1. Cultural Relativism


Classic Cultural Relativism.

Xenophanes and the Greek Skeptics.

Later Defenders of Cultural Relativism.

The Argument from Social Diversity.

Balfour’s Criticism: Many Customs are Simply Depraved.

Rachels’s Criticism: Some Key Values do not Vary.

Common Arguments Against Cultural Relativism.

Whether Cultural Relativists deny all Moral Values.

Whether Cultural Relativism leads to Horrible Values.

Whether Cultural Relativism rules out Universal Judgments.



2. Plato’s Moral Objectivism


Background of Plato’s Moral theory.

The Sophists and Socrates.

Protagoras’ Individual Relativism.

 Plato’s Moral theory.

Theory of the Moral Forms.

Recollection and Knowledge of the Forms.

Criticisms of Plato’s theory.

Aristotle’s First Criticism: The Forms do not Add to our Knowledge.

Aristotle’s Second Criticism: Participation is not Explained.

Mackie’s First Criticism: The Concept of the Forms is Queer.

Mackie’s Second Criticism: A Psychological Explanation of Objectification.

The Legacy of Plato’s Moral theory.

Plato’s Influence.

Skepticism About Plato’s Moral Objectivism.



3. Virtue theory


Early Greek View of Virtues.

Aristotle’s theory.

Appetite-Regulating Habits.

Practical Wisdom.

Good Temper.

Virtue theory After Aristotle.

Traditional Criticisms of Virtue theory.

Grotius’s Criticism: Many Virtues are not at a Mean.

Kant’s Criticism: Without Moral Principles Misapplied Virtues Become Vices.

Mill’s Criticism: Morality Involves Judging Actions and not Character Traits.

Contemporary Discussions of Virtues and Rules.

Feminine Ethics and Virtue theory.

Virtues with Or without Rules?

Contemporary Criticisms.

The Value of Virtue theory.

Incorporating Virtue Theory Into Other Moral Theories.

The Best Teacher of Morality.



4. Natural Law theory


Origins of Natural Law theory.

Aquinas Natural Law theory.

Four Types of Law: Eternal, Natural, Human, and Divine.

The Synderesis Principle.

Primary, Secondary and Super-Added Principles.

Revisions and Criticisms of Natural Law theory.

Suarez’s Revision: Knowledge of Natural Law is Based on Conscience, not Natural Inclinations.

Grotius’s Revision: Natural Law is Founded only on the Instinct of Sociability.

Hobbes’s and Pufendorf’s Revision: Natural Law is Founded on the Instinct of Self-Preservation.

Hume’s and Bentham’s Criticism: Natural Law Theories Erroneously Derive Ought from Is.

The Value of Natural Law theory. 

Natural Law and Homosexuality.

The Legacy of Natural Law theory.



5. Morality and the Will of God


Plato and the Euthyphro Puzzle.

Traditional Voluntarism.

Scotus’s Voluntarism.

Voluntarism after Scotus.

Arguments For and Against Voluntarism.

Argument from Revoking Established Moral Standards.

The Argument from Absolute Power.

Criticism: Voluntarism Implies that Divine Goodness is Meaningless.

God and Morality. 

Lingering Problems with Religious Ethics.



6. Social Contract theory


Hobbes’s theory.

The State of Nature.

The Laws of Nature.

Political Theory and Moral theory. 

Social Contract Theory in the 17 and 18th Centuries.

Criticisms of Hobbes.

Hyde’s Criticism: Hobbes Denies that Morality is Immutable and Eternal.

Clarke’s Criticism: Punishment Alone won’t Motivate us to Always Keep Contracts.

Hume’s Criticism: We don’t even Tacitly Agree to A Social Contract.

Recent Social Contract theory.

The Prisoners’ Dilemma.

Rawls and Social Contract theory.

The Value of Social Contract theory.

Social Contract vs. Social Reciprocation.

Mixing Moral theory and Political theory.



7. Duty theory


The Development and Popularity of Traditional Duty theory.

Pufendorf’s theory of Duties.

Survival and Mutual Cooperation.

Duties to God, oneself, and Others.

