Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 2, The Nietzschean Threat

Having set out the history of human dignity in the West, as it grew out of the metaphysical worldview of Judeo-Christian tradition, I want to devote a few posts to how dignity is vulnerable when it eschews metaphysics and rests solely upon sentiment, broadly shared feelings of fellow feeling.

The first threat we'll look at is the Nietzschean threat to dignity. And Glenn Tinder's Atlantic article also does a great job in summarizing this threat.

Specifically, the Christian belief, rooted in the Imago Dei, that each of us have been created in the Image of God and therefore imbued with equal value and worth, isn't an empirical fact about reality. As Tinder pointed out in Part 1, we can rank people from "better" to "worse" to "more useful" to "less useful" across a host of metrics. Intelligence. Beauty. Talent. Achievement and attainment.

In addition, this social ranking seems to be hardwired into our psychology, rooted in the dominance hierarchies of an evolutionary past. Because of this, social ranking can feel both more "natural" and more "moral" to us. There is an intuitiveness to a hierarchy based upon worth. And such hierarchies point to social alternatives in contrast to the metaphysics of Christian egalitarianism. 

As Tinder and many others have pointed out, no one saw this more clearly than Nietzsche. Nietzsche saw that if Christian metaphysics was rejected we were open to just this sort of social ranking and hierarchy. This ranking of value was, for Nietzsche, preferred over the egalitarianism inherent in the Christian metaphysics of the Imago Dei. Tinder summarizing:
Nietzsche's thinking was grounded in a bitter repudiation of Christianity, and he devoted much of his life to scouring human consciousness in order to cleanse it of every Christian idea and emotion. In this way his philosophy became a comprehensive critique of Western civilization, as well as a foreshadowing of an alternative civilization. It is, as practically everyone now recognizes, remarkable in its range, subtlety, and complexity; Nietzsche is not easily classified or epitomized. It can nevertheless be argued that the dramatic center of his lifework lay in the effort to overthrow the standard of Christian love and to wipe out the idea that every human being deserves respect—leading Nietzsche to attack such norms in the field of politics as equality and democracy. If Christian faith is spurned, Nietzsche held, with the courage that was one of the sources of his philosophical greatness, then Christian morality must also be spurned. Agape has no rightful claim on our allegiance. And not only does agape lack all moral authority but it has a destructive effect on society and culture. It inhibits the rise of superior human beings to the heights of glory, which, we realize at last, are not inhabited by God. By exalting the common person, who is entirely lacking in visible distinction and glory, agape subverts the true order of civilization. The divine quality that Nietzsche claimed for humanity was power—the power not only of great political leaders like Julius Caesar and Napoleon but also of philosophers, writers, and artists, who impose intricate and original forms of order on chaotic material. Such power, in the nature of things, can belong only to a few. These few are human gods. Their intrinsic splendor overcomes the absurdity that erupted with the death of the Christian God, and justifies human existence.
Dignity has to be secured metaphysically because there are other very plausible and compelling ways to order human society. Currently, in our post-Christian world, dignity is only secured sentimentally, as a broadly shared feeling that people are "equal," a feeling we've inherited from our Christian past. But feelings can change, making dignity vulnerable to other ways of thinking about human worth and value.

And lest we think the Nietzschean threat to dignity overblown, it's actually everywhere you look. Anyone ever read Ayn Rand? You see the Nietzschean threat in the very fabric of the American Dream, the meritocracy which weeds out the dumb, talentless, and ugly from the intelligent, gifted, and beautiful. And this ranking of value feels "moral" and "right" to us. The winners should rule.

All that to say, sentimental dignity is vulnerable in the face of the Nietzschean threat. Dignity has to be secured metaphysically.

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