Existential Stoic Podcast, dobetterwithdan, self help, Motivation, Quick Fix, how to, dichotomy of control, Nietzsche
with Danny & Randy

Are you living a life that is right for you? Do you strive to live an authentic life? In this Quick Fix, Danny and Randy discuss tips for how to find your way. Discover your way and start living the life you were meant to live!

The Existential Stoic – Quick Fix 162 – How to Find Your Way – Available wherever you get your podcasts!

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: Discovering Small Delights, Our Relationship to Suffering, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make, Defining a Life Project, Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, What is Virtue?, A Formula for Happiness, and The Authentic Life.

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Nietzsche, Philosophy, meaning, perspective, worldview, truth, existentialism, Sartre

We are all trying to make things intelligible, to make sense of our experiences, ourselves, and our world. The fact that we still disagree concerning the best or right or correct interpretation, the fact that there are so many perspectives, suggests that perhaps meaning is nothing more than a construct.

Most of us adopt values and beliefs simply because they are familiar, because they are those that dominate in our community, our country, our…The real reason we have adopted certain values, that we see the world the way we do, is convenience, happenstance. We, in short, believe what most people believe…we conform.

“Madness is rare in the individual – but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it is the rule.”

Nietzsche

When Nietzsche points out that when it comes to groups, peoples, parties…madness is the rule, he means that there is a tendency to conform and protect the dominant perspective even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We lose our ability to think for ourselves when we conform, but the fundamental problem of meaning is (at least in a certain sense) solved. We know what’s true because we participate in a shared construct, in a shared worldview.

Sartre famously claimed that for humans “existence precedes essence.” He meant that we must make ourselves into something, that we only define ourselves after we exist, and that in truth there is no such thing as human nature which would otherwise determine who we are (and who we could become). The only thing we know with certainty is that we will die. We are beings aware of their own existence and their own mortality—a fact that has a far greater influence on us than most of us would probably like to admit.

We face a reality that is opaque. Try as we might, the world around us gives up only small secrets, and on all important matters remains utterly silent. We exist, to be sure, and we know we will die. We want answers, we want to know why and what for. We want to know what the meaning of life is, the purpose of our existence—but, as Camus points out, the universe is indifferent to our appeals and wants.

Humans are meaning makers—we create meaning and we have a drive to do so. We organize our world; we form a picture that allows us to operate day-to-day without fear. When we believe we can explain our experience, our interactions, when we think we understand our place and role in the world, we gain confidence and feel secure. We want to make our life intelligible because by doing so we remove unknowns, irregularities, we assign a value and place to everything.

Our desire to make sense of things, to make everything intelligible, drives our attempts to leave nothing unexplained. We quickly try to find a place for the new, the abnormal, the irregular, because everything that is not accounted for by our beliefs and values is a direct threat to the integrity of our worldview, our perspective. We think we understand things when the room looks clean, when everything is in its box, in its place, and we feel secure knowing there is nothing that we might trip over.

There is some part of us, a part that is perhaps deep within, one that rarely comes to the surface, but that nonetheless exercises great power—our fear of death, of threat, of danger. We know we will die, and experience tells us that the universe, existence, is indifferent to the individual entities that enjoy life for a short time. Death is the great unknown—it is an unknown in the sense that it comes unannounced, it is unknown in the sense that there are conflicting accounts of what it is (a transition, an absolute end, a new beginning…), it is final, and death is not bound by our sense of right and wrong or good and bad.

Making the world intelligible, making sense of things, makes us feel secure and comfortable because we are not surprised by irregular, unknown, or new experiences, which in turn assuages the fear and anxiety caused by awareness that we will die. Humans are self-aware, conscious entities, who are mortal and thus aware of their own mortality, of their temporality. But we are also meaning makers, and through meaning we create a familiar, knowable, and therefore less harsh and indifferent world, one in which our fears and anxieties need not be so intense, so overwhelming.

What many fail to recognize is that all the various perspectives people have are just so many ways of constructing a meaningful experience and world, but by no means are any representative of what is true, what is objectively the case. A world without meaning, without purpose, is simply a world in which we must each make meaning and create purpose.

The fact is, we thrive when we have reasons for acting, for living, for doing. Better that these reasons are our own, are ones that we have accepted and arrived at because they work for us. We should resist merely adopting values and beliefs because others have, we should resist conforming, because when we do the meanings that define our world and through which we make our experience intelligible are not our own. All we can do is live our own life, be our own person.

Thanks for reading.

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: To Feel Differently, Curiosity & the Wisdom of Socrates, Living Underground, Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, The World We Create, and Accepting Death as a Part of Life.

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philosophy, self help, Nietzsche, authenticity, existentialism, meaningful life, conformity

In Nietzsche’s Dawn, he points out that at times we are all irrational. “We still continue to draw conclusions from judgments we consider false and from teachings in which we no longer believe—owing to our feelings” (Nietzsche). Even if we reject certain beliefs or customs, it is still possible that our feelings will be consistent with them. Changing how we feel is often difficult, especially when certain emotional responses and feelings are reinforced by social pressures and expectations.

We are taught to be a member of our community, to fit in. We are conditioned to experience feelings of guilt and shame whenever we deviate from the norm, whenever we fail to conform. Nietzsche calls us bound spirits when we conform to social norms and practices, when we accept the dominant perspective not for our own reasons, but because they represent the norm. What’s more, conforming is often easier than living our own, authentic life.

Problematic.—To accept a faith merely because it is the custom—that is certainly tantamount to: being dishonest, being cowardly…”

Nietzsche

As Nietzsche sees it, we are dishonest when we accept a faith, a perspective simply because it is the custom. In such cases, we don’t accept it on our own terms and lack reasons of our own that justify and explain why we accept a certain point of view. We are dishonest because we adopt values and beliefs that are not our own, ones that we haven’t found our own reasons for accepting.

Learning to Think Differently

perspective, authenticity, Nietzsche, philosophy, self help, intentional living

“We must learn to think differently—in order finally, perhaps very late, to achieve even more: to feel differently.”

Nietzsche

The only way to live our own lives is to think for ourselves, to think differently from the norm. We will never feel differently, we will never move beyond those experiences of shame and guilt that were a consequence of socialization and social conditioning, until we learn how to think for ourselves and do so for a long time. Even if we start questioning how we think and are mindful of our feelings, the feelings we were conditioned to experience when we deviated from the norm, from social customs, will remain with us for some time. Our feelings, in other words, are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.

Our feelings… are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.

In order to feel differently, we need to learn how to think differently. We need to think for ourselves and develop the strength to stand on our own. Our life is truly our own only when how we think and feel is an honest representation of who we are and what we believe.

An authentic life is an honest life in the sense that our thoughts and feelings are consistent and complementary. We are truly free and no longer bound or influenced by things like social pressures and expectations. But as Nietzsche suggests, to reach the point at which we feel differently takes time and effort.

If we live our own lives and strive to be honest with ourselves, hopefully we learn to think differently and, one day, feel differently.

Thanks for reading.

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: Death & Meaning, Curiosity & the Wisdom of Socrates, The Authentic Life – To be an Outsider, Within Our Control, Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, The World We Create, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, What we can Learn Living Underground, and Defining a Life Project.

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philosophy, existentialism, books, books you should read, self help, live better
with Danny & Randy

New from The Existential Stoic…

In the second installment of ESP’s Books You Should Read series, Danny and Randy discuss Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Listen to find out why Nietzsche considered Zarathustra one of his most important works.  

Discover why Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche is a book you should read in episode 107 of The Existential Stoic.

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: Laws Should Facilitate Choice, Productivity, Within Our Control, Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, Lessons Learned from Ancient Cultures, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, and Creating Opportunities, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make.

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motivation, self help, philosophy, stoic philosophy, modern stoicism, Nietzsche, existentialism

Most of us are all-too familiar with negative feedback loops. We adopt a negative, pessimistic outlook, and suddenly we find confirmation and justification for our negativity everywhere. The confirmation we find reaffirms our commitment to negativity, and our outlook only darkens.  

Nietzsche calls the decision “to find the world ugly and bad” a dangerous decision because it makes “the world ugly and bad.” His point is simple: Our attitude, our evaluation of existence, of the world, stems from an interpretation, a perspective. It is a choice to view the world a certain way, it is a choice to maintain certain values.

