Garrath Williams, Nietzsche’s Response to Kant’s Morality

by gabriella

Alcune riviste online stanno celebrando la giornata mondiale della filosofia aprendo i loro archivi e rendendo disponibile per la giornata di oggi, una selezione di articoli e saggi che coprono tutti gli ambiti della ricerca filosofica.  Quella che segue è una lettura guidata alla dissoluzione dell’etica kantiana che, secondo il prof. Williams della University of Central Lancashire, Nietzsche avrebbe operato a partire dagli assunti stessi del criticismo.

Williams dimostra senza fatica l’interesse di Nietzsche per l’etica kantiana – della quale il filosofo di Röcken illumina, secondo lo studioso, gli aspetti meno seducenti e convincenti a partire dalle stesse premesse di libertà, autonomia e ragione – e ricostruisce il terreno comune delle due etiche indicato nella compassione (si ricordi l’episodio scatenante della crisi di Nietzsche a Torino) e nella comune soddisfazione per la vittoria dell’illuminismo sull’assolutismo – con l’obiettivo di ricondurre Nietzsche a Kant, usando le ragioni del primo (autonomia vs legge morale) per traghettare l’etica moderna (autonomia come fondamento della morale) nel campo minato della postmodernità. Lo studioso riconosce la carente elaborazione psicologica dell’apriori kantiano che manca la comprensione della natura estrinseca della legge morale, ma afferma che se lo spazio tra autonomia e legge è minimo in Kant, al contrario, è eccessivo in Nietzsche, nel quale va definitivamente smarrita la possibilità di sottomettere a ragione l’azione umana. Il riconoscimento nietzscheano dell’inumanità dell’uomo potrebbe così non rappresentare la pietra tombale del progetto trascendentale, ma portarlo oltre l’impensato kantiano. Purtroppo, Williams non dice (o non colgo) come potrebbe.

For what is freedom? That one has the will to self-responsibility [ …] How is freedom measured . . . ? By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft.

F. Nietzsche, Il crepuscolo degli idoli

[….] there are even cases in which morality has been able to turn the critical will against itself, so that, like the scorpion,
it drives its sting into its own body.

In this essay I would like to discuss some continuities and differences between two thinkers, Kant and Nietzsche, whom I take to be among the very greatest of modern moral philosophers. My basic line of argument will be as follows: despite his apparent neglect and occasional dismissals, Nietzsche’s thought reveals a fine appreciation of Kant’s philosophy, and can itself be read as one of the most profound responses to Kant’s ethics that the tradition has so far accorded us. While the differences that I shall mention are easily seen and often taken “as read,” I think the continuities have been too little appreciated, and that very often Kant and Nietzsche are treading the same ground. What I leave open, however, is how far Nietzsche himself should be thought more than an agent provocateur in these matters: he can show us, I think, that certain, fairly systematic aspects of Kant’s morality are unattractive or unconvincing—and this even on rather Kantian premises.

But whether a Kantian moralist ought to jump ship with Nietzsche is another matter altogether and not, indeed, a case I wish to propose. For the purposes of orientation, I begin by considering the great apparent gulf between Kant’s and Nietzsche’s enterprises—a gulf so wide that some may suspect I have chosen a rather fruitless topic. I shall also suggest, however, that Kant’s position is not without ambiguity, and this provides, as it were, room for leverage within his philosophy—room indeed exploited by Nietzsche. These explicit differences are grounded in a whole set of largely implicit criticisms on Nietzsche’s part, and it is to what I take to be the overall  thrust of Nietzsche’s critique that I turn in the second section of this paper.

Nietzsche’s main charge, I think, is that Kant has failed to observe the reality of human morality sufficiently, and I wish to argue that this critique can actually be seen as a continuation of Kant’s project, in that it might claim significant inspiration from Kant himself. The third section looks at one way in which Nietzsche puts his criticisms into practice, as he dismantles Kant’s fondness for rules. An acute psychologist, Nietzsche criticises the descriptive validity of rules amid the complexities of human action, and ruthlessly dissects those who would wish to claim that they follow “morality,” where that item is understood as a system of rules.

In conclusion, I suggest two points that may follow from this attention to Nietzsche’s engagement with the project of Kantian ethics: the need for more subtle and extensive observation of human wrong-doing, and an open question concerning (what I shall call) the space between autonomy and moral legislation that Nietzsche asserts against Kant.

1. Contrasts between Kant and Nietzsche

A century stands between Kant’s and Nietzsche’s mature writings. For Nietzsche, in this intervening century, it is the thought of Schopenhauer which separates him from Kant, to the extent that many commentators see no connection between Kant and Nietzsche worthy of examination.3 Some complexity may, however, be suggested by Nietzsche’s own words:

“Of more recent philosophers I have studied Kant and Schopenhauer with especial predilection.”4

For the purposes of this essay, however, I do not wish to dwell on Schopenhauer, except to note that Nietzsche shows very little concern with the distinctive critique of Kant that his “educator” had provided.5

And this is significant in itself, for whatever substance one might find in Schopenhauer’s now rather clichéd criticisms of Kant, it can hardly be doubted that their overall tendency is simply to bypass the spirit of Kant’s thought. What Nietzsche actually engages upon is a rather more subtle and ambitious (also ambiguous) set of enquiries—queries and thought-trains that concern Kant’s mode of proceeding quite as much as his actual doctrines, and yet remain indebted to some of Kant’s central ideals. Indeed Nietzsche’s own words might indicate his feeling that Kant has gone a long way to making his own endeavours possible:

old Kant obtained the “thing in itself” by stealth and was punished when the “categorical imperative” crept stealthily into his heart and led him astray, like a fox who loses his way and goes astray back into his cage. Yet it had been his strength and cleverness that had broken open the cage!

