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Between Instinct and Habit
Nietzsche on Instinct
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 10 Mar 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Honors Thesis (magna cum laude)
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

Scattered throughout the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, there lies a conception of moral dispositions central to both his explanations of human behavior and his conception of the moral (or rather, supramoral) life. These "instincts," as Nietzsche calls them, are self-created, unconscious dispositions for action in human beings; as such they give rise to the fluid, spontaneous action that rational deliberation is incapable of producing. Although instincts come in many forms, according to Nietzsche, "all naturalism in morality, that is, all healthy morality, is dominated by an instinct of life." (TI V:4)

In this chapter, I discuss and critically examine the role Nietzsche accords to instinct in his moral philosophy, paying particular attention to the costs and benefits of his particular conception of moral dispositions. To that end, I first distinguish between two related uses of the term "instinct" found in Nietzsche's work, between instinct as unconscious mental processes and instinct as self-created dispositions to act, both of which are only metaphorically related to the common usage of instinct as innate patterns of behavior of animals. I then specifically examine the second conception of instinct, showing how the elements of self-creation, overcoming of rational consciousness, and fluid, spontaneous action generated are integral elements of his perspective on moral dispositions. Finally, I argue that Nietzsche's severe criticism of rationality in moral decision-making lead him into a position in which he cannot properly distinguish instincts from mere emotional reactions to particular moral situations.

Three Uses Of Instinct:

Nietzsche never offers his readers a lengthy, coherent discussion of the role of instinct in human life, but rather makes brief, frequently contradictory remarks on the subject throughout his works. Additionally, Nietzsche uses the term to refer to two distinct forms of human action -- any non-conscious mental process and self-created dispositions to act -- in which the latter is a species of the former and both are related to the instincts found in animals. In order to clarify Nietzsche's comments on instinct, all three of these usages will be examined in turn.

(i) Instinct as innate animal drives

In common parlance, instinct refers to inborn patterns of behavior in animals which respond to specific external stimuli. A cat playing with a mouse before killing it or a lioness hunting down a fleeing antelope do not seem to arise from the type of conscious, self-aware choices possible to humans; they are rather manifestations of those animals' innate drives. Nietzsche notices and admires the grace and fluidity found in these unconscious animal actions, qualities which are absent in much of human behavior, due to the misuse and overuse of reason by humans. Nietzsche regards the voice of reason as halting and uncertain and therefore sees those action arising from a conscious process of relational deliberation as similarly halting and uncertain. As a result, the proper wellspring of moral action for Nietzsche is not rational deliberation but rather something akin to animal instinct. Thus Nietzsche applies the term "instinct" to human action sharing the grace, certainty, and spontaneity of animal action, i.e. to patterns of action originating in unconscious mental processes and to self-created moral dispositions which have become subconscious.

(ii) Instinct as unconscious mental processes

In certain passages, Nietzsche uses the term instinct to broadly describe any unconscious mental processes. For example, in a discussion of the frequently-made distinction between the "true world" and the "apparent world," Nietzsche writes "appearance is an arranged and simplified world at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true for us, that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it" (WP 568, emphasis added). Because we created the "apparent world" on a buried, subconscious level, Nietzsche considers it to be instinctual.

(iii) Instinct as a moral disposition

However, Nietzsche most frequently uses instinct to refer to a specific type of unconscious mental process -- those self-created dispositions which unconsciously give rise to certain types of action. Although these instincts often originate in a conscious process initiated by the individual, they are then internalized and automated, thereby yielding fluid and spontaneous responses to moral situations. Those actions guided by instincts are performed unconsciously on a certain level and are thus deserving of their metaphorical connection to the concept of innate animal drives. It is, of course, this particular moral conception of instinct which is of direct interest to this thesis.

(iv) Instinct and the example of the right to make promises

The vast majority of Nietzsche's commentary on instinct is focused on its relation to rationality and consciousness. However, in On the Genealogy of Morals, we find a rare explanation of the process of creating instincts embedded within Nietzsche's discussion of the development of the right to make promises (GM II:1-2). Nietzsche begins this discussion with a examination of the positive force of forgetfulness, which he likens to "a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette" and without which "there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present" (GM II:1). In opposition to this force is the "memory of the will," which requires that a man "must have first learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what is the goal and the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute" (GM II:1). This memory of the will, then "makes men to a certain degree necessary, uniform, like among like, regular, and consequently calculable" (GM II:2). This memory of the will which allows men to make promises is, in fact, a product of the socialization by the herd to the morality of mores, and so it gives the herd neither the right to make promises nor the true responsibility for those promises.

