Power Is the Highest Value
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil
Kem Stone - 30 September 2007
The first time I read this excerpt from Beyond Good and Evil, it had a very profound effect on me, and to this
day it remains a heavy influence on my perspective on morality. While I did not then and do not now completely
agree with all of Nietzsche’s opinions, his sketch of two different types of morality—that of masters and slaves—
is most likely the closest explanation to the truth of the origins of the concepts of good and evil. While one need
not accept this distinction, I believe it is enormously valuable to at least consider the concepts of morality from this
point of view, if only to hold up one’s own moral beliefs against it. Unlike the other selected articles on ethics
from this textbook, this is not so much of a formal argument as it is a mere collection of sentiments and ideas. So
rather than exposit the argument and then give my reaction, I will examine each idea presented and give my
The excerpt begins with Nietzche’s assertion that every advancement of man has been the work of an aristocratic
society, one in which a higher class aims to better itself in order to widen the divide between themselves and the
inferior lower classes. Nietzsche makes no attempt to romanticise the brutality involved in this process. The
weak and peaceful are overcome by the strong and brutal. “In the beginning, the noble caste was always the
barbarian caste: their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul—they were
the whole human beings (which also means, at every level, ‘more whole beasts’)” (203).
Next, Nietzsche makes a point about corruption, that it is different depending on the organism in which it
appears. We may think of corruption as when a public servant acts in his own interest, but according to
Nietzsche, it is also corruption when a noble class sacrifices its power for the sake of the masses. The example he
gives is that of the French aristocracy at the beginning of the French Revolution, which laid down its own
privileges at the feet of the lower class. Nietzsche believes that a good aristocrat understands that it is not a mere
function of the monarchy, but its very justification. It ought to accept the sacrifice of the lowest classes because
their suffering is justified for the sake of the betterment of the nobility.
Essentially, the oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong is simply how nature works, and according to
Nietzsche is therefore justified. Refraining from injury, violence, and exploitation may be considered good
manners among individuals of the same class, but these are not virtues. “Life itself is essentially appropriation,
injury, over-powering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms,
incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation” (204). The fundamental characteristic of life, according to
Nietzsche, is the will to power.
I believe that Nietzsche makes many legitimate points, and it may be that life in its most basic form is essentially a
will to power. This is hard to deny when we look at how nature operates: stronger forms of life prey upon the
weaker, and the most powerful organisms are the ones that endure and pass on their genes through the ages.
However, when Nietzsche takes the next step and claims that this constitutes a justification of an oppressive
noble class, this is where I begin to disagree with him. Even if the origins of our moral sentiments come from
nature, that does not mean nature must be the basis of our morality. Most would argue that we need to evolve
beyond our natural impulses to find a higher set of values. We need to replace the “survival of the fittest” virtues
with those of justice and universal brotherhood, which are values to be found nowhere in nature, if we want to
advance morally. Advancement does not only come about in aristocratic societies where the top tries to widen its
distance from the bottom, but it can happen in democratic societies in which we advance from the bottom up,
widening the divide between how we are and how we used to be. It is not just the aristocracy that serves as the
justification for our values, but everyone in the society.
After making his assertion about the supremacy of the will to power, Nietzsche draws his famous distinction
between master morality and slave morality. He immediately qualifies this distinction by explaining that in today’s
cultures the two moralities are so intermixed and meshed together that they will never be found completely
separated from one another but that elements of both will be present even within a single human being. It is still a
common misconception about Nietzsche’s ethics that some people have a master morality and some a slave
morality, and while it is true that each man seems to lean mostly in one direction or another (conservatives towards
the former and liberals towards the latter), there is rarely if ever a case of a person with a pure, uncorrupted form
of one of these two moralities.
The master morality came about through the separation of the nobleman from the lower classes through pride in
the power they possessed. Their values were self-created: what is harmful to them was harmful in itself, and thus
their morality was one of self-glorification. “In the foreground there is the feeling of fullness, of power that seeks
to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of wealth that would give and bestow: the noble
human being, too, helps the unfortunate, but not, or almost not, from pity, but prompted more by an urge begotten
by excess of power. The noble human being honours himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power
over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent, who delights in being severe and hard with himself and
respects all severity and hardness” (205). Another distinct characteristic of a master morality is a reverence for
age and tradition. This stands in stark contrast to the “ignoble” sentiments of those who value progress towards
the future and lack respect for age and posterity.
