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Nietzsche’s hardcore skepticism

I am sure you would agree that in matters of fairness and justice, our own pleasure or personal advantage should have no bearing on the case before us - right? We should be rigorous in establishing the facts, perspicacious in our assessment of those facts, coolly detached and even-handed in making our judgments – this is why Lady Justice, immortalized in statue outside many a courtroom, wears that blindfold.

Recently, we have been talking about the problematic nature of justice, truth and our ability to make sound judgments. Here we will wrap-up and summarize what we learn from Nietzsche’s writings regarding these matters.

In the last post, we looked at a case of outright financial conflict of interest, as well as our tendency to choose that which we perceive to be to our advantage. However, even if personal gain does not enter into it, there are other, more subtle potential conflicts of interest to be wary of.

What if the accused looks like someone we care about? Might we tend to look more kindly on their case? Maybe they look like someone who bullied us at school, with the converse consequences. Maybe they come from a racial minority that has been consistently demonized in the media. Maybe they are well dressed and educated. These potential influencers might not register consciously, of course. Probably most of them do not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t powerfully influence our evaluations.

Well before Sigmund Freud postulated the sub-conscious mind, Nietzsche was talking of just how little we are aware of the vast majority of our mental and emotional processes:

‘For we could in fact think, feel, will, and recollect, we could likewise "act" in every sense of the term, and nevertheless nothing of it all need necessarily "come into consciousness" … The whole of life would be possible without its seeing itself as it were in a mirror: as in fact even at present the far greater part of our life still goes on without this mirroring,- and even our thinking, feeling, volitional life as well’

The Gay Science

So, even with the best (conscious) will in the world, sub-conscious prejudices and preferences can be affecting our opinions and impressions in ways that corrupt our judgment. We are unaware of these affects by definition - because they are sub-conscious.

To re-cap our last few posts: we make our judgments based on incomplete and imperfect data and our own evaluative capabilities are far from objective or reliable. This means necessarily that all judgments are:

  • Partial (because we only ever have a fraction of all the possible data)

  • Provisional (temporary, because they are open to revision as new data emerges) 


  • Unsafe (because our own reasoning faculties are limited and fallible)

  • Contingent (reliant on multiple other factors, many of which are arbitrary and even unrelated to the case before us e.g. stomach ache or a bad mood)

  • Defective (subject to irrelevant preconceptions and our tendency to fill gaps in our knowledge with incorrect assumptions)

  • Conflicted (because we cannot help but always prefer the alternative that is most advantageous to ourselves)

As Nietzsche famously argues, there are no facts, only interpretations - his so-called ‘perspectivism’.

Surely then, we have no right to make any judgments about anything? Well, Nietzsche says we have no choice in the matter. He writes: ‘Perhaps it will follow from all this that one ought not to judge at all; if only one could live without evaluating, without having disinclinations and inclinations!’

But we must make evaluations in order to be able to act, or like Burridan’s Ass, permanently frozen in indecision, we will perish from stasis.

Maybe it’s the case that our approximate truths, arrived at by our defective evaluations, serve us well enough for everyday life? They are not perfect, but they will have to do, right? We weigh the evidence and decide matters on the balance of probabilities. In fact, Nietzsche acknowledges that just because the truth is often extremely difficult to get at, it doesn’t mean that we never grasp it. In his personal notebooks he writes: ‘The possibility that the world is similar to the world that appears to us is not ruled out by this admission of subjective factors’. So maybe we just need to understand that the truth is something rarely obtained. However, Nietzsche goes further. He claims that fictions, half-truths, outright delusions are not just inescapable but actually necessary for human existence. This realization has profound moral implications.

'To recognize untruth as a condition of life ... a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that act alone, beyond good and evil.’

Beyond Good and Evil

Is this a license to author our own ‘truths’? We will explore this question in future posts.

Comment-Contribute. Like-Share. Adapt-Overcome.

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