If you’re feeling guilty, you’re making society ill

By Tim Miller

Recently, in my Classics of Social and Political Thought class (yes, the common core Soc sequence that many of you know and love) we have been reading the works of the philosopher Nietzche. Far be it for me to attempt to distill the works of a very complex and influential philosopher into relatively simple statements, but of late I’ve been trying to interpret modern society based on his interpretation of it. To be sure, Nietzche saw problems in our society, the exact nature of which those with Ph.D. degrees in philosophy or political theory can debate almost endlessly. But it seems to me that one of the central issues in his work is the issue of guilt and how it ties in with “slave morality,” which is apparently a construct of the weak. In short, humanity is in a miserable state because we have improper morals, which is to say that we are incapable of reaching our full potential as a species.

Again, I do not claim to understand Nietzche from the little bits of him that I have read (Genealogy of Morals and very small excerpts from Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spoke Zarathustra), but this whole concept of guilt and morality I found very interesting. This is particularly true since a lot of people question the morality of government. Right now there are many conservatives who would like the government to give citizens full economic freedom, in the form of lower taxes, while still keeping license to invade private, social, and religious life. The ultraconservative Republicans have often been called hypocrites (I’ve used that label on them before in this space) for this reason. But perhaps some of them, namely the ultra-conservative clerics a la Pat Robertson, are not the hypocrites that they seem. I’m not convinced that they truly believe in economic freedom, but just cling like leeches to those who do until they find the strength to completely dominate the conservative movement, at which point they can revamp good old fashioned tithing, and force people to financially support their churches. This is in some ways not entirely indifferent to President Bush’s faith-based initiative plans, except that with Bush at least the funds are going towards the more purely social ends, which may well be socially acceptable. But what we see is a group of conservatives using a moral imperative to further their issues, which plays on the guilt of not only true believers, but more cautious people (e.g. Libertarians who vote Republican to keep taxes low), to further the cause.

On the other side of the political extreme, of course, are the socialists and communists. These people play on the idea of collective societal guilt, with the moniker, “why should many people be dirt-poor and starving when there are so many rich people in this country making down payments on their Rolls-Royces and Cartier watches?” The impetus, of course, is to guilt people into making social changes based on their desire to help the downtrodden. This may well go against the doctrine of freedom (i.e. not letting people dispose of their income as they see fit so the government can take that income and redistribute it), which proves that guilt can be a very strong emotion, which should be absolutely no surprise. It’s an old staple of basic classical economic theory that the lack of freedom brought on by forced redistribution lessens efficiency and can decrease the total productive output of society. We see immediately that extreme leftists, like extreme conservatives, often use such emotional appeals to further their cause. A case in point is the recent visit of David Horowitz. Various socialist groups used strong, emotionally pointed words such as “racist” and “fascist” to describe Horowitz and his supporters. Strangely enough, these were the sort of words that Horowitz, the archconservative, was using.

What I’ve tried to do so far is point out some interesting similarities in the ways that the extreme social-conservative right and the extreme left go about furthering their positions. Both play on some sort of guilt-feeling in their core-constituency, be it based on strong belief in a deity or a fixed set of moral values in the case of the right or on a strong desire for social justice and hyperequality in the case of the left. It is my contention that both political philosophies ultimately rely on emotion and belief either to direct reasoning along a certain path, or in some cases to override reason altogether. At this point I will bring in another concept from Nietzche, that of the Will to Power, though I think I am using it in a somewhat different way then he would. What I mean is that ultimately, both extreme ends of the political debate attempt to find solace and their purpose through a deep-seated sense of obligation, either to religion or to the downtrodden. These are not self-exclusionary deities. For instance there are many Christian socialists (a Benedictine monastery could conceivably even be interpreted as a quasi-socialist community) who believe God tells them to work for the poor. Thus they use this guilt to will their political movement towards more and more power.

So then, the question ultimately comes down to who is right. If one could answer that question to the satisfaction of everyone on earth, politics would be at an end and there would be no more need for debate. Pure Marxist communism is a realization of that ideal, based on the assumption that everyone would eventually come to accept the leftist worldview. Ultimately, though, both the far right and the far left are conservative in nature, for they wish to limit social and economic freedom respectively. This is in direct opposition to liberalism (note the derivation from the Latin liber, meaning free) which wishes to promote freedom whenever possible. Ultimately, Nietzche himself seems to reject such dependence on guilt as a sign of sickness in humanity. I wonder if he perhaps inadvertently stumbled on the key to why extreme regimes (communist or fascist) tend to be so brutal.