Philosophy 244 - 12.5.3 Ethics in Post-structuralism

Nietzsche’s Genealogy

When German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) famously declared that “God is dead,” he rejected God as a basis for morality and asserted that there is no longer (and never was) any ground for morality other than the human. The removal of the notion of sure foundations for ethical behavior and human meaning can stir a sense of anxiety, a fear of living without a place of certainty (Warnock 1978). This fear and anxiety inform the existential notion of the “absurd,” which is simply another way of stating that the only meaning the world has is the meaning that we give it (Crowell 2003). In this motion away from objective assertions of truth, one comes to what Nietzsche calls “the abyss,” or the world without the absolute logical structures and norms that provide meaning. The abyss is the world where nothing has universal meaning; instead, everything that was once previously determined and agreed upon is subject to individual human interpretation. Without the structures of fixed ethical mandates, the world can seem a perpetual abyss of meaninglessness.

Although Nietzsche lived prior to Derrida, he engaged in a type of deconstruction that he referred to as genealogy. In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche traces the meaning of present morals to their historical origins. For example, Nietzsche argued that the concepts we refer to as “good” and “evil” were formed in history through the linguistic transformation of the terms “nobility” and “underclass” (Nietzsche 2007, 147–148). Nietzsche held that the upper classes at one time were thought to be “noble,” having characteristics that the lower classes were envious or and would want to emulate. Therefore, “noble” was considered not an ethical “good” but a practical “good.” A person simply had a better life if they were part of the ruling class. Over time, the concept of “noble” took on a more ideal meaning, and the practical characteristics (e.g., reputation, access to resources, influence, etc.) became abstract virtues. Because the lower classes were envious of the upper classes, they found a theoretical framework to subvert the power of the nobility: Judeo-Christian philosophy. In Judeo-Christian philosophy, the “good” is no longer just a synonym for the nobility but a spiritual virtue and is represented by powerlessness. “Evil” is represented by strength and is a spiritual vice. Nietzsche views this reversal as one of the most tragic and dangerous tricks to happen to the human species. In his view, this system of created morality allows the weak to stifle the power of the strong and slow the progress of humanity.

Public art consisting of two figures: a seated man with a book on his lap and a young woman in contemporary dress standing with her hands on her hips. The seated man is raised on a pedestal. The young woman is on the ground. The two figures look at one another.
Figure 12.12 This public statue of Friedrich Nietzsche in Naumburg, Germany expresses both his approach to life and contemporary engagement with his ideas. (credit: “Friedrich Nietzsche Statue - Naumberg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany” by Glen Bowman/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Foucault on Power and Knowledge

For French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), “power” at the base level is the impetus that urges one to commit any action (Lynch 2011, 19). Foucault claimed that power has been misunderstood; it has traditionally been understood as residing in a person or group, but it really is a network that exists everywhere. Because power is inescapable, everyone participates in it, with some winning and others losing.

Foucault contended that power affects the production of knowledge. He argued that Nietzsche’s process of genealogy exposed the shameful origins of practices and ideas that some societies have come to hold as “natural” and “metaphysically structural,” such as the inferiority of woman or the justification of slavery. For Foucault, these and other systems aren’t just the way things are but are the way things have been developed to be by the powerful, for their own benefit. The disruptions promoted by critical theory are viewed as insurrections against accepted histories—disruptions that largely deal with a reimagining of how we know what we know—and understood as a weapon against oppression.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax