Overview: History of Ethics

As ethics is the philosophical treatment of the moral order, its history does not consist in narrating the views of morality entertained by different nations at differnt times; this is properly the scope of the history of civilisation, and of ethnology. The history of ethics is concerned solely with the various philosophical systems which in the course of time have been elaborated with reference to the moral order. Hence the opinions advanced by the wise men of antiquity, such as Pythagoras (582-500 B.C.), Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.), Confucius (558-479 B.C.), scarcely belong to the history of ethics; for, though they proposed various moral truths and principles, they do so in a dogmatic and didactic way, not in a philosophically systematic manner. Ethics properly so-called is first met with among the Greeks, i.e. in the teaching of Socrates (470- 399 B.C.).

Ethics of Ancient Greek Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

According to Socrates, the ultimate object of human activity is happiness, and the necessary means to reach it, virtue. Since everybody necessarily seeks happiness, no one is deliberately corrupt. All evil arises from ignorance, and the virtues are one and all but so many kinds of prudence. Virtue can, therefore, be imparted by instruction.
The disciple of Socrates, Plato (427-347 B.C.) declares that the summum bonum consists in the perfect imitation of God, the Absolute Good, an imitation which cannot be fully realised in this life. Virtue enables man to order his conduct, as he properly should, according to the dictates of reason, and acting thus he becomes like unto God. But Plato differed from Socrates in that he did not consider virtue to consist in wisdom alone, but in justice, temperance, and fortitude as well, these constituting the proper harmony of man's activities. In a sense, the State is man writ large, and its function its function is to train its citizens in virtue. For his ideal State he proposed the community of goods and of wives and the public education of children.
Though Socrates and Plato had been to the fore in this mighty work and had contributed much valuable material to the upbuilding of ethics; nevertheless, Plato's illustroius disciple, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), must be considered the real founder of systematic ethics. With characteristic keenness he solved, in his ethical and political writings, most of the problems with which ethics concerns itself. Unlike Plato, who began with ideas as the basis of his observation, Aristotle chose rather to take the facts of experience as his starting-point; these he analysed accurately, and sought to trace to their highest and ultimate causes. He set out from the point that all men tend to happiness as the ultimate object of all their endeavours, as the highest good, which is sought for its own sake, and to which all other goods merely serve as means. This happiness cannot consist in external goods, but only in the activity proper to human nature - not indeed in such a lower activity of the vegetative and sensitive life as man possesses in common with plants and brutes, but in the highest and most perfect activity of his reason, which springs in turn from virtue. This activity, however, has to be exercised in a perfect and enduring life. The highest pleasure is naturally bound up with this activity, yet, to constitute perfect happiness, external goods must also supply their share. True happiness, though prepared for him by the gods as the object and reward of virtue, can be attained only through a man's own individual exertion. With keen penetration Aristotle therupon proceeds to investigate in turn each of the intellectual and moral virtues, and his treatment of them must, even at the present time, be regarded as in great part correct. The nature of the State and of the family were, in the main, rightly explained by him. The only pity is that his vision did not penetrate beyond this earthly life, and that he never saw clearly the relations of man to God.

Ethics of Greek & Roman Philosophy: Hedonism, Epicurus, Cynics, Stoicism, Skeptics

A more hedonistic (edone, "pleasure") turn in ethics begins with Democritus (about 460-370 B.C.), who considers a perpetually joyous and cheerful disposition as the highest good and happiness of man. The means thereto is virtue, which makes us independent of external goods -- so far as that is possible -- and which wisely discriminates between the pleasures to be sought after and those that are to be shunned. Pure Sensualism or Hedonism was first taught by Aristippus of Cyrene (435-354 B.C.), according to whom the greatest possible pleasure, is the end and supreme good of human endeavour. Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) differs from Aristippus in holding that the largest sum total possible of spiritual and sensual enjoyments, with the greatest possible freedom from displeasure and pain, is man's highest good. Virtue is the proper directive norm in the attainmemt of this end.

