I was just reading the beginning of Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" and came upon his point about "master-morality" and "slave-morality". As this opens up the possibility to assume either the point of view of "slave morals" (which I guess according to Nietzsche would be all morals up to this point?) or - as Nietzsche does - the point of view of "master morals", has someone worked on an argument why it is inherently false to assume the point of view of "master morals" without making a moral claim (e.g. not some sort of utilitarian argument, or in essence saying that it's immoral to adhere to "master morals")? Or does Nietzsche just open up some sort of moral dilemma where there is no binding morality any longer and no one has solved this yet?

To be more precise: I'm less interested in an argument against Nietzsche himself, than in an argument against some followers of him - namely guys from the Alt-Right - which choose "master-morality" as their guiding principle. I feel like since Nietzsche defending the point of "slave-morality" against someone who is a fan of "master-morality" is practically impossible. If I try to argue some point according to "slave-morality" someone who has "master-morality" could just say "Well that's all nice and fine, but I believe that master-morality is the way for humanity to go.", and then what? ;)

(I'm sorry if I confused some of Nietzsche's standpoints or the question is stupid, I just started reading him - but I guess my question should still be understandable.)

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    Of course, but they are all inferior, slave arguments. Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 18:28
  • I'm seeing this post pop up on the hot questions feed and we're getting quite a few views - especially since Nietzsche can be a somewhat misunderstood and divisive writer, I'm protecting the question to avoid unsavoury "drive-by" answers/comments. Love all the answers so far, though!
    – commando
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 18:55
  • Why is it Nietzsches name is mentioned its always about slave or master morality? Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 20:16
  • @MoziburUllah strictly speaking that's not really true, but as far as the sentiment of your concern goes, questions on this website tend toward the shallow rather than the deep, and the among the first things one encounters pretty widely in Nietzsche is his treatment of good vs. evil.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 20:45
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    Nietzsche would laugh at the Alt-Rights slavishness, their embrace of nationalism (Nietzsche loathed nationalism, and was stateless for most of his adult life), and their Jew hatred (Nietzsche hated the antisemitic appropriation of his work).
    – Kyle
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 6:42

6 Answers 6


I think there's two things to consider here. Before that, I'll just mention that as far as I understand Nietzsche "master-morality" is not all chosen over slave-morality based on a utilitarian calculation. Instead, it's that there's something disgusting about the way slave morality arrives at value, viz., in an external and ergo slavish way.

First, slave-morality vs. master-morality represents the source of one's moral principles. To put it another way, this is a rewording of the Kantian idea of heteronomy vs. autonomy. Nietzsche is claiming it is wrong to be bound by the moral outlook of others.

By definition, the master moral outlook that cannot be "the way for humanity to go." Instead, it requires individuals to break from "the herd" and cease to get their moral bearings externally. In this respect, it doesn't seem like we can all go there -- or at a minimum if we all go there, we don't go there together as a group. Instead, we each go there.

Second, there's an important complication in understanding what to make of this particular maneuver. In the claim to go "beyond good and evil", are we abandoning morality altogether or are we replacing morality with a new form of morality?

A similar and related issue ties us back to the first concern I raised. Specifically, does master morality look the same for everyone? If so, it seems like it too could be a type of enslavement. Conversely, if it is somewhat free form, then what prohibits it from being free submission to some set of values (even perhaps quintessentially slave morality ones?) Is it to be unshackled by others or unshackled completely in one's actions? Is it a virtue theory? (These issues are somewhat open questions in Nietzsche scholarship).

In other words, there's two big question that are not made clear just by reading Nietzsche:

  1. Is the form of master morality free or itself determined? (if the form is determined, then how/why is it not slavish?)
  2. If it free, is the goal merely to be free (i.e. rambo) or does it permit agents to come up with their own master moralities?

First of all, the assumption that there exists a master-morality vs. a slave-morality already puts you in the position to take the master-morality as the superior one. Master-morality is shaping slave-morality. Those following the latter one have a misguided idea of good and evil, they think it is god-given, where in fact it is how the masters enslave them to do their bidding.

