Nietzsche on The Death of God: The Transvaluation of Values and Social Justice

Dr. Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton

ASU West

October 3, 2017

1) Argument:

  1. Social Justice requires that all humans are equal.
  2. Nietzsche’s death of God removes all rational justification for human equality.
  3. Nietzsche’s death of God philosophy is incompatible with Social Justice.
  4. One must either give up the death of God or give up Social Justice.

2) Who is Nietzsche?

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche is a German philosopher, 1844-1900.
  2. Reacting to German Idealism (ie. Hegel).
  3. Epistemology: Radical Empiricism > skepticism > nihilism.
  4. Metaphysics: Radical Materialism (flux doctrine) > naturalism.
  5. Human nature: Will and desire (Ubermensch).
  6. Ethics: Transvaluation of values (nihilism and “willing out beyond”).

3) What did Nietzsche say about the death of God?

The “Madman” quote, from The Gay Science aphorism 125, is lengthy, but important for the context of our discussion:

The madman. – Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, ‘I’m looking for God! l’m looking for God!’ Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. Has he been lost, then? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated? – Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tel1 you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning? Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers. The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!’ Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’ It is still recounted how on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there started singing his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but, ‘What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchres of God?’1

4)  What did Nietzsche mean by the death of God?

  1. Textual analysis:
    1. Two audiences: Atheists and Christians.
    2. Call to consistency: Nietzsche and integrity.
    3. The Madman comes too early.
    4. The death of God is apocalyptic.
    5. The philosophers of the future. God is dead culturally (killed by German Pietism).

2. Scholars:

  1. Walter Kaufmann: “Nietzsche prophetically envisages himself as a madman: to have lost God means madness; and when mankind will discover that it has lost God, universal madness will break out. This apocalyptic sense of dreadful things to come hangs over Nietzsche’s thinking like a thundercloud. We have destroyed our own faith in God. There remains only the void. We are falling. Our dignity is gone. Our values are lost. Who is to say what is up and what is down?”2 The death of God means the loss of human dignity and the loss of values. The implications are cultural madness.
  2. Martin Heidegger: Nihilism, for Nietzsche, has “a double meaning … on the one hand, it designates the mere devaluing of the highest values up to now, but on the other hand it also means at the same time the unconditional countermovement to devaluing.”3 There is a negative side to nihilism which consists in the devaluation of all values. Negative nihilism sees the emptiness of the old values of the systems of thought of Plato and Christian theism. This strain of nihilism is carried out to its logical conclusions in deconstruction. The positive strain of nihilism sets up a new system of “values” to replace the old metaphysics of Plato and Christianity and is the transvaluation of values. Positive nihilism is the “willing out beyond” into the world a set of new values. It is the positive use of force to will onto others new values opposed to the old values. The new values are based upon force and power dynamics.
    1. Brian Leiter:
      1. No fan of Christianity, Leiter argues the following:
        1. “There exists a God.
        2. God determines moral value.
        3. All human beings have the following property: an immortal soul bestowed by God.
        4. This soul is the basis of moral equality because God deems it so.
        5. Therefore, all human beings enjoy basic equality.
        6. … there are valid arguments in support of the conclusion that moral egalitarianism can be vindicated by the existence of God.”4 Letier then goes on to take issue with the first premise. Consider the argument in reverse:
          1. God is dead.
          2. God determines moral value.
          3. No human beings have an immortal soul bestowed by God.
          4. The soul is the basis of moral equality because God deems it so, but God is dead.
          5. Therefore, no human beings enjoy basic equality.
      2. “The evidence that Nietzsche believes that the “death of God” implicates the “death of morality is overwhelming. But why does Nietzsche believe that? I have argued that the moral egalitarianism that is central to modern morality can not be defended on any basis other than the supposition that there is an egalitarian God that invests everyone with equal moral worth. Defenders of morality argue that this aspect of morality can be defended without any theistic assumptions, even though, as I have suggested, moral egalitarianism appears to be nothing more than a legacy of Judaism and Christianity.”5

5)  Is what Nietzsche said about the death of God true?

  1. In his day? Yes, God had become culturally irrelevant in Nietzsche’s day.
  2. In our day? Yes, God is culturally irrelevant in our day.
    1. Religion privatized.
    2. Institutions of culture secularized.
  3. Did he prove that there is no God? No, Nietzsche assumes but does not prove that all that exists is material and natural. He has no argument for the death of God.

