Nietzsche’s naturalist morality of breeding: a critique of eugenics as taming

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Donovan Miyasaki

Wright State University

1. Introduction

Nietzsche’s endorsement of a “morality of breeding” (Züchtung), which he opposes to the morality of “taming” or “domestication” (Zähmung), invites worry that his philosophy may be compatible with ethically dangerous forms of eugenics and, consequently, with the historically associated practices of discrimination, racism, and genocide.1 While there is a general consensus that Nietzsche does not actively or directly endorse racial discrimination or political violence, the failure to clearly exclude such egregious views would be sufficient reason to seriously question any major positive contribution Nietzsche might make to ethical philosophy.2

In this paper, I directly oppose Nietzsche’s morality of breeding to all forms of comparative eugenics. By comparative eugenics, I have in mind any eugenic program that identifies benefit or harm to individuals or the species on the basis of comparatively evaluated traits. For example, to genetically engineer intelligence or talent for the purpose of making competitive in the economic, cultural, or social spheres would count as comparative eugenics, since in this context ability must be greater than the norm to count as improved.

I will argue, further, that Nietzschean breeding is directly opposed to both positive and negative forms of comparative eugenics, that is, to both the genetic promotion of beneficial traits and the genetic elimination of harmful ones. While this allows for the possibility that Nietzschean breeding might be compatible with non-comparative eugenics, the category is sufficiently broad to exclude the most ethically dangerous forms. It includes the Social Darwinism common in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia throughout the twentieth century, with its comparative conceptions of health and hygiene, the racial eugenic theories of National Socialism, with its comparative evaluations of racial superiority, and the contemporary liberal or voluntary forms, with their comparatively grounded conceptions of ability and disability.

I will begin by explaining Nietzsche’s contrast between moralities of breeding and taming. I will argue that the ethical danger of comparative eugenics is grounded in its status as a form of taming, which promotes positively evaluated character types through the active elimination of negatively evaluated ones. The morality of taming—and, consequently, comparative eugenics—is not an authentic form of selection, but in fact a disguised de-selection: the production of anti-types through the elimination of de-selected traits. Consequently, taming tends necessarily toward violence as the elimination of de-selected forms of human life.

In contrast, Nietzsche’s notion of breeding indicates a morality that selects traits and types by protecting them from de-selection—specifically, by destroying moral ideas, values, and practices designed to weaken or eliminate natural traits. Such a morality tends not toward the destruction but preservation of types; its negativity targets not life but ideas and practices that disable and disempower forms of life.

I will argue, further, that the fundamental ethical difference between breeding and taming, and so between Nietzschean morality and eugenics, is found in their attitudes toward the natural world. The violence of eugenics as taming is grounded in its status as anti-natural, while Nietzsche’s morality of breeding resists violence through its foundational affirmation of the conditions and limitations of the natural world—that is, through a form of moral naturalism.

Finally, I will apply my interpretation of breeding and taming to two cases of comparative eugenics: the historical case of discriminatory racial eugenics and so-called “designer baby” cases in contemporary liberal eugenics. I will argue that Nietzsche must resolutely condemn both as forms of the anti-natural morality of taming, to which the morality of breeding is diametrically opposed.

2. Breeding as the Cultural and Biological Selection of Psychological Types
As many commentators have noted, Nietzsche uses the language of breeding (züchten) both literally and figuratively, to refer to both biological and cultural methods of selecting, promoting, and enhancing human traits and abilities.3 However, he principally uses this language to describe moral and social values, practices, and institutions as means of human transformation.4 For example, in the Genealogy of Morality’s description of the “breeding” of an “animal with the right to make promises,”5 Nietzsche describes a process not of reproductive selection, but of socio-cultural character production.6 Individuals are made “necessary, uniform…calculable” through the “morality of mores and the social straightjacket” (GM I: 1).

Likewise, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche’s discussion of breeding focuses on the influence of education, religious instruction, and moral discipline: “Asceticism and puritanism are almost indispensable means for educating and ennobling a race” (BGE 61). When discussing the ancient Greek city-state as an example of “an arrangement for breeding,” Nietzsche again emphasizes social practices: moral severity in “the education of youth, in their arrangements for women, in their marital customs, in the relation of old and young, in their penal laws” (BGE 262).