The best answer to your Alt-Reich conversation partner would be to deny the concept itself.

If you look at some religions, you might see patterns where people ('slaves') follow certain rules, in which they believe are inherently good, but objectively those rules only enrich and empower the 'masters' while they do not seem to have any spiritual value. Sending people to holy wars or making them pay a lot of their money comes to mind. Now you could categorizes such mechanisms the way Nietzsche did.

However that does not mean that only that kind of morality exists. There are two arguments I want to make for a morality that a hard core Nietzischian might call 'slave' morality. First: In Nietzsche's time people assumed that history is made by great men ("Great Man theory") - Those are Nietzsche's masters, strong and powerful people who shape the world. Today however most people think that history is shaped more fluidly, in a way every life, every opinion factors in a great hive that is all humankind, you might say 'slaves' make the world as it is.

Second: Being kind and humble seems to be very important for the survival of a species as a whole. Altruism is not only something 'moral', but might be an important instinct, something we need to comply to, to be happy. Much like, being free, being with people, etc. It might be a necessity. (If you got an hour time listen to "The Good Show" by Radiolab)

If you ever meet such an Alt-Reich-Guy. Tell him: There is only one morality, there is no "master"-morality, there is only "slave"-morality. What you call morality is no morality at all.

  • (Whoops enter does not start a new line ;) ) I would argue that "master-morality" and "slave-morality" exist since Nietzsche "brought them to life" and both actually are forms of morality, as each type is a guideline to "what's the right thing to do for humanity?" and they necessarily contradict one another, resulting in each one thinking that the other is immoral (allthough nietzscheans wouldn't use the word immoral I guess).
    – m-strasser
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:20
  • I don't want to argue against the points you brought up, but I do have some remarks: The first one only highlights the fact, that all humanity is necessary to "make history", but doesn't state in any way that having slaves is a bad thing. The second one is what I would call utilitarian - as it focuses on the "development of humankind"/"the greater good for all"/or whatever you may call it. It is not the kind of argument that states that every life has intrinsic value and should therefore have the chance to live free from oppression.
    – m-strasser
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:25
  • I would say, a point of view is only then inherently "false", if it contradicts itself. There is no truth beyond logic, especially not in morals. I thought the best way to contradict Nietzsche is to look at, whats the goal of introducing the masters moral? I would assume it is greatness, fulfillment, survival - What makes you achieve your potential ? What makes you happy? What lets your genes survive? And I'd argue you might do better with a 'slaves'-moral, so what's the point?
    – don-joe
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:59
  • You write "It is not the kind of argument that states that every life has intrinsic value and should therefore have the chance to live free from oppression." Does that mean, that's the kind of argument you are looking for? Isn't that a moral claim, which you did not want to hear?
    – don-joe
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:01
  • Yes that's the kind of argument I was looking for. And yes I want it based on logic, not on a moral belief - by which I mean saying "I believe that every life has value" (and just to clarify: I don't mean that in a christian fundamentalist sense). Because I feel like in pre-enlightenment times this was an easy point to argue: I believe every life has value because god created it - therefore it is good and shall be respected. But now, without a god it's harder to argue for this.
    – m-strasser
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:06

To describe my train of thought: As far as I understood it (also with the help of virmaior's comment) is that Nietzsche's moral is concerned with creating it only from within a single subject and he rejects ethics that are based on any form of "thou shall" (except maybe "thou shall not listen to anyone but yourself" ;)), i.e. externalities. It seems to me that this kind of ethic can only - or will mostly - lead to some form of highly patriarchal egoism with no or little concerns for others, if they are not of any use to me. The only way to argue against this form of morals that I find truly acceptable is one which grounds in the understanding that other's lives are valueable and that every death with external cause is bad. Which, in my opinion, poses a huge problem because since the loss of the god principle it seems actually impossible to state "it's bad if someone dies" in a rational form. (In earlier times it was possible to argue that god created this life and therefore it has intrinsic value). That's why people resort to arguments such as "it's valueable for the human race" or "it's valueable for the marketplace" or similar arguments which do not pose a logical necessity to save lives - it's only about the progress of humanity and if some poor folks drown in the Mediterranean there's not much one can do.

