Nietzsche: your conscience is no saint

Why listen to your conscience?

Isn’t it strange that we all have that little voice in our heads that continually deciphers good from evil? We often think our conscience is something close to a perfect moral compass. We only go morally astray when we don’t listen to it. But, Nietzsche argues, quite convincingly, certainly unsettlingly, that our conscience is just as fallible as the rest of us. Writes Christopher Janaway.


The twentieth-century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur described Friedrich Nietzsche as one of three modern ‘masters of suspicion’. The other two were Marx and Freud. All three encourage us to distrust the surface, the accepted face of things, and realise that something murkier is going on underneath. Like Marx, though for starkly opposite reasons, Nietzsche wants us to see ourselves as products of history in a way that could transform our culture’s future. Like Freud, he wants us to be suspicious of ourselves.


Nietzsche pleads for a ‘conscience behind your conscience’, an ‘intellectual conscience’.


Since ancient Greek times, ‘Know thyself’ has been a standard ethical maxim. But for Nietzsche knowing oneself is something rarely if ever achieved: we do not know, he says, how to observe ourselves. In his book The Gay Science — ‘gay’ meaning joyful — written in 1882, Nietzsche illustrates this claim through the notion of conscience. Why do you think that certain ways of behaving are right and others are wrong? ‘Because my conscience tells me so’, you might reply. Conscience is imagined as a kind of voice inside you that gives you instructions, telling you what you ought to do, as opposed to what you merely want to do. But what is this conscience? Where does it come from? Why and how do you listen to it? Nietzsche wants you to see that your conscience is not some autonomous source of authoritative judgement. Rather it is something that has come about through a network of causes, some of them with a long history, some of them internalised into your psyche, and that this psyche is a composite of competing non-rational forces, which he calls drives, inclinations, and aversions. The idea that there is a single, conscious, autonomous self in charge of your judgements, and that you hold your views for good reasons which this self owns and has worked out for itself, is all just a myth. Affective states such as fear, hatred, pride and shame, and more elusive, unnamable feelings of comfort or unease underly your conscious, seemingly rational responses.

For Nietzsche, you won’t begin to know yourself unless you put your conscience and your willingness to listen to it under scrutiny. So he pleads for a ‘conscience behind your conscience’, an ‘intellectual conscience’. Nietzsche says, with great plausibility, that we inherit basic feelings and prejudices from previous generations, and erect moral judgements on top of them as rationalisations. To this extent, traditional moral philosophers are in error if they think that our consciences judge what is morally right and wrong on purely rational grounds. Reasons may come afterwards, but in Nietzsche’s picture unchosen drives and emotions, such as fear, resentment or pride have already done their work to put our basic moral attitudes in place. Where the moral conscience says, ‘Acting this way is wrong’, the intellectual conscience must ask how it came about that I have an internal voice saying this, and what underlying attitudes in me are motivating me to go along with it. Have I just acquired this moral conscience unthinkingly by mimicking what’s around me? Is it really my conscience? When I ‘listen’ to my conscience, is it out of sheer laziness? What function does this ‘listening’ have for me? Do I accept what conscience says with self-satisfied confidence in my moral superiority, or with servile obedience to a domineering authority? To have an intellectual conscience that habitually asks such questions is to exhibit the Nietzschean virtue of honesty or probity.


There is no single rational self that can make a final pronouncement: the observer is always part of what is observed, and one can never arrive at full self-knowledge and perfected values of one’s own and then stop.


Nietzsche considers that practising the art of honest self-scrutiny is a demanding task of which most of us are not capable. Most are complacent and content to go along with the conventions of ‘the herd’, as he often calls the great mass of humanity. On the other hand, the process that Nietzsche calls ‘intellectual conscience’ may not seem all that obscure. We might imagine an ordinary case in which someone’s conscience tells them something specific, say about a certain kind of sexual behaviour: ‘Doing that is morally wrong’. If you have learned to observe yourself, you might question what feelings are inclining you to accept that verdict, how those feelings may have made their way into your mental habits, and so on. Is this truly my own judgement, truly my own conscience? Perhaps fear, shame, or just blind conformity, are the motivating forces behind the inclination to accept the initial verdict of conscience. Coming to think in this way, one may have made an advance in self-knowledge and opened up a space for growth and change.

