Master & Slave Morality


Nietzsche devotes himself to the philosophical, anthropological, and, perhaps one could even say, the archaeological, uncovering of the nature and roots of morality. Nietzsche centers his writings upon studying the origination morals, or, put in Nietzschean terms, the genealogy of morals.

As Nietzsche traces back the foundations of morality he makes several important distinctions. Perhaps the most important distinction to the structure of his critique and analysis is his contrasting of various or varying ‘morality’ or moralities with the singular particularity of Morality (Solomon & Higgins, 2000, p. 103). In the first usage, ‘morality’ has a waft of relativism. Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (2000) explain that “Every culture, no matter how cosmopolitan or ‘primitive,’ no matter how single-minded or multicultural, has its values, its ideals, its taboos, its practical guidelines, its rules” (p. 104). The values of ‘morality’, as H.L. Mencken (2003) explains, is “nothing more than a system of customs, laws, and ideas which had its origin in the instinctive desire of some definite race to live under conditions which best subserved its own welfare” (p. 44). In this sense ‘morality’ is specific only in its applicability to a specific and particular culture and context. In any wider or more general appeal or usage ‘morality’ is non-specific and non-descript, “containing no specific values, no concrete rules or prohibitions, no particular guidelines or philosophical orientation” (Solomon & Higgins, 2000, p. 104). Here, ‘morality’ is subjective and is found as the vague values underpinning a particular culture and society.

On the other hand, Morality (capital M) is extremely specific, descriptive, and proscriptive, both in its generalizable appeal and application, as well as in the particularities of its specific values, rules, prohibitions, and guidelines. In this sense, Morality is marked by its objectivity, its authoritative nature, and its universality. Morality, used in this way, is best exemplified by the Ten Commandments and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and is most closely associated to the traditional and utilitarian values of modern bourgeois society (Solomon & Higgins, 2000, p. 103). Morality, in contrast to ‘morality’, entails specific actions that are intended to be specific to all cultures and societies.

It is from this distinction between ‘morality’ and Morality that Nietzsche reveals his infamous distinction between Master Morality and Slave Morality. As the names imply, Master Morality is associated to “the powerful and the strong willed,” whereas, Slave Morality is the morality of the “herd,” it is “a morality common to those people who are weak willed, uncertain of themselves, oppressed, and abused” (Oaklander, 1996, p. 85). Although it may seem obvious that the marks of Master Morality are strength and power and those of Slave Morality are weakness and subservience, what is less clear is precisely who or what the master is the master of, and who or what the slave is a slave to.

While one may instinctively be inclined to assume that the master is the master of the slave and the slave is the slave of the master, and although Nietzsche does trace the origins of Slave Morality as arising from the psychology of people actually enslaved to a master class, this is not necessarily what Nietzsche means by these categorizations in their present forms. The occurrence of Slave Morality may be an outcome of the “imaginary revenge” and the “ethical revolution…fuelled by the ressentiment of those of who are incapable of taking action,” yet, Nietzsche has something more subtle in mind when discussing the modern incarnations of the two (Hayman, 1999, p. 41). Nietzsche uses ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ to highlight the orientation of a psychological inwardness rather than as a social or economic status.

Much in the same way as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche concerns himself with subjectivity and most importantly the individual, or the becoming of the individual. In this way, Master Morality derives not from slave mastery but, is indicative of self-mastery. A master is not a slave master, that is, he is not the master of or over another but, is instead, a master of himself. Master Morality represents a kind of self-conquest or self-transcendence (Hayman, 1999, p. 35). The master’s power is exerted, first and foremost, over himself.

To be continued…


Hayman, R. (1999). Nietzsche. New York, NY: Routledge.

Menchen, H. L. (2003). The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.

Oaklander, L. N. (1996). Existentialist thought: An introduction (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Solomon, R. C. & Higgins, K. M. (2000). What Nietzsche really said. New York, NY: Schocken Books.


Published by duanetoops

Husband, father, fledgling Buddhist, struggling meditator, writer, and content creator. He has a BA in Religion, has taken the Precepts and Refuge vows in the TsaoTung Chan lineage, and is currently completing an MA in Humanities.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: