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Conscience, guilt; Nietzsche, Heidegger and psychotherapy.


For Nietzsche the nag of conscience and the resultant feeling of guilt are not permanent features of human nature. They have not always been with us and they will not be part of the internal life of the Ubermensch. Nietzsche (On the Genealogy of Morals, Second essay, [section] 16) traces their origin to the time when we switched from 'a life of wilderness, war, nomadism, and adventure' to being contained within settled societies with much less danger from without. Prior to that time our instinctual drives were reliable guides, leading to behaviour that was a source of pleasure and pride. Suddenly there was no outlet for them. The kinds of task required by the new environment were completely different. Humans were thrown back from a position of action to one of thought:

They were reduced, these unfortunate creatures, to thinking, drawing conclusions, calculating, combining causes and effects, to their 'consciousness', their most meagre and unreliable organ!

(On the Genealogy of Morals, Second essay, [section] 16)

But the instincts did not cease to make their demands. Since they could find no outlet in the external world, they had to direct themselves inwards, in search of 'subterranean satisfactions'. To the same extent that our instincts turned inwards, our inner world, previously hardly existent, expanded.

The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as between two membranes, has been extended and expanded, has acquired depth, breadth, and height in proportion as the external venting of human instinct has been inhibited.

(On the Genealogy of Morals, Second essay, [section] 16)

It expands because it becomes a battleground. Since the pleasure that 'wild, free, nomadic' people would have got from hostility, cruelty, persecution can no longer be had from directing those instincts towards others, they are now forced back against oneself (i). A new morality, reinforced by punishment, proscribes their use against others. Conscience evolves as the voice of this morality, and the result is the birth of a completely new feeling: guilt, bad conscience. It is the reaction of the part of oneself being attacked by the newly emerged part, the moral conscience.

So for Nietzsche guilt and bad conscience are not existential givens that we can do nothing about. They are a recent arrival, humans having lived for thousands of years without them. They arrived with, and are a by-product of, the belief that certain actions are reprehensible per se. Before that time, those punishing someone for a misdemeanor would not have regarded him/her as a 'guilty' person, but rather as 'someone who causes harm, [...] an irresponsible piece of fate' (Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, [section] 14). And the person in question 'experienced in the process no other "inner suffering" than he might in the event of something unexpected suddenly occurring, of a terrifying natural phenomenon, of an avalanche, against which there is no possibility of defence'. There is thus no reason to think that guilt is an inevitable concomitant of human existence. Once we have transcended ethical thinking, convinced that good and evil are arbitrary human labels, our 'evil' actions will cause the same reaction in us--'something went wrong there', not 'I should not have done that' (On the Genealogy of Morals: Second essay, [section] 15).

Bad conscience, says Nietzsche, is 'the greatest and most sinister sickness ...: man's suffering from man, from himself (On the Genealogy of Morals, Second essay, [section] 16).


For Heidegger, (ii) conscience is a call (iii) towards individuality. 'It calls Dasein forth to the possibility of taking over' its own existence (1962: p 333). It produces guilt in us (iv) in order to disturb our comfortable absorption in the world of 'the they'. (v) It tries to remind us that we have abandoned responsibility for the running of our lives, that we leave it to others to make our decisions for us, because we do 'what one should do'.

The benefit of that path is that we do not have to feel the Angst that inevitably accompanies departure from the safe terrain of the world of our fellows. For in Heidegger's view, conscience is not something that offers any specific guidance as to what is to be done. (vi) Conscience summons us to face the situation we are in (p 347) but does not tell us how to act within that situation. Hence it leads us to a place where we cannot avoid the anxiety associated with having to choose.

For Heidegger, conscience's opinion of us as 'guilty' is correct. This is not because we do reprehensible things; but rather because 'Dasein as such is guilty' (p 331). So it is not that we are guilty when living inauthentically and not-guilty when living authentically. Rather authentic living means 'being guilty authentically'. (vii)

Nietzsche versus Heidegger

For Nietzsche conscience beckons us away from individuality; for Heidegger, towards it. For Nietzsche, to follow conscience into guilt is to accept the values of the they, or as he put it, the herd; for Heidegger, to follow conscience into guilt is an antidote to our tranquilized immersion in the they. For Nietzsche conscience is a contingent aspect of human nature; for Heidegger it is part of its essence, one of the fundamental features of its ontology. For Nietzsche it is the voice of morality sending antilife messages; for Heidegger it is not associated with any particular morality and gives no messages as to what is to be done. For Nietzsche guilt is self-undermining, for Heidegger self-enriching. For Nietzsche guilt is an obstacle to self-acceptance, to be overcome; for Heidegger it is a correct verdict, to be embraced. For Nietzsche guilt and the call of conscience pull one away from authenticity; for Heidegger they pull one towards it.