A dangerous decision. – The…decision to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”

Nietzsche

Nietzsche, like many philosophers before and after him, thought that we are meaning makers, that we create the world we experience. We interpret things a certain way, we apply values, and we construct meaning. This ability to adopt a perspective, an attitude or mindset, is the source of our freedom. We are free to create meaning, to see the world as we choose to.

Epictetus makes a similar point in the Enchiridion (the dichotomy of control): “Some things are within our power, while others are not.”

“Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power…whatever is not of our own doing.”

Epictetus

Epictetus, like Nietzsche, recognizes that we are unique from other living things because we are conscious and self-aware. We have control over our mind, over how we look at, interpret, and respond to the world. We don’t have control over external forces, over the facts of the world, but we do exercise control when it comes to how we choose to interact with them and view them.

We can choose to value something a certain way or make it meaningful. We can, for instance, choose to focus on and fuel our anger. We can choose to act on it and harm others. In contrast, we can also choose to forgive, to take a step back, to calm ourselves.

We can choose to be a victim, and thus find others in the world or circumstances to blame for our struggles. Just as we can choose to view ourselves as the author of our own life, as having control over the person we become and the way we think.

Choose Happiness

self help, motivation, stoic philosophy, existentialism, freedom, choose, happiness

Philosophers like Epictetus and Nietzsche identified the importance of our attitude because it influences everything else and determines how we interpret the world. We can decide that the world is ugly and bad, or we can decide that the world is beautiful and good. Why not choose the latter?

Our power to interpret the world, to make it meaningful, also has implications for our happiness. Happiness, it would seem, is also within our power because it involves seeing the world and ourselves a certain way, cultivating a certain mindset and attitude towards existence. When we decide this life is beautiful, is valuable, we are motivated to make it better. A positive outlook energizes us not only to see the good, but to be good ourselves.

“‘I conclude that all is well,’ … and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted.”

Camus

Camus agrees that we are meaning making beings. He reminds us that all is well. Even though the universe is limited, all is not exhausted. We can interpret things innumerable ways.

In the end, this is our life, and we must choose our own happiness, we must choose to value this world, this life, and make the most of it. Only when we do so, when we make such a choice, will we find ourselves in a world that is beautiful and good, because it will be a world in which we are in possession of ourselves, where we exercise our freedom and control the narrative of our life.

Thanks for reading.

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, Lessons Learned from Ancient Cultures, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, Death & Meaning, and Comparisons & Mistakes We Make.

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Nietzsche, philosophy, strength of will, perseverance, willpower

Check out my related article, Meditation & Balance

How do you know whether you are strong enough to accomplish something, whether you possess the requisite strength? How do you know what you are capable of?

People realize themselves, their powers, capabilities, and skills in the world. We only know we can do something once we do it. Having a goal, an idea, is only part of the battle…to achieve our goal, to realize our idea, we must also possess the will to persevere, to overcome the inevitable resistance we will encounter, to persist in the face of unexpected changes and obstacles.

“The only proof of strength is an excess of strength.”

Nietzsche

Nietzsche tells us that the “only proof of strength is an excess of strength.” Our strength, our (will) power, is realized in the world, is known when it is tested. When we overcome obstacles and challenges, when we achieve our goals, when we discover what we are capable of, we feel a greater sense of strength, of vitality. A proof of strength entails demonstrating our fortitude, our ability to face the obstacles before us and persevere.

Nietzsche regularly makes important connections between our strength, will power, and our mental fortitude, our attitude, and our physical capabilities. In contrast, someone who is weak, who feels powerless, may try to do this or that, but will ultimately fail because they are not equipped to overcome the resistance they meet. Strength is only proven, then, when a person actually succeeds in realizing some goal or achieving some end. Doing so, they prove their strength by literally demonstrating it in the world. In other words, it is only through success, through achievements and activity, that we prove our strength.

Success is the only proof that someone has the will to succeed, the power and skills to accomplish something, to persevere even in the face of difficulties and obstacles. We often sense when our reserves are low, when stress, anxiety, and pressure threaten to derail our success and forward momentum. We also are aware when we have more than enough strength, more than enough mental fortitude and high spirits to overcome the obstacles before us.

