The Growing Incoherence of Our Higher Values
Nihilism is perhaps the most commonly misunderstood notion in Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings. Not only do many wrongly believe Nietzsche to advocate for nihilistic behavior, but many also see nihilism as the loss of all value and synonymous with the belief that everything is meaningless and valueless. In reality, Nietzsche defines severe nihilism as “the conviction of the absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values that are acknowledged”(1). For Nietzsche, nihilism thus does not necessarily reduce the individual to a living lump of ennui. Rather than lacking all value judgements, Nietzsche portrays nihilism as a condition characterized by the absence of justifiable higher values. This supposed depletion in justification comes from Nietzsche’s infamous assertion of the death of God; Nietzsche held that modern science has made “belief in the Christian God unbelievable” (2). Nietzsche believed that without divine reasons to cherish our higher values, we would ultimately lose them entirely. Moreover, Nietzsche characterizes nihilism primarily as a cultural phenomenon—the societal loss of higher values precedes and causes the affective individual symptoms of nihilism.
Nietzsche sees this cultural wave of nihilism as a looming threat; he predicts that humanity is on the brink of succumbing, to becoming nothing more than a group of “last men” Last men are characterized by the aforementioned deficiency in higher values, effectively rendering them incapable of justifying any goals that do not immediately benefit them (3). Nietzsche makes the impending nature of nihilism clear in Zarathustra, where the titular character is confronted by a chorus of individuals who actually wish to become last men (4).
Nietzsche’s assertion of the imminence of nihilism was something of great interest to me as it seems that, even in the last two hundred odd years, our higher values have not been lost entirely. Nonetheless, I was not ready to entirely discount Nietzsche’s worries concerning our higher values, and this paper discusses a different manner in which our relationship with them may be deteriorating. In the wake of the death of God, what we are losing may not be our higher values themselves, but instead the unifying principles that require consistency and soundness among them. I will argue that we are progressing towards a world where our higher values are maintained but do not necessitate coherence in order to inform and justify our actions. Indeed, some incoherent higher values evidently already enjoy primacy over other kinds of values. I will attempt to demonstrate this by showing that, though contemporary society has preserved various higher values, individuals and communities frequently act in ways that conflict with those values without recognizing any logical inconsistency. This implies that what is missing from our higher values is the necessity for harmony with our actions and the other values we hold. In this paper, I will discuss some ideologies maintained today that seem to fit the characterization of higher values but conflict with our day-to-day activities and other values. I will attempt to supply some explanation for what causes this incoherence both through a Nietzschean lens and through the analysis of media culture within the framework of Jean Baudrillard. I believe both perspectives provide valuable insight into the mechanics of what is going on. Throughout this paper, I essentially seek to prove that we have retained our higher values but are losing their coherence and structure.
First and foremost, we must establish some higher values that have been preserved. In my view, the most prevalent ones seem to be the political and social ideologies we subscribe to individually and culturally. For this paper, I will primarily consider liberalism and conservatism in America as typical instances of these types of values. To distinguish higher values from other more standard values, I will make use of the criteria detailed by Katsafanas in his paper, “Fugitive Pleasure and the Meaningful Life: Nietzsche on Nihilism and Higher Values.” These criteria include demandingness, tendency to generate tragic conflicts, regular induction of strong emotions, professedly great import, exclusion of other values, and propensity for creating communities (5). As far as I can tell, political ideologies seem to instantiate all of these criteria.
They are certainly demanding; liberals and conservatives both generally see their chosen credo as the “correct” way to live and believe that it is immune to any sort of compromise. For either group, their ideology does not (in theory) allow them to be frivolous with their moral and political choices or to deviate from the prescribed guidelines is often perceived as a violation of some sort of ethical code.
