The Innocence of Becoming: Nietzsche Against Guilt

Inquiry 2019 (annual International Society for Nietzsche Studies issue)

30 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2013 Last revised: 10 Sep 2018

Date Written: September 3, 2018


I offer an interpretation of Nietzsche’s striking idea of “the innocence of becoming” (die Unschuld des Werdens), and a partial defense of its import, namely, that no one is ever morally responsible or guilty for what they do and that many of the so-called “reactive attitudes” are misplaced. I focus primarily, though not exclusively, on the arguments as set out in Twilight of the Idols. First, there is Nietzsche’s hypothesis, partly psychological and partly historical or anthropological, that the ideas of “free” action or free will, and of responsibility for actions freely chosen or willed, were introduced primarily in order to justify punishment (“[m]en were considered ‘free’ so that they might be judged and punished”). Call this the Genetic Thesis about Free Will. Second, there is Nietzsche’s claim that the moral psychology, or “psychology of the will” as he calls it, that underlies this picture is, in fact, false — that, in fact, it is not true that every action is willed or that it reflects a purpose or that it originates in consciousness. Call these, in aggregate, the Descriptive Thesis about the Will. (Here I draw on earlier work.) Finally, there is articulation of a programmatic agenda, namely, to restore the “innocence of becoming” by getting rid of guilt and punishment based on guilt — not primarily because ascriptions of guilt and responsibility are false (though they are), but because a world understood as “innocent,” one understood in terms of “natural” cause and effect, is a better world in which to live. I focus in particular on a reactive attitude often ignored by philosophers, but of crucial importance for Nietzsche, namely, revenge. I aim to explain and defend Zarathustra’s recommendation: “Enemy’ you shall say, but not villain; sick you shall say, but not scoundrel; fool you shall say, but not sinner.” Nietzsche’s views are contrasted with those of important modern writers on these topics, especially P.F. Strawson and Derk Pereboom.

Keywords: Nietzsche, free will, moral responsibility, guilt, reactive attitudes, P.F. Strawson, Gary Watson

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, The Innocence of Becoming: Nietzsche Against Guilt (September 3, 2018). Inquiry 2019 (annual International Society for Nietzsche Studies issue), Available at SSRN: or

Brian Leiter (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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