Intuitionism and Other Features of Duty theory.

Revisions and Criticisms of Duty theory.

Kant's Revision: No Duties to God since we cannot Know God.

Mill’s Criticism: Duties to oneself Reduce to only Self-Respect and Self-Development.

Sidgwick’s Criticism: Common Sense Moral Intuitions are Imprecise.

Duty theory today.

Ross’s theory of Prima Facie Duties.

The Value of Duty theory.

Duties and Suicide.



8. Natural and Human Rights


Natural Rights and Natural Law.

Locke’s theory.

Natural Rights within the State of Nature.

Slavery and the Right to Life.

The Right to Property.

Political Authorities and the Right to Liberty.

Criticisms of Natural Rights theory.

Burke’s Criticism: Abstract notions of Natural Rights are too Simplistic.

Bentham’s Criticism: Legal Rights are Grounded in Fact, Natural Rights are not.

Marx’s Criticism: Natural Rights Emphasize Selfishness and Ignore Community.

Human Rights theory today.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Interrelation Between Human Rights and Legal Rights.



9. Moral Reason vs. Moral Feeling


Clarke’s Rationalist theory.

Eternal Moral Relations.

Hume’s Criticisms of Clarke.

Hume’s Moral theory.

Early Moral Sense theories.

The Moral Spectator’s Sympathetic Feelings.

Moral Motivation and Morality without God. 

Criticisms of Hume.

Reid’s First Criticism: Hume Abuses Common Moral Language.

Reid’s Second Criticism: Reporting Feelings Differs from Approving.

The Value of Hume’s theory. 

Utilitarianism and the Fate of the Agent and Spectator. 



10. Kant’s Categorical Imperative


Kant’s Moral theory.

Influences on Kant’s theory.

Motives that Influence our Human Will.

The Formula of the Law of Nature.

The Formula of the End Itself.

Criticisms of Kant’ theory.

Schopenhauer’s Criticism: The Categorical Imperative Reduces to Egoism.

Mill’s Criticism: The Categorical Imperative Reduces to Utilitarianism.

Anscombe’s Criticism: There is no Procedure for Constructing Maxims.

The Value of the Categorical Imperative.

Traditional Duty theory and the Formula of the Law of Nature.

The Value of the Formula of the End Itself.



11. Utilitarianism


Historical Development of Utilitarianism.

18th Century Contributions.

Bentham’s Utilitarian Calculus.

Limitations of Bentham’s theory.

Mill’s Utilitarianism.

Elements of Mill’s theory.

General Happiness and Higher Pleasures.

Traditional Criticisms of Mill.

Bradley’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Conflicts with Ordinary Moral Judgments.

Grote’s Criticism: Utilitarianism only Perpetuates the Status Quo.

Albee’s Criticism: Higher Pleasures are Inconsistent with Hedonism.

The Continuing Utilitarian Tradition.

Ideal Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism.

Problems with the Bare Bones Utilitarian Formula.



12. Evolutionary Ethics


19th Century theories of Evolutionary Ethics.

Darwin and the Evolution of Moral Faculties.

Spencer’s Evolutionary Ethics.

Moore’s Criticism of Spencer.

The Naturalistic Fallacy.

Identifying “Goodness” with “More Evolved”.

Identifying “Goodness” with “Universal Pleasure”.

Evolutionary Ethics today.

Lingering Problems with Evolutionary Ethics.

Sociobiology and Moral Ambivalence.

Natural Selection as an Analogy.



13. Emotivism and Prescriptivism


Ayer’s theory.

Logical Positivism and the Verification Principle.

Descriptive Utterances vs. Performative Utterances.

Emotivism and Prescriptivism.

Criticisms of Ayer.

Ross’s Criticism: Performativism is Based on the Faulty Verification Principle.

Moore’s Criticism: Performativism does not Account For Moral Arguments.

Descriptive and Performative Elements.

Stevenson and Hare.

Additional Performative Functions of Moral Statements.

Skeptical Implications of Extreme Emotivism and Prescriptivism.



14. Best Reasons Morality and the Problem of Abortion


The Process of Moral Reasoning.

Toulmin’s View of Moral Reasoning.

