Given that Leiter has put up a kind link to Pea Soup, I thought it would be appropriate to thank him by posting something about Nietzsche. The question I have in mind is simple really; what is the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals a historical account of? Is it an account of (i) the concept ‘good’, the term/word ‘good’, and the nature of evaluative judgments, or of (ii) different conceptions and ideas of good, which values (i.e., evaluative attitudes) different groups have held, their methods of making evaluative judgments, their grounds for making these judgments, and so on. Roughly the question is, is his account ‘historico-conceptual’ or ‘historico-psychological’?
Given the text, Nietzsche seems to think it is both. It doesn’t look like he made the distinction and I haven’t seen any commentator doing it either. I want to claim that his account is a non-starter for an account of (i) whereas at least it is a runner for an account of (ii).
Nietzsche says many things which make you think that his account is about the concept ‘good’. So, he says things like ‘‘refined’ and ‘noble’ in the sense of social standing is everywhere the fundamental concept, from which ‘good’ in the sense of ‘having a refined soul’ … necessarily developed’, and ‘what a difference there is between these two words ‘bad’ and ‘evil’, in spite of the fact that they both appear to stand in opposition to one and the same concept of ‘good’! But it is not the same concept of ‘good’ which is involved in each case.’ Leiter makes this even clearer: ‘In other words, the concept “good” in the hands of masters connotes a distinctive psychological or characterological state, and not simply class position: “later ‘good’ and ‘bad’ develop in a direction which no longer refers to social standing” (GM I: 6).’
Thus, on this view ‘the masters’ and ‘the slaves’ have different concepts of good. Perhaps the master’s concept ‘good’ means something like ‘conducive to proud states of soul’ and the slave’s concept ‘good’ ‘that which eases the existence of those who suffer’. The obvious problem with any view of this sort will be how to account for disagreements.
Imagine games on Colosseum in the end of the first centery AD. Christians are being thrown to the lions. The emperor, blond beast and a proud warrior, Domitian says ‘it is good that those Christians are thrown to the lions’. His slave Spartacus, a weak and compassionate Christian, replies ‘No Sir, that is false. It is not good that those Christians are thrown to the lions’. Domitian replies ‘Ah – of course it is good. What would you know?”.
Of course this disagreement did not actually take place (for one Spartacus lived much earlier). But, given that Nietzsche thought that there was a battle between the two moralities for thousands of years, at least one such evaluative disagreement between a master and a slave must have taken place. However, if Nietzsche’s view was that the two moralities had different moral concepts, no such disagreement could have been possible. Domitian’s first claim would have meant ‘Throwing Christians to the lions is conducive to proud states of souls which I approve’. This is something Spartacus could not have disagreed with by saying that it is false. About that Domitian was right. By saying that throwing Christians to the lions is not good Spartacus could have only meant that that does not ease the existence of those who suffer. But again, with this Domitian would not have disagreed.
Thus, to have been able to disagree as they did, the masters and slaves needed to share the same evaluative concepts. This means that Nietzsche’s historical account seems to fail as an account of which concepts the groups had. They had to have the same ones the origin of which would probably precede both groups. This is not to say that Nietzsche might have been right about on what grounds the groups judged things to be good, bad, or evil, about which moral beliefs or values the groups held and so on. And, maybe this does shed light on why we hold the moral beliefs we do. But, I’m sceptical whether the historical story can illuminate the nature of the concepts we use.
There is plenty of evidence that Nietzsche too on occasion thought of his account as an account of the evaluative attitudes, values, people have held. He often refers to the aristocratic mode and method of evaluation, value-judgments and values, and so on.