Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Rel 411: Nietzsche on Slave Morality and Herd Mentality

To understand slave morality, one must understand master morality.

Master morality begins with an aristocrat (someone who possesses power in the form of hereditary monarchy or someone who is in power in government or wealth) and he sees himself as "noble, powerful, and strong" (Kirwin). Thus being in power, possessing nobility, power and strength, is defined as "good" in the master morality code of ethics.  The "bad" of master morality is anything low-class found among the "ill-born masses" (Kirwin).

Slave morality is a reaction against master morality; Nietzsche calls it a "slave revolt in morality" (Lanier). Based in religion, priests lead the revolt and call anything "evil" which the master morality calls "good." And what is "good" in the slave morality is "meek, mild, and servile—qualities which the slave class possess of necessity, but which they now cast as the products of their own free choice" (Kirwin). As a result, the so-called goods of the world (i.e. power, wealth, authority) are not to be obtained in this life, but that ultimate justice will be attained for the slaves in the after-life (Kirwin). What is preached in slave morality is "those who suffer and are oppressed on earth will receive their reward in heaven, while the evil masters will face an eternity of punishment in hell" (Kirwin).

Related to slave morality is herd mentality.  To understand herd mentality, one must understand the two different types of beings Nietzsche categorized: "the higher human beings" and "those who belong to the herd" (Academy of Ideas). The higher human beings strive for creativity and have a "unifying life project" which effects will be felt by humankind long after the higher human being passes away. This creativity and independence of the higher human being demands solitude from the herd.

The individuals of the herd seek "only comfort and contentment" (Academy of Ideas). Parts of the herd also retain a strong resentment of the higher human beings. They are envious of the higher human beings and instead of using that envy to better themselves, they seek to tear down the higher human beings. One form of tearing down the higher human beings is the concept of slave morality, as described above.

Works cited

Academy of Ideas. “Nietzsche and Morality: The Higher Man and the Herd.”, 30 Jan. 2017, Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.

Kirwin, Claire. “Nietzsche’s Ethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Lanier, Anderson R. “Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 17 Mar. 2017,

p.s. I though the Academy of Ideas video was so good, I've embedded it here below - it's worth the 13 minutes of time!

Feedback from professor Dr. Achilles Gacis:

Moral reasoning, for Nietzsche, in western cultures is infused with Christian morality which he postulates is inspired by deep resentment from when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. When Nietzsche talks about “morality” he is ​referring to Judeo-Christian morality because that​ is the dominant sense of morality in 19th century ​Europe at the time.​ Since we are all trying to assert ourselves in the world, Nietzsche thinks that Judeo-Christian morality is also a “will to power” in much the same way.​ Nietzsche wants to understand the history of morality and how terms like good and evil emerged. ​

On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche​ draws an analogy. This is how “morality” begins:​

That the lambs dislike the birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who is least like a birds of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,— would he not be good?" There is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might find it a little ironically and say "We don’t dislike them at all, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb."

By way of analogy, just like the lambs, Judeo-Christian morality is born out of resentment - a desire to enact revenge on the predators, but an inability to directly do so. So they psychological revenge in the form of morality. That's certainly one way to assert one's will-to-power, and Nietzsche admires this clever move.

Nietzsche’s point is that if you were a lamb you could imagine and probably even want a different moral universe. Getting killed by a bird of prey isn’t preferable! But now imagine the moral view of the birds of prey. It seems unlikely that predators would want or even need to imagine a moral universe. They are, after all, just doing what wolves do. Life as a predator is what it is. They don’t dislike the lambs, they are just living out the will-to-power.

The lambs, however, have a very good reason to want a different moral universe. For starters, a world where lambs can just be lambs without having to worry about predators all the time. But since the lambs can’t physically confront the situation the only option is a psychological shift. ​By convincing the birds of prey that predatory behavior was bad wrong, perhaps they’d stop feeding on lambs. But that’s pretty unlikely at this stage, so another option is to convince yourself and other lambs that predator-like behavior is bad and evil. ​This would by default, then show the lambs to be good and moral. Why?  Because they aren’t acting like predators.​ Suddenly, the life of a lamb has much more meaning and worth because they are moral and righteous.​ This, according to Nietzsche, is where the genealogical roots of Christian morality begins.  

Nietzsche is critical of this form of morality because it’s particularly pernicious. It’s pernicious mainly because we are no longer slaves like the ancient Hebrews, and so there’s no need for this type of ‘ressentiment.’ Most importantly, resentment-based morality lacks the capacity for growth and creativity because it’s essential form is to simply be *against* things rather than standing for any particular affirmative values. 

Nietzsche also seems to be stating something about how our moral frameworks embody values themselves. This turns the idea that our morals come from values on its head. Nietzsche thinks some moral frameworks are healthier than others, more capable of being "life affirming" than others.

In this way too, Nietzsche is challenging the idea that moral reasoning can be purely rational and objective in applying moral principles.

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