Here’s a Nietzschean deconstruction of justice from The Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche begins with the widespread assumption that legal justice is a way of balancing the scales: the one who breaks the law becomes indebted to society and must make recompense in proportion to the severity of the violation. But when you look at it you have to wonder why, for example, a set duration of jail time should be deemed a just repayment for burglary or fraud. Nietzsche wondered too:
The pat and seemingly natural notion (so natural that it has often been used to account for the notion of justice itself) that the criminal deserves to be punished because he could have acted otherwise, is in fact a very late and refined form of human reasoning; whoever thinks it can be found in archaic law grossly misconstrues the morality of uncivilized man. For an unconscionably long time culprits were not punished because they were felt to be responsible for their actions; not, that is, on the assumption that only the guilty were to be punished; rather, they were punished the way parents still punish their children, out of rage at some damage suffered, which the doer must pay for. Yet this rage was both moderated and modified by the notion that for every damage there could somehow be found an equivalent, by which that damage might be compensated — if necessary in the pain of the doer.
Nietzsche’s book is genealogical: here he attributes the origins of an economic calculus equating violation and pain to the beginnings of contractual relationships between creditor and debtor. In the olden days people hadn’t yet built selves that conformed to the nature of contractual arrangements. Mostly what’s required is memory: the debtor has to remember that he owes, that he has made a promise to repay his debt. To create memory where there previously had been none, severe measures were required. These measures took the form of potential pain.
In order to inspire the creditor with confidence in his ability to repay, to give a guarantee for the stringency of the promise, but also to enjoin on his own conscience the duty of repayment, the debtor pledged by contract that in case of non-payment he would offer another of his possessions, such as his body, or his wife, or his freedom, or even his life (or, in certain theologically oriented cultures, even his salvation or the sanctity of his tomb, as in Egypt, where the debtor’s corpse was not immune from his creditor even in the grave). The creditor, moreover, had the right to inflict all manner of indignity and pain on the body of the debtor. For example, he could cut out an amount of flesh proportionate to the amount of the debt, and we find, very early, quite detailed legal assessments of the value of individual parts of the body…
Let us try to understand the logic of this entire method of compensations; it is strange enough. An equivalence is provided by the creditor’s receiving, in place of material compensation such as money, land, or other possessions, a kind of pleasure. That pleasure is induced by his being able to exercise his power freely upon one who is powerless, by the pleasure of faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire [inflict pain for the pleasure of doing it], the pleasure of rape. That pleasure will be increased in proportion to the lowliness of the creditor’s own station; it will appear to him as a delicious morsel, a foretaste of a higher rank. In “punishing” the debtor, the creditor shares a seignorial right. For once he is given the chance to bask in the glorious feeling of treating another human being as lower than himself — or, in case the actual punitive power has passed on to a legal “authority,” of seeing him despised or mistreated. Thus compensation consists in a legal warrant entitling one man to exercise his cruelty on another…
It was then that the sinister knitting together of the two ideas guilt and pain first occurred, which by now have become quite inextricable. Let me ask once more: in what sense could pain constitute repayment of a debt? In the sense that to make someone suffer was a supreme pleasure.
Could this be true? Does Nietzsche believe what he’s saying here?
I am merely throwing this out as a suggestion, for it is difficult, and embarrassing as well, to get to the bottom of such underground developments… The delicacy — even more, the tartuferie [hypocrisy] — of domestic animals like ourselves shrinks from imagining clearly to what extent cruelty constituted the collective delight of older mankind, how much it was an ingredient in all their joys, or how naively they manifested their cruelty, how they considered disinterested malevolence a normal trait, something to which one’s conscience could assent heartily… To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause another to suffer affords an even greater pleasure. This severe statement expresses an old, powerful, human, all too human sentiment — though the monkeys too might endorse it, for it is reported that they heralded and preluded man in the devising of bizarre cruelties. There is no feast without cruelty, as man’s entire history attests. Punishment, too, has its festive features.
And so on. You can imagine the blasphemies to follow, where gods get to enjoy all the pointless sufferings of the world, invisible beings who could also see in the dark, and who would not readily let pass unseen any interesting spectacle of suffering. Free will guarantees that men will continually and frequently inflict cruelties on one another — an enjoyable enough spectacle to witness in its own right and an opportunity for the gods to double their pleasure by punishing the guilty perpetrators of violence.
All sorts of interesting ideas spin out of this little discourse. Foucault based his Discipline and Punish on Nietzsche’s argument here. And, in light of recent posts and discussions of Deleuze and Guattari, we’re confronted with the possibility of cruelty as a primal desire which, when freely expressed, is an occasion for joy. Maybe deconstruction, systematically inverting the existing logical order of a text or a human institution, is itself an act of subtle cruelty — that’s what makes it so much fun.