Another striking and generous passage refers to “we ‘free spirits’” as, among other things sometimes “inventive in schemata, sometimes proud of tables of categories . . .”7 In other words, Kant gets caught within his own free-spirited project (as is perhaps inevitable, Nietzsche hints, even in his own case), for example, by his categories8 or his Categorical Imperative.
Nonetheless, the contrasts between the two thinkers are obvious and inescapable.

At the beginning, perhaps, is a contrast of attitudes. For Kant knowledge stands in the service of faith (thus his famous investigation of the bounds of knowledge was undertaken so to “secure room for [this] faith.”) That faith is both metaphysical and moral, perhaps even religious: that we live in an ordered universe which our senses and our reason are fitted to investigate.9 Kant saw Enlightenment: the spread of human knowledge culminating in a wave of moral sympathy for the end of absolutism (thus the contemporary reaction to the French revolution for him proved that history must and does progress).10 For Nietzsche, however, this sense of security is quite absent. He took himself to be witnessing the moral collapse of Europe, a collapse hastened by and whose implications were made all the more ominous by the progress of scientific knowledge.

However, Kant’s faith in history—in a moral world order—is laced with melancholia: deliberate human action is, when measured against any human intention, ultimately futile.11 Moreover, in terms of our happiness the fate and costs of every human life are actually negative.12 Nietzsche, apparently, will have none of this: repeatedly we hear that his is the self-conscious quest to affirm, as against the pessimism of the Christian world-view and the philistinism of bourgeois society. For Kant life can only be vindicated by the hope of a better beyond: Nietzsche strives to cry out “yes!” to this life, although we may already suspect some desperation, some similarly deep-seated melancholy, is contained in such a quest.

Still, their different responses to historical affairs are surely telling. Though melancholic in the face of history, Kant will not allow any response but faith in a hidden hand that will, if not secure a better future, at least bestow meaning on human action.13 Nietzsche observes, and suspects the worst: for him faith is the most unscientific thing there may be, and knowledge always represents som ething provisional: a process of enquiry where no conviction is ever at home.

Knowledge and suspicion go hand in hand; and both are antithetical to “faith.14 In more directly philosophical terms, this translates into a question about the purpose and possible success of systematic enquiry. Kant, of course, is the systematic thinker par excellence, and the usual caricature is not without truth. So: he begins, in his Critique of Pure Reason, by setting out an epistemology and a metaphysics designed specifically to secure space for freedom and morality in the face of the new mechanistic world-view of Newtonian science. He then develops these metaphysical insights to obtain the foundations for a moral philosophy, and further spells out how this thinking applies to religion and to the spheres of law and of virtue. And so on, all in notoriously lengthy “Germanic” prose.

Nietzsche, in turn, observes this wryly:

“Systematisers,” he says, “practice a kind of play-acting: in as much as they want to fill out a system and round off its horizon, they have to try to present their weaker qualities in the same style as their stronger. . . .”15

Whereas Kant thought of there being only one philosophy—“for there is [and can be] only one human reason”16 —Nietzsche by virtue of his very method must reject such a claim to impersonality. His task is not to build a single edifice, a philosophy that would claim to be sufficient to itself and valid for all, but rather to philosophise. However, even in this very form of words his method is anticipated by Kant: “philosophy can never be learned, save only in historical fashion; as regards what concerns reason, we can at most learn to philosophise.”17 Still, Kant’s transcendental method is clearly subverted and displaced by Nietzsche, whose quest is to explore what he once calls, with a clear nod to Kant, “my [own] a priori.”18 What is the main object of Kant’s transcendental enquiries (the “synthetic a priori”) now comes to describe, not that principle which regulates everyman’s experience of the world, but the (supposedly) unique principle which might be found behind Nietzsche’s own experience. It seems the transcendental method is turned inward, and thereby transmutes into something rather more “existential.” Beyond attitude and method, the substantive moral conclusions: if Kant may be cast as the arch-universalist of the tradition, the father of modern liberalism, Nietzsche steals on the stage as the liberal’s elitist demon, working every mischief and capable of almost any wickedness. In Kant’s thought, morality— our highest aspiration—is within everyone’s grasp. Although it is a product of our “autonomy,” Kant nonetheless thinks its content is necessarily given to reason, in terms of a universal respect for humankind. In Nietzsche the highest aspirations are for the very few—thus his notorious idea of the “superman” whose duty is by no means to “mankind” but to himself, and in the pursuit of which the suffering of others is inevitable.19 Nietzsche repeatedly jibes at Kant’s famous equation of morality with autonomy: if one sets one’s own rules, one successfully leaves “morality” behind. In Nietzsche morality appears as the rules and comfort of a vast, indolent majority, “the herd” of that “animal, [which is] man”: it is merely how we admonish or cajole each other for mundane and even base purposes. His “highest man” is “above morality,” in this much:

“A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity . . . each one of us should devise his own virtue, his own categorical imperative.”20

He rejects absolutely Kant’s insistence upon publicity and communicability: it is not just that talk is cheap, for it can also cheapen—in Nietzsche’s terms, it might devalue our highest values. 21

In sum, let us note Kant’s characteristic metaphor: Living as we do on the plain of experience, our task, the task of human reason, is to build a dwelling suitable for human needs, rather than some overweening tower that will reach the heavens.22 By the careful use of our reason we may discover the laws that regulate nature around us; by the painstaking attempt to will in accord with reason, we may fulfil the demands of the moral law that reason discovers within us. In the end, Nietzsche may fail to respect the modesty of Kant’s account; but he is, I think, still right to find further room for critique. He is sure neither that all human beings have the same needs, nor that our reason is so very reliable, nor that the world around us will be found to be in fortuitous harmony with the constitution of our reason. In terms of Kant’s metaphor, itself hardly naive, Nietzsche doubts that the “ground of experience” is in fact so very firm, so that shifting sands and even quicksand may lie in wait of all who wander this plain without still greater circumspection.

