From Applied Ethics: A Sourcebook


James Fieser





1. Moral Virtues — Aristotle

2. The State of Nature and Social Contract — Thomas Hobbes

3. Natural Rights — John Locke

4. The Categorical Imperative  — Immanuel Kant

5. Utilitarianism and Higher Pleasures  — John Stuart Mill

6. Justice as Fairness — John Rawls











Aristotle (384–322 BCE) is one of the great philosophers of ancient Greece’s golden age who, like his teacher Plato, helped define the discipline of philosophy in Western civilization. Aristotle lived in Athens where he founded a school called the Lyceum, and for a time tutored Alexander the Great. The selections below are from Books 1 and 2 of work Nicomachean Ethics, named after his son Nicomachus who may have assembled the text from Aristotle’s lecture notes. Aristotle opens arguing that all human actions aim at some final good, and this final good for us is happiness. The difficult question, though, is determining what exactly “happiness” is. It is neither a matter of pleasure, honor, nor wealth, which are the usual things people associate with happiness. Rather, to understand what our specific human good is, Aristotle argues, we need to understand the purpose and function of human beings. This involves understanding the parts of the human soul -- or psyche --  that structure and animate a living human organism. The most primitive irrational element is nutritive and is responsible for nutrition and growth. The second tier of the soul is the appetitive part that is responsible for our emotions and desires. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. The third tier of the soul is the purely rational part, which, among other things, enables us to determine when to control our desires.

            The core of Aristotle’s account of moral virtue is his doctrine of the mean: moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits that are at a mean between more extreme character traits, that is, vices. For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear from danger, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we develop a deficient character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness, and the deficient extreme of cowardice. Aristotle warns that the virtuous mean is not a strict mathematical mean between two extremes. For example, if eating 100 apples is too many, and eating zero apples is too little, this does not imply that we should eat 50 apples, which is the mathematical mean. Instead, the mean is rationally determined, based on the relative merits of the situation. That is, it is “as a person of good judgment would determine it.” He presents a catalog of twelve virtues that are means between two extreme vices. He concludes that it is difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because it is often difficult to find the proper mean between the extremes.





All Action Aims at a Highest Good

1. Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good. Hence the good has been well defined as that at which all things aim. But it is clear that there is a difference in the ends; for the ends are sometimes activities, and sometimes results beyond the mere activities. Also, where there are certain ends beyond the actions, the results are naturally superior to the activities.

            As there are various actions, arts, and sciences, it follows that the ends are also various. Thus health is the end of medicine, a vessel of shipbuilding, victory of strategy, and wealth of domestic economy. It often happens that there are a number of such arts or sciences which fall under a single faculty, as the art of making bridles, and all such other arts as make the instruments of horsemanship, under horsemanship, and this again as well as every military action under strategy, and in the same way other arts or sciences under other faculties. But in all these cases the ends of the ruling arts or sciences, whatever they may be, are more desirable than those of the subordinate arts or sciences, as it is for the sake of the former that the latter are themselves sought after. It makes no difference to the argument whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else beyond the activities as in the above mentioned sciences. . . .

            2. Suppose it is true that in the sphere of action there is an end which we wish for its own sake, and for the sake of which we wish everything else, and that we do not desire all things for the sake of something else. For, if that is so, the process will go on without end, and our desire will be idle and futile. It is then clear that this will be the good or the supreme good. Does it not follow that the knowledge of this supreme good is of great importance for the conduct of life, and that, if we know it, we shall be like good archers who have a mark at which to aim, we shall have a better chance of attaining what we want? But, if this is the case, we must try to understand, at least in outline, its nature, and the science or faculty to which it belongs.

            It would seem that this is the most authoritative or ruling science or faculty, and such is evidently the political; for it is the political science or faculty which determines what sciences are necessary states, and what kind of sciences should be learnt, and how far they should be learnt by particular people. We perceive too that the faculties which are held in the highest esteem (e.g., strategy, domestic economy, and rhetoric) are subordinate to it. But as it makes use of the other practical sciences, and also legislates upon the things to be done and the things to be left undone, it follows that its end will comprehend the ends of all the other sciences, and will therefore be the true good of humankind. For although the good of an individual is identical with the good of a state, yet the good of the state, whether in attainment or in preservation, is evidently greater and more perfect. For while in an individual by himself it is something to be thankful for, it is nobler and more divine in a nation or state. These then are the objects at which the present inquiry aims, and it is in a sense a political inquiry. . . .


Happiness not identical with Pleasure, Honor or Wealth.

5. But to return from our digression: It seems reasonable that people should derive their conception of the good or of happiness from people’s lives. For there are practically three main lifestyles: the sensual, the political, and, thirdly, the speculative. Thus ordinary people conceive it to be pleasure, and accordingly approve a life of enjoyment. Now the majority of them present an absolutely slavish appearance, as choosing the life of wild beasts, but they meet with consideration because so many persons in authority share the tastes of [the extravagant Assyrian ruler] Sardanapalus.

            On the other hand, cultivated and practical people [comprising the second lifestyle], identify happiness with honor, as honor is the general end of political life. But this appears too superficial for our present purpose. For honor seems to depend more upon the people who pay it than upon the person to whom it is paid, and we have an intuitive feeling that the good is something which is proper to a person himself and cannot easily be taken away from him. It seems too that the reason why people seek honor is that they may be confident of their own goodness. Accordingly they seek it at the hands of the wise and of those who know them well, and they seek it on the ground of virtue; hence it is clear that in their judgment at any rate virtue is superior to honor. It would perhaps be right then to look upon virtue rather than honor as being the end of the political life. Yet virtue again, it appears, lacks completeness; for it seems that a person may possess virtue and yet be asleep or inactive throughout life, and, not only so but he may experience the greatest calamities and misfortunes. But nobody would call such a life a life of happiness, unless he were maintaining a paradox. It is not necessary to dwell further on this subject, as it is sufficiently discussed in the popular philosophical treatises. The third life is the speculative which we will investigate hereafter.

            The life of money-making is in a sense a life of constraint, and it is clear that wealth is not the good of which we are in seeking. For it is useful in part as a means to something else. It would be a more reasonable view therefore that the things mentioned before, viz. sensual pleasure, honor and virtue, are ends than that wealth is, as they are things which are desired on their own account. Yet these too are apparently not ends, although much argument has been employed to show that they are. . . .


Happiness and the Human Function

7. … It appears, then, that happiness is something final and self-sufficient, being the end of all action. While it seems a generally admitted truth that happiness is the supreme good, what we need is to define its nature a little more clearly. The best way of arriving at such a definition will probably be to ascertain the function of humans. For, as with a flute-player, a statuary, or any artisan, or in fact anybody who has a definite function and action, his goodness, or excellence seems to lie in his function, so it would seem to be with humans, if indeed he has a definite function. Can it be said then that, while a carpenter and a cobbler have definite functions and actions, humans, unlike them, is naturally functionless? The reasonable view is that, as the eye, the hand, the foot, and similarly each several part of the body has a definite function, so humans may be regarded as having a definite function apart from all these. What then, can this function be? It is not life; for life is apparently something which humans shares with the plants; and it is something peculiar to him that we are looking for. We must exclude therefore the life of nutrition and increase. There is next what may be called the life of sensation. But this too, is apparently shared by humans with horses, cattle, and all other animals. There remains what I may call the practical life of the rational part of human nature. But the rational part is twofold; it is rational partly in the sense of being obedient to reason, and partly in the sense of possessing reason and intelligence. The practical life too may be conceived of in two ways, either as a moral state, or as a moral activity: but we must understand by it the life of activity, as this seems to be the truer form of the conception.

            The function of humans then is an activity of soul in accordance with reason, or not independently of reason. Again the functions of a person of a certain kind, and of such a person who is good of his kind e.g. of a harpist and a good harpist, are in our view generically the same, and this view is true of people of all kinds without exception, the superior excellence being only an addition to the function; for it is the function of a harpist to play the harp, and of a good harpist to play the harp well. This being so, if we define the function of humans as a kind of life, and this life as an activity of soul, or a course of action in conformity with reason, if the function of a good person is such activity or action of a good and noble kind, and if everything is successfully performed when it is performed in accordance with its proper excellence, it follows that the good of humans is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue or, if there are more virtues than one, in accordance with the best and most complete virtue. But it is necessary to add the words “in a complete life.” For as one swallow or one day does not make a spring, so one day or a short time does not make a fortunate or happy person. . . .


Happiness and the Divisions of the Soul

12. … Happiness is something which is both precious and final. This seems to be so because it is a first principle or ultimate starting point. For, it is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else, and we regard the cause of all good things to be precious and divine. . . .

            13. Since happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with complete or perfect virtue, it is necessary to consider virtue, as this will be the best way of studying happiness. It appears that virtue is the object upon which the true statesman has expended the largest amount of trouble, as it is his wish to make the citizens virtuous and obedient to the laws. We have instances of such statesmen in the legislators of Crete and Sparta and such other legislators as have resembled them. But if this inquiry is proper to political science, it will clearly accord with our original purpose to pursue it. But it is clear that it is human virtue which we have to consider; for the good of which we are in search is, as we said, human good, and the happiness, human happiness. By human virtue or excellence we mean not that of the body, but that of the soul, and by happiness we mean an activity of the soul.

            If this is so, it is clearly necessary for statesmen to have some knowledge of the nature of the soul, in the same way as it is necessary for one who is to treat the eye or any part of the body to have some knowledge of it, and all the more as political science is better and more honorable than medical science. Clever doctors take a great deal of trouble to understand the body, and similarly the statesman must make a study of the soul. But he must study it with a view to his particular object and so far only as his object requires; for to elaborate the study of it further would, I think, be to aggravate unduly the labor of our present undertaking.

            There are some facts concerning the soul which are adequately stated in popular discourses, and these we may rightly adopt. It is stated, for example, that the soul has two parts, one irrational and the other possessing reason. But whether these parts are distinguished like the parts of the body and like everything that is itself divisible, or whether they are theoretically distinct, but in fact inseparable, as convex and concave in the circumference of a circle, is of no importance to the present inquiry.

            Again, it seems that of the irrational part of the soul one part is common, that is, shared by humans with all living things, and nutritive; I mean the part which is the cause of nutrition and increase. For we may assume such a faculty of the soul to exist in all things that receive nutrition, even in embryos, and the same faculty to exist in things that are full grown, as it is more reasonable to suppose that it is the same faculty than that it is different. It is clear then that the virtue or excellence of this faculty is not distinctively human but is shared by humans with all living things; for it seems that this part and this faculty are especially active in sleep, whereas good and bad people are never so little distinguishable as in sleep—from which we get the saying that there is no difference between the happy and the miserable during half their lifetime. And this is only natural; for sleep is an inactivity of the soul in respect of its virtue or vice, except in so far as certain impulses affect it to a slight extent, and make the visions of the virtuous better than those of ordinary people. But enough has been said on this point, and we must now leave the principle of nutrition, as it possesses no natural share in human virtue.

            It seems that there is another natural principle of the soul which is irrational and yet in a sense partakes of reason. For in a restrained or unrestrained person we praise the reason, and that part of the soul which possesses reason, as it exhorts people rightly and exhorts them to the best conduct. But it is clear that there is in them another principle which is naturally different from reason and fights and contends against reason. For just as the paralyzed parts of the body, when we intend to move them to the right, are drawn away in a contrary direction to the left, so it is with the soul; the impulses of unrestrained people run counter to reason. But there is this difference, however, that while in the body we see the part which is drawn astray, in the soul we do not see it. But it is probably right to suppose with equal certainty that there is also something in the soul that is different from reason, which opposes and thwarts it, although the sense in which it is distinct from reason is immaterial. But it appears that this part too partakes of reason, as we said; at all events in a restrained person it obeys reason, while in a temperate or courageous person it is probably still more obedient, as being absolutely harmonious with reason.

            It appears, then, that the irrational part of the soul is itself twofold; for the nutritive faculty does not participate at all in reason, but the faculty of desire or general appetite participates in it more or less, in so far as it is submissive and obedient to reason. But it is obedient in the sense in which we speak of “paying attention to a father” or “to friends,” but not in the sense in which we speak of “paying attention to mathematics.” All correction, rebuke and exhortation is a witness that the irrational part of the soul is in a sense subject to the influence of reason. But if we are to say that this part too possesses reason, then the part which possesses reason will have two divisions, one possessing reason absolutely and in itself, the other listening to it as a child listens to its father.

            Virtue or excellence, again, admits of a distinction which depends on this difference. For we speak of some virtues as intellectual and of others as moral, Wisdom, intelligence and prudence, are intellectual virtues; liberality and temperance are moral virtues. For when we describe a person’s character, we do not say that he is wise or intelligent but that he is gentle or temperate. Yet we also praise a wise person in respect of his mental state, and such mental states as deserve to be praised we call virtuous.




Virtues Are Acquired through Training

1. Virtue or excellence being twofold (partly intellectual and partly moral) intellectual virtue is both originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it therefore demands experience and time. Moral virtue on the other hand is the outcome of habit, and accordingly its name is derived by a slight deflection of habit. From this fact it is clear that no moral virtue is implanted in us by nature; a law of nature cannot be altered by habituation. Thus, a stone naturally tends to fall downwards, and it cannot be habituated or trained to rise upwards, even if we were to habituate it by throwing it upwards ten thousand times. Nor again can fire be trained to sink downwards, nor anything else that follows one natural law be habituated or trained to follow another. It is neither by nature then nor in defiance of nature that virtues are implanted in us. Nature gives us the capacity of receiving them, and that capacity is perfected by habit.

            Again, if we take the various natural powers which belong to us, we first acquire the proper faculties and afterwards display the activities. It is clearly so with the senses. It was not by seeing frequently or hearing frequently that we acquired the senses of seeing or hearing. On the contrary it was because we possessed the senses that we made use of them, not by making use of them that we obtained them. But the virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as is the case with all the arts, for it is by doing what we ought to do when we have learned the arts that we learn the arts themselves; we become, for example, builders by building and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, by doing courageous acts that we become courageous. The experience of states is a witness to this truth, for it is by training the habits that legislators make the citizens good. This is the object which all legislators have at heart. If a legislator does not succeed in it, he fails of his purpose, and it constitutes the distinction between a good polity and a bad one.