From a Nietzschean perspective, Heidegger could be seen as advocating a regressive return to a Christian stance towards conscience and guilt, the result of which is conformity and a pallid sickness. From a Heideggerian perspective, Nietzsche could be seen as advocating a repression of Dasein's call of conscience, the result of which is a blockage to authenticity.


It is Heidegger who has had the bigger influence on psychotherapists of the existential-phenomenological persuasion. van Deurzen-Smith (2007: 201), to take one example, regards 'the pangs of one's conscience' as an indication that one is evading reality, and interprets existential guilt as a sign that one is avoiding authentic living. But a Nietzchean view can be seen to have filtered its way down through history and to have found a voice in the culture of the encounter group, in Arthur Janov, Frits Perls and Alexander Lowen--much of this having been inspired by Wilhelm Reich.

From the perspective of a client, what are the pros and cons of thinking along the following lines? (1) Authentic living involves feeling permanently guilty. Guilt will always be there; when it is not felt, that is because we are avoiding it. It is a piece of naivety to think that guilt could be removed.

(2) Guilt is sometimes present and sometimes not. When it is not felt, it is not there. It is possible, over time, to lessen the amount of guilt we feel; this is progress.

Of course the views of Heidegger or Nietzsche are more complicated and multi-layered than what is expressed here in 1 and 2. But let us take 1 and 2 as more or less 'Heideggerian' and 'Nietzschean' and assume that they are held by some psychotherapists, or at least 'on offer' to psychotherapists and hence worth evaluating.

The 'danger' of the first view is that a client feels condemned to permanent suffering. Either they are feeling guilty, or, when they are not, they are afflicted with a sense that they should be, that they are not authentic enough to be feeling guilty, that they cannot trust their experience of non-guilt. These gaps between periods of guilt cannot be enjoyed as a respite from the intrusive pokes of the conscience, but are interpreted as a sign that things are even more awry than when one's guilt was occurrent.

The first view, moreover, will hardly be a motivator of change. Why would clients opt for change when it means moving towards more guilt?

How about a related pair of views about guilt, concerning not the timespan of its occurrence, but its validity: (A) 'Guilty' is a correct verdict upon us. Guilt is a feeling that cannot be dismissed in good faith; it needs to be listened to and action should accord with it. (B) Guilt is the product of having adopted a morality that is (i) self-inhibiting and (ii) arbitrary and non-objective in as much as it is culturally/historically specific.

Whether or not human nature is guilty per se takes us into the realm of theology, metaphysics and ontology. But I will argue in the rest of the paper that, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, there is much to be said in favour of B, the Nietzschean view, as an enabler and promoter of psychological growth.

Guilt suggests a tension between what I think I ought to be and what I am. A will tend to validate and perpetuate the tension: in effect it says, 'Indeed I should be different from how I am'. B offers the chance of lessening the tension by finding in favour of what I am, and explaining away my sense that I should be different. It thus has the advantage of being of potential benefit to those clients whose problem is a lack of self-acceptance. It is a promising direction of thought for those who have a tendency to think, 'I shouldn't be feeling this; I shouldn't be having this reaction'. It opens the door to an examination of the ways in which we may have adopted morals and values that conflict with what we are, and are therefore better off dropped.

The debilitating effects of guilt and an overly strong conscience are manifold. Someone may react, whenever scolded, by thinking 'I am wrong' rather than 'they don't like what I'm doing/saying', 'it disturbs them'. Depending on conscience's target, one person may feel that there is something 'wrong' with their sexual impulses, another with their anger. If we side with our conscience against our passions in this way, the resultant guilt can sap our vigour, remove our potential to love life, or render us timid, unable to fight our corner. (viii) In the face of this, it seems ill-advised to adopt the stance of A and risk validating the guilt. B offers the chance of countering it, by nurturing a client's trust in their impulses. It is repressing and disowning them that, on this view, causes problems. Our drives and urges are the very sources of our vitality, so to extirpate them, or to put a gulf between them and us is to cease living. As Nietzsche writes, 'To attack the passions at their roots means to attack life at its roots' (Twilight of the Idols, Morality as Anti-Nature I).

In the remainder of the paper I will respond to a number of potential objections:

(1) 'Is it not appropriate to repress sometimes? Don't those with a predominant tendency towards anger and aggression, for example, not to mention those prone to violence, require more repression than their current level?'

