Moral philosophy is roughly the same as ethical philosophy—morals and ethics are virtually indistinguishable, moral being Cicero’s translation of the Greek term ethics or ethos, which meant the customs and manners characteristic of a country or city-state. Typically, one distinguishes the concrete level of moral behavior and judgments from a higher theoretical level where one reflects upon this concrete level and proposes higher-order ethical principles about ethical behavior and judgment (ethical theory).
Moral philosophy is ordinarily divided into three levels: applied ethics, normative ethics, and meta-ethics. Normative ethics is primarily concerned with two questions: (1) What actions should an individual perform? and (2) what states, properties, things, and persons are (morally) good or valuable? Ordinarily, a normative ethicist will propose answers to these questions in terms of normative principles—principles specifying what one ought to do. Applied ethics is concerned with the application of these normative principles to concrete areas such as social science ethics. Meta-ethics is concerned with the theory of normative ethics: Are ethical propositions true or false? What is the meaning of moral terms? What kind of reasoning can be advanced in support of ethical arguments? In the twentieth century meta-ethics dominated the field until midcentury, when normative theory made a gallant return. Since then all three areas have been actively pursued. The present discussion will be limited to normative ethics.
Beginning with Socrates and Plato, philosophers have been concerned with the question of the nature of the good life and how one should attain it. It was the characteristic Greek view that an individual could reach this ultimate goal only as part of a larger social entity—the polis —of which he was an integral part. There was, therefore, little if any conflict between the individual’s real interests and the welfare of the larger community. In short, as Plato argued in The Republic, it pays to be moral because an individual can be happy in life, and thus attain the ultimate state of well-being, only if the individual has the property of justice. This view was characteristically Greek, and widely shared among Greek thinkers. For example, the Stoics believed that a concern for the well-being of all human beings was developmentally built into human nature, and that even though humans begin their lives as self-centered animals, they mature to the point where they are (and should be) concerned about all humankind; this constitutes natural law theory.
Such a view was denied or undercut by Christian thinkers, who tended to separate self-interest and altruism sharply and to argue for the importance of the latter to the detriment of the former. At the same time, however, Christian thinkers such as Augustine (354–430) appropriated the ethics of Plato together with Stoicism to form the characteristic Christian view of ethics that Friedrich Nietzsche later reviled in the nineteenth century. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas appropriated the ethical views of Aristotle and wed them with the natural law tradition of the Stoics to argue that being ethical was built into human nature, where being ethical meant obeying the laws of God.
Historically, therefore, the key issue of ethics has concerned the self-interest of the individual (egoism) in relation to the welfare of others (altruism), with ethics pertaining primarily to actions that involve the welfare of others. A key distinction was that between natural law theory and social contract theory, which maintained that morality was conventional, not natural, and tied to the social conventions of one’s larger society. Hence, being moral was not part of human nature, but rather imposed upon human nature by society.
Both of these issues—egoism versus altruism, and natural law theory versus social contract theory—emerge in clear relief in modern times in the views of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694), and especially Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the most important ethical theorist of the seventeenth century. In his immensely influential work Leviathan (1651), Hobbes clearly set forth an influential version of the social contract theory, in which he maintained that people originally existed in a state of nature without social laws or morals. This is a state of “all against law,” unbridled egoism, in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (p. 92). People come together, Hobbes said, and agree to a social contract whereby they give up some of their liberties and rights in exchange for the security lodged in a larger system of law and order, which protects their interests. According to Hobbes, one behaves morally because of the benefits one receives from doing so; in short, because it is rational to do so. However, if one could benefit oneself by disobeying a moral convention without getting caught, it would be rationally defensible to do so. In a sense, therefore, morality is based upon rationality, and the kind of rationality present here is the economic rationality present in rational choice theory—pursuing those behavioral means that are most likely to result in the ends one desires.
Similar social contract theories can be found, in substantially different forms, in the works of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and even Immanuel Kant. These are the main representatives of the social contract tradition.
The natural law theory also has its famous modern agents. Locke, who was also a representative of the social contract tradition, argued that human beings had certain “natural rights” given to them by their creator, who had hardwired these rights, as it were, into human nature. There is, Locke argued, a natural psychological law governing how human beings act, based upon their desires. It is natural for humans to strive to satisfy these desires, and it is the duty of others to allow them to pursue these interests. Locke is thus a classical liberal (like John Stuart Mill) and the inspiration for later libertarianism.
