Within the fields of philosophy and psychology, there is a concept known as master morality. This concept derives from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who is known for his critiques of morality, religion, and other schools of thought. Nietzsche wrote several pieces of literature during his lifetime, two of which are On the Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil. In these works of his, he discusses two types of morality— slave morality and master morality. Nietzsche’s ideas and arguments around these concepts can help us to better discern our stances on morality and form a more well-rounded understanding of what it may or may not mean to be a good person.
To grasp the idea of master morality, one also needs to understand slave morality. Under Nietzsche’s school of thought, the two concepts go together. According to Nietzsche, master morality is defined by strong, capable, brave, truthful, ambitious, trustworthy, and open-minded. In essence, only those claiming nobility can be said to abide by master morality.
The concept also extends beyond good and evil, which people normally use to define their morals. Under Nietzsche’s theory, however, “good” things are pursued because of their benefits to the individual. If it will make them stronger, it is worth pursuing, and it is good. Evil, therefore, would be anything that goes against this self-actualization. A person will decide to take any action based on whether it helps them grow or makes them look weak.
On the other hand, slave morality focuses on traits like kindness, empathy, humility, passivity, and altruism. Slave moralists aren’t likely to do something just because it benefits them in some way, whereas master moralists would find a way to justify that same action as being good through their lens. Those who fall under slave morality care more about whether an action is empathetic or kind rather than if it makes them more powerful or able to achieve something more easily.
Nietzsche based his morality theory on an old society of two classes, the masters and slaves. The masters tended to be strong, wealthy, powerful, and creative, and they could do whatever they wanted to do without any consequences. The slaves, however, were oppressed by their masters and took on traits like resentment and weakness while also living in poverty. The slaves sided with the masters in viewing themselves as bad because they didn’t know any other narrative.
Eventually, however, there was a “slave revolt” in this ancient society. It was moral rather than a physical revolt (which the slaves were much too weak to carry out alone). What did this look like? Essentially, the slaves changed their way of thinking and decided that their captivity was a free choice and a good thing. This allows them to carry on through their suffering with more strength and clarifies that the masters are evil.
Since the slaves are choosing to be meek, kind, and cooperative, the masters are choosing to be wealthy, powerful, and overbearing. This makes the slaves good because they represent the opposite of the masters, which are evil. In their subtle way, this is how the slaves began to fight the system.
The Characteristics Of Master Morality
Those who consider themselves master moralists will have some or all of the following characteristics:
Master moralists have full confidence that their perspective on life is the correct one. They are the types who believe that having pride and power is how life should work. Those who disagree, arguing that life is about kindness and sympathy, are quickly regarded as the “bad” or “wrong” ones by these self-assured individuals. Both master morality and slave morality are concerned with character. Still, slave moralists care about the perception and genuineness of their actions, while master moralists care about how their actions advance their individual goals and worth.
Since people associated with strength and power tend to favor master morality, it doesn’t have many followers. That being said, master moralists don’t usually care about approval or disapproval from other people. Unlike most of the population, they don’t worry about whether others like them or fit in. It’s often just the opposite: they desire to stand out from most people in some unique way. These are the creative individuals who don’t follow one type of life plan but instead want the freedom to pursue whatever they might want without concerning themselves with the opinions of others. Most of all, they care about the results of their efforts and what it will bring them more than they care about what someone might think of them.
Master moralists are often the ones who influence other people in a variety of ways. They might impart their thoughts about morality, leadership, or philosophy to other people. While Nietzsche never offered up any exact names of people he considered master moralists, there are surely many examples throughout history and even among those alive today.
In Nietzsche’s essay, the primary example of master morality is the wealthy society with rich people. However, the nobility is another prime example of people who may display characteristics of master morality in some cases. Nobles feel that they alone control their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Their focus is on how their life choices can benefit them, and they avoid anyone who could harm them. The nobility is entirely concerned with protecting what they already have while simultaneously growing to be even better and accumulating more.