This is the background against which the instinct of responsibility to one's promises is created in the autonomous individual. In that individual, the conflict between forgetfulness and memory of the will is overcome, such that he "has his own independent, protracted will and the right to make promises" (GM II:2). According to Nietzsche, there is in him "a proud consciousness, quivering in every muscle, of what has at length been achieved and become flesh in him, a consciousness of his own power and freedom, a sensation of mankind come to completion" (GM II:2). And so, "the proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom over oneself and fate, has in this case penetrated to the depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct," which he without a doubt calls "his conscience" (GM II:2).

The instinct created in the sovereign individual is not a moral principle enjoining him to honor his promises; in fact, that "morality of mores" is precisely that which the sovereign individual has overcome. Being that his responsibility flows from his conscience, rather than from social code of ethics to be deliberated about, the sovereign individual spontaneously honors his promises as a natural expression of his inner character.

In this example of the sovereign individual, three distinct elements can be highlighted in the instinct created -- its origin, the process by which it is created, and the results, in action, of possessing the instinct. The instinct begins with the individual's conscious, almost bodily awareness of the unique and valuable capacity to honor promises which he created for himself out of the morality of mores. This sense of self-responsibility is, over time, deeply integrated into the very "soul" of the sovereign individual to become his conscience, such that he could not separate himself from it. In concrete action, this instinct results in a certain type of attitude and certain behaviors towards the promises he makes; without thought or question, he honors those promises, not because of the opinions of his neighbors or fear of negative consequences, but because to do otherwise would be a travesty against his very person.

Three Elements Of Instinct:

These three elements found in the instinct of responsibility, relating to its origin, the process by which it is created, and the results in action, are also found, although in a more general form, in all Nietzschean instincts. First, instincts originate from within the individual, not in response to outside pressures; they are created, with a certain degree of consciousness, by autonomous agents. Second, over time, instincts go beyond the conscious awareness in which they arise, to the depths of subconscious. Finally, the result of this process is the fluid, spontaneous action characteristic of animals.

(i) The origin of instincts

A central element in Nietzsche's conception of virtue is that genuine virtues are self-created, in the sense that the impetus for their creation must lie within the individual rather than from external circumstance. In a comparison of the "higher man" to the "herd animal" in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes the essential constitution of that higher man. The greatest man will be "the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man Beyond Good and Evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will" (BGE 212). He will possess "the creative fullness of power and mastery" and "the ability to be different" (BGE 212). This comparison highlights the role of self-creation and self-mastery in Nietzsche's ideal; the higher man does not acquire his virtues from outside sources such as teaching or socialization; he creates his virtues for himself. As a type of virtue, instincts follow the same pattern of being created by a process initiated and directed by the individual, although not necessarily controlled. Although we will want to make room for moral insights which are precipitated by external events or individuals in our lives in our account of moral dispositions, Nietzsche's focus on self-determination and autonomy will prove useful to that account of moral dispositions.

(ii) The process of creating instincts

Nietzsche devotes much attention to the second element of instinct -- the process by which instincts are created -- particularly to the complicated relationship between instinct, consciousness, and the subconscious. In essence, Nietzschean instincts originate in conscious awareness and then become internalized and automated, such that we are no longer particularly aware of possessing or acting on them. The fact that instincts come to reside deep within the individual, rather than on the surface of consciousness makes them far superior to any conscious moral principles. They regulate action better, because they do not depend upon the fumbling deliberation of reason at the moment of moral choice. Additionally, because our instincts contribute to an individual's inner person, they are authentic and genuine in a way which any conscious moral theory adopted or absorbed from others will never be.

Contrary to common thinking, conscious awareness of our motives, for Nietzsche, is not necessarily a virtue. In fact, he regards that which is not consciously intentional in an action as more revealing than an individual's deliberate or professed intentions. In a discussion of the view that the value of an action lies in the intentions behind it, Nietzsche writes, "today, when among us immoralists at least the suspicion has arisen that the decisive value of an action resides precisely on that which is not intentional in it, and all that in it which is intentional, of all that can be see, known, 'conscious,' conscious still belongs to its surface and skin -- which, like very skin, betrays something but conceals still more?" (BGE 32). This perspective on the meaningfulness and value of intentionality even leads to the idea that the reasons for which an instinct was created, i.e. the original intentionality of an instinct, is not particularly important. Because instincts lose much of their intentionality in the process of internalization, they are not subject to the great suspicion Nietzsche accords to consciousness and reason.