Hobbes said individuals behave morally out of fear of the government, but one could also argue that there are elements of human nature that support this. This was the view of David Hume and Adam Smith, who argued against both the natural law tradition and the social contract tradition. According to Hume and Smith, humans are born with certain moral sentiments or feelings of sympathy for their fellow creatures. These feelings, a basic part of human nature, motivated individuals to care about others and to take into consideration their interests and needs. Hence, it was not rationality so much as it was emotional makeup that turned us into moral creatures.
For subsequent, post-Enlightenment thinkers, the conflict between natural law and social contract theory gave way to what is one of the major moral philosophies of modern times: utilitarianism. Although the writings of earlier individuals such as Hume contained utilitarian themes, it was Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who set forth the theory of utilitarianism: One should always act so as to produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number of individuals. This is a version of consequentialism, the view that it is the consequences of an action (or a rule governing that action) that determine its moral acceptability. As such, it has been interpreted as a commitment not to egoism, nor to altruism, but to universalism—treat everyone (including oneself) as an individual and determine the total amount of happiness to be produced by an action. Twentieth-century thinkers proposed several important modifications in this formulation, notably “rule utilitarianism,” which maintains that an action is right or wrong in virtue of the good or bad consequences of the rule under which it falls.
In Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, the philosophical debate about ethics has, until fairly recently, turned on the question of the adequacy of utilitarianism in relation to its historical rival—deontology (sometimes called “formalism”). Deontology is the view that there are fundamental human duties that are independent of their good or bad consequences; some actions are morally right or morally wrong by virtue of certain inherent properties in the actions themselves, for example, by virtue of their possessing or not possessing certain rational properties such as universalizability, reversibility, and so on. Immanuel Kant is the most famous deontologist (although in the twentieth century other individuals such as W. D. Ross championed a somewhat similar cause). Kantian ethics is concerned with advocating absolute duties (prohibitions) against lying, killing, and so on. The basis of such absolute duties derives, Kant thought, from the moral agent’s rational nature pure and simple, by virtue of one’s unique nature as a universal lawgiver (prescriber). There are several formulations of Kant’s famous “categorical imperative”: “Act as though the maxim of your action becomes by your will a universal law of nature” (2002, p. 222). and “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (2002, pp. 229–230). Both formulations of the categorical imperative were rooted in our rational nature as autonomous agents.
The classic moral debate typically has been presented to be between utilitarianism and deontology, although recently virtue theory has become a third contender. According to virtue theory, exemplified especially by Aristotle, a morally proper action is one that flows from an internal moral virtue or good character trait of the moral agent. From the point of view of social science (especially psychology and economics), the status of moral principles has always been somewhat problematic. Assuming that such social sciences are empirical (“positive”) sciences and hence concerned with ascertaining the factual nature of the social world, how can normative principles fit into such an empirical science?
According to the now-classic distinction championed by Hume and Kant and pressed even further by G. E. Moore (1873–1958), the fact-value (is-ought) distinction is a categorical one in which one can never proceed to draw an inference from a factual statement to a statement about values, or “oughts.” Hence, if the social sciences are concerned exclusively with factual matters, the status of ethics in the social sciences has always remained problematic. If one is to have a unified, consistent empirical social science, committed to naturalism (in which only the natural world exists, and one can obtain knowledge only by employing the methods of the natural sciences), one might study ethical behavior empirically, describing how people actually behave or think about morality, or one might avoid ethical principles altogether (because they fall outside the realm of positive science). The latter course is problematic because the social sciences are knee-deep in value judgments and normative principles (e.g., don’t fake your data, don’t harm your research subjects, etc.). Furthermore, at least in the case of economics, assumptions about rationality are unavoidable: Economic behavior seems to presuppose that the economic agent is a rational one pursuing one’s preferences (desires, utilities) in a rational (instrumental) way. The only possibility, therefore, would seem to be a naturalistic ethics: Produce and rationally defend a set of normative principles, but do so in a completely naturalistic way. One candidate for such a naturalistic ethics is modern contractarianism.
