Master–slave morality is a central theme of Friedrich Nietzsche's works, in particular the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche argued that there were two fundamental types of morality: "master morality" and "slave morality". Master morality values pride and power, while slave morality values things like kindness, empathy, and sympathy. Master morality weighs actions on good or bad consequences (i. e., classical virtues and vices, consequentialism), unlike slave morality, which weighs actions on a scale of good or evil intentions (e. g., Christian virtues and vices, Kantian deontology).
For Nietzsche, a particular morality is inseparable from the formation of a particular culture, meaning that a culture's language, codes and practices, narratives, and institutions are informed by the struggle between these two moral structures (see valuation).
Nietzsche defined master morality as the morality of the strong-willed. Nietzsche criticizes the view (which he identifies with contemporary British ideology) that good is everything that is helpful, and bad is everything that is harmful. He argues proponents of this view have forgotten the origins of its values and it is based merely on a non-critical acceptance of habit: what is useful has always been defined as good, therefore usefulness is goodness as a value. He continues explaining that in the prehistoric state "the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences" but ultimately "[t]here are no moral phenomena at all, only moral interpretations of phenomena." For strong-willed men, the "good" is the noble, strong, and powerful, while the "bad" is the weak, cowardly, timid, and petty.
The essence of master morality is nobility. Other qualities that are often valued in master morality are open-mindedness, courage, truthfulness, trust, and an accurate sense of one's self-worth. Master morality begins in the "noble man", with a spontaneous idea of the good; then the idea of bad develops as what is not good. "The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, "what is harmful to me is harmful in itself"; it knows itself to be that which first accords honour to things; it is value-creating." In this sense, the master morality is the full recognition that oneself is the measure of all moral truths. Insofar as something is helpful to the strong-willed man, it is like what he values in himself; therefore, the strong-willed man values such things as good because they aid him in a life-long process of self-actualization through the will to power.
Masters are creators of morality; slaves respond to master-morality with their slave-morality. Unlike master morality, which is sentiment, slave morality is based on re-sentiment—devaluing that which the master values and the slave does not have. As master morality originates in the strong, slave morality originates in the weak. Because slave morality is a reaction to oppression, it vilifies its oppressors. Slave morality is the inverse of master morality. As such, it is characterized by pessimism and cynicism. Slave morality is created in opposition to what master morality values as "good".
Slave morality does not aim at exerting one's will by strength, but by careful subversion. It does not seek to transcend the masters, but to make them slaves as well. The essence of slave morality is utility: The good is what is most useful for the whole community, not just the strong. Nietzsche saw this as a contradiction. Since the powerful are few in number, compared to the masses of the weak, the weak gain power by corrupting the strong into believing that the causes of slavery (viz., the will to power) are "evil", as are the qualities the weak originally could not choose because of their weakness. By saying humility is voluntary, slave morality avoids admitting that their humility was in the beginning forced upon them by a master. Biblical principles of humility, charity, and pity are the result of universalizing the plight of the slave onto all humankind, and thus enslaving the masters as well. "The democratic movement is the heir to Christianity"—the political manifestation of slave morality because of its obsession with freedom and equality.
...the Jews achieved that miracle of inversion of values thanks to which life on earth has for a couple millennia acquired a new and dangerous fascination - their prophets fused "rich", "godless", "evil", "violent", "sensual" into one, and were the first to coin the word "world" as a term of infamy. It is this inversion of values (with which is involved the employment of the word for "poor" as a synonym for "holy" and "friend") that the significance of the Jewish people resides: With them, there begins the slave revolt in morals.
This struggle between master and slave moralities recurs historically. According to Nietzsche, ancient Greek and Roman societies were grounded in master morality. The Homeric hero is the strong-willed man, and the classical roots of the Iliad and Odyssey exemplified Nietzsche's master morality. He calls the heroes "men of a noble culture", giving a substantive example of master morality. Historically, master morality was defeated, as the slave morality of Judaism and Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire.
The essential struggle between cultures has always been between the Roman (master, strong) and the Judean (slave, weak). Nietzsche condemns the triumph of slave morality in the West, saying that the democratic movement is the "collective degeneration of man". He claimed that the nascent democratic movement of his time was essentially slavish and weak. Weakness conquered strength, slave conquered master, re-sentiment conquered sentiment. This ressentiment Nietzsche calls "priestly vindictiveness", which is based on the jealous weak seeking to enslave the strong, and thus erode the basis for power itself by pulling the powerful down. Such movements were, according to Nietzsche, inspired by "the most intelligent revenge" of the weak. Nietzsche saw democracy and Christianity as the same emasculating impulse which sought to make everyone equal by making everyone a slave.
Nietzsche did not necessarily believe that everyone should adopt master morality as the "be-all, end-all" behavior. He thought that the revaluation of morals would correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave moralities. But he asserted that for the individual, master morality was preferable to slave morality. Walter Kaufmann disagrees that Nietzsche actually preferred master morality to slave morality. He certainly gives slave morality a more thorough critique, but this is partly because he thought of slave morality as society's more imminent danger.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1967). On The Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-72462-1.
- — (1973). Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-044923-5.
- Solomon, Robert C.; Clancy Martin (2005). Since Socrates: A Concise Sourcebook of Classic Readings. London: Thomson Wadsworth. ISBN 0534633285.