequence of such an admission would be the authoritative nature of truth not necessarily affirming to life – the very basis of MPS. Additionally, Nietzsche perceives will to truth as seductive and worthy of suspicion (BGE 1:1-2) and seems convinced that “the way does not exist” (Z:III:SoG:2). Thus his epistemology, though not easily quantifiable, is not inconsistent with his ethical presupposition.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism serves him well on this point as a metaphysical grounding: his denial of relevant noumenal reality (the world is not real – Salter, NPR, 1915) with his affirmation of phenomena (reality interpreted is relevant reality – we make the world real – Salter, NPR, 1915) is again consistent with his opposition to MPS. He is decidedly naturalistic, rejecting in no uncertain terms any degree of otherworldliness and condemning those who would offer an opposing interpretation:


I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! They are poisoners, whether they know it or not. They are despisers of life, atrophying and self-poisoned men, of whom the earth is weary: so let them be gone! (Z:ZP:3)


His commitment to naturalism is profound, leaving some to interpret that loyalty as akin to religious fervor:


The instinct for something perfect, or as perfect as the conditions of existence will allow, is, I take it, the ruling impulse in Nietzsche. Essentially he was a religious man…As I read him, deep instincts of reverence preponderate in him, instincts that have their ordinary food and sustenance in the thought of God. But as his scientific conscience forbade him that belief, the instincts were driven to seek other satisfaction and found it measurably in the thought of the possibilities of mankind. (Salter, NMA, 1915)


Leiter observes another potential riddle here: despite numerous statements favoring some form of naturalism, Nietzsche seems to distance from naturalism, citing it as a form of asceticism (GM:III:25). Again, Leiter resolves the inconsistency through a charitable reading, asserting that while Nietzsche does shun a type of naturalism which would relate to asceticism, he holds to a naturalism which is “fundamentally non-ascetic”, since it frees the higher man from the false conceptions of MPS. (Leiter, 2002, 283)

As in Salter’s observation, Nietzsche’s metaphysics is driven by a prior commitment to naturalism, and is necessary – along with his (non) epistemology – for the cogency of his presupposition and conclusion.


(5) Steps Preserve Value

Bakewell describes Nietzsche’s teachings at first glance to be “so bizarre, so absurd, so blasphemous, that one is tempted to set them aside as simply unworthy of consideration” (Bakewell, 1899), but through deeper inquiry, and despite numerous prima facie inconsistencies, it seems evident that Nietzsche indeed succeeds at putting forth a unified doctrine of moral skepticism. His goal? Affirmation of life. MPS is unacceptable – despite its success at averting suicidal nihilism – since it degrades and subjugates life. His critique of MPS is


…no more than a strong way of saying that much of what passes for absolutely right and good is only true within certain very narrow limitations, and that there are impulses, supposed to be very virtuous, which tend on the whole to do mankind more harm than good. (Benn, 1908)


Nietzsche’s project achieves the same end – dismissing suicidal nihilism, but does it with a powerful side effect: explaining human experience, and in particular giving suffering a meaning, in a hopeful way. While his model is highly prescriptive, Nietzsche seems insistent that his  conception is not in itself MPS with a different face, but is merely ‘ a truth’, he says: “This is my good and evil; he has silenced thereby the mole and the dwarf who says: ‘Good for all, evil for all’” (Z:III:SoG:2), and again: “Unchanging good and evil does not exist…And he who has to be a creator in good and evil, truly, has first to be a destroyer and break values.” (Z:II:OSO)

This creation of good and evil is a crucial point for Nietzsche, and requires a better explanation than that of the traditional four-step process in the development of good and evil: (1) usefulness – unegoistic acts were called good by those to whom they were useful, (2) forgetting – due to the routine praising of said acts, the reason for the praise (usefulness) was forgotten, and (3) the routine praise, as it continued, gave way to (4) the error of viewing the unegoistic act to be good in itself. Nietzsche seems to take issue with this four-step diagnosis at one crucial point: the determination of the goodness of the unegoistic act is not made by those to whom it useful, but rather it is made by the one committing the act – specifically the noble, mighty, etc. This attribution of goodness gives rise to a promulgated superiority on the part of the unegoistic actor – the conditions for which find themselves most satisfactory in a decline of the aristocracy. Nietzsche’s primary (or at least initial) disagreement here is a matter of perspective.

