What does 'beyond good and evil' mean really? A lot of commentators seem -- to me -- to write as if talking about someone so perfect that they are beyond moral vices, and with that, judgments of virtues.

Others, write as if it just amounted to an acknowledgment that nothing at all is really good or evil, and the only value there is, is the life of the superman. But it's unclear to me why the overman has value if humanity and morality have no value -- without him.

By analogy, kitsch art is worthless, but that doesn't mean that what isn't kitsch art has value. Is the idea that humanity are his imitators, that their values are not really new?

  • The same way means always have only derivative value insofar as they produce an end. And superman may well only be the next means, not an end in itself either. "Man is something that is to be surpassed... All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves".
    – Conifold
    Aug 2, 2020 at 3:40
  • a temporary end is a still an end though, isn't it @Conifold
    – user47711
    Aug 2, 2020 at 8:18
  • True, but on Nietzsche's analysis we are at a moment in time when men outlived their usefulness and supermen's time is a-coming. Hence the transvaluation and the difference in emphasis, even if they both be just means ultimately.
    – Conifold
    Aug 2, 2020 at 10:43
  • People who think that they can be "beyond good and evil", or that all morality is relative, are either deluded or deliberately attempting to cover up evil. Nothing else to say here.
    – user21820
    Sep 26, 2020 at 3:02

3 Answers 3


Nietzsche was (believe it or not) an ethicist. However, he worked from the observation/intuition/presumption that the vast majority of 'conventional' morality — the implicit moral precepts people live by in the day-to-day world, transmitted by religious teachings and enforced by secular law — was corrupt, degraded, even directly manipulative. Conventional morality for Nietzsche was primarily a form of social control, meant to keep the populace obedient to the needs of the established ruling order; whatever 'moral' roots it may have originally had were lost long ago under a flood of cynical, short-sighted power assertions.

When Nietzsche says that Man killed God, this is what he means: that people took the (ostensibly) moral dictates that come from religion and murdered them by twisting them to selfish purposes. "Thou shalt not kill" is distorted into "Thou shalt only kill when we say to"; "Thou shalt not steal" becomes a convoluted mess of laws that legitimize some forms of stealing and not others. Nietzsche's solution is that men should complete the job, discarding these now-corrupt teachings and finding the true moral essence that transcends these conventional (and baseless) notions of good and evil. Man killed God, so Man is obliged to step up and take the role of God, finding that real moral essence.

The problem, of course, is that Nietzsche's philosophy creates a moral vacuum that individuals are supposed to fill with their own philosophical perceptions, but most people in the world are not prepared to rise to that moment. That moral vacuum is ripe to be filled by some ideology that claims to have access to higher truth. This is why the Nazis were so keen on Nietzsche: his philosophy could be used to strip people of their conventional moral compass (however poor of a moral compass that might be), so that the party could impose its own distorted moral posture. This is what Ken Wilber called the 'pre-trans fallacy', where from the perspective of 'conventional' understanding, transcendence to higher understanding is easily confused with regression to deeper misunderstanding. Both obviously reject conventional morality, but the transcendent move rejects conventional morality and does something else that's hard to grasp before it is grasped.

  • Ken Wilber makes some good points. "When Nietzsche says that Man killed God, this is what he means: that people took the (ostensibly) moral dictates that come from religion and murdered them" That misses Nietzsche's core point, pretending god is real has been the source of our social & moral order. The danger from having 'killed him in our hearts' is nihilism, and his prescription is the heroic narratives of the ubermensch, giving values through the internal consistency of their own story.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 3, 2020 at 7:14

I think the notion is absurd, to be honest. Animals in nature are beyond good and evil. Animals in nature lack morality because they lack the cognitive ability to conceive of such a thing. One cannot be evil if one cannot be good; dichotomy. Animals have no ill-intent, but to survive, it is very primal. Similarly they cannot be self-sacrificing either, except when governed purely by instinct.

Human beings are the only species capable of reasoning beyond instinct, and capable of choosing to behave in ways contrary to instinct. We are the only species that can subdue compulsions, and give ourselves, our lives even, for everything from strangers with no genetic tie, to ideologies and principles.

I have asked myself the question, "are you a good person if youve never had an evil impulse?" Most people Ive asked this question to have declared rather surely that, of course, that defines true moral purity, sanctity. But I would beg to differ. A person whose never experienced an evil impulse might act on it if they ever did. Ignorance of evil doesnt constitute good. In my opinion, a truly good person is one who, in spite of all of the temptation to do evil, and all the horrendous thoughts he may have, chooses to do good nonetheless.