            Again, the causes and means by which any virtue is produced and by which it is destroyed are the same; and it is equally so with any art; for it is by playing the harp that both good and bad harpists are produced and the case of builders and all other artisans is similar, as it is by building well that they will be good builders and by building badly that they will be bad builders. If it were not so, there would be no need of anybody to teach them; they would all be born good or bad in their several trades. The case of the virtues is the same. It is by acting in such transactions as take place between person and person that we become either just or unjust. It is by acting in the face of danger and by habituating ourselves to fear or courage that we become either cowardly or courageous. It is much the same with our desires and angry passions. Some people become temperate and gentle, others become licentious and passionate according as they conduct themselves in one way or another way in particular circumstances. In a word character traits are the results of activities corresponding to the character traits themselves. It is our duty therefore to give a certain character to the activities, as the character traits depend upon the differences of the activities. Accordingly, the difference between one training of the habits and another from early days is not a light matter, but is serious and all-important.


The Study of Virtue

2. Our present study is not, like other studies, purely speculative in its intention. For the object of our inquiry is not to know the nature of virtue but to become ourselves virtuous, as that is the sole benefit which it conveys. It is necessary therefore to consider the right way of performing actions, for it is actions as we have said that determine the character of the resulting character traits.

            That we should act in accordance with right reason is a common general principle, which may here be taken for granted. The nature of right reason, and its relation to the virtues generally, will be subjects of discussion hereafter. But we must admit at the outset that all reasoning upon practical matters must be like a sketch in outline, it cannot be scientifically exact. We began by laying down the principle that the kind of reasoning demanded in any subject must be such as the subject matter itself allows; and questions of practice and expediency no more admit of invariable rules than questions of health.

            But if this is true of general reasoning upon ethics, it is still more true that scientific exactitude is impossible in reasoning upon particular ethical cases. They do not fall under any art or any law, but the agents themselves are always bound to pay regard to the circumstances of the moment as much as in medicine or navigation.

            Still, although such is the nature of the present argument, we must try to make the best of it.

            The first point to be observed, then, is that in such matters as we are considering deficiency and excess are equally fatal. It is so, as we observe, in regard to health and strength; for we must judge of what we cannot see by the evidence of what we do see. Excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength. Similarly an excess or deficiency of meat and drink is fatal to health, whereas a suitable amount produces, augments and sustains it. It is the same then with temperance, courage, and the other virtues. A person who avoids and is afraid of everything and faces nothing becomes a coward; a person who is not afraid of anything but is ready to face everything becomes rash. Similarly, he who enjoys every pleasure and never abstains from any pleasure is overindulgent; he who avoids all pleasures like a boor is an insensible sort of person. For temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean state.

            Again, not only are the causes and the agencies of production, increase and destruction in the character traits the same, but the sphere of their activity will be proved to be the same also. It is so in other instances which are more conspicuous, for example, in strength; for strength is produced by taking a great deal of food and undergoing a great deal of labor, and it is the strong person who is able to take most food and to undergo most labor. The same is the case with the virtues. It is by abstinence from pleasures that we become temperate, and, when we have become temperate, we are best able to abstain from them. So too with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to despise and face alarms that we become courageous, and, when we have become courageous, we shall be best able to face them. …


Virtues Are Character Traits

5. We have next to consider the nature of virtue. Now, as the there are three qualities of the soul, namely, emotions, faculties and character traits, it follows that virtue must be one of the three. By the “emotions” I mean desire, anger, fear, courage, envy, joy, love, hatred, regret, emulation, pity – in a word whatever is attended by pleasure or pain. I call those “faculties” in respect of which we are said to be capable of experiencing these emotions, for example, capable of getting angry or being pained or feeling pity. And I call those “character traits” in respect of which we are well or ill-disposed towards the emotions. For example, towards the emotion of anger, it is ill-disposed if our anger be too violent or too feeble; it is well-disposed if it be duly moderated. The same goes for our other emotions.

            Now neither the virtues nor the vices are emotions; for we are not called good or evil in respect of our emotions but in respect of our virtues or vices. Again, we are not praised or blamed in respect of our emotions; a person is not praised for being angry in an absolute sense, but only for being angry in a certain way; but we are praised or blamed in respect of our virtues or vices. Again, whereas we are angry or afraid without deliberate purpose, the virtues are in some sense deliberate purposes, or do not exist in the absence of deliberate purpose. It may be added that while we are said to be moved in respect of our emotions, in respect of our virtues or vices we are not said to be moved but to have a certain disposition.

            These reasons also prove that the virtues are not faculties. For we are not called either good or bad, nor are we praised or blamed, as having an abstract capacity for emotion. Also while Nature gives us our faculties, it is not Nature that makes us good or bad, but this is a point which we have already discussed. If then the virtues are neither emotions nor faculties, it remains that they must be moral states. The nature of virtue has been now generally described.


Virtuous Mean between Extremes

6. But it is not enough to state merely that virtue is a moral state, we must also describe the character of that moral state. It must be laid down then that every virtue or excellence has the effect of producing a good condition of that of which it is a virtue or excellence, and of enabling it to perform its function well. Thus the excellence of the eye makes the eye good and its function good, as it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly, the excellence of the horse makes a horse excellent and good at racing, at carrying its rider and at facing the enemy.

            If then this is universally true, the virtue or excellence of people will be such a moral state as makes them good and able to perform their proper function well. We have already explained how this will be the case, but another way of making it clear will be to study the nature or character of this virtue.

            Now in everything, whether it be continuous or discrete, it is possible to take a greater, a smaller, or an equal amount, and this either absolutely or in relation to ourselves, the equal being a mean between excess and deficiency. By the mean in respect of the thing itself, or the absolute mean, I understand that which is equally distinct from both extremes and this is one and the same thing for everybody. By the mean considered relatively to ourselves I understand that which is neither too much nor too little. But this is not one thing, nor is it the same for everybody. Thus if 10 be too much and 2 too little we take 6 as a mean in respect of the thing itself; for 6 is as much greater than 2 as it is less than 10, and this is a mean in arithmetical proportion. But the mean considered relatively to ourselves must not be determined in this way. It does not follow that if 10 pounds of meat be too much and 2 be too little for a person to eat, a trainer will order him 6 pounds, as this may itself be too much or too little for the person who is to take it; it will be too little, for example, for Milo, but too much for a beginner in gymnastics. It will be the same with running and wrestling; the right amount will vary with the individual. This being so, everybody who understands his business avoids alike excess and deficiency; he seeks and chooses the mean, not the absolute mean, but the mean considered relatively to ourselves.

            Every science then performs its function well, if it regards the mean and refers the works which it produces to the mean. This is the reason why it is usually said of successful works that it is impossible to take anything from them or to add anything to them, which implies that excess or deficiency is fatal to excellence but that the mean state ensures it. As we say, good artists have an eye to the mean in their works. But virtue, like Nature herself, is more accurate and better than any art; virtue therefore will aim at the mean; I speak of moral virtue, as it is moral virtue which is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is these which admit of excess and deficiency and the mean. Thus it is possible to go too far, or not to go far enough, in respect of fear, courage, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, and the excess and the deficiency are alike wrong; but to experience these emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue. Similarly there may be excess, deficiency, or the mean, in regard to actions. But virtue is concerned with emotions and actions, and here excess is an error and deficiency a fault, whereas the mean is successful and praiseworthy, and success and merit are both characteristics of virtue.

            It appears then that virtue is a mean state, so far at least as it aims at the mean.

            Again, there are many different ways of going wrong; for evil is in its nature infinite, to use the Pythagorean figure, but good is finite. But there is only one possible way of going right. Accordingly the former is easy and the latter difficult; it is easy to miss the mark but difficult to hit it. This again is a reason why excess and deficiency are characteristics of vice and the mean state a characteristic of virtue: “For good is simple, evil manifold.” Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent person would determine it.

            It is a mean state firstly as lying between two vices, the vice of excess on the one hand, and the vice of deficiency on the other, and secondly because, whereas the vices either fall short of or go beyond what is proper in the emotions and actions, virtue not only discovers but embraces the mean.

            Accordingly, virtue, if regarded in its essence or theoretical conception, is a mean state, but, if regarded from the point of view of the highest good, or of excellence, it is an extreme.

            But it is not every action or every emotion that admits of a mean state. There are some whose very name implies wickedness, as for example, malice, shamelessness, and envy, among emotions, or adultery, theft, and murder, among actions. All these, and others like them, are condemned as being intrinsically wicked, not merely the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is never possible then to be right in respect of them; they are always sinful. Right or wrong in such actions as adultery does not depend on our committing therewith the right person, at the right time or in the right manner; on the contrary it is sinful to do anything of the kind at all. It would be equally wrong then to suppose that there can be a mean state or an excess or deficiency in unjust, cowardly or overindulgent conduct; for, if it were so, there would be a mean state of an excess or of a deficiency, an excess of an excess and a deficiency of a deficiency. But as in temperance and courage there can be no excess or deficiency because the mean is, in a sense, an extreme, so too in these cases there cannot be a mean or an excess or deficiency, but, however the acts may be done, they are wrong. For it is a general rule that an excess or deficiency does not admit of a mean state, nor a mean state of an excess or deficiency.


Examples of Virtues and Vices

7. But it is not enough to lay down this as a general rule; it is necessary to apply it to particular cases, as in reasonings upon actions general statements, although they are broader, are less exact than particular statements. For all action refers to particulars, and it is essential that our theories should harmonize with the particular cases to which they apply. We must take particular virtues then from the catalogue of [twelve specific] virtues.

            (1) In regard to feelings of fear and confidence, courage is a mean state. On the side of excess, he whose fearlessness is excessive has no name, as often happens, but he whose confidence is excessive is rash, while he whose timidity is excessive and whose confidence is deficient is a coward.

            (2) In respect of pleasures and pains (although not indeed of all pleasures and pains, and to a less extent in respect of pains than of pleasures) the mean state is temperance, the excess is overindulgence. We never find people who are deficient in regard to pleasures; accordingly such people again have not received a name, but we may call them insensible.

            (3) As regards the giving and taking of money, the mean state is generosity, the excess and deficiency are extravagance and stinginess. Here the excess and deficiency take opposite forms; for while the extravagant person is excessive in spending and deficient in taking, the stingy person is excessive in taking and deficient in spending.

            (4) In respect of money there are other dispositions as well. There is the mean state which is magnanimity; for the magnanimous person, as having to do with large sums of money, differs from the generous person who has to do only with small sums; and the excess corresponding to it is vulgarity, the deficiency is pettiness. These are different from the excess and deficiency of generosity; what the difference is will be explained hereafter.

            (5) In respect of honor and dishonor, the mean state is high-mindedness, the excess is what is called vainglory, the deficiency small-mindedness.

            (6) Corresponding to generosity, which, as we said, differs from magnanimity as having to do not with great but with small sums of money, there is a moral state which has to do with small honor and is related to high-mindedness which has to do with great honor. For it is possible to aspire to honor in the right way, or in a way which is excessive or insufficient. If a person’s aspirations are excessive, he is called overambitious, if they are deficient, he is called unambitious, while if they are between the two, he has no name. The dispositions too are nameless, except that the disposition of the overambitious person is called overambition. The consequence is that the extremes lay claim to the mean or intermediate place. We ourselves speak of one who observes the mean sometimes as overambitious, and at other times as unambitious; we sometimes praise an overambitious, and at other times an unambitious person. The reason for our doing so will be stated in due course, but let us now discuss the other virtues in accordance with the method which we have followed so far.

            (7) Anger, like other emotions, has its excess, its deficiency, and its mean state. It may be said that they have no names, but as we call one who observes the mean good tempered, we will call the mean state good temper. Among the extremes, if a person errs on the side of excess, he may be called ill-tempered and his vice spiritless, if on that of deficiency, he may be called impassive and his deficiency impassivity.

            There are also three other mean states with a certain resemblance to each other, and yet with a difference. For while they are all concerned with interaction in speech and action, they are different in that one of them is concerned with truth in such interaction, and the others with pleasantness, one with pleasantness in amusement and the other with pleasantness in the various circumstances of life. We must therefore discuss these states in order to make it clear that in all cases it is the mean state which is an object of praise, and the extremes are neither right nor praiseworthy but blameworthy. It is true that these mean and extreme states are generally nameless, but we must do our best here as elsewhere to give them a name, so that our argument may be clear and easy to follow.

            (8) In the matter of truth-telling, then, he who observes the mean may be called truthful, and the mean state truthfulness. Pretence, if it takes the form of exaggeration, is boastfulness, and one who is guilty of pretence is a boaster; but if it takes the form of depreciation it is irony, and he who is guilty of it is ironical.

            (9) As regards pleasantness in amusement, he who observes the mean is witty, and his disposition wittiness. The excess is buffoonery, and he who is guilty of it a buffoon, whereas he who is deficient in wit may be called a humorless and his moral state humorlessness.

            (10) As to the other kind of pleasantness, namely, pleasantness in life, he who is pleasant in a proper way is friendly, and his mean state friendliness. But he who goes too far, if he has no hidden motive in view, is obsequious, while if his object is self-interest, he is a flatterer, and he who does not go far enough and always makes himself unpleasant is a quarrelsome and morose sort of person.

            (11) There are also mean states in the emotions and in the expression of the emotions. For although modesty is not a virtue, yet a modest person is praised as if he were virtuous. For here too one person is said to observe the mean and another to exceed it, as for example, the self-loathing person who is never anything but modest, whereas a person who has insufficient modesty or no modesty at all is called arrogant, and one who observes the mean modest.

            (12) Just resentment, again, is a mean state between envy and spite. They are all concerned with the pain and pleasure which we feel at the fortunes of our neighbors. A person who is justly resentful is pained at the prosperity of the undeserving; but the envious person goes further and is pained at anybody’s prosperity, and the spiteful person is so far from being pained that he actually rejoices at misfortunes [of those who are exploited]. . . .


The Difficulty of the Virtuous Life

9. It has now been sufficiently shown that moral virtue is a mean state, and in what sense it is a mean state; it is a mean state as lying between two vices, a vice of excess on the one side and a vice of deficiency on the other, and as aiming at the mean in the emotions and actions.

