Do you ever feel the urge to do something, but the little guy on your shoulder tells you not to, that you can’t, because it isn’t right? Sometimes, you want to eat your spaghetti with your hands (just me? okay) or scarf your food down in an uncivilized manner, but you repress it.
This repression of instinct is what Friedrich Nietzsche says gives rise to bad conscience. Your instincts are now constrained by society — you have to obey the rules, and there is nowhere for all of this instinctual energy to go except inside yourself, so you direct it inwards.
When you direct your instincts towards yourself, it creates an internal conflict between your conscious self that generally follows along with society and morality and your more primal aspects, resulting in guilt. On one hand, you condemn things as evil, yet there is often an uncontrollable part of you that desires those same things.
Take jealousy, for example. In a moral sense, individuals tend to condemn jealousy — it’s toxic for both people involved, it produces only negative results, it’s detrimental to relationships. Our social mores value kindness and self-assuredness, and because jealousy produces the opposite of these things, jealousy is a moral bad.
However, there are at the same time plenty of instances where each and every person has felt this kind of jealousy. Most people have experienced someone else getting something they thought they deserved, or have seen their crush with someone else and felt that instinctual, negative, toxic jealousy.
This duality creates a paradox within us: we know this urge is bad and we feel it anyway. What makes it even worse is that we cannot control this impulse — its very nature of being an impulse places it outside of our control.
Nietzsche says that when we feel these impulses that we consciously think of as morally evil, we develop a sort of self-hatred. It is morally wrong, evil, to be jealous but we cannot eradicate the fact that we get jealous, and so we then must be evil people. This line of reasoning creates an inescapable sense of ourselves as morally corrupt beings: we can never live up to the social mores we espouse.
Coming back to bad conscience, the next step of development is a feeling of indebtedness towards our creator, which in the modern era is the Christian God. Because God is imbued with all that is perfect and humans are left as being cruel, imperfect, and wicked, humans are left with an unpayable debt to God.
Unable to pay back this debt, humans are left with a wrong they cannot right, creating a deep sense of guilt — this is where the idea of hereditary sin comes from. Humans, in this view, are born owing God, they are evil from the second they are conceived, and this cements our internal self-torture.
What do you think? Do you feel this moral tension, and if so, how do you navigate it in your own life?