Nietzsche's place in contemporary ethical theory
Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives: meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.
In the field of meta-ethics, one can perhaps most accurately classify Nietzsche as a moral skeptic; meaning that he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" remains illusory. (This forms part of a more general claim that no universally true fact exists, roughly because none of them more than "appear" to correspond to reality). Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) remain mere "interpretations." However, Nietzsche does not claim that all interpretations are equivalent, since some testify for "noble" character while others are the symptom of a "decadent" life-form.
Sometimes Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what he regards as moral or as immoral. Note, however, that one can explain Nietzsche's moral opinions without attributing to him the claim of their truth. For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it expresses something false. On the contrary, he depicts falsehood as essential for "life". Interestingly enough, he mentions a "dishonest lie", (discussing Wagner in The Case of Wagner) as opposed to an "honest" one, recommending further to consult Plato with regard to the latter, which should give some idea of the layers of paradox in his work.
In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality". Although he recognizes that not everyone holds either scheme in a clearly delineated fashion without some syncretism, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality include:
- "good" and "bad" interpretations vs. "good" and "evil" interpretations
- "aristocratic" vs. "part of the 'herd'"
- determines values independently of predetermined foundations (nature) vs. determines values on predetermined, unquestioned foundations (Christianity).