Nietzsche on Free Will

There is some confusion and misunderstanding floating around concerning Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the concept of free will. By which I’m referring to the willful inability of many admirers of the philosopher to accept the fact that he wholeheartedly rejected the existence of anything akin to free will.

To Nietzsche, free will is a concept that cannot be separated from its religious underpinnings, thus: “God has been thoroughly refuted; ditto, ‘the judge,’ ‘the rewarder.’ Also his ‘free will'” (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 53).

Since Nietzsche gives no credence to the religious worldview, he sees no reason why religious concepts ought not to be rejected right along with the rest of the divine packaging, “The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudice of Philosophers,” section 21).

He does acknowledge, however, that many of his irreligious peers still try to preserve some notion of a non-supernatural version of free will, a sentiment that Nietzsche describes as the need for individuals to hold onto a sense of personal responsibility, “some will not give up their ‘responsibility,’ their belief in themselves, the personal right to their merits at any price” (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” section 21). The mindset of the naturalistic thinkers who hold to the existence of free will, is their attempt to salvage the idea of accountability (their own, and that of others), and by extension, the institution of justice and due punishment for one’s actions.

But Nietzsche rejects this desire as a misdirected conflation of two separate issues; namely, a conflation of justice with punishment, and a further conflation of both of these with free will:

The idea, now so obvious, apparently so natural, even unavoidable, that had to serve as the explanation of how the sense of justice ever appeared on earth–“the criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted differently”–is in fact an extremely late and subtle form of human judgment and inference: whoever transposes it to the beginning is guilty of a crude misunderstanding of the psychology of more primitive mankind (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).

Nietzsche proposes that the origin of justice can be more accurately characterized as a form of trade, serving as a method to equalize two competing parties, and not necessarily as a punishment for one’s freely chosen actions (i.e. free will). In fact, in such a framework the emphasis on punishing offenders is superseded by the notion that, “every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).

As already mentioned, Nietzsche’s rejection of free will is tied in with his general rejection of theism. And he feels that the efforts of atheistic philosophers to retain the faulty concept, while still proposing a godless reality, is misguided; not to mention counterproductive:

Surely, that philosophers’ invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and in evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the interest of the gods in man, in human virtue, could never be exhausted (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).

Nietzsche argues that the reason free will was originally invented as a concept was to give religiously-minded philosophers a means by which to allow for unconstrained supernatural intervention on the part of the various gods man had hitherto created. In short, free will is a trump card conveniently utilized to give deities a meaning to exist:

The course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it—reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).

Now, a fair question for a reader to ask is how Nietzsche’s rejection of free will does not also lead to a dismantling of much of Nietzsche’s own philosophy, in particular his conception of “the will to power,” and his continuous call for individuals to create their own values in life? Although a good point, it nonetheless rests on a superficial reading of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the subject.

It is true that Nietzsche heralded the idea of individuality, but not in any sense that would imply self-improvement. He fervently maintained that, “independence was for the very few” (Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit,” section 29), and even these individuals had no choice in the matter, because their instinct for individualistic expression is also deterministically confined, just as the herd-instinct of the masses can’t help itself but to subvert the independence of the few (On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay,” section 2). In this regard, there is nothing “free” about Nietzsche’s “will to power,” which is itself entirely instinctive, driven not by any conscious intent or choice-value, but on purely mechanical responses to environmental and genetic factors. Thus, in Nietzsche’s own language, the will to power is nothing more but the instinct for freedom (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18), which of course is an instinct no one can freely choose to have.

Nietzsche understood how his views on this matter would make some uncomfortable (in particular his call for persons to abandon a concept like free will, upon which so much of the popular conception of personhood is based on), to which he bluntly responded: “One should guard against thinking lightly of this phenomenon merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18).

According to Nietzsche, free will–being fundamentally an illusion–necessitates that we have no choice but to act as if our decisions are free agents. Therefore, the disdain individuals feel about the fact that their actions are entirely deterministic is itself a causal result of the way by which human perception has evolved to relate to its environment. We have no free will, but we are determined to behave as if we do. Whatever, “painfulness” or “ugliness,” people imagine will result from acknowledging this point is moot on principle.

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