Baier’s View of Moral Reasoning.

Best Reasons and Applied Ethics.

The Fetus’s Moral Status.

Gathering the Facts.

Extreme Pro-Choice Potentiality Principle.

Extreme Pro-Life and Moderate Potentiality Principles.

Fetus’s Interests Vs. Other’s Interests.

Gathering and Weighing the Facts.

Some Extenuating Circumstances.

Other Extenuating Circumstances.


Limitations of the Best Reasons Approach.



15. The Interrelation Between Different Ethical theories


An Ethical Super-theory.

The Duties and Virtues of the Agent.

Rights, Virtues and Consequences Regarding the Receiver.

The Spectator’s Spontaneous and Reflective Assessments.

Moral Reflection and the Source of Moral Intuitions.

Isolationist Ethical Theories vs. an Ethical Super-Theory.

Moral Images.

The Function of Moral Images in Common-Life.

The Normative Image of the Golden Rule.

Philosophical Normative Images.

Common-Life Normative Images.

Metaethical Images.






            On Halloween night in 1997, an 11-year-old boy from Michigan named Nathan Abraham shot to death a young man outside of a convenience store. Dressed in his Halloween costume at the time, Abraham fired a .22-caliber rifle from about 200 feet away from the store. Abraham claimed that he was aiming at trees and accidentally hit his victim, but prosecutors were not convinced. Abraham apparently had continual run-ins with the police and even bragged to his friends that he planned to shoot someone. Tried as an adult, Abraham became one of the youngest murder defendants in the United States. He was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder.

            We are all disturbed by stories of violent juvenile crimes such as this, which are unfortunately becoming all too frequent. They suggest that something has gone seriously wrong in our society and we’ve lost our ability to instill a sense of moral responsibility in our children. Who is to blame for the problem? How can we fix the problem? Although we are not likely to find any quick and easy answers to these questions, we can nevertheless find some help by turning to moral philosophy. The subject of moral philosophy involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. As far back in civilization as we find writing, we find people struggling with ethical questions. At one point in Western civilization -- about 600 BCE -- philosophers began offering theories that clarified the source and content of our moral obligations. This book traces some of the major themes that have emerged in the history of Western moral philosophy, from the earliest days to the present.

            Moral philosophers offer a range of theories to explain the nature and content of our moral obligations. Some theories -- commonly called metaethical theories -- try to explain where morality comes from and what psychologically takes place when we make moral judgments. Does society create morality? Is morality a fixed and objective feature of the cosmos? Am I doing anything more than expressing my feelings when I make moral judgments? Metaethical theories attempt to address these questions. Other theories -- commonly called normative theories -- try to tell us exactly what our moral obligations are. According to some of these theories, there is a specific list of foundational duties that we need to follow. Other theories maintain that there is a single principle that encapsulates our obligations, such as that we should maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Still others maintain that our obligations are grounded in a group of virtuous habits that we develop, such as courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom.

            The variety and complexity of both metaethical and normative ethical theories is sometimes daunting. If we study and slowly understand one theory, we are likely to find that the very next theory criticizes the earlier theory. And this new theory, in turn, is attacked by the next theory. So, not only are the theories themselves challenging, but we face a new challenge in trying to see how these competing theories illuminate the nature and content of our moral obligations. In writing this book I’ve taken measures to make the reader’s philosophical exploration of ethics easier -- or at least less overwhelming -- than it otherwise might be. I’ve minimized the use of technical vocabulary. I’ve also tied each of the chapters to matters of practical moral concern. The opening of each chapter discusses some concrete ethical issue, such as suicide, capital punishment, or abortion, which helps establish the importance of the chapter’s topic and often serves as a consistent example for discussion throughout the chapter.

            When discussing the various ethical theories, I didn’t attempt to evaluate them all from the vantage of a single tradition, such as the utilitarian tradition. To do so would be cumbersome and risk forcing theories into molds that they don’t fit. Instead, I’ve tried to present the various theories in a positive light, defend them against key criticisms if possible, revise them if necessary, and find some central feature of the theory that illuminates the nature of morality. In the final chapter of this book I try to integrate as many of these theories as possible into a single coherent system, which I call an ethical super-theory. I also argue that each ethical theory can have value in our common moral lives by helping us visualize our moral obligations.

