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Master and Slave Morality in Nietzsche 
Posted on March 19, 2009 at 04:27 AM.
The thesis of what follows is that Nietzsche’s view of morality represents a larger conflict inherent in human psychology. This larger conflict may be called the problem of self and other, or the paradox of faith, following Kierkegaard, but either way the emphasis will be the same: that any discussion of morality will be symptomatic of this larger conflict.

Nietzsche famously draws a distinction between two types of morality: herd and master. He does so, he tells us, out of the spirit of science: his aim is simply “a comprehensive survey and classification” of moralities. Thus it is important to remain clear that the emotive connotations of “herd” and “master” are to be ignored. Instead, we must consider them as what they are, classifications, and judge their worth only later.

Nietzsche comes to his view of the herd morality by citing the fact that we have lived not as solitary creatures, but as herd animals. “Family,” “tribe,” “community,” “religion,” “nation”: all of these have been responsible, in one way or another, for what we today understand as morality. Nietzsche even takes things a step further and suggests that the need to submit to command has now grown innate, “as a kind of formal conscience,” and it is a need with an “omnivorous appetite.” Thus, those of us who would seek to be commanded (or approved of) are only ourselves allowing the values of the family, tribe or nation take precedence over our own values.

A master morality, conversely, does not allow this to happen. The values of other people are of no significance; even less worthy are the values of nations or governments. Instead, those who follow a master morality follows one’s self: they write the rules of their own game. Nietzsche believes these moral masters are superior to the mere herd because they are “artists of the soul,” they make their own reality, their own truth, their own morality. Those who follow behind, in submission, are therefore the very opposite: they conform to the commands of the masters instead of taking control themselves.

Now to the question of whether Nietzsche is right to draw this distinction. That is, are there two types of morality as he describes? The short answer is no – but to flesh out the reasoning behind this we must return to our thesis.

Kierkegaard describes the paradox of faith this way:

For faith is this paradox, that the particular is higher than the universal –
yet in such a way, be it observed, that the movement repeats itself,
and that consequently the individual, after having been in the universal
now as the particular isolates himself as higher than the universal.

In keeping with Kierkegaard’s terms, the paradox brings two distinct entities: the universal and the particular – indeed, self (particular) and other (universal). The problem is that we are at once particular and universal. There is no distinction. Or, put another way, the distinction is there, but we, individuals, are the ones drawing it. Thus, Kierkegaard’s paradox highlights that we cannot be “higher” than the universal, but we must be “higher” than the universal. We cannot be separated from the universal, but we must be.

Nietzsche’s dual morality reflects the same supposed division. The masters are those who understand themselves within the context of a symbiotic unity. They understand they are the whole. As such, they write their own rules. What’s the risk? They are “one with God.” Slaves follow the rules set by others, and they confuse this with the universal. But the point is that all people do both at all times. There are no “masters” or “slaves,” there is only us – because we are this unity, this symbiotic entity called “reality.”

To succumb to slave morality is something we do, and perhaps must do, because it is the morality that qualifies its existence based upon the existence of others. Slave morality in its essence is the morality of the ants. Slave mortality is of such a nature that if everyone “succumbed” to it, human beings would become a collective, just as the adoption of any culture causes the same to happen. Pushes for globalization and a global economy are concrete examples of “masters” seeking to establish laws and rules that the “rest of us” must play by. Slave morality is also of such a nature that we simply “go along” with everything we have been doing until now. Unquestioning.

We can now see quite clearly that the game of master-slave mortality is one that we play, with ourselves, all the time. The “master” is you. The “slave” is also you. There are multiple ways in which you are the master, and you perform these roles as master, such as when to do this or that, and what to spend your money on. And there are multiple ways in which you are the slave, in that you spend your money on what “they” want you to; you pay taxes and abide by sometimes arbitrary and corrupt laws because “they” say you have to.

To be master over reality is to be master over one’s self; for in a symbiotic infinity there is nothing but reality: self and reality are the same. Thus it follows, for Nietzsche, that the slave is one who blindly accepts values, traditions and moralities because someone told them about it once. A master morality not only creates its own values and traditions, but embraces the symbiotic, which allows for the reconciliation of these “two” moralities.

For there really is only one morality – yours. It becomes “ours” only when others agree with it. Thus supposing you were to create a set of morals, and others began to abide by them (as is the case, for instance, in parental upbringing): your morality has become the master morality. But isn’t “your” morality always the master morality? Isn’t “morality” itself just a fancy word for “the voices in my head that tell me what to do”?

“Master morality” is your voice. “Slave morality” are the voices of other people. Thus every day, every moment, we are faced with that primordial choice: Do I listen to myself, or do I listen to others? All of morality, I am arguing, is reducible to this. Thus Nietzsche is correct to suggest that we have an innate desire to be commanded, as this is only to say we have an innate desire to listen to others, and do their willing as a gesture of kindness and friendship. Thus Nietzsche is correct that there are two types of morality: the morality of you, your morality, and the morality of others.

If it is true that we are an emergent symbiotic unity, where the smallest particles and the vastest void are in fact one and the same thing, then it is true that we create our own reality. It is true we are the “masters,” provided we take the reigns. We, human beings, are writing the story as it goes along. We are all gods. “God is dead and we have killed him you and I!” is a cry that the old guard has fallen; the herd morality can no longer be trusted; and all that remains is you. It is passing the torch of creation from “someone else” squarely upon your shoulders. It is the recognition that morality is not something “out there” determined by other people, it is something within you, and the same is true of reality itself.

Do you want all that responsibility? To be the creator and master of everything?

Probably not. And to this point it is raised the question: What is the most universal human trait – fear or laziness?

And so it goes that most choose to remain in slave morality; not even because they are scared or lazy, but because they feel that from such a place they can still do some good. They can serve their fellows by staying mostly out of the way. They can be something by being nothing much of anything.
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