Nietzsche's views on intentionality and his positive evaluation of instincts are well-integrated into his broader perspective on the role of reason in moral action, such that the former cannot be understood except through the latter. Throughout his works, particularly The Will to Power, Nietzsche adamantly criticizes the common ideal of moral action achieved through a rational, methodical process of deliberation. Nietzsche characterizes this view as the idea that "one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark desires by producing a permanent daylight -- the daylight of reason. One must be prudent, clear, bright at any cost; every yielding to the instincts, to the unconscious, leads downward" (TI II:10). Rational deliberations in moral choice, according to Nietzsche, are "merely tentative" and "show a far lower standard of morality" than thinking and action directed by instincts (WP 440). Conscious thinking is pained, laborious, and unwieldy; it ought to be considered only a stepping stone towards moral action, as an aspect of human life to be overcome, through the creation of instincts. In fact, at times, Nietzsche advocates that we do more than simply use instincts to go beyond rationality and consciousness, that actually lose our awareness of the reasons for those instincts. Nietzsche writes "we must in fact seek the perfect life where it has become least conscious (i.e. least aware of its logic, its reasons, its means and intentions, its utility) the demand for a virtue that reasons is not reasonable" (WP 439).

Despite this strong language against any intentionality in moral action, Nietzsche is not wholly rejecting the power of reason in moral decision-making. He is vehemently opposed to the "return to nature" advocated by Rousseau, because it constitutes a regression rather than an overcoming. In the section of Twilight of the Idols entitled "Progress in my sense," in which Nietzsche differentiates himself from Rousseau, he writes, "I too speak of a 'return to nature' although it is not really a going-back but a going-up -- up into a high, free, even frightful nature and naturalness" (TI IV:48). That "going-up" represents the overcoming of both reason and animality made possible by self-created instincts. In other words, Nietzsche's disdain for reason and conception of virtue as arising from instinct does not constitute "a reversion to the level of the 'beast of prey'" (Schacht 369).

Nietzsche's view that instincts represent an overcoming of reason, rather than a regression into animality, tempers some of his more extreme denunciations of reason. For example, Nietzsche comments that the "absurd overestimation of consciousness" and the association of the unconscious with "falling back to the desires and senses" and "becoming animal" by philosophers results in the erroneous view that "every advance lies in an advance in becoming conscious; every regression in becoming unconscious" (WP 529). Given his sharp criticism of Rousseau, Nietzsche ought not be understood as advocating the exact opposite perspective, i.e. that blind unreason is necessarily an advance over consciousness. Rather, he is arguing that the process of becoming less conscious through creating instincts is a great advance over attempts to rationally calculate the moral course of action. Nevertheless, there are aspects of Nietzsche's attacks on reason which are deeply troublesome to his account of instincts because they prevent him from distinguishing between emotions and instincts, as I will argue in the next section.

Although most of Nietzsche's discussion of instinct focuses on the relationship between instinct and reason, he does occasionally speak of creating instincts through the passions. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes, "once you suffered passion and called them evil. But now you have only your virtues left: they grow out of your passions. You commended your highest goal to the heart of these passions: then they became your virtues and passions you enjoyed" (Z I:5). In this instance, instincts are not created by the usual process of animalizing reason, but rather a spiritualizing of the passions. Thus Nietzschean instincts are not necessarily created by one and only one process; there is variation possible in that process of creation.

(iii) The action produced by instincts

Moving now from the origin and creation of instincts to the final element of instinct, Nietzsche regards the type of action made possible through instincts as the fluid and spontaneous action found in animals. Nietzsche's basic perspective is summed up in his words that "genius resides in instinct; goodness likewise. One acts perfectly when one acts instinctively" (WP 440). Moral action is the natural outcome of a set of healthy, well-formed instincts.