6)  What are the implications for us if God is dead?

  1. Justice, equality, and social justice:
    1. Nietzsche on equality: “The doctrine of equality! … But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice … ‘Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’ — that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’.”6
    2. Nicholas Wolterstorff on Justice: “I think of justice as constituted of rights: a society is just insofar as its members enjoy the goods to which they have a right. And I think of rights as ultimately grounded in what respect for the worth of persons and human beings requires.”7
    3. The problem becomes: How do we ground rights in the worth of persons apart from God? Inherent rights implies a Judeo-Christian morality, but this morality is dead with the death of God.

Wolterstorff and a secular basis for justice: Having examined the best secular ethical theories, Wolterstorff shows the inability of any of them to ground human worth (and hence, equality), rights, and justice. He leaves us with four options:

  1. “We can continue to hold that there are natural rights inherent to a worth possessed by all human beings”8 and hope that a “grounding will turn up.” Let’s call this the “tentativeness option.”9
  2. “We can continue to hold that there are natural rights inherent to a worth possessed by all human beings, and offer a theistic grounding of such rights, that is, an account of the relationship on which worth supervenes that makes essential reference to God.”10 Call this the “God’s not Dead” option.
  3. “We can give up on the existence of inherent natural human rights, insist that there are nonetheless inherent natural personal or animal rights.”11 Call this the “pounding the table” option.
  4. Lastly, “we can deny that there are any inherent natural rights whatsoever, while nonetheless insisting on the importance of the social practice of according every human being certain rights.” Call this the “pragmatic” option. It works until the powers that be change social practices, and human “rights.”
  5. Brian Leiter argues that with Nietzsche’s death of God comes the death of morality. If there is no (objective) morality, there is no basis for human equality.
  6. If there is no basis for human equality, then there cannot be justice. If there cannot be justice, there can be no social justice.
  7. Dilemma: If one holds to consistent Nietzschean naturalism then it is not possible to have social justice. If we want to defend social justice then it is not possible to hold to consistent naturalism. The two are mutually exclusive and contradictory.
  8. What are our options?
    1. Reject Social justice and embrace the new values of the Ubermensch.
    2. Return to Theism, as Wolterstorff suggests. But this may be too much for some people given the questions that remain, even from Nietzsche’s day, about Theism, especially Christian theism. If you have questions about the content and support for Christian theism, Ratio Christi is a campus club dedicated to discussing these issues.
    3. Return to a public philosophical discussion of metaphysics, which discussion was cut short with the pronouncement of the Death of God. What reason do Nietzsche and those who follow him give us for endorsing empiricism, skepticism, nihilism, materialism, naturalism, and resulting moral relativism? Can we discuss these philosophical assumptions in a civil exchange of reason-giving?
      1. Should we revisit the question of the death of God?
      2. Has the death of God been proven?
      3. Where can we discuss the question about the death of God?
    4. Retrieval Philosophy is a movement to return to a Socratic Discussion of our basic philosophical assumptions in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
    5. What can we retrieve from Nietzsche?
      1. Boldness and risk.
      2. Integrity and consistency.
      3. Critique and entertaining alternative ideas.
      4. Independence and rejection of the “herd” mentality.12

1 Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Bernard Williams. The Gay Science. (New York: Cambridge University Press; 2001).

2 Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher Psychologist Antichrist. (New York: Meridian Books; 1950), p. 81-82.

3 Heidegger, Martin, trans. William Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.; 1977.

4 Leiter, Brian. “The Death of God and the Death of Morality.” (Forthcoming in a special issue of The Monist on Nietzsche. Posted on SSRN at:, p. 19.

5 Leiter, p. 22.

6 Nietzsche, Friedrich and R.J. Hollingdale. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. (New York: Penguin Books; 1990, aphorism 48, p. 112.

ultimately grounded in what respect for the worth of persons and human beings

7 Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. xii.

8 Ibid, p. 340.

9 Ibid, p. 340.

10 Ibid, p. 340.

11 Ibid, p. 340.

12 For an interesting look at how Nietzsche would view our world, check out: West, Peter. Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche for Our Time (London: Societas; 2017).

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