            That is the reason why it is so hard to be virtuous; for it is always hard work to find the mean in anything, for example, it is not everybody, but only a person of science, who can find the mean or center of a circle. So too anybody can get angry—that is an easy matter—and anybody can give or spend money, but to give it to the right persons, to give the right amount of it and to give it at the right time and for the right cause and in the right way, this is not what anybody can do, nor is it easy. That is the reason why it is rare and praiseworthy and noble to do well. Accordingly one who aims at the mean must begin by departing from that extreme which is the more contrary to the mean; he must act in the spirit of Calypso’s’ advice, “Hold the ship out beyond the surf and spray,” for of the two extremes one is more sinful than the other. As it is difficult then to bit the mean exactly, we must take the second best course, as the saying is, and choose the lesser of two evils, and this we shall best do in the way that we have described, i.e., by steering clear of the evil which is further from the mean. We must also observe the things to which we are ourselves particularly prone, as different natures have different inclinations, and we may ascertain what these are by a consideration of our feelings of pleasure and pain. And then we must drag ourselves in the direction opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the mean, as we do, when we pull a crooked stick straight.

            But in all cases we must especially be on our guard against what is pleasant and against pleasure, as we are not impartial judges of pleasure. Hence our attitude towards pleasure must be like that of the elders of the people in the Iliad towards Helen, and we must never be afraid of applying the words they use; for if we dismiss pleasure as they dismissed Helen, we shall be less likely to go wrong. It is by action of this kind, to put it summarily, that we shall best succeed in hitting the mean.

            It may be admitted that this is a difficult task, especially in particular cases. It is not easy to determine, for example, the right manner, objects, occasions, and duration of anger. There are times when we ourselves praise people who are deficient in anger, and call them good tempered, and there are other times when we speak of people who exhibit a savage temper is ill-tempered. It is not however one who deviates a little from what is right, but one who deviates a great deal, whether on the side of excess or of deficiency, that is blamed; for he is sure to be found out. Again, it is not easy to decide theoretically bow far and to what extent a man may go before he becomes censurable, but neither is it easy to define theoretically anything else within the region of perception; such things fall under the bead of particulars, and our judgment of them depends upon our perception.

            So much then is plain, that the mean state is everywhere praiseworthy, but that we ought to incline at one time towards the excess and at another towards the deficiency; for this will be our easiest manner of hitting the mean, or in other words of attaining excellence.


Source: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books 1 and 2, tr. J.E.C. Welldon.


Questions for Review

1. Why isn’t wealth the highest good?

2. Aristotle argues that the appetitive or desiring faculty of the soul has an irrational element. What is his argument for why it also has a rational element?

3. What is Aristotle’s argument for why moral virtue is not instinctive, but, instead, learned through training?

4. What is Aristotle’s argument for why moral virtues are neither emotions nor mental faculties?

5. Aristotle argues that the mean between two extremes is not a mathematical average. Why does he believe that “the right amount will vary with the individual?”

6. Regarding the virtue of temperance, what is the emotion to be regulated, and what are the two vices associated with temperance?

7. Noting the difficulties involved in determining the proper mean, what rule of thumb does Aristotle offer for choosing a mean between “two evils?”


Questions for Analysis

1. For Aristotle, the primary task of morality consists of regulating our animalistic urges by developing good habits. Is there a better way of viewing the primary task of morality?

2. Some contemporary virtue theorists hold that the morality is a matter of developing virtues, not in judging the rightness of actions. Explain whether Aristotle holds anything like this view (it may help to do a word search for the term “action” in the above reading).

3. Aristotle gives 12 examples of how virtues are character traits that stand at a mean between more extreme vicious character traits. Pick one of these and criticize his analysis of it.

4. Of the 12 examples of virtues that Aristotle discusses, some may seem a bit odd or unimportant to include in the list, and perhaps other important ones are left out altogether. If you were devising a list of 12 key virtues, how would yours differ from Aristotle’s? That is, which of his might you leave out, and which new ones might you add?

5. At the close of the above selection, Aristotle discusses the difficulties of living the virtuous life, and he gives advice on things we might do to find the virtuous mean. Is living the virtuous life as difficult as he suggests, and do you have a recommendation for living virtuously that Aristotle didn’t consider?









Thomas Hobbes


Born in Wiltshire, England, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) worked as a tutor for several distinguished British families, travelled extensively throughout Europe, and at around age 50 devoted himself to philosophy. His most famous work, The Leviathan (1651), presents the social contract theory that, to preserve our lives, we mutually agree to set aside our hostilities and live in peace. The selections below are from this work. Hobbes begins describing the natural condition of humans—prior to the creation of governments. In that natural state, humans are essentially equal, both mentally and physically, and this puts everyone on the same level in the struggle to survive. There are three natural causes of quarrel among people: competition for limited supplies of material possessions, distrust of one another, and glory insofar as people remain hostile to preserve their powerful reputations. The natural condition of humans is thus a state of perpetual war of all against all, where nothing is unjust, and our lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” As we all fear death and desire to live adequately, we are thus motivated to rise above this state of war and we do this through a social contract with others. Hobbes lays out the steps towards peace in a series of laws of nature. The first is that we should seek peace as the most reasonable way of preserving our lives. The second is that we should mutually set aside our hostilities towards others so that we can achieve peace more easily. I, thus, agree to give up my right to steal from you, if you give up your right to steal from me. Through this mutual divesting of our hostile rights we form a contract. This third law of nature is that we should keep contracts, and this is accomplished establishing a political authority who will punish us if we violate our contracts. Hobbes lists 10 other laws of nature which are important for preserving a peaceful society once it is established, such as showing gratitude towards others, being accommodating to the interests of others, and pardoning those who commit past offences. Hobbes stresses that people are naturally unsociable, and a sovereign power is necessary to make people follow the laws and hold to their contract with others. We thus create a commonwealth and give up our right to govern ourselves individually.




Equality of People

Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind, as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

            And as to the faculties of the mind . . . I find yet a greater equality among men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves to. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom which almost all men think they have in a greater degree than the vulgar, that is, than all men but themselves and a few others whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance. But this proves rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything, than that every man is contented with his share.


Three Causes of Quarrel

From this equality of ability arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies. And in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their own delectation only), [they] endeavor to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader has no more to fear than another man’s single power, if one plants, sows, builds, or possesses a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labor, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

            And from this diffidence [or distrust] of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonably as [through] anticipation. That is, by force or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long till he sees no other power great enough to endanger him. And this is no more than his own conservation requires, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest (which they pursue farther than their security requires); if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able [for a] long time (by standing only on their defense) to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a man’s conservation, it ought to be allowed him.

            Again, men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looks that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself. And upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing, [he] naturally endeavors, as far as he dares . . . to extort a greater value from his condemners [or scorners] by damage, and from others by example.

            So that in the nature of man, we find three principle causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence [or distrust]; thirdly, glory.

            The first makes men invade for gain, the second for safety, and the third for reputation. The first uses violence to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second to defend them; the third for trifles, [such] as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.


State of War

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but [also] in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together; so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

            Whatever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.


Proof of the Natural Condition

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things, that nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade and destroy one another. And he may therefore (not trusting to this inference made from the passions) desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience. Let him therefore consider with himself [that], when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied. When going to sleep, he locks his doors. When even in his house, he locks his chests, and this when he knows there be laws and public officers armed, to revenge all injuries [which] shall be done [to] him. [Consider] what opinion he has of his fellow subjects when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens when he locks his doors; and of his children and servants when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man’s nature in it. The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions, that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.

            It may perhaps be thought [that] there was never such a time nor condition of war as this, and I believe it was never generally so over all the world. But there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America (except the government of small families the harmony whereof depends on natural lust) have no government at all and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. However, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common power to fear; [and] by what manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, . . . [would] degenerate into in a civil war.

            But though there had never been anytime wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another; yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority (because of their independence) are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another. That is, their forts, garrisons, and guns [are fixed] upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies [are fixed] upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war. But because they uphold thereby the industry of their subjects, there does not follow from it that misery which accompanies the liberty of particular men.


Nothing is Unjust

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the [instinctive] faculties, neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in; though with a possibility to come out of it consisting partly in the passions [and] partly in his reason.

            The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the laws of nature, whereof I shall speak more particularly in the two following Chapters.



First Law of Nature

The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man has to use his own power as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature (that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto).

            By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments; which impediments may often take away part of a man’s power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according as his judgment and reason shall dictate to him.

            A Law of Nature (lex naturalis) is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus, and lex, right and law; yet they ought to be distinguished. Because, right consists in the liberty to do or to forbear, whereas law determines and binds to one of them, so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.

            And because the condition of man (as has been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone, in which case everyone is governed by his own reason (and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help to him in preserving his life against his enemies), it follows that in such a condition, every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endures, there can be no security to any man (how strong or wise soever he be) of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason, That every man ought to endeavor peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war; the first branch of which rule contains the first and fundamental Law of Nature, which is, To seek peace and follow it; the second, the sum of the right of nature, which is, By all means we can, to defend ourselves.


Second Law of Nature

From this fundamental Law of Nature, by which men are commanded to endeavor peace, is derived this second Law, That a man be willing, when others are so too (as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary), to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. For so long as every man holds this right of doing anything he likes, [then] so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his. For that were to expose himself to prey (which no man is bound to) rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law or the gospel: Whatever you require that others should do to you, that do you to them. And that law of all men: Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.

            To lay down a man’s right to anything, is to divest himself of the liberty of hindering another of the benefit of his own right to the same. For he that renounces or passes away his right, gives not to any other man a right which he had not before. Because, there is nothing to which every man had not [a] right by nature; but [a person] only stands out of his way, that he may enjoy his own original right, without hindrance from him, [though] not [necessarily] without hindrance from another [person]. So that the effect which redounds [or accumulates] to one man by another man’s defect of right, is but so much diminution of impediments to the use of his own right original. . . .




Third Law of Nature

From that Law of Nature, by which we are obliged to transfer to another such rights as being retained hinder the peace of mankind, there follows a third, which is this: That men perform their covenants made, without which, covenants are in vain, and but empty words. And the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war.

            And in this Law of Nature consists the fountain and original of justice. For where no covenant has preceded, there has no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything, and consequently no action can be unjust. But when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust. And the definition of injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatever is not unjust, is just.


Justice Depends on the Commonwealth

But because covenants of mutual trust [are invalid] where there is a fear of not performance on either part . . . , though the original of justice be the making of covenants; yet injustice actually there can be none, till the cause of such fear be taken away, which while men are in the natural condition of war, cannot be done. Therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant. And [this coercive power serves] to make good that propriety, which by mutual contract men acquire, in recompense of the universal right they abandon. And such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth. And this is also to be gathered out of the ordinary definition of justice in the schools: for they say that Justice is the constant will of giving to every man is own. And therefore where there is no own, that is, no propriety, there is no injustice. And where there is no coercive power erected (that is, where there is no commonwealth), there nothing is unjust. So that the nature of justice consists in [the] keeping of valid covenants. But the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them. And then it is also that propriety begins.

            The fool has said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice... [and that] to make or not make, keep or not keep covenants [is] not against reason when it conduces to one’s benefit. ... This specious reasoning is nevertheless false. ... [H]e that breaks his covenant, and consequently declares that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society that unite themselves for peace and defense, but by the error of them that receive him. Nor [can he] be retained in it when he is received, without seeing the danger of the error, which errors a person cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security. And therefore if he be left or cast out of society, he perishes. And if he lives in society, it is by the errors of other people which he could not foresee, nor reckon upon, and consequently against the reason of his preservation.... Justice, therefore (that is to say keeping of covenant), is a rule of reason by which we are forbidden to do anything destructive to our life, and consequently a law of nature. . . .


Fourth Law: Gratitude

As justice depends on antecedent covenant, so does gratitude depend on antecedent grace (that is to say, antecedent free gift); and is the fourth Law of Nature, which may be conceived in this form: That a man which receives benefit from another of mere grace, endeavors that he which gives it, have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will. For no man gives, but with intention of good to himself. Because, gift is voluntary, and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no beginning of benevolence or trust; nor consequently of mutual help; nor of reconciliation of one man to another; and therefore they are to remain still in the condition of war, which is contrary to the first and fundamental Law of Nature, which commands men to seek peace. The breach of this law is called ingratitude, and has the same relation to grace that injustice has to obligation by covenant.


Fifth Law: Accommodation

A fifth Law of Nature is complaisance. That is to say, That every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest. For the understanding whereof, we may consider that there is in men’s aptness to society a diversity of nature, rising from the diversity of affections, not unlike to that we see in stones brought together for [the] building of an edifice. For as that stone (which by the asperity and irregularity of figure, takes more room from others than itself fills -- and for the hardness cannot be easily made plain, and thereby hinders the building) is by the builders cast away as unprofitable and troublesome, so also a man (that by asperity of nature will strive to retain those things which to himself are superfluous, and to others necessary -- and for the stubbornness of his passions cannot be corrected) is to be left, or cast out of society as cumbersome thereunto. For seeing [that] every man, not only by right but also by necessity of nature, is supposed to endeavor all he can to obtain that which is necessary for his conservation; he that shall oppose himself against it, for things superfluous, is guilty of the war that thereupon is to follow; and therefore does that which is contrary to the fundamental Law of Nature, which commands to seek peace. The observers of this Law may be called sociable (the Latins call them commodi). The contrary, stubborn, unsociable, forward, intractable.


Sixth Law: Pardoning

A sixth Law of Nature is this, That upon caution of the future time, [i.e., if someone is conscientious about changing his future behavior] a man ought to pardon the past offences of them that repenting, deserve it. For pardon is nothing but granting of peace. [But if pardon is] . . . granted to them that persevere in their hostility, [this] be not peace, but fear; yet [if] not granted to them that give caution of the future time, is sign of an aversion to peace, and therefore contrary to the Law of Nature.


Seventh Law: Against Cruel Punishment

A seventh is, That in revenges (that is, retribution of evil for evil), men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow. Whereby we are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design, than for correction of the offender, or direction of others. For this Law is consequent to the next before it, that commands pardon upon the security of the future time. Besides, revenge without respect to the example and profit to come, is a triumph or glorying in the hurt of another, tending to no end (for the end is always somewhat to come). And glorying to no end is vain glory, and contrary to reason. And to hurt without reason tends to the introduction of war, which is against the Law of Nature, and is commonly styled by the name of cruelty.


