Human Rights

Dr Tom Kerns













A Way Too Short and Completely Inadequate Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche's
Ideas about Morality



In his books, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and The Antichrist (1888), Friedrich Nietzsche draws a sharp distinction between all conventional moralities, i.e., all moral systems we would be familiar with today, and what he considers the original, animal, or “natural,” morality.

The former -- i.e., moralities of kindness, forgiveness, mercy, peace and fairness -- he terms “slave morality,” and he considers them moralities of weakness and biological feebleness, in contrast to what he terms “master morality,” or the morality of strength, animal spirits, power and the ability to control others.

Nietzsche believes that the original morality, the biological morality, the master morality of strength and exuberance and dominance, was the earliest and most natural morality. This instinctual morality, he says, is the morality that values strength and dominance and vitality and winning and power, and was the morality of the original, strong, natural masters.

This morality is good for those with power and strength and the ability to force others to their will. It overcomes those who are weak and bends them to the will of the ones who have the strength and power to exploit others for their own benefit. But this morality is not good for the weak ones, the feeble ones, the ones who are exploited, who are dominated by the masters and made to serve and do their work for them.

So in time, Nietzsche believes, as millennia passed, the weak, out of their powerlessness and ressentiment (i.e., deep seated resentment, hostility and frustration with their lot), figured out an underhanded way to win some power over the masters. Nietzsche believes it was a small and sneaky trick that the weak used to gain power over those empowered ones. Their trick was to develop an entirely new morality, i.e., to re-value those old values, and to persuade the human community that the characteristics of weakness were actually “good” and the characteristics of strength were actually “evil.” The weak ones taught that gentleness, not power, was good; that kindness, not dominance, was good; and that sympathy with, rather than disgust for, the poor and weak and sick was good; and that mercy, not forcing others to one’s will, was good. These new values, says Nietzsche, were the exact opposite of the original biological, natural, master values of power and strength and control.

Nietzsche believes that the weak, when they realized that they could not overcome the strong by any methods that required strength and control, decided instead to overcome them by this sneaky, underhanded method of re-valuing all values, by a “transvaluation of values.” He believes that the main perpetrators of this conventional morality, this decadent morality that values weakness over strength, were Socrates, Judaism and Christianity, so he is highly critical of them.

Nietzsche expresses some of this in the early pages of his book The Antichrist: Attempt at a Critique of Christianity, published in 1888:

What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.

What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.

What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.

Not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness....

The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance.

What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity.

You can see how Nietzsche’s description of “good” and “bad,” as seen through the eyes of his “natural” master morality is quite different than the definitions of good and bad in the moralities most of us have grown up with. It has no pity for those who are weak or sick or to whom life has not been fair. The morality of power wishes those weak and sick ones to perish.

... Life itself is to my mind the instinct for growth, for durability, for an accumulation of forces, for power: where the will to power is lacking there is decline. It is my contention that all the supreme values of mankind lack this will—that the values which are symptomatic of decline, nihilistic values, are lording it under the holiest names.

In Nietzsche’s conception of the “original” vital morality of power and force, life and it’s instinctual struggle to grow and become more is considered good, whereas pity (by which he means sympathy or compassion for those who are suffering) is considered decadent and opposed to the tonic vitality of the master morality.

You see in section 7 (below) that he identifies the moralities of compassion with Christianity and considers Christianity a form of weakness and decadence.

Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength where we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious. Under certain circumstances, it may engender a total loss of life and vitality out of all proportion to the magnitude of the cause (as in the case of the death of the Nazarene). That is the first consideration, but there is a more important one.

Suppose we measure pity by the value of the reactions it usually produces; then its perilous nature appears in an even brighter light. Quite in general, pity crosses the law of development, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends those who have been disinherited and condemned by life; and by the abundance of the failures of all kinds which it keeps alive, it gives life itself a gloomy and questionable aspect.

Some have dared to call pity a virtue (in every noble ethic it is considered a weakness); and as if this were not enough, it has been made the virtue, the basis and source of all virtues. To be sure—and one should always keep this in mind—this was done by a philosophy that was nihilistic and had inscribed the negation of life upon its shield. Schopenhauer was consistent enough: pity negates life and renders it more deserving of negation.

Pity is the practice of nihilism. To repeat: this depressive and contagious instinct crosses those instincts which aim at the preservation of life and at the enhancement of its value. Pity multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and is thus a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence....

You could almost say, and not be too far wide of the mark, that Nietzsche is the philosopher of anti-morality, and that for him, as for Machiavelli, power, strength, dominance and control are of the highest value. Nietzsche considers power and vitality as the fundamental source of value, and both he and Machiavelli consider power as a value to be sought and fought for. Neither of them thinks much of humility and sympathizing except as signs of weakness, feebleness and unfitness.


You will read more about this in the assigned portions of The Antichrist. This book is available several places on the web, including here.

Your assignment is to read the Preface and Sections 1-19 (about 10 printed pages), and then to write and post answers to the Nietzsche Discussion Questions.