2. The Orientation of Nietzsche’s Critique of Kant

Notwithstanding these readily observed differences, Nietzsche is often in marked agreement with Kant’s precepts. Both are contemptuous of pity, of “melting compassion” as Kant puts it,23 and grant no value to action which is simply motivated by the affects (for example, the immediate kind act done from sympathy).24 Both heap contempt upon “romantic” ideas of easy nobility, upon a morality of great gestures and beautiful souls which thinks it can do without anything as harsh as the idea of duty. In Kant’s later thought, with its deeper psychological insight, self-deception appears as the “foul spot” upon human nature25 (in the most commonly read works, “inclination” in general seems to take the blame). Nietzsche is altogether a more subtle psychologist, yet when he elevates intellectual honesty to the position of supreme virtue he is not really so far from Kant’s understanding. Both thinkers agree that we can never truly see into our hearts, presenting self-knowledge as a task both obligatory and beyond our ability to complete.26

These apparently diverse points of agreement have, I think, a common root. For both thinkers, in an ultimate and important sense, morality is a matter of the self, and stands at the very nexus of that self. Morality is no matter of wishes or feelings or communitarian empathy: only a person’s striving in deed will do; both are “individualists” where it really counts. As any reader knows, Kant places each person’s responsibility, his or her free willing, at the centre of ethics.

As he famously puts it at the beginning of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,

“It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will.”27

In his last years, Kant quotes with approval a letter from a youthful admirer:

“the critique of reason has appeared and assigned [to] man a thoroughly active existence in the world.”28

Thus, if it is a simplification, it is still a justifiable one to see the whole of the critical edifice as oriented by the effort to secure and understand human freedom. So too for Nietzsche: it is the capacity for self-activity that properly distinguishes humans and may elevate them above everything that surrounds them. Nietzsche, I suggest, only explores this commitment with greater radicalism, being concerned with this very fundamental duty: actually to become responsible for one’s actual deeds, truly to achieve one’s freedom.29 If this is so, we may then hope to trace the fundamental differences between the two thinkers to this determination of Nietzsche’s: to follow through on Kant’s insistence that we are free and responsible for our lives, by focusing on the task involved in truly becoming free, which for Nietzsche means (among other things) becoming responsible for our own destinies.

This determination means that Nietzsche’s focus is never upon the metaphysical grounding for agency that so occupied Kant, except to dismiss such metaphysical constructions, provocatively and even dogmatically. Instead he is concerned with the worldly exercise of our (perhaps stillborn) freedom.30 This neglect of metaphysics notoriously leads Nietzsche into obvious conceptual tangles (fate and freedom, for instance, get thrown together throughout his writings), that frustrate readers hoping for metaphysical or even logical clarity.

Nonetheless, the shift of attention to questions of moral psychology rather than transcendental investigation leads Nietzsche to pursue two basic but immensely fruitful lines of criticism against Kant’s morality. First, Nietzsche charges that Kant lacks experience of many areas of human behaviour—most importantly, Kant has never felt the operations of “the herd”; he does not know enough about how we fail, as I have put it, to become responsible. Second, he shows that Kant takes too many shortcuts, substituting “faith” and an “intelligible world” for the painstaking exercise of observation. And this second point implies that Kant will not be able to compensate for the first, deprived of the tools to make up for his intellectual insulation from the realities of human wrong-doing.

In effect, then, Nietzsche will claim that Kant’s substantive attempts to codify the moral imperative are inadequate to describe or generate moral action, both because Kant does not know enough about how people come to act and how they actually do act, and because the very attempt to provide a codification of morality is itself a shortcut, which contradicts the idea that we must strive for ourselves to discover what our vocation may be. In systematic terms, this leads Nietzsche into the space between autonomy and universal legislation that Kant had of course sought to close, but is nonetheless present in all reflective human experience. Sometimes, in his more notorious moments, we find Nietzsche apparently disclaiming both free will and morality; yet the overall spirit of his thought looks to this demand, that we use our freedom to come upon our own law, a project Nietzsche clearly sees as an admixture of creation and discovery. (Some of the difficulties involved in giving or indeed seeking a transcendental or systematic account here may already be apparent, and I shall return to this question.)

In as much as it is integral to Kant’s account of reason that it appears to us as a task, we can see immediately how these criticisms are closely related to the Kantian ideal of critique. For Kant a “reasonable” conclusion is not to be distinguished by any intrinsic features but rather by the extrinsic question of whether it can stand up to a process of further questioning and attempts at revision; no conclusion can ever be more than provisional.31 By implication, the only fruit of reason which can truly redound to our credit is that which has been achieved through one’s own effort: thus, we might take it, Nietzsche’s dictum, “a virtue must be one’s own personal defence and necessity.” The only fruit of reason that we may be assured of belongs to the work of attempting, and not in any particular conclusion—characterised by Nietzsche as “conviction,”32 the point where such striving comes to a halt.