            There are many possible topics and figures that an ethics book might cover, and it’s impossible for any single text to adequately touch upon everything of value. The issues selected here are restricted to the Western philosophical tradition that began in ancient Greece and developed in the countries of Western Europe, and later in America. They are also the issues that philosophers today commonly find interesting. Although scholars of moral philosophy today will certainly have their own lists of favorite issues, hopefully the ones presented here will have a common appeal.

            Introductory books in ethics are typically structured in one of two ways. Some are arranged topically, and focus on major themes and issues, such as cultural relativism, virtue, or duty. Although it is interesting to discuss morality from a topical standpoint, the downfall of this approach is that writers often sacrifice historical context and sometimes even present theories that no traditional philosopher actually ever proposed. Other ethics textbooks are structured historically, and present a continuous chronological sequence of theories, beginning in ancient Greece and ending in present times. Although this approach preserves historical context, many historically-oriented ethics books are tedious to read and give us too many picky facts about a philosopher’s theory.

            This book takes a middle ground between the topical and historical approaches. The chapters are topically arranged, but they preserve the flow of history in two ways. First, each chapter explains the historical development of the topic under consideration. Many ethical topics have very ancient beginnings, and by highlighting their history we better grasp how moral philosophers fall into specific traditions. Second, most chapters here focus on a specific famous philosopher who championed a particular tradition, such as Aristotle, Locke, or Kant, and the chapters are chronologically ordered based on when these key philosophers lived. Although chronologically ordered, the chapters in this book are conceptually self-contained, which allows them to be read in any order. To achieve the full benefit of their historical sequence, though, they should be read in the order presented. Many of the sections and subsections of the chapters are also conceptually self-contained discussions. So, a reader who skips some sections will not necessarily be at a loss to understand the remaining sections.

            I wish to thank friends and colleagues who have generously offered advice on this book’s contents. Alphabetically, they are John Danley, Ken King, Norman Lillegard, Matthew McCormick, James Otteson, Gregory Pence, Louis Pojman, and Laura Roberts.







            In the early 20th century journalist Robert L. Ripley traveled around the world gathering stories of strange rituals, which he published in his popular column “Believe It or Not.” Our fascination with bizarre practices of other cultures is no less prominent today. Some foreign practices amuse us, such as that of Japanese men who tattoo their entire bodies. Others make us squeamish, such as a Latin American culinary practice of eating handfuls of live bugs in tortillas. However, other foreign cultural practices make us morally indignant. One of these is female genital mutilation, which is common in East African countries and parts of the Near East. This practice involves removing portions of a young girl’s genitals, including her clitoris and labia. Social scientists estimate that over 100 million women alive today have had this operation performed. An article published by UNICEF describes the situation for one six-year-old girl and her sympathetic aunt:


            The lights are dim and the voices quiet. Tension fills the room where Nafisa, a six-year-old Sudanese girl lies on a bed in the corner. Her aunt, 25-year-old Zeinab, watches protectively as her niece undergoes the procedure now known as female genital mutilation (FGM), formerly called female circumcision. In this procedure, performed without anaesthesia, a girl’s external sexual organs are partially or totally cut away. Zeinab does not approve. For the past year she has been trying to persuade her mother and sister to spare Nafisa from the procedure. She lost the battle with her family, but she will stay at her niece’s side. She watches Nafisa lying quietly, brave and confused, and remembers her own experience. Zeinab underwent the procedure twice. At six years old she had the more moderate form of FGM, called Sunni, in which the covering of the clitoris is removed. When she was 15 the older women of her family insisted she have the Pharaonic form, which involves removal of the entire clitoris and the labia and stitching together of the vulva, leaving just a small hole for elimination of urine and menstrual blood. Zeinab still remembers the pain, the face of the women performing the procedure, the sound of her flesh being cut. She also remembers bleeding and being sick for weeks.