Rational choice theory is a descendant of utilitarianism, with a change from interpersonal preference functions to Pareto preference functions (this occurred in the early twentieth century). Contractarianism is a descendant of the social contract theory of Hobbes and has two versions: Hobbesian contractarianism and Kantian contractarianism. John Rawls (1921–2002) is the best-known Kantian contractarian (or “contractualist”), who attempts to establish a set of normative principles involving justice on the basis of what individuals would agree to in an original state of nature (the original position). However, this position begins with normativity already built in (because individuals are under “a veil of ignorance”). For many individuals, such a view is not sufficiently naturalistic. The other view is Hobbesian contractarianism, in which the goal is to derive normative principles involving justice from an original position in which nothing normative is presupposed, except the notion that the agents are rational agents attempting to maximize their utilities (preferences, desires). The main philosophical representative of this theory is David Gauthier (b. 1932), although there are social scientists who also advocate a similar position.
Beginning with the “prisoner’s dilemma,” Gauthier (and others inspired by this approach) attempt to show that certain kinds of prisoners’ dilemmas (e.g., iterated versions) will necessarily result in cooperation, promise keeping, and justice. In short, according to this model, it is possible to show that it is rational to engage in moral behavior—understanding “rationality” in something like the standard economic sense (i.e., instrumental rationality). If such a proposal were plausible, and many doubt that it is, one would have a naturalistic ethics for the social sciences. An alternative account, one going back to Hume and Smith, would be to argue that altruism is innate in humans, that we are born with feelings of sympathy, and that such feelings are a sufficient ground to justify moral principles. There are, of course, other versions of naturalistic ethics, and many moral philosophers are skeptical of such attempts to construct a naturalistic ethics. This applies, for example, to contemporary Kantians who reject all attempts to naturalize ethics. If they are correct, then insofar as the social sciences depend upon moral principles, the social sciences would be unable to rationally ground such principles using standard social science methods and methodology. This would, once again, raise the question of the adequacy and hegemony of the social sciences—at least a certain conception of them—and thus, indirectly, of our scientific worldview. Needless to say, such an issue remains a crucial one to address in reflections upon the status of the social sciences in the twenty-first century.
SEE ALSO Bentham, Jeremy; Economics, Classical; Enlightenment; Ethics; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Libertarianism; Locke, John; Maximin Principle; Mill, John Stuart; Philosophy; Plato; Prisoner’s Dilemma (Economics); Prisoner’s Dilemma (Psychology); Rawls, John; Scottish Moralists; Smith, Adam; Social Contract; State of Nature; Utilitarianism
Aristotle. 1999. Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Axelod, Robert M. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
Bentham, Jeremy.  1948. An Introduction to the Theory of Morals and Legislation. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.
Danielson, Peter. 1992. Artificial Morality: Virtuous Robots for Virtual Games. London: Routledge.
Frankena, William K. 1963. Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gauthier, David. 1986. Morals by Agreement. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.
Grotius, Hugo.  1925. The Law of War and Peace. Trans. Frank W. Kelsey. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.
Hausman, Daniel, and Michael E. McPherson. 1996. Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hobbes, Thomas.  2004. Leviathan. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Hume, David. [1739–1740] 1978. A Treatise on Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Niddith. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.
Hume, David.  1965. The Original Contract. In Hume’s Ethical Writings, ed. Alasdair MacIntyre, 255–273. London: Collier.
Kant, Immanuel.  2002. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Arnulf Zweig. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Kant, Immanuel.  1991. On the Common Saying, “This May Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice.” Kant’s Political Writings. Trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Locke, John.  1980. Second Treatise on Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Mill, John Stuart.  2002. Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Moore, George. 1904. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich.  1989. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House.
Plato. 2004. The Republic. Trans. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Pufendorf, Samuel.  1964. On the Law of Nature and Nations. Trans C. H. Oldfather and W. A. Oldfather. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reynolds, Paul. 1982. Ethics and Social Science Research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  1950. The Social Contract and Discourses. Trans. G. D. H. Cole. New York: Dutton.
Schelling, Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Skyrms, Brian. 1996. Evolution of the Social Contract. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Adam.  2002. A Theory of Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Ullman-Margalit, Edna. 1977. The Emergence of Norms. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon.