When conflict between our political ideologies and other higher values is acknowledged, such discord is often seen as tragic. For instance, nearly everyone has heard of individuals that have experienced, or have themselves experienced, intense strife with family members due to political disagreements. Family, as a general construct, is widely treated as a higher value. Familial bonds are demanding insofar as compromising them is seen as betrayal of the highest degree, they induce powerful emotions, acting for the sake of one’s family is seen as sufficient to explain most actions, family is often presented as taking priority over all other pursuits in life (to the point of being exclusionary), and family, of course, instantiates strong communities. So, when we experience conflicts between our political ideology and our family, such conflicts are nothing short of agonizing. Is it morally permissible to cut off one’s family members because they are conservative or liberal or libertarian? Is the gap in ideology something so forceful that it ought to trump deep familial bonds? Such questions are not easy to answer (for most) and the dilemma one finds oneself in when faced with them is most definitely viewed as a tragic one. Even if one is not sold on the status of family as a higher value, there are numerous others that can be substituted to illustrate my point. Here I will include a brief clarification that will prove important further on in this paper: The conflict between higher values must be acknowledged. My characterization of political ideology as a higher value relies partially on the notion that if one identifies a conflict between one’s political ideology and another higher value, then such conflict will be viewed as tragic. However, should one have an unrecognized logical conflict between one’s ideology and another higher value for whatever reason (for instance due to growing incoherence in our higher values), then this trait does not go unfulfilled merely because such a conflict goes unnoticed.
Elicitation of strong emotions when it comes to political ideology needs no lengthy justification. One merely needs to survey the landscape of almost any social media platform to witness the masses loving, hating, condemning, and worshiping political figures.
Likewise, it seems obvious that we believe political ideology is more important than the vast majority of things in our lives. At their core, ideologies such as liberalism and conservatism exist to function as banners of the things we value most in life. For the strong liberal or strong conservative, the very essence of what it means to live a good life is often synonymous with their dogma. Lastly, it is needless to say that political ideology has become exclusionary in nature and is prone to instantiate powerful communities. This phenomenon is represented best by the American political system where, by being part of one community, you are by default excluded (and often even looked down upon) by rivaling groups. As people increasingly and overwhelmingly define themselves and others based on their choices in politics, one’s ideology is commonly seen as central to one’s character. The intense political polarization that has resulted from this is testament to just how exclusionary political ideology has become and how robust the coalitions formed based on such ideology can truly be.
Thus far, I have endeavored to establish political ideologies as common examples of higher values that are still held by people today. From here, I aim to show that such higher values are not being lost, but rather becoming increasingly incoherent. To this end, I would invite my reader to consider how party politics works in America. Generally speaking, the Democratic Party is meant to model liberalism and represent liberal people, and, conversely, the Republican Party is supposed to model conservatism in action. But can we confidently say that those values are the basis upon which each party unerringly acts? I have instead found their condition to be best described by the ideas of Baudrillard, whose framework I will use to illustrate what is going on. Of contemporary society, Baudrillard says:
“Abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra” (6).
In short, rather than our values and ideals informing the models we use to structure society, the models have begun to determine our values. In this case, instead of political parties typifying our liberal or conservative ideals, it seems increasingly true that the parties are influencing and warping our values. If we accept this Baudrillardian understanding, it seems evident that what retains vital importance in modern society is not our higher values themselves but the models that now precede them.
This account also explains why incoherence of higher values seems to be on the rise; we still perceive our higher values to be what drives our society forward, even though this is not the case, which causes a disconnect between the individual and the weight of their own values. In addition, because our models have started to inform our values, we are no longer able to distinguish which actions we take on behalf of a higher value and which we take on behalf of a mere imitation of one. Even worse, the solution is no longer as simple as critically analyzing our values in order to discriminate between which ones are legitimate and which ones are mere simulacra; our genuine higher values have started to emulate the misshapen versions of them embodied by our models.
The Baudrillardian fall from grace notably has two distinct steps: First, the models of our values (in this case our political parties) seem to operate completely independently from, and often in contradiction with, our actual values. Second, in a more sinister fashion, our values themselves are altered in a manner that breeds incoherence and an inability to grasp the inconsistencies in our beliefs. This transmutation occurs, on Baudrillard’s account, through media culture (7). This fits nicely with my argument, as it seems overwhelmingly obvious that the media is now inextricably entwined with politics, meaning our political ideology is especially susceptible to modification by mass media. For those readers who are skeptical about the weight Baudrillard and I are assigning to media culture, I will justify this further on in this paper. For now, however, I will provide some evidence that the process I have just described is in fact reflective of our society.