Here my response is that it is unowned, repressed anger that is far more dangerous than owned, unrepressed anger--more likely to emerge in compulsive, uncontrollable ways, more likely to spill over into violence. There is a continuum running from mild irritation to murderous rage. Those who have no problem feeling and expressing the lower ends of the continuum are less prone to murderous rage. Those through whom anger can flow freely are less prone to the pressure cooker effect, whereby the anger is denied awareness or expression until it generates sufficient force to blast out. It is the fact that the anger has to fight so strongly against the repression before it can be expressed that adds extra levels of vindictiveness to it.

(2) 'But is the problem sometimes, to continue using anger as our example, not the repression of anger but its 'canalization'--whereby the pathway into anger becomes so firmly trodden that it becomes a habitual response to all kinds of situation, precluding other responses, such as the feeling of hurt?' That may indeed be so, in which case the enhancement of the person's ability to feel hurt will constitute progress. But that will not be facilitated by inculcating guilt about feeling angry.

(3) 'Doesn't feeling guilty about having hurt another's feelings enable us to see things more from their point of view, to feel compassion for them?'

Absolutely not. Guilt is an obstacle to compassion; it prevents me from feeling compassion towards myself, and if I cannot feel it towards myself how can I feel it towards the other person?

We feel guilty about those things which, when we were growing up, were disapproved of by carers whose approval we desired and whose condemnation we feared. We internalized their 'voice'/swallowed their 'conditions of worth' (see Mearns and Thorne [2000: p 92])/developed a super ego (depending on one's theoretical preference for explaining the mechanics of guilt). The judgement that produces the guilt is not so much mine as that of the significant others whose attitude I have internalized. That it is not truly mine is indicated by the way that guilt tends to be balanced by an opposite response. The guilt I feel in response to having just been aggressive will often lead to my becoming defensive, feeling like I have to justify my stance with further accusations against the other. (Thus guilt, far from alleviating the situation for the other person, often makes it worse for them too.) Thus guilt is very different from genuine remorse, which will not come along with defensive reactions that contradict it. For more on this distinction between guilt and remorse, see below.

To return to the objection in question: guilt does not help me see things more from the other person's point of view for two reasons. (A) It concerns not an increased concern with the other, but my desire for approval and fear of condemnation. (B) It is not even really my genuine response, but that of an internalized, but not fully accepted and integrated, powerful other from my past.

(4) 'You have been talking of guilt as though it must be either always appropriate or always inappropriate. Surely it needs to be judged in each individual case, taking into account the specificity of the particular situation in which it arises?'

The contexts in which guilt may arise are indeed very varied. To list a small selection: I am feeling lazy, lying in the park; a nagging voice tells me to get up and go and do something productive. I am watching television; it is far from scintillating, but I cannot bring myself to switch it off. At dinner, having had seconds, I find myself walking up for thirds. I feel guilt over having a certain sexual fantasy; over actually acting on it; over hurting someone's feelings in an argument; over not speaking up to defend a friend; over leaving my wife.

These various situations do not all call for the same response. But the way to distinguish between them is not to ask, 'How much guilt is appropriate here?' Appropriate according to what? The question to ask is 'Do I want to have thirds? Did I want to hurt that person's feelings?' To reach an answer may require complicated ruminations, often including an assessment of the effects of my action on others; but it is surely the right question to ask--the only relevant criterion available to me. If the answer is 'yes I do/did want to', then to continue to feel guilt is incongruous, a sign perhaps of an inability to be resolute, to stand by one's self.

(5) 'How could it not be sick to actually want to hurt another's feelings?' There may be good reasons for wanting to hurt another, even a client. A sustained challenge to a client's reassuring, but distorted and limiting, self-image may be extremely painful for them. To frustrate, rather than cater to, a client's neediness for approval may stimulate them to discover new depths of their own resources (see Perls [1992: pp 46-48]). To repeat, an absence of guilt in such cases in no way necessitates a lack of compassion for the hurt the other is feeling; if anything guilt precludes compassion.

There is a further line of questioning of relevance here: Is suffering necessarily a bad thing? Would a world without suffering necessarily be a better world? Is not suffering, as Nietzsche held, the very thing that stimulates us to evolve? (ix) Is it not possible that in causing someone to suffer I may be doing them a favour?

(6) 'Is it not irresponsible not to advocate guilt in cases such as murder or rape?'

