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Morals and Values

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2023

“Don’t our morals reflect our values? Surely the concepts are at least related. Yes, they are related…they are antonyms. A value is the opposite of a moral.” 

For most of us, our first encounter with “morality” comes through our parents (or parent figures). As we grow, we are handed ever thicker editions of the same rule book. Those who follow these rules earn the moniker “Good Kid” along with the emotional and material perks that accompany such an honorific. Those who are less compliant suffer the emotional and sometimes physical consequences of their peccadillos.

What is the genealogy of morals…besides the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche? As children, we imagine that commandments have an objective dimension, that every command is grounded in reason, even if that reason is obscure. We accept that these norms have a transcendent origin, an absolute claim on our obedience that is beyond questioning. 

The Book of Job and the Book of Dad both address the same question: Is God Good or is Good God? According to my reading, Job comes down on the side of Good. God is God because he is good. Dad comes down on the aide of God. Good is good because he’s God: “Because I said so!”

We are taught that the five Books of Moses (Torah) are an extension of the Book of Dad. The house rules are just an application of God’s rules. Only much later do we realize that these house rules have an overriding subjective dimension. In fact, they are primarily designed to make our parents’ lives more livable - an understandable objective, deceptively packaged and falsely advertised: Politics 101. 

There is also a communitarian dimension.  Extended family members, neighbors and school officials have certain expectations regarding the behavior of the children they encounter. Failure to meet those expectations reflects badly on the parent, as well as on the child, and that can have its own adverse consequences. (Meet DCF.)

Yet even that is not the whole picture. Rules are also intended to help children lead physically safe and socially successful lives. This is the utilitarian dimension. Wonder why we list this last?

Of course, our ‘fixation on morals’ does not magically evaporate along with childhood. We are forever exhorted and expected to live moral lives. For Marx and Nietzsche, morality is imposed by elites (political, economic, and cultural elites, acting in loco parentis) on their supposed ‘inferiors’ for the benefit of the former at the expense of the latter. Seen in this light, morality (like childhood itself) is just a slightly kinder, slightly gentler form of slavery. 

According to Marx and Nietzsche, morality plays the same role in macro social structures as it does in micro family structures. Its purpose is to reinforce pre-existing power structures. Might makes right!


Marxist morality is concerned with the production and distribution of goods. For Nietzsche, morality comes in two flavors: ‘master-morality’ and ‘slave-morality’. Master-morality is aristocratic; it is characteristic of ancient Greece and Rome and of the Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe (among others). 

Slave-morality, on the other hand, is the morality of “the abused, the oppressed, the suffering, the unemancipated, the weary, and those uncertain of themselves…It is here that sympathy, the kind helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility and friendliness attain to honor.” Misplaced honor according to Nietzsche!

Without morality, society is ungovernable. Morality is the membrane that separates tyranny (or democracy) from anarchy. No wonder then that moral codes are often the first target of anarchists. Without morality, families are ungovernable. Is it any wonder then that new parents often begin going to church again when their children reach ‘the age of rebellion’, oops, I meant ‘reason’. Sorry. 

According to Nietzsche, slave-morality is the heart and soul of Judeo-Christianity: “The wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation…”

Slavery violates human nature and stifles human enterprise. According to Nietzsche, so does slave-morality. “To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others… (is) a principle of dissolution and decay.”

Sidebar: It is largely thanks to Nietzsche and Heidegger that we know and appreciate pre-Socratic philosophy as we do. It is ironic then that Nietzsche places himself squarely at odds with. Anaximander and Parmenides, the Batman and Robin of Ancient Greek ‘academics’. They hold that ‘to refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others…’ is the genesis of Being per se.

“To put one’s will on a par with that of others,” sounds a lot like the Great Commandment. For Nietzsche, it is the Great Deception: “Life is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity…and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation…life is precisely will to power.” Nietzsche stands Marx on his head.

“The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: ‘What is injurious to me is injurious in itself;’ he knows that it is he himself only who confers honor on things; he is a creator of values. He honors whatever he recognizes in himself; such morality equals self-glorification.” Nietzsche stands Kant on his head.

Whether or not you agree with Nietzsche, we are all indebted to him for showing us that the same data can support unexpectedly many interpretations. Similarly, there are many valid solutions to Einstein’s equations, some of them quite extraordinary. 

Nietzsche associates the modern concepts of ‘freedom, progress, and the future’ with slave-morality. For Nietzsche, aristocracy is not an aspect of society; it is the purpose of society. “Society is not allowed to exist for its own sake, but only as a foundation and scaffolding, by means of which a select class of beings may be able to elevate themselves to their higher duties and in general to a higher existence…”

Nietzsche identifies us with our acts: “And just exactly as the people separate the lightening from its flash…so also does the popular morality separate strength from the expression of strength, as though behind the strong man (sic) there existed some indifferent neutral substratum, which enjoyed a caprice and option as to whether or not it should express strength. But there is no such substratum, there is no ‘being’ behind doing…’the doer’ is a mere appanage to the action. The action is everything.” I am what I do!