With certainty, Nietzsche dismisses ontological good and evil, yet still reckons good and bad to be important factors in the human condition. Particularly, good is that which affirms life – even life itself:


And now what is the final aim which Nietzsche proposes? It is no other than life, and particularly the highest ranges of life. Man is higher than the animal, and there may be something higher than man, i.e., than man as we ordinarily know him. (Salter, NMA, 1915)


What then is reality? Nietzsche translates it with the hermeneutic key that is will to power as the highest expression of affirmation of life:


That is your entire will, you wisest men; it is a will to power; and that is so even when you talk of good and evil and of the assessment of values…Where I found a living creature, there I found will to power; and even  in the will of the servant I found the will to be master. (Z:II:OSO)


This will, while expressed in all life, is epitomized in the higher man: “The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Overman shall be the meaning of the earth!” (Z:ZP:3)

This Overman possesses five requisite characteristics: (1) he is motivated by intense commitment to responsibility and work, the higher man is distinctively individualistic and approaches others as instruments  – making something out of them which would contribute to his greater project; (2) the higher man possesses an instinctive driven-ness and commitment governed by the organizing idea (Leiter speaks of the goal of completing the unifying project); (3) the higher man is healthy and resilient: he is a non-pessimist, focused on self restoration; (4) the higher man is unafraid of eternal recurrence – this represents an unconditional welcoming of events including suffering; and (5) the higher man is self reverent – noble, rather than submitting to the rules and values of the ages, he determines them by way of a self reverence that both keeps him from the mediocrity of submission to MPS, and frees him as a determinate force of values. (Leiter, 2002, 115-122)

Such a man seems, in Nietzsche’s estimation worthy of the original presupposed moral skepticism. The Overman is the culmination of Nietzsche’s project, justifying the (at times questionable) steps taken to arrive at this ideal affirmation of life. The Overman, by way of will to power, provides a more plausible alternate narrative to the prevailing MPS and ascetic ideal. But does Nietzsche work from his presupposed a priori skepticism to the Overman, or does he justify the Overman by method of moral skepticism? He adds to the intrigue of this question when he says, “Our whole procedure is only morality turning against its previous form”.[16]  The pedigree of Nietzschean thought offers, in this writer’s opinion, a plausible narrative of explanation for Nietzsche’s impetus and priority, however, it determines neither with certainty. The value, then, of such an inquiry lies not in any definitive conclusions, but rather as a hermeneutic device for interpreting key elements of Nietzschean thought.





Ausmus, Harry J. “Nietzsche and Eschatology” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 4, (Oct., 1978), pp. 347-364


Bakewell,  Charles M. “The Teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche” in International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3, (Apr., 1899), pp. 314-331


Benn, Alfred W. “The Morals of an Immoralist-Friedrich Nietzsche” in International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 19, No. 1, (Oct., 1908), pp. 1-23


Gemes, Ken. “Nietzsche’s Critique of Truth” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52, No. 1, (Mar., 1992), pp. 47-65


Hales, Steven D. “Nietzsche on Logic” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 56, No. 4, (Dec., 1996), pp. 819-835


Lackey, Michael. “Killing God, Liberating the “Subject”” in Nietzsche and Post-God Freedom Author(s): Michael Lackey Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 60, No. 4, (Oct., 1999), pp. 737-754


Laing, Bertram M. “The Metaphysics of Nietzsche’s Immoralism” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, (Jul., 1915), pp. 386-418


