It Is Justice Itself
Nietzsche has a concept in Beyond Good and Evil where he claims a confident elite does not distinguish between its own will and justice itself. It thus speaks and acts with supreme moral authority, or at least the claim to it. I want to explore this concept a bit in the modern context and see what explanatory power it offers.
Nietzsche is a controversial figure, with a lot of extreme views. I can’t speak for everything he said or did, but he can’t be ignored as a thinker. Engagement with his work is important to any serious program of social philosophy. It is in that spirit that I riff on his concept here, and try to develop it in a positive direction.
As you may know, a part of my program is articulating a well-developed and benevolent mindset for an elite. I believe we haven’t got such a thing right now, and are thus in a crisis of vision and governance. To get out of this crisis, we can start by building the ideas and worldview of good governance.
Power exists, so there is always an elite that governs. But they might not be any good. One way not to be any good is to not really have a clear conception of what you are doing, or a false conception. If you have clarity about what you are doing, or at least a worldview consistent with it, how then do you see the world?
I layed some groundwork in my exploration of “what would you do if you were in charge”, where I explored the perspective shifts that one might go through in grappling with the first-person problem of rule. Most people approach the problem of rule from the third person. “How do they rule?” Whereas I think the first person is more important. “How do/would I rule?”
My conclusion was a somewhat utopian vision in which, as a result of philosophical interrogation of their own interests, the rulers increasingly identify themselves with the collective self, and see their project as one of spiritual and cybernetic self-ordering of that collectivity. From this, one might speculate about the practice, or askesis, that one would undertake to develop this internal order. What is the societal equivalent of meditation, prayer, or challenging play? We should explore this at some point.
But let’s explore the internal moral structure of society itself, rather than its holistic project.
Nietzsche’s “justice itself” is the flipside of my elite identification with the collective. The identification goes two ways: not only does the enlightened and secure elite realize that the benefit of the collectivity is their own benefit, they also concieve of society as an extension of their own will. They thus have the supreme confidence that society ought to follow their own will, and that when that does not happen, this is an unacceptable breach.
It is an interesting question whether this commanding confidence can be separated from the moral confidence of believing that your will embodies justice. They certainly ride together. I will assume here that it is impossible to develop the commanding confidence to rule some domain, especially other people, without the moral confidence that you are in the right.
One way to have that moral confidence is to believe that justice is simply your own will, or that your own selfish desire is what matters. This is common, but it is also the most extreme form of the sin of pride. On enlightened reflection, one realizes that justice is something that comes from above, which we can at best embody. It comes from the Form of the Good. From God’s will. From divine law as revealed by nature. Or some such source. It can’t be true that justice is simply your will, but it could be true that one’s will accurately follows justice. Belief, especially justified belief, that you are a relative expert in what is just is a non-prideful form of moral confidence.
Non-justified belief in moral expertise is unfortunately also the norm among those who can muster the nerve to have moral confidence at all. They believe in ideologies that are some part insane, some part evil. I’m sure you’ve met them. It’s a problem.
One way to develop justified belief in your own moral expertise in justice is to undergo an actual aristocratic education process, fit for a philosopher king. But that’s another subject. Here I just want to explore the social consequences and dynamics of the confidence itself.
That moral confidence, whether prideful or justified, produces the attitude that one’s will is “justice itself”. But in practice there is more to the actual act of confident rule that would flow from it.
In particular, you need power. Power pervades and structures society. In the words of Alinsky, it is the ability to act, the dynamo of life. If you have power, the skills, and the above described moral confidence (itself a form of power, which Alinsky explictly notes), then you can rule some domain.
If you don’t have power, and especially if you try to act against established powers, your attempts at morally confident action will be thwarted and punished as the highest transgression. You will find that everyone else, especially the powerful, think you have transgressed against justice itself. Oops.
The power part is interesting here because, experiencing correction from power, your moral confidence is shaken. There are a few psychological patterns this might take:
First, as you recieve evidence that everyone around you hates you for what you did or said, and as the threat of punishment causes you to flinch away from the transgressive thoughts, you lose confidence in your own moral expertise, and defer to society, or adopt their moral framework as your own. Though often driven by trauma and groupthink, this can be a healthy pattern: it is a respectable choice for most people to defer to society for moral guidance.
A large number of people deferring to society has the interesting side effect of granting large amounts of actual power to anyone with open moral confidence (and the power to get away with broadcasting that moral confidence). The rest will see that confidence, see that it is going over smoothly, conclude that it is the normal thing, and defer. Especially if it has a few decent arguments to grease the process. This is part of how a morally confident elite rules, and how the morally confident become the elite.
Second, you might get morally twisted up, with some combination of resentment, self-hatred, retreat to interiority, rebellion against generalized authority, etc. This is a fairly destructive pattern, to self and others, driven entirely by trauma, without redeeming qualities. It is unfortunately also very common, because the alternatives are uncomfortable and philosophically difficult. Such is human life. Our minds are typically full of such nonsense. Let’s root it out and come to the light.
Third and finally, you might learn to rigorously separate your own moral sense from the apparent moral sense of society, and thus also your moral sense from your immediate speech and actions. You retain the confidence that your will is justice, but accept severe practical limitation on your power. You probably develop a strategy to fix your lack of power, hopefully a constructive and socially beneficial one.
Unfortunately, this furtive strategy has a problem: your outer actions are no longer driven directly by your sense of morality, which will make them either small and cautious enough not to matter, noticeably incoherent amoral and furtive, coherent with society’s morality (from which you interally dissent), or with some false moral front you put up that is distinct from both society’s morality and your own. None of these solutions are satisfactory.
As a consequence of this, getting to actual concretes of our society now, I see a profound lack of outwardly expressed moral confidence in those who dissent from the moral predjudices of the day. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, so to speak. Worse, because of the internalization and moral disordering effects of being on the recieving end of socially authoritative power, the heterodox also become lacking in internal moral confidence, and even vicious.
Again, note that because open moral confidence is itself an incredible source of real power, the quiet dissidents necessarily leave much of their potential on the table. A wonderful arrangement if you are satisfied with the dominant moral framework. We can discuss this more another time.
The other side of all this is what happens when you do have the power to act, and to get away with open moral confidence. In that case, these arguments all apply the other way: No one can go against what you do with your power, so you do not have psycho-social pressure to believe you are wrong. Without any reason to get resentful, your psyche is safe from those particular vices. Third, you have no need to make the distinction between society’s morality and your own, because that need came from lack of power. Your moral confidence then becomes a further base of power, as your will becomes society’s morality.
The ruling class will tend to have unshakable and unbounded moral confidence, and those with the power to express such confidence will become the ruling class. They know that their will is justice itself. If such people are not already the ruling class, they will be soon.
Reflecting on how this applies today, for me it illustrates the importance of having machinery and ideas around that can produce justified moral confidence. None of that ruling moral confidence is any use if society is ruled by the evil and the insane.
This leaves me with a three big questions:
How do we build justified moral confidence? What does a real moral education look like?
Given justified moral confidence, how do we recover the ability to speak and act that confidence, starting from a place of dissent?
In the absence of a solution to the above, what is a healthy and truthful response to a bad moral regime that is not simply martyrdom or deference?
In all three cases it is my hunch that these are problems of self-transformation, and best served by developing particular practices that produce those transformations.