So morals are subjective, utilitarian, and culturally relative. Different cultures, different nations, different classes, different families will promulgate different moral codes, reflective of their unique power structures. 

Values, on the other hand, are universal! Beauty, Truth, Justice - they apply in every possible family, culture, nation, or universe. They may be expressed differently at different places and times, but the core values themselves never change. They are synonymous with Being itself.

Morals are active voice imperatives; values are middle voice. Morality imposes order; values distill it. Morality compels virtue; values incent it. Values guide behavior, morals restrict it. As events evolve, values bloom and morals wither.  

Nietzsche uses ‘morals’ and ‘values’ interchangeably (see above). He has to! He correctly understands that values, to the extent that they are distinct from morals, must have a transcendent basis. But his ontology does not admit transcendence (“God is dead”), so all he can do is reduce values to the level of morals and make the ‘noble man’ arbiter of both.

“There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole.”

It is a poor solution…and Nietzsche could not be more wrong! Values are precisely the basis on which one can judge, measure, compare, and condemn. According to the Book of Job, even God must answer to Value. Yet I suspect many readers will agree with Nietzsche: Don’t our morals reflect our values? Surely the concepts are at least related.

Yes, they are related…they are antonyms! A value is the opposite of a moral. Morals emerge after the fact to reinforce or discourage patterns of behavior that have already occurred. If no one had ever stolen, there’d be no 7th Commandment. Morals are reactionary. They impede innovation, they tenaciously conserve what is at the expense of what might be, they hinder the eruption of novelty.


Values, on the other hand, are the sole source of all novelty. Therefore by definition, values must precede events (to be an ‘event’ is to be ‘novel’). They are revolutionary. Being is novelty; what else could it be? Therefore, Value is the principle of Being…and Morality? Well, that’s the principle of something else… 

Both morals and values react to the status quo. Moral-consciousness perceives what is ‘good’ in the world and seeks to preserve it; that’s ok, but value-consciousness perceives what is lacking in the world and seeks to create it. Robert Kennedy said, “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’.” Moralists say, “I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Thank God’!

While morals (even Marxist morals) are inherently conservative, values are revolutionary. Morals reinforce the status quo; values undermine and ultimately overthrow that status quo. Morals embody the longing for stability; values embody the urge to change. Morals reflect the instinct for survival; values stimulate creativity.

But this is problematic. Our world consists solely of events. So what could be logically precedent to events? Only something that transcends those events. The phenomenon of Value, if real, demonstrates the reality of transcendence. That’s why Nietzsche, ever true to his beliefs, had to deny the real existence of values, even after acknowledging their potential importance and power.

The existence of Value proves that there is something “beyond” the spatiotemporal universe, something that undergirds it, something that is not contingent or transient but necessary and transcendent. Of course, folks will disagree wildly about the application of values in any concrete situation. That doesn’t matter; what matters is that their disagreement is grounded in a common conception of ‘the Good’ (Value). Of course, in Judeo-Christian ontology, that Good is God.

Justice requires that folks enjoy the fruits of their labors (property) but it also imposes an obligation to care for the poor (John Paul II). It requires the protection of life, limb, and property, but it also imposes an obligation to be fair-dealing and generous. No wonder Justice is often depicted as a balance scale!

What about the primary source of Morals and Values in Western culture? Of course, I’m referring to the Bible. The Old Testament reflects both moral-consciousness and value-consciousness. The 613 precepts of Torah are primarily concerned with morality. The Book of Job, on the other hand, catalogues in the minute detail of a legal brief the triumph of value-consciousness over moral-consciousness. 

Joshua bases his pitch to the disenfranchised residents of Jericho on the Value of socio-economic Justice. His triumph ushers in the Reign of Judges, when Israel was an Anarcho-Theocracy, and “everyone did what was right in their own mind” (Judges 21: 25), guided by Value. After Judges came Kings and the Psalms. A psalm is a celebration of Value! To pray the Psalms is to conform one’s mind to the mind of God, and the mind of God is Value Consciousness, pure and unadulterated.

And the New Testament? Nietzsche read the New Testament as a veritable ‘manifesto’ of slave-morality. Again, he was wrong! One could argue in fact that the primary project of the New Testament is to substitute value-consciousness, based on the life of Jesus, for all forms of moral-consciousness, secular as well as religious.


Image: Nietzsche in Basel, Switzerland, c. 1875.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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