Nietzsche on the Origin of Justice

Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society – Western Society of  Criminology

Similar to the sentiment found in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in section 92 of his 1878 work Human, All-Too-Human, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the concept of what is just correlates from mutual agreements between persons.  Hobbes calls these agreements covenants, Nietzsche refers to it more pointedly by stating that, “the initial character of justice is the character of a trade,” and “justice is repayment and exchange on the assumptions of an approximately equal power position.”  Furthermore, Nietzsche follows Hobbes’ thinking that the root cause driving mankind to establish such ties is the desire for preservation, “Justice naturally derives from prudent concern with self-preservation.”  However, despite agreeing with Hobbes’ position on the natural origin of justice, Nietzsche differs sharply from the English philosopher in his analysis on man’s comprehension of justice.

Whereas Hobbes deems man as a rational animal, and his desire to forge a community, and maintain it justly, as the natural extension of his intellectual fortitude, Nietzsche has no such respect for human intellect.  He states, “In accordance with their intellectual habits, men have forgotten the original purpose of the so-called just, fair actions, and for millennia children have been taught to admire and emulate such actions.”  But if the origin of justice resides within man’s natural instinct for self-preservation, then–according to Nietzsche–it is by definition that just actions are egotistic.  Yet, mankind has forgotten this.  Instead, what one sees is the propagation of the idea that just actions are the result of selfless impulses, causing this false sentiment to be heralded in ever higher esteem as it gets passed on through the generations.  As this false notion of justice becomes more ingrained, individuals add value to this baseless sentiment, causing the morals of society to be founded on a flimsy structure of self-delusions, causing Nietzsche to declare: “How little the world would look moral without forgetfulness!”

The problem with what Nietzsche states here is the dubious premise he starts out with when he declares, “Justice (fairness) originates among those who are approximately equally powerful.”  However, it can reasonably be argued that, rather that originating amongst equals, the concept of justice traces its origin to the very presence of power inequality.  In an aristocratic system, justice is meant to preserve the hierarchical order by keeping the non-aristocratic masses content enough to not rebel.  In a democratic system, justice is meant to uphold the universal application of the nation’s laws, without regard to one’s individual power or influence (remember we’re speaking ideally here, not in practice).  In either case, justice did not originate among the equally powerful out of a fear of mutual destruction, but out of the sentiment that if a society is to function on all levels, some institutional gestures must be made to protect individuals from the influence of power disparity (even if such gestures are only superficially enforced).

Nietzsche’s point about justice being an extension of man’s egotistic instinct for self-preservation is still viable within this setting, however the strength of his assertion concerning the character of justice being a character of trade becomes problematic, since in the two examples above justice is not a mutual trade amongst equals but a bridging amongst societal antipodes.  It is true that justice can be an understanding between those of equal power, however the premise that this is the origin of justice, as opposed to being merely a derivative (or subset) of a broader notion of justice, is a matter that needs to be demonstrate, rather than simply granted as a given.

Truly, Nietzsche’s greatest blunder here is that he abandoned one of his own core principles; he attempted to give an absolutist answer to an issue that is largely provisional.  All-too-human, indeed.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human. Section 92, “Origin of Justice.”

All quotes used are taken from Walter Kaufmann’s The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000 reprint, 1967 original), pages 148-149.

Justice vs. Vengeance

People hate criminals, and I don’t mean that in a broad idealistic sense.  I mean that, in real life, people genuinely despise criminals.  I had to qualify the last sentence with in real life, as I’m well aware how much we love to cheer on the bad guys in movies, but whenever there is an actual trial going on, we still tend to side against the guy/gal being prosecuted; often for good reasons.  We simply can’t help but voice our desire to see justice against the perpetrator/s, so that we as a society can be assured about the efficiency of our judiciary system is keeping us safe.  (When I say “we,” I am not trying to be rhetorical or play up some kind of subtle “ignorance of the masses” shtick,  since I have no hesitations about including myself in the aforementioned group of people.)