The Cynics, Antisthenes (444-369 B.C.) and Diogenes of Sinope (414-324 B.C.), taught the direct contrary of Hedonism, namely that virtue alone suffices for happiness, that pleasure is an evil, and that the truly wise man is above human laws. This teaching soon degenerated into haughty arrogance and open contempt for law and for the remainder of men (Cynicism). The Stoics, Zeno (336-264 B.C.) and his disciples, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and others, strove to refine and perfect the views of Antisthenes. Virtue, in their opinion, consist in man's living according to the dictates of his rational, and, as each one's individual nature is but a part of the entire natural order, virtue is, therefore, the harmonious agreement with the Divine Reason, which shapes the whole course of nature. Whether they conceived this relation of God to the world in a pantheistic or a theistic sense, is not altogether clear. Virtue is to be sought for its own sake, and it suffices for man's happiness. All other things are indifferent and are, as circumstances require, to be striven after or shunned. The passions and affections are bad, and the wise man is independent of them. Among the Roman Stoics were Seneca (4 B.C. -- A.D. 65), Epictetus (born about A.D. 50), and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180). Cicero (106-43 B.C.) elaborated no new philosophical system of his own, but chose those particular views from the various systems of Grecian philosophy which appeared best to him. He maintained that moral goodness, which is the general object of all virtues, consists in what is becoming to man as a rational being as distinct from the brute. Actions are often good or bad, just or unjust, not because of human institutions or customs, but of their own intrinsic nature. Above and beyond human laws, there is a natural law embracing all nations and all times, the expression of the rational will of the Most High God, from obedience to which no human authority can exempt us. Cicero gives an exhaustive exposition of the cardinal virtues and the obligations connected with them; he insists especially on devotion to the gods, without which human society could not exist.

Parallel with the above-mentioned Greek and Roman ethical systems runs a sceptical tendency, which rejects eery natural moral law, bases the whole moral order on custom or human arbitrariness, and frees the wise man from subjection to the ordinary precepts of the moral order. This tendency was furthered by the Sophists, against whom Socrates and Plato arrayed themselves, and later on by Carnea, Theodore of Cyrene, and others.

Ethics: History of Christian Morality

A new epoch in ethics begins with the dawn of Christianity. Ancient paganism never had a clear and definite concept of the relation between God and the world, of the unity of the human race, of the destiny of man, of the nature and meaning of the moral law. Christianity first shed full light on these and similar questions. As St. Paul teaches (Rom., ii, 24 sq.), God has written his moral law in the hearts of all men, even of those outside the influence of Christian Revelation; this law manifests itself in the conscience of every man and is the norm according to which the whole human race will be judged on the day of reckoning. In consequence of their perverse inclinations, this law had to a great extent become obscured and distorted among the pagans; Christianity, however, restored it to its prestine integrity. Thus, too, ethics received its richest and most fruitful stimulus. Proper ethical methods were now unfolded, and philosophy was in a position to follow up and develop these methods by means supplied from its own store-house. This corse was soon adopted in the early ages of the Church by the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, but especially the illustrius Doctors of the Church, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, who, in the exposition and defence of Christian truth, made use of the principles laid down by the pagan philosophers. True, the Fathers had no occasion to treat moral questions from a purely philosophical standpoint, and independently of Christin Revelation; but in the explanation of Catholic doctrine their discussions naturally led to philosophical investigations. This is particularly true of St Augustine, who proceeded to thoroughly develop along philosophical lines and to establish firmly most of the truths of Christian morality. The eternal law (lex aterna), the original type and source of all temporal laws, the natural law, conscience, the ultimate end of man, the cardinal virtues, sin, marriage, etc. were treated by him in the clearest and most penetrating manner. Hardly a single portion of ethics does he present to us but is enriched with his keen philosophical commentaries. Late ecclesiastical writers followed in his footsteps.

Ethics: History of Middle Ages Ethical Philosophy

A sharper line of separation between philosophy and theology, and in particular between ethics and moral theology, is first met with in the works of the great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, especially of Albert the Great (1193-1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Bonaventure (1221-1274), and Duns Scotus (1274-1308). Philosophy and, by means of it, theology reaped abundant fruit from the works of Aristotle, which had until then been a sealed treasure to Western civilization, and had first been elucidated by the detailed and profound commentaries of St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas and pressed into the service of Christian philosophy. The same is particularly true as regards ethics. St. Thomas, in his commentaries on the political and ethical writings of the Stagirite, in his "Summa contra Gentiles" and his "Quaestiones disputatae, treated with his wonted clearness and penetration nearly the whole range of ethics in a purely philosophical manner, so that even to the present day his words are an inexhaustible source whence ethics draws its supply. On the foundations laid by him the Catholic philosophers and theologians of succeeding ages have continued to build. It is true that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, thanks especially to the influence of theco-called Nominalists, a period of stagnation and decline set in, but the sixteenth century is marked by a revival. Ethical questions, also, though largely treated in connexion with theology, are again made the subject of careful investigation. We mention as examples the great theologians Victoria, Dominicus Soto, L. Molina, Suarez, Lessius, and De Lugo. Since the sixteenth century special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been erected in many Catholic universities. The larger, purely philosophical works on ethics, however do not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as an example of which we may instance the production of Ign. Schwarz, "Instituitiones juris universalis naturae et gentium" (1743).