Yet one thing which Kant would always strive for, and in his splendid critical edifice allowed himself to believe he had achieved, is “to grasp correctly the idea of the whole”,33 a systematic account of reason. The paradox is that it is exactly such an account that the enterprise of critique offers very powerful reasons for suggesting we can never achieve. For Kant our knowledge deals always with particulars, and operates by comparing and synthesising disparate elements: no intuition is possible of that entity that contains all the highly plural elements of our experience. By implication, a true universality of knowledge is forever beyond our grasp, and this in all human enterprises, be they scientific, artistic, metaphysical, or moral.34 But on the other hand: there is no other way to characterise Kant’s exposition of the categorical imperative, “the supreme principle of practical, and therewith also theoretical, reason,” but as an attempt upon such a universal. Hubristic as Nietzsche may often seem or be, there is arguably wisdom and modesty—in Kant’s terms, a critical spirit—in his denial that the attempt to legislate for all is necessary or even worthwhile.

3. The Space Between Autonomy and Legislation

Nietzsche’s overall charges against Kant may, I have suggested, be put this way: that Kant takes shortcuts, and he lacks experience; all in all, he does not observe sufficiently. Notoriously, this failure of observation is explicitly justified by Kant: morality must present the standard to appearances, and not viceversa, for how else could we properly judge something good?35 Now, on this precise question Nietzsche is wisely silent, for it is indeed unanswerable (generally he contents himself by showing how improperly we usually judge things good). But he certainly and rightly objects to the corollary which Kant tends to draw, that we can know about morality, qua various levels of “synthetic a priori” rules, without thoroughly attending to the intricacies of human behaviour.36

In this section, I wish to consider Nietzsche’s dismantling of this Kantian reliance: from the central Categorical Imperative to the pervasive assumption that the conceptual (for Kant, if not Nietzsche, the sphere of human reason) can legislate over the sphere of human action.

It is one of Kant’s great analytical insights that to possess a concept is actually to possess a highly complex ability: the ability to follow a rule. Nietzsche firmly agrees that the conceptual is a domain of rules; what he opens up is a set of radical doubts about the adequacy of rules to experience and reality, so that the realm of the conceptual begins to appear as one fraught with its own seductions and dangers. Now, for Kant morality lies firmly within the realm of the cognitive: that is to say, it can be (1) apprehended conceptually, and indeed with even mathematical precision;37 and (2) communicated between rational agents. Correspondingly Kantian morality is substantially a system of rules.38 This is not to say that Kantian ethics has no place for the virtues, but although they form a crucial part of his ethical system they are characteristically cast as principles of action. In any case, Kant is sure that certain fixed duties can be laid down. His prohibitions upon lying and suicide are well-known; above all is the supreme rule that is the Categorical Imperative.

Nietzsche observes in return:

“All rules have the effect of drawing us away from the purpose behind them and making us more frivolous.”39

They distract us from the multitude of interpretations that the same physical action may carry, decreasing our sense of responsibility for discerning what we have actually done. (In a parallel manner, he sees Kant’s metaphysics of the will as a distraction, a shortcut to the notion of responsible choice that bypasses the complex and demanding task of taking control of who one shall become.)40 While Kant allows that we can never be sure of our intentions, he wishes to contain this uncertainty, as it were, and will not allow it to cast doubt on our ability to characterise actions externally. What, on Nietzsche’s account, are highly complex actions, such as promising, or giving praise, or punishing, appear as almost one-dimensional in Kant’s writings.41

However, if our motivations are indeed opaque to us, as Kant stresses, and of anything like the complexity Nietzsche suspects, then such Kantian “straightforwardness” is highly problematic, in fact itself morally misleading, when employed in our discussion of human activity.42 Nietzsche teaches us that language can radically mislead, the tendency of words being to suggest unity and simplicity, masking the radical plurality inherent in the most everyday of human actions.43 Kant has not observed closely enough:

“When he does shine through his thoughts, Kant appears honest and honourable in the best sense, but insignificant: he lacks breadth and power; he has not experienced very much. . . .”44

And for this reason his precepts are radically over-simple, removed from the realities of the matter. But if the reliance of Kant’s moral system upon rules is a problem at the level of psychological observation, Nietzsche’s most devastating critique operates on a wider basis. Famously—notoriously—he questions the standing of those who feel a need for rules, who must be told what to do and must tell others to behave similarly; and this at several levels. There is Kant’s overarching moral rule, the categorical imperative: Nietzsche is ruthless regarding the longing for the unconditional which he sees this to embody, reflecting as he takes it millennia of Christian theology.45 “Refined servility clings to the categorical imperative.46 It is slavish to wish to obey, to accept laws not of one’s own making. And while Kant, as we know, identifies this “slavery” with our freedom, given that the unconditional law is to be found in our own reason, Nietzsche observes and sees no evidence at all for Kant’s faith in the freedom pertaining to “common human reason”—evidence, rather, for the “servility” involved in our talk of morality.

