Is a Transvaluation of All Values Possible?
An Exposition and Critical Examination of Nietzschean Ethics

by Mario Derksen

When in the latter half of the nineteenth century the German existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche came on the scene, the philosophical world was about to experience the thoughts of a most unusual thinker. Due to his extreme eccentricity and incongruous writing styles, Nietzsche has become the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misquoted philosopher in the history of Western philosophy. He was a “philosopher of masks,” [1] and his philosophical writings are filled with aphorisms, ambiguities, and inconsistencies, revealing a deeply troubled and tormented soul behind his philosophical rhetoric.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s thought was quite profound, and the most lasting part of his philosophy was certainly his ethics, in which he proposed a “transvaluation of all values.” It will be the goal of this brief paper to critically analyze and evaluate this project of Nietzsche’s, showing that a transvaluation of values is meaningless and logically impossible, betraying a nihilism which Nietzsche claimed to reject.

Nietzsche’s ethics can best be understood in light of his epistemology, so a few words about his theory of knowledge at first would be in order. For Nietzsche, knowledge is merely a tool which man can put to use to master reality. Far from a Platonic grasping of absolute truth, Nietzsche’s notion of knowledge is simply a process of subjective interpretation. Such interpretation is subjective because it is “a question of reading an interpretation into reality rather than of reading it . . . off . . . reality.”[2] Thus, knowledge loses all traditional meaning, and Nietzsche’s real position discloses itself as one of relativism, or, to be more precise, perspectivism. Truth is not an objective reality which we can discover, but rather is a subjective state of mind which helps us master reality from an individual perspective. As times and places and circumstances change, so does truth. For Nietzsche, this is not a problem since for him truth is not an objective reality. Rather, for him, the “concept of absolute truth is an invention of philosophers. . . .”[3] Truth simply varies with one’s perspective; and it can do so because it is an illusion: “Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.”[4] For Nietzsche, all there is is interpretations, but no original text, to speak metaphorically. Statements are only interpretations, which are merely interpretations of other interpretations, and so on, ad infinitum. There is no original text of which the interpretation is an interpretation; there is no reality which could possibly be reflected in our language. Therefore, all statements are a sort of lying: “All ‘truths’ are ‘fictions’; all such fictions are interpretations; and all interpretation are perspectives.”[5] Thus, we have come full circle: truth depends on one’s perspective, according to Nietzsche.

One wonders, then, whether the concept of truth does not become utterly meaningless in Nietzsche. If there is no objective truth, only interpretations, then this certainly applies to what Nietzsche had to say, and it follows that his assertions become more and more devoid of any meaning. In fact, he was quite willing to admit just that: “Let us admit that this, too, would be only an interpretation—and you will be eager to make this objection! Well, all the better!”[6] What does one do with such an admission? Nietzsche was content to say that his own philosophy was but an interpretation of his own creation, a view of things from his own perspective.

Having clarified Nietzsche’s views on knowledge and objective truth, we will now be able to better understand his ethics. In 1888, Nietzsche published his book Twilight of the Idols, in which he exclaimed: “There are altogether no moral facts. Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena—more precisely, a misinterpretation.”[7] Nietzsche’s works most pertinent to the topic of moral principles are his Beyond Good and Evil, The Will to Power, and The Genealogy of Morals.

Nietzsche had been trained as a philologist, the study of getting to the roots of words and their meanings and discovering their origins. He made use of this system in his study of morality, and in Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that “he has discovered two primary types of morality, ‘master-morality and slave-morality’,”[8] though this distinction “is not meant to be exclusive; no society is purely one or the other and no individual is purely one or the other.”[9]

Master morality is the morality of the noble, of the strong. “For the masters, the good is the noble, the strong, the powerful”[10]—“the epithets are applied to men rather than to actions.”[11] Slave morality, by contrast, “is a morality common to those people who are weak willed, uncertain of themselves, oppressed, and abused. The essence of slave morality is utility.”[12] In slave morality, “[q]ualities such as sympathy, kindness and humility are extolled as virtues.”[13] Nietzsche termed slave morality “herd morality,” because its “moral valuations are expressions of the needs of a herd.”[14] When the “herd,” then, starts imposing its own slave values on others, i.e. on the masters, an illusion is created which makes us believe that the herd values are universal and objective moral principles. This illusion has misled many, so Nietzsche says, and the epitome of this phenomenon in the Western world is Christianity: “The Christian . . . exalts the virtues of the weak, the humble, the poor, the oppressed; . . . because of a hidden rancor and hate of strength, of pride in life, of self-affirmation.”[15] Hence,

