What Is Slave Morality?

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

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There are many different theories of morality, all of which can give us an educated guess as to how humans handle the never-ending debate between what is right and what is wrong. In this post, we will look at one such type of morality, slave morality. Or, known by its full name, master-slave morality.

What Is Master-Slave Morality?

Master-slave morality is a theme of the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The theme occurs in many of his works, but it's especially focused in On the Genealogy of Morality, particularly the very first essay.

In the essay, Nietzsche believes that there are two different types of morality: master and slave. The master morality is a type of morality that believes in pride and power for one's self. Meanwhile, the slave morality is more empathetic, believing that kindness is key. Someone who believes in master morality will look at the consequences of one's actions, not necessarily if those actions are the right thing to do or not. If a master moralist can get away with something that is considered to be bad for many slave moralists, they will do so if it benefits their power.

Master and slave morality is universal, according to Nietzsche. He believes that no matter where you are, there is a fight between masters and slaves.

Master Morality

According to Nietzsche, the strong-willed have master morality. There is a belief that anything helpful must be good, and anything bad must be harmful. However, Nietzsche argues against this commonly held belief. He believes that those who believe in good and evil do it out of an uncritically examined habit. Society has defined something as good if it's useful. In our prehistoric times, good and evil were about the consequences. This does make sense. Cavemen weren't about helping an old person crossing the street, but instead wondering if invading the warring tribe would have an outcome where the benefits outweighed the cost.

Someone who is a master moralist believes that being prideful and wanting more power is the way life should be like. Those who are bad to the master moralist are those who are weak and cowardly or just petty. To a master moralist, it doesn't matter when it comes to any other aspect of one's character. Only if the person has a desire for power or not.

There are other qualities a master moralist may possess, including:

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  • Being open-minded. A master moralist is always open for their mind to be changed if new information is out there.
  • A master moralist may take risks to get what they believe is theirs. Unlike a slave moralist, who may be more comfortable with security.
  • A master moralist wants to have many people they can trust if they want to develop more power.
  • Self-worth. A master moralist believes in high esteem for one's self, and won't try to bring anyone down.

A noble person can give birth to master morality. The nobleman sees that they are the people who can determine their actions, and no one else can influence them. They avoid what can harm them. A master moralist consults their self to see what is true and what is not, even though their beliefs can always change.

As a person with master morality has power, they sometimes influence the morality of others. Leaders of our world tend to be master moralists, and their word can change the slave moralists below them.

Slave Morality

Slave morality, essentially, is a response to the master morality. Slave morality is when someone devalues what the master has because the slave does not possess it. Slave morality can be a response to the oppression, so anyone who is trying to oppress them or is seen as such will be vilified. The slave moralist tends to be weak-willed and more cynical than the master moralist.

A slave moralist is just about responding to what the master moralist views as good. A slave moralist may believe that all power is bad because the master moralist has power. There may not be any room for any nuance or debate with this issue. The slave moralist will also not try to bring down the master by strength but trying to subvert the master's morality craftily. The end goal is not to become the next master, but to bring the master into the slave position. A slave moralist believes that in the end, the good isn't something for the individual alone, but for the entire community. A slave moralist may see that the powerful have few numbers, so the strong can be corrupted into believing their will. A slave moralist may believe in the voluntariness of humility but may not realize the master thrust the humility on, to begin with.

According to Nietzsche, many Biblical principles are part of the slave morality. The Bible teaches charity, humility, and other forms of condemnation, and this is usually the moral code a slave moralist will live by, or at least another similar dogmatic principle.

Society And Master Vs. Slave Morality

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According to the theory of master vs. slave morality, there has been a struggle between masters and slaves throughout history. In the ancient Greek times, the society was governed by my Master Morality. We all know of the Greek legends of powerful heroes. The Odyssey, Hercules, and other myths have master moral teachings. These men are noble in the legends and were the epitome of what master morality is. Meanwhile, slave morality came through Judaism and Christianity. In these stories, the characters were subversive and did not oppose their enemy often. The story of Jesus is about turning the other cheek and being kind to your fellow neighbor, which are traits of a slave moralist.

The overall cultural struggle can be broken down between Roman and Judean cultures. The Romans are the masters and are quite strong. Meanwhile, the Judean promote slavery and are weaker. Nietzsche did not approve of how the West had slave morality. He believes that democracy was not a good thing but instead called out how humans, collectively, don't have their best interest in hand. Instead, they are weak.

The idea of the slave rising seems like a good thing, but in morality, Nietzsche found it to be a bad move. He disliked the idea of the slave always trying to rise against the master because there was no desire for power. Instead, men wanted to pull the power to their level so that no one could be strong.

With the theory of democracy, this does seem right. The idea of democracy is that the people decide on what's important. In theory, anyway. Also, with a religion such as Christianity, no one is more powerful. All humans are the same in the eyes of their God, and their God will judge them when the time comes. At least, according to their religion.

The idea of being ruled by a master does seem a bit worrisome for many, but Nietzsche saw it as a way to prove that might do indeed make right. Also, he did not believe that master morality was the perfect behavior that everyone should adopt. He believed there were flaws in both sides, and that someone else, the individual, could readjust the morality for it to be more consistent.

Also, there is a debate as to whether or not Nietzsche believed master morality was the better morality. Some have said that because of slave morality being more popular, it got critiqued. Perhaps if Nietzsche lived during the Roman times, he might be singing a different tune, but it's hard to say in the end.

And that is the gist of Nietzsche's belief in master vs. slave morality. Nietzsche was quite a controversial figure, so you may have your disagreements with his opinion on how the world works. Or you may believe in some aspects but disagree that slave morality is exactly how society is ran. In a world where many think that politicians don't listen to them, maybe our democracy is more of a slave morality system than originally thought.

Either way, the idea of master vs. slave morality should be studied, along with the various other types of morality that are believed to make up the human spirit. They may have elements of truth to all of them, and they're worth visiting.

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Seek Help!

In the end, your morality is your own. If you want to be more open-minded, and perhaps adapt the best of both master and slave morality, it may be worth a shot. Perhaps you want to learn how to be more assertive and confident, but also want to help those in need. Even though Nietzsche's theory is quite interesting, it may not be as much of a binary as he believed. Talk to a counselor today and see how you can improve your morality.

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