Nietzsche, willpower, perseverance, strength, proof of strength, philosophy

“Nothing gets done without a dose of high spirits.”

Nietzsche

Strength, for Nietzsche, is not simply physical prowess, but strength in the sense of mental strength, purpose, and drive. Strength and attitude are closely connected. As Nietzsche points out, “Nothing gets done without a dose of high spirits.” When we are positive, possess self-confidence, and have a clear goal, we approach our goals with energy and are willing to persist even in the face of difficulties.

Thanks for reading.

Please check out my related articles: Lessons Learned from Ancient Cultures, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, Creating Opportunities, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make, Note to Self, Perspective—In Pursuit of Truth, Developing a Positive Mindset, The Authentic Life – To be an outsider, and Living Underground.

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Nietzsche, Philosophy, culture, goals, meaning, good life, dobetterwithdan

Friedrich Nietzsche identified nihilism as the most pressing modern problem. He saw the dangers of nihilism lurking in the shadows of a world where people struggled with meaning, struggled to find a ‘why’ that made life bearable, intelligible.

See my related article, Meditation & Balance

Do people need a goal or purpose that is greater than themselves? Would people feel more fulfilled, happier, if they worked towards some communal goal, some great work?  

Nietzsche romanticized cultures of the past. When he imagined the world of the ancient Greeks or other great cultures of the past, he imagined a culture and society with a unified purpose, with aims beyond the ‘average’ individual. These aims where no doubt aims that, for most people, were created for them, ones identified and established by the few, the powerful, but through them people were united under a common aim.

We can travel the world and see structures that are still standing thousands of years after their construction. These ancient structures speak of the lengths their creators went to in order to leave their mark on the world. The great pyramids, for example, have survived looters, earthquakes, the pressures of time, wind, and wars.

Nietzsche found in ancient Greek tragedy an artform that was unique to its creators. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, he imagines the conditions under which such an artform was created, was necessary. What about the Greek psyche, physiology, culture, and circumstances made the birth of tragedy possible?

Whatever we think about Nietzsche’s analysis of ancient cultures and peoples, his tendency to romanticize the past, he nevertheless highlights an important and interesting question: What does it mean for a people to flourish, for a culture to flourish? How can Nietzsche’s reflections on past cultures help us better understand ourselves, our times, and the difficulties we face?

If you are interested in an in-depth exploration of Nietzsche’s analysis of culture, I recommend Andrew Huddleston’s new book, Nietzsche on the Decadence and Flourishing of Culture

One thing is clear: Nietzsche thought a great purpose, a great aim, or some great cultural development, is something that can unite people and make life worthwhile, meaningful in ways that perhaps our contemporary lives are lacking. Would a greater sense of community, of common aim, give our lives a deeper sense of meaning and purpose? Would we feel better if we felt like we worked towards something, rather than simply viewing work as a means to exist, a means to eke out an existence.   

Albert Camus compared our modern work-life to the eternal struggle of Sisyphus. Sisyphus worked to push his boulder to the top of the mountain—it is his punishment—but each time he reached the top, the boulder simply rolled back down the mountain. Sisyphus could not stop, he couldn’t sit down, but instead he had to make his way back to the rock to start all over again. This was his punishment, with no hope of success, of completing his task.

Now, Camus ends his analysis of Sisyphus by claiming that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This claim suggests that perhaps we must imagine Sisyphus happy because we see something of ourselves in Sisyphus’ situation, and to imagine Sisyphus happy is to imagine that happiness is possible in our own lives…

For more on Camus’ Sisyphus, see my article, Thinking for Yourself – Checking in With Camus

Finding a Goal…a Purpose

Nietzsche, culture, philosophy, Camus, Sisyphus, dobetterwithdan

More Americans than ever identify as unhappy. There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to happiness, but Nietzsche’s focus on meaning, on purpose, draws our attention to important implications of contemporary, individualistic living.

“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”

Nietzsche

We need a goal—this seems reasonable.