Even where these practices include biological means of selection, such as marital customs, Nietzsche’s constant emphasis upon moral practices and psychological traits indicates that the aim of breeding is to produce a psychological and social kind, not a biological type. Moreover, even as a means, breeding is only secondarily biological, since the psychological type that is to be reproduced through breeding is itself cultivated through social training, rather than through biological inheritance. In other words, biological means are attractive to Nietzsche only given his Lamarckian belief in the inheritance of acquired traits. For example, when he explicitly contrasts discipline (Zucht) of body and soul (or “thoughts and feelings”) in Twilight of the Idols, he identifies the former with disciplined activity. To “convince the body” requires the “internalization” of behavior through habit: “one’s society, residence, dress, sexual gratification . . . a significant and select demeanor, an obligation to live only among men who do not ‘let themselves go’” (TI “Untimely” 47). Consequently, the contrast is not principally that of culture and biology, but rather volition and habit, as opposing means of selecting human types.

With this in mind, in my discussion I will assume that breeding refers to the selection of psychologically, not biologically, identified types. And I will focus on breeding and taming as general categories, not specific instances, so I will not attempt to identify which specific traits or character types a Nietzschean morality of breeding would promote. This question, while important, is not central to my topic: I would like to determine, not what kind of human being Nietzsche wishes to promote, but in what way he wishes to accomplish that promotion, as well as how his methods of achieving his own ideal forms of human personality and life might affect those forms to which he is opposed.

In addition, I will not address the ethical and political question of authority—that is, whether or not it is a process to be effected coercively through the state, non-coercively through social institutions, or individually on the level of values and practices.7 This question does not bear on the ethical status of Nietzsche’s notion of breeding in relation to eugenics, since any coercive form of human improvement, not just breeding, is ethically problematic on grounds unrelated to methodology or aim.

Finally, it should also be noted that Nietzsche occasionally uses züchten in a broad sense that refers to any attempt to promote specific human types. In this sense, breeding is not opposed to taming. Instead, it includes taming as one particularly harmful form of the broader, normatively neutral category.8 We could, then, distinguish “good” breeding and taming as positive and negative forms of breeding in this more general sense. However, to avoid confusion, I will use “breeding” only in the narrower sense in which it is distinct from and opposed to taming.

3. Breeding as Selective Empowerment, Taming as De-selective Disempowerment
I will begin by showing that Nietzsche’s distinction of moralities of breeding and taming is continuous with his critical contrast of natural and anti-natural forms of morality. We can identify breeding as natural, and taming as anti-natural, in three key ways: first, in their effects upon natural affects and abilities (their relation to human nature); second, in their consequences for the natural diversity of types in the human species (their relation to natural contingency); and third, in the destructiveness of their methods of morally transforming humanity (their relation to natural change). I will first consider their effects upon human nature.

Nietzsche’s notion of moral breeding does not imply a strong conflict between natural and artificial forms of development. Breeding is not a radical departure from, or against, natural selection. Although usually translated as breeding, discipline, or cultivation, Züchtung can also suggest “selection,” as in the title of H.G. Bronn’s influential 1860 German edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which translates “natural selection” as naturliche Züchtung. This accidental interpretive twist in the German reception of Darwin is fortuitous, since for Nietzsche there is no essential divide between natural and non-natural selection. Breeding and selection both refer to the development of the species through the preservation, reproduction, or extinction of traits and types—a process that remains natural, whether the product of accident or human intervention, because both processes operate through the contingent preservation of natural traits.9

Nevertheless, Nietzsche does believe there are “natural” and “anti-natural” moralities and, consequently, anti-natural ways of intervening in the process of natural selection. Anti-natural moralities are distinctive in their negative foundation, method, and purpose: they express a “condemnation” of “the instincts of life,” while natural moralities are “dominated by an instinct of life” (TI “Morality” 4). Nietzsche does not, of course, consider every negation, limitation, or restriction of natural instinct to be a “condemnation.” Rather, an instinct is condemned by a morality when that morality seeks to completely eradicate its influence and to prevent every form and instance of its satisfaction.

Anti-natural moralities are, consequently, against nature in the sense that they do not simply alter or enhance the natural process of selection but work against it: they do not select, but rather de-select; they do not breed traits into individuals and the species, but rather breed them out.10 They produce supposed improvement by removing undesirable natural traits rather than by authentically selecting, choosing from, and preserving desirable natural traits.

In contrast, natural moralities are authentically selective, because they directly affirm and preserve traits, and only indirectly and accidentally negate non-selected traits. Natural moral negations are indirect, because they serve more primary affirmations. When a natural morality condemns, it does so in order to promote another affect, instinct, or trait: “Some commandment of life is fulfilled through a certain canon of ‘shall’ and ‘shall not’” (TI “Morality” 4). The condemnations of natural moralities are merely apparent rather than true negations because they are aimed at negative values or actions; they negate only negations: “Some hindrance and hostile element on life’s road is thereby removed.”

