03 February 2014

On the natural history of duty and right

Our duties – these are the rights others have over us. How did they acquire them? In that they assumed us capable of contract and requital, in that they took us to be similar and equal to themselves and, as a result, entrusted us with something, educated, reproved, and supported us. We fulfill our duty – that is to say: we vindicate that conception of our power according to which everything was bestowed upon us, we give back in the same measure as was given to us. It is thus our pride that bids us do our duty –whenever we counter something others did for us with something we do for them, we are seeking to reestablish our own majesty of self – for with their deeds those others have intervened in our sphere of power and would continually have their hand in it if we did not practice, in the form of "duty," a counter-requital, in other words, an invasion into their power. The rights of others can refer only to what lies within our power; it would be irrational if they wanted something from us that did not belong to us proper. More precisely, one must say: only to what they believe lies within our power, assuming it is something we believe also lies within our power. The same error could easily exist on both sides: the feeling of duty re­sults from our having the same belief as everyone else regard­ing the extent of our power: namely, that we are capable of promising certain things and of obligating ourselves to them ("free will"). – My rights: these are that part of my power that others not only have conceded to me but also wish me to maintain. How do these others come to such a point? First: through their prudence and fear and circumspection: maybe they expect something similar from us in return (protection of their rights), maybe they consider a battle with us to be dan­gerous or inexpedient, maybe they view every diminution of our strength as a disadvantage because we then become un­suitable as an alliance with them against a hostile third power. Then: through donation and cession. In this case the others have enough, and more than enough, power to be able to sur­render some of it and to vouchsafe him to whom they donated the surrendered portion: one presumes thereby an inferior feel­ing of power on the part of the person who permits himself to receive the donation. Thus do rights arise: as recognized and guaranteed degrees of power. The moment power relation­ships shift significantly, rights disappear and new ones are established – as is evidenced in the perpetual disintegration and re-formation of rights among nations. The moment our power decreases significantly there occurs an alteration in the sentiment of those who have heretofore guaranteed our power: they calculate whether they can restore us to our former plenitude – if they don't feel in a position to do so, then from that point on they disavow our "rights." Likewise, if our power increases considerably, there occurs an alteration in the senti­ment of those who heretofore acknowledged it and whose ac­knowledgment we no longer need: no doubt they attempt to suppress our power to its former dimension; they will want to intervene and in the process they appeal to their "duty," – but that is merely useless verbiage. Wherever a right prevails, a con­dition and degree of power are being maintained, a decrease and increase being averted. The rights of others constitute a concession by our feeling of power to the feeling of power of these others. If our power appears to be profoundly shaken and broken, then our rights cease to exist: on the other hand, if we have become much more powerful, the rights of others such as we have conceded them heretofore cease to exist for us. The "fair-minded" person constantly requires the subtle tact of a balance: in order to weigh the degrees of power and right, which, given the transitory nature of human affairs, will in­ variably remain suspended in equilibrium only for a short time, but for the most part will sink or rise: consequently, to be fair­ minded is difficult and demands a lot of practice, [a lot of] good will, and a whole lot of very fine spirit.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn 112