More extreme cases of female genital mutilation involve sewing closed the vagina, leaving only a small opening for passing urine and blood. The purpose of these procedures is to reduce sexual drive and thus assure a woman’s virginity prior to marriage and her fidelity after marriage. Female genital mutilation is performed as a rite of passage, sometimes involuntarily, in unsterile conditions and without the aid of painkillers and antibiotics. Ironically, older women of the community perform the procedure, who themselves underwent it in their youth. Although this practice is cultural rather than religious, it occurs predominately in Muslim countries.

            In North America, we find the practices of female genital mutilation grossly immoral. They are not only illegal, but there is widespread public outcry against other cultures that endorse this practice. However, while we attack female genital mutilation, East African defenders of this practice charge that American culture has degenerated to the point that promiscuity, infidelity, and childbirth outside of marriage are acceptable behaviors. By guarding against such sexual misconduct, their culture, so they claim, is on morally higher ground. From a philosophical perspective, these foreign practices directly challenge our traditionally held moral views and they make us wonder whether their morality/immorality reduces to mere social convention.

            For centuries, moral philosophers have reflected on the philosophical problems raised by clashing social values. The principal question raised is whether moral values exist independently of human social creations. Cultural relativism is the view that societies create their own traditions, pass them along from one generation to another, and continually reinforce them through rewards and punishments. On this view morality is a distinctly human invention and it makes no sense to look for a foundation of morality outside of human social approval. This is so for the east African practice of female genital mutilation as well as the American condemnation of this practice. This isn’t simply an issue of anthropological curiosity concerning how different people and cultures view morality. Instead, it is an issue of whether my and your specific moral obligations are grounded in nothing other than cultural approval.

            Cultural relativism is a component of a broader moral theory called moral relativism, which holds more generally that moral values are human inventions. This broader theory includes both (a) individual relativism, namely, that each person creates his own moral standards, and (b) cultural relativism, namely that social cultures create moral standards. We will focus here on only the theory of cultural relativism and look at its historical development as well as the key arguments against it.




            The issue of cultural relativism was one of the first hotly debated issues in Western moral philosophy, and the views of early cultural relativists have trickled down to today largely unchanged.


            Xenophanes and the Greek Skeptics. One of the earliest accounts of cultural relativism was offered by the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570-475 BCE.). His writings were unfortunately lost through time, but enough isolated quotations from his works survive so that we still have a general view of his position. Xenophanes focuses specifically on the culturally relative nature of religious beliefs, rather than ethical beliefs per se. In two fragments, Xenophanes explains how different ethnic groups depict their deities differently:


            Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and dark, Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

            If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like ox, and each would make the gods’ bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.


In the first of these passages Xenophanes notes that different ethnic groups portray the gods with physical attributes that are unique to their own people. In the second passage he speculates that if animals could draw then they would make the gods look like animals. Xenophanes’ point is that our own cultural experiences shape the things that we say about the gods, and our religious views aren’t really objective descriptions of the gods themselves. Although Xenophanes’ comments are confined to our views about the gods, it isn’t much of a stretch to extend this reasoning to ethical issues and see that morality is also culturally relative. Greek historians after Xenophanes fueled the discussion of cultural relativism in both religion and ethics by providing graphic examples of differing cultural practices in various civilizations of the day. After surveying the traditions of different countries, the Greek historian Heroditus (484-425 BCE) concluded that “Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.” Heroditus’s point is that, not only do we all adopt the religious and ethical value systems of our respective cultures, but we typically go a step further and denounce foreign value systems as inferior to our own.

            The next big step in the development of cultural relativism was made by ancient Greek philosophers of the skeptical tradition, who were directly influenced by Xenophanes. Once again, we only have sketchy information about the earliest philosophers of the skeptical tradition.  The founder of this tradition was a charismatic and original moral philosopher named Pyrrho (c.365-c.275 BCE), who had several loyal followers, but wrote nothing himself. In one of his few surviving statements Pyrrho argues that in moral matters we cannot determine whether anything is truly good or bad, and, so, we must suspend judgment. As the skeptical tradition continued, followers of Pyrrho developed this line of reasoning and, eventually the views of the skeptics were systematically written down by Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 200 CE). Sextus presents the definitive statement of cultural relativism. Drawing on anthropological data presented by earlier Greek historians, Sextus gives example after example of moral standards that differ from one society to another. These include attitudes about homosexuality, incest, cannibalism, human sacrifice, killing the elderly, infanticide, theft, and eating animal flesh.