Leiter, Brian. “Nietzsche and the Morality Critics” in Ethics, Vol. 107, No. 2, (Jan., 1997), pp. 250-285


Leiter, Brian. Review of Nietzsche and Metaphysics by Peter Poellner , Nietzsche’s System by John Richardson Source in Mind, New Series, Vol. 107, No. 427, (Jul., 1998), pp. 683-690


Leiter, Brian. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality (New York: Routledge, 2002)


Nola, Robert. “Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth and Belief” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 47, No. 4, (Jun., 1987), pp. 525-562


Salter, William MacKintire. “Nietzsche on the Problem of Reality” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 96, (Oct., 1915), pp. 441-463


Salter, William MacKintire. “Nietzsche’s Attitude to Religion” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 4, (Feb. 15, 1923), pp. 104-106


Salter, William MacKintire. “Nietzsche’s Moral Aim” in International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 25, No. 2, (Jan., 1915), pp. 226-251



Pearson, Keith Ansell and Large, Duncan (eds.). The Nietzsche Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006)


Richardson, John and Leiter, Brian (eds.). Nietzsche (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)







[1] In terms of universal applicability.

[2] Raymond Geuss, “Nietzsche and Genealogy”, in Nietzsche, ed. John Richardson and Brian Leiter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 324.

[3] Philippa Foot, “Nietzsche’s Revaluation of Value” in Richardson, John and Leiter, Brian (eds.). Nietzsche (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 211.

[4] Raymond Geuss, “Nietzsche and Genealogy” in Richardson, John and Leiter, Brian (eds.). Nietzsche (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 323ff.

[5] For Geuss, pedigree legitimizes authority as stemming directly from some authoritative origin. It is important in this context that the origin is authoritative, for that which receives the authority can only bear what it receives, and if that handed down was not originated in authority then at present it bears none of the same. Geuss calculates five important aspects of pedigree: (1) positive valorization, (2) stems from singular origin, (3) which is actual source of value, (4) traces an unbroken line, (5) which preserves the value intact. Geuss reckons Nietzsche’s genealogy to differ with pedigree on all five counts: (1) there is no intent of valorization, (2) does not (necessarily) stem from singular origin, (3) is not the actual source of value, (4) won’t exhibit unbroken lines (characteristically), but will instead be characterized by contingency – sometimes a break, a leap, a coercion, and (5) as the original did not fundamentally possess value, there is nothing to remain intact, but if it did, then it would be greatly altered by the transmission (particularly at the fourth step).

[6] It should be noted at this juncture that rather than utilize Geuss’ pedigree in a traditional chronological sense, I will employ the pedigree to examine Nietzsche’s flow of thought.

[7] Nietzsche describes three epochs in the evolution of morality. The first is pre-historic, with contemporary example in China (as per Nietzsche). This is a period in which there is little concern for the act itself or for its origin, rather the value of the action is determined by the consequences. This is the pre-moral stage. The second has been achieved little by little, as gravitation to the importance of origins (and intention) replaced emphasis on consequence. This is the moral period (characterized by intention morality). The third is an emerging period that is extra-moral. An action’s value is demonstrated by that which is not intentional. (BGE:32)

[8]  (1) Primitive, (2) Slave, (3) Feudal, (4) Capitalism, (5) Communism.

[9] As quoted in Ausmus, 1978.

[10] See Leiter’s definition and discussion, Leiter, 2002, 74.

[11] Leiter expresses three options: (1) the noumenal world is unintelligible – reality itself is perspectival (Poellner); (2) the noumenal world is irrelevant (Clark) – all basis lost for regarding the empirical world as illusory; (3) the noumenal world is not useful (Johnston) – pragmatic theory. (Leiter, 2002, 276ff)

[12] As quoted in Salter, 1923.

[13] Foot, 211.

[14] Ibid., 212.

[15] Ibid.

[16] As quoted from Nietzsche, Werke XIII, 125, in Salter, 1915

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