Nietzsche maintains . . . that the concept of a uniform, universal and absolute moral system is to be rejected. For it is the fruit of resentment and represents inferior life, descending life, degeneracy, whereas the aristocratic morality represents the movement of ascending life.[16]

To free society from herd-imposed objective moral principles, Nietzsche considers it his task to strip the world of this illusion, to expose these Christian “slave values” for what they are, for the world has bought into this trickery, thinking that the values of the herd are truly objective. Nietzsche, however, emphasizes that not only are these values completely contingent and subjective, they are above all life-denying: “Christianity has reversed concepts of morality and distorted all values.”[17] They are life-denying because they repress life’s instincts, joys, and fullness, so he says. “Das Leben beruhe auf Voraussetzungen, die gegen die Moral sind. Eben deswegen verneine die Moral das Leben” [Life depends upon prerequisites which are against morality. For that very reason, morality is life-denying].[18]

To remedy this situation, Nietzsche insists that we proclaim the “death of God” and put an end to traditional morality, putting in its stead a life-affirming value system:

By definition . . . [traditional] values do not come from within, but they undoubtedly control us throughout our lives. If we go against these ingrained values we feel guilty, and for that reason there is tremendous psychological pressure to conform. We thereby becomes slaves to God, and God, as representing objective values, is our master. If, however, God is dead, the effect is exhilarating. For if God is dead and there are no objective values, then we are free to create our own values.[19]

This idea of Nietzsche’s, to create our own values, is crucial because it is the only way Nietzsche can free himself from nihilism, the “stage during which we realize that the values we’ve inherited are ‘shabby’ and meaningless”[20]—or so he thinks. Once we believe that there are no moral absolutes, we fall into nihilism, the denial of objective moral absolutes, and Nietzsche refused to put up with it, calling it a “catastrophe”[21] and the “most gruesome of all guests.”[22] Because he knew that nihilism would lead to chaos and anarchy, he proposed instead a “transvaluation of all values,” a rethinking and redefinition of what is good and bad, in accordance with what is life-affirming.

This new morality, then, would be beyond the traditional epithets of “good” and “evil.” It would rise “above the so-called herd-morality which in his opinion reduces everyone to a common level, favours mediocrity and prevents the development of a higher type of man.”[23] And if such new “meta-morality,” as I will call it, should feel the need to embrace what has traditionally been termed “evil,” then so be it, Nietzsche asserts in his work Twilight of the Idols: “Man must become better and more evil.”[24] Whatever it is that affirms life, so the German thinker declares, is to be considered of value. He can hold this position because, as he made clear in his work The Genealogy of Morals, he believes that “To speak of right and wrong per se makes no sense at all. No act of violence, rape, exploitation, destruction, is intrinsically ‘unjust,’ since life itself is violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive. . . .”[25]

This is how Nietzsche justifies his own creation of new values, his transvaluation of the traditional “herd morality.” In fact, as far as Nietzsche is concerned, the herd is quite “welcome to its own set of values, provided that it is deprived of the power of imposing them on the higher type of man who is called upon to create his own values.”[26] Here we see Nietzsche’s perspectivism in practice: different kinds of people are free to adapt different values; for each “circle,” so to speak, the adopted values are true in their own right, because they match their perspective. Nietzsche was not so radical as to say that none of these values are true, or even that there is no truth[27]; rather, he insisted that a group’s values are true for them, from their perspective. Thus, so he believed, he escaped moral relativism and nihilism—by filling it with a moral perspectivism, which allowed him to “transvaluate” traditional values.

Before I respond to Nietzsche’s notion of a “transvaluation of values,” a remark on the term “value” would be in order. The term “value” as denoting “ethical principles” and such like is fairly new. It was introduced into philosophy by Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-1881).[28] The traditional word used for “values” is simply “laws,” “virtues,” or “principles.” It was not until the nineteenth century that the word “values” was adopted instead: “Nobody ever used the word values to refer to anything moral or ethical before the nineteenth century.”[29] This renaming of “moral principles” into “values” gives the very notion a biased and subjective slant, implying that moral principles are always and necessarily, of their very essence, subjective. Our choice of words can and does make a real difference. Consider the example of Neo-Thomist Peter Kreeft:

The very word law suggest something objective; we don’t speak of “subjective laws.” The word values (especially in the plural) suggests something subjective, something relative to a subject: “my values” or “your values”. . . . The choice of words makes a real difference—Moses did not receive the Ten Values from God on Mount Sinai.[30]

Hence, our first step in discussing a “transvaluation of all values” should be the elimination of the implied subjectivity and contingency in the term “value” by simply using a different word or phrase. However, for the sake of convenience, I shall continue to use the term “value,” though fixing its meaning as “objective moral principles.”