            Sextus believes that this social diversity in and of itself is a good reason to adopt cultural relativism. The differing cultural attitudes are quite extreme and Sextus clearly wants to shock us into thinking seriously about this diversity. Here is his account of differing attitudes concerning the treatment of dead human bodies:


Some wrap the dead up completely and then cover them with earth, thinking that it is impious to expose them to the sun; but the Egyptians take out their entrails and embalm them and keep them above ground with themselves. The fish-eating tribes of the Ethiopians cast them into the lakes, there to be devoured by the fish; the Hyrcanians expose them as prey to dogs, and some of the Indians to vultures. And they say that some of the Troglodytes take the corpse to a hill, and then after tying its head to its feet cast stones upon it amidst laughter, and when they have made a heap of stones over it they leave it there. And some of the barbarians slay and eat those who are over sixty years old, but bury in the earth those who die young. Some burn the dead; and of these some recover and preserve their bones, while others show no care but leave them scattered about. And they say that the Persians impale their dead and embalm them with niter, after which they wrap them round in bandages. [Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3:24]


In this passage Sextus describes that in different cultures dead bodies are buried in the ground, embalmed above the ground, eaten by various animals, eaten by people, or burned. Sextus concludes from his discussion that “the skeptic, seeing so great a diversity of usages, suspends judgment as to the natural existence of anything good or bad or (in general) fit or unfit to be done.” That is, for Sextus, we should doubt the existence of an independent and universal standard of morality and, instead, see that moral values are the result of cultural preferences.

            Sextus and other Pyrrhonian skeptics have a particular goal in mind when advancing cultural relativism, and that goal is personal tranquility. Suppose that I believe that there exists a fixed and objective standard of truth; suppose further that I follow this standard as a guide for my life. Since I see myself on the side of moral truth, then I will become morally outraged by those who don’t follow these moral standards. I’ll quarrel with other people, angrily condemn them, and ultimately become miserable through my extreme convictions. However, once I seriously reflect on the wide diversity of cultural practices that Sextus describes, I will be more inclined to see that my own cultural practices are rooted in social custom. I will then get off my moral high horse and be content to accept the moral diversity that I see in other cultures.


            Later Defenders of Cultural Relativism. In the centuries following Sextus Empiricus, Christian philosophers of the middle ages harshly rejected the skepticism and cultural relativism of their Greek predecessors. According to most medieval Christian philosophers, moral values are eternal principles, mandated by God, and binding on all humans. Although some “heathen” cultures might consistently engage in strange moral practices, such as ceremonial prostitution, medieval philosophers argued that these practices are simply immoral, despite how widespread they are. This Christian view of morals continued for several centuries and was finally challenged by skeptically-minded philosophers in the Enlightenment period, who were inspired by Sextus Empiricus’s writings.

            French philosopher Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) was among the first to resurrect the skeptical views of Sextus Empiricus. Montaigne wholeheartedly endorsed Sextus Empiricus’s cultural relativism, which he articulates in an essay titled “Of Custom, and That we should not Easily Change a Law Received” (1580). In this essay Montaigne describes dozens of strange cultural practices from foreign countries, focusing especially on sexually-related practices. In one culture, unmarried women “may prostitute themselves to as many as they please” and, when they get pregnant, they can lawfully abort their fetuses “in the sight of everyone”. In another culture, male guests at weddings are invited to sleep with the bride even before the groom does, “and the greater number of them there is, the greater is her honor and the opinion of her ability and strength.” Montaigne describes one culture in which gender roles are strangely reversed: houses of prostitution contain young men “for the pleasure of women” and “wives go to war as well as the husbands”.

