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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"What Bestiality of Thought": A Nietzschean Critique of Guilt and Punishment and the Economics of Suffering and Cruelty

  • Author(s): Johnson, Mark Cunningham
  • Advisor(s): Clark, Maudemarie
  • Fischer, John M
  • et al.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche proposes eliminating the concepts of guilt and punishment from our social institutions and sanctions. I argue that doing so is a plausible project that entails no negative repercussions to our ethical and social lives, and is desirable from a moral standpoint. Nietzsche’s genealogy of moral guilt shows him to be exclusively concerned with the feeling of “pervasive guilt” produced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Pervasive guilt as a moral-religious interpretation of human suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy provides a pretext to satisfy cruelty through self-punishment for moral wrongdoing. This feeling survives declining theistic belief and remains a feature of secular cultures and moralities. Pervasive guilt is not a moral emotion. It encourages self-cruelty as a means to feeling power and focusses attention on feelings of personal failure, rather than on the person wronged. Eliminating guilt from human psychology restores the conscience to the function of guiding ethical behavior through responsiveness to others, rather than self-punishment. Nietzsche’s genealogy reveals punishment’s roots in human cruelty and the desire to retaliate against the cause of injury. The concept of punishment emerges from primitive economic thinking that posits equivalences between injuries received and the injurer’s suffering as compensation provided to the injured party. As a community’s response to crime, punishment has had different expected results, but remains essentially a justification for inflicting suffering on the wrongdoer, becoming the unquestioned means for addressing crime. But punishment only anesthetizes the feeling of being wronged and replaces it with the pleasure of making suffer. Recognizing punishment as an interpretation allows a distinction between sanctions and punishment. Sanctions for crime can be reinterpreted as having the aim of protecting the community without punitive intent. Thus, eliminating punishment does not entail leaving crime unaddressed. Eliminating punishment aims at resisting the distorting demands of the victim’s ressentiment, it avoids anesthetizing moral protest through violent affect, and aims to direct the criminal’s attention away from their own suffering and towards recognition of the wrong done to the victim.

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