Philosophy, Moral: Modern

views updated

Philosophy, Moral: Modern

The moral philosophy of the modern period traditionally included ethics as well as natural-law theories of rights and the normative foundations of state authority. Nowadays, the term moral philosophy tends to be used mainly with reference to ethics proper, while modern natural-law theories and their history are often treated under the headings of political philosophy and philosophy of law. In keeping with this convention, the following summaries concentrate mainly on developments in ethics since 1600.

Seventeenth Century

Modern Western philosophy emerged in conjunction with the religious, political, and social upheavals that characterized the Reformation period and the first half of the seventeenth century. Early modern moral philosophy reflected the need to reassess the ways that European thinkers had viewed moral knowledge, the human good and the nature of moral value, and the relation between God's will and the principles of human conduct. The extent to which seventeenth-century moral thought represents a break with late medieval and Renaissance views is controversial. But by the early 1600s modern conceptions of the character and goals of the theory of morals differed significantly from their historical antecedents. Hugo Grotius (15831645) provided an alternative to Scholastic natural-law theory as well as a response to the skeptical views on moral knowledge put forward by sixteenth-century thinkers like Michel de Montaigne (15331592). Grotius took a broadly empirical approach to the question of universal natural law by considering the features of human nature that make law-governed cooperation between individuals both possible and necessary. When presenting the basic precepts of human conduct, Grotius tended to focus on the self-interested individual. While Grotius accepted that humans are naturally sociable, he did not ground his natural jurisprudence in a rich, substantive conception of the good life or the chief good for human beings. Rather, he offered key elements of a theory of natural rights. Grotius regarded natural rights as subjective qualities of the human individual that must be respected by morally viable forms of human association. Subsequent modern natural-law theories were generally in keeping with Grotius's minimalist conception of the good as well as with the Grotian idea of rights.

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) combined a denial of natural sociability with an egoistic view of human motives. His works on moral philosophy were interpreted as providing a naturalistic account of obligation, an account based on the fundamental good (the self-preservation) of the separate agent. An important problem linked to Grotius's and Hobbes's moral thought was the relationship between the laws of nature and God. Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694) made the will of God the ultimate source of such laws, and made God's power to punish and reward the ultimate ground of our obligation to obey them. This voluntarist view of morality as obedience to the will of a superior generated the systematic theory of duties and rights found in Pufendorf's immensely influential works. A similar view underlies the treatment of moral ideas given by John Locke (16321704). Locke combined a hedonistic explanation of the origins of our ideas of moral good and evil with a voluntarist conception of the relationship between law and the sanctioning power of a superior.

The voluntarist view of morality was a primary target of early modern perfectionist philosophers. Baruch Spinoza (16321677) held that the world is not the separate creation of God but a natural whole completely determined by eternal truths and laws knowable by reason. The philosophically informed agent's moral task is not to obey God's commands. Rather, the task is to understand divine law as the expression of eternal truths and thus to grasp the object of law as the supreme good. The true knowledge and love of God represents the highest state of human perfection. Striving to know this good through reason, the agent transcends selfish motivation and narrow self-interest. Nicolas Malebranche (16381715) viewed the world as having causal order through continual divine intervention. According to Malebranche, we are wholly dependent on God, and morality is obedience to God. This obedience, however, does not involve blind or even self-interested acceptance of divine commandments. Obedience requires that we understand God's order, and our intellectual apprehension of this order moves us to act from love in accordance with God's will. Repudiating the central tenets of voluntarist morality, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) based his moral system on the supposition that all actions must have a sufficient reason, a supposition linked to the notions of divine omniscience and metaphysical perfection. While many possible worlds are conceivable, God's perfection and infallibility guarantee that he chose optimally, thus creating the best of all possible worlds. Humans act morally when they act from the habit of loving or willing the good; and they act in this way when they learn to act on their knowledge of the world's perfection. The ethics of Christian von Wolff (16791754) were generally in keeping with the Leibnizian perfectionist view, although Wolff modified Leibniz's metaphysical tenets in a variety of ways.