To these opinions I would only argue that it is a false dilemma to state that one must either have respect and
reverence for tradition or value progress and looking towards the future. A complete moral framework would, I
believe, incorporate both elements with an understanding that we ought to honour where we came although not all
traditions are good, and that we ought to care about progress towards the future but not at the expense of the
good things we have inherited from our ancestors.
Turning to slave morality, this is the result of a class of oppressed, suffering, unfree people who have taken to
moralising, and from their moral sentiments comes a pessimism about the whole human condition, and even a
condemnation of man. Because life is so hard for the slave, “those qualities are brought out and flooded with light
which serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart,
patience, humility, and friendless are honoured—for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only
means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility” (206).
Nietzsche here lays out the distinction between the origins of the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” and that
of “good and evil”. To the masters, the good is what benefits them while the bad is what they find contemptible.
To the slaves, what does not threaten them is good, while evil is the terrible power to which they are subject. A
tendency towards pity is good in slave morality, while in master morality it is bad—a contemptible quality of
weakness. In master morality, the ability to inspire fear is good—a sign of strength, while in slave morality it is
evil. In slave morality, there is an inherent distrust of power, and the good is in close proximity to the non-
threatening. There is a close correlation between good and stupid in slave morality, because the stupid are less
able to do harm. Finally, there is a longing for freedom, whereas in master morality it is reverence and devotion
that are the superior virtues.
I believe that it is probably quite true that pity and compassion were originally the virtues of the slave, but I
disagree that this necessarily makes such virtues inferior. The origin of a moral sentiment does not determine its
ultimate value. I would also argue that Nietzsche sets up another false dilemma between the virtue of freedom and
that of reverence and devotion. I believe that both have value, and that we ought to be free to choose to devote
ourselves to whomever or whatever we like.
Finally, the excerpt ends with Nietzsche’s discussion of vanity, and why this concept is so difficult to handle for a
noble human being in contemporary society. “The problem for him is to imagine people who seek to create a
good opinion of themselves which they do not have of themselves” (207). He will admit to taking pleasure in the
good opinions of others because it might confirm his good opinion of himself or because such opinions are useful
to him, but will deny that this is vanity. This stems from very old remnants of slave morality. “Since time
immemorial, in all somehow dependent social strata the common man was only what he was considered: not at all
used to positing values himself, he also attached no other value to himself than his masters attached to him” (207).
Even today, the common man waits for an opinion of himself and accepts it even if it is negative—as he does
when the Church labels him a lowly sinner. Thus, because master and slave morality have been so intermixed, the
old tendency to think well of oneself is always opposed by an older propensity to delight in any good opinion of
oneself even if untrue, and to be pained by any negative opinion to which one feels subject.
I will admit that after reading this passage several times I am still not exactly sure what point Nietzsche is trying to
make exactly with his discussion of vanity. My thoughts are simply these: that when it comes to vanity the most
useful rule of thumb is that of the Greek virtue of temperance. We need not give in completely to slave morality
and fall victim to total self-abasement, but when thinking well of ourselves we ought not go too far in praising
ourselves too highly, but exercise some humility in recognition that we are all of us flawed and imperfect.
And so my essential reaction to Nietzsche at this point is that there is great merit in the idea of distinguishing
between master and slave morality, but that this intermingling of the two types is not so bad a thing as Nietzsche
seems to suggest. There is good to be found the in virtues of master morality, such as respect for oneself,
ambition to achieve great things, reverence and devotion, etc. But the virtues of slave morality such as kindness,
compassion and charity are not without value, and they are no less worthy of praise than those which Nietzsche
chooses to champion. However, the brilliance of Nietzsche is that I cannot prove that my own conclusions
regarding the lack of superiority of one type of morality over the other is not the result of the mixture that has
taken place between them and upon which my own moral sentiments have been cultivated since I was a child, and
that if I had been born an aristocrat in a time before this mixture was so complete I would not feel completely
But the most valuable aspect of Nietzsche’s claims—that which I still hold to be true and still influences all of my
moral thinking—is that we are the creators of our own values. Values come about through power, and it is those
with power that choose which values are championed in any given society. I would merely assert that the values
we ought to choose are not only those of a master morality, but that a mixture of master and slave morality is
potentially superior to both.