Ethical Realism

March 22, 2010

Are Intrinsic Value Beliefs Unhealthy? A Nietzschean Argument

Some people could think that intrinsic values should be rejected because it will lead to a negative attitude. If we think that pain is bad, then it will just make our lives worse. I think that some Nietzscheans could come to this conclusion. Nietzsche argued that we should embrace pain and suffering. However, I suspect that he doesn’t reject that “pain is  intrinsically bad” based on the argument I will present. Instead, he finds that pain is (1) only of superficial concern, (2) it brings us benefits, and (3) a healthy person would embrace pain. Of these issues, the third is Nietzsche’s primary concern. He doesn’t tell us “the truth” about reality. Instead, he tells us what he believes is healthy (or unhealthy). Although “embracing pain” might seem incompatible with the view that pain is intrinsically bad, I disagree. We can embrace pain when we experience it and still prefer to avoid pain when possible based on the belief that it’s intrinsically bad. I will discuss each of these issues.

1. Pain is Superficial

Nietzsche has multiple passages where he discusses how he views pain to be superficial. For example, consider the following:

“Pleasure and pain are accompanying factors, not causes; they are second-rate valuations derived from a dominating value,–they are one with the feeling “useful,” “harmful,” and therefore they are absolutely fugitive and relative. For in regard to all utility and harmfulness there are a hundred different ways of asking “what for?” (Will to Power, Aphorism 702)

The main reason that pain is “second rate” is because the greatest pain is emotional, which is caused by certain “dominating” values. For example, the belief that a loved one died. We think that our loved ones are so very important, and their death is seen as “tragic.” All of this produces a great deal of suffering. Such suffering is “fugitive and relative” to the higher value, and it “accompanies” our thoughts rather than the cause of them. (The thought that a loved one died accompanies our grief , and our grief does not cause our thought that a loved one died.)

If our greatest suffering is a psychological phenomenon based on our values, then our greatest suffering shouldn’t be seen to be of greater importance than the values that produce them. The death of a loved one is what matters most, not that we feel grief about it. It would be absurd to say that our grief matters more than the fact that a loved one died. If grief mattered most, then the death of a loved one shouldn’t matter enough to cause grief in the first place.

Notice that Nietzsche doesn’t use this passage to reject pain’s intrinsic disvalue. He doesn’t say that our pain doesn’t matter at all. He just says that it is “second rate.”

What about physical pain? Couldn’t we decide to walk around hot coals to avoid pain? I don’t see why not. Pain could be superficial, but it can still be worthy of consideration. It is part of our cost-benefit analysis when we want to make decisions.

2. Pain Gives us Benefits

Nietzsche finds that pain can make us stronger and healthier in the long run. Consider the following passages:

What does not destroy me, makes me stronger. (“Maxims and Arrows,” Twilight of the Idols, Aphorism 8).

I assess a man by the quantum of power and abundance of his will: not by its enfeeblement and extinction; I regard a philosophy which teaches denial of the will as a teaching of defamation and slander–I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage; I do not account the evil and painful character of existence a reproach to it, but hope rather that it will one day be more evil and painful than hitherto– (Will to Power, Aphorism 382)

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities–I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not–that one endures. (Will to Power, Aphorism 910)

It isn’t entirely explained how suffering helps us become healthy, but it does seem impossible to know how to deal with suffering without having to experience it quite a bit. We can imagine that people who always gets what they want would end up as spoiled brats and wouldn’t know how to function properly. Such people could become furious and suffer a great deal in the rare instances that they don’t get what they want.

We are told that pain can do us a great deal of good. Certainly we evolved pain precisely because people who don’t experience pain have a lower reproductive advantage. Pain tells us not to bite our tongue, touch fire, and so on. However, none of this proves that pain isn’t intrinsically bad. There is something we don’t like about pain. It hurts. It would be absurd to totally ignore pain. It should be part of our cost-benefit analysis. If we are willing to feel pain, then we need to know why. If we have a choice of (1) feeling intense pain with no benefit, or (2) feeling pain with a benefit, then it would make sense to choose the second option.

3. We Should Embrace Pain

I believe that Friedrich Nietzsche was primarily interested in pragmatic arguments. He is skeptical about knowing the “truth” about reality, so he would rather concentrate on learning how to be healthy. If we have no reason to favor one theory over another, then we have some reason to accept the healthier theory. We then have a question, “Is it unhealthy to believe that pain is intrinsically bad?” If so, that could count as a reason to disbelieve that pain is intrinsically bad.