A postmodern society which unquestioningly accepts the biased notion that moral principles are necessarily subjective, will, of course, find not much use in a discussion about “values,” since no matter what is said, these “values” remain subjective and relative for them, and discussing this matter would hence be as superfluous as discussing personal “likes” and “dislikes.”[31]

However, the present writer wishes to challenge the widely-held bias that moral principles are relative and subjective. Rather, moral principles are objective and universal, eternally true, and independent of man’s perspective or Sitz-im-Leben. This conception is usually called moral absolutism. What follows, then, will be a philosophical justification of this view, along with a demonstration that (1) Nietzsche’s perspectivism is in fact relativism; (2) Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values implies nihilism; and (3) Moral relativism presupposes moral absolutes and is therefore incoherent and untenable. The overall conclusion will be that a transvaluation of values is impossible because it is meaningless and unworkable.

To justify moral absolutism, let us first make an essential distinction: the distinction between values and value-opinions. A value is an objective ethical law, a moral principle that is universal and binding on all consciences. A value-opinion, on the other hand, is what a person or group may think to be an objective value, but which may not actually be one. Thus, to use an example, one group of people (Group 1) may believe that human sacrifice is morally right, whereas another (Group 2) may believe it to be morally wrong. Logically speaking, only one of the two groups can be right; yet one must be right. Either human sacrifice is morally licit or not. To admit this rather common-sensical view is to hold to moral absolutism.

A relativist, on the other hand, would say that human sacrifice is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong but its moral liceity depends on the culture, pointing to different cultures holding to different moral codes. However, here the relativist mistakes values for value-opinions. While Group 1 admits of human sacrifice, believing it to be morally licit, Group 2 does not, believing it to be morally illicit. The crucial point here is the word “believing.” One may believe A even though ¬A obtains; or one may believe ¬A, and ¬A does in fact obtain. Either way, the absolutist argument here primarily is not so much about which culture has it right, i.e. whether A or ¬A obtains, but the very fact that one of them does, i.e. that either A or ¬A. What the absolutist affirms, and what the relativist denies, then, is that there is an objective universal standard behind those two differing value-opinions which makes either Group 1 or Group 2 right, by corresponding to either A or ¬A. And that is a logical necessity.

To get back to Nietzsche’s ethics, however, we must remember that Nietzsche held to perspectivism, not to relativism. In Nietzsche’s view, moral truth does exist (whereas in pure relativism it does not), but it is dependent upon each person’s perspective. Nevertheless, this position is not logically sound. Given that A v ¬A is tautologically true, perspectivism is just a disguised version of relativism, for truth can only depend on one’s perspective if the concept of truth is meaningless, i.e. if truth as such does not exist. But Nietzsche abhorred such a notion as “an extreme form of nihilism.”[32]

The very meaning of the word “truth” necessarily implies objectivity, wherefore inventing “subjective truth” or even “truths” (in the plural) renders the term meaningless. Hence, if truth changes with and depends on one’s perspective, truth can no longer be universal or objective, and so the term loses its meaning. A perspectivist like Nietzsche may respond by saying that pity, for instance, is a virtue for the lower class, but a vice for the bourgeois or the aristocracy, but here again he would be guilty of confusing values with value-opinions. Perspectivism, then, is parasitical on relativism, and hence nothing other than an obscure version of that same relativism.

As far as nihilism is concerned, Nietzsche was insistent on overcoming it. For him, nihilism was frightening, and so he chose to espouse perspectivism instead. This was Nietzsche’s only way out of the self-created dilemma that would have otherwise forced him to choose between nihilism or the reality of objective moral laws. Nietzsche’s transvaluation, based on his perspectivism, was a convenient middle-ground that allowed him to deny nihilism, at least in theory, on the one hand, and moral absolutes on the other. However, any sort of relativism, including perspectivism, presupposes nihilism, as has already been suggested. In order for Nietzsche to be able to declare that values depend on one’s perspective, objective values cannot possibly exist, because as objective they are universal, and universality transcends any perspective or Sitz-im-Leben. Nietzsche’s “solution” out of the nihilism-vs.-morality dilemma, namely perspectivism, thus is nothing other than nihilism because it presupposes it. Perspectivism can only work if there are no objective values, for then I am free to create them, suiting my own needs and perspective. But to say that there are no—objective—values is to be a nihilist. Consequently, Nietzsche’s rejection of nihilism is only a rejection in theory—he says he rejects nihilism, whereas he actually presupposes it in his concept of perspectivism, on which a transvaluation of values is based, and without which such a transvaluation would be impossible. The end result of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, then, is the opposite of what he had set out to accomplish: “This one thing, however, one must say, that [Nietzsche] has not overcome nihilism but made it bigger” [Das aber muß man sagen, daß (Nietzsche) den Nihilismus nicht überwunden, sondern vergrößert hat].[33]