First, consider America’s involvement in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. For the fiscal year 2021, the Trump Administration sought $3.8 billion to support Israel’s military spending (8). Theoretically, this should be a big concern for Republicans. Since the reduction of taxes and minimization of governmental scope are undoubtedly two of the main goals of conservatism, and purportedly the Republican Party, it seems as though the Party ought to support decreasing tax-funded aid to Israel. And yet, studies show that the vast majority of Republicans believe that Trump has “struck the right balance” in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (9). As we can see, even if reducing our financial assistance to Israel is in the best interests of conservatism, self-identified conservatives consistently act contrary to this because that is what their party leaders convey to them. A Republican might object to this characterization, on the grounds that America has a responsibility to intervene in areas where it has deemed human rights violations are occurring. But if that is the case, then how can the Republican simultaneously support the construction of a border wall designed to prevent persecuted Latin Americans from fleeing for their lives? (10). The significance of all this is that the status of our higher values, in relation to their models, becomes dubious. This issue seems to mimic the first step quite clearly in our Baudrillardian process. The U.S. support of Israel is but one example of this phenomenon wherein actions resulting from our models are completely separate from the actions that would normally be dictated by our higher values.
Next, let’s discuss an example of the second step of the Baudrillardian framework. Firearm legislation is another controversial issue in America at the moment, with various groups holding drastically different positions on whether one has the right to bear arms. Through this issue, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which the incoherence of higher values can lead to illogical stances on both ends of the political spectrum. When it comes to gun control, conservatives are generally in favor of fewer restrictions. This is largely consistent with core conservative beliefs, such as minimizing government input on private lives and preserving the liberties provided by the second Amendment. As a matter of fact, widespread gun ownership is not only morally permissible but even necessary, many conservatives say, in case the state ever decides to infringe on the rights of its citizens or coerce them without due cause. For the conservative, guns are thus a mode through which the individual can retain power over the state. So far, nothing seems wrong. But issues arise when other beliefs, supposedly in line with the same brand of conservatism, are added to the mix. While retaining this belief in the need, and indeed the moral right, to protect oneself from an unjust state as one sees fit, conservatives in America today are also associated with the position that it is unpatriotic and morally reprehensible to kneel during the anthem or otherwise protest the brutality and violence that occurs through the arm of the state, i.e., the police. It seems to me that simultaneously holding these two beliefs is something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. And yet, these are often considered standard conservative and Republican positions in our society.
Contemporary liberals do not fare much better when their higher values are analyzed in this context. For the liberal, government institutions in America have a long history of systemic racism and oppression of minorities and lower classes. Such institutions thus ought to be overhauled or rectified, the logic goes, in order to form a society that reflects more liberal values. Yet at the same time, there is a common liberal view that guns are instruments of death and should be withheld from all except government employees who require them for their job, such as police officers and military personnel. But this view seems to remove an opportunity for the individuals oppressed by the state to gain power, and instead places that power squarely in the hands of the oppressors. The liberal cannot have their cake and eat it too; to believe that the police should be defunded because of their routine violence against the people they ought to be protecting, and simultaneously believe that the state should have full authority and exclusive control over all firearms, seems problematic at best. Even if the liberal attempts to avert this problem by going even further and asserting that nobody should own a gun, then a similar problem arises. It is still the same oppressive and racist state that takes guns away from people. It is still the same state that ultimately retains the power in this scenario.
These are just some ways in which our higher values have begun to show signs of incoherence. Unlike our first step, this second step is no longer just a matter of us acting in line with our models while wrongly believing that they are reflections of what we ultimately value. If we could stop after the first step, there would still be a dim hope of redemption. If one can be shown the inconsistencies between their values and the actions of their party, it seems as though they can revise their mode of life. But the incoherence of the second step is far more deadly. Our higher values themselves are being changed; they are becoming muddled and losing intelligibility rapidly. Recommitting oneself to one’s values when faced with inconsistency is already exceptionally difficult but refashioning one’s values when faced with complete incoherence is even more demanding. Gun control is just one example of this, but these types of discussions all beg the same question: Are conservatives and liberals determining what their party stands for, or is it their parties that are deciding what the ideology stands for? It may be, in the words of Baudrillard, “no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (11).
This Baudrillardian diagnosis of society is explained by many factors, but primary among them is the rise of media culture. Overwhelmingly, the types of media we consume has come to define what it means to be social in our culture. The interactions we have with friends, family members, significant others, strangers, all are determined by the media we absorb. Take romantic encounters, for instance. The ways in which we decide how we ought to act towards our partners, what sort of romantic gestures are considered socially acceptable, what kind of boundaries we set, are all largely, if not entirely, defined by what we have seen in social media, films, television, advertisements, and so on. One need look no further, Baudrillard says, than to observe that, “whoever is underexposed to the media is desocialized or virtually asocial” (12). Such a state of affairs would be fine, of course, if most forms of media faithfully represented and depicted our higher values, but the opposite seems to be the case.
