Nietzsche on the Good of the Guise
There is a famous thesis in moral philosophy that has come to be known as the ‘guise of the good’. According to this ancient doctrine — which remains popular to this day — we only ever desire things that we perceive as being good, in at least some respect. As Socrates puts it in Plato’s Meno: “nobody wants to be wretched”. The problem is that what we take to be good may only be so apparently. We accordingly often pursue terrible things, mistaking them for good. On a stronger version of the doctrine, we not only desire the apparent good but always act on such desires. Taken to the extreme, it states that all wrongdoing is but a form of ignorance.
In a virtually-unnoticed, fascinating twist, Friedrich Nietzsche turns the guise of the good thesis on its head. Indeed, on his account, it would be more appropriate to talk of the good of the guise: we do not desire things because we think of them as good, but, on the contrary, perceive things to be good precisely because we desire them. To think otherwise is to fall prey to the more general ‘great error’ of confusing cause and effect (Twilight of the Idols, V).
Nietzsche’s insight into human nature is that things acquire their perceived worth in proportion to how much we covet and strive after them; the tougher the achievement, the more we value the thing achieved:
A tablet of the good hangs over every people. Behold, it is the tablet of their overcomings; behold, it is the voice of their will to power. Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people; whatever seems indispensable and difficult is called good; and whatever liberates even out of the deepest need, the rarest, the most difficult — that they call holy (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 115).
Nietzsche’s observations about value being founded in desire (not the other way around) are not presented as metaphysical truths but as psychological observations that debunk any aspirations to the former. We find the origins of such a view in the ‘passions-first’ philosophy of David Hume, who emphasises the foundational role of animal instinct over that of reason, in the formation of our ethical concepts. What appears commonsensical is little more than illusion, error — wishful thinking. Ultimately, to place value on that…