Even the Christians agree with this notion. Satan doesnt tempt the faithless; there's no point. Its those on the moral path who must be led astray... they are the ones to tempt the most.

I do not subscribe to the notion that humanity and morality do not have value. I do believe they do. Individuals may earn the privilege to be an exception through their own misdeeds, but speaking in the general case all life has value.

The philosophy you speak of is a very Randian / Marxist mentality, in my opinion. I dont have to be religious (though it may help) to recognize that morality is both real and it is objective/absolute (in the sense that it is not subjective to the individual or culture). Is there a single thing in this universe that is?

Nothing in existence is subjective/relative. There are only varying degrees of knowledge and certainty, but truth is always independent of our scope of understanding. Science, physics... all absolute. Discovery of its laws, though, is a different matter.

I tend to think that religions and cultures and philosophy are simply human experiments in discovery... of moral law. We may never have all the rules right, but our histories have shown evolution of understanding. As truths become revealed we change to suit.

Mathematics is a weird thing, if you think about it. It is completely abstract in nature, and arguably man-made. Yet, it is absolute. Moreover, it is also practical. It applies to our lives. It matters whether or not we ignore it.

I challenge you to offer me anything, tangible or abstract, man-made or natural, that has real impact on real lives, that isnt completely objective/absolute.

Morality is arguably abstract, man-made, but it also has real impact on real lives. Whether society embraces these actions or punishes them means the rise and fall of empires, the progress of society, and the happiness of lives. It seems perfectly real to me, regardless of where it came from.

And I have yet to encounter any notion that is abstract, relevant, and subjective. Why should morality be the sole exception to the rule? That claim must surely be argued in its own right.

Some people would argue that ones choices might change with more knowledge or a different set of experiences or a different awareness of the situation. Though that is true, it is also an appeal to ignorance as a tool unto itself to rationalize a behavior. My counter is always the same: what decision would you have made if you were omniscient?

Clearly omniscience isnt achievable but it is the point that there is only one truth, one moral right, whether or not we were aware of it. Its like a baby who thinks you disappear from existence simply because he cant see you. Have you ever seen the "probability" game of guessing how many jelly beans are in the jar? Where is the probability, do you think? The count isnt variable; its static. So where is the variability that creates the probability distribution? Its to be found in human uncertainty of the count, not in the reality of the count.

Abortion doesnt become moral just because you arent certain in its immorality; if youre aware of the dilemma, of the controversy, then youre choosing to act in liberal ways to commit acts that you know full well may be immoral, and youre consciously and deliberately using moral uncertainty as a means to an end, to achieve a selfishly motivated goal. That alone is pure evil, and it doesnt absolve anyone of guilt. Even if it turns out abortion is moral, the cognitive leap and willful ignorance necessary at the time to justify it surely is immoral.

I hope that at least offers some insights. In summary: Ignorance is not a tool, there is one truth, uncertainty and ignorance arent the same as subjective truth, discovery of truth is a burden of intellect only to be found in sapient species, variation in morality between philosophies doesnt prove morality subjective, it only proves the human endeavor across isolated populations to evolve and discover, and nothing that truly matters in this universe is a subjective notion, no matter how abstract it is.

  • 3
    Animals in nature are beyond good and evil. Animals in nature lack morality because they lack the cognitive ability to conceive of such a thing. Some nonhuman animals do in fact show some signs of some rudimentary form of morality, however the idea is not universally accepted.
    – user42828
    Sep 1, 2020 at 20:14
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    Your pet theory about morality does not have much bearing on how Nietzsche thought the overman to constitute moral value. This does not answer the question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 1, 2020 at 22:50
  • Youre welcome for the contribution to the conversation, @Philip. If only everyone was as appreciative and respectful as you were. Sep 2, 2020 at 0:38
  • You seem to rapidly have lost track of any relevance to Nietzsche. "Even the Christians agree" Because you are espousing the Christian view. Compare to say Buddhist thought, where 'temptation' or 'evil' arises from ignorance and lack of equanimity, from self-defeating actions that cause net-suffering. On your claims about objectivity being all that is real, I would counter that in fact there is only intersubjectivity: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra's_net and objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity. The world is always filtered by our minds, & structured by sharing subjectivities.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 3, 2020 at 8:34

As Foucault makes clear in The Archaeology, the overman is not a "telos", no more than communism is. We need to acknowledge that things could be, and so could have been different. I suppose, then, that the superman is differentiated by his love of fate, not others, which is his own, whoever else he may share it with. But that just raises another question: what is "consummate nihilism" -- something like redemption of man?

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