In the western world, prisons are meant to be institutions of punishment and rehabilitation; a place where those who step outside the law can be safely secluded from the general population, making sure they don’t cause any further harm to the public, and a place where the dangerous behavior of criminals can be corrected so that they can reenter public life as law abiding citizens (it must also be kept in mind that much of this is dependent on the nature and circumstances of the crime one was prosecuted for).  However, I have to admit, that when I hear that a criminal has received a sentence for a crime, I’m not concerned about any of the above; what I care about is satisfying my own indirect sense of vengeance against the offender–and from what I can gather, the prison system (at least in the U.S., but I suspect other places too) is regulated in such a way as to feed this thirst for punishment I (and much of the public) have towards those who fail to follow the strict laws we choose to abide by on a daily basis.

Friedrich  Nietzsche once wrote on judicial punishment that “It does not cleanse the criminal, it is no atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does” (Nietzsche, The Dawn, section 236).  It is no secret that convicts often leave prison with a better understanding of criminal networks than they had on entering it.  We know this, and we largely don’t care.  We seem to be satisfied enough with the initial sense of indignation we experienced at removing the felon from public eye, hence any further commitment that might be required of us to reintegrate the person back into the greater sphere of society is lost on us.  The desire for rehabilitation has been all but removed from the correctional program, because what we truly care about is revenge on those who have dared to put us–and our communities–in harms way, not their eventual return to our fold; in fact, as far as we’re concerned, they are social lepers.

We deride any notion of being soft on criminal offenders, because our judicial process must send a clear message to others who might be inclined to commit a felony.  After all, the argument goes, what’s to discourage potential criminals unless they understand the great misery that will befall on them if they decide to step outside the law.  But I see a major fault in reasoning here.  It is true that many of us are discouraged from committing crimes because we fear the consequences that might result from our illegal actions; however, it is also true that many of the very people who do commit crimes are just as informed of the possible repercussions as the rest of us who don’t.  Granted, most (if not all) of them don’t expect to get caught, thus it can be argued that the real threat of punishment becomes important only as a result of backward-looking reasoning.  But the same could also be said for the rest of us, who don’t dare to step out of the arm of the law.

For those of us who live in metropolitan areas, the jail cells are largely occupied by individuals who are repeat offenders, completely aware of the grim reality that awaits convicted criminals.  A natural response we might have to this is to conclude that the judiciary is not harsh enough; which, while understandable, ignores the fact that in the U.S., states that still implement the death penalty (the harshest consequence that can be administered to convicted criminals), do not average out a lower crime rate than states that have done away with corporeal punishment.  Therefore, it is disingenuous to conclude a correlation between the severity of judicial punishment and criminal deterrence (this, of course, applies mainly to the judicial system of democratic countries, because the nature of the system still offers some level of protection from judiciary abuse).

To be perfectly honest, every argument I can come up with as to why I feel this instinctive need for vengeance against criminals can be safely attributed to post hoc reasoning on my part.  For years I thought the source of this fallacy to be the result of a misguided superiority complex, by which I subconsciously placed my social worth above that of the lowly convicts.  But, upon further reflection, I’m becoming convinced that the opposite might be true; I want vengeance against the criminal because he has made been feel inferior.  He has made me feel restrained by the system, which he has so casually ignored; for this I want his ill-earned freedom stripped from him.  Consciously, I’m calling for the criminal to be taught the virtue of being humane, yet, subconsciously, I want the criminal to be dehumanized to reassure me about the safety of the rest of human society.  Thus, without even wanting to, I’m making the entire notion of justice a measly vendetta to satisfy my own trivial personal impulses.

Perhaps, I’m being overly melodramatic, and reading to deep into things, thereby creating problems that don’t exists outside my vibrant imagination; I’m fully open to this possibility.  But if I’m even partly right about our tendency to place more importance on our need for vengeance, rather than fair and unbiased justice, is it proper of us to simply rationalize it away as irrelevant–instead of at least acknowledging it head on?