Nietzsche proposes four great errors philosophy has made throughout history. The first (and the most dangerous) is “mistaking the consequence for the cause.” Nietzsche claims that all rules of religion and morality fall victim to this error, and priests and moralizers are responsible for preaching it. He cites an example from the Book of Cornaro, in which Cornaro argues that a “meagre diet” leads to a happy, moral life. But Cornaro mistakes the consequence for the cause, misunderstanding that it was really his slow metabolism that necessitated a meager diet (and thus, what allowed him to live longer).
Moralists like to prove the goodness or rightness of their moral worldview by suggesting that good things (consequence) happen to people who have good morals (cause). But is this so? As an example, Nietzsche cites a book by a 15th-century nobleman named Luigi Cornaro. In his book, Cornaro erroneously claims that a scant diet caused him to live longer; in reality, Cornaro’s slow metabolism (and slow-beating heart) meant that he required less food to survive and also meant that he would live a longer life anyway. Nietzsche thinks that the Church, like Cornaro, is using a set of pre-existing conditions to justify a set of actions or moral framework.
Most religious principles hold that if a person does certain things and avoids doing other things, they’ll be happy—that happiness comes from virtue. Nietzsche proposes an alternative formula, one that does not mistake consequence for cause. In this alternative formula, virtue comes from happiness. Nietzsche argues that virtuousness is only possible when a person has had a long, happy life. Whereas the Church claims that vice ruins a person, Nietzsche proposes that vice is a symptom of ruin and unhappiness. Unhappy people need vice to forget their unhappiness. For example, a young, sickly man’s friends might argue that an illness is to blame for his demeanor. And yet, the man only fell sick in the first place because he was impoverished and tired.
Nietzsche further unpacks the Church’s error of mistaking cause for consequence. For instance, the Church argues that a person who behaves morally (the cause) will be happy (the consequence). In fact, though, the opposite is more likely true. Nietzsche argues that only people who are already happy and fulfilled in their lives have the freedom and opportunity to behave virtuously. Likewise, people who resort to acts of violence and criminality aren’t ruined because they behaved badly/immorally—rather, these people have to resort to violence or crime because their lives are already ruined. They do bad things because they’re desperate—not the other way around.
The second great error is “false causality.” People misguidedly believe that they are in control of and can understand why they behave the way they do—that they understand their motives. Today, we understand that the “inner world” is a complicated, mysterious place full of “phantoms and false lights,” one of which is the will. Today, the will no longer explains behavior. Similarly, we can no longer maintain that “motive” and the “ego” cause or explain behavior. Nietzsche thinks that humanity’s belief in the three “inner facts” of will, spirit, and ego have corrupted empiricism. That is, humanity’s supposedly empirical, objective understanding of being is in fact the ego projecting itself onto the world.
Nietzsche argues that rationality is more subjective and flawed than the ancient philosophers had once thought: we can never know the full truth of the world, since everything we know is filtered through our subjective ego. Nietzsche blames the error of “false causality” for society’s worship of the three “inner facts,” the will, the spirit, and the ego. Put simply, Nietzsche thinks that unknowingly projecting the ego onto experience has led people to create the false concepts of being (immaterial existence) and God, for instance.
The third great error is the “error of imaginary causes.” Nietzsche offers as an example somebody hearing the sound of a distant cannon shot and constructing a story to explain and give meaning to the sound. But what the person is actually doing is using their reaction to the shot to explain its cause. Nietzsche thinks we can blame most physical feelings—“every sort of restraint, pressure, tension, explosion”—for humanity’s “cause-creating drive.” We want to know why stimuli make us feel the way they do—it’s not enough simply to acknowledge that we feel a certain way. In fact, we only become aware of our feelings once we identify a cause for those feelings. And our memories of feelings influence the motivations we assign to new stimuli. In this way, we replace “habituation” with “investigation.”
People are so uncomfortable with uncertainty that they look for explanations and construct stories to give events meaning and alleviate that discomfort. They then falsely identify these made-up stories as the causes of those events. Yet again, our sensory experience determines our reality (we respond to the feeling of discomfort by making up a story to alleviate that discomfort), yet we mistake sensory experience for rationality. Though we might think we are using reason to explain events, we’re really just instinctually responding to physical sensation. Instinct fuels humanity’s “cause-creating drive.”
Nietzsche defines a “psychological explanation” as a person’s efforts to assign a cause to something to comfort themselves and regain a sense of power. When we feel afraid, our instinctual response is to eliminate danger. We think that any explanation—even a false one—is better than none. To alleviate fear, we don’t seek out the best explanation, but the explanation that will best assuage our fear. Over time, we get used to accepting this kind of explanation. For instance, the banker always thinks about business, and the Christian always thinks about sin.
For Nietzsche, it all circles back to power. People—and institutions that create and enforce moral codes, like the Church—create moral codes to gain or maintain a sense of power and control. Certain stimuli imperil and discomfort us, and we create explanations to suppress or subdue those stimuli to assuage our fears. These explanations gain traction with repetition, and eventually nobody questions their legitimacy.
All of morality and religion is based on this error of imaginary causes. For instance, morality and religion create imaginary “evil spirits” to explain all manner of “unpleasant general feelings.” We create reasons to assign “punishment” to things that morality tells us we shouldn’t do. Nietzsche derides Schopenhauer’s assertion that we in fact deserve every physical or mental discomfort we feel.
Morality and religion assert that people who experience “unpleasant general feelings” must be sinners who invite the attention of “evil spirits.” But in fact, morality has only invented the concept of “evil spirits” as an excuse to get people to change their behavior. The idea is that people will stop behaving badly if they think that doing so will bring them closer to God and will bring an end to their suffering.
The fourth great error is “the error of free will.” Nietzsche condemns free will as something theologians made up to make people “‘accountable’” for their immoral actions and dependent on religion for redemption. Free will also makes people feel guilty.
The Church invents free will to make people feel accountable and guilty for their sins—and dependent on the Church to assuage that guilt.
Nietzsche argues that nobody “gives” us our qualities and behaviors: “not God, not society, not [our] ancestors.” Nor is any person accountable for their own actions or existence. Nietzsche derides the idea of “intelligible freedom” put forth by Kant and Plato. People aren’t the consequence of “a specific design, a will, a purpose,” therefore they ought not be expected to strive to achieve an “ideal of morality” as put forth by religion. We are all part of the greater whole. To judge one person would be to judge the whole, and we can’t judge the whole, since “nothing exists apart from the whole.” Finally, Nietzsche sees the concept of “God” as “the greatest objection to existence.” It’s only through denying God that we may redeem the world.
Nietzsche criticizes the notion that people should strive to—or are even able to—understand how and why they do the things they do. Furthermore, the whole idea that any person (i.e., a moralist, theologian, or philosopher) can determine which behaviors are worthy of punishment is illogical, since no individual person can observe and assess “the whole” of existence as an objective and unbiased outsider. Nietzsche sees human existence and behavior as random and uncontrollable—it's not part of “a specific design.” As such, there’s no “specific” moral framework against which we can objectively judge human behavior.