Deleuze’s approach to Nietzschean ethics
Ethics and Morality
Traditionally, ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy that:
…involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. (IEP)
The study of ethics usually includes understanding its origins, how ethics may or may not be based in truth, on what grounds values may be judged and, practically speaking, how one should act in a given set of circumstances.
The terms “ethics” and “morality” are often used interchangeably to refer a developed system of values.
Ethics as Immanence
Ethics and morality necessarily involve differing visions of the world. Morality consists in judging actions or subjects with reference to transcendent values. Ethics consists in evaluating what we do with reference to the immanent mode of existence it implies.
Morality is aimed at understanding the essence of man, his essential nature. Ethics makes no attempt to define what the essence of man is, but instead focuses on what he or she can do, is capable of, what can be said of the powers of human life.
For Deleuze, ethics is thought that relates to human powers or capacities and how human beings might go the limit of their powers (and what might cut off one from their powers).
Good and Bad
Immanent ethical differences are good or bad, evaluated in terms of whether or not life is affirmed. Moral judgements of good or evil, understood from the viewpoint of transcendent truth, have no place in a Deleuzian ethic:
There is not the slightest reason for thinking that modes of existence need transcendent values by which they could be compared, selected, and judged relative to one another. There are only immanent criteria. A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and the intensities it creates on a plane of immanence: what is not laid out or created is rejected. A mode of existence is good or bad, noble or vulgar, complete or empty, independently of Good or Evil or any transcendent value: there are never any criteria other than the tenor of existence, the intensification of life. (What is Philosophy?)
Whereas morality is a set of constraining rules, ethics relates to what facilitates or enables.
There are things one cannot do unless one is weak or enslaved, acting out of vengeance or resentment, or unless one is a slave of passive affections. And there are other things one can only do if one is acting out of the strong, noble or free.
Good and evil are illusions of a morality that reduces our power to act, and galvanizes the experience of the sad passions.
Life cannot be judged good or evil, it simply is, and to affirm life is to set life free.
Good is the maximization of the powers that expand the possibilities of life. Such powers overflow human life, are internal to life itself, and to affirm such powers is to continually seek new possibilities in life.
Spinoza and Nietzsche
Spinoza and Nietzsche are the primary sources for Deleuze’s ethical thought. Spinoza regards life as creative and expressive: all life strives to express the substance within it in all of its attributes and modes. Fulfillment or joy in life is the realization of the power of life to express itself.
Substance runs through all life: the power of life is to express substance. Substance is not created, it is one, and its expression or transformation is pure becoming.
Nietzsche extends Spinoza’s expressive philosophy. Instead of bodies inherently possessing certain powers, the powers or forces themselves constitute life, create life. The exercise of forces result in bodies: bodies are the product of forces of life.
A body expresses its power when it acts in accordance with the forces running through it. Life is active and transformative, relations of forces that produce material bodies. A living thing wishes most to express the relation of forces within it.
The expression of forces is the will to power; not the power to dominate, but instead to create.
[T]he will to power is essentially creative and giving: it does not aspire, it does not seek, it does not desire, above all it does not desire power. It gives. (Nietzsche and Philosophy)
And to create, for Nietzsche, is to create new values.
The question arises whether there is a means for immanently evaluating the forces expressed in the will to power.
Insofar as Nietzsche, and Deleuze, reject any resort to a transcendent ground for evaluating values, how can a system of values based on the expression of forces avoid the affirmation of everything, pure relativism, and ultimately nihilism? Does everything become meaningless without a stable reference point or ground?
Deleuze answers by elaborating on Nietzsche’s will to power as a relation of forces, where such forces demonstrate an ability to affect and be affected by other forces.
The will to power expresses the “inner principle of the relation of forces”: it is the genetic and differential principle at work in the encounter of virtual forces that “is manifest both as a capacity to affect and a capacity to be affected.” (Deleuze and the Political)
The will to power reflects the relation of virtual forces, intensities, within a body, as well as the perpetual differential changes to this relation of forces as a body comes into contact with other bodies having virtual forces that affect or are affected.
Active and Reactive Forces
Deleuze focuses on the characterization of forces as active or reactive. Active forces enable a body, or mode of existence, to go the limit of what it can do. Active forces are transformative, they enhance a body’s ability to affect and be affected.
Reactive forces, such as those identified by Nietzsche, ressentiment, bad conscience and the ascetic ideal, separate active forces from what they can do. They are forces of limitation that resist forces that act of their own accord.
Active forces affirm their own nature, reactive forces judge and seek to negate active forces.
The affirmative quality of active forces and negative quality of reactive forces are expressed in the will to power, in higher or lower forms. The will to power in its highest form expresses the affirmation of active forces of transformation, the creative forces of becoming. (NP 62)
The will to power expresses a mode of existence that embraces the freedom and creativity of becoming, the intensification of life.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!
Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.