This may all seem like common sense. Who does not think that honest self-scrutiny is a virtue? But in a number of ways what Nietzsche demands is more radical. First, Nietzschean self-knowledge is not only a demanding task, but also an essentially incompletable exercise. One never gets to a single, definitive truth of the matter about what is right and wrong, or about the nature of one’s own psychic make-up. So, upon observing one’s new resistance to what conscience is saying, one can then ask what deeper, hitherto unacknowledged attitudes motivate that very resistance, and so on. There is no single rational self that can make a final pronouncement: the observer is always part of what is observed, and one can never arrive at full self-knowledge and perfected values of one’s own and then stop.

Nietzsche’s project of honesty and suspicion about ourselves is more radical in another way. It is not just that we should ask ourselves why our conscience proclaims this thing to be morally right and that thing to be morally wrong. His bigger question is: why do you adhere to moral values at all? In his famous later book, On the Genealogy of Morality, he urges that the value of moral values themselves must be called into question. He tells a supposedly historical story about how it came about that we now evaluate actions and people as morally good or morally evil. Earlier societies (he is rather unspecific about which exactly) did not see things this way; for them, it was the successful, beautiful, powerful aristocratic people who were valued as good, while the rest were bad, in the sense of weak, deficient, or just not up to much. This good/bad opposition constituted a ‘noble’ set of values. According to Nietzsche’s narrative, the distinctively moral values of the modern European world originated later out of an inversion or revolution that promoted attitudes that answered to the needs of those who lacked power. Thus in Christianity, the meek became blessed. It became good to lack power, to do no harm, and evil to have power and exercise it. This new set of values is what Nietzsche calls a ‘slave morality’. The ‘slaves’ from the previous social set-up created new values because they needed them. The new morality (which we have inherited) is not based on benign loving-kindness or a sublimely rational concern for the well-being of all. What drove the change to new values was the slaves’ need for power, and their festering, other-blaming hatred, which Nietzsche calls ressentiment.


Why do you listen to an internal voice that proclaims anything to be good or evil? Do you hide from intellectual responsibility by just going along with what everyone around you says?


It may seem that this narrative, even if it is true, belongs somewhere in the distant past. But connect it up with the notion of the intellectual conscience and the purpose of Nietzsche’s writing comes more acutely into focus. He is out to unsettle the reader’s confidence. Why do you listen to an internal voice that proclaims anything to be good or evil? Do you hide from intellectual responsibility by just going along with what everyone around you says? Is comfort the driving force in you? Or do you delight in the superior feeling of ‘knowing’ what’s right for everyone, even though everyone seems not to know it? Do you feel vengeful towards those who break the ‘rules’? You may describe yourself in terms like ‘moral strength’, ‘duty’, ‘conscience’, but if you came to think that moral values are a historical construction driven by a grubby impulse of levelling down, and that people preach equality out of resentment in order to tame great human achievement, would that not, Nietzsche asks ‘spoil these emotional words for you’?

Finally, Nietzsche urges suspicion about the universal claims of morality. Moral conscience is apt to prescribe that acting in this way or that is right or wrong for everyone. But Nietzsche asks, why do you think the same applies to everyone? He urges upon us an alternative ideal, that of creating values that are truly one’s own, of becoming ‘human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.’ It’s a case of becoming who you are, not some generic human agent who makes a rational choice to follow some allegedly impartial moral rules. And it’s the becoming that matters, with a dynamic sense of self that demands continual self-creation.

How persuasive is Nietzsche’s critique of the moral conscience? It is fair to say that the jury is still out. Even if you find yourself wanting to go along with him, honesty demands that you ask yourself what deeper need that very desire might be serving for you. What makes you listen to Nietzsche? But his writing on the topic certainly achieves its aim of unsettling the reader, and remains the most radical challenge to traditional thinking about morality.

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Phillip Melton 17 January 2024

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