See my related article, A Formula for Happiness

“Formula for our happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”

Nietzsche

I’m not suggesting – nor do I think Nietzsche was suggesting – that we attempt to rearrange society to match ancient cultures or use the past as some rigid model for remaking contemporary life. Rather, and more importantly, we can examine and look to ancient cultures, understand them, and possibly discover what we are missing, lacking, and therefore gain important insights into what might otherwise help us better our own situation.

Given Nietzsche’s exploration of culture and the importance of great works, goals, and aims beyond the individual, we might conclude that such aims in one’s own life are necessary if we want to live a meaningful life. Finding something beyond ourselves, finding something to work on that goes beyond the needs of day-to-day life. Whether this means finding community projects, working on personal development, or trying to find ways to correct the problems we see in the world around us. Whatever it is, it seems clear that we need some goal, something that anchors our live, unifies it…

Thanks for reading.

Please check out my related articles: Death & Meaning, The Only Proof of Strength, The Habit of Thinking, Creating Opportunities, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make, Note to Self, Perspective—In Pursuit of Truth, Developing a Positive Mindset, and Living Underground.

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philosophy, Nietzsche, happiness, the stoics, good life, eudaimonia

We all want to be happy. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus believed that “our reasons for action arise from our interest in [eudaimonia or] a happy life” (LeBar 2020). The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental source of motivation and a primary justification for acting.   

While most of us identify happiness or the good life as our main goal, we nevertheless possess at best only a vague notion of what it means to be happy. We no doubt want to be happy, but we lack a clear sense of what a happy life looks like. Without a clear understanding of what it means to be happy, we end up making choices based on misguided, flawed assumptions.

Imagine, for example, a person who is bad with money. This individual might assume that his unhappiness, his suffering, is caused by his financial insecurity. The connection between money and happiness probably seems obvious to him in his situation. He believes his money troubles cause his suffering, and he imagines that he would be happy if he could overcome this one obstacle.

When we are unhappy, we tend to focus on one thing, whatever aspect of our situation is most dissatisfactory. We wrongly assume that we would be happy if we fixed our main source of dissatisfaction. Whether it is a relationship, a job/career, our physical health…we tell ourselves – “Once I fix x, then I’ll be happy.” Perhaps such a response to unhappiness is understandable, but it oversimplifies matters and causes us to miss the mark.  

happiness, Nietzsche, philosophy, self help, motivation

“Formula for our happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”

Nietzsche

Nietzsche, like the ancient philosophers before him, valued happiness. He recognized that we need to define the terms of our life, we need to get clear about what matters to us. When Nietzsche says that the formula for happiness is “a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”, he emphasizes the importance of choice. We affirm our values in our choices. A choice is an expression of who we are and what matters to us.

When we use our “yes” and “no” we exercise our agency. Society teaches us to be agreeable, amenable, to conform—it teaches us to say “yes” to social norms, values, and practices and “no” to self-expression and realization. When we say “yes” to fit in, to conform, we say “no” to ourselves, we say “no” to expressing our own values. Happiness therefore involves a “yes” and a “no,” because we can only be happy when we identify what matters to us, what we value, and live in a way that affirms our values.

If we take choice seriously, we exercise our agency. When we know what matters to us, what’s important, we can live accordingly. We can walk our own path, one that is clear before us because we know who we are. In Nietzsche’s happiness formula, “a straight line” suggests having a clear direction, a clear path, because one knows oneself.

“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”

Nietzsche

The final component of Nietzsche’s formula is the importance of a goal. A goal can be a unifying force, a means by which we make sense of and understand everything else in our lives. Our goals allow us to prioritize, to justify our decisions and choices, and to live without the fear of regret. A goal is the expression of our highest values, and through these pursuits we create ourselves and live our own lives.

Thanks for reading.

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Please check out these related articles: The Only Proof of Strength, The Habit of Thinking, The World We Create, Perspective – In pursuit of truth, Accepting Death as a Part of Life, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make, Defining a Life Project, and Reason & Autonomy – Kant’s Ethics

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dobetterwithdan, Philosophy, Morality, Ethics, Good Person

Normative Moral Theory

There are (roughly speaking) 3 main approaches in normative ethics:

(1) Consequentialism: this approach takes consequences to be the main source of normative properties and thus looks to consequences to determine norms for acting. Consequentialists think morality is about the production of “good” (here defined as general welfare, general benefit, happiness, pleasure…etc.). J. S. Mill is probably the most well-known consequentialist and refined the theory of utilitarianism (which has been very influential in contemporary ethics). Peter Singer is perhaps one of the most well-known contemporary advocates of utilitarianism (though a different version than Mill’s classic formulation). See my recent article, Imagination, Happiness, and Utilitarianism, for more information.

