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Comparison of Marx, Nietzsche and Mill's Views on Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2795 words Published: 9th Sep 2021

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Neither Marx, nor Mill, nor Nietzsche find the present condition of society to be advantageous to human flourishing. (Marx calls that condition alienation; Mill calls it conformity; Nietzsche calls it slave morality). 

For each, the present condition of human affairs reduces human beings to something less than fully human. Write an essay comparing (and contrasting – when appropriate) each in terms of what they think is the source of this development.

Neither Marx, nor Mill, nor Nietzsche find the present condition of society to be advantageous to human flourishing. For each, the present condition of human affairs reduces human beings to something less than fully human. This essay will discuss three different interpretations of the source of this development from Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and Fredrich Nietzsche. Marx explains this demise of human flourishing as ‘alienation’, Mill as; ‘conformity’, and Nietzsche as; ‘slave morality’.

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The first part of this essay will explore Marx’s concept of alienation, which suggests that the fact humans have detached themselves from their labour means they have reverted to being ‘animal-beings’, only finding pleasure once they have sold their labour for a wage. Following this, I will discuss Mill’s theory of conformity and how conforming to societal norms denies the exploration of genius. The final part of this essay will look at Nietzsche’s idea of slave morality which argues that humans have become less than human due to the fact they require an oppressor in order to know whether they are ‘good’. This essay will provide a comparison and contrast (where necessary) of the three theories leading to a conclusion that the theorists opinion that current society is not advantageous to human flourishing is based on their own social and political backgrounds meaning that the various overlapping views of all three may not have any relevance in today’s society.

Karl Marx was born to a Jewish lawyer in Trier, 1818 and studied law at the universities of Bonn and Berlin respectively. After moving to, and then being expelled from France he moved to Brussels. Following his expulsion from Brussels, Marx moved to Paris and then Cologne eventually finding himself in London. His development of The Communist Manifesto influenced his interpretation of the restriction of human flourishing.

Marx suggests that man is a “species-being, not only in that he practically and theoretically makes as his object his own species as well as that of things, but also in that as a present and living species he considers himself to be a universal and consequently free being”. Marx believes that humans become less than fully human when they are unable to own the object of his labour and no longer view that labour as a manifestation of his life. Marx defined this decline of human flourishing as ‘alienation’. He proposed that mankind (as workers) have become detached from their labour and consequent products of that labour, suggesting that the labour exerted is used to gain wages. He argues that the labour is simply a representation of earnings, we are alienated from work, it is external to us rather than being a part of our nature. Therefore, we are not fulfilled by our work, just our desire to gain wages. He states that money has alienated us from the products of our labour since it “reduces all human qualities to quantitative, interchangeable values devoid of any specific value”. In a Capitalist society, humans sell their labour in return for money meaning they do not own the product of their hard work. Shlomo Avineri deciphers this in ‘The Social and Political thought of Karl Marx’, stating that “the product of his [the workers] activity is not the object of his activity. What he produces for himself is wages”. This means that man has alienated himself from being truly human as he cannot enjoy and own the fruits of his labour.

The concept of alienation imagines man as an “object creator” and suggests that once this has been taken away from the worker, “he retains only his biological, animal-like functions”.  This is expanded saying, “life begins for him [the worker] where the activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed”. This acts as a disadvantage to human flourishing due to the fact humans are not viewing their work as a manifestation of their life, instead they alienate themselves from their labour and only view themselves as living when they are outside of work. Marx believes this causes the worker to become something less than fully human as the worker begins to “feel himself to be freely active only in his animal function; eating, drinking and procreating”. The human becomes an animal-being which has detached himself from his work finding joy only when in leisure.

There appears to be a paradox surrounding alienation making it difficult to escape. Marx states that “the less you are and the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated self and the greater is the saving of alienated being”. This suggests that the less human you are (and more alienated you are), the more wealth you will have. This is because you work longer and produce more but continue to sell your labour for a wage. The worker has more in terms of wealth but has sacrificed his ability to be fully human. We therefore live in abstractions to allow ourselves to pretend that what we are doing is necessary i.e. selling our labour and earning a wage is necessary to survive.

