A Socialist Reading of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” – Part 2

A while ago I posted about the first section of Friedrich Nitzsche’s famous work, ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’, talking about how socialists might take the useful ideas from this rabidly anti-socialist thinker and use them for illumination, while criticising Nietzsche’s conclusions on his own terms.

So now I figured I might as well complete the series with posts on the second and third sections of that work. So here’s section 2 – which announces itself as being about guilt, justice, and punishment.

Nietzsche begins however by posing a surprising and unfamiliar question: how is it possible to breed an animal that can promise? A two-year-old child, or a cat, or a monkey, seem to be simply incapable of promising – whatever promise a two-year-old expresses now, we can put no weight on it, cannot accept it as a guarantee of the future.

And yet with adult humans, it seems, we can. How is this possible, if the latter developed out of the former – the growth of the child of course is largely governed by society, but this pushes the question back to how such a human society is possible on the basis of the monkey societies it evolved out of?

This may seem like an interesting but irrelevant question, but it’s actually of central importance. Not only is this promising ability necessary for any sort of contract or law, but it’s necessary in a certain sense for a single organism to be a single person.

Say for example I am making a plan and I need ape A to perform a certain action next month. How can I try to ensure that this happens? If it were already next month, I might go and talk to ape A – but my plan says I won’t be there. So I go to talk to her now. Now, if ape A ‘cannot make promises’, then although I can talk to the same organism, the same physical body, the same object, as will perform that future action (or not), I cannot speak to the same person. If ape A says ‘yes, I will do that next month’, these are not the words of the person who will, next month, either perform or not perform this action. There’s no connection between her now and her in the future – in a practical sense, they are different people.

So it’s only by this ‘ability to promise’ (to remember, to ‘bind oneself’), that an animal can ‘make themselves’ a single integrated person. To the extent that we are forgetful or unreliable, we are ‘more than one person’, ‘fragmented’.

How then is it possible to ‘breed an animal capable of promising’, to integrate people in this way? Nietzsche’s essential answer is ‘by pain’. By inflicting pain on a creature we ‘burn into’ its memory whatever particular rule or obligation is desired. According to Nietzsche, the prehistory of humanity is precisely such a process of the endless use of pain and cruelty to ‘impose a memory’ onto humans.

Nietzsche doesn’t discuss the precise mechanisms of this ‘building memory’ in much more detail – he doesn’t do the work of a cognitive psychologist. But he uses this preliminary discussion to essentially re-orient the whole question of a ‘genealogy of morals’. It is not, he suggests, any struggle between some ‘force for good’, whether that’s supposed to be ‘compassion’, ‘love of justice’, a ‘moral instinct’, religious ‘piety’, or whatever, and some ‘force for evil’ – ‘human nature’, ‘selfishness’, ‘sin’, etc.

In sum, he wishes to replace ‘a struggle between goodness and evil’ with ‘a struggle between cruelty and forgetfulness’.

The rest of this section involves two major ways to flesh out this general idea (internalised instincts, and debt-relations) but we might insert a preliminary comment. Certainly there is a lot of cruelty in history, and certainly the question Nietzsche poses is an interesting one, which nicely illustrates the post-Darwinian style of his thinking. But we might be very unconvinced that the link is so simple. Surely things other than pain can encourage remembering? Love, for example – don’t we remember commitments to people we care deeply about more than to acquaintances? More broadly, isn’t positive reinforcement just as powerful as negative reinforcement?

In a word, aren’t there ways to train and educate people other than disciplining them?

And if so, don’t we need a further explanation of the cutting off of flesh and the burning at the stake and the public executions and the ripping out of hearts and so forth? But then that’s not entirely contrary to what Nietzsche says – for he sharply distinguishes the function of something from its origin. Even if we observe that the function of prehistoric cruelty has perhaps been to create reliable people, this leaves open the question of what the origin of this cruelty was.

So to consider that we should look at the rest of what he says here.

Having already considered ‘good and bad/evil’ as ideals, he now enquires about ‘justice’ – and his account of it is strongly ‘materialist’ in deriving the high and abstract from the low and concrete. “That major moral principle “guilt” derived its origin from the very materialistic idea “debt”…punishment developed as a repayment, completely without reference to any assumption about freedom or lack of freedom of the will”. This could the be generalised to the community, so that one who broke the law was seen as failing to repay the debt they owed to the community.