(2) Virtue: this approach takes character to be the main feature and factor to determine norms. For virtue ethicists, right action flows from right character. Virtue ethicists are therefore concerned with how we develop into a good person by developing the right character traits and dispositions. Most ancient Greeks followed some sort of virtue ethics. Some prominent figures in virtue ethics are Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, and, for a more contemporary example, Friedrich Nietzsche. For some virtue ethicists, moral development is about self-perfection. For more information, see my articles: What is Virtue? & Happiness & Authenticity.

(3) Deontology: Deontologists think that morality is all about rules and duty (rules and obligations). They argue that what is right depends on the rule that determines the agent’s action. Immanuel Kant is probably the most well-known deontologist (though not the only one). Kant’s moral philosophy has been hugely influential in contemporary ethics. See my recent article, Reason and Autonomy – Kant’s Ethics, for more information.

Normative moral theories are moral theories that try to establish moral norms and principles. Generally speaking, when philosophers create a normative moral theory, the standard is to create a theory that any rational being could accept. This means the goal is to create an argument that any reasonable, rational person can understand and could accept based on the reasons and support given.

Normative moral theories deal with the way we should or ought to act and therefore with how the world should be. These theories deal with choice, agency, and what is up to the individual.

A Personal Development

Moral theory tries to present a coherent, reasonable picture of what could and should be. Putting theory into practice means asking difficult questions about how to apply a given perspective in real situations.

At the heart of moral theories lies individual development and transformation. I’ve always been interested in ethics and morality because of the emphasis on personal growth and development.

Whenever one tries to apply a moral theory there are challenges. It is rare that life—how the world is—matches or fits perfectly with theory—how the world should be. The point, however, is to keep working, to keep striving to be a better person. Remember, we are dealing with how we should be, not looking for justifications for how we happen to be.

Moral theory and evaluation are about trying to transform oneself into a good person and, ultimately, transform the world as it is into the world as it should be. Morality is not about forcing views and values on others, nor is it about passing judgment.

If you only focus on what others do wrong you are not working on yourself, you are not working on your own moral development. Instead, you try to raise yourself up at the expense of others, or perhaps you aim to justify your behavior, yourself, rather than reflecting on how you could improve and what you could do differently.

Most normative moral theories focus on the individual, on one’s own development and moral transformation. This is why, I believe, we so often see in normative moral theories a connection between the good person and the good life.

A moral life is all about personal development. Stive to be good and to live a good life.

Thanks for reading.

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Interested in discovering more? Check out these related articles: Creating Opportunities, Comparisons & Mistakes We Make, Belief as a Noble Risk, Imagination, Note to Self, The Authentic Life, Perspective & Truth, The Habit of Thinking, and Camus & Happiness.

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dobetterwithdan, Nietzsche, Philosophy, Authenticity, Authentic Life

“To acknowledge untruth as a condition of life: this clearly means resisting the usual value feelings in a dangerous manner; and a philosophy that risks such a thing would by that gesture alone place itself beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche

How can “untruth” be a condition of life? What does it mean to be “beyond good and evil”?

I’ve always admired Nietzsche’s philosophy and writing style. Philosophers ask difficult questions, to be sure, but in Nietzsche I found a philosopher who seemed utterly unafraid of pursuing or asking even the most difficult of questions.

(Please see my related article, The Death of God – Nietzsche and Nihilism)

I can recall being fascinated by the idea of going “beyond good and evil” when I first came across it in Nietzsche’s work that bears the same name. The idea seemed attractive—to exist beyond good and evil, to exist, to think, to live outside the normal value constraints we place upon ourselves. To be proudly amoral…even immoral?

