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 things. 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. Thus, 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 which one has striven towards is nothing less than to hold one’s own desires in the highest esteem:
“In the end one loves one’s desire and not what is desired.” (Beyond Good and Evil, § 175)
This is not to deny the obvious truth that any individual person may try hard to do something that they think of as good, but only to bring to the fore the instinctive behaviour preceding our concept of the good. This reversal of classic moral psychology reaches its apotheosis in Nietzsche’s stance concerning self-deceived justifications of action:
“You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 10)
In his Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche famously distinguishes between the aristocratic concept of the good, as that which is powerful, and the bad that is weak, and its Christian reversal, according to which good is contrasted with evil; equating the latter with power and the former with various forms of meekness. Each group, Nietzsche maintains, attempts to define goodness in relation to what they already are and the strivings thereby encapsulated. The powerful want to dominate, whereas the weak resent this and strive for some other world in which they will be rewarded for their sufferings. This is not just a reversal of values but a reversal of valuing itself. Nietzsche’s point is ultimately one about the relation of language to reality. Once again, the traditional picture is reversed: language has been thought todescribe reality but it in actual fact produces it:
“Only as Creators! It has caused me the greatest trouble, and still causes me the greatest trouble, to realize that what things are called is unspeakably more important than what they are. The reputation, the name and appearance, the importance, the usual measure and weight of things each being originally almost always an error and arbitrary, thrown over the things like a garment and quite alien to their essence and even to their exterior- have gradually, by the belief therein and the continuous growth from generation to generation, grown as it were on- and-into things and become their very body. What was appearance at the very beginning becomes almost always the essence in the end and operates as the essence! What a fool he would be who would think it enough to point out this origin and this nebulous veil of illusion in order to destroy that which virtually passes for the world namely, so-called ‘reality’! We can destroy only as creators! But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and valuations in order in the long run to create new ‘things’.” (The Gay Science, Bk II, §58).
We thus make it true that we always desire “the good”, after all. This is not because we are hardwired to do so but because we fabricate our notions of what is good in the very image of our own desires