Ressentiment, Revenge, and Punishment: Origins of the Nietzschean Critique

Robin Smalla1

a1 Monash University


Nietzsche's thinking on justice and punishment explores the motives and forces which lie behind moral concepts and social institutions. His dialogue with several writers of his time is discussed here. Eugen Dühring had argued that a natural feeling of ressentiment against those who have harmed us is the source of the concept of injustice, so that punishment, even in its most impersonal form, is always a form of revenge. In attacking this theory, Nietzsche developed his own powerful critique of moral concepts such as responsibility and guilt. He borrowed his ‘historical’ approach to moral concepts from Paul Ree, who suggested that the utilitarian function of punishment had been obscured by its practice, which appears to be directly linked with moral guilt. Nietzsche responds that punishment has quite different purposes and meanings at different times, so that any single explanation or justification is inadequate. In this way, he rejects the pre-suppositions common to the retributivists and utilitarians of his time.