Eighth Law: Against Showing Contempt

And because all signs of hatred, or contempt, provoke to fight, insomuch as most men choose rather to hazard their life, than not to be revenged, we may in the eighth place, for a Law of Nature, set down this precept, That no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred or contempt of another. The breach of which Law is commonly called Contumely.


Ninth Law: Natural Equality

The question, “Who is better than man?” has no place in the condition of mere nature, where (as has been shown before) all men are equal. The inequality that now is, has been introduced by the laws civil. I know that Aristotle, in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, makes men by nature some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort (such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy); others to serve (meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he); as if master and servant were not introduced by consent of men, but by difference of wit, which is not only against reason, but also against experience. For there are very few so foolish, that had not rather govern themselves, than be governed by others. Nor when the wise in their own conceit, contend by force with them who distrust their own wisdom, do they always (or often, or almost at anytime) get the victory. If nature therefore have made men equal, that equality is to be acknowledge -- or [likewise acknowledged] if nature have made men unequal. Yet because men that think themselves equal will not enter into conditions of peace, but upon equal terms, such equalities must be admitted. And therefore for the ninth Law of Nature, I put this, That every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.


Tenth Law: Against Arrogance

On this law depends another, That at the entrance into conditions of peace, no man [shall] require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest. As it is necessary for all men that seek peace, to lay down certain rights of nature (that is to say, not to have liberty to do all they list), so is it necessary for man’s life to retain some [rights], as [the] right to govern their own bodies; enjoy air, water, motion, ways to go from place to place; and all things else without which a man cannot live, or not live well. If in this case, at the making of peace, men require for themselves that which they would not have to be granted to others, they do contrary to the precedent law, that commands the acknowledgment of natural equality, and therefore also against the Law of Nature. The observers of this law are those we call modest, and the breakers arrogant men. The Greeks call the violation of this law pleonexia, that is, a desire of more than their share.


Eleventh Law: Equity

Also if a man be trusted to judge between man and man, it is a precept of the Law of Nature, That he deal equally between them. For without that, the controversies of men cannot be determined but by war. He, therefore, that is partial in judgment, does what in him lies to deter men from the use of judges and arbitrators; and consequently (against the fundamental Law of Nature) is the cause of war.

            The observance of this law, from the equal distribution to each man of that which in reason belongs to him, is called equity, and (as I have said before) distributive justice. The violation [is] acception of persons, [or in Greek] prosopolepsia.


Twelfth Law: Possession

And from this follows another law, That such things as cannot be divided be enjoyed in common (if it can be and if the quantity of the thing permit) without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right. For otherwise the distribution is unequal and contrary to equity.

            But some things there be, that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common. Then, the Law of Nature which prescribes equity requires, That the entire right, or else (making the use alternate) the first possession, be determined by lot. For all equal distribution is of the Law of Nature, and other means of equal distribution cannot be imagined. . . .


Thirteenth Law: Mediation and Arbitration

It is also a Law of Nature, That all men that mediate peace, be allowed safe conduct. For the law that commands peace as the end, commands intercession as the means, and to intercession the means is safe conduct. . . .

            And seeing [that] every man is presumed to do all things in order to his own benefit, no man is a fit arbitrator in his own cause. And if he were never so fit (yet equity allowing to each party equal benefit), if one be admitted to be judge, the other is to be admitted also. And so the controversy (that is, the cause of war) remains against the Law of Nature.


Other Laws

These are the Laws of Nature dictating peace, for a means of the conservation of men in multitudes, and which only concern the doctrine of civil society. There be other things tending to the destruction of particular men, as drunkenness, and all other parts of intemperance, which may therefore also be reckoned among those things which the Law of Nature has forbidden. But [these] are not necessary to be mentioned, nor are pertinent enough to this place.

            And though this may seem too subtle a deduction of the Laws of Nature to be taken notice of by all men (whereof the most part are too busy in getting food, and the rest too negligent to understand), yet to leave all men inexcusable, they have been contracted into one easy sum, intelligible even to the meanest capacity. And that is, Do not [do] that to another, which you would not have done to yourself, which shows him that he has no more to do in learning the Laws of Nature, but, when weighing the actions of other men with his own ([and] they seem too heavy), [he is] to put them into the other part of the balance, and his own into their place, [so] that his own passions and self-love may add nothing to the weight. And then there is none of these Laws of Nature that will not appear to him very reasonable.



Commonwealth needed for Protection

The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby. That is to say, [it is the desire] of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as has been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants, and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters.

            For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore, notwithstanding the laws of nature (which everyone has then kept, when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely), if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security, every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art for caution against all other men. And in all places, where men have lived by small families, to rob and spoil one another has been a trade, and so far from being reputed against the law of nature that the greater spoils they gained, the greater was their honor. And men observed no other laws therein but the laws of honor; that is, to abstain from cruelty, leaving to men their lives and instruments of husbandry. And as small families did then, so now do cities and kingdoms, which are but greater families (for their own security), enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger, and fear of invasion, or assistance that may be given to invaders; endeavor as much as they can to subdue or weaken their neighbors by open force, and secret arts, for want of other caution, justly; and are remembered for it in after ages with honor. . . .

            Nor is it enough for the security, which men desire should last all the time of their life, that they be governed and directed by one judgment for a limited time; as in one battle, or one war. For though they obtain a victory by their unanimous endeavor against a foreign enemy, yet afterwards, when either they have no common enemy, or he that by one part is held for an enemy is by another part held for a friend, they must needs by the difference of their interests dissolve, and fall again into a war amongst themselves.


Why People are Unsociable

It is true that certain living creatures, as bees and ants, live sociably one with another (which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst political creatures), and yet have no other direction than their particular judgments and appetites; nor speech, whereby one of them can signify to another what he thinks expedient for the common benefit. And therefore some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same. To which I answer,

            First, that men are continually in competition for honor and dignity, which these creatures are not; and consequently amongst men there arises on that ground, envy, and hatred, and finally war; but amongst these not so.

            Secondly, that amongst these creatures the common good differs not from the private; and being by nature inclined to their private, they procure thereby the common benefit. But man, whose joy consists in comparing himself with other men, can relish nothing but what is eminent.

            Thirdly, that these creatures, having not, as man, the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business: whereas amongst men there are very many that think themselves wiser and abler to govern the public better than the rest, and these strive to reform and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into distraction and civil war.

            Fourthly, that these creatures, though they have some use of voice in making known to one another their desires and other affections, yet they want that art of words by which some men can represent to others that which is good in the likeness of evil; and evil, in the likeness of good; and augment or diminish the apparent greatness of good and evil, discontenting men and troubling their peace at their pleasure.

            Fifthly, irrational creatures cannot distinguish between injury and damage; and therefore as long as they be at ease, they are not offended with their fellows: whereas man is then most troublesome when he is most at ease; for then it is that he loves to show his wisdom, and control the actions of them that govern the Commonwealth.

            Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men is by covenant only, which is artificial: and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required, besides covenant, to make their agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit.


Creating a Commonwealth

The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will. Which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and everyone to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so bears their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, everyone to his will, and their judgments to his judgment. This is more than consent, or concord. It is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a commonwealth; in Latin, civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defense. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he has the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consists the essence of the Commonwealth, which, to define it, is: one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defense.

            And he that carries this person is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and everyone besides, his subject.


Source: Adapted from Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Chapters 13-15, 17. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized,


Questions for Review

1. In the section on the state of nature, why is there no place for industry (or productive labor)?

2. In the section on nothing is unjust, what are the two key “virtues” in the state of nature, and what is the advantage of possessing them?

3. In the section on proof of the natural condition, what evidence does Hobbes provide for his position?

4. Briefly what are Hobbes’s 13 laws of nature?

5. In the section on the commonwealth needed for protection, how will a coercive governing power compel people to abide by laws?

6. In the section on why people are unsociable, how is human behavior unlike that of ant colonies?


Questions for Analysis

1. Hobbes has an especially dismal view of the natural condition. Discuss the aspects of human nature that, according to Hobbes, put us at war with others and whether you agree with his assessment of human nature.

2. In the second law of nature, which establishes the foundation of the social contract, Hobbes essentially says that we should mutually divest ourselves of hostile rights to achieve peace. Explain what the hostile rights are that he’s talking about, and whether giving up that group of rights would go far enough in securing a peaceful society.

3. One of the central components of Hobbes’s social contract theory is whether people will be properly motivated to uphold their part of the contract. In the section on the third law, Hobbes speculates about a “fool” who thinks he’s sneaky enough to get away with breaking the social contract without anyone knowing about it. Evaluate Hobbes’s response to the fool and whether you agree with his solution.

4. Explain how Hobbes’s account of natural law differs from that of Aquinas or Grotius.

5. Explain how Hobbes’s account of the social contract differs from what Plato presents (in either Crito or The Republic) or what is presented in Vindication against Tyrants.









John Locke


Born near Bristol, England, John Locke (1632-1704) was one of Britain’s most influential philosophers during the 18th century. He principal work in philosophy, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), defends the empiricist view that all of our ideas originate through experience. In his Two Treatises of Government (1690), though, he develops a notion of natural rights that had profound impact on political institutions throughout the world. In the selections below from this work, he argues that in the state of nature God created people free and equal, and the fundamental law of nature is that no one should harm another person’s life, health, liberty or possessions. Accordingly, we have natural rights to life, health, liberty and possession. The state of nature, Locke argues, is not necessarily a state of war since war is declared only when someone violates our rights. When that happens, the offender deserves to be punished, and even killed. One of our principal rights is that to acquire property—land and other types of wealth—and we first obtain an item of property my mixing our labor with an item. For example, when I cut down a tree that no one owns and make it into a boat, I thereby own the boat. To reduce conflicts and rights violations within the state of nature we make contracts with each other, thereby creating a civil society; but in exchange for this we give up some of our liberty. Through such social contracts we authorize our governments to both defend our natural rights and punish those who violate our rights. We must also follow the will of the majority, which is the only basis of lawful government. Governments, however, do not have absolute authority over us and we may dissolve them through revolution, if necessary, when, through their ineffectiveness, they violate laws and threaten the life, liberty and property of the individual.




Filmer’s View

1. It having been shown in the foregoing discourse, (1) That Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood, or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, or dominion over the world, as is pretended: (2) That if he had, his heirs, yet, had no right to it: (3) That if his heirs had, there being no law of nature nor positive law of God that determines which is the right heir in all cases that may arise, the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined: (4) That if even that had been determined, yet the knowledge of which is the eldest line of Adam's posterity, being so long since utterly lost, that in the races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another, the least pretence to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance.

            All these premises having, as I think, been clearly made out, it is impossible that the rulers now on earth should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of authority from that, which is held to be the fountain of all power, Adam's private dominion and paternal jurisdiction; so that he that will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it, and so lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, tumult, sedition and rebellion, (things that the followers of that hypothesis so loudly cry out against) must of necessity find out another rise of government, another original of political power, and another way of designing and knowing the persons that have it, than what Sir Robert Filmer hath taught us.


Political Power

2. To this purpose, I think it may not be amiss, to set down what I take to be political power; that the power of a magistrate over a subject may be distinguished from that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave. All which distinct powers happening sometimes together in the same man, if he be considered under these different relations, it may help us to distinguish these powers one from wealth, a father of a family, and a captain of a galley.

            3. Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.




Freedom and Equality

4. To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

            A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. . . .


Law of Nature

6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Everyone, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.



7. And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which wills the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands, whereby everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world ‘be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if anyone in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, everyone may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, everyone must needs have a right to do.

            8. And thus, in the state of nature, one man comes by a power over another; but yet no absolute or arbitrary power, to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will; but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint: for these two are the only reasons, why one man may lawfully do harm to another, which is that we call punishment. In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security; and so he becomes dangerous to mankind, the tie, which is to secure them from injury and violence, being slighted and broken by him. Which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of nature, every man upon this score, by the right he has to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on anyone, who has transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and by his example others, from doing the like mischief. And in the case, and upon this ground, every man has a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature. . . .




Punishing Offenders

16. The state of war is a state of enmity and destruction: and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate settled design upon another man’s life, puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other’s power to be taken away by him, or anyone that joins with him in his defense, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power.

            17. And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it; so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me. He that, in the state of nature, would take away the freedom that belongs to anyone in that state, must necessarily be supposed to have a design to take away everything else that, freedom being the foundation of all the rest; as he that in the state of society would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth, must be supposed to design to take away from them everything else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.

            18. This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e., kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.


State of Nature vs. State of War

19. And here we have the plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, though he be in society and a fellow subject. Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat; because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which, if lost, is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defense, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable. Want of a common judge with authority, puts all men in a state of nature: force without right, upon a man’s person, makes a state of war, both where there is, and is not, a common judge.

            20. But when the actual force is over, the state of war ceases between those that are in society, and are equally on both sides subjected to the fair determination of the law; because then there lies open the remedy of appeal for the past injury, and to prevent future harm: but where no such appeal is, as in the state of nature, for want of positive laws, and judges with authority to appeal to, the state of war once begun, continues, with a right to the innocent party to destroy the other whenever he can, until the aggressor offers peace, and desires reconciliation on such terms as may repair any wrongs he has already done, and secure the innocent for the future; nay, where an appeal to the law, and constituted judges, lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice, and a barefaced wresting of the laws to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men, or party of men, there it is hard to imagine anything but a state of war: for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however colored with the name, pretences, or forms of law, the end whereof being to protect and redress the innocent, by an unbiased application of it, to all who are under it; wherever that is not bona fide done, war is made upon the sufferers, who having no appeal on earth to right them, they are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven.

            21. To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power. . . .



SLAVERY (Chatper 4)


Natural Liberty

22. The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for everyone to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. 

            23. This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man's preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it: for, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.



24. This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive: for, if once compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a limited power on the one side, and obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases, as long as the compact endures: for, as has been said, no man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life. I confess, we find among the Jews, as well as other nations, that men did sell themselves; but, it is plain, this was only to drudgery, not to slavery: for, it is evident, the person sold was not under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power: for the master could not have power to kill him, at any time, whom, at a certain time, he was obliged to let go free out of his service; and the master of such a servant was so far from having an arbitrary power over his life, that he could not, at pleasure, so much as maim him, but the loss of an eye, or tooth, set him free, Exod. xxi.