Marx’s theory of alienation could be considered similar to Fredrich Nietzsche’s idea of slave morality. Nietzsche’s view that humans have become something less than fully human due to their need to be oppressed can be compared to Marx’s view that humans are no longer accepting their labour to be a manifestation of their lives. In Marx’s case, the labour and need for a wage can be seen as the oppressor causing humans to disassociate themselves from work and the products made due to a feeling of labour being a means to an end. These theories differ from John Stuart Mill who suggested that it is society’s willingness to conform as a whole, rather than the individual’s need for financial and moral stability for the demise of human flourishing.

John Stuart Mill was a philosopher born in London, 1806. Most recognised for his theory on Utilitarianism, Mills understanding of the condition of human decline is “conformity”. He believes that society naturally prefers to conform due to a stifling of individuality extending to both legal and social realms. Mill was taught by Jeremy Bentham who was considered a political radical during his time. For example, he was an advocate for the abolition of slavery, equal rights for woman and the abolition of the death penalty. These seemingly non-conformist views influenced Mills theory that humans can be considered less than if they conform to societal norms.

Mill believed that there is a danger of conformity, suggesting that there is a risk of society becoming identical and monocultural. Aristotle agrees with this view stating that conformity stifles genius whereas non-conformity can promote individuality and excellence due to people discovering new ways of living that could benefit society. This could be similar to Nietzsche’s idea of alienation. The workers, all alienated from their labour and no longer with an individual product acting as their life manifestation, with one common goal of gaining a wage could be seen as conforming to societal norms. All workers have conformed to the need for a wage consequently becoming animal-beings. It could be said that the condition of human society that reduces human being to less than is an alienation from labour that then leads to society conforming to a common goal (in this case, a salary).

Mill was a thinker of self-cultivation who suggested that he point of freedom was to figure out who you are and once discovered, live that life. In order to discover who you are meant to be, Mill suggest society engage in self-experimentation. This could be considered a good method for both the individual and society as a whole because if successful, the individual is free and living an authentic life however, if unsuccessful, or if the life chosen is not sustainable, society will then know to avoid that way of living.

Mills theory can be seen as a rebuttal of Calvinism which stated that humans are good as long as they are obedient. Mill, on the other hand, believes that non-conformists may discover a different and potentially better way of living. An example of non-conformity benefitting society in the long run could be seen in the fight for same-sex marriage, had it not been for various individuals campaigning for the equal rights of LGBT+ people, they might still not have the right to marry each other which seems wrong in today’s society but 50 years ago was viewed as the way society was conducted. This suggests that diversity is necessary to challenge societal norms and promote social progress.  There are ways that contemporary society is tricked into conformity through various advertising campaigns and product descriptions. For example, the online shop ‘rebellious fashion’ encourages its buyers to “Be A Rebel!” however, this appeal to all women to rebel against societal clothing norms forces shoppers to unknowingly conform with the group of people who consider themselves rebels for shopping at this site. Therefore, Mills theory may be most applicable to today out of the three, due to humanity’s continued desire to be unique, the struggle to avoid conformity in modern life has resulted in many accidentally conforming.

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Fredrich Nietzsche was born in 1844. Following a life of studying, teaching and writing philosophy, he eventually suffered from insanity and died in 1990. Nietzsche believed that there were two fundamental types of morality, these being; ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality’. Master morality stems from the notions of nobility and power. The Masters are “strong, creative and wealthy”. The noble type judges that “what is harmful to me, is harmful itself”. It is value-creating and determines what is good based on whether the act benefits the person. Master morality is therefore ‘sentiment’ and based on feeling. The slaves, however, are oppressed by the masters and are “weak, poor and resentful”. Slave morality is therefore ‘ressentiment’ meaning based in resentment. Despite this, slave morality is not simply the inverse of master morality as master morality is evaluating what is good or bad whereas slave morality is differentiating good and evil. Slave morality suggests that a person needs oppression in order to know if they are good or evil. A slavely moral person requires an enemy, they say, in effect; “My goodness, do I suffer! You make me suffer, you are evil, and I am the opposite of you and therefore am good”. Nietzsche suggests that slave morality is essentially a reaction, stating that “in order to come about, slave morality first has to have an opposing, external world, it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all; its action is basically a reaction.” (GM I 10) Slave morality is principally an argument, being ‘good’ in slave morality is the result of reasoning taking you to the conclusion that you are good.