Richard F. Kitchener
"Philosophy, Moral." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/philosophy-moral
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Moral Philosophy and Ethics
MORAL PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICS
MORAL PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICS. In early modern Europe "moral philosophy" often referred to the systematic study of the human world, as distinguished from "natural philosophy," the systematic study of the natural world. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries moral philosophy in this broad sense was gradually split up into separate disciplines: politics, economics, historical sociology, and moral philosophy more narrowly understood as the study of the ideas and the psychology involved in individual morality. It should be noted that moral philosophy was a part not only of Aristotelian philosophy but also, along with grammar, rhetoric, poetry, and history, of the humanities (studia humanitatis), and in this connection, the ethics of the Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans also came under consideration.
The philosophers who created modern moral philosophy were familiar with the thinkers of classical antiquity; some had also studied the medieval scholastics. But neither the ancient nor the medieval philosophers faced the conditions that increasingly confronted the whole of Europe from the Reformation onward. Early in this period political and religious authorities struggled for control over all significant human activity. After the Reformation, religion no longer spoke with the single voice it claimed in the Middle Ages, but ministers of every denomination demanded obedience to the God they preached. For Lutheran and Reformed thinkers as well as for Catholics, all philosophy had to be subservient to theology. Philosophers had to reach conclusions that theologians could certify as agreeing with Christian doctrine. Monarchs claimed to rule by divine right and worked with their national churches to enforce social hierarchies that shaped daily life even in its details, but established institutions, practices, and beliefs were increasingly being challenged and were eventually severely weakened or destroyed. Political and religious authority and the hold of custom and tradition were eroding. New kinds of groups were developing in which individuals interacted without attending to rank or class. In these new forms of sociability people treated one another as equals, able to get along together pleasantly and profitably without control by external authority.
All these changes called for the rethinking of both individual and political norms. Advances in scientific and geographical knowledge contributed greatly to the widespread feeling that everything from the past was open to question. But even without the advances in knowledge, the turmoil of religious controversy and social change made evident the need for a new understanding of morality.
Ancient moral philosophers thought that their task was to determine what was required for human flourishing—the highest good—and to show what virtues were needed in order to attain it. Christian theologians made ultimate human flourishing dependent on a proper relation to God, who alone was man's highest good. Laws of morality, which God teaches everyone through conscience, would guide us to the good of sociable living in this world. Conformity to them, however, could not guarantee salvation, for which God's grace was needed.
Modern moral philosophy began as the effort to answer questions like those raised most effectively by Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). In his widely read Essays (1588) he presented himself as earnestly trying all the available theories about how we should live, asking if any of them could be followed. Although Montaigne was a devout Catholic, he used neither dogma nor theology to test claims about the good life. His attempts led him to think that neither he nor anyone else—aside from a few exceptional figures—could steadily follow Christian or classical models.
Montaigne concluded that we must each determine for ourselves what the good life is. We each have a distinctive natural form that tells us what we need and what we cannot tolerate. For each person that must be the supreme guide. Montaigne could find no grounds, outside religion, for believing in moral laws known to all. We should obey the laws of our country, he held, not because they are just but simply because they are the established local law. Our individual form gives guidance to each but not guidance for all.
In an age already deeply unsettled by interminable debates about religion, Montaigne was taken to be a skeptic about morality. His conservative acceptance of local law and his claim to a private inner voice did not offer enough to a world in which confessional and international conflict was pervasive. His denial that there is a common highest good seemed to make it impossible to find a basis for working toward principles that could cross all the lines dividing Europe. Modern moral philosophy had to create new resources to underpin a common morality.
NATURAL LAW AND INTUITIONISM
The two earliest lines of thought were started simultaneously. Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), a Dutch Calvinist lawyer, initiated a new understanding of natural law theory with his Law of War and Peace in 1625. As part of it he outlined the view that natural law should be understood as empirically based directions for enabling sociable but quarrelsome people to get along with one another, no matter how much they differed about God or the good. In his On Truth (1624) Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582–1648) claimed that all humans have an intuitive grasp of certain basic moral truths that show us how to live. Though both thinkers believed in God, both wanted to minimize the extent to which God or his ministers had to be consulted about morality. Herbert also rejected the subordination of philosophy to theology, holding that religious claims in conflict with intuitively known moral principles must be false.