OF PROPERTY (Chapter 5)


Mixing Labor with What is Held in Common

27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided, and left it in, he has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

            28. He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labor put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. And will anyone say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labor that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, has fixed my property in them.

            31. It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, etc. makes a right to them, then anyone may engross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. And thus, considering the plenty of natural provisions there was a long time in the world, and the few spenders; and to how small a part of that provision the industry of one man could extend itself, and engross it to the prejudice of others; especially keeping within the bounds, set by reason, of what might serve for his use; there could be then little room for quarrels or contentions about property so established.


Acquiring Land

32. But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labor does, as it were, enclose it from the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say everybody else has an equal title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot enclose, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labor, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labor. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.

            33. Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same. . . .

            45. Thus labor, in the beginning, gave a right of property, wherever any one was pleased to employ it upon what was common, which remained a long while the far greater part, and is yet more than mankind makes use of. Men, at first, for the most part, contented themselves with what unassisted nature offered to their necessities: and though afterwards, in some parts of the world, (where the increase of people and stock, with the use of money, had made land scarce, and so of some value) the several communities settled the bounds of their distinct territories, and by laws within themselves regulated the properties of the private men of their society, and so, by compact and agreement, settled the property which labor and industry began. And the leagues that have been made between several states and kingdoms, either expressly or tacitly disowning all claim and right to the land in the others possession, have, by common consent, given up their pretences to their natural common right, which originally they had to those countries, and so have, by positive agreement, settled a property amongst themselves, in distinct parts and parcels of the earth. Yet there are still great tracts of ground to be found, which (the inhabitants thereof not having joined with the rest of mankind, in the consent of the use of their common money) lie waste, and are more than the people who dwell on it do, or can make use of, and so still lie in common; though this can scarce happen amongst that part of mankind that have consented to the use of money.




Consent to the Will of the Majority

95. Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.

            96. For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so everyone is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority. And therefore we see, that in assemblies, empowered to act by positive laws, where no number is set by that positive law which empowers them, the act of the majority passes for the act of the whole, and of course determines, as having, by the law of nature and reason, the power of the whole.


The Constraints of the Original Contract

97. And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to everyone of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact, if he be left free, and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of nature. For what appearance would there be of any compact? What new engagement if he were no farther tied by any decrees of the society, than he himself thought fit, and did actually consent to? This would be still as great a liberty, as he himself had before his compact, or anyone else in the state of nature has, who may submit himself, and consent to any acts of it if he thinks fit.

            98. For if the consent of the majority shall not, in reason, be received as the act of the whole, and conclude every individual; nothing but the consent of every individual can make any thing to be the act of the whole: but such a consent is next to impossible ever to be had, if we consider the infirmities of health, and avocations of business, which in a number, though much less than that of a common-wealth, will necessarily keep many away from the public assembly. To which if we add the variety of opinions, and contrariety of interests, which unavoidably happen in all collections of men, the coming into society upon such terms would be only like Cato’s coming into the theatre, only to go out again. Such a constitution as this would make the mighty Leviathan of a shorter duration, than the feeblest creatures, and not let it outlast the day it was born in: which cannot be supposed, till we can think, that rational creatures should desire and constitute societies only to be dissolved: for where the majority cannot conclude the rest, there they cannot act as one body, and consequently will be immediately dissolved again.

            99. Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community, unless they expressly agreed in any number greater than the majority. And this is done by barely agreeing to unite into one political society, which is all the compact that is, or needs be, between the individuals, that enter into, or make up a commonwealth. And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes any political society, is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.




Justification for Insurrection

212. Besides this over-turning from without, governments are dissolved from within. First, when the legislative is altered.

            221. There is therefore, secondly, another way whereby governments are dissolved, and that is, when the legislative, or the prince, either of them, act contrary to their trust. First, the legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavor to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.

            222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God has provided for all men, against force and violence. Whenever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust, when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly pre-engages the electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has, by solicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise, won to his designs; and employs them to bring in such, who have promised before-hand what to vote, and what to enact.


Justification for Civil War

228. But if they, who say it lays a foundation for rebellion, mean that it may occasion civil wars, or intestine broils, to tell the people they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties, and may oppose the unlawful violence of those who were their magistrates, when they invade their properties contrary to the trust put in them; and that therefore this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world: they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed. If any mischief come in such cases, it is not to be charged upon him who defends his own right, but on him that invades his neighbors. If the innocent honest man must quietly quit all he has, for peace sake, to him who will lay violent hands upon it, I desire it may be considered, what a kind of peace there will be in the world, which consists only in violence and rapine; and which is to be maintained only for the benefit of robbers and oppressors. Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?


Source: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690), Treatise 2.


Questions for Review

1. In the state of nature, what are the two main rights that we have concerning punishment of others?

2. According to Locke, why are we justified in killing a thief even though the thief has not overtly threatened our lives?

3. What is the one great reason for us to put ourselves into society and thereby leave the state of nature?

4. In creating our own property, Locke argues that we don’t need permission from everyone else to take and use those things that are held in common. What is his reasoning?

5. Who is at fault for the harm that comes from civil war?


Questions for Analysis

1. Locke’s four natural rights are those of life, health, liberty and possessions. Jefferson’s list of rights consists of life, liberty and happiness. Is one of these lists more fundamental or better than the other? Explain.

2. Locke argues that when we form political societies for the benefit of protection, we must give up some of our liberty. Describe the kinds of freedoms that we relinquish.

3. Might Locke’s conception of property acquisition justify the exploitation of land owned by indigenous tribal people?

4. Criticize Locke’s defense of revolution.

5. How does Locke’s defense of revolution differ from that of Brutus’s, and which is better?









Immanuel Kant


German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in Königsberg, the capital of what was then East Prussia. He studied at the University of Königsberg, became a lecturer there in 1755, and finally in 1770 was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. Kant is one of the most influential philosophers in recent centuries and presented below are selections from The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). Kant begins with a general account of willful decisions. Several factors influence our willful decisions, such as laziness, immediate emotional gratification, or what is best in the long run. He argues that in moral matters the will is ideally influenced only by rational considerations, and not by subjective considerations such as one’s emotions, or appeals to beneficial consequences. The rational consideration that influences the will must be a single principle of obligation, for only principles can be purely rational considerations. Further, the principle must be a command -- or imperative -- since morality involves a command for us to perform a particular action. Imperatives are of two types: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives are commands that depend on my preference for a particular end, and are stated in` conditional form, such as, “If I want to lose weight, then I should eat less.” Moral principles, he argues, cannot be of this sort since morality involves absolute commands; they must be categorical (absolute and unqualified) and not conditional upon one’s preferences.

            According to Kant, the single categorical imperative of morality is this: act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Although there is only one categorical imperative, Kant argues that there can be four formulations of this principle:


Principle of the Law of Nature: “Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature.”

Principle of Ends: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end and never as merely a means.”

Principle of Autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.”

The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”


Each of these four formulations, he maintains, will produce the same conclusion regarding the morality of any particular action. (Only the first two formulations are covered in the present selection.)

            The formula of the law of nature tells us to take a particular action, construe it as a general maxim, and then see if it can be willed consistently as a law of nature. If it can be willed consistently, then the action is moral. If not, then it is immoral. To illustrate, Kant uses four examples that cover the range of morally significant situations that arise. These include committing suicide, making false promises, failing to develop one’s abilities, and refusing to be charitable. In each case, the action is deemed immoral since a contradiction arises when trying to will the maxim as a law of nature. The formula of the end itself is more straight forward: a given action is morally correct if when performing that action we do not use people as a means to achieve some further benefit, but instead treat people as something which is intrinsically valuable. Again, Kant illustrates this principle with the above four examples, and in each case performing the action would involve treating a person as a means, and not an end.




Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, how ever they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects. But these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honor, even health, and the general well-being and contentment with one’s condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being who is not adorned with a single feature of a pure and good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity, can never give pleasure to an impartial rational spectator. Thus a good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness.

            There are even some qualities which are of service to this good will itself and may facilitate its action, yet which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a good will, and this qualifies the esteem that we justly have for them and does not permit us to regard them as absolutely good. Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

            A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its suitability for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply because of the volition. That is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself it is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations. Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavor of fortune, or the stingy provision of a step-motherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can neither add nor take away anything from this value. It would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us to handle it the more conveniently in common commerce, or to attract to it the attention of those who are not yet good judges, but not to recommend it to true experts, or to determine its value. . . .




Types of Imperatives

The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative. …

            Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed (or at least which one might possibly will). The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, that is, as objectively necessary.

            Every practical law represents a possible action as good and, on this account, necessary for a subject who is practically determinable by reason. Thus, all imperatives are formula determining an action which is necessary according to the principle of a will that is good in some respects. If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical. If it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical.

            Thus the imperative declares what possible action by me would be good. It presents the practical rule in relation to a will which does not immediately perform an action simply because it is good, whether because the subject does not always know that it is good, or because, even if it knows this, yet its maxims might be opposed to the objective principles of practical reason.


Justification of a Categorical Imperative

The question “How the imperative of morality is possible?” is undoubtedly one–the only one–demanding a solution. For it is not at all hypothetical, and the objective necessity which it presents cannot rest on any hypothesis, as is the case with the hypothetical imperatives. Only here we must never leave out of consideration that we cannot make out by any example, in other words empirically, whether there is such an imperative at all. But it is rather to be feared that all those which seem to be categorical may yet be at bottom hypothetical. Take, for instance the precept “Do not promise deceitfully.” Assume that the necessity of this is not merely advice to avoid some other evil such as this: “Do not make a lying promise, in case if it becomes known you would destroy your credit.” Assume instead that an action of this kind must be regarded as evil in itself, so that the imperative of the prohibition is categorical. However, we cannot show with certainty in any example that the will was determined merely by the law, without any other spring of action, although it may appear to be so. For it is always possible that fear of disgrace, perhaps also obscure dread of other dangers, may have a secret influence on the will. Who can prove by experience the non-existence of a cause when all that experience tells us is that we do not perceive it? But in such a case the so-called moral imperative, which as such appears to be categorical and unconditional, would in reality be only a pragmatic precept, drawing our attention to our own interests and merely teaching us to take these into consideration.

            We shall therefore have to investigate a priori the possibility of a categorical imperative. For, we have not in this case the advantage of its reality being given in experience, so that [the clarification of] its possibility should be essential only for its explanation, not for its establishment. In the meantime it may be determined beforehand that the categorical imperative alone has the purport of a practical law; all the rest may indeed be called principles of the will but not laws, since whatever is only necessary for the attainment of some arbitrary purpose may be considered as in itself contingent, and we can at any time be free from the precept if we give up the purpose; on the contrary, the unconditional command leaves the will no liberty to choose the opposite. Consequently it alone carries with it that necessity which we require in a law.

            Secondly, in the case of this categorical imperative or law of morality, the difficulty of discerning its possibility is a very profound one. It is an a priori synthetical practical proposition. And as there is so much difficulty in discerning the possibility of speculative propositions of this kind, it may readily be supposed that the difficulty will be no less with the practical.

            In this problem we will first inquire whether the mere conception of a categorical imperative may not perhaps supply us also with the formula of it, containing the proposition which alone can be a categorical imperative. For even if we know the tenor of such an absolute command, yet how it is possible will require further special and laborious study, which we postpone to the last section.

            When I conceive a hypothetical imperative, in general I do not know beforehand what it will contain until I am given the condition. But when I conceive a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. Besides containing the law, the imperative contains only the necessity that the maxims shall conform to this law, while the law contains no conditions restricting it. Thus, there remains nothing but the general statement that the maxim of the action should conform to a universal law, and it is this conformity alone that the imperative properly represents as necessary.

            There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

            Now if all imperatives of duty can be deduced from this one imperative as from their principle, then, although it should remain undecided what is called duty is not merely a vain notion, yet at least we shall be able to show what we understand by it and what this notion means.




The universality of the law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form), that is the existence of things so far as it is determined by general laws. Thus, the imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature.



We will now itemize a few duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others, and into perfect and imperfect duties.

            1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: “From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction.” It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature. Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist as a system of nature. Hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.

            2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: “Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?” Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: “When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so.” Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare. But the question now is, “Is it right?” I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: “How would it be if my maxim were a universal law?” Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.

            3. A third finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty. He sees then that a system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law although men (like the South Sea islanders) should let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives merely to idleness, amusement, and propagation of their species— in a word, to enjoyment. But he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him and have been given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.

            4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: “What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself. I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!” Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.


Willing a Maxim

These are a few of the many actual duties, or at least what we regard as such, which obviously fall into two classes on the one principle that we have laid down. We must be able to will that a maxim of our action should be a universal law. This is the canon of the moral appreciation of the action generally. Some actions are of such a character that their maxim cannot without contradiction be even conceived as a universal law of nature, far from it being possible that we should will that it should be so. In others this intrinsic impossibility is not found, but still it is impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since such a will would contradict itself. It is easily seen that the former violate strict or rigorous (inflexible) duty; the latter only laxer (meritorious) duty. Thus it has been completely shown how all duties depend as regards the nature of the obligation (not the object of the action) on the same principle.

            If now we attend to ourselves on occasion of any transgression of duty, we shall find that we in fact do not will that our maxim should be a universal law, for that is impossible for us. On the contrary, we will that the opposite should remain a universal law, only we assume the liberty of making an exception in our own favor or (just for this time only) in favor of our inclination. Consequently if we considered all cases from one and the same point of view, namely, that of reason, we should find a contradiction in our own will, namely, that a certain principle should be objectively necessary as a universal law, and yet subjectively should not be universal, but admit of exceptions. As, however, we at one moment regard our action from the point of view of a will wholly conformed to reason, and then again look at the same action from the point of view of a will affected by inclination, there is not really any contradiction, but an antagonism of inclination to the precept of reason, whereby the universality of the principle is changed into a mere generality, so that the practical principle of reason shall meet the maxim half way. Now, although this cannot be justified in our own impartial judgment, yet it proves that we do really recognize the validity of the categorical imperative and (with all respect for it) only allow ourselves a few exceptions, which we think unimportant and forced from us.

