Concepts of ethics go back to the origins of civilization. However, Socrates was the first philosopher to focus specifically on the area of “Values” (the problems of God, the Good and the Beautiful). He developed a system of critical reasoning to work out how to live properly and to tell the difference between right and wrong. (during the 5th – 4th century).
Plato (Socrates’ greatest disciple) believed that virtue was a kind of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that we need to reach the “ultimate good”, which is the aim of all human desires and actions (a theory known as Eudaimonism). According to Plato, justice exists in an individual when the three elements of the soul—intellect, emotion, and desire—act in harmony with each other. The unjust person lives in an unsatisfactory state of internal discord, trying always to overcome the discomfort of unsatisfied desire but never achieving anything better than the mere absence of want. He insists – those who are just are in the long run happier than those who are unjust – goodness or justice leads, at least in the long run, leads to happiness.
The third in the main trio of classical philosophers was Plato’s student Aristotle. He created an even more comprehensive system of philosophy. Aristotle’s system of deductive Logic, with its emphasis on the syllogism (where a conclusion, or synthesis, is inferred from two other premises, the thesis and antithesis), has remained the dominant form of Logic (new and necessary reasoning) until the 15th and 16th Centuries. Logic investigates and classifies the structure of statements and arguments. It deals only with propositions that are capable of being true and false.
The Renaissance period (roughly 15th and 16th centuries) is the rebirth or revival of classical civilization and learning. In general terms, it is usually considered to have begun in Italy in the mid-14th century and rolled across Europe over the succeeding two centuries. It represents a movement away from medieval Scholasticism and towards Humanism.
Humanism – has an ultimate faith in humankind and believes that human beings possess the power or potentiality of solving their own problems, through reliance primarily upon reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision. In ethics, it affirms the dignity and worth of all people and their ability to determine right and wrong purely by appeal to universal human qualities, especially rationality, and considers faith an unacceptable basis for action. It endorses a Moral Universalism based on the commonality of the human condition and encourages secularism and freedom from religious rule and teachings. (A famous 20th century humanist was Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955))
The Age of Reason of the 17th century and the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century saw the advances in science, the growth of religious tolerance and the rise of Liberalism. This marked the real beginnings of Modern philosophy. In large part, the period is an ongoing battle between two opposing doctrines, Rationalism (the belief that all knowledge arises from intellectual and deductive reason, rather than from the senses or emotions) and Empiricism (the belief that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience).
Rationalism – is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy by the major rationalist Like Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. Including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles de Secondat (Baron de Montesquieu), is also known as French Rationalism – These philosophers produced some of the most powerful and influential political and philosophical writing in Western history and had a defining influence on the subsequent history of Democracy and Liberalism. Mostly rationalists believed that knowledge of eternal truths could be attained by reason alone, without the need for any sensory experience.
Empiricism – is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. It emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, and argues that the only knowledge humans can have is “posteriori” (i.e. based on experience). Most empiricists also discount the notion of innate ideas or innatism (the idea that the mind is born with ideas or knowledge and is not a “blank slate” at birth).
In the 17th and 18th Century, the members of the British Empiricism school John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume were the primary exponents of Empiricism. David Hume argued that moral assessments involve our emotions, and not our reason. They vigorously defended Empiricism against the Rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.
John Locke (1632 – 1704), (along with Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) was also one of the originators of Contractarianism or Social Contract Theory – the ethical theory concerning the origin, or legitimate content, of moral norms. This formed the theoretical groundwork of Democracy, Republicanism and Modern Liberalism and Libertarianism. He is sometimes referred to as the “Philosopher of Freedom“, and his political views influenced both the American and French Revolutions.
Towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant caused another paradigm shift, and in many ways, this marks the shift to Modern philosophy. He sought to move philosophy beyond the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism. He attempted to combine those two apparently contradictory doctrines into one overarching system. A whole movement (Kantianism) developed in the wake of his work, and most of the subsequent history of philosophy can be responses, in one way or another, to his ideas.
Kant showed – without the senses we could not become aware of any object, but without understanding and reason we could not form any conception of it. Kant’s major contribution to ethics was the theory of the Categorical Imperative, that we should act only in such a way that we would want our actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation (Moral Universalism) and that we should treat other individuals as ends in themselves, not as mere means (Moral Absolutism), even if that means sacrificing the greater good. Kant believed that any attempts to prove God’s existence are just a waste of time, because our concepts only work properly in the empirical world (which God is above and beyond), although he also argued that it was not irrational to believe in something that clearly cannot be proven either way (Fideism).
In the Modern period (19th and 20th centuries) Kantianism gave rise to the German Idealists, each of whom had their own interpretations of Kant’s ideas. Johann Fichte, for example did not accept that consciousness of the self depends on the existence of something that is not part of the self (his famous “I / not-I” distinction). He also wrote Political Philosophy and is thought of by some as the father of German Nationalism. Friedrich Schelling developed a unique form of Idealism known as Aesthetic Idealism in which he argued that only art was able to harmonize and sublimate the contradictions between subjectivity and objectivity, freedom and necessity, etc. Arthur Schopenhauer was also a part of the German Idealism and Romanticism movements, although his philosophy was very singular. He was a thorough-going pessimist who believed that the “will-to-life” (the drive to survive and to reproduce) was the underlying driving force of the world, and that the pursuit of happiness, love and intellectual satisfaction was very much secondary and essentially futile. He saw art (and other artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness) as the only way to overcome the fundamentally frustration-filled and painful human condition.