Grotius's themes were developed by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1599–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) and by the German lawyer Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694). All saw humans as needing to live together but as so prone to selfishness that they found this difficult. Moral laws of nature were basic directions for solving the problem posed by our unsociably sociable nature. With Luther and Calvin these thinkers held that morality requires law, that law requires a lawgiver, and that God is the ultimate lawgiver. Morality is obedience to divine commands. Since no one can command God, he alone is self-governing. God has left it up to us to discover the contents of morality. Ordinary experience provides us with all the facts we need to infer the divine commands. We need not appeal to revelation.
Critics of modern natural law theory all objected that an ethics of divine command made God an arbitrary and unlovable tyrant. One group followed Lord Herbert's lead in working out how to defeat this kind of theory. Two Anglican clergymen, Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688) and Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), held that eternally valid moral principles guide God. They are known by us because he has given us a power of intuition enabling us to grasp them. Moral knowledge thus makes us self-governing. Developed further by an Anglican bishop, Joseph Butler (1692–1752), and a dissenting minister, Richard Price (1723–1791), intuitionism received its classic form in the Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788) by the Scottish professor Thomas Reid (1710–1796), who was a major influence on nineteenth-century British and French moral thought.
PERFECTIONISTS AND MORAL SENSE THEORISTS
Another group, the rationalist perfectionists, including Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Nicholas Malebranche (1638–1715), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), and the Leibnizian Christian Wolff (1679–1754), held that ignorance, not quarrelsomeness, was the source of immorality. They argued that only increase of knowledge could improve our behavior and our happiness. The more we think as God does, the more perfect we become. God is guided not by an arbitrary will but by his knowledge of all facts and all values. We and our societies will become more perfect the more knowledge we have and the more we live according to it. People who know more than others are closer to governing themselves and are responsible for directing the lives of the rest.
Many eighteenth-century British thinkers shared the common reaction against divine command theory and its assumption that only punishments and rewards, here or in an afterlife, could make most of us act morally. We are not, they held, as selfish as Hobbes and Pufendorf said we are. We are benevolent as well as self-interested, and we feel moral sentiments of approval and disapproval, coming from a moral sense that approves of what we do from benevolence. To be self-governing, we need no further guidance. Moral sense theorists like the Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) and the Presbyterian minister Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) were not atheists, but their views began to make God marginal for morality.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) developed moral sense theory to its fullest and excluded God from morality altogether. Morality for Hume is just the feelings with which we respond to certain facts about people and their characters. We feel approval of people whose character leads them to be good company or useful to others and to themselves. People tend to feel benevolent toward those close to them. For dealing with strangers we invent rules, called laws of nature, governing property, contracts, and obedience to government; and we are moved to obey them because we can feel sympathy with those who benefit from them. Hume held that there can be no rules of obligation unless we naturally have or create sufficient motives to follow them. We need no divine threats or promises about an afterlife to make us virtuous. Even political authority springs from our sense of our own needs and how to meet them. We are wholly self-governing parts of nature, and nothing more.
EGOISTS AND UTILITARIANS
Philosophers who rejected the sanguine portrayal of human nature given by the moral sense theorists followed Hobbes in arguing that rational self-interest alone could give rise to morality and decent government. Some saw God's providential hand in this happy outcome of selfishness. Atheistic thinkers in France, like the government official Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715–1771) and the wealthy Baron D'Holbach (1723–1789), saw it as showing that morality was nothing but instruction about how individuals could attain for themselves the highest good, a life filled with pleasure.
Many religious thinkers believed that God wills the happiness of all rather than purely private happiness and that we should therefore try to bring about as much happiness as we can. For many years The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1786) by the Anglican cleric William Paley (1743–1805) was the most widely read version of this doctrine, but a secular counterpart had a much longer life. In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) the legal reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) set out the view later known as utilitarianism. The good, for Bentham, was pleasure and the absence of pain. Pleasures and pains can be balanced against one another, like credits and debits. The basic principle of morality instructs us to bring about the greatest happiness we can for the greatest number of people. To the extent that individuals are not naturally inclined to act this way, society and government should set up inducements that would lead them to do so. Bentham was sure that England's laws were not aimed at maximizing happiness. He set out to change them and gathered an active group of disciples to help him. Partly as a result, secular utilitarianism eventually became the main systematic alternative to Reid's brand of intuitionism in nineteenth century Britain.