Consider the social phenomena commonly referred to as “virtue signaling” or “performative activism.” In particular, let us contemplate the cases in which one virtue signals without actually doing much to pursue that virtue. In cases like these, many remain unaware of their hypocrisy and nonetheless believe that they act virtuously when, in fact, they are merely presenting the facade of virtue. The mere posting of a black square on one’s Instagram account without any further action to support African American communities comes to mind as a relevant example of this. One might say that all individuals who engage in such signaling do so consciously—they are aware that they are “faking it” in order to achieve popularity, acceptance into a social group, or something of this nature. But this seems like an overly pessimistic claim, and I would characterize the phenomenology of such individuals differently. I would argue that most people that act in these ways genuinely believe that they are pursuing their ideal of a virtuous life. They do not recognize that their virtues (which are closely related to, if not synonymous with, their higher values) are not informing their actions. Rather, they are acting according to the media-warped model of what it means to instantiate that virtue.
To make this more concrete, take the notion of equality to be a higher value or virtue that one strives towards. If equality was truly what was informing the behavior of the virtue signaling person, then such a person would seemingly recognize that their actions are not satisfying that higher value. Thus, it seems much more likely that what the virtue signaler is motivated by is not the pure higher value of equality, but rather an incoherent version of it altered by media culture. The people who post black squares on their Instagram and then go about their daily life feeling excellent about their stand against police brutality and institutionalized racism certainly feel as if they have higher values (e.g., equality, liberalism), but such values have been rendered incoherent. The proof of this incoherence is of course that their higher values are (even partially) satisfied by trivial actions that provide no substantive change in one’s way of life or the world. In addition, as referenced earlier, such people do not experience the tragic feelings that are meant to accompany conflict between higher values because they do not recognize that such conflict exists in the first place. We can perhaps judge from the outside that there seems to be an objective disconnect between these people’s purported higher values and their actions, but the growing incoherence of their values prevents the perpetrators themselves from coming to the same conclusion.
At this juncture, one might object that if our higher values have become so vacuous that they can be fulfilled by such superficial action, then it is likely that they are not higher values at all anymore. In this regard, it would seem that we have ultimately returned to Nietzsche’s hypothesis and lost our higher values entirely. To this I would reply that these incoherent higher values may very well be vacuous, but they retain their status, nonetheless. Political ideology, for instance, still instantiates all the higher value criteria, as I have discussed. What this shows is that our immediate societal condition is distinct from that of the last man. We still have the capacity to cherish things in all the right ways and set goals for ourselves beyond immediate gratification, it is just that the things we cherish and the goals we set may be severely distorted.
Now that we have touched on how our current situation is different from the last man, a question naturally arises: What would Nietzsche say about the state of our political ideology? When it comes to politics, Nietzsche is remarkably silent. Try as one might, it is rare to find Nietzsche discussing political ideology at great length. Though he is often found criticizing democracy as a “conspiracy of the whole herd against [its] shepherd,” this does not amount to much in the form of a distinct political structure (13). We also get some cryptic allusions to the merits of a natural order-based caste system in The Antichrist, but this discussion seems less about the desirability of the castes and more about how even this sort of ideology is preferable to the life-negating belief system that characterizes Christianity (14). Rather than focusing on political structures in service of the many, it seems like Nietzsche was more interested in particular individuals that could serve as paragons of vice or virtue. Napoleon is an oft-cited example of someone Nietzsche admired very much, going so far as to name him one of the “profound and largeminded men of [the] century” (15). But Nietzsche’s view of Napoleon as a higher man could justify an entire paper by itself, and such analysis is not particularly relevant to our discussion of higher values. Rather than present Nietzsche’s (scarce) ideas on political ideology, it seems more fruitful to examine how concepts like the death of God might have led to our current predicament.
Nietzsche, of course, saw the loss of higher values as a direct result of the absence of a divine entity able to furnish our choices and goals with meaning. But what may be more potent than the loss of objective meaning is the loss of the structure installed by that divinity. Organized religion generally aims to provide a clear system concerning the fulfillment of our higher values. It lays out, for instance, what constitutes a sin, how to worship properly, and so on. Ergo, religion serves to enforce a uniformity between our actions and our values. It is fundamentally designed not to allow individuals to both violate their own higher values and escape with a morally sound conscience. But without religion, this necessity for consistency between our higher values and our behavior is damaged. There is no eternal damnation, no divine punishment, no karmic justice to threaten us to maintain such cohesion, and so we lose it.