Ethics: History of Ethical Philosophy 1500 - 1700's

Far different from Catholic ethical methods were those adopted for the most part by Protestants. With the rejection of the Church's teaching authority, each individual became on principle his own supreme teacher and arbiter in matters appertaining to faith and morals. True it is that the Reformers held fast to Holy Writ as the infallible source of revelation, but as to what belongs or does not belong to it, whether, and how far, it is inspired, and what is its meaning -- all this was left to the final decision of the individual. The inevitable result was that philosophy arrogantly threw to the winds all regard for revealed truth, and in many cases became involved in the most pernicious errors. Melanchthon, in his "Elementa philosophiae moralis", still clung to the Aristotelean philosophy; so, too, did Hugo Grotius, in his work, "De jure belli et pacis". But Cumberland and his follower, Samuel Pufendorf, moreover, assumed, with Descartes, that the ultimate ground for every distinction between good and evil lay in the free determination of God's will, a view which renders the philosophical treatment of ethics fundamentally impossible.
Quite an influential factor in the development of ethics was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He supposes that the human race originally existed in existed in a rude condition (status naturae) in which every man was free to act as he pleased, and possessed a right to all things, whence arose a war of all against all. Lest destruction should be the result, it was decided to abandon this condition of nature and to found a state in which, by agreement, all were to be subject to one common will (one ruler). This authority ordains, by the law of the State, what is to be considered by all as good and as evil, and only then does there arise a distinction between good and evil of universal binding force on all.
The Pantheist Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) considers the instinct to self-preservation as the foundation of virtue. Every being is endowed with the necessary impulse to assert itself, and, as reason demands nothing contrary to nature, it requires each one to follow this impulse and to stive after whatever is useful to him. And each individual possesses power and virtue just in so far as he obeys this impulse. Freedom of the will consists merely in the ability to follow unrestrainedly this natural impulse.
Shaftesbury (1671-1713) bases ethics on the affections or inclinations of man. There are sympathetic, idiopathic, and unnatural inclinations. The first of these regard the common good, the second the private good of the agent, the third are opposed to the other two. To lead a morally good life, war must be waged upon the unnatural impulses, while the idiopathetic and sympathetic inclinations must be made to harmonize. This harmony constitutes virtue. In the attainment of virtue the subjective guiding principle of knowledge is the "moral sense", a sort of moral instinct. This "moral sense" theory was further developed by Hutcheson (1694-1747); meanwhile "common sense" was suggested by Thoms Reid (1710-1796) as the highest norm of moral conduct. In France the materialistic philosophers of the eighteenth century -- as Helvetius, de la Mettrie, Holbach, Condillac, and others -- disseminated the teachings of Sensualism and Hedonism as understood by Epicurus.

Ethics: History of Ethical Philosophy: Kant, John Stuart Mill, Altruism

A complete revolution in ethics was introduced by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). From the wreck of pure theoretical reason he turned for rescue to practical reason, in which he found an absolute, universal, and categorical moral law. This law is not to be conceived as an enactmnt of external authority, for this would be heteromony, which is foreign to true morality; it is rather the law of our own reason, which is, therefore, autonomous, that is, it must be observed for its own sake, without regard to any pleasure or utility arising therefrom. Only that will is morally good which obeys the moral law under the influence of such a subjective principle or motive as can be willed by the individual to become the universal law for all men. The followers of Kant have selected now one now another doctrine from his ethics and combined therewith various pantheistical systems. Fichte places man's supreme good and destiny in absolute spontaniety and liberty; Schleiermacher, in co-operating with the progressive civilization of mankind. A similar view recurs substantially in the writings of Wilhelm Wundt and, to a certain extent, in those of the pessimist, Edward von Hartmann, though the latter regards culture and progress merely as means to the ultimate end, which, according to him, consists in delivering the Absolute from the torment of existence.

The system of Cumberland, who maintained the common good of mankind to be the end and criterion of moral conduct, was renewed on a positive basis in the nineteenth century by Auguste Comte and has counted many adherents, e.g., in England, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Alexander Bain; in Germany, G.T. Fechner, F.E. Beneke, F. Paulsen, and others. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) sought to effect a compromise between social Utilitarianism (Altruism) and private Utilitarianism (Egoism) in accordance with the theory of evolution. In his opinion, that conduct is good which serves to augment life and pleasure withut any admixture of displeasure. In consequence, however, of man's lack of adaptation to the conditions of life, such absolute goodness of conduct is not as yet possible, and hence various compromises must be made between Altruism and Egoism. With the progress of evolution, however, this adaptability to existing conditions will become more and more perfect, and consequently the benefits accruing to the individual from his own conduct will be most useful to society at large. In particular, sympathy (in joy) will enable us to take pleasure in altrusitic actions.

