Friedrich Nietzsche disputed the long-unexamined notion that morality was an absolute. He believed that morality was relative to the condition in which one finds oneself. In Beyond Good and Evil, he defined two moralities. The “master morality” encouraged strength, power, freedom, and achievement, while the “slave morality” valued sympathy, charity, forgiveness, and humility. Those qualities that the master morality deemed “good,” such as strength and power, were a source of fear to the slave morality and were thus deemed “evil.” Nietzsche believed that each person was motivated by the “will to power,” the essential driving force behind human behavior, and that exploitation of the weak by the strong was the very nature of life. Reform movements such as democracy and Christianity, which he associated with the slave morality, tried to negate this basic life function and were thus “antilife.” Nietzsche feared that Western society had been unduly influenced by the slave morality’s resentment and fear of the life-affirming qualities of the master type. Because the achievements of the master class were necessary to human progress, the overall effect was a weakening of the human race. To solve the problem, Beyond Good and Evil suggested that the master class’s will to power should be encouraged and that members of this class should be freed from the debilitating value system of the oppressed so that they could rise above the paradigm of the slave morality; that is, “beyond good and evil.” Thus freed, they could metamorphose into a higher level of existence, which Nietzsche termed “the overman.”
In using the title Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wanted to emphasize his belief that persons of noble character need an ethical system that is more sophisticated than the rules and principles found in the conventional moralities of both the bourgeoisie and the lower classes. Although sometimes denouncing the very notion of morality, he strongly condemned ethical nihilism, while acknowledging the societal need for standards of “good and bad” in the sense of “noble and despicable.” He insisted, however, that many acts and attitudes that were judged to be “evil” or “sinful” in conventional morality were noble according to his aristocratic criteria. There was an urgent need, therefore, for a thoroughgoing “transvaluation of values.” Certainly Nietzsche reacted strongly against the rigid mores and folkways of the Victorian age, but this was only part of his complaint.
Glorifying the strong “will to power” of superior humans, he distinguished between the “master morality” and the “slave morality.” He viewed the former as an affirmation of life, while the latter was only a grumbling of resentment and weakness. He also described the former as a “life-enhancing” morality and the latter as a “life-denying” morality. One of the reasons for his contempt for Christian morality was his belief that it had evolved out of a slave morality, as epitomized in precepts like “blessed are the meek” and “turn the other cheek.” He also asserted that the French Revolution was an expression of the slave morality, even though he viewed Napoleon I as the last great representative of the aristocratic ideal. Writing condescendingly of the slave “whose gaze resents the virtues of the powerful,” he was alarmed to observe the growth of democracy with its “morality of the herd animal,” which he perceived to be an heir to Christianity.
Although endorsing the aristocratic morality of the slaveholder, Nietzsche did not advocate the reintroduction of slavery in the traditional sense. On the other hand, he never expresses any ethical judgments against the exploitation and suffering of ordinary people. Rather than condemnation, he believed the development of the Overman...
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requires a “healthy aristocracy” in which there are “gradations of rank and differences of worth.” The essential thing is that a society should not exist for its own sake but rather as a foundation to make the higher forms of noblemen possible. For the sake of cultivating such men, therefore, society “with a good conscience” must accept “the sacrifice of innumerable men” who would “have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and tools.” Considering it natural for women to exercise a “secondary role,” Nietzsche told his readers that “both good and bad women need the stick.”
In order to clarify and expand on the ethical theories of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote a second book, Zur Genalogie der Moral (1887; On the Genealogy of Morals, 1896). Since there are only minor differences in the ideas of the two books, they are frequently considered together. The latter is considered to be somewhat more readable.