            We have thus established at least this much: that if duty is a conception which is to have any import and real legislative authority for our actions, it can only be expressed in categorical and not at all in hypothetical imperatives. We have also, which is of great importance, exhibited clearly and definitely for every practical application the content of the categorical imperative, which must contain the principle of all duty if there is such a thing at all. …




Humans as Ends in Themselves

The will is conceived as a faculty of determining oneself to action in accordance with the conception of certain laws. And such a faculty can be found only in rational beings. Now that which serves the will as the objective ground of its self-determination is the end, and, if this is assigned by reason alone, it must hold for all rational beings. On the other hand, that which merely contains the ground of possibility of the action of which the effect is the end, this is called the means. The subjective ground of the desire is the spring, the objective ground of the volition is the motive; hence the distinction between subjective ends which rest on springs, and objective ends which depend on motives valid for every rational being. Practical principles are formal when they abstract from all subjective ends; they are material when they assume these, and therefore particular springs of action.

            The ends which a rational being proposes to himself at pleasure as effects of his actions (material ends) are all only relative. For it is only their relation to the particular desires of the subject that gives them their worth, which therefore cannot furnish principles universal and necessary for all rational beings and for every volition, that is to say practical laws. Hence all these relative ends can give rise only to hypothetical imperatives.

            Supposing, however, that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, that is, a practical law.

            Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end. All objects of the inclinations have only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and the wants founded on them did not exist, then their object would be without value. But the inclinations, themselves being sources of want, are so far from having an absolute worth for which they should be desired that on the contrary it must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from them. Thus the worth of any object which is to be acquired by our action is always conditional. Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature’s, have nevertheless, if they are irrational beings, only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things. Rational beings, on the contrary, are called persons, because their very nature points them out as ends in themselves, that is as something which must not be used merely as means, and so far therefore restricts freedom of action (and is an object of respect). These, therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose existence has a worth for us as an effect of our action, but objective ends, that is, things whose existence is an end in itself. Moreover, it is an end for which no other can be substituted, which they should serve merely as means, for otherwise nothing whatever would possess absolute worth; but if all worth were conditioned and therefore contingent, then there would be no supreme practical principle of reason whatever.

            If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in respect of the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one which, being drawn from the conception of that which is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective principle of will, and can therefore serve as a universal practical law. The foundation of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so; so far then this is a subjective principle of human actions.

            But every other rational being regards its existence similarly, just on the same rational principle that holds for me: so that it is at the same time an objective principle, from which as a supreme practical law all laws of the will must be capable of being deduced. Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end and never as merely a means.

            We will now inquire whether this can be practically carried out.



To follow the previous examples:

            First, under the heading of necessary duty to oneself: He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a means to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics proper to define this principle more precisely, so as to avoid all misunderstanding, for example, as to the amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself, as to exposing my life to danger with a view to preserve it, etc. This question is therefore omitted here.)

            Second, as regards necessary duties, or those of strict obligation, towards others: He who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another man merely as a means, without the latter containing at the same time the end in himself. For he whom I propose by such a promise to use for my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my mode of acting towards him and, therefore, cannot himself contain the end of this action. This violation of the principle of humanity in other men is more obvious if we take in examples of attacks on the freedom and property of others. For then it is clear that he who transgresses the rights of men intends to use the person of others merely as a means, without considering that as rational beings they ought always to be esteemed also as ends, that is, as beings who must be capable of containing in themselves the end of the very same action.

            Third, as regards contingent (meritorious) duties to oneself: It is not enough that the action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it. Now there are in humanity capacities of greater perfection, which belong to the end that nature has in view in regard to humanity in ourselves as the subject: to neglect these might perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of humanity as an end in itself, but not with the advancement of this end.

            Fourth, as regards meritorious duties towards others: The natural end which all men have is their own happiness. Now humanity might indeed subsist, although no one should contribute anything to the happiness of others, provided he did not intentionally withdraw anything from it. But after all this would only harmonize negatively not positively with humanity as an end in itself, if every one does not also endeavor, as far as in him lies, to forward the ends of others. For the ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me. …




The three ways of presenting the principle of morality that have been adduced are at bottom only so many formula of the very same law, and each of itself involves the other two. There is, however, a difference in them, but it is rather subjectively than objectively practical, intended namely to bring an idea of the reason nearer to intuition (by means of a certain analogy) and thereby nearer to feeling. All maxims, in fact, have:

            1. A form, consisting in universality; and in this view the formula of the moral imperative is expressed thus, that the maxims must be so chosen as if they were to serve as universal laws of nature.

            2. A matter, namely, an end, and here the formula says that the rational being, as it is an end by its own nature and therefore an end in itself, must in every maxim serve as the condition limiting all merely relative and arbitrary ends.

            3. A complete characterization of all maxims by means of that formula, namely, that all maxims ought by their own legislation to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as with a kingdom of nature. There is a progress here in the order of the categories of unity of the form of the will (its universality), plurality of the matter (the objects, that is, the ends), and totality of the system of these. In forming our moral judgment of actions, it is better to proceed always on the strict method and start from the general formula of the categorical imperative: Act according to a maxim which can at the same time make itself a universal law. If, however, we wish to gain an entrance for the moral law, it is very useful to bring one and the same action under the three specified conceptions, and thereby as far as possible to bring it nearer to intuition.

            We can now end where we started at the beginning, namely, with the conception of a will unconditionally good. That will is absolutely good which cannot be evil—in other words, whose maxim, if made a universal law, could never contradict itself. This principle, then, is its supreme law: “Act always on such a maxim as you can at the same time will to be a universal law”; this is the sole condition under which a will can never contradict itself; and such an imperative is categorical. Since the validity of the will as a universal law for possible actions is analogous to the universal connection of the existence of things by general laws, which is the formal notion of nature in general, the categorical imperative can also be expressed thus: Act on maxims which can at the same time have for their object themselves as universal laws of nature. Such then is the formula of an absolutely good will.

            Rational nature is distinguished from the rest of nature by this, that it sets before itself an end. This end would be the matter of every good will. But since in the idea of a will that is absolutely good without being limited by any condition (of attaining this or that end) we must abstract wholly from every end to be effected (since this would make every will only relatively good), it follows that in this case the end must be conceived, not as an end to be effected, but as an independently existing end. Consequently it is conceived only negatively, that is, as that which we must never act against and which, therefore, must never be regarded merely as means, but must in every volition be esteemed as an end likewise. Now this end can be nothing but the subject of all possible ends, since this is also the subject of a possible absolutely good will; for such a will cannot without contradiction be postponed to any other object. The principle: “So act in regard to every rational being (yourself and others), that he may always have place in your maxim as an end in himself,” is accordingly essentially identical with this other: “Act upon a maxim which, at the same time, involves its own universal validity for every rational being.” For that in using means for every end I should limit my maxim by the condition of its holding good as a law for every subject, this comes to the same thing as that the fundamental principle of all maxims of action must be that the subject of all ends, that is, the rational being himself, be never employed merely as means, but as the supreme condition restricting the use of all means, that is in every case as an end likewise. …


Source: Immanuel Kant, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Sections 1 and 2, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.


Questions for Review

1. According to Kant, why is morality not based on our virtues, that is, good character traits?

2. For Kant, the will is the only thing that can be called “good” without qualification. What is it about the will that makes it good?

3. With Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., the formula of the law of nature), what is the specific contradiction which arises with suicide?

4. With Kant’s first formulation, what contradiction arises from the example of neglecting one’s talents?

5. With Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., the formula of the end itself), why is suicide wrong?

6. What three points are in common to all formulations of the categorical imperative?


Questions for Analysis

1. In the opening section, Kant writes “the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.” Explain how this constitutes a criticism of virtue theory, and discuss whether it is a successful criticism.

2. Contemporary philosopher Philippa Foot argued that many moral philosophers today blindly accept Kant’s view that genuine moral principles cannot be hypothetical imperatives. Foot proceeds by describing how a system of morals could be effectively based on only hypothetical imperatives. Is Kant or Foot right? Explain.

3. With his formulation of the law of nature, Kant tells us that we begin by discovering the maxim, or rule, that underlies the action that we are investigating. Kant gives us the impression that it is easy to discover the underlying maxim. Are there different ways of wording the underlying maxim, and will these differences in wording impact whether the maxim can be successfully universalized? Explain and give an example.

4. Contemporary philosopher Christine Korsgaard argued that there are three ways of understanding the notion of “contradiction” in Kant’s formulation of the law of nature. First, the universalization of a maxim might be a logical contradiction, where the proposed action would be inconceivable. Second, it might be a teleological contradiction insofar as the maxim could not operate as a law within a purposeful and arranged system of nature. Third, it might be a practical contradiction where my action would become unsuccessful for reaching my aim if everyone tried to use it for that aim. Which of these three interpretations is the best?

5. Kant’s formula of the end itself states that we should treat people “in every case as an end and never as merely a means.” Consider that final part that says that we should never treat a person “as merely a means.” Is he suggesting that we can indeed use people so long as we treat them as ends at the same time? Explain.

6. In the conclusion, Kant tries to explain how the various formulations of the categorical imperative tie together and really express only one basic and underlying principle. Is Kant’s explanation convincing? Explain.








John Stuart Mill


Born in London, England, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was a member of Britain’s Parliament and among that country’s most influential philosophers of the 19th century. A student of Jeremy Bentham, Mill defended the utilitarian theory of ethics. While Bentham offered a specific version of utilitarianism that involves calculating the pleasures and pains of each of our proposed actions, Mill takes a different approach that rejects the utilitarian calculus. The selections below are from the first two chapters of his work Utilitarianism (1861). Mill first explains that moral theories are divided between two distinct approaches: the intuitive and inductive schools. Although both schools agree that there is a single and highest normative principle, they disagree about whether we have knowledge of that principle intuitively (without appeal to experience), or inductively (through experience and observation). He argues that the intuitive approach fails, particularly Kant’s version, and the inductive approach offered by utilitarianism is the correct one.

            Mill gives a precise formulation of the utilitarian principle of morality: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” By “happiness” he means pleasure -- both intellectual and sensual; however, he notes that our human sense of dignity has us prefer intellectual ones. It is here that he differs most from Bentham. According to Mill, intellectual pleasures cannot be subjected to a utilitarian calculus for the simple reason that we cannot assign a numerical value to them: they are qualitatively superior, not quantitatively superior. Mill also rejects virtue theories of morality and their emphasis on people’s good habits. Rather, we should assess only an action’s consequences, and not the motives or character traits of the person performing that action. One problem with Bentham’s utilitarianism is that it required us to cumbersomely evaluate the pleasure and pain resulting from each of our actions. For Mill, though, we should not inspect each of our actions for their utility; instead, we should follow moral principle such as “don’t steal” which we already know will maximize general happiness when followed as a rule. We should only assess the utility of specific actions when we’re caught between two conflicting moral principles.




… From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum [i.e., the highest good], or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and divided them into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another. And, after more than two thousand years, the same discussions continue. Philosophers are still ranged under the same contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem nearer to being unanimous on the subject than when the youth Socrates listened to the old Protagoras, and asserted (if Plato’s dialogue be grounded on a real conversation) the theory of utilitarianism against the popular morality of the so-called sophist. ...


Inductive vs. Intuitive School of Ethics

The intuitive, no less than what may be termed the inductive, school of ethics, insists on the necessity of general laws. They both agree that the morality of an individual action is not a question of direct perception, but of the application of a law to an individual case. They recognize also, to a great extent, the same moral laws, but differ as to their evidence, and the source from which they derive their authority. According to the one opinion, the principles of morals are evident a priori, requiring nothing to command assent, except that the meaning of the terms be understood. According to the other doctrine, right and wrong, as well as truth and falsehood, are questions of observation and experience. But both hold equally, that morality must be deduced from principles; and the intuitive school affirms, as strongly as the inductive, that there is a science of morals. Yet they seldom attempt to make out a list of the a priori principles which are to serve as the premises of the science; still more rarely do they make any effort to reduce those various principles to one first principle, or common ground of obligation. They either assume the ordinary precepts of morals as of a priori authority, or they lay down as the common groundwork of those maxims some generality much less obviously authoritative than the maxims themselves, and which has never succeeded in gaining popular acceptance. Yet, to support their pretensions, there ought either to be some one fundamental principle or law at the root of all morality; or, if there be several, there should be a determinate order of precedence among them; and the one principle, or the rule for deciding between the various principles when they conflict, ought to be self-evident. …

            It is not my present purpose to criticize these thinkers. But I cannot help referring, for illustration, to a systematic treatise by one of the most illustrious of them—the “Metaphysics of Ethics,” by Kant. This remarkable man, whose system of thought will long remain one of the landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation, does in the treatise in question, lay down an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation. It is this: “So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings.” But, when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.

            On the present occasion, I shall, without further discussion of the other theories, attempt to contribute something towards the understanding and appreciation of the Utilitarian or Happiness theory, and towards such proof as it is susceptible of. …




Higher and Lower Pleasures

... The creed which accepts, as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded—namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

            Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds (and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose) inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened. And modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

            When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for, if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites; and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. I do not indeed consider the Epicureans to have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic as well as Christian elements require to be included. But there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former—that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And, on all these points, utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might have taken the other, and, as it may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that (while in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity) the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

            If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity, as to render it, in comparison, of small account.


Higher Pleasures and the Sense of Dignity

Now, it is an unquestionable fact, that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures: no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that, to escape from it, they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type. But, in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.

            We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness. We may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable. We may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence—an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it. But its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some (though by no means in exact) proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior—confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable, that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied. And a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.




Why People Reject Higher Pleasures

It may be objected that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally (under the influence of temptation) postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable, and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and, in the majority of young persons, it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned, whether any one, who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many in all ages have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.

            From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question, which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced? When, therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be preferable in kind (apart from the question of intensity) to those of which the animal nature (disjoined from the higher faculties) is susceptible, they are entitled on this subject to the same regard.

            I have dwelt on this point, as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of Utility or Happiness, considered as the directive rule of human conduct. But it is by no means an indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard. For that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether. And, if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others—and his own [benefit] (so far as happiness is concerned) were a sheer deduction from the benefit. But the bare enunciation of such an absurdity as this last renders refutation superfluous.

            According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end (with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable—whether we are considering our own good or that of other people) is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those, who in their opportunities of experience (to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation) are best furnished with the means of comparison. This (being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action) is necessarily also the standard of morality: which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.