Of course, Nietzsche may silently treat some unconditional standard as indeed at stake in one’s actions—an ethic of self-realisation, even self-creation, is clearly at work in his writings—but he certainly does not think it will be formulable or communicable in the simple fixity of a law: we will have to work really so much harder to attain to even the slightest acquaintance with the unconditional. And while this leaves his project open to the obvious charge of solipsism, apparently presenting his existential demand as a solitary, incommunicable and perhaps precious undertaking, at least one reply should be made. It may be that we should take a course of life as it is led amongst others as the summary of a person’s attempt to find or realise some unconditional standard—take this, rather than a fixed formula such as Kant’s imperative. (Indeed, this is much closer to the reality of moral learning than Kant’s comic catechisms.)47 Sheer conceptual interpretation will never convey the creativity open to an exemplary course of life—especially given Nietzsche’s account of the fragility of conscious ratiocination, with its persistent simplification of the reality of deeds, never mind its apparently ineluctable tendency to be pressed into the service of self-deception.


we can see (in the manner of recent commentary) the Categorical Imperative as a highest criterion of reasonableness, inviting us to ensure that our course of action would be appropriate for any other similar agent in “relevantly similar” circumstances (the old Sidgwickian line that “a reason in one case is a reason in all casesor it is not a reason at all

captures the issue nicely)48. Part of Nietzsche’s pride, or even hubris, and certainly a crucial thrust in his objection to Kantian ethics, lies in his characteristic assertion that we should not be asked to consider ourselves as in such a position of equality or, better, sameness with other agents. Indeed, his existential demand is that we should explicitly distinguish ourselves, and scorn such comparison. Once again, we may be concerned that Nietzsche has “jumped ship,” has dismissed our shared humanity [ma la dismette quale tendenza all’obbedienza o servilismo, NDR]; yet if we see him as reacting to the elimination of plurality that belongs to Kant’s over-simple universalising procedure, then his move is not only intelligible but also a valuable corrective.

A related concern again helps motivate Nietzsche’s rejection of Kant’s unconditional moral law: the behaviour of those who believe they know what is valid for all. Once again, the concern at first appears empirical rather than transcendental, but may have wider implications. We noted before that, in Nietzsche, “morality” appears as a comfort and protection for the weak. Further, and moreover, it is also portrayed as their weapon, with which they burden the higher man with “bad conscience”: in the first place in order resentfully to confine him within the bounds which their weaker nature dictates to them; secondly, so as to neutralise the threat he poses to them. Nietzsche’s gleeful metaphor for the higher man is the eagle who preys upon a herd of lambs.49 Of course, to the lambs the eagle appears as danger, as evil; but why, Nietzsche rejoins, should that matter to the eagle?

Notwithstanding the earnestness with which some have interpreted this metaphor, Nietzsche is being highly ironical with us; for him the harshest reality is not that of the danger posed by the highest to the mediocre, of the eagle devouringthe lambs, but that posed by the herd to those who approach nearer to greatness: the eagle is rather less sovereign than Nietzsche’s image first suggests.50 If “the herd” describes those who “need” laws and who cling to a customary morality, this dependence possesses a double significance. There are the costs of such bondage to the bearer, doomed never to know the joys of freedom— although, frankly, Nietzsche does not stop to regret this.51 Much more his characteristic concern is how such dependence is inevitably betrayed in an instinct to confine all others within the limits it has set for itself.

In this way a dependence on rules is inimical to the freedom of those whomight be able to create or discover new possibilities (“new horizons,” in one of Nietzsche’s favourite metaphors). It is one of Nietzsche’s central themes that the man who truly acts brings forth something new, and reveals his freedom in his ability to create, to transcend all that has been before him. And to the herd, with its preconceived notion of what is nice or “good,” that which is new must always appear as immoral, as evil.52 (In Kant, on the other hand, it is not difficult to discern a Judeo-Christian acceptance of that forlorn possibility that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Freedom, after all, can only discover its necessary  law.)

But for Nietzsche, not for nothing a keen reader of Emerson, to follow one’s own path is perhaps the highest and deepest command we may know. “The herd” knows neither depth nor heights, only that which is common, easily gained, lightly communicated. For Nietzsche this superficiality represents a high degree of intelligence. Unlike Kant, he saw well how ingenious cunning can be:

“It is their talent for preservation which teaches [men] to be fickle, light and false,”53

and this talent is far cleverer than most that we attain under the head of consciousness.54 But although Kant is unacquainted with the danger of the herd—the most crucial “want of experience” Nietzsche isolates—I think it is also true that Kantian ethics understands the failure of humanity at stake.

In the herd, men above all fail to exercise autonomy: they judge with others, allowing their standard of consistency to be not internal but external. They violate Kant’s maxims of the sensus communis, maxims that will allow us truly to live in company with others: one is above all to think for oneself, and to do so in agreement with oneself.55 For if one fails in this much, one will not even succeed in occupying a position whose validity may be interrogated by another, never mind accepted.

Characteristically Nietzsche puts this demand in existential rather than communicative terms: One thing is needful.—To “give style” to one’s character. . . . In the end . . . it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only  it was a single taste!56

Yet, providing at least that one is prepared to give some credence to Nietzsche’s deep-seated mistrust of the conceptual, the imperative is recognisably similar. And it is this imperative that is unknown to Nietzsche’s herd men who believe that they act “morally” and who find in morality their justification for acting against those who pursue a separate path: believing that they know, they no longer know the need to think. Their banding together is self-defensive, cowardly, inimical to thinking and acting distinctively, inimical to any sort of autonomy. Although divided on the (all too?) human need for legislation, for both Kant and Nietzsche autonomy remains the key to man’s supreme moral and spiritual achievement.


