Owen, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality
Reviewed by Peter Poellner, University of Warwick
The last decade has seen a flurry of publications on Nietzsche’s ethics and specifically on his critique of “morality” put forward in On the Genealogy of Morality. In addition to a host of journal articles and essay collections, there have been book-length studies of the subject by, among others, Aaron Ridley (Nietzsche’s Conscience, 1998), Simon May (Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on “Morality”, 1999), Brian Leiter (Nietzsche on Morality, 2002), and Chris Janaway (Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy, 2007). David Owen’s book is the latest addition to this growing literature. It is plausible to think that this surge of interest reflects a growing acknowledgement among philosophers in the English-speaking world that Nietzsche’s ideas on ethics and morality are of continuing relevance for contemporary thought. But while there has been increasing willingness to engage with Nietzsche among philosophers trained in the analytic tradition, there continues to be fierce disagreement on the merits and precise significance of his contribution, and indeed on its content. Much effort has been expended in recent years on clarifying or reconstructing Nietzsche’s challenge, and on excavating the argumentative structures beneath his polemics, while also making sense of the rhetorical idiosyncrasies of his distinctive philosophical style. As a result, we now have a much clearer and more detailed picture of the various interpretive options and are in a correspondingly better position than a few decades ago to assess the merits of the philosophical positions to which Nietzsche may plausibly be thought to be committed.
Owen’s valuable book offers a sustained, clear, crisply argued reconstruction of Nietzsche’s central arguments in On the Genealogy of Morality as well as some thoughtful explanatory ideas on Nietzsche’s incendiary style in this text, situating both in the context of the development of his thought on morality following his break with his early ethics of heroic love and self-sacrifice (inspired partly by Schopenhauer and Wagner) in Human, All-Too-Human. In Owen’s account of this development, Nietzsche’s point of departure since Daybreak is the “death of God”, the loss of belief in the Christian God among the cultured classes dramatized as the urbane atheism of the people in the marketplace in §125 of The Gay Science. The people in the marketplace consider the loss of authority of the metaphysical beliefs associated with Christianity to be a process that need have no implications for their practical orientation in life, an orientation that remains structured by a certain conception of morality continuous with “Christian” morality. For Nietzsche, by contrast, morality thus understood is rationally dependent on the truth of those now widely abandoned metaphysical beliefs: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (TI, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man”, §5). Nietzsche’s task, as he conceives of it from The Gay Science onwards, is therefore threefold: he needs to provide a broadly naturalistic explanation of the hold that “morality” continues to have — irrationally, by his lights — even on unbelievers; he needs to come up with an adequate evaluative framework permitting him to determine the “value of morality” as a self-standing practice deprived of its metaphysical trappings; and he needs to tell us something about the criteria for assessing evaluative commitments. The last requirement is particularly challenging for him as he is committed to “perspectivism”, a view which Owen interprets as the epistemological claim that justification is necessarily relative to practical perspectives constituted by specific, contingent interests and purposes — and that the idea of a practical justification valid for all rational beings merely qua rational beings is incoherent.