Consequently, Nietzsche’s distinction of selective and de-selective moralities helpfully clarifies how a morality can condemn while remaining consistent with the affirmation the natural world. A natural morality can condemn only what directly negates an aspect of life—what itself condemns in the strong sense of seeking to exterminate. For this reason, Nietzsche characterizes the negative aspect of natural morality not as true negation, not as annihilation, but as transformation: a natural morality tries to “spiritualize, beautify, deify” a passion, in contrast to anti-natural moralities, which seek to “exterminate” (vernichten), “excise” (ausschneiden), or “castrate” the passions and, in so doing, to eliminate the variation they bring to human types (TI “Morality” 1).

This distinction of negative and positive objects of condemnation clarifies Nietzsche’s seemingly contradictory call for a “pruning” (beschneiden) of the contemporary individual’s contradictory instincts. Nietzsche argues that because these instincts “destroy one another,” it is necessary that “at least one of these instinct-systems should be paralyzed beneath an iron pressure, so as to permit another to come into force, become strong, become master” (TI, “Untimely” 41). How does this technique of “pruning” differ from the “excision” practiced by anti-natural morality?

Our first clue to their difference is in Nietzsche’s contrast of beschneiden (to cut back, pare) and ausschneiden (to cut out or away). Anti-natural morality tries to completely eradicate the instinct, to remove it entirely from one’s personality. Nietzsche’s call to “prune” a contradictory instinct, on the contrary, requires that we cut it back, to moderate the instinct. The instinct is only temporarily “paralyzed” beneath an “iron pressure” until another instinct has developed sufficient strength to master it. The result, then, is not the complete paralysis or extinction of the instinct, but instead its incorporation into an order and hierarchy of instincts—in other words, its moderation.

So, the first difference between natural and anti-natural ways of controlling an instinct is simply that a natural morality reduces a troublesome instinct’s power while an anti-natural morality tries to destroy it. The second, and perhaps more crucial, difference bears on what form of instinct is the object of “cutting back” or “cutting away.” I have said that natural morality never truly “condemns” because it negates only values, instincts, and practices that are directly hostile to life—it only condemns what condemns. It is in this sense that we should understand Nietzsche’s claim that the contemporary individual’s instincts contradict (widersprechen), rather than merely conflict with, one another. They do not hinder, but destroy (zerstören) each other. This conflict is not based merely in differences in instinctual aims. It is possible only given the presence of anti-natural instincts—of incorporated values and behaviors that are specifically aimed against other instincts, that directly negate, rather than merely obstruct, other instincts. Consequently, while natural morality only limits or restrains natural instincts, it can consistently eliminate anti-natural ones. For the excision of an anti-natural instinct does not harm a positive ability, only the negative ability to weaken other abilities. To “prune” a self-contradictory soul is to empower and enable it, not “paralyze” or weaken it.

This is also the decisive difference between moralities of breeding and taming. Taming does not truly improve individuals, but weakens them: “They become sick by the depressing emotion of fear, by pain, wounds, and hunger” (TI “Improvers” 2). Consistent with anti-natural morality, taming is a condemnation, a negation, a removal of characteristics: sickness, fear, and pain as the direct negation of health, confidence, and happiness. Although Nietzsche does not directly describe the contrasting form of breeding, its character is clear in contrast: if taming weakens and sickens, then breeding strengthens and enhances health. While it might be objected that this claim depends on Nietzsche’s questionable evaluative assumptions about strength and health, it is, on the contrary, a simple, non-evaluative, and substantive distinction: regardless of the value we attribute to an ability, taming disempowers and disables, while breeding empowers and enables.11

Consider a literal example: while I might, in the process of breeding a horse for its swiftness, breed out other traits such as the horse’s unique color, the negative effect on other traits is contingent, extrinsic to my purpose. Breeding is, consequently, aptly described as a form of “cultivation” in two senses. First, it cultivates in the sense of improving—promoting positive characteristics rather than destroying negative ones. Second, it cultivates in the sense of tending to a natural process, rather than directly imposing or creating new forms. Breeding cultivates natural traits by preserving and protecting their natural reproduction, not by introducing or engineering new traits.12

Taming, in contrast, is an anti-natural moral method: it does not intend to preserve and enhance desirable powers, but to de-select and exterminate undesirable ones. Taking, again, a literal example: to domesticate a wild animal is to intentionally breed out the traits of size, strength, aggressiveness, and independence. Even if we argue that such traits can be harmful or undesirable, we are not rejecting Nietzsche’s claim that taming disempowers. We are, instead, arguing that disempowerment is sometimes beneficial or justified—a removal of harmful abilities, but abilities nonetheless.

