The "Last Man" problem of her title is essentially this: the "last man" whom Nietzsche derisively describes in the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a hedonist who aspires only to "a comfortable life, entertainment, distraction, and an agreeable enough death" (2), and who thus "views suffering as something that should simply be eradicated, never as something meaningful" (3). Weber, who also sometimes uses the same phrase as Nietzsche is, on Shaw's reading, also referring to the "last man" in his famous line about our modern "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." Both Weber and Nietzsche find this hedonist contemptible; as Shaw aptly puts it:
[T]he threat to the dignity of humanity derives, for Nietzsche, from our unwillingness to suffer or to make others suffer for the sake of great human goals, even as we acknowledge such goals to be what makes the spectacle of human life on this planet something worthwhile and valuable. (4)
Weber, like Nietzsche, sees suffering as both an inescapable feature of the human situation; as necessary for "what makes the spectacle of human life on this planet something worthwhile and valuable"; and as only tolerable if meaningful. Inescapable suffering can never be meaningful in purely hedonic terms, and since it is, at the same time, part and parcel of what makes "the spectacle of human life...worthwhile," we are in a dilemma if the 'last man' prevails. (Weber, on her reading, is particularly interested in the political ramifications of this dilemma for secular political orders, since the exercise of political power necessarily imposes suffering on its subjects.)
Shaw, like a number of other writers (including Daniel Came and Simon May), takes the need for suffering to be meaningful to be a kind of "theodicy-demand," though for reasons that will become clear, I think that's not a helpful analogy, and beyond the simple fact that Nietzsche is obviously not interested in how to reconcile God's omniscience and omnipotence with human misery. But adopting the language of theodicy allows her to give a nice statement of the "'Last Man' Problem" later in the paper: "in the absence of a solution to the theodicy-demand our commitment to non-hedonistic ends will be endangered, for our suffering will already seem excessive and our primary aim will be to diminish it" (26). And, of course, if some of us can not remain committed to non-hedonic ends, then there will be nothing left of the "spectacle[s]" that make life worth living.
Shaw says that both Nietzsche and Weber accept that humans have a "psychological need for an overall justification of human suffering" (7) and that,
They both adopt...a holistic view of justifying suffering. It is a psychological, rather than a normative claim, and it concerns the amount of justification that will satisfy us sufficiently to support motivations of certain kinds, more specifically, our motivation to act in accordance with non-hedonistic values...
What Nietzsche seems to suggest is that acknowledgment of the truth [about the human situation] will lead to a sense of ultimate futility that is motivationally debilitating...Insofar as we must engage in action in the world, and this action is liable to entail suffering and sacrifice of various sorts, an overall theodicy has to be the necessary psychological anchor for all our motivations. I shall refer to this holistic requirement as the theodicy-demand. (7, 10)Shaw suggests that the "obliviousness" strategy of achieving states of Dionysian ecstasy (as suggested in The Birth of Tragedy) is of no real help, since "this kind of experience can only be available to humans as an extraordinary and transient state. It is not compatible with functioning in the world" (16). The alternative is to try to justify suffering, render it meaningful, by appeal to the purposes that justify it. (I will skip over a discussion of how the ascetic ideal supposedly does this; I was not persuaded by Shaw here, but interested readers can refer to my discussion in the relevant chapter of my Nietzsche on Morality.) Weber recognizes both possibilities (he associates the former with various forms of mysticism), but is primarily concerned with finding "substitute[s] for meaning-conferring supra-human purposes" (25), which are no longer plausible in the rationalized, modern world. On Shaw's account, Nietzsche "suggests that we posit super-human goals," adding that "the more inhumane aspects of his thought follow from this proposal" (32). My suspicion is this involves taking some of Zarathustra's rhetoric a bit too seriously; I propose a different account in "The Truth is Terrible," which I won't repeat here (I will be putting a revised version on-line soon, which incorporates some of Shaw's analysis). Weber, by contrast, sees the phenomenon of charisma as playing this role of a non-religious purpose that could justify suffering (Shaw's discussion is illuminating, but since Weber's view is not my immediate concern, I will not try to summarize her analysis).
Shaw concludes by taking issue with both Nietzsche and Weber--indeed, she suggests that Weber, given his account of rationalization and the disenchantment of the modern world, is wrong to think the theodicy-demand is "inevitable"(40-41). Shaw claims that not all suffering is "justification-apt," that only suffering that flows from someone's intention to inflict suffering demands justification. She writes:
Much of the suffering that we undergo (illnesses, the death of loved ones, the fear of one's own death etc. etc.) should not raise any demand for justification and although it will inevitably be burdensome to us, even unbearably so, it should not weigh on us as being unjustified. If it does, we are still operating with an essentially theistic view of the world [i.e., we are viewing all suffering as caused by a super-human agency]. (41, emphasis added)Here I worry that Shaw has forgotten her earlier observation that the demand for "justification" is not "normative" but "psychological." (I may not be understanding what she means by this.) Nietzsche claims it is a psychological fact (there is good evidence for it, by the way, as the revised version of "The Truth is Terrible" will discuss [thanks to some great help I received from Isaac Wiegman at Wash U/St. Louis]) that suffering gives rise to ressentiment, and that undischarged and undirected ressentiment is fatal to a person. Sure, it may not be rational to want a justification for a lot of suffering that people endure, but Nietzsche's hypothesis is that absent a sense of the suffering as "meaningful," people will lose their hold on life, whether that is reasonable or not. This is supposed to be a brute psychological fact about their affective lives, not about what it is reasonable to seek by way of a normative defense. Shaw's objection may stand against Weber, though it will depend on how much of Nietzsche's psychology Weber is taking on board: on this, I have no informed opinion.
Here I am reminded of an important point made by Ken Gemes in his illuminating review of Bernard Reginster's important book. Reginster’s account of nihilism (and ultimately of affirmation), Gemes objects, is “overly cognitive. Nihilism in its depest manifestation is for Nietzsche an affective rather than a cognitive disorder.” Gemes, “Nihilism and the Affirmation of Life,” European Journal of Philosophy 16 (2008), p. 461. Reginster treats nihilism as coming in two main forms: “disorientation” resulting from the realization that there are no ultimate, objective values; or “despair” resulting from the realization that one’s values can not be realized in the world as it is. Reginster, like Heidegger, presents a Nachlass-centric account of nihilism, though he does so much more skillfully and interestingly. But he misses, I fear, the more central worry about “nihilism” in Nietzsche’s corpus, namely, that people will experience life as not worth living—that is, after all, the “suicidal nihilism” that is central to Nietzsche in the Genealogy. That is the theme that runs from The Birth of Tragedy to the very end in Nietzsche’s corpus, and while it is closer to what Reginster calls the nihilism of “despair,” it is not, as Gemes notes, a matter primarily of belief as opposed to affective orientation towards life. In the end, I worry that Shaw has taken a similarly "overly cognitive" approach to what's at stake in the demand for justification. (A minor side-point about the Gemes essay, which is very much worth reading in conjunction with Reginster's book: he says at the start, completely falsely, that "nihilism" is a central theme in Nietzsche while "morality" is not.)
Some skepticism notwithstanding, I found Shaw's paper to be one of the most rich and stimulating papers on Nietzsche I have read in recent years, one that goes to absolutely core issues in his corpus. In the revised version of "The Truth is Terrible," I will try to do a better job defending a version of something like what Shaw calls the "obliviousness" response to the problem of suffering. But as I acknowledged in the first version of this paper to go on-line, Shaw's paper had a profound effect on my way of thinking about these issues. I encourage everyone to read it.