Whether Happiness is Unattainable

Against this doctrine, however, arises another class of objectors, who say that happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable. And they contemptuously ask, “What right hast thou to be happy?”—a question which Mr. Carlyle clinches by the addition, “What right, a short time ago, hadst thou even to be? Next, they say that men can do without happiness; that all noble human beings have felt this, and could not have become noble but by learning the lesson of Entsagen, or renunciation; which lesson, thoroughly learnt and submitted to, they affirm to be the beginning and necessary condition of all virtue.

            The first of these objections would go to the root of the matter, were it well founded. For, if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the attainment of it cannot be the end of morality, or of any rational conduct. Though, even in that case, something might still be said for the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness. And, if the former aim be chimerical, there will be all the greater scope and more imperative need for the latter, so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do not take refuge in the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by Novalis. When, however, it is thus positively asserted to be impossible that human life should be happy, the assertion, if not something like a verbal quibble, is at least an exaggeration. If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days; and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame. Of this the philosophers who have taught that happiness is the end of life were as fully aware as those who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having, as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing. A life thus composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of “happiness.” And such an existence is even now the lot of many, during some considerable portion of their lives. The present wretched education and wretched social arrangements are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.


Rejection of Virtue Theory

It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate. If the assertion means that they do not allow their judgment respecting the rightness or wrongness of an action to be influenced by their opinion of the qualities of the person who does it, this is a complaint, not against utilitarianism, but against having any standard of morality at all. For certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad man; still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons; and there is nothing in the utilitarian theory inconsistent with the fact, that there are other things which interest us in persons besides the rightness and wrongness of their actions. The Stoics indeed, with the paradoxical misuse of language which was part of their system, and by which they strove to raise themselves above all concern about anything but virtue, were fond of saying, that he who has that, has everything; that he, and only he, is rich, is beautiful, is a king. But no claim of this description is made for the virtuous man by the utilitarian doctrine. Utilitarians are quite aware that there are other desirable possessions and qualities besides virtue, and are perfectly willing to allow to all of them their full worth. They are also aware that a right action does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character; and that actions which are blamable often proceed from qualities entitled to praise. When this is apparent in any particular case, it modifies their estimation, not certainly of the act, but of the agent. I grant that they are, notwithstanding, of opinion, that, in the long run, the best proof of a good character is good actions; and resolutely refuse to consider any mental disposition as good, of which the predominant tendency is to produce bad conduct. This makes them unpopular with many people: but it is an unpopularity which they must share with every one who regards the distinction between right and wrong in a serious light; and the reproach is not one which a conscientious utilitarian need be anxious to repel.

            If no more be meant by the objection than that many utilitarians look on the morality of actions, as measured by the utilitarian standards, with too exclusive a regard, and do not lay sufficient stress upon the other beauties of character which go towards making a human being lovable or admirable, this may be admitted. Utilitarians who have cultivated their moral feelings, but not their sympathies nor their artistic perceptions, do fall into this mistake; and so do all other moralists under the same conditions. What can be said in excuse for other moralists is equally available for them; namely, that, if there is to be any error, it is better that it should be on that side. As a matter of fact, we may affirm that among utilitarians, as among adherents of other systems, there is every imaginable degree of rigidity and of laxity in the application of their standard. Some are even puritanically rigorous, while others are as indulgent as can possibly be desired by sinner or by sentimentalist. But, on the whole, a doctrine which brings prominently forward the interest that mankind have in the repression and prevention of conduct which violates the moral law, is likely to be inferior to no other in turning the sanctions of opinion against such violations. It is true, the question, “What does violate the moral law?” is one on which those who recognize different standards of morality are likely now and then to differ. But difference of opinion on moral questions was not first introduced into the world by utilitarianism; while that doctrine does supply, if not always an easy, at all events a tangible and intelligible, mode of deciding such differences. …


Whether there is Time to Calculate Consequences

Again: defenders of Utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this— that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time; namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions, on which experience all the prudence as well as all the morality of life are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. Even then, I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand. It is truly a whimsical supposition, that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it. But, on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher, until he has succeeded in finding better. That philosophers might easily do this, even now, on many subjects; that the received code of ethics is by no means of divine right; and that mankind have still much to learn as to the effects of actions on the general happiness —I admit, or, rather, earnestly maintain. The corollaries from the principle of utility, like the precepts of every practical art, admit of indefinite improvement. And, in a progressive state of the human mind, their improvement is perpetually going on. But to consider the rules of morality as improvable is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalizations entirely, and endeavor to test each individual action directly by the first principle, is another. It is a strange notion, that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveler respecting the place of his ultimate destination is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the “Nautical Almanac.” Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions of wise and foolish. And this, as long as foresight is a human quality, it is to be presumed they will continue to do. Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by. The impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular. But gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had (and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life) is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy.


Bending Moral Rules

The remainder of the stock arguments against utilitarianism mostly consist in laying to its charge the common infirmities of human nature, and the general difficulties which embarrass conscientious persons in shaping their course through life. We are told that an utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules; and, when under temptation, will see an utility in the breach of a rule greater than he will see in its observance. But is utility the only creed which is able to furnish us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our own conscience? They are afforded in abundance by all doctrines which recognize as a fact in morals the existence of conflicting considerations; which all doctrines do that have been believed by sane persons. It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable. There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances; and under every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest casuistry get in. There exists no moral system under which there do not arise unequivocal cases of conflicting obligation. These are the real difficulties; the knotty points both in the theory of ethics, and in the conscientious guidance of personal conduct. They are overcome practically with greater or with less success according to the intellect and virtue of the individual. But it can hardly be pretended that anyone will be the less qualified for dealing with them, from possessing an ultimate standard to which conflicting rights and duties can be referred. If utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible. Though the application of the standard may be difficult, it is better than none at all: while in other systems, the moral laws all claiming independent authority, there is no common umpire entitled to interfere between them. Their claims to precedence one over another rest on little better than sophistry; and unless determined, as they generally are, by the unacknowledged influence of considerations of utility, afford a free scope for the action of personal desires and partialities. We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved; and, if only one, there can seldom be any real doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognized.


Source: Adapted from John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), Chapters 1 and 2. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized, section titles have been added.


Questions for Review

1. What is the main difference between the intuitive and inductive schools of morality?

2. In the section on higher and lower pleasures, critics have argued that utilitarianism is a "groveling" doctrine worthy only of swine, given its excessive emphasis on pleasure. How do advocates of utilitarianism, from Epicurus to Bentham to reply to this criticism?

3. What is Mill’s test for determining the qualitative difference between a higher and a lower pleasure?

4. What are some of the reasons why people reject higher pleasures, and what is Mill’s response to this?

5. In the section on whether happiness is unattainable, critics such as Thomas Carlyle have claimed that happiness cannot be obtained by humans. In response, what kind of existence does Mill say he mean by happiness?

6. In the section on the rejection of virtue theory, how does Mill reply to the charge that utilitarianism makes humans cold and unsympathizing because it regards only the consequences of actions and not the qualities of the moral agent?

7. According to Mill, what are the only circumstances under which we should directly evaluate the morality of an action by the principle of utility?



Questions for Analysis

1. Mill claims that when Kant argues that right acts are those which follow a rule which all rational beings could adopt as a law, he provides no argument for his view other than one which appeals to consequences. Explain why this is a criticism of Kant, and review Kant’s argument and try to defend him from this criticism.









John Rawls


American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) was a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, and is most remembered for his landmark book A Theory of Justice (1971). He presents there a social contract theory whereby negotiators arrive at basic principles of justice. There are two main parts to his theory. First is the initial contract situation, which he calls the “original position.” This involves a hypothetical community of rational and self-interested people who assume to be ignorant about their actual position in society, particularly how rich or powerful they are. They step behind a “veil of ignorance” as Rawls calls it, which assures that they and their neighbors will not create rules which gives them special benefits. These negotiators are not trying to start a brand new social system, but instead only aim to reform their current system. The second part of Rawls’s theory involves the specific principles of justice that these negotiators will arrive at. Since the initial negotiating situation is fair, the principles of justice themselves will reflect that fairness. There are two such fair principles of justice. First, each person will have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for others. This establishes a base-level of equality for everyone; that is, behind the veil of ignorance, it is reasonable to stipulate that everyone should be equal. The second principle sets the rules for any social and economic inequalities that might arise in society. They must (a) be reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) be attached to positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. For example, there might be some benefit that we all receive by allowing some jobs to pay more money, such as with physicians or scientists. However, these jobs must be won in a fair competition. The following selections are from Rawls’s article “Justice as Fairness” (1958), which is where he first laid out his theory.




1. It might seem at first sight that the concepts of justice and fairness are the same, and that there is no reason to distinguish them, or to say that one is more fundamental than the other. I think that this impression is mistaken. In this paper I wish to show that the fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness; and I wish to offer an analysis of the concept of justice from this point of view. To bring out the force of this claim, and the analysis based upon it, I shall then argue that it is this aspect of justice for which utilitarianism, in its classical form, is unable to account, but which is expressed, even if misleadingly, by the idea of the social contract.

            To start with I shall develop a particular conception of justice by stating and commenting upon two principles which specify it, and by considering the circumstances and conditions under which they may be thought to arise. The principles defining this conception, and the conception itself, are, of course, familiar. It may be possible, however, by using the notion of fairness as a framework, to assemble and to look at them in a new way. Before stating this conception, however, the following preliminary matters should be kept in mind.

            Throughout I consider justice only as a virtue of social institutions, or what I shall call practices. The principles of justice are regarded as formulating restrictions as to how practices may define positions and offices, and assign thereto powers and liabilities, rights and duties. Justice as a virtue of particular actions or of persons I do not take up at all. It is important to distinguish these various subjects of justice, since the meaning of the concept varies according to whether it is applied to practices, particular actions, or persons. These meanings are, indeed, connected, but they are not identical. I shall confine my discussion to the sense of justice as applied to practices, since this sense is the basic one. Once it is understood, the other senses should go quite easily.

            Justice is to be understood in its customary sense as representing but one of the many virtues of social institutions, for these may be antiquated, inefficient, degrading, or any number of other things, without being unjust. Justice is not to be confused with an all-inclusive vision of a good society; it is only one part of any such conception. It is important, for example, to distinguish that sense of equality which is an aspect of the concept of justice from that sense of equality which belongs to a more comprehensive social ideal. There may well be inequalities which one concedes are just, or at least not unjust, but which, nevertheless, one wishes, on other grounds, to do away with. I shall focus attention, then, on the usual sense of justice in which it is essentially the elimination of arbitrary distinctions and the establishment, within the structure of a practice, of a proper balance between competing claims.

            Finally, there is no need to consider the principles discussed below as the principles of justice. For the moment it is sufficient that they are typical of a family of principles normally associated with the concept of justice. The way in which the principles of this family resemble one another, as shown by the background against which they may be thought to arise, will be made clear by the whole of the subsequent argument.




Two Principles Stated

2. The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all. These principles express justice as a complex of three ideas: liberty, equality, and reward for services contributing to the common good.

            The term “person” is to be construed variously depending on the circumstances. On some occasions it will mean human individuals, but in others it may refer to nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on. The principles of justice apply in all these instances, although there is a certain logical priority to the case of human individuals. As I shall use the term “person,” it will be ambiguous in the manner indicated.

            The first principle holds, of course, only if other things are equal: that is, while there must always be a justification for departing from the initial position of equal liberty (which is defined by the pattern of rights and duties, powers and liabilities, established by a practice), and the burden of proof is placed on him who would depart from it, nevertheless, there can be, and often there is, a justification for doing so. Now, that similar particular cases, as defined by a practice, should be treated similarly as they arise, is part of the very concept of a practice; it is involved in the notion of an activity in accordance with rules. The first principle expresses an analogous conception, but as applied to the structure of practices themselves. It holds, for example, that there is a presumption against the distinctions and classifications made by legal systems and other practices to the extent that they infringe on the original and equal liberty of the persons participating in them. The second principle defines how this presumption may be rebutted.


Some Inequalities Permitted

The second principle defines what sorts of inequalities are permissible; it specifies how the presumption laid down by the first principle may be put aside. Now by inequalities it is best to understand not any differences between offices and positions, but differences in the benefits and burdens attached to them either directly or indirectly, such as prestige and wealth, or liability to taxation and compulsory services. Players in a game do not protest against there being different positions, such as batter, pitcher, catcher, and the like, nor to there being various privileges and powers as specified by the rules; nor do the citizens of a country object to there being the different offices of government such as president, senator, governor, judge, and so on, each with their special rights and duties. It is not differences of this kind that are normally thought of as inequalities, but differences in the resulting distribution established by a practice, or made possible by it, of the things men strive to attain or avoid. Thus they may complain about the pattern of honors and rewards set up by a practice (e.g., the privileges and salaries of government officials) or they may object to the distribution of power and wealth which results from the various ways in which men avail themselves of the opportunities allowed by it (e.g., the concentration of wealth which may develop in a free price system allowing large entrepreneurial or speculative gains).

            It should be noted that the second principle holds that an inequality is allowed only if there is reason to believe that the practice with the inequality, or resulting in it, will work for the advantage of every party engaging in it. Here it is important to stress that every party must gain from the inequality. Since the principle applies to practices, it implies that the representative man in every office or position defined by a practice, when he views it as a going concern, must find it reasonable to prefer his condition and prospects with the inequality to what they would be under the practice without it. The principle excludes, therefore, the justification of inequalities on the grounds that the disadvantages of those in one position are outweighed by the greater advantages of those in another position. This rather simple restriction is the main modification I wish to make in the utilitarian principle as usually understood. When coupled with the notion of a practice, it is a restriction of consequence, and one which some utilitarians, e.g., Hume and Mill, have used in their discussions of justice without realizing apparently its significance, or at least without calling attention to it. Why it is a significant modification of principle, changing one’s conception of justice entirely, the whole of my argument will show.

            Further, it is also necessary that the various offices to which special benefits or burdens attach are open to all. It may be, for example, to the common advantage, as just defined, to attach special benefits to certain offices. Perhaps by doing so the requisite talent can be attracted to them and encouraged to give its best efforts. But any offices having special benefits must be won in a fair competition in which contestants are judged on their merits. If some offices were not open, those excluded would normally be justified in feeling unjustly treated, even if they benefited from the greater efforts of those who were allowed to compete for them. Now if one can assume that offices are open, it is necessary only to consider the design of practices themselves and how they jointly, as a system, work together. It will be a mistake to focus attention on the varying relative positions of particular persons, who may be known to us by their proper names, and to require that each such change, as a once for all transaction viewed in isolation, must be in itself just. It is the system of practices which is to be judged, and judged from a general point of view: unless one is prepared to criticize it from the standpoint of a representative man holding some particular office, one has no complaint against it.




