20 October, Brian Leiter "Nietzsche Against Marx on the Causes of Suffering"

On 20 October, Professor Brian Leiter delivered the annual Lincoln University Philosophy Lecture with sponsorship from the Humane Philosophy Society.


Abstract: Marx and Nietzsche, the two lodestars of modern philosophical anthropology, differ most interestingly not in their moral outlooks — which are indeed contradictory--but in their explanatory methods. Marx has, as it were, no psychology, only an anthropology and economics, while Nietzsche relies almost exclusively on explanation in terms of individual psychology, appearing at times willfully blind to social and economic causes. This difference is most apparent in their contrasting approaches to human suffering. Marx understands suffering to be primarily a consequence of socio-economic circumstances, while Nietzsche traces it primarily to defects in individual psychology and physiology (the latter manifesting themselves at the psychological level). To put it crudely, for Nietzsche, most people are by nature “sick” and thus disposed to suffer, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, while for Marx, people’s suffering is an artifact of their socio-economic circumstances, and thus amenable to amelioration.


I consider various kinds of evidence for Nietzsche’s thesis — including the existence of religious orthodoxy among the affluent; the social phenomenon of “aggrievement hunters”; and the prevalence of ascetic moralities and of non-guilty means for assuaging suffering — concluding that it does not clearly support Nietzsche’s explanation for suffering against Marx’s. Along the way, I show that Nietzsche (like Marx) views religion as an “opiate,” but (unlike Marx) he deems it a necessary one given the socio-economic prerequisites for great culture. I also examine Nietzsche’s opposition to blame for suffering. I conclude with a diagnosis of Nietzsche’s own antipathy towards the “sick” as a kind of Freudian reaction formation.

Brian Leiter is a philosopher and legal scholar who is Karl N. Lewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and founder and Director of Chicago's Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values.

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