The concept of slave morality has been seen in recent history. For example, in 1985, Georgi Arbatov, a member of the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party, told an American audience, “we are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to take away your enemy”. This is considered a bad thing under slave morality because without oppression, people cannot know who they are. A slave’s identity is founded in their otherness, if there is no ‘other’ to differentiate themselves from, they cannot understand their identity. Following the loss of the enemy in 1985, the United States found a new enemy in global terrorism following 9/11. This, due to fact terrorism as a whole is near impossible to completely eradicate due to the unpredictability of it, (for example, although the culprits of the 9/11 bombings were known to police, there was little they could do to prevent the bomb detonating and subsequent destruction) has given the US an everlasting sense of fear and oppression, allowing then to know they are good and have a continued sense of identity. Slave morality could also be found in the United Kingdom during the Brexit referendum. The leave campaign used the threat of immigration to instil the feelings of fear and resentment in British citizens. The British people began to feel oppressed by the number of immigrants entering the country and therefore formed an identity fuelled by their dependency on the fear of immigration.

According to Nietzsche, slave and master morality have recurred throughout history. He states that ancient Greek and Roman societies were grounded in master morality. The stereotypical hero of that time period was a strong-willed, Herculean man. He suggests that slave morality is therefore rooted in the emergence of religion during this time, for example within the fundamental principles of religion. The idea of original sin in Christianity means that all humans have to capacity to oppress themselves. Therefore, if people are oppressing themselves and are acting as their own enemies, there are no risks of this enemy being removed and consequently, no risk of people losing their sense of identity. Nietzsche condemns the rise of slave morality, viewing ressentiment as “priestly vindictiveness” suggesting that it is the jealous weak seeking to enslave the strong. Nietzsche believes that the world we live in will always be one of slave morality due to our use of language and grammar. For example, slave morality allows a disassociation between the pronoun and the verb. This can be seen in common phrases like “the lightning flashes”, there is no such thing as lightning separate from the flash as there is no such thing as a slavely moral person being separate from their strength.

John Stuart Mill, Fredrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx’s social and political background will have heavily influenced their interpretation of what is causing the demise of human flourishing. It is therefore, difficult to determine if one theory can be used as the explanation of this demise as the theory of why the present condition of society is not advantageous to human flourishing may only be applicable to each philosophers’ time in history. This suggests that there may be another explanation as to what reduces humans to something less than human.

This essay has explored the fact that Marx, Mill and Nietzsche believe that the present condition of human affairs reduces human beings to something less than fully human and had discussed their differing interpretations of this development. Marx believes that humans have devolved into animal-beings due to their alienation from labour and the product of labour. Mill theorises that humans have become less than due to their willingness to conform and suggests that society would be improved if we allowed individuals to explore different ways of living. Finally, Nietzsche believes that the decline of humanity is found in peoples need for oppression in order to determine whether they are good. There seem to be some similarities between Marx and Nietzsche’s theories, drawn from the fact it is weakness in the individuals that cause a stunt in human flourishing rather than in the society as Mill suggests. Similarities were also found between Nietzsche and Mill. Both theories either explicitly or implicitly suggest that conforming to a common goal leads to a decline in human flourishing. In my opinion, a combination of all three theories could act as an explanation of the current human condition, however, when individually evaluated, the political background and context in which their theories were written mean that they are all somewhat unreliable and would not be applicable to today’s society.


Avineri, S. (1968) ‘The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx’, Cambridge University Press. pp.105-110

Marx: Communist Manifesto; Wage Labour and Capital (Can be found at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch04.htm  — read at least “By What Are Wages Determined?” and “Relation of Wage Labour to Capital.”)

Mill: On Liberty

Nietzsche, F. (2012 (1913)) ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’, Dover Publication Inc.


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