Is Nietzsche an ethical egoist?

Julia asked:

Explain why Nietzsche’s philosophy could be considered a version of ethical egoism, where ethical egoism is the belief that a moral act is one that furthers ones own goals and desires.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Julia, I suppose Nietzsche’s writings could, to a degree, be described as a variant of ethical egoism. This insofar as he is not writing to address social classes, masses or nations but, individuals. This is reinforced when he disparages collectivism in the guise of ‘the herd’, is dismissive of modern ideas of democracy, equal rights and socialism. Sovereign individuality appears to be what Nietzsche favours when for example, he writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that ‘he who does not obey himself, will be commanded. This is the nature of living things’. In other words, know oneself and legislate for oneself accordingly — which is similar to themes in ethical egoism.

However, the second part of the passage where he writes about ‘living things’ is revealing and, I think, moves significantly away from ethical egoism, understood as a liberal, libertarian philosophy operating within the paradigm of human subjectivity, humanism (modernity), to an ontological one. That is, Nietzsche’s philosophy — with its concentration on individuals understood as Ubermensch, Free-Spirits, New Experimenter/philosophers, is not so much concerned with the freedom of the individual but with the nature and fate of human life as bound up with what her termed its ‘higher types’. It moves way from ethical egoism if indeed, it was ever concerned with it.

This is evidenced in #287 of The Will to Power:

‘My philosophy aims at an ordering of rank: not at individualistic morality.’

I consider this text to be a secondary, supporting text. It is not wholeheartedly reliable. Yet what is written in it can sometimes find explicit verification in the published, authorised Nietzsche texts. In Beyond Good & Evil we find Nietzsche’s belief that normal, healthy society is aristocratic. [#259] In Twilight of the Idols, egoism is mentioned and classed as either ascending or descending. With the former, their value is found in that ‘the whole of life advances through them..’ [Expeditions #33] Through them, the human species is enhanced, developed, changed. Precisely how, is not that clear with Nietzsche. What is clear is that he found existing western values to be epiphenomena of a diseased physiology and a corresponding decline of will to power. New attempters/ experimenters/ philosophers would be the source of the revaluation and refutation of such modern values. They would embody strength, health and ordered, comprehensive drives of will to power. Goethe, Napoleon are the examples Nietzsche provides that point towards the type of the New Attempter etc. Beneath the New Experimenters, society would naturally become hierarchical due to the innate difference between people in terms of the degree of will to power that constitutes them.

So Nietzsche’s theory is based on biological grounds in that ultimately, will to power underpins a healthy physiology and this underpins affirmative life valuations. The New attempter-aristocrats are the embodiment of this and they will naturally rule and create. Aristocracy, hierarchy and biologism which are central themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy, are antithetical to ethical egoism as the value of the individual is thereby predetermined by innate predisposition, corresponding social position and ultimately, the caprice of the aristocratic new attempters. Such prescription and restriction is alien to the freedom essential to ethical egoism. So Julia, I don’t think Nietzsche’s philosophy can be considered a variant of ethical egoism.


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