But I was naïve when I first came across this idea. I was naïve in the sense that I didn’t fully appreciate what it could mean, what it implied, and what it meant for an individual to live, to exist, beyond “the usual value feelings.” I didn’t appreciate the subtle nuances, nor did I understand the level of difficulty and the loneliness involved in existing beyond good and evil.

(See my related article, What is Strength of Will? – Nietzsche on Honesty and Authenticity)

The Usual Value Feelings

What are the “usual value feelings”? Most of us take for granted that the world is a certain way, that life is a certain way. We accept as given certain values, a certain way of looking at and seeing the world.

The norms we accept, the tacit worldview we accept, is often whatever perspective dominates within our community. From a young age we are taught to think a certain way, to value a certain way, and to see the world as our neighbor sees the world.  

(See my related article, Understanding Our Relationship to Suffering)

We are pressured by social norms, practices, and expectations to be a certain way, to conform. The “usual value feelings” are the dominate values and value feelings of conformity, they are characteristic of the dominant way of looking at and making sense of the world.

For example, we might judge our own appearance against the standard notion of beauty within our society/culture. Or we judge our success against the dominant notion of success.

This is evident, for instance, if you ask any college student why he or she attends university. It is very rare to find a student who is attending college because she wants to learn, to better herself. No, most students are going because they want a good job, they want to be successful and earn money—They want, in short, the life they have been told they should pursue, the one they should value.  

We have taught youth to associate a college degree with success, a good job, and earning power. This norm, this belief that is taken for granted and reinforced in social life, is the dominant motivation for their choices.

(See my related article, Applying to College)

The “usual value feelings” are complicated, diverse, and likely influence most decisions you make in life. To free oneself from such value feelings, from such ways of looking at the world, is a difficult task. We are taught to see the world a certain way, and we are often unaware of just how influential social values, norms, and practices are in determining our own actions and choices.

Beyond Good and Evil

To exist beyond good and evil, beyond “the usual value feelings,” is to exist as an individual. It is to have the strength, the self-awareness, to demand and create one’s own reasons for acting.

To exist beyond good and evil means being willing to question even what is most sacred. The individual who exists beyond good and evil thinks for himself, accepts his agency, and makes himself.

The challenge, however, is that to exist beyond good and evil, to live an authentic life, means taking responsibility for oneself. When we conform, we can explain away perceived failures and problems by finding excuses for ourselves. We can blame the system, the information we were given, others… The authentic individual, however, knows that only he is to blame, that he bears full responsibility for his life, his choices.

(See my related article, Freedom & Responsibility)

To free oneself from the fetters of social pressures, social norms and obligations, is to take control of one’s life and exercise one’s agency. To live authentically.

The Takeaway

Truth, Nietzsche thought, was contingent on perspective, on an individual’s or community’s standpoint. To exist beyond good and evil requires acceptance of the perspectival nature of truth. The free individual, the authentic individual, understands that meaning is what he makes of it.

This is no easy task. We live in communities and face constant pressure to conform. The norms, practices, and dominant values are constantly reinforced and endorsed.

To live an authentic life means taking full responsibility for who we are and who we become. It means having the strength to say “No,” to assert one’s agency and make choices for oneself. The authentic individual knows that only he can live his own life.

As I see it, Nietzsche’s point about existing beyond good and evil is a reminder to the individual to question everything, to dig deep, and to examine the values and beliefs he holds. It is a challenge to really explore what motivates us, what reasons we adopt for acting, and to examine whether we accept our agency and freedom.

Nietzsche reminds us to seriously consider why we adopt certain values, why we take certain things for granted, as given, and he reminds us to always risk asking the hard questions. In short, he reminds us of the dangers that exist in the crowd, in conformity. The greatest danger of all is to lose oneself.

To be an individual, to pursue an authentic life, we have to be willing to exist beyond good and evil.

“To acknowledge untruth as a condition of life: this clearly means resisting the usual value feelings in a dangerous manner; and a philosophy that risks such a thing would by that gesture alone place itself beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche

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Please check out these related articles: The Eternal Recurrence, The Authentic Life – To be an Outsider, The World We Create, Accepting Death, Defining a Life Project, Camus and Authenticity, and Perspective – In pursuit of truth.

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