Nietzsche, I have suggested, takes issue with Kant’s often crude application of his transcendental analysis to the reality of moral endeavour, suggesting, too, that the transcendental project was misguided anyhow, in bowing to a weak-willed longing for universal legislation. It may be said, of course, that Nietzsche’s critique remains psychologistic, hubristic or even incoherent: psychologistic in its focus on a general human tendency to subvert moral concepts, a tendency which, it may be said, does not impinge on the possible validity or grounding of those concepts [non si capisce perché questa critica debba essere declassata a psicologica, NDR]; hubristic, in the cast of solitary self-creation he gives to the idea of autonomy [il solito argomento che la libertà nietzscheana è asociale, NDR]; incoherent, in the use of categories of agency and responsibility alongside denial and unconcern with regard to their possible vindication. These are all serious concerns that clearly need more extensive treatment than is possible here [penso proprio di si, NDR].

Nonetheless, if I am correct to argue that we can discern a clear engagement on Nietzsche’s part with Kant’s project, then we may hope that certain lessons may be drawn for the many contemporary attempts to rejuvenate Kantian ethics; and two seem to me especially pertinent here. The clearest lesson, and the one that seems to me farthest from current Kantian thinking, is a need for far greater attention to the reality of human wrong-doing. Even Kant’s own account of “radical evil” (certainly less rich than Nietzsche’s investigations) is rarely noticed in the literature. In this much, Kantian ethics mirrors almost the whole of analytical moral philosophy offered in this century, a period so plainly marked by human evil. Nietzsche may be wrong to suggest that Kant’s transcendental, universalist project should not survive more extensive observation of our inhumanity; still, the two remain to be brought together [ma è proprio ciò che uno studio avrebbe dovuto dimostrare, NDR].

At a more systematic level (at least if we are not wholly sure of Nietzsche’s case against systematicity), it seems to me a still open question how far Kantian ethics can convincingly open the space between autonomy and (moral) legislation that is too tight in Kant, too vast in Nietzsche [condivido, NDR]. It is clearly in the spirit of contemporary Kantianism to locate the rightful exercise of our autonomy in our attempts to explore and communicate the ramifications of the moral law. I for one am unconvinced that this is wholly satisfactory, and does not unduly cramp the discovery and even invention of the values at stake in meaningful human life; but at any rate, so far as contemporary Kantianism goes, it remains to be argued that the terms of such a life can indeed be adequately captured here. After all, it is surely no coincidence that Nietzsche’s turn to a more “aesthetic” mode of judgment pervades so much of contemporary moral and political thinking, concerned as it is with the threat of nihilism posed by the chaos of our age.


