Conscience, for Reee, is a reflexive version of the moral feeling of disapprobation. Having the contingent, habitual association of feelings of blame with egoistic actions, we come involuntarily to associate the same feelings with our own actions, so that 'a man who appears bad and blameworthy to himself because he has inflicted suffering on another feels what is called pangs of conscience (Gewissensbisse)'.18 When we act egoistically, we automatically feel an unpleasant feeling of blameworthiness. When we act so
18 Ree (2003: 102). Small translates Gewissensbisse as 'remorse', which gives more elegant English, but loses the connection with Gewissen, conscience. Reee incidentally disagrees with Darwin about conscience. The latter suggests that conscience is a dissatisfaction at failing to exercise one's altruistic drive and that something akin may be felt by other animals. Reee points out that this dissatisfaction as to benefit others, we involuntarily have a pleasant feeling of having done something good and praiseworthy. (Pleasant feelings are supposedly concurrent with acting unegoistically, while unpleasant pangs ofconscience are felt only after the event: egoistic motivation must dominate in such a way that it blocks out the feeling of blameworthiness until too late, as it were.)
Now, generally speaking, people assume that they feel pangs of conscience in situations where they could have acted otherwise. But Ree rejects this, because he believes it simply false that one ever could have acted otherwise, if that is taken to mean that someone had a capacity to do B that could have been realized in the very same circumstances in which they in fact did A.19 It is permitted to think, 'It was in my nature to have done otherwise if circumstances had been in some way different'. But in any other sense 'I could have acted otherwise' is an illusion. Conscience will be felt differently depending what assumptions one makes about responsibility, and to illustrate the point Ree presents a series of cases/0 The normal attitude embraces an unreflective acceptance of freedom to act otherwise: but pangs of conscience felt under this assumption rest on an illusion. Secondly, someone who accepts that there is no responsibility for actions, but who cannot relinquish the sense that there is responsibility, might (as Schopenhauer does21)posit responsibility for one's character or essence. Conscience would then be felt differently, directed not to the operari but to the esse (not to the acting but to the being—Ree rehearses Schopenhauer's terms here22). Someone with this attitude would still be subject to the habitual association of blameworthiness with egoism and would still blame him- or herself, feeling disturbed that his or her character was such as to issue in an egoistic action.
Thirdly, someone whose beliefs coincide with the position Ree himself defends will still feel pangs of conscience, but will feel them more weakly. He or she will believe that it was impossible to have done otherwise, and that no action is in and of itself blameworthy, but because of the power of habitual associations to outweigh rational reflection, will still be conditioned is not sufficient for pangs of conscience, because it contains no feeling of blameworthiness (see Reee 2003: 102 — 3). However, Small (2003, pp. xxviii—xxix) argues that Ree is objecting to what is merely a simplification Darwin makes of his own theory for illustrative purposes.
19 Ree (2003: 106). 20 Ibid. j07 —10. 21 Schopenhauer (1999: 83 — 8).
to associate bad feelings with his or her own egoistic actions. (Ree rather tellingly compares this to the case of a convinced atheist who persists in feeling that it is prohibited to deny or defame God.) So it is merely error and conditioning that make pangs of conscience possible, and even correcting the error of belief in free will would not liberate us from our conditioning. On the other hand (fourthly), if the conditioning had been entirely absent, we would not feel conscience at all; and (finally) someone successfully subjected to reverse conditioning would feel unegoistic actions as blameworthy (a thought perhaps echoed by Nietzsche's suggestion (GM II. 24) that we could learn to attach bad conscience to those of our inclinations which oppose the natural, instinctive, and animal sides of ourselves).
Two years before the publication of the Genealogy, Ree returned to the same topic with a book entitled The Development of Conscience23—a longer volume which commentators agree adds little philosophically to The Origin of the Moral Sensations and on which Nietzsche comments disparagingly in correspondence.24 One point that emerges clearly from this later treatment, however, is the connection between conscience and punishment. Reee asserts that to blame ourselves for what we have done is to consider ourselves worthy of punishment (strafwurdig), and speaks interchangeably of'punishing conscience, pang of conscience, or consciousness of guilt'.25 In his earlier book the discussion of punishment certainly parallels that of conscience: both allegedly arose because of their utility in deterring egoism, but both are now misunderstood because of the mistaken belief in free will. Ree takes a very clear line on the question whether punishment is deterrence (Abschreckung) or retribution (Vergeltung): we are under the illusion that punishment is a backward-looking retribution, but in reality it functions only as a means of minimizing future wrongdoing. Punishment originates in its usefulness as a deterrent to egoistic behaviour in a community, which is thereby able to maintain its peace. If punishment did not exist, or if the practice fell away now, then, says Ree, people would act on egoistic impulses such as hate and revenge and 'each person would snatch as much of the property of others as could be acquired by force, without concern for their happiness or indeed life'.26 He uses metaphor very little, but the one that follows is bleak and unforgiving: 'Every state or society
23 Ree (1885). 24 See Donnellan (1982: 608—9); Small (2003, pp. xxxix—xl, xlv—xlvii).
is a great menagerie in which fear of punishment and fear of shame are the bars that prevent the beasts from tearing one another to pieces. And sometimes these bars break apart.' Nietzsche recycled the metaphor in his wholly different theory of the internalizing of instincts brought about by civilization (GM II. 16). In Nietzsche's account the human animals endure the bars of civilization as a curtailment and oppression of their natural selves, and become more complicated self-tormenting creatures.
According to Ree we habitually experience a 'feeling of justice' (Gerechtigkeitsgefuhl), which links egoistic action with the idea of its deserving retribution. But such a link is founded upon the two false beliefs that there is free will, and that the practice of punishment by the state exists in order to enact retribution.27 Seeing egoistic action and punishment constantly conjoined, and falsely believing that egoistic agents could have acted otherwise, we cannot help feeling that punishment is backward-looking in its significance, and that it is a deserved repayment or retribution for freely chosen egoistic behaviour. But on retribution Reee replicates Schopenhauer's view (minus the metaphysical underpinnings), even resting weight on the passage from Seneca that Schopenhauer had quoted: 'Nemo prudens punit, quia peccatum est, sed ne peccetur'2® ('No sensible person punishes because a wrong has been done, but in order that a wrong may not be done'). In truth, for Ree, 'nobody deserves blame or punishment because of his bad actions'.2' It is, consequently, important for Ree that we distinguish both justice and punishment from revenge. Revenge too is what Schopenhauer said it was: the fulfilment of a wish to deny another's superiority over us. It is always personal and has its origin in our natural propensity to vanity. The 'feeling of justice', by contrast, is parasitical upon the institution of punishment, which, as we saw, arises as a deterrence for the overall benefit of the community. The 'feeling of justice' is impersonal: we feel it in reaction to all egoistic actions, whoever commits them and whoever suffers from them.
Conscience and retributive punishment share the following characteristic on Ree's account: they rest on an assumption that someone should suffer because of an already committed egoistic action. But neither conscience nor retribution has any basis in reality, because no one is responsible for,
27 Ibid. 115 —16. 28 [bid. 116. Cf. Schopenhauer (1969: i. 349).
and no one deserves to suffer because of, any action they have done. The feeling of conscience and the retributive feeling of justice would cease if it were possible to unlearn our habits of association, but the effect of long conditioning is so hard to break that it is unlikely we will ever escape these moral illusions.
Was this article helpful?