What all of these topics have in common, from virtue signaling to contradictory stances on gun control, is the apparent inconsistency in the higher values that allow such behaviors to take place. Ultimately, I would suggest that the path the individual in contemporary American society has taken is distinct from the condition of the last man that Nietzsche fears. Higher values persist, as I have endeavored to show, but the logical consistency required to fulfill them properly seems to be rapidly deteriorating. Nevertheless, if one wishes to remain compatible with Nietzsche’s theory, then we could perhaps frame the current state of society as merely one of the final steps on our inevitable trajectory to becoming last men. After all, it does seem plausible that the degeneration of the coherence of our highest values will eventually lead to the loss of them entirely. Such an understanding does raise some concerns, however, as discarding our higher values (“believing in their untenability” as Nietzsche puts it) seems to require one to be aware of their unintelligibility. Insofar as we have reached a state where our higher values no longer even need to be consistent in order for us to act on them, one can wonder whether we will ever collectively reach a position where we realize the inconsistencies exist so deeply in our higher values that they must be abandoned altogether. Still, there is certainly a Nietzschean argument to be made that there must be a limit to how incoherent our higher values can get before we rid ourselves of them in disgust. As it stands now, even though our higher values have garnered significant incoherence, they can still be said to represent us faithfully for the most part. For example, though issues like gun control demonstrate some glaring problems that require rectifying, I would argue American liberals and conservatives still tend to largely act on the values at the core of their ideology. Single-payer healthcare is a good instance of this: Liberals largely support it on the basis of their beliefs about equality and human rights, while conservatives largely do not because it would result in less individual freedom and greater taxes (16). Thus, though I have spent the majority of this paper painting quite a dismal picture, our higher values do not seem close to collapsing entirely. We may not have to resign ourselves to the fate of the fabled boiling frog, insofar as the coherence of our higher values continually gets worse without us noticing. One could certainly make a compelling case that when the incoherence gets to a stage where it overwhelms the proper functioning of our higher values, we will desert them. At such a juncture, it appears we would have no choice but to become last men. At any rate, if one is really committed to the Nietzschean hypothesis, one could call the state we are currently inhabiting that of the “penultimate man” (or better yet penultimate person, for the sake of inclusivity and alliteration).
Endnotes 1 Friedrich Nietzsche, et al., Writings from the Late Notebooks, (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 205. 2 Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs: Translated, with Commentary by Walter Kaufmann, (Random: 1974), 343. 3 Friedrich Nietzsche, et al, Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 129. 4 Ibid, 130. 5 Paul Katsafanas, “Fugitive Pleasure and the Meaningful Life: Nietzsche on Nihilism and Higher Values: Journal of the American Philosophical Association,” Cambridge Core, (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 9-11. 6 Jean Baudrillard and Sheila Faria Glaser, Simulacra and Simulation, (University of Michigan Press, 2019), 2. 7 Glenn Yeffeth, Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in the Matrix, (Benbella Books, 2003), 74. 8 U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, Congressional Research Service, 2020, fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf. 9 “U.S. Public Has Favorable View of Israel's People, but Is Less Positive Toward Its Government,” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy, 2020, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/24/u-s-public-has-favorable-view-of-israels-people-but-is-less-positive-toward-its-government/. 10 Suzanne Gamboa, et al., “Why Are so Many Migrants Crossing the U.S. Border? It Often Starts with an Escape from Violence in Central America,” NBCNews.com, 2018, www.nbcnews.com/storyline/immigration-border-crisis/central-america-s-violence-turmoil-keeps-driving-families-u-s-n884956. 11 Baudrillard andGlaser, Simulacra and Simulation, 2. 12 Ibid, 55. 13 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, (Auckland, NZ: Floating Press, 2010), 67. 14 Ibid, 57. 15 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 256. 16 Bradley Jones, “Increasing Share of Americans Favor a Single Government Program to Provide Health Care Coverage,” Pew Research Center, 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/29/increasing-share-of-americans-favor-a-single-government-program-to-provide-health-care-coverage/.
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