Rationality, Mutual Self-Interest, Similar Needs

3. Given these principles one might try to derive them from a priori principles of reason, or claim that they were known by intuition. These are familiar enough steps and, at least in the case of the first principle, might be made with some success. Usually, however, such arguments, made at this point, are unconvincing. They are not likely to lead to an understanding of the basis of the principles of justice, not at least as principles of justice. I wish, therefore, to look at the principles in a different way.

            Imagine a society of persons amongst whom a certain system of practices is already well established. Now suppose that by and large they are mutually self-interested; their allegiance to their established practices is normally founded on the prospect of self-advantage. One need not assume that, in all senses of the term “person,” the persons in this society are mutually self-interested. If the characterization as mutually self-interested applies when the line of division is the family, it may still be true that members of families are bound by ties of sentiment and affection and willingly acknowledge duties in contradiction to self-interest. Mutual self-interestedness in the relations between families, nations, churches, and the like, is commonly associated with intense loyalty and devotion on the part of individual members. Therefore, one can form a more realistic conception of this society if one thinks of it as consisting of mutually self-interested families, or some other association. Further, it is not necessary to suppose that these persons are mutually self-interested under all circumstances, but only in the usual situations in which they participate in their common practices.

            Now suppose also that these persons are rational: they know their own interests more or less accurately; they are capable of tracing out the likely consequences of adopting one practice rather than another; they are capable of adhering to a course of action once they have decided upon it; they can resist present temptations and the enticements of immediate gain; and the bare knowledge or perception of the difference between their condition and that of others is not, within certain limits and in itself, a source of great dissatisfaction. Only the last point adds anything to the usual definition of rationality. This definition should allow, I think, for the idea that a rational man would not be greatly downcast from knowing, or seeing, that others are in a better position than himself, unless he thought their being so was the result of injustice, or the consequence of letting chance work itself out for no useful common purpose, and so on. So if these persons strike us as unpleasantly egoistic, they are at least free in some degree from the fault of envy.

            Finally, assume that these persons have roughly similar needs and interests, or needs and interests in various ways complementary, so that fruitful cooperation amongst them is possible; and suppose that they are sufficiently equal in power and ability to guarantee that in normal circumstances none is able to dominate the others.

            This condition (as well as the others) may seem excessively vague; but in view of the conception of justice to which the argument leads, there seems no reason for making it more exact here.


Impartiality Regarding one’s Actual Advantage

Since these persons are conceived as engaging in their common practices, which are already established, there is no question of our supposing them to come together to deliberate as to how they will set these practices up for the first time. Yet we can imagine that from time to time they discuss with one another whether any of them has a legitimate complaint against their established institutions. Such discussions are perfectly natural in any normal society. Now suppose that they have settled on doing this in the following way. They first try to arrive at the principles by which complaints, and so practices themselves, are to be judged. Their procedure for this is to let each person propose the principles upon which he wishes his complaints to be tried with the understanding that, if acknowledged, the complaints of others will be similarly tried, and that no complaints will be heard at all until everyone is roughly of one mind as to how complaints are to be judged. They each understand further that the principles proposed and acknowledged on this occasion are binding on future occasions. Thus each will be wary of proposing a principle which would give him a peculiar advantage, in his present circumstances, supposing it to be accepted. Each person knows that he will be bound by it in future circumstances the peculiarities of which cannot be known, and which might well be such that the principle is then to his disadvantage. The idea is that everyone should be required to make in advance a firm commitment, which others also may reasonably be expected to make, and that no one be given the opportunity to tailor the canons of a legitimate complaint to fit his own special conditions, and then to discard them when they no longer suit his purpose. Hence each person will propose principles of a general kind which will, to a large degree, gain their sense from the various applications to be made of them, the particular circumstances of which being as yet unknown. These principles will express the conditions in accordance with which each is the least unwilling to have his interests limited in the design of practices, given the competing interests of the others, on the supposition that the interests of others will be limited likewise. The restrictions which would so arise might be thought of as those a person would keep in mind if he were designing a practice in which his enemy were to assign him his place.

            The two main parts of this conjectural account have a definite significance. The character and respective situations of the parties reflect the typical circumstances in which questions of justice arise. The procedure whereby principles are proposed and acknowledged represents constraints, analogous to those of having a morality, whereby rational and mutually self-interested persons are brought to act reasonably. Thus the first part reflects the fact that questions of justice arise when conflicting claims are made upon the design of a practice and where it is taken for granted that each person will insist, as far as possible, on what he considers his rights. It is typical of cases of justice to involve persons who are pressing on one another their claims, between which a fair balance or equilibrium must be found. On the other hand, as expressed by the second part, having a morality must at least imply the acknowledgment of principles as impartially applying to one’s own conduct as well as to another’s, and moreover principles which may constitute a constraint, or limitation, upon the pursuit of one’s own interests. There are, of course, other aspects of having a morality: the acknowledgment of moral principles must show itself in accepting a reference to them as reasons for limiting one’s claims, in acknowledging the burden of providing a special explanation, or excuse, when one acts contrary to them, or else in showing shame and remorse and a desire to make amends, and so on. It is sufficient to remark here that having a morality is analogous to having made a firm commitment in advance; for one must acknowledge the principles of morality even when to one’s disadvantage. A man whose moral judgments always coincided with his interests could be suspected of having no morality at all.


Motives to Accept Inequalities

Thus the two parts of the foregoing account are intended to mirror the kinds of circumstances in which questions of justice arise and the constraints which having a morality would impose upon persons so situated. In this way one can see how the acceptance of the principles of justice might come about, for given all these conditions as described, it would be natural if the two principles of justice were to be acknowledged. Since there is no way for anyone to win special advantages for himself, each might consider it reasonable to acknowledge equality as an initial principle. There is, however, no reason why they should regard this position as final; for if there are inequalities which satisfy the second principle, the immediate gain which equality would allow can be considered as intelligently invested in view of its future return. If, as is quite likely, these inequalities work as incentives to draw out better efforts, the members of this society may look upon them as concessions to human nature: they, like us, may think that people ideally should want to serve one another. But as they are mutually self-interested, their acceptance of these inequalities is merely the acceptance of the relations in which they actually stand, and a recognition of the motives which lead them to engage in their common practices. They have no title to complain of one another. And so provided that the conditions of the principle are met, there is no reason why they should not allow such inequalities. Indeed, it would be short-sighted of them to do so, and could result, in most cases, only from their being dejected by the bare knowledge, or perception, that others are better situated. Each person will, however, insist on an advantage to himself, and so on a common advantage, for none is willing to sacrifice anything for the others.

            These remarks are not offered as a proof that persons so conceived and circumstanced would settle on the two principles, but only to show that these principles could have such a background, and so can be viewed as those principles which mutually self-interested and rational persons, when similarly situated and required to make in advance a firm commitment, could acknowledge as restrictions governing the assignment of rights and duties in their common practices, and thereby accept as limiting their rights against one another. The principles of justice may, then, be regarded as those principles which arise when the constraints of having a morality are imposed upon parties in the typical circumstances of justice.



4. These ideas are, of course, connected with a familiar way of thinking about justice which goes back at least to the Greek Sophists, and which regards the acceptance of the principles of justice as a compromise between persons of roughly equal power who would enforce their will on each other if they could, but who, in view of the equality of forces amongst them and for the sake of their own peace and security, acknowledge certain forms of conduct insofar as prudence seems to require. Justice is thought of as a pact between rational egoists the stability of which is dependent on a balance of power and a similarity of circumstances. While the previous account is connected with this tradition, and with its most recent variant, the theory of games, it differs from it in several important respects which, to forestall misinterpretations, I will set out here.


Regarding Self-Interest

First, I wish to use the previous conjectural account of the background of justice as a way of analyzing the concept. I do not want, therefore, to be interpreted as assuming a general theory of human motivation: when I suppose that the parties are mutually self-interested, and are not willing to have their (substantial) interests sacrificed to others, I am referring to their conduct and motives as they are taken for granted in cases where questions of justice ordinarily arise. Justice is the virtue of practices where there are assumed to be competing interests and conflicting claims, and where it is supposed that persons will press their rights on each other. That persons are mutually self-interested in certain situations and for certain purposes is what gives rise to the question of justice in practices covering those circumstances. Amongst an association of saints, if such a community could really exist, the disputes about justice could hardly occur; for they would all work selflessly together for one end, the glory of God as defined by their common religion, and reference to this end would settle every question of right. The justice of practices does not come up until there are several different parties (whether we think of these as individuals, associations, or nations and so on, is irrelevant) who do press their claims on one another, and who do regard themselves as representatives of interests which deserve to be considered. Thus the previous account involves no general theory of human motivation. Its intent is simply to incorporate into the conception of justice the relations of men to one another which set the stage for questions of justice. It makes no difference how wide or general these relations are, as this matter does not bear on the analysis of the concept.


Regarding Constitutions

Again, in contrast to the various conceptions of the social contract, the several parties do not establish any particular society or practice; they do not covenant to obey a particular sovereign body or to accept a given constitution. Nor do they, as in the theory of games (in certain respects a marvelously sophisticated development of this tradition), decide on individual strategies adjusted to their respective circumstances in the game. What the parties do is to jointly acknowledge certain principles of appraisal relating to their common practices either as already established or merely proposed. They accede to standards of judgment, not to a given practice; they do not make any specific agreement, or bargain, or adopt a particular strategy. The subject of their acknowledgment is, therefore, very general indeed; it is simply the acknowledgment of certain principles of judgment, fulfilling certain general conditions, to be used in criticizing the arrangement of their common affairs. The relations of mutual self-interest between the parties who are similarly circumstanced mirror the conditions under which questions of justice arise, and the procedure by which the principles of judgment are proposed and acknowledged reflects the constraints of having a morality. Each aspect, then, of the preceding hypothetical account serves the purpose of bringing out a feature of the notion of justice. One could, if one liked, view the principles of justice as the “solution” of this highest order “game” of adopting, subject to the procedure described, principles of argument for all coming particular “games” whose peculiarities one can in no way foresee. But this comparison, while no doubt helpful, must not obscure the fact that this highest order “game” is of a special sort. Its significance is that its various pieces represent aspects of the concept of justice.


Regarding Coming together for the First Time

Finally, I do not, of course, conceive the several parties as necessarily coming together to establish their common practices for the first time. Some institutions may, indeed, be set up de novo; but I have framed the preceding account so that it will apply when the full complement of social institutions already exists and represents the result of a long period of development. Nor is the account in any way fictitious. In any society where people reflect on their institutions they will have an idea of what principles of justice would be acknowledged under the conditions described, and there will be occasions when questions of justice are actually discussed in this way. Therefore if their practices do not accord with these principles, this will affect the quality of their social relations. For in this case there will be some recognized situations wherein the parties are mutually aware that one of them is being forced to accept what the other would concede is unjust. The foregoing analysis may then be thought of as representing the actual quality of relations between persons as defined by practices accepted as just. In such practices the parties will acknowledge the principles on which it is constructed, and the general recognition of this fact shows itself in the absence of resentment and in the sense of being justly treated. Thus one common objection to the theory of the social contract, its apparently historical and fictitious character, is avoided.



5. That the principles of justice may be regarded as arising in the manner described illustrates an important fact about them. Not only does it bring out the idea that justice is a primitive moral notion in that it arises once the concept of morality is imposed on mutually self-interested agents similarly circumstanced, but it emphasizes that, fundamental to justice, is the concept of fairness which relates to right dealing between persons who are cooperating with or competing against one another, as when one speaks of fair games, fair competition, and fair bargains. The question of fairness arises when free persons, who have no authority over one another, are engaging in a joint activity and amongst themselves settling or acknowledging the rules which define it and which determine the respective shares in its benefits and burdens. A practice will strike the parties as fair if none feels that, by participating in it, they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate. This implies that each has a conception of legitimate claims which he thinks it reasonable for others as well as himself to acknowledge. If one thinks of the principles of justice as arising in the manner described, then they do define this sort of conception. A practice is just or fair, then, when it satisfies the principles which those who participate in it could propose to one another for mutual acceptance under the aforementioned circumstances. Persons engaged in a just, or fair, practice can face one another openly and support their respective positions, should they appear questionable, by reference to principles which it is reasonable to expect each to accept.

            It is this notion of the possibility of mutual acknowledgment of principles by free persons who have no authority over one another which makes the concept of fairness fundamental to justice. Only if such acknowledgment is possible can there be true community between persons in their common practices; otherwise their relations will appear to them as founded to some extent on force. If, in ordinary speech, fairness applies more particularly to practices in which there is a choice whether to engage or not (e.g., in games, business competition), and justice to practices in which there is no choice (e.g., in slavery), the element of necessity does not render the conception of mutual acknowledgment inapplicable, although it may make it much more urgent to change unjust than unfair institutions. For one activity in which one can always engage is that of proposing and acknowledging principles to one another supposing each to be similarly circumstanced; and to judge practices by the principles so arrived at is to apply the standard of fairness to them. . . .


Source: John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” Philosophical Review, Vol. 67, 1958, pp. 164-194.


Questions for Review

1. Rawls states that his conception of justice is restricted here to only social institutions or “practices”, and not people. Explain what he means.

2. What are Rawls’s two principles of justice, and what do they mean?

3. In what ways are people “rational” in original position?

4. Rawls states that his theory does not assume any particular theory of human motivation. Explain his point.

5. In what way is justice a matter of “fairness”?


Questions for Analysis

1. Rawls states that “The second principle [of justice] defines what sorts of inequalities are permissible; it specifies how the presumption laid down by the first principle may be put aside.” Explain.

2. Regarding his second principle of justice, Rawls states that “every party must gain from the inequality.” Explain what this means and discuss whether this is realistic.

3. Describe Rawls’s view of how people are “rational” in the original position, and discuss whether it is realistic.

4. Rawls believes that the notion of “fairness” regarding the just distribution of wealth is similar to the notion of fairness in fair games, fair competition, and fair bargains. Explain what he means and discuss whether he is correct.