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A belief in agency and an individual’s capacity for moral choice arises from an ethic of resentment and punishment



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A belief in agency and an individual’s capacity for moral choice arises from an ethic of resentment and punishment

Joanne Faulkner, University of New South Wales, 2008 [The Journal of Nietzsche Studies Spring/Autumn]



In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche opposes to a belief in free will what I will attempt to argue is his own—admittedly underdeveloped—notion of agency, in terms of an “innocence of becoming.” That it refers us to a mode of agency is by no means obvious, and, indeed, in some lights it appears to involve more a suspension of agency—rather like the ordinary concept of innocence that precedes it. What is remarkable about the innocence of becoming, and what makes it particularly useful for a rethinking of political agency post-9/11, is that it complicates conventional assumptions about the relation between innocence and agency by coupling freedom with fatalism. The understanding of agency that emerges from this meditation on innocence (conceived as an agnosticism about good and evil) is more modest than most, to be sure, dwelling as it does within the interstices of events that the individual cannot control. But perhaps such a subtle conception of agency is needed in the present, particularly restricted political context. Perhaps, in other words, and to echo Nietzsche, the greatest events emerge from the quietest stirrings of thought (Z:2 “Of Great Events”). If, for Nietzsche, agency is embedded within a notion of innocence already shifted from its everyday [End Page 74] context, then our conception of agency must also be transfigured and strange. My hope is that through it we might begin to think about innocents as capable of thought and action and of citizens as not always already imbued with guilt insofar as they act politically (i.e., agitate, criticize, or demonstrate). Nietzsche’s genealogy of our common concept of free will shows it to be intimately connected with notions of guilt. He argues in TI, for instance, that the attribution of free will is motivated by a desire to find someone accountable for one’s grievances: what he calls the “instinct for punishing and judging” (TI “Errors” 7). We find free will where we want to find guilt and exact revenge: and thus free will is often the first premise of any argument for punishment. Identifying free will in another allows us to locate an offending action, attribute it to the conscience of the perpetrator, and finally, extract from them a penalty or debt (Schuld). To talk of free will, then, is a complex expression of cruelty: of an intention to find fault and to punish it. Nietzsche’s rearticulation, in GM, of the social contract myth had already emphasized the integral connection between the development of moral agency and punishment. Moreover, Nietzsche argues that the socialization of the individual involves developing an attitude of self-hatred, or guilt, achieved by means of the internalization of an instinct for cruelty that would otherwise have been indulged in relation to an external object (GM II:16). The individual is cultivated through a painful process of self-alienation and -punishment. One earns the right to make promises only after having endured a regime of discipline and cruelty, wherein one part of the self subdues and subjects another part of the self to it. Thus is generated a vicious circle of self-hatred, guilt, debt, and punishment of the other, otherwise known as society, the judicial system, and moral law.




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