If you haven’t yet seen it, Google’s new toy/research tool Ngrams is amazing! You can track the frequency of a word or terms appearance over time in the millions of books Google has digitized. There are so many academic uses of this tool that we haven’t even begun to think of yet. My colleagues and I working on intellectual humility have already consulted it to look at the frequency of some of intellectual humility’s synonyms and antonyms, in order to give us a better conception of how familiar with a term people are.

My friend and colleague, Mark Alfano (Oregon), has also done some interesting preliminary research on various virtues and other common terms in moral psychology. He concludes by turning to Nietzsche, who argued in Genealogy of Morals that there two different moralities: good and bad on the one hand and good and evil on the other. Nietzsche claims the latter is older, but has been replaced by the former due the slave revolt that was the rise of Christianity in Europe. Nietzsche, of course, despises the slave morality of good and evil. Instead, he calls for a return to the aristocratic notions of good and bad. Mark Alfano, seeing the Ngram below, thinks Nietzsche would be pleased, as it could been seen as evidence of precisely the shift in morality Nietzsche wanted. Let’s consider this idea more closely.



There are a few things to note. First, note where the evil (red) line crosses below the bad (blue) line, roughly just after 1890. Genealogy of Morals wasn’t published until 1887. So it seems unlike that Nietzsche writings were having an impact so quickly and upon English writers. Instead it looks like the decline in the use of ‘evil’ was already well underway beginning in the 1840s. Also note that the line for ‘bad’ does not go up, but remains relatively flat. So it’s not as if people are shifting to the aristocratic moral notions of good and bad. Finally, if we expand our focus prior to 1800, a more complicated picture appears. Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 10.40.26 AM

Prior to 1800, there is no clear pattern of usage between the two terms. If we assume that the frequency of usage of these two terms does in fact at least partially indicate the acceptance of the aristocratic and slave moralities (as Nietzsche posited), then his Genealogy should predict much higher frequency of ‘evil’ over ‘bad’. Such is not the case. This result then calls into question whether the two terms do represent wholly distinct moral notions.