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.