There is a strong contrast between two different stances that the agent can take to such actions: (A) Guilt: 'There is something evil and wrong about my very nature that I could have performed such an action'; and (B) Enquiry: 'Why did I act thus, what were all the factors that led to me choosing to perform that action?' Remaining in the first position--and there are any number of reasons why I may want to cling to it--precludes the possibility of undertaking the second kind of investigation. Guilt involves an unwillingness to seek out the many factors, of which there will be many: the situation itself, my state of mind at that moment, the way that was conditioned by multiple aspects of my previous biography, both archaic and in the recent past, by my belief-system, my patterns of relating, my emotional canalizations. One could even claim that preferring guilt to this kind of enquiry involves an unwillingness to fully confront and look at the fact that I performed the action.

This kind of enquiry does not involve evaluative judgements. It is based on just two assumptions: that a certain action happened, and that the choice to perform that action was brought about by many factors. It thus resembles a scientist's enquiry into, for example, the causes and conditions of a certain eruption of a volcano. Guilt on the other hand is of the very nature of evaluative judgement, and in so far as one is convinced that values are not part of the fabric of the universe, but secondarily, and to some extent arbitrarily, imposed upon it by humans, guilt is secondary. To go down the route of evaluation will be to steer away from an illumination of the workings and mechanisms of consciousness. Guilt is an obstacle to self-knowledge.

(7) 'Guilt is a very uncomfortable emotion; it is because of your dislike of feeling it that you take this anti-guilt stance. You have constructed an intellectual justification for avoiding having to feel it.'

In as much as it is a feeling that is present, it must be felt. The more one can allow oneself to feel it, the quicker it will pass. These thoughts about it should make it easier to feel, by stripping it of its objective validity.

(8) 'But surely you are promoting a view that allows bullies to go around taking from others, harming others, without having to suffer the mental torment that is appropriate to a recognition of the effect that their actions have had on those others.'

This is an important objection, which although partly addressed above, requires a fuller answer. If I am brought to a recognition of the pain I have caused another, while wishing that I had not, then there is indeed an extremely painful emotion that corresponds to my taking responsibility for the action. But it is not guilt, but remorse.

How are these two distinguished? (A) Remorse concerns specific actions; guilt concerns 'me'. (B) Guilt actually involves taking less responsibility for the action, for in saying, 'I am a terrible person' it assumes that I could not have done otherwise, that responsibility for the action lies not with my choice but with my terrible nature over which I have no control. (C) Guilt is more dependent on other people's evaluations of my action; remorse arises from my own evaluation of my action. (D) Remorse contains a depth of sorrow that is not present in guilt. Guilt can thus be a defence against remorse. (E) To characterize it in the terms of transpersonal psychology: guilt is a bruise to the ego; remorse is a bruise to the part of me that transcends my ego and connects me to other people. (x)

Concluding remarks

The paper has concentrated on the contrast between Nietzsche and Heidegger by focusing on Heidegger's view that human nature is necessarily guilty and that authenticity requires feeling guilty. I have argued that such a stance is less likely to be a vehicle for psychological growth than Nietzsche's. But if we focus instead on Heidegger's view that authenticity requires individuality and withdrawal from 'the they', much common ground opens up between the two thinkers.

There are, furthermore, occasions where Nietzsche states that it is one's conscience that beckons one towards this individuality. In section 270 of The Gay Science he writes: 'What does your conscience say? "You shall become what you are".' And in Schopenhauer as Educator also (1874), we find the idea that conscience calls us away from inauthenticity towards what we really are. (xi) These passages have a distinctly Heideggerian ring to them. It is extremely likely that Heidegger read at least one of them, and hence it is plausible to see his comments on conscience as that which pulls one towards authenticity as an expansion of a remark he encountered in Nietzsche. (xii)

If we want to make consistent Nietzsche's positive characterization of conscience in these passages, as that which encourages us to 'become what we are', with his many characterizations elsewhere (e.g. On the Genealogy of Morals [section] 16) of bad conscience as an 'illness', we have to make a distinction between the conscience spoken of in the former places and that spoken of in the latter places. We could label these, respectively, the 'authentic conscience' and the 'moral/neurotic conscience'. If we do that, and we equate the authentic conscience, and not the 'moral/neurotic conscience', with the conscience of which Heidegger speaks, then none of Nietzsche's remarks about conscience mentioned in the main part of this paper directly contradict Heidegger's remarks about conscience, since that which Heidegger sees as calling to authenticity is one thing, and that which Nietzsche regards as an illness is another. Similarly, we could distinguish between 'existential guilt' and 'moral/neurotic guilt' (though this is not a distinction made by either thinker), and regard the former as that which Heidegger speaks of, and the latter as that which Nietzsche speaks of.