Obviously, repayment of debts is one of the areas where ‘the ability to promise’ is vital – certainly, reading, e.g., ancient Greek discussions of ‘justice’ brings up repeatedly talk of ‘giving someone what is due to them’ or ‘remedying an imbalance of benefits’, but how far does it make sense to speak of punishment as repayment? If I lend you money, and you cannot repay, how is cutting flesh off your body any satisfaction to me? Nietzsche gives the obvious answer:

“To what extent can suffering be a compensation for “debts”? To the extent that making someone suffer provides the highest degree of pleasure.”

That is, Nietzsche’s account takes as a premise that humans are naturally sadistic creatures. I’ll discuss this more fully in a moment.

The other topic he looks at more closely is ‘bad conscience’, i.e. the feeling of being guilty (as opposed to judging others to deserve punishment). Nietzsche argues that there’s no very close connection between punishment and the feeling of guilt, and that punishment most commonly has the result merely of making people more cautious and prudent – not at all of making them feel guilty. So where does that feeling come from?

Nietzsche’s answer is quite similar to the analysis I’ve offered of ascetic ideology in the past – the feeling of guilt is a way of torturing oneself when there’s no-one else to torture, a way of dominating oneself when all external outlets for this have been blocked by ‘civilisation’.

Nietzsche’s view of what civilisation involves is very harsh – he presents as a sort of artistic act of construction carried out by ‘natural masters’, humans who are by nature aggressive and dominant. They have no feelings of guilt, because their instincts are perfectly satisfied – but those who they ‘shape’ into a society do.

This brings us back to Nietzsche’s underlying psychology, in which the desire for power is the major basis of human motivation, and in which sadism features as a natural corollary of that. The ‘will to power’ is not necessarily sadistic – he explains how the stronger a society becomes, less vicious are its punishments, because it is less threatened and thus can instead take pleasure in the power of ‘mercy’ – of being so great as to not need to punish harshly.

However, even if one accepts this basic premise, two major points of criticism emerge.

Firstly, if we look at humans with an unprejudiced eye, it seems quite clear that there are many motives that aren’t simply about the will to power, and that these come to us quite naturally and spontaneously. In particular, Nietzsche leaves little space for empathy or compassion as a natural instinct of a healthy mind. And sadism, though gratifying the will to power, requires some level of suppression of empathy.

But if we grant this natural empathy, it turns a lot of what he says upside down. Because then, firstly, a question arises as to why creditors might want to indulge their will to power at the expense of empathy – might it be because we are dealing with property-owners expressing property-rights, which are a form of anti-social will-to-power already?

Similarly, it undoes his claim that the heroic ‘masters’ who subjugate the masses into society are free of repression, neurosis, or guilt, while their subjects are full of them. Firstly, those bloody-handed rulers have to suppress their natural empathy to a great extent, which may damage their psychological health, and secondly, ascetic self-domination will not appeal necessarily to all the oppressed, but only when there’s a disproportion between the will to power (which may be artificially inflated or deflated by socialisation) and opportunities to satisfy it.

The other problem is the tension between Nietzsche’s simultaneous insistence that the socially dominant are naturally a masterful ‘species’ of humans, and that the will to power is the same in all humans. This tension between sameness and difference, he fudges with the idea of ‘sickness’ or ‘ill-health’ – those who are dominated are just ‘not working properly’, and if they were then they’d be in charge, merrily massacring villages and so forth.

If he were consistent enough to stick with one or the other, then the result would be either A) some people are just anti-social and destructive, but most aren’t, so peace and harmony are possible if we just get rid of the anti-social ‘master races’, i.e. exterminate all rulers and oppressors and their families, or B) people are basically set up the same but live in structures where some dominate others simply for structural reasons, not through any innate superiority. So if we just change the structures, then we can live in peace and harmony.

That is, it seems as though Nietzsche embraces a latent contradiction, covered over with an implausible notion of ‘sickness’, precisely in order to avoid the possibility of a society without cruelty and warfare.

I’ll leave broad conclusions to the analysis of section 3.

One Response to “A Socialist Reading of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” – Part 2”

  1. “The Genealogy of Morals” « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] July 7, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork This is the final part of my reading of, and critique of, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, focused on the third section, […]


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