In his book Nietzsche, Richard Schacht illustrates the animal-like grace of Nietzsche's conception of instinctual action through a comparison between instinct and the body's "knowledge" of a certain set of movements (Schacht 280-2). In learning physical tasks, such as typing or playing musical instruments, Schacht writes,

one may be said to know how to do them once one has learned how to execute certain rudiments of them, but so long as one's mastery of them is only partial, one's performance will be halting, tentative, uncertain, and flawed. One is still in the position of having to think about how various procedures are and must be mediated by one's consciousness (Schacht 280-81).

Only when one has been able to "dispense with the mediation of conscious deliberation and reckoning at each step of the way" does "one's engagement in the activity [take] on the appearance of complete 'naturalness'" (Schacht 281). A person who has made an activity "second nature" or "instinctual" does not lose consciousness, but rather, as Schacht points out, often experiences "a higher degree of psychic intensity and sensitivity" (Schacht 281). Instinct creates this naturalness in action; acting morally becomes second nature, intrinsic to who we are, rather than something which reason must force us to do.

Nietzsche's theory of instincts, then, can be summed up as follows. The work of the reason is hesitant and laborious, while animal instincts are blind and lacking in self-direction and self-control. Instincts unify the spontaneity and beauty of animal action with the intentionality and self-mastery of rational action, by internalizing and automatizing certain types of moral actions (Schacht 280). The final result is that, "so long as life is ascending, happiness and instincts are one" (TI II:11).

Costs of Nietzschean Instincts:

Nietzsche's account of instinct, as compelling at it is, faces serious challenges. To begin with, the moral stratification of men into higher and lower types, which we find throughout his ethics, also permeates his theory of instincts, thus unnecessarily limiting the application of his theory to a few rare individuals. A more significant problem, however, lies in Nietzsche's view that the genuinely moral agent ought not be aware of the reasons, logic, and intentions of his instincts, because it prevents Nietzsche from differentiating between mere emotional responses and genuine instincts, as well as hampers and severely complicates the development of a real method by which old instincts can be overturned in favor of new ones. Although the problems posed by Nietzsche's focus on moral stratification within humankind can be resolved, the unconsciousness which Nietzsche advocates placing between moral action and the reasons for that action will strip Nietzsche's theory of instincts of much of its force and power.

(i) Nietzsche's assumptions of moral stratification

Much of Nietzsche's moral philosophy depends upon a division of men into higher and lower types, into the master and the slave or into the beast of prey and the lamb. This form of stratification is almost deterministic; the herd and the nobles are set, well-defined groups in which individuals remain (BGE 260). There is no gradual process of moral growth, only perhaps the rare man who breaks free from the "morality of mores" to becomes a higher form of life. This stratification certainly permeates Nietzsche's perspective on instincts, because instincts are so intimately bound up with the ideals of control and self-mastery found in the supramoral individual. In the discussion of the sovereign individual who creates an instinct of responsibility in On the Genealogy of Morals, for example, it is clear that such an individual, rising up to overcome the morality of custom, is a rare phenomenon. The creation of such an instinct requires such an attenuated sense of self-awareness and self-mastery that it is only attainable to a few; the rest, "the feeble windbags who promise without the right to do so," do not have the power to even create such an instinct for themselves (GM II:2).

This moral stratification is unwelcome essentially because a normative account of moral decision-making ought to have a wider audience than the rare supramoral individual, who, in all likelihood wouldn't need or want a philosopher's judgment of how moral choices ought to be made. Those "lower" individuals who struggle with moral choices may well be able to use instincts in order to become more self-determined and spontaneous in their actions. It would not be particularly difficult, however, to place Nietzsche's moral stratification on the periphery of his theory of instincts, such that, although the creation of instincts would necessitate some degree of self-disciple, sovereignty, and self-awareness, an individual would not have to be fully supramoral in order to benefit from the power of moral instincts. The power, efficacy, and authenticity of these instincts would, in all probability, be dependent upon degree to which Nietzschean virtues were present in that individual. Nevertheless, instincts could still be effectively created and used to achieve moral action, even by those Nietzsche would consider to be lesser men.