Nietzsche believes that the healthy person will have a positive outlook. The healthier we are, the more positive our outlook will be. Perhaps we can try to be healthier by adopting a more positive outlook. This isn’t entirely implausible given the fact that stress is such a huge cause of health problems.

Nietzsche’s endorsement of a positive outlook is what he calls “amor fati” (love of fate). Consider the following passages:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it. (“Why I Am So Clever,” Ecce Homo, Aphorism 10)

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. (The Gay Science, Aphorism 276)

Nietzsche thinks that the healthiest sort of person will have the most positive attitude. That means they would have to not only love everything that happens for its own sake including pain. To be optimistic enough to welcome pain because it brings us benefits isn’t good enough. We should welcome pain even if it brings us no benefit. Why? It would be healthy to do so.

Amor fati could be taken to be a challenge to intrinsic value insofar as we think pain is intrinsically bad. To think pain is intrinsically bad  might be too pessimistic for “amor fati.”

I will discuss the following two challenges to the view that amor fati and the view that pain is intrinsically bad are compatible:

  1. We can’t psychologically embrace pain if we believe that it’s intrinsically bad.
  2. If pain is bad, then the value of the world could be negated.

1. We can’t psychologically embrace pain if we believe that it’s intrinsically bad.

Is it possible to love pain even if we believe that it’s intrinsically bad? If we can learn to embrace our pain at all, then I believe that the answer is yes. Nietzsche wants us to embrace all the horrors of the world. We have to be able to be fully aware of such horrors and then laugh. Our personal suffering is inescapable. Pain hurts. There’s no way around that. If we can love intense pain (and whatever else is most horrible) despite preferring to avoid such things, then I don’t see why we can’t love our pain with an honest belief that our pain is intrinsically bad.

If I am correct, then we can “love something for its own sake” even if it is “bad just for existing.” Either we have to totally deny that various horrors are “intrinsically bad” or we can accept them despite being intrinsically bad. There doesn’t seem to be a big difference between the two possibilities.

It is a mistake to think that amor fati requires us to abandon our preferences entirely. It might be that we should prefer not to touch fire because it would be stupid to do so. To touch fire doesn’t seem to “make us stronger” or healthier. Sometimes doing painful things really does hurt us rather than “make us stronger.” The fact that pain is intrinsically bad (but loved anyway) makes good sense out of our preference not to feel pain needlessly. If we touch fire on accident it won’t be seen as “bad,”  but we would prefer not doing so when we have a choice.

If pain isn’t intrinsically bad, it would still be possible to prefer to avoid touching fire when we have a choice. We could love our life and the world as it exists in its entirety even if we touch fire on accident, but we might love our life in its entirety slightly more if we don’t touch fire on accident. However, this position is harder for me to understand. I’m not sure what it is about pain that would be seen as “less good” unless we either (1) dislike pain or (2)  believe pain is intrinsically bad. Nietzsche’s endorsement of amor fati seems to make it a lot easier to understand pain as being intrinsically bad.

2. If pain is bad, then the value of the world could be negated.

One of the earlier quotations suggested that the world would be better not existing because of all of the pain involved. Even if that isn’t the case currently, we could imagine that it could be the case in the future. There are two different responses I imagine one could have to this possibility while still endorsing amor fati. One, we could admit that the world could be “intrinsically bad overall” but love it anyway. Two, we could convince ourselves that pain is “superficial” and could never matter enough to negate the value of the world. Perhaps human life is worth an astronomical amount more than our pain could ever be worth.


Nietzsche was interested in pain and the common preoccupation with how terrible pain is, but he doesn’t say that pain isn’t intrinsically bad. He just talks about the fact that pain is superficial, pain can bring us benefits, and pain should be welcomed insofar as it would be healthy to do so.

Although amor fati could be seen to be incompatible with the belief that pain is intrinsically bad, I believe they are both compatible. Additionally, amor fati would not be against all intrinsic value beliefs. It is certainly possible to love life and the world as a whole if such things are intrinsically good, for example.

I have concentrated on one argument Nietzsche could have provided against pain having intrinsic value and I have described why I don’t find it to be convincing. However, it is possible that Nietzsche did reject intrinsic values and gave arguments against them other than the one I presented.


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