- Nietzsche’s Justice: Naturalism in Search of an Ethics by Peter R. Sedgwick
Over the last thirty years, there has been a marked increase in scholarly attention to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Peter R. Sedgwick contributes to this growing body of literature with a wide-ranging investigation of Nietzsche’s conception of justice, bringing Nietzsche’s diverse, and divisive, insights to bear on contemporary political life in order to think beyond the limits of liberalism. [End Page 451]
The six chapters chart nearly the entirety of Nietzsche’s career, in roughly chronological order, as Sedgwick gives admirably close readings of passages taken to exemplify Nietzsche’s evolving conceptions of law and justice. Nietzsche’s early metaphysical account of justice is superseded in his middle period, and the introduction there of a thoroughgoing naturalism that seeks to understand human capacities and institutions as evolved, contingent artifacts of human life and history. Nietzsche’s naturalism leads him to repudiate any conception of free will, and so of moral and legal responsibility for one’s actions. Absent a conception of responsibility, Nietzsche’s mature conception of law and punishment centres on an ethic of mercy that calls on us to respond to wrongdoers out of an appreciation that, as beings caught up in a causally determined universe, they deserve our concern and respect rather than retribution. Justice, for the mature Nietzsche, is taken to consist both in the wisdom required not to judge others and in the cultivated freedom to live creatively and experimentally by forging, or legislating, one’s own values.
Sedgwick’s emphasis on mercy as a central Nietzschean virtue is novel and interesting. Too often, Nietzsche is thought of as cool, uncaring, and solitary. The attempt to describe a Nietzsche who is attentive to the place of others in our moral and political lives, even if he remains ultimately hostile to the constellation of values that at present guides us in these areas, is refreshing.
The work as a whole, though, is perhaps too ambitious. We read of law and justice but also of naturalism, pluralism, the will to truth, experimentalism, self-overcoming, the body, the self, free will, and punishment, each fit subjects of their own for a book-length study. Bringing them all to bear on the theme of justice requires that we employ a conception of justice so broad as to be unhelpful. For instance, Nietzsche’s new philosophers “legislate” values, Apollo is the Greek god of “law-like” form, and casting moral blame is an “injustice” insofar as ostensible wrongdoers could not have acted differently, but it is not clear what we gain in such cases by understanding the law and justice talk as literal, as tied to the institution of law-making or to properly political accounts of justice.
If there is too much of Nietzsche, this is perhaps at the expense of a more detailed engagement with the liberal tradition to which Nietzsche is supposed to represent a response. For instance, a central contention is that Nietzsche’s focus on the cultural preconditions of genuine individual agency casts doubt on liberalism’s emphasis on negative conceptions of freedom, according to which freedom consists in “freedom from” external constraints. But this concern, quite far from being alien to liberalism and its history, has been central, as evinced by attempts by Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, and their followers to engage and enlarge liberalism on precisely this question. [End Page 452]
This book will be of most interest to scholars of Nietzsche interested in whether and how broad themes in his work relate to questions concerning the relationship between the individual and her or his community, to value pluralism, and to what it is for a person to live a good or worthwhile life, questions, to be sure, at the heart of both Nietzsche and the liberal tradition.