(ii) Differentiating Nietzschean instincts from simple emotions

The moral stratification found in Nietzsche's ethics, however, is not the most formidable challenge to Nietzsche's account of instincts. It is Nietzsche's view that "we must in fact seek perfect life where it has become least conscious (i.e. least aware of its logic, its reasons, its means and intentions, its utility)" which is most troublesome (WP 439, emphasis added). Such a gulf between the origin of instincts in consciousness and the unconscious expression of them would prevent individuals from properly and easily differentiating between simple (non-moral) emotional responses and genuine, self-created instincts (WP 439). Because our passions do resemble instincts and, in fact, our instincts can be seen as a particular type of passion, we must remain aware, on some level, of the intentionality behind instincts in order to properly separate instinct from emotional responses which do not provide the sort of moral guidance as instincts do. Additionally, critical examination of the instincts possessed by individuals and the entire process of overturning old instincts in favor of new ones would be impossible with the separation of instinct from intentionality which Nietzsche advocates.

The passions do not hold the moral weight of Nietzschean instincts. Emotional responses, whether in the form of pleasure or blind rage, do not necessarily reflect an individual's deeply-held moral values; they often arise from socialized beliefs or superficial attitudes. We can often only differentiate instincts from (other) passions by retaining an awareness of the purpose of the instinct, of the reasons for creating the instinct for ourselves. Instincts are consciously created in order to serve a specific moral function, namely enabling spontaneous moral action in response to specific types of situations. It is, however, precisely this critical consciousness and intentionality which Nietzsche believes individuals ought to separate themselves from. Based on his comments in The Will to Power, we ought to become completely unconscious as to the reasons why we have the instincts we do (WP 439). But if we do make ourselves unaware of the justification for our instincts, then we cannot determine whether any particular emotional response is the result of caprice, socialization, or instinct. And therefore, although we still may act spontaneously, with animal-like grace and speed, the awareness and intentionality behind our actions disappears; we no longer have a method of moral decision-making which results in moral outcomes of choices.

It is not the case that an account of moral dispositions requires an individual to be aware, at any given time, of the reasons for the dispositions she has or even to know when she is acting on those dispositions. But an individual must have that knowledge available to her consciousness in order to engage in the self-reflection required for genuinely self-directed moral decision-making.

This position taken by Nietzsche on the distance which ought to arise between instincts and intentionality also would effectively prevent the moral growth naturally resulting from an overturning of old, obsolete instincts in favor of new, life-relevant ones. Although many of our moral dispositions remain constant through changes in our lifetimes, others are refined or completely overhauled. New dispositions are constantly created in the wake of new relationships, new jobs, or simply the fact of growing older. An individual might, for example, realize that she is too argumentative in intellectual discussions, thus impeding good philosophical discussion. In response to this realization, she might try to cultivate an instinct for joint philosophical exploration and jettison the old instinct for oppositional debate. These sorts of changes are inherent to life and must be taken into consideration, even promoted, in a normative account of moral decision-making.

If however, the ideal which we are trying to achieve is a lack of awareness of the intentionality behind our instincts, then we have no standard by which to judge whether our instincts are serving us or whether they have put us on the path of descending life. We could not reflect upon what our instincts were created to achieve and whether they are actually achieving results for which they were designed. For example, under Nietzsche's ideal, an woman who was being taken advantage of by "friends," because of her instinct for benevolence and generosity towards others, would not be able to examine and change what was wrong with the moral situation. Because she had driven her reasons for her benevolence from her consciousness, she would not be able to reflect upon at what end benevolence was aimed to accomplish or examine the ways in which that instinct was harming her. Perhaps she could engage in a long chain of analytical reasoning to determine how to best modify her instinct, but at that point it would have been more useful for her to have retained some awareness of the intentionality behind her instincts.

Nietzsche could respond to this particular criticism by arguing that old instincts are easily overturned by new ones. But without an awareness of the intentionality of instincts, it is unclear why new instincts would arise in the first place or how an individual could tell, if they did emerge, whether they were more or less in the service of life than the old instincts.

These criticisms of Nietzsche, which arise out of his strong stand against rationality and conscious awareness in ethical decision-making, do not fully undermine his account of moral dispositions. His insistence that instincts be self-created and freely chosen, rather than unconsciously absorbed from society, is essential to an account of moral dispositions which values self-determination and autonomy. Additionally, the connection which Nietzsche makes between instinct and the smoothness and spontaneity of animal action is essential for a conceptualization of instinct as integrating rational judgment and emotional motivation. Nevertheless, an alternative to the relationship which Nietzsche construes between moral dispositions and conscious intentionality would greatly strengthen the account of moral dispositions. Aristotle offers such an alternative, for he posits a much stronger connection between moral dispositions and rational deliberation.

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