Nietzsche: the Conscience

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Nietzsche: The Conscience

In his second essay of the Geneaology of Morals, Nietzsche attempts to identify and explain the origin of the conscience. He does not adopt the view of the conscience that is accepted by the “English Psychologists”, such as Bentham, J. Mill, J.S. Mill and Hume, as the result of an innate moral feeling. Rather, it is his belief that the moral content of our conscience is formed during childhood under the influence of society. Nietzsche defines the conscience as an introspective phenomenon brought about by a feeling of responsibility, in which one analyzes their own morality due to the internalization of the values of society. This definition holds the position that the conscience is not something innate to humans, rather it has arisen through evolution. In light of this, this paper will give insight into how Nietzsche reaches this conclusion, as well as what results from it. In order to do this there will be discussion of guilt, punishment, the will to power and implications from society.

The way in which we currently view guilt is as having an association with accountability and responsibility. To hold a promise; one is required to have a trained and able memory, and to have a confidence in one’s own predictability. Society and morality allow us to make ourselves predictable by providing a common set of laws and customs to guide behavior. When the concept of free will is introduced, a sovereign individual feels a responsibility to act according to these guidelines set by society. Being free to act in any manner, the burden of responsibility is placed on the individual rather than the society. “If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory” (Nietzsche 1989b, p. 61). Therefore, the central stimuli in the formation of conscience are this sense of responsibility and a trained memory.

Nietzsche says that while our current view of guilt is associated with accountability and responsibility; this has not always been the case. In more ancient societies, guilt was more simply equivalent to debt. For example, if one failed to fulfill a promise to another, the person who has been let down could punish them somehow to make up for the wrongdoing. This would give the person who was wronged a good feeling because if he could not get what he really wanted in the first place, he could at least inflict some sort of punishment upon the person who wronged him. At this point the matter would be settled and the two parties would see each other as being even. This type of system helps to ensure that people will not fail to uphold their promises more than once, but more importantly it allows for a more “cheerful” society. Even though the act of punishing another may be “cruel”, it is simple. You commit a wrongdoing, you make up for it by submitting to punishment, and everyone is even. Both parties feel fulfilled. This is not how is happens in todays world. The feeling of bad conscience looms over those who fail to keep promises as regardless of punishment we are still being judged by society and ourselves.

Having dismissed punishment This creditor/debtor relationship applies not only from person to person, but from person to society. A society that provides shelter, protection, and other benefits to its members also puts them in debt, even if not for anything other than its existence. An important difference between older civilizations and more modern ones is that in the past the member of society who was wronged was the force who would uphold justice; but in more modern society, it is the community itself that does this. The person offended does not enjoy the gratification of being the one to punish the person who has done him wrong. Therefore the institution of law ends up facilitating feelings of ressentiment in individuals who are offended, by denying them their drives, contributing to general...
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