It might also be argued that taming can produce positive traits: for example, we breed domesticated dogs for sociability. However, this depends on which trait we are identifying as “sociability.” As a product of domestication, sociability is a negative trait, a disempowerment: the absence of aggression. However, as a positive trait—say, friendliness—sociability is the product of breeding rather than taming. For the breeder does not eliminate the traits of undomesticated dogs: they are already a domesticated species. Instead, the breeder selects and preserves the naturally given trait of sociability that some domesticated dogs possess. To breed a more sociable domesticated dog is, then, not truly an example of taming.

The crucial distinction is whether the aim is negative or positive in relation to the trait: whether the goal is to reduce or enhance a characteristic or ability, to preserve or eliminate it. This is why Nietzsche’s claim that the morality of taming makes humanity weak or ill is meant quite seriously: “In the struggle with the beast, making it sick can be the only means of making it weak” (TI “Improvers” 2).13 If a morality reduces the power to act, it weakens; and if it weakens to the point of disabling, it can plausibly be likened to an illness. The morality of taming makes sick precisely because it has no other means: as an anti-natural morality it attacks the passions and desires as such, “at their roots,” rather than in their excessive manifestation (TI “Morality” 1). This means it cannot entirely or truly excise a passion without destroying the patient. Such a morality can practically succeed only by failing to eliminate de-selected abilities entirely, instead reducing the patient’s power to act upon its abilities—through disempowering rather than fully disabling.

This brings us to a second, crucial point about the naturalness of breeding. Taming is anti-natural because it de-selects and disempowers rather than selects and empowers. This is, in turn, related to a broader issue in Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy—his rejection of strong conceptions of metaphysical free will and, consequently, of forms of morality that rely on the free, voluntary agency of the moral subject to effect change in individual character and action:
When the moralist addresses himself only to the single human being and says to him, “You ought to be such and such!” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous. The single human being is a piece of fate (ein Stück fatum) from the front and from the rear, one law more, one necessity more for all that is yet to come and to be. To say to him, “Change yourself!” is to demand that everything be changed, even retroactively. (TI “Morality” 6)
It is precisely because Nietzsche does not believe slave morality can be effected on a voluntary level—through a free choice to constrain a condemned passion or instinct—that it is necessary for a natural form of morality to be achieved through breeding: through the cultural production of human types, rather than through rational or moral persuasion.14

If the individual cannot be substantially changed through moral persuasion, then humanity can only be changed in its future character. But because the present character of the individual cannot be directly changed, future humanity can only be changed through the preservation or extinction of presently existing individuals as types. Breeding “improves” through the selection, preservation, and reproduction of higher individual types. It is a modest, indirect means, because it does not directly change forms of humanity, but selects and preserves natural changes. It does not create types or impose new forms, but chooses the “highest” naturally occurring exemplars and protects them from extinction.

Consequently, breeding is natural, not only as the selection and preservation of natural powers and abilities, but also as an improvement of human types rather than individuals, through the medium of natural necessity rather than volition. Breeding is not vulnerable to Nietzsche’s critique of the “so-called improvers of mankind,” because it affirms the “fatality” of the individual, the impossibility of changing humanity qua individual (TI “Improvers” 2 and “Errors” 8).15

We may conclude, then, that Nietzsche’s critical distinction of moralities of breeding and taming is continuous with that of natural and anti-natural morality. Moreover, these moralities’ positive or negative relation to nature determines their consequences for life as empowering or disempowering, enabling or disabling—generally, as beneficial or harmful to life.

4. Breeding as Proliferation and Variation, Taming as Reduction and Normalization
Breeding and taming also reflect Nietzsche’s contrast of natural and anti-natural moralities in their relation to natural processes as a whole. As a natural morality that selects and preserves abilities rather than de-selects and disempowers, breeding affirms nature as a whole in its basic characteristic of contingency: as an accidental, purposeless, and endless process of selection, lacking progress in any absolute sense. Breeding tends necessarily toward proliferation, the preservation of new types, as well as toward variation through the preservation of the diversity of types. Taming, in contrast, tends toward reduction, the elimination of negatively evaluated types, and normalization—the universal reproduction of a single moral type in all members of the species, the “last man.”

For Nietzsche, variation and proliferation are processes intrinsic to natural selection and development. Natural processes have no governing aim; their contingency thwarts every attempt to bring human development to a single, lasting end. The human individual, he says, “is not the subject of an attempt to attain to an ‘ideal of man’ or an ‘ideal of happiness’ or an ‘ideal of morality’—it is absurd to want to hand over his nature to some purpose or other. We invented the concept ‘purpose’: in reality purpose is lacking” (TI “Errors” 8). Given this absence of teleological end, nature tends inevitably toward a rich diversity of contradictory, blossoming and perishing, forms and types; it is characterized by a “wealth, luxury, even absurd prodigality” that is indifferent to human evaluations of progress and even tends, on the contrary, toward the “defeat of the stronger, the more privileged, the fortunate exceptions” (TI “Untimely” 14).

This natural condition of contingency, purposelessness, and impermanence does not support moral attempts to transform humanity as a species into a single improved or perfected type. Indeed, Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed “tragic” form of philosophy is grounded in the affirmation of life’s “sacrifice of its highest types” (EH “Why I Write Such Good Books” 3). Any morality that actively seeks to reduce humanity to a single type acts, then, directly against a fundamental limitation of nature: “Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the luxuriance of a prodigal play and change of forms: and does some pitiful journeyman moralist say at the sight of it: ‘No! Man ought to be different?’” (TI “Morality” 6).

As with Nietzsche’s fatalism about the individual, this fatalism about the species (“the fatality of all that which has been and will be,” TI “Errors” 8) is both natural and moral: a recognition of the necessity of lower types and the extinction of higher types, as well as a normative demand to affirm this necessity. Consequently, we can only understand human improvement relatively. First, the relative improvement of humanity as a whole is determined according to the production of higher types within that whole, rather than the universalization of a single type. Breeding seeks to produce and preserve higher types among other types, to add to or preserve nature’s “enchanting wealth of types” rather than transform all human beings into a higher type.16

Second, the improvement of types within the whole is relative to contingent historical conditions. If there are no purposes in nature, there are no absolute criteria according to which we can measure the well being or excellence of higher types. Consider, as an analogy, the process of natural selection. The “fitness” or well-adaptedness of a species is determinable only relative to the conditions of its environment, since attributes beneficial under one set of environmental conditions might be harmful under others. Consequently, a species is “better” or “worse” adapted only relative to its current environmental state.

Likewise, because human well being depends upon a changeable human type’s relation to contingent historical circumstances, whether or not a human type is “well turned out” (wohlgerathen) cannot be evaluated absolutely, but only in relation to the actual historical conditions in which it exists.17 Therefore, there cannot be a single vision of moral improvement for all human beings that would serve as the criterion of moral breeding: what is, in contemporary historical circumstances, an enhancement of life may, tomorrow, be a decline. Human well being, like evolutionary well-adaptedness, is best served by diversity. The greater the diversity of types, the greater the likelihood that any one will be well-suited to its conditions of existence.

Breeding, then, does not conceive and create a specific higher type. It is designed to take advantage of fortunate exceptions rather than engineer them. It is an experiment rather than an art, one that 1) produces the conditions for the proliferation of all types, not just the higher, and 2) selects from and preserves accidentally produced higher types. So, we may conclude that, on Nietzsche’s view, human improvement is best served through the proliferation of human types, rather than through their narrowing, as found in the “last man” ideal of moral taming (Z “Prologue” 5).18

Nietzsche repeatedly suggests this connection between variation and human improvement. On the level of the individual, he tells us that “the greatness of man” lies in “being capable of being as manifold as whole, as ample as full” (BGE 212). The same is true of the conditions for human development: humanity is made great precisely by maintaining its unity while diversifying the types within it, increasing its manifoldness. Historical epochs in which a diversity of human values, types, and ways of life flourish promote overall “variation, whether as deviation (to something higher, subtler, rarer) or as degeneration and monstrosity.” In such epochs, “the individual dares to be individual and different,” in turn creating “a splendid, manifold, junglelike growth and upward striving, a kind of tropical tempo in the competition to grow” (BGE 262). To be sure, this manifoldness is the condition of harmful variations as well as beneficial ones, but Nietzsche’s point is precisely that it is the condition for both.

From Nietzsche’s naturalistic fatalism, it follows that the morality of taming, in contrast, is anti-natural in two ways. First, because the well being of humanity is relative to contingent historical circumstances, the morality of taming is opposed to the natural conditions that maximize effective breeding. Second, by prescribing a single moral ideal for all humanity, it pits itself against a natural world that tends, intrinsically, toward the proliferation rather than perfection of types. Its ideal is anti-natural in the dangerous sense that it can succeed only through the active destruction of naturally proliferating variations from that ideal. If everyone cannot be tamed, if every individual cannot be transformed into the “last man,” then the last man can be realized only through the elimination of every other type.

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