But this problem seems very similar to philosophical questions like "Was earth created 5 minutes ago?" and seems to me like a "common sense problem", which is why I thought one can argue it in a similar fashion as G.E. Moore does in his text "A Defence of Common Sense" (or at least that's what it remembered me of, it's been a while since I read that text). As we are trying to argue that every single life counts, the logical thing for me to do seems to be to turn towards every single subject and base the logical conclusion on the result we get from that. If one asks "Do you think you have the right to live?" there are a few possible answers, either "Yes" which solves our problem. Or "No" which has to be further evaluated if the person means "I don't want to live, but that's my decision" or "Someone else has to be the judge of that". In the first case, we're fine, in the second case we have to explore if the person is convinced that he chooses to give the power to judge about his life's value to a certain individual or group or to society in general. Again, in the first case we're fine. In the second case I'm not entirely sure what that would mean, but I'm pretty sure that it involves at least a fair trial and a group of people deciding together about one's value - if I tried to kill that person on the spot claiming I'm fulfilling the wish of society, I'm pretty sure they would revolt.

As we can see all of these possible answers result in a personal decision of the subject "owning" the life about it's value/right to live/etc. As every single life results in this, we can thoroughly claim that everyone has the right to live and anything or anyone opposed to this is not only acting against the rights of a single individual, but posing a threat to every human being by revoking the right to life.


It might be worth noting that the master-slave relation is already in Plato, and Hegel.

You could try Hegels critique of the master-slave relationship: the slave being made to do the work that the master himself does not do eventually masters the world and then overmasters the master, as the master by not doing the work enslaves himself to his slave; thus empires rise & fall, as their opposing falls and rises.

One might argue, though, that master morality remains whether it is the original master who is the master, or the slave who becomes the master; but in Hegel, this constancy doesn't obtain, something new and additional is added when the two change position.

Arendt also tackles the question from a different angle, when she talks about strength in the singular and power in the plural; but she talks of it in the realm of politics, and not of morality.

  • I think there is also something gained in Nietzsche when the two reverse places, and then reverse places again. The proposed class of 'Creators' are not the herd 'alphas' in the same way the masters who literally owned slaves were. What is proposed is not simply reversing the reversal, but rolling forward dialectically from what has been observed.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 18:42

I hope my answer qualifies as an answer.

I think that Nietzsche isn't really concerned with what slaves believe. I've been told al lot, by a Nitezschean artist type, that maser morality would be damaging to hold for herd animals.

What he does seem concerned by are the great figures in history, characters like Dante, and himself, and that their work is not poisoned by slave morality.

So the two moralities, slave and master, are only really in competition for some tiniest quantity of humanity, and the latter is meant to be shown to be preferable because of a genealogy of the former, the eternal return etc..


This kind of more of an answer to your answer than an extension of my original answer, so I am entering it as a separate answer.

Most interpreters of Nietzsche dismiss the constraint of art, which was very important to Nietzsche. If you look at how he actually lived, he was not a dominating patriarch or a criminal. Why? Well, either he was a total hypocrite, at which point why pay him any mind, or he took the constraint of "Making Art of the Self" very, very seriously as a brake on most forms of domination and crime.

Refusing to put the human factor of ethics in someone else's hands does not make it go away.

If empathy is part of the natural concept of art, then it is bad if others suffer indignity, even if it is not bad that they die. So in a more local sense, domination involves the purposeful infliction of indignity: is cheap and tawdry, so it makes for bad art.

Owning other people, in a way that makes them toil for your comfort is service to "wretched contentment" and makes you not a master, but The Last Man, consuming the poison that allows him to ignore the fact he is already dead. Domination itself is a herd instinct -- it makes the weaker of the herd feel safe, and for the stronger of the herd it is merely the drug of egotism, and all drugs of comfort are poisons.

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