Eighteenth Century

A characteristic component of eighteenth-century sentimentalist ethics was the rejection of the rationalist accounts of moral knowledge and motivation that supported theoretical views like those just summarized. Sentimentalist thinkers held that our awareness of moral good and evil, our ability to judge actions and character traits, and our motives for action depend on our capacity to be affected by feelings that are common to all human beings. The notion of a moral sense thus often figured prominently in the sentimentalists' portrayals of the source of our feelings of moral approval and disapproval. Contrary to the theorists of natural law discussed above, these theorists of moral sensibility tended not to regard concepts of law, obligation, and duty as primary ethical notions. Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as the earl of Shaftesbury (16711713), understood virtue in terms of actions that give rise to feelings of approbation, actions that in turn show evidence of an agent's self-ordered affective harmony with respect to the feelings that move him to act. According to Francis Hutcheson (16941746), human moral sensibility is naturally structured in such a way that we approve of actions and character traits to the extent that they exhibit benevolent inclination as their motivating condition. Hutcheson formulated a theory of virtue in which universally benevolent inclination features as the morally best of motives. While David Hume (17111776) did not follow Hutcheson in maintaining that benevolent inclination supplied the only genuinely moral basis for action, he advanced a secular science of morality founded on the analysis of the moral sentiments and the human capacity for sympathy. Making use of the systematic superstructure of modern natural-law accounts of duties and rights, Hume constructed a comprehensive theory of the virtues revolving around the distinction between the "natural" virtues (such as compassion and generosity) and convention-dependent "artificial" virtues (such as justice). Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and Adam Smith (17231790) published highly influential treatises that further articulated the view that human morality has its grounds in the sensuous dimension of our nature.

A further type of approach was furnished by ethical theories that assumed egoistic explanations of moral motivation, typically in conjunction with hedonistic accounts of the good and proto-utilitarian principles requiring the maximal promotion of human happiness. These theories were often rooted in the Augustinian view of the sinfulness and corruption of human nature that was presupposed not only by Lutheran and Calvinist moral theology but also by French Jansenist ethical thought. Interweaving the Augustinian view with themes drawn from Hobbes's anthropology, Pierre Nicole (16251695) maintained that, although virtuous action is at bottom the result of self-interested passion, such selfish action has beneficial consequences for society as a whole. Bernard de Mandeville (16701733), writing in English, radicalized this line of thinking to the point of rupture with traditional religious conceptions of vice and sinfulness. While Mandeville's theory of morals scandalized his immediate contemporaries, the connection between selfish motivation and general utility came to be regarded with increasing favor during the eighteenth century. That connection provides a crucial element of the moral philosophies of Claude-Adrien Helvétius (17151771) and Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (17231789), both of whom were important influences on the full-fledged utilitarian ethics of Jeremy Bentham (17481832). Bentham argued that the general happiness, to be promoted through actions and governmental policies, must be understood quantitatively in terms of the favorable balance of pleasure over pain, as experienced by separate individuals in the pursuit of their particular ends.

Immanuel Kant (17241804) sought the grounds of morality in concepts and principles of practical reason that could be established independently of facts about the sensuous dimension of human nature. Kant's major works on moral philosophy aimed to give an account of the fundamental moral law as a supreme formal principle of duty, which he called the categorical imperative. Kant thought of the categorical imperative as an objectively valid principle by which an agent can determine the moral content of subjective practical principles called maxims. Maxims conforming to the universality requirements expressed by the categorical imperative supply laws of practical reason that specify particular duties. The categorical imperative, however, is much more than just an abstract and legalistic formal principle of duty. For it requires the individual agent to make it her maxim to act in such a way that the maxims of her actions can be willed as universal laws, thus making the principle of duty itself the sufficient incentive for action, independently of inclination and sentiment. The rationally legislating human agent gives laws of duty to herself in conformity with the idea that every human will can be a will that legislates universally through all its maxims. Such is the Kantian idea of rational self-legislation as autonomy of the will. In keeping with this idea, Kant asserted that morality is "the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will, that is, to a possible giving of universal law through its maxims."

Nineteenth Century

Kant's theory of autonomy and his treatments of the universal principles of rational willing were of determinative significance for the idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831). Yet Hegel considered the Kantian method of grounding ethics strictly in the analysis of the formal aspects of rational self-legislation to be fundamentally incomplete. According to Hegel, that method could not overcome its "empty formalism" because it was unable to take proper account of the human agent's embeddedness in historically conditioned societal settings. Hegel's work on moral philosophy reflects the concern to understand both the form and the content of modern morality in its systematic connections with, on the one side, abstract principles of property law, contractual relations, and legal wrongdoing and, on the other side, the concrete norms governing the historically given institutional structures of the bourgeois family, civil society, and the political state.

