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Morals and Values

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2023

“Don’t our morals reflect our values?... Yes, they are related…they are antonyms!”

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 peccadilloes.

What is the genealogy of morals…besides the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche? As children, we imagine that commands have an objective dimension, perhaps even a transcendent source. Only much later do we realize that they are designed primarily to make our behavior easier to control and so make our parents’ lives marginally less difficult. That is the subjective dimension of morality.

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 the child…and can have consequences of its own. (Meet DCF.)

Yet, 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.

Of course, morality does not end with childhood. We are forever exhorted and expected to live moral lives. For Marx and Nietzsche, morality is imposed by cultural elites (in loco parentis) on their supposed ‘inferiors’ to benefit the former at the expense of the latter. 

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 relations. 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 non-emancipated, 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 (per Nietzsche).

According to Nietzsche, slave-morality lies at the heart 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…”

Slave-morality supposedly violates human nature and saps human enterprise of its vital creativity: “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.”

“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 Delusion: “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.

So-called slave-morality finds its justification in the Other, while master-morality finds its justification in the Self. 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 meaning of and the reason for 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 may present radically different moral codes. 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 in different places and times, but core values themselves never change. They are synonymous with Being itself.

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.”

In this, Nietzsche could not be more wrong! Values are precisely the basis on which one can judge, measure, compare, and condemn. 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. While morals emerge after the fact to explain events that have already occurred to justify ongoing behaviors or to reinforce pre-existing social orders, values are the source of novelty. Therefore, they precede events. As Being is novelty, Value is the principle of Being.

To “put one’s will on a par with others” is a choice driven by values. Far from being “a principle of dissolution and decay”, it is the generative force in action. Creation is not always a matter of imposing our will; more often it is a matter of holding our will in check so that creation can occur outside us…in the other. For Michelangelo, sculpting was not about imposing a form on a marble block; rather, it was about cutting away stone to reveal the latent form within.

Both morals and values react to the status quo. Moral-consciousness perceives what is ‘good’ in the world and seeks to preserve it; value-consciousness perceives what is lacking in the world and seeks to create it. “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?” (Robert Kennedy) 

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

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 is 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 under girds 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.


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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