Kant’s moral principle is among the most recognizable examples of deontological ethics. However, its requirement for compliance with certain virtues was criticized by some philosophers. The following paper explores the possibility of viewing Kant’s moral principle as an expression of Nietzsche’s slave morality.
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Kant’s Moral Principle
In order to arrive at a conclusion on the relation between Kant’s moral principle and Nietzsche’s slave morality, it is first necessary to ensure sufficient understanding of both concepts. The moral principle is a key element of a deontological ethical theory proposed by Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, there exists a foundation of morals that is intrinsically good by nature (Denis 23). In simple terms, it is possible to determine whether an action is good by tracing its origins to the initial assumptions behind it. Once it becomes apparent that the action is consistent with the moral law, it can be considered benevolent. Importantly, the moral law used as a reference is a categorical imperative, which means that it is equally applicable to all human beings regardless of the context.
As can be seen, the uniformity of the concept of good is consistent with the view of moral absolutism, which presumes that there is an intrinsic affiliation of all existing actions with the concepts of right or wrong (Denis 148). This consistency adds to the universalizability of Kant’s moral principle, requiring equal applicability of any action or concept to all people. In other words, from Kant’s ethical standpoint, an action can be considered appropriate when it can be applied to anybody without creating a contradiction. In this way, contradictory actions can be dismissed as plausibly moral based on the idea put forward by Aristotle that just actions cannot create contradictions.
The second key aspect of Kant’s moral principle is the assumption that all humans are to be perceived as ends rather than means for achieving ends (Denis 159). In the most basic terms, this means that the well-being of all humans should be considered a priority at all times. In a hypothetical scenario where all members of a given group are capable of rational thinking and moral deliberation, each individual can be entrusted with the task of creating laws since they are expected to obey them (Kant 62). It is important to understand that in order to be considered rational, individuals need to comply with moral principles willingly. This aspect ensures autonomy and sustainability of will-based morality.
As can be seen, Kant’s moral principle falls within the category of moral absolutism. Thus, it can be described as having two primary properties. First, it postulates that the notions of good and bad exist independently from specific scenarios and perceptions, which distinguishes it from moral relativism. Second, it presumes the existence of principles that are intrinsically correct and, therefore, must be upheld. The latter is partially consistent (but not fully compatible) with the idea of moral universalism.
Next, it is necessary to explain Nietzsche’s slave morality. Nietzsche takes a historical approach by assuming that the notions of good and bad are invariably tied to cultural and social constructs prevalent in a given society in a specific period. By exploring the etymology of terms behind these concepts, he established that “good” could be tied to nobility and sophistication, whereas “bad” is more aligned with simplicity. Based on these origins, he concludes that morality is formed in accordance with historical concepts and suggested the existence of two distinctive moral approaches (Nietzsche 15). The first approach, termed master morality, emphasizes power, nobility, and pride as its core values and utilizes usefulness to determine whether an action is good or bad.
The second approach, termed slave morality by Nietzsche, capitalizes on kindness, humanity, and empathy. In a departure from master morality, this approach rejects the traits and concepts associated with a strong will (presumably due to the inability to harness them). At the same time, certain characteristics, such as autonomy, decision-making capacity, and will, are vilified as undesirable for slaves.
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Instead, characteristics that promote humility and compliance are considered desirable and receive moral justification. From this standpoint, Nietzsche’s slave morality resembles a system of Christian virtues and vices that also emphasize humility, kindness, and empathy and discourages hostility and oppression (Nietzsche 19). However, according to Nietzsche’s perspective, this approach prioritizes subversion at the expense of development. In other words, instead of aiming at surpassing the “master level,” a proponent of slave morality would instead try to bring them down to a slave level by devaluating the virtues in their possession.
Importantly, according to slave morality, a utility for the majority is the main determinant of moral justification behind the action. However, the scale used to determine the resulting value uses the concepts of good and evil that resemble those used in deontological ethics and Christian virtues. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that slave morality is founded on deontological principles of absolute values.
The connection between Moral Principles
As can be seen from the information above, the described moral frameworks have a number of common elements. Most prominently, both systems rely on the concepts of good and evil. In addition, the criteria suggested to characterize actions as good or bad are sufficiently similar to arrive at the same conclusion on the action through any perspective. In other words, an action will likely be considered equally just by the proponents of both views.
Another notable similarity is the readiness to comply with the externally imposed standards. In this regard, Kant’s categorical imperative can be compared to the rule imposed by a master, with one important distinction: the immutable nature of the rule applies only to slaves. In other words, masters are entitled to create values from the position of strength and usefulness. Slaves are then free to reject these values and create an alternative based on principles of humility. However, this approach is also not entirely consistent with Kant’s view.
As was explained above, according to Nietzsche, the notions of good and bad are established in accordance with the cultural and social environment. Consequently, slave morality (as well as its counterpart) is founded on human-created concepts. Such an approach is more consistent with moral relativism, according to which the benevolence of the action is determined by specific conditions in which it was performed.
Admittedly, Nietzsche also pointed to the fact that “slaves” are unaware of this aspect and perceive their values as determined by the inherent injustice of slavery (Nietzsche 38). Thus, from their viewpoint, they do use deontological ethics as a core of their values. In other words, it is possible to state that a proponent of slave morality can view Kant’s moral principle as fully compatible with their framework.
As can be seen, Kant’s moral principle can be viewed as an expression of Nietzsche’s slave morality. Both moral systems incorporate a number of highly similar concepts, values, and underlying virtues. Nevertheless, the fact that slave morality is determined by social and cultural environment does not allow considering it deontological in the pure sense. Therefore, the said connection is only possible from the viewpoint that ignores the master’s morality aspect and focuses on the preferred framework.
Denis, Lara, editor. Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’. Penguin Books, 2013.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Hackett Publishing, 1998.