Some arguments in this paper were first presented as a Senior Seminar at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, University of Manchester, December 1997. For their comments on versions of this essay, I should like to thank Margaret Canovan, Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves, Katrin Flikschuh, Sophie Hannah, Ian Holliday, Deiniol Jones, and Morris Kaplan.
Reference to Kant’s works is generally made by the name of the text, followed by the volume and page numbers of the standard Akedemie editions. I have generally relied on the new Cambridge University Press translations, especially those of Mary Gregor (Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology, 1996) and of Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology, 1996). In the case of the Critique of Pure Reason, as is customary, the pagination of the first (A) and second (B) editions is given, using Norman Kemp Smith’s standard translation. I have used Louis Infield’s translation of the Lectures on Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1963). Reference to Nietzsche’s works is made easier by his habit of writing in numbered paragraphs, which I have cited. I have relied on the standard translations by R. J. Hollingale and Walter Kaufmann, and on Carol Diethe’s translation of On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
1 Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an untimely man,” §38. Cf. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A4f=B8f.
2 Nietzsche, in his 1886 Preface to Daybreak, §3.
3 Any of the standard commentaries on Nietzsche could be cited in evidence here. I should note that it is not unusual for some mention to be made of a link. For instance, Georg e Allen Morgan, Jr., What Nietzsche Means (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Press, 1943), Walter A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950) and Stanley Rosen, The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) allude to such a link but do not pursue the m atter. It is also not uncommon for writers to note Nietzsche’s “radicalisation” or “naturalisation” of Kant’s epistemology: thus Richard Schacht, Nietzsche (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), and Ruediger Hermann Grimm, Nietzsche’s Theory of Knowledge (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977). Strong, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 40–5, and Mark Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 116–26, 173–74, provide brief but suggestive accounts of some continuities. For longer discussions that point to Nietzsche’s engagement with Kant, see also: David E. Cartwright, “Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on the Morality of Pity,” Journal of the History of Ideas 45 (1984): 83–98, on Kant’s and Nietzsche’s shared treatment of action based on the affects; George Stack, “Kant, Lange, and Nietzsche: Critique of Knowledge,” in Nietzsche and Moderm German Thought, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearon (London: Routledge, 1991), 30–58, on how Nietzsche reappropriates Lange’s reading of Kant’s epistemology; and John Walker, “Nietzsche, Christianity, and the Legitimacy of Tradition,” in Nietzs che and Modern German Thought, ed. Ansell-Pearson, 10–29, on how Nietzsche may reinterpr et, in existential terms, Kant’s epistemological arguments. Keith Ansell-Pearson, “Nietzsche on Autonomy and Morality,” Political Studies 39 (1991), 270–86, and Keith Ansell-Pearson, “Nietzsche and the Problem of Will in Modernity,” in Nietzsche and Moderson German Thought, ed. Ansell-Pearson, 165–91, also explored some of the differences, with regard to the conceptions of autonomy and will invoked by the two philosophers.
4 In a letter to Wilhelm Vischer-Bilfinger, ca. January 1871, in Christopher Middleton, ed. and trans., Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), letter 29.
5 The central text here is Schopenhauer’s On the Basis of Morality, Ch. 2: “Criticism of the basis given to ethics by Kant.”
6 The Gay Science, §335, slightly condensing the text; similarly Anti-Christ, §55.
7 Beyond Good and Evil, §44. The term “schemata” will be familiar to all readers of Kant’s first Critique; and cf. the specific reference to Kant’s table of categories at §11.8 Nietzsche accepts Kant’s ostensibly epistemological argument that “a priori categories,” or something akin to those, structure our experience (cf. Stack, “Kant, Lange, and Nietzsche”). Yet, having deduced these on the basis of the “possibility of experience,” be that experience empirical or moral, Kant thinks his task is done. Nietzsche doubts this greatly. He sees a circularity: the categories are deduced with reference to the experience we do have, yet they are also supposed to guarantee the validity of that experience. “Kant asked himself: how are synthetic judgments a priori possible? and what really did he answer? Vermöge eines Vermögens: as facilitated by a faculty.” Beyond Good and Evil, §11.
9 Kant’s faith “within the limits of reason alone” is of course a complex matter, and by no means simply dogmatic. But Kant never doubted that human reason might comprehend the world; it is one of his most basic articles of faith.
10 “An old question raised again,” part 2 of The Conflict of the Faculties, Ak 7:88, commented on (and somewhat misinterpreted) by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, §11.
11 Cf. “The end of all things,” Ak 8:33f: “The end of all things which go through the hands of human beings, even when their purposes are good, is folly. . . .” And hence, one must “believe in a practical way in a concurrence of divine wisdom with the course of nature.”
12 Critique of Judgment, §83n, Ak 5:434.
13 Nietzsche is entirely correct to observe: “Kant . . . believed in morality, not because it is demonstrated in nature and history, but in spite of the fact that nature and history continually contradict it.” Daybreak, Preface §3. Cf. Kant’s comments on the tension between reason and happiness at Groundwork, Ak 4:396; likewise his pessimism as to whether “any true virtue can be found in the world,” also in Groundwork, Ak 4:407.
14 “‘Faith as an imperative is a veto against science—in praxi the lie at any cost. . . .” Anti-Christ, §47.
15 Daybreak, §318. Cf. Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and arrows,” §26.
16 Paraphrasing The Metaphysics of Morals, Preface, Ak 6:207. But cf. Critique of Practical Reason, Ak 5:108f.
17 Critique of Pure Reason, A837=B865.
18 On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface, §3, where this principle appears as “a characteristic scepticism . . . [which] relates to morality and to all that hitherto people have celebrated as morality. . . .”
19 One may naturally wonder what sort of suffering is in question here. Nietzsche occasionally lets us know that he takes it for granted that the higher man has duties to the lower: “When an exceptional human being handles the mediocre more gently than he does himself or his equals, this is not mere politeness of heart it is simply his duty. . . .”  The Anti-Christ, §57. On the other hand, Nietzsche is well aware that the mediocre, insofar as they may still recognise something of the exceptional, must inwardly suffer: that is the origin of ressentiment, after all.
20 The Anti-Christ, §11; cf. Will to Power, §326.
21 This is very nearly his form of words at The Gay Science, §292. It would be wrong to say that Kant is unaware of this: we find him referring to a situation “when everyone prates about sympathy and benevolence and even exerts himself to practise them occasionally, but on the other hand also cheats where he can, sells the right of human beings or otherwise infringes upon it” (Groundwork, Ak 4:423), and strongly implying that this may be our own. But a thoroughgoing analysis of human action in this light and are missing, what may be the consequences for moral thinking, as I note in my conclusion.
22 Thus the opening page of the final large part of the Critique of Pure Reason, “Transcendental Doctrine of Method”, A707=B735.
23 Groundwork, Ak 4:399. Of course, Kant also suggests that we need to cultivate the affects, so as to respond sensitively to others’ situations, or develop virtuous habits. But this is only to be done under the guidance of reason’s “Imperative,” and there is always a need for reason “continually to purify principles” (Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6:383f), and never to rely on the prompting of feeling.