Ethics: Evolutionary Philosophy, Socialism, Nietzsche

The great majority of non-Christian moral philosophers have followed the path trodden by Spencer. Starting with the assumption that man, by a series of transformations, was gradually evolved from the brute, and therefore differs from it in degree only, they seek the first traces and beginnings of moral ideas in the brute itself. Charles Darwin had done some preparatory work along these lines, and Spencer did not hesitate to descant on brute-ethics, on the pre-human justice, conscience, and self-control of brutes. Present-day Evolutionists follow his view and attempt to show how animal morality has in man continually become more perfect. With the aid of analogies taken from ethnology, they relate how mankind originally wandered over the face of the earth in semi-savage hordes, knew nothing of marriage or the familt, and only by degrees reached a higher level of morality. These are the merest creations of fancy. If man is nothing more than a highly developed brute, he cannot possess a spiritual and immortal soul, and there can no longer be question of the freedom of the will, of the future retribution of good and evil, nor can man in consequence be hindered from ordering his life as he pleases and regarding the weel-being of others only in so far as it redounds to his own profit.

As the Evolutionists, so too the Socialists favour the theory of evolution from their ethical viewpoint; yet the latter do not base their observations on scientific principles, but on social and economic considerations. According to K. Marx, F. Engels, and other exponents of the so-called "materialistic interpretation of history", all moral, religious, juridical and philosophical concepts are but the reflex of the economical conditions of society in the minds of men. Now these social relations are subject to constant change; hence the ideas of morality, religion, etc. are also continually changing. Every age, every people, and even each class in a given people forms its moral and religious ideas in accordance with its own peculiar economical situation. Hence, no universal code of morality exists binding on all men at all times; the morality of the present day is not of Divine origin, but the product of history, and will soon have to make room for another system of morality. Allied to this materialistic historical interpretation, though derived from other sources, is the system of Relativism, which resognizes no absolute and unchangeable truths in regard to ethics or anything else. Those who follow this opinion believe that nothing objectively true can be known by us. Men differ from one another and are subject to change, and with them the manner and means of viewing the world about them also change. Moreover the judgments passed on matters religious and moral depend essentially on the inclinations, interests, and character of the person judgng, while these latter are constantly varying. Pragmatism differs from Relativism inasmuch as that not only is to be considered true which is proven by experience to be useful; and, since the same thing is not always useful, unchangeable truth is impossible.

According to Max Nordau, moral precepts are nothing but "conventional lies"; according to Max Stirner, that alone is good which serves my interests, whereas the common good, the love for all men, etc. are but empty phantoms. Men of genius and superiority in particular are coming more and more to be regarded as exempt from the moral law. Nietzsche is the originator of a school whose doctrines are founded on these principles. According to him, goodness was originaly identified with nobility and gentility of rank. Whatever the man of rank and power did, whatever inclinations he possessed were good. The down-trodden proletariat, on the other hand were bad, i.e. lowly and ignoble, without any other derogatory meaning being given to the word bad. It was only by a gradual process that the oppressed multitude through hatred and envy evolved the distinction between good and bad, in the moral sense, by denominating the characteristics and conduct of those in power and rank as bad, and their own behaviour as good. And thus arose the opposition between the morality of the master and that of the slave. Those in power still continued to look upon their own egoistic inclinations as noble and good, while the oppresed populace lauded the "instincts of the common herd", i.e. all those qulaities necessary and useful to its existence -- as patience, meekness, obedience and love of one's neighbour. Weakness became goodness, cringing obsequiousness became humility, subjection to hated oppressors was obedience, cowardice meant patience. "All morality is one long and audacious deception." Hence, the value attached to the prevailing concepts of morality must be entirely rearranged. Intellectual superiority is above and beyond good and evil as understood in the traditional sense. There is no higher moral order to which men of such calibra are amenable. The end of society is not the common good of its members; the intellectual aristocracy (the over-man) is its own end; in its behalf the common herd, the "too many", must be reduced to slavery and decimated. As it rests with each individual to decide who belongs to this intellectual aristocracy, so each man is at liberty to emancipate himself from the existing moral order.

Editor: Haselhurst


1. Catholic Encyclopedia: Ethics, 1908