The greatest and most influential of the German Idealists, though, was Georg Hegel. Although his works have a reputation for abstractness and difficulty, Hegel is often considered the summit of early 19th century German thought, and his influence was profound. He extended Aristotle’s process of dialectic (resolving a thesis and its opposing antithesis into a synthesis) to apply to the real world – including the whole of history – in an on-going process of conflict resolution towards what he called the Absolute Idea. He saw each person’s individual consciousness as being part of an Absolute Mind (sometimes referred to as Absolute Idealism). “The rational alone is real”, which means that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories. His goal was to reduce reality to a more synthetic unity within the system of Absolute Idealism. Karl Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel’s dialectical method and his analysis of history.
A very different kind of philosophy grew up in 19th century England, out of the British Empiricist tradition of the previous century. The Utilitarianism movement founded by the radical Jeremy Bentham and popularized by his even more radical protégé John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is a type of Consequentialism (an approach to ethics that stresses on an action’s outcome or consequence) – which holds that the right action is that, which would cause “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.
Mill refined the theory to stress the quality not just the quantity of happiness, and intellectual and moral pleasures over more physical forms. He counseled that coercion in society is only justifiable either to defend us or to defend others from harm (the “harm principle”).
Late 19th century America developed Pragmatism, which was initiated by C. S. Peirce and developed and popularized by William James and John Dewey. The theory of Pragmatism is based on Peirce’s pragmatic maxim, that – the meaning of any concept is really, just the same as its operational or practical consequences (essentially, that something is true only insofar as it works in practice). Peirce also introduced the idea of Fallibilism (that all truths and “facts” are necessarily provisional, that they can never be certain but only probable). James, in addition to his psychological work, extended Pragmatism, as a method for analyzing philosophic problems and as a theory of truth. Developing his own versions of Fideism (that beliefs are arrived at by an individual process that lies beyond reason and evidence) and Voluntarism (that the will is superior to the intellect and to emotion) among others. Dewey’s interpretation of Pragmatism is better known as Instrumentalism, the methodological view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, best measured by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena, and not by whether they are true or false (which he claimed was impossible).
Analytic Philosophy (or sometimes Analytical Philosophy) is another 20th century movement in philosophy which holds that philosophy should apply logical techniques to attain conceptual clarity, and that philosophy should be consistent with the success of modern science. For many Analytic Philosophers, language is the principal (perhaps the only) tool, and philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. Analytic Philosophy as a specific movement was led by Bertrand Russell. Turning away from then-dominant forms of Hegelianism, (particularly objecting to its Idealism and its almost deliberate obscurity), they began to develop a new sort of conceptual analysis based on new developments in Logic and succeeded in making substantial contributions to philosophical Logic over the first half of the 20th century.
Moral philosophy involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
Metaethics – is the study of the origin and meaning of ethical concepts. It covers issues from moral semantics to moral epistemology. Two issues, though, are prominent: (1) metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans, and (2) psychological issues concerning the underlying mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.
Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a set of principles. Three type strategies involving Normative ethics would be: (1) virtue theories, (2) duty theories, and (3) consequentialist theories.
Applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues. Two features are necessary for an issue to be considered an “applied ethical issue.” First, the issue needs to be controversial in the sense that there are significant groups of people both for and against the issue at hand. The second requirement for an issue to be an applied ethical issue is that it must be a distinctly moral issue.
The following principles are the ones most commonly appealed to in applied ethical discussions, they also represent a spectrum of traditional normative principles and are derived from both consequentialist and categorical-virtue/duty-based approaches.
- Personal benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for the individual in question.
- Social benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for society.
- Principle of benevolence: help those in need.
- Principle of paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.
- Principle of harm: do not harm others.
- Principle of honesty: do not deceive others.
- Principle of lawfulness: do not violate the law.
- Principle of autonomy: acknowledge a person’s freedom over his/her actions or physical body.
- Principle of justice: acknowledge a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.
- Rights: acknowledge a person’s rights to life, information, privacy, free expression, and safety.
Finally, an ideal society is described as a society where there is complete harmony among the individuals of the community in religious, social, economic and political terms. A society where every individual is self-content and lives a healthy and peaceful life. Utopia is supposed to be the ideal or perfect society.
Utopia focuses on equality in economics, government and justice, though by no means exclusively, with the method and structure of proposed implementation varying based on ideology. An economic reason for why a utopia is impossible is that – If everyone was equal then that would suggest that technology has reached such fantastical levels that zero work is required by the people. In this case, a utopia would represent humans no longer advancing in any meaningful way, since everything is taken care of for them. Which could ironically be thought of as a dystopia (The opposite of utopia is dystopia, which is a society marked by fear, oppression, and poverty with little to no hope for improvement.) There is currently and always a mismatch between what people want and what they can do and what society requires them to do (for society to function). An “ideal society” would be the graveyard of human greatness. (as quoted by Nicolas Gomez Davila)