The Origin of Privilege and the Development of Bad Conscience


In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche proposes a connection between privilege and bad conscience through feelings of debt.  In the next couple of installments, I explore and develop this connection.

Let’s start with some background.  In Essay 2, Section 18 of the Genealogy, Nietzsche concluded an argument that goes roughly as follows: Humans are driven by a will to overcome and master.  In the absence of external obstacles, this will can easily be turned inward so that one seeks to overcome and master oneself.  But this self-mastery can be seen taking two different general forms.  In (1) noble souls this is experienced as a desire for self-cultivation, as sometimes reflected in the German notion of Bildung.  Here, drawing from a classical pagan ethic, the person seeks to increase his or her virtue through education, self-discipline, and the development of skills that allow one to be seen as an exemplary human.  Many understand mastery not as something done with a productive end in mind, however, but rather as punishment, manifest the will to master oneself as to self-hatred.  This can take physical forms such as self-flagellation, but is more often spiritual.  Nietzsche concludes in the following manner:

This secret self-violation, this artist’s cruelty, this desire to give form to oneself as a piece of difficult, resisting, suffering matter, to brand it with a will, a critique, a contradiction … which makes itself suffer out of the pleasure of making suffer … Only bad conscience, only the will to self-violation provides the precondition for the value of the unegoistic.

Nietzsche can be understood to mean that humans (as an embodiment of an autopoietic biosphere whose primary character appears to be complexification, i.e.,  growth, addition, assimilation – the increase of efficiently organized systems of negentropy) are manifestations of a will to self-mastery/development, or what Nietzsche calls this the Will to Power.  Mastery can take any number of forms including knowledge, accommodation, assimilation, destruction, and cultivation.  That different people manifest the will to power differently is expected in a system that promotes growth and creativity.  …

One of the most emotionally salient and primordial ways one can feel power is by causing others to suffer.  Certainly not everyone enjoys causing others to suffer, but clearly some do.  Nietzsche describes three different forms that this pleasure can take: the innocent/barbaric, those who cause suffering with guilty pleasure, and those who, unable or unwilling to cause others to suffer, must torture themselves.  The innocent and instinctive are exemplified by the child who pulls insects apart and the barbarian warrior who kills, rapes, and pillages the enemy as a matter of course, seeing in such actions the natural order of things.  In cases such as these, the suffering of others (other things) is enjoyed without remorse.  On the other hand, are those who “know better.”  Causing and enjoying suffering in others is for these people a guilty pleasure.  The suffering caused  in such cases is more civilized and indirect, using words and slights rather than clubs and blades, but the pleasure reaped from the guilty little pleasures is enhanced by virtue of knowledge of the transgression. Finally, there are those who enjoy the pleasure of causing suffering but, due to weakness or cultural constraints, have no valid external object on which they can impose suffering.  These lustful but impotent souls are left to torture themselves.

For such people the will to power remains, but being enacted by  a weakened and diseased agent, takes a twisted form, and instead of promoting growth and self-cultivation, the psyche is turned on itself, feeds on its own vitality, and is caught in a cycle of self-hatred.

Feeling guilty for white privilege is a form of self-hatred.



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