Another prime example of master morality comes from the ancient Greeks. Take the philosopher Aristotle, who developed many of the key tenets you see in various ethics texts today. Aristotle was the type who didn’t pay mind to others’ thoughts about him and praised those who could live life fully. Those that were strong had good character and could make those wills a reality no matter what. We’re the type that he praised.
Today, there are plenty of examples of celebrities, influential figures, artists, prophets, philosophers, and world leaders who exhibit traits of master morality. These are the types who live without worrying about public rapport. So long as they can pursue their own goals and dreams, they don’t care what others think of them.
So, Are Master Moralists Bad People?
It’s easy to assume that master moralists are self-centered, entitled, oppressive individuals. While that may be true for some of them, it’s important to realize that master moralists encompass a wide range of people. As mentioned before, philosophers, artists, prophets, and more can all fall under the master moralist category, and so can everyday people. In many cases, someone is regarded negatively in their day and age for their revolutionary ideas, just to be made a hero centuries later. So, just because someone identifies as a master moralist doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a bad person. It all depends on the person.
In some cases, people will put down others to lift themselves or find fame. They do whatever it takes to be on top, regardless of moral consequence. In these instances, one has to ask if those traits are becoming of a good person. However, “good” is very subjective, so it’s up to each individual to weigh questions of morality on their own.
If you’re wondering what this means for your life, know that it can mean everything or nothing (or something in between). You don’t have to subscribe to master morality or slave morality if you don’t want to or agree with Nietzsche’s ideas. If anything, it’s helpful to have even a slight understanding of these two concepts as you navigate various moral issues throughout your life.
As you dig deeper into the ramifications of each of these concepts, it may be insightful to explore the criticisms for each type. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche was heavily opposed to slave morality, arguing that it is another way of describing “herd morality.” He saw this as a threat to society in which no one could be powerful. When everything powerful, thoughtful, and life-affirming is rebranded as being “bad,” society weakens and ultimately gets worse. Fear, authoritarianism, and mob mentality often play a part in slave morality, which is another major criticism. It is much more of a mentality that people keep around like a comfort. Slave morality is good, though, because it does help with the inner life of man. With master morality, there is less reflection.
Some walk the line between master morality and slave morality. We’re not at the mercy of our previous actions and the like, but instead, we can become masters and change course whenever. In Ubermensch, the definitive transhuman text Nietzsche wrote, he says that we’re not fully committed to one. Not everyone has to be a master, and not everyone has to be a slave. In many ways, we can take on characteristics of both.
What To Take Away
The biggest thing to take away from unpacking these two concepts of morality is to, as Nietzsche put it, “be noble.” While masters tend to be the nobler ones, they can still have a mixture of master and slave values. What is most important is that you are becoming the person you want to be. If you have certain goals and dreams, push towards them despite what others may think. It’s also important to challenge your worldview and look at life from a different perspective as often as you can. Only then can you be sure you aren’t overlooking areas of weakness or missing any of your blind spots. It is only through recognizing areas of growth that you can make changes and move forward. Nietzsche’s theory of morality is but one school of thought you may find yourself aligning with, but this isn’t necessary. Hundreds of philosophers came before and after him and offered their compelling thoughts about morality as well. It’s up to you to decide for yourself what it means to be a good or bad person.
If you are having a hard time with the choices you’ve made in the past or feel like you want to have more master morality, you should consider talking to a BetterHelp counselor. You may wonder how to be more assertive, confident, and helpful to others. Or you might struggle with self-assurance, confidence, or chasing the desires of your heart. If you’re regularly having these thoughts and you want to seek help from another person, then therapy could be the perfect option for you. You’ll be able to meet with a therapist one on one over video chat, a phone call, or through messaging. BetterHelp works on your schedule according to your specific needs.
Becoming the person you would like to be isn’t always linear, and you may need an unbiased, objective person to help you sort things out. Remember, at the end of the day, the person in charge of your morality is you. It would help if you also kept in mind that bad people don’t sit around wondering how to become better. So, if you’re worried you’re a bad person, the odds are in your favor that you are not.