Secular theories basing morality on experience seemed always to rely on emotions and to take the highest good to be earthly happiness, no matter what its source, and whether for all or only for oneself. The British intuitionists fought against such views, as did the German Lutheran philosopher Christian August Crusius (1715–1775). But the most systematic opposition came from the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). He rejected divine command ethics but thought that perfectionist and intuitionist theories led inevitably to a morally objectionable reliance on an educated elite to control everyone else. He had learned from the Genevan writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) to honor the common man. But Rousseau's views rested finally on sentiment, and Kant held that sentiment could not ground the kind of absolutely universal and necessary principles that morality needed.
Kant based morality not on pure thought or on emotion but on the will, which is the ability to make decisions for reasons. Our desires propose reasons for action, but the will can accept or reject any such proposal. Only proposals that match the will's own demands can become reasons for action. Kant identifies the basic demand that the rational will imposes on desires as the moral law—the voice of reason in practice. It comes to us as the form of a directive or imperative that cannot reasonably be avoided. Kant calls it the categorical imperative. We can moreover be moved to act as the categorical imperative requires simply out of respect for our will's dictates. Because we govern ourselves not by knowing external laws but by following a self-legislated law, Kant called our form of self-governance "autonomy."
The categorical imperative says that I ought to act in such a way that the plan of action proposed by my desire could be a universal law. If a desire gives me a reason for action, it must give the same reason to anyone who has the same desire. We can use this principle to test our plans. We ask whether it would still be rational to follow our plan if everyone were to act on it. If not, we must reject it.
The categorical imperative requires us to treat all autonomous agents including ourselves with respect. We may pursue happiness in any way that the categorical imperative allows, and we ought to help others carry out their own plans for happiness if the categorical imperative allows those plans. Happiness, or the satisfaction of desires, is thus a goal to be pursued, on condition that we act fairly toward everyone in pursuing it.
Among other goals that the categorical imperative requires us to pursue is the highest good: the distribution of happiness in proportion to virtue. We know we need assistance to bring this end about. Hence morality requires us to believe that there is a superhuman being who can help us. Kant thus tried to avoid the naturalism that earlier thinkers such as Hume had championed. For Kant morality does not come from God. Instead it leads us to him.
Natural law theories and perfectionism lost their hold by the end of the eighteenth century. Kantianism, utilitarianism, and intuitionism set the initial terms for future discussion. All three types of view grew from efforts to show how morality could be supported without reliance on tradition, authority, or revelation. To different degrees contemporary defenders of these still-living positions have argued that everyone can think through moral issues and be moved by themselves to do what they conclude is right. We can thus all be self-governing.
Modern moral philosophy developed while Europeans were increasingly treating people as equals who were capable of living sociably without external authority. Philosophy aided this movement by providing alternative ways to talk about how morality could structure an aspect of life that was not dependent on its religious and political aspects. In doing so modern moral philosophy created much of the vocabulary through which Europeans were enabled to envisage the kind of self-governing person needed to sustain modern liberal democratic societies.
See also Erasmus, Desiderius ; Grotius, Hugo ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Pascal, Blaise ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Spinoza, Baruch .
Curley, Edwin, ed. A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Princeton, 1994. Excellent selections and introduction.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary Norton. Oxford, 2000. Useful modern edition.
Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy, edited by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Contains excellent translations of Kant's major works on ethics: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, and Metaphysics of Morals, 1797.
Raphael, D. D., ed. The British Moralists, 1650–1800. Oxford, 1968. Valuable source book for early modern British moral philosophy.
Schneewind, J. B., ed. Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Cambridge, U.K., 2002. Selections from the writers mentioned in this article and many others, with introductions.
Darwall, Stephen. The British Moralists and the Internal "Ought," 1640–1740. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Studies a central issue in early modern British moral thought.
Gordon, Daniel. Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought 1670–1789. Princeton, 1994. Historical study of emerging forms of social life in early modern France.
Haaksonssen, Knud. Natural Law and Moral Philosophy from Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Illuminating essays on modern natural law theorists.
Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750. Oxford, 2001. Major study of the impact of Spinoza on the early Enlightenment.
Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. History of the period covered in this article.
J. B. Schneewind
"Moral Philosophy and Ethics." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/moral-philosophy-and-ethics
"Moral Philosophy and Ethics." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved February 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/moral-philosophy-and-ethics
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"Philosophy, Moral." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philosophy-moral
"Philosophy, Moral." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved February 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philosophy-moral