Since Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values is based on relativism, as I have shown, the last task to be accomplished in this paper is to show that moral relativism is incoherent, self-contradictory, and indefensible.

Moral relativism is unworkable because it presupposes the very absolutes it denies. In order for moral relativism to make any reasonable assertions, it must claim its own truth. In other words, moral relativism is based on the thesis that it is good, i.e. better than absolutism. That statement, however, is an absolute statement; it says that moral relativism is absolutely good, objectively good. This undercuts its own position, which is that things are only relatively good or bad. Besides, anyone who embraces moral relativism also bases his decision on another absolute thesis, namely that “it is good to seek the truth.” Again, this thesis must be absolute and universal for moral relativism to have any claim to cogency—and yet, it is this very same thesis which makes moral relativism uncogent.

The relativist finds himself in a vicious circle, from which he cannot free himself. Some philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, have suggested that underlying statements such as “Relativism is objectively true” belong to a level of “higher language,” or “meta-language,” and thus relativist principles do not apply to it. This, however, is a gratuitous ad hoc assertion, and it is a truism that what can gratuitously be asserted can likewise gratuitously be denied; so the problem is still there.

Finally, to apply these insights to Nietzsche himself, his own call for a transvaluation of all values presupposes its own impossibility. He wanted the “masters” to be freed from the “herd” and its life-denying morality; he wanted to be free to create his own values, but while thinking up a way to accomplish this, he overlooked the fact that “Freedom presupposes values, it does not create them. . . . It is assumed by [Nietzsche] that freedom is a real (objective) value, thus presupposing objective values.”[34] Time and again, Nietzsche uttered such statements that some interpretations are better than others, and that life-affirming values are better than life-denying values. Of course, such claims presuppose moral absolutes, as any relativistic claim must.[35] Frederick Copleston agrees:

[Nietzsche] certainly failed to give sufficient attention to the question whether his distinctions between ascending and descending life and between higher and lower types of men did not tacitly presuppose the very objectivity of values which he rejected.[36]

After all, to say that life-affirming values are better than life-denying values presupposes moral absolutes.

But let us imagine that Nietzsche’s position is not self-refuting. If he were right in claiming that there are no moral absolutes, then a transvaluation of values would still be superfluous and devoid of any sensibility. For to create values and believe in those, knowing they are one’s own creations, would be fooling oneself, since these “values” are merely illusions, created by one’s very self. Who likes to live a life of illusion? Certainly not Nietzsche, who rejected the claims to the existence of absolute moral principles (invented by the “herd” ) and absolute truth as illusions.

Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values is impossible. It is impossible because the only set of circumstances which could make it possible cannot logically exist, and even if it did, transvaluating values would still be meaningless since it would be an illusion. Nietzsche’s notion of a transvaluation of all values is one of his “doctrines [which] would have been dismissed as dangerously mad ravings if they had come from a less cogent thinker or writer.”[37] Peter Kreeft had it right when he characterized Nietzsche’s project of transvaluating values as “his own insane little private dream.”[38]

Works Cited

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Vol. VII, Modern Philosophy: From the Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1994.

de la Torre, Teodoro. Popular History of Philosophy. Houston, TX: Lumen Christi Press, 1988.

Hirschberger, Johannes. Geschichte der Philosophie: Band II: Neuzeit und Gegenwart. Freiburg: Herder, n.d.

Jones, W. T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed., rev. San Diego, CA: HBJ, 1969.

Kreeft, Peter. A Refutation of Moral Relativism. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999.

Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove, IL.: Intervarsity Press, 1994.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics. 2d ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

Oaklander, L. Nathan. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Raymond, Diane Barsoum. Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Scheske, Eric J. “The Dark Side of Self-Sacrifice.” New Oxford Review 67 (May 2000): 40-42.