An important characteristic of nineteenth-century British ethics is the opposition between utilitarian and intuitionist theories. Intuitionists maintained that we have the rational capacity to apprehend self-evident moral principles and that we can be moved to act by virtue of our intuitive grasp of these principles. Intuitionist accounts of morality were formulated on terrain already well prepared by thinkers like Samuel Clarke (16751729), Joseph Butler (16921752), Richard Price (17231791), and Thomas Reid (17101796). William Whewell (17941866) may be taken as the representative figure for nineteenth-century intuitionism in Britain. John Stuart Mill (18061873) defended utilitarianism against its intuitionist detractors. His theory of happiness, however, rejects Bentham's purely quantitative version of hedonism. Mill emphasized the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and he argued that higher pleasures are better than the lower ones. Henry Sidgwick (18381900) investigated egoism, intuitionism, and hedonistic utilitarianism in relation to the principles that underlie intuitive commonsense morality. While Sidgwick took a utilitarian position, he concluded that the standardly accepted antithesis between utilitarianism and intuitionism was spurious since self-evident moral principles are required in order to provide a rational foundation for utilitarian ethics.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), who was to have a decisive impact above all on Continental European ethical thought during the twentieth century, devoted much of his writing to a frontal criticism of Western moral philosophy. Rejecting the universality claims of modern thinkers like Kant, Nietzsche focused on historically existing moralities and treated them naturalistically as the outcome of society's development. He was concerned to uncover the psychological underpinnings of our attributions of value and to articulate a "genealogy" of morals that supports a fundamental revaluation of values. Nietzsche regarded modern morality as the result of the creation and imposition of value by the weak, by those who have always struggled against the "master" morality of the strong and noble. Nietzsche emphasized the necessity of overcoming the roots of modern morality, hence the life-affirming will to go "beyond good and evil."

Twentieth Century

Offering an alternative to neo-Kantian ethics and prevalent strains of utilitarian ethics, the emergence of systematic value theory represented an important trend in German and Austrian academic philosophy during the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. The pivotal thinkers in this regard, Franz Brentano (18381917) and Max Scheler (18741928), held that ethics must be based on the investigation of objective and intrinsic values that are apprehended through the emotions. Brentano's theory of the intrinsically good and bad focused on the implications of the analogical relationship between the intellectual operations of judgment and our emotive attitudes (such as love and hate) toward intentional objects. Stressing the objectivity of values as intentional objects of feeling, Scheler investigated the a priori structures of emotive experience. Scheler devoted much of his work to the detailed phenomenological description of particular emotions such as resentment, love, and sympathy, often in opposition to Nietzsche's moral psychological claims.

Influenced by Brentano, and disavowing the Kantian and neo-Hegelian proclivities of many of his contemporaries, George Edward Moore (18731958) held that the fundamental object of ethics was the "good," understood as an intuitively apprehensible, simple, and indefinable property. Moore criticized theories that conceive of the good as something specifiable in terms of natural properties (such as pleasure). Moore held that such theories commit the "naturalistic fallacy," and his criticism of naturalism in ethics fed into the rise of an analytic tradition that was prevalent in Anglo-American philosophy throughout the twentieth century. Analytic ethical theorists characteristically concentrated on "metaethical" issues such as the meaning of moral terms and the justification of moral judgments. They generally kept these issues separate from the examination of substantive proposals concerning ethical values and the norms of conduct and character. Normative ethics, as distinguished from metaethics, was predominantly utilitarian until the later decades of the 1900s. This situation changed dramatically with John Rawls (19212002). Drawing on aspects of modern natural-law theory, but also on Kantian as well as on certain features of intuitionist ethics, Rawls's contractarian theory of justice furnished a clear alternative to the various types of utilitarian approach taken by twentieth-century thinkers. The publication of Rawls's theory of justice represents, in effect, the beginning of the international renaissance of normative ethics that has characterized moral philosophy since the 1970s.

The revival of virtue ethics has been an important factor in Anglo-American philosophy since the 1970s. Criticizing especially Kantian and utilitarian moral thought, virtue ethicists have often located the sources of their theoretical projects in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. But eighteenth-century sentimentalist thinkers have also had significant impact on recent virtue ethics. Reflecting the demand that ethics should have relevance beyond the confines of academia, the late twentieth century also witnessed the proliferation of fields in professional and applied ethics as philosophers became increasingly concerned with social and political issues such as the environment, war, medical and business practices, and questions of race and gender. Feminist ethics, which benefited from the expanded scope of practical ethical inquiry, has become a central area of contemporary research. Feminist philosophers have aimed to reconstruct traditional moral philosophy by insisting that ethics should finally take proper account of women's experience and the historically given structures of female subordination. The emancipatory impetus of North American feminist ethics has often been supported by the reception of Continental thought, especially by work stemming from the phenomenological and existentialist tradition, from broadly Marxist schools of social criticism, and from structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy.

See also Existentialism ; Good ; Law ; Moral Sense ; Natural Law ; Utilitarianism .


Becker Lawrence C., and Charlotte B. Becker, eds. Encyclopedia of Ethics. 2nd ed. 3 vols. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Darwall, Stephen, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, eds. Moral Discourse and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Haakonssen, Knud. Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Keohane, Nannerl O. Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

. Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

, ed. Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Schneiders, Werner. Naturrecht und Liebesethik. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1971.

Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Tuck, Richard. Philosophy and Government, 15721651. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Jeffrey Edwards

Michael Hughes

About this article

Philosophy, Moral: Modern

Updated About content Print Article Share Article