24 See Nietzsche’s conscious adoption of Kant’s words in the Will to Power, §368, and Cartwright, “Kant, Schopenhaur, and Nietzsche on the Morality of Pity.”
25 Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6:430. The point is strikingly expressed in the closing words of Kant’s 1791 essay, “On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy”: Kant cites an anthropologist who “draws this conclusion: As regards benevolence the human being is good enough . . . provided that no bad propensity to subtle deception dwells in him. . . . And this result of the investigation is one which, even without travelling to the mountains, everyone could have met with among his fellow citizens—indeed, yet closer to home, in his own heart.” Ak 8:271. Cf. also Anthropology, Ak 7:295, and Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Ak 6:37f.
26 Notwithstanding Nietzsche’s (highly complex) remarks in the Will to Power, §426.
27 The first words of section I, Ak 4:393.
28 The Conflict of the Faculties, Appendix to part I, Ak 7:70.
29 This is, I should note, a selective reading of what is at stake in Nietzsche’s project; against it stand several prominent themes, such as “love of fate” and his denials of “free will” (but compare Thus Spake Zarathustra, “Of the great longing”). His most extended discussion of responsibility is found in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morality. There Nietzsche describes the man who “has the right to make promises”: “To be answerable for oneself, and proudly, too, and therefore to have the right to say “yes” to oneself . . . a ripe fruit, but also a late fruit” (§3). Cf. also my introductory quotation, from Twilight of the Idols.
30 Thus, I take it, the meaning of his favourite phrase, “become what we are,” which, if it is not simply a resignation to fate (and there is precious little of resignation in Nietzsche), seems to be an injunction to explore the full potentialities of our existence: perhaps the surest guide to what this means is the negative caution found in Nietzsche’s analysis of those who fail in this task, his “herd creatures.”
31 This aspect of Kant’s account has been best explored by Onora O’Neill; see especially the first section of her Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
32 Further, in Nietzsche, conviction, “the need for belief, for some unconditional Yes or No . . . is a requirement of weakness.” The Anti-Christ, §54.
33 Critique of Practical Reason, Ak 5:10.
34 Thus in his exposition of the contradictions of speculative reason, the “Antinomies,” Kant remarks that these “render the completion of the edifice of knowledge quite impossible.” Critique of Pure Reason, A474=B502. The tensions that emerge in Kant’s conception of philosophy, which appears sometimes as a now completed science, sometimes more modestly as a project that will always be with us, are valuably discussed by Susan Neiman, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), chap. 5.
35 Groundwork, Ak 4:408.
36 As sympathetic commentators have been at pains to emphasise, Kant does not deny that we need knowledge of “anthropology” and a “judgment sharpened by experience” to determine our duties fully (Groundwork, Ak 4:389; Introduction to Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6:217). Still, “a priorism” is ingrained in Kant’s very mode of thinking about morality, and he never doubts that “pure rational knowledge” of moral laws is available a priori.
37 So Kant suggests that his Imperative performs the same role as a mathematician’s formula, “which determines quite precisely what is to be done to solve a problem and does not let him miss” the solution. Critique of Practical Reason, Ak 5:8n. Cf. also Critique of Pure Reason, A425=B453, A476=B504ff; Groundwork, Ak 4:389.
38 Recent writing has valuably stressed the crucial role of principles in Kantian ethics: the Categorical Imperative enjoins us to follow principles of action which could be adopted by all other agents, a principle being something altogether more flexible and open-ended than a rule. However, even putting aside Kant’s readiness to slip from talk of principles to rules (for instance, from the injunction to act on a principle which will allow rational communication, to the rule never to lie), such an emphasis does not, I hope to indicate, rescue Kant’s thought from all of Nietzsche’s difficulties.
39 Daybreak, §322.
40 Thus the point, I take it, of the very famous passage that disavows the idea of an agent “behind” the deed (On the Genealogy of Morality, 1 §13), a disavowal with a clear point when we recall Kant’s strange assertion that “even the most hardened scoundrel” would act rightly if freed from our sensible world’s burden of inclinations and impulses (Groundwork, Ak 4:454f).
41 This “flatness,” a naiveté and want of subtlety in observation and analysis, remains a marked feature of almost the entire literature on Kantian ethics, notwithstanding the admirable quality of recent scholarship—a point that relates to my concludions below.
42 This is not to say, of course, that to be straightforward in one’s acts may not still offer an ideal, perhaps even a duty—this I take to be part of what Nietzsche means to imply by his complex
metaphor of “cleanliness”—something he values dearly, whether in thinking, feeling or acting.
See for instance Beyond Good and Evil, §371.
43 Hence a part of Nietzsche’s meaning when he says: “The space between knowledge and action
has never yet been bridged even in one single instance.” Daybreak, §116. Cf. The Gay Science,
§335, where Nietzsche says with some optimism: “Every action that has ever been done was
done in an altogether unique and irretrievable way.” This is optimistic, of course, because for
Nietzsche action by “the herd” notably fails to be unique.
44 Daybreak, §481.
45 Beyond Good and Evil, §31: “the worst of all tastes, the taste for the unconditional. . . .” The “worst,” perhaps, because Nietzsche himself was so desperately (and quite consciously) alive to the temptations involved.
46 The Gay Science, §5. And alongside the servility Nietzsche senses that: “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty,” On the Genealogy of Morality, 2 §6.
47 Kant’s idea of moral education is sketched in the closing pages of Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6:477ff, where he offers a “fragment of a moral catechism.” For example, “Teacher: But doesn’t it occur to you to ask, again, whether you yourself are worthy of happiness? / Pupil: Of course.”
48 As paraphrased by Marcus Singer, Generalisation in Ethics (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961), 57.
49 On the Genealogy of Morality, 1 §13.
50 Such a contradiction, one might say aporia, haunts all Nietzsche’s images of self-sovereignty—an interesting issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.
51 Or at least, as befits the self-conscious Anti-Christ, he would not be seen to stop to regret this.
52 That this is so is maintained throughout Nietzsche’s writings. See, for example, Human, All Too Human, “Assorted opinions and maxims,” §90; The Gay Science, §4.
53 Beyond Good and Evil, §59. Cf. §218: “of all forms of intelligence discovered hitherto, ‘instinct’ is the most intelligent.”
54 The Gay Science, §3, §11.
55 Critique of Judgment, §40, Ak 5:294.
56 The Gay Science, §290. It is characteristic of Kant to suggest that where taste and genius are in tension, taste should win (Critique of Judgment, §50, Ak 5:319f); with Nietzsche, the reverse. If one wished to adjudicate between the two, the whole question could be put metaphorically and schematically, by proposing that this is a less rigid and complete dichotomy than both thinkers
seem to presuppose.

6 Comments to “Garrath Williams, Nietzsche’s Response to Kant’s Morality”

  1. Grazie. Ammetto di non averlo ancora letto, sono febbricitante e doverlo tradurre dall’inglese nelle condizioni attuali mi costa un po’ di fatica, ma ho già provveduto a salvarlo. Lo rileggerò con calma. Intanto, “mi piace” l’idea di renderci noto quest’articolo. 🙂

Leave a Reply

%d blogger hanno fatto clic su Mi Piace per questo: