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Birds of Prey: Freedom of the Will and the Value of Genealogy

Birds of Prey: Freedom of the Will and the Value of Genealogy

6 Mins
March 7, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."

Abstract: I will be addressing two issues in this review essay: freedom of the will and the value of genealogy.


In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche explains the basic relationship between adherents of master and slave morality using an analogous relationship between birds of prey and tasty little lambs. What is so intriguing--and troubling--about this analogy is that it spotlights Nietzsche’s rejection of free will. How is any discussion of morality to proceed without that premise of freedom of will?

The analogy (found in Essay I, section 13) describes a predatory relationship between the birds of prey (the masters) and the lambs (the slaves). Acting in accordance with their natures, the birds of prey consume the terrified and tasty little lambs. The birds of prey are strong, exploiting the lambs as they see fit. The lambs, on the other hand, are weak and unable to physically defend themselves against the birds of prey in a contest of strength. And so the lambs use what power they have: they decry the birds of prey as evil, as capable of choosing to be lambs instead, and therefore as responsible for their plunder. But how ridiculous it is to demand that birds of prey be lambs! One animal cannot change to become another.

It is just as ridiculous, in Nietzsche’s view, to demand that masters ought to be slaves. Their nature is to be masters--to dominate, to exploit, to expand their power. If the slaves are unhappy being dominated and exploited, then tough luck, as such is their lot in life as the weaker beings.

The troubling part of this analogy is that it requires us to discard our common conceptions of freedom of will. Nietzsche argues in this section that the “seduction of language” has given rise to an inappropriate emphasis on *doers* rather than on the *deed*. The slaves “exploit this belief for their own ends” and thereby ardently hold that “the strong man is free to be weak and the bird of prey to be a lamb” (BGE I 13). As a result, the slaves “gain the right to make the bird of prey *accountable* for being a bird of prey” (BGE I.13).

How is any discussion of morality to proceed without that premise of freedom of will?

Despite this challenge to free will, it would be overly simplistic to call Nietzsche a determinist. He is just as opposed to the concept of an “unfree will” as he is to a “free will” (BGE 21). Rather, Nietzsche is opposed to free will in the “metaphysically superlative sense” in which one is “causa sui...[able] to pull oneself into existence out of the swamp of nothingness by one’s own hair” (BGE 21). According to Nietzsche, there are dark drives and unknown impulses that influence our actions, perhaps more than our own conscious purposes do. He writes:

“People are accustomed to consider the goal (purposes, volitions, etc.) as the *driving force*, in keeping with a very ancient error; but it is merely the *directing force*--one has mistaken the helmsman for the stream. And not even always the helmsman, the directing force” (GS 360).

The stream (our unconscious drives) takes us in one direction rather than another; it pulls us faster or slower. The helmsman (conscious purposes) merely guide us within the confines set by the stream. For Nietzsche, it is hubris for us to pretend that the stream does not exist or that the helmsman could go upriver if he wanted to.

There are two limited aspects of Nietzsche’s views here that I can support. First, the view of free will that Nietzsche is attacking is one unaffected by one’s past or outside forces. Second, the analogy of the helmsman on the stream fairly accurately describes someone who is choosing to keep the light in the consciousness dim.

First: Nietzsche seems to be attacking a Kantian notion of freedom of the will, one in which the “thing in itself,” unconnected to the world of experience, is doing the choosing. The Objectivist view of free will, on the other hand, recognizes that our choice to think is influenced by the incentives provided by our history and the external world. Ayn Rand argued:

“A social environment can neither force a man to think not prevent him from thinking. But a social environment can offer incentives or impediments; it can make the exercise of one’s rational faculty easier or harder; it can encourage thinking and penalize evasion or vice versa” (Rand, TO, Apr. 1966, 2).

In other words, although we are, in the end, making the choice to think or not ourselves, that choice is not occurring in some higher realm, insulated from the influences of experience.

Second: The Objectivist view of free will recognizes that when people choose not to think, when the light in their consciousness grows dim, their choices are then influenced by the “stream” of unconscious drives and external forces that Nietzsche described. A person choosing not to think is like a sleepy helmsman, barely able to keep the boat from crashing into the bank.

Additionally, I should mention that Nietzsche might not see the “stream” in this analogy as something we are placed upon without our consent. For Nietzsche, the instincts that unconsciously govern our actions are not necessarily biological ones; we can create our own instincts by forgetting the conscious purposes that drive our actions (GM II.2). In this sense, instincts for Nietzsche are similar to Aristotelian moral dispositions. Thus, the nature of the stream could be governed by the past choices we’ve made and the instincts we’ve developed.

Nietzsche’s views on free will and causality are extremely complex, perhaps somewhat unintelligible. Nevertheless, he ought not be dismissed as a determinist. Not only do his explicit writings on the subject disavow such a position, but also, in general, his writings on morality largely indicate some freedom of the will.


Nietzsche, particularly in Beyond Good and Evil, relies upon genealogy as a method of philosophical analysis in order to undercut the altruist ethic. In his Feb. 5th review essay , Jason summarized the value of genealogy as follows:

“Nietzsche’s genealogy serves, first, to separate the content of morality from the subject itself, by showing the actual, historical development of different and indeed opposite conceptions of morality in history. The second purpose is to show the historical contingency of ‘moral’ valuations altogether; that, is, Nietzsche hopes to dispel the aura of morality ‘in itself’ and any intuitive morality of altruism by showing the purposes for which morality has been used, and by showing that morality originated in pursuit on values.”

The method of genealogy, however, does not seem like the best tool with which to accomplish these two goals. Additionally, I have serious reservations about a philosophical method in which the truth is apparently irrelevant, as Jason indicated.

The connection between Nietzsche's and Ayn Rand's ethics is superficial at best.

The first goal, separating the content of morality from the subject, largely requires avoiding the most common method of moral theorizing: starting from presumptions about what constitutes moral behavior and then building a theory around those presumptions. As for what positive method should be used, we ought to start with fundamental questions, ones that do not presuppose moral content, namely “What are values? Why does man need them?” (Rand, VOS 15) Hoping to separate subject from content by historical investigation is much less likely to be fruitful. For example, just about every moral theory has presupposed fundamental conflicts of interests between individuals. A historical investigation will fail to reveal that this premise is questionable. The fact that Nietzsche’s own moral theorizing fails to uproot or even question this basic presupposition indicates a failure of the genealogical method.

The second goal, of dispelling the “aura of morality ‘in itself,’” could well be useful as a rhetorical tool, for those who believe in the holy sanctity of their moral principles. But given the lack of proof for the results of Nietzsche’s genealogical theorizing, probably mostly the young and naive would be seriously shaken by the arguments. Nevertheless, it is clear that Nietzsche views his genealogical method as more than mere rhetoric. He presents the “just-so” story of the origins of master and slave morality as an actual theory (although not necessarily fact), not mere supposing based on weak evidence. For Objectivists, this is fairly problematic; a philosophical method simply cannot be impervious to the truth.

The real question here for Objectivists is whether Nietzsche’s genealogical method into the master and slave moralities bears any resemblance to Ayn Rand’s investigation into the basic questions of ethics. As with Eyal Mozes , I think the connection is superficial at best. Rand’s questions were not designed, as were Nietzsche’s, to demystify altruistic ethics. Rather, the goal was to start at the beginning, to examine all premises, so that correct conclusions could be reached. Rand’s method was to use truth to dislodge false ideas about the bond between altruism and morality; Nietzsche’s method is essentially to use unproven (and perhaps unprovable) allegations to attempt to do the same.


Nietzsche has always been a great favorite of mine, but as the years go by, I find myself more and more disturbed by the incoherence of his philosophical writings. Nietzsche was obviously not interested in “system-building” in the ways that Aristotelians, Kantians, and Objectivists are. Nevertheless, even without a system, my brain craves some kind of consistency and regularity from his writings.   For your information, Richard Schacht’s book Nietzsche is an excellent and very comprehensible overview of Nietzsche’s thought, although perhaps too comprehensible of an overview. I worry that it tends to take the principle of charity too far; it makes Nietzsche out to be somewhat more reasonable and systematic than he is, in my view.    

Response by William Dale

Response by Christopher Robinson

Response by Thomas Gramstad

Diana Hsieh
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Diana Hsieh
History of Philosophy