With those distinctions in place, the two thinkers may not seem as diametrically opposed on this issue as they have done in the main part of this article. Rather they appear as in agreement with regard to the authentic conscience and existential guilt, and as in disagreement with regard to moral/neurotic conscience and guilt merely in the sense that these are not discussed by Heidegger.

But whether one prefers to see the relationship between the two thinkers in this way or as presented in the main part of the article, the conclusion that Nietzsche provides more fertile ground for psychotherapy is not, I maintain, affected. For on this modified view of their relationship, although we have both of them acknowledging the valuable role of the authentic conscience, we still have Nietzsche alone offering all of the perspectives on moral/neurotic conscience and guilt that have been argued above to be important sources of self-empowerment. (xiii)


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(i) One cannot help feeling that this (16) and the following section of On the Genealogy of Morals influenced Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia' and Section VII of his 'Civilization and its Discontents'. The parallel with the second of these has been pointed out by Kaufmann (1992: p 135).

(ii) One part of Heidegger's treatment of this topic, section 58 of Sein und Zeit, has received a new translation in a recent volume of this journal: see Sludds (2009).

(iii) It is a 'call' (Ruf) which has the character both of an 'appeal' (Anruf) and a 'summons' (Ausruf): 'The call of conscience has the character of an appeal to Dasein by calling it to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being-itself; and this is done by way of summoning it to its ownmost Being-guilty' ([1962: p 314], see also Kaelin [1988: p 167]). For Heidegger the appeal implies that what it asks is possible for us, and the summons implies that what it asks is required of us.

(iv) 'Dasein addresses itself as "Guilty!"' (p 326).

(v) 'Conscience summons Dasein's Self from its lostness in the they' (p 319).

(vi) 'The call asserts nothing, gives no information about world-events, has nothing to tell' (p 318).

(vii) Heidegger's explanation of why Dasein is guilty as such is complicated in that there are several steps and several ideas involved. By drawing on the etymological meaning of the German word that is translated as 'guilt', Schuld, he presents guilt as consisting of indebtedness and responsibility (p 325ff.). Dasein's guilt, he goes on to argue, results from its 'Being-the-basis of a nullity', i.e. 'being defined by a "not"' (p 329). One idea here seems to be that there is no ultimate foundation or justification for the actions we choose. Another is that by choosing one possibility we unavoidably neglect other worthwhile ones. But how does our 'nullity', whether it is explained in either of these two ways, constitute guilt? The connection between guilt and 'nullity' seems to arise from the nullity or lack involved in indebtedness and responsibility. Someone responsible for a debt has caused a lack in someone else and is thus responsible for making reparation, i.e. is himself lacking in something. For differing reconstructions of Heidegger's argument here see Inwood (1997: pp 71-72), Cooper (1996: p 43) and Mulhall (1996: pp 128-129).

(viii) And, to use psychoanalytic terminology, the internal censoring can result in any number of neuroses.

(ix) This is a theme that crops up intermittently throughout Beyond Good and Evil.

(x) It has recently become popular (see for example the following Ted talk: to make the kinds of distinction I have made in this paragraph, but to apply what I have said about guilt to shame, and to apply what I have said about remorse to guilt. I have deliberately chosen in this article not to let guilt 'off the hook' in this way. I want to make the more controversial claim that what many are prepared to ascribe to shame, holds also for guilt. There is something for which it does not hold, but I prefer to identify that as remorse, not guilt. The position I take certainly accords more with Nietzsche's usage of the word 'guilt' and his stance on it, though that is not the only reason I take it.

(xi) See for example the end of the first paragraph of Schopenhauer as Educator: 'The man who does not want to belong to the mass needs only to cease being comfortable with himself; let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: "Be your self! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself." 'The second paragraph begins: 'Every youthful soul hears this call day and night and trembles when he hears it.' Those more familiar with Heidegger than Nietzsche may be surprised that this was written by the latter and not the former.

(xii) This claim has been made by Kaufmann (1992: pp 214-215).

(xiii) These final paragraphs were written as a response to the critical remarks of one of the anonymous reviewers.

Dr Alex Watson is the Preceptor in Sanskrit at Harvard University. He is author of The Self's Awareness of Itself (2006), An Enquiry into the Nature of Liberation (2013), and many articles concerned with Hindu and Buddhist Philosophy. He trained at the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling Psychology, Regents College from 2006-2009.

Contact: Department of South Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1 Bow Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.

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Title Annotation:Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger
Author:Watson, Alex
Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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