In addition to sexually-related practices, Montainge lists others from almost every aspect of life:


[There are societies] where they boil the bodies of their dead, and afterwards pound them to a pulp, which they mix with their wine, and drink it; where the most coveted burial is to be eaten by dogs ... where they live in that rare and unsociable opinion of the mortality of the soul; ... where women urinate standing and men squatting; where they send their blood in a token of friendship ... where the children nurse for four years, and often twelve; ... where they circumcise the women; ... in another it is reputed a holy duty for a man to kill his father at a certain age; ... where children of seven years old endured being whipped to death, without changing expression ... [Essays, “Of Custom”]


Montainge concludes that custom has the power to shape every possible kind of cultural practice. Although we pretend that morality is a fixed feature of nature, morality too is formed through custom: “the laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.” Montaigne argues further that social peer pressure is so strong, that we automatically approve of our society’s customs: “as everyone has an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved of and received among his own people, no one can, without very great reluctance, depart from them, or apply himself to them without approval.”

            Almost two centuries later, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) reiterated Sextus’s skeptical view of cultural relativism. Hume presents a fictitious dialog in which the leading character argues that many moral practices are accepted by some cultures, yet condemned by other cultures. Some of these include attitudes about homosexual pedophilia, adultery, infanticide, and euthanasia. The leading character in Hume’s dialog boldly concludes that “fashion, vogue, custom, and law [are] the chief foundation of all moral determinations.”

            Cultural relativism received another boost from sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the best example is American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). In his classic work Folkways (1906), Sumner argues that the morality of a given society simply amounts to the folkways or traditions of that society. For Sumner, theories that try to ground morality in some absolute standard are misguided:


In the folkways, whatever is, is right. ... When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis. ... Therefore rights can never be “natural” or “God-given,” or absolute in any sense. The morality of a group at a time is the sum of the taboos and prescriptions in the folkways by which right conduct is defined. [Folkways, 1:31]


Sumner argues that there are no exceptions to this: a society’s values concerning slavery, abortion, killing the elderly, and cannibalism only reflect that society’s traditional taboos and prescriptions.

            One of the most articulate philosophical defenders of cultural relativism in recent years is Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie (1917-1981). Like his skeptical predecessors, Mackie believes that moral values vary from culture to culture. Also like his predecessors, he  believes that there simply are no objective moral values, a view that he calls moral skepticism. For Mackie, this means that morality is something that we invent: “Morality is not to be discovered but to be made: we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.” From Xenophanes on through Mackie, the key points associated with the tradition of cultural relativism are these:


·        Moral values are created by society (cultural relativism)

·        Moral values vary from culture to culture (social diversity)

·        There is no objective moral truth (moral skepticism)




            A running theme among cultural relativists is that values differ from society to society, and the best explanation for such variation is that societies simply create their own values. We can express this intuition more formally in the argument here:


(1) Morally significant values differ from society to society.

(2) These differing moral values are either grounded in objective moral standards or they are grounded only in social custom.

(3) It is difficult to explain how these differing moral values are grounded in objective moral standards.

(4) Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that these differing moral values are grounded in social custom.


To understand this argument we need to go through it premise by premise. Premise 1 advocates the view of social diversity, that is, the view that different cultures in fact have different moral values. Defenders of this claim -- from Sextus down to Mackie -- believed that this is a matter of factual observation. We can directly see differences in values between various cultures. For example, Sumner argues that our observations will clearly reveal that even taboos against incest are “by no means universal or uniform, or attended by the same intensity of repugnance.” Similarly, in our own day, we directly witness that many East African cultures favor the practice of female genital mutilation; by contrast, it is plain that we in North America abhor the practice. If we properly make our observations, then there should be little dispute about the truth of social diversity with at least some morally significant values.

            If we grant premise 1 above as a matter of fact, we can next consider the other two premises of this argument. Premise 2 maintains that there are two contending ways of understanding where moral values come from. Values are either grounded in (a) an objective standard that is independent of human society, or (b) social custom. Over the centuries, moral objectivists have proposed a variety of objective standards of morality. For example, some objectivists hold that moral standards are grounded in eternal truths, or in laws of nature, or in God’s commands. What is in common with all of these views is that, according to moral objectivists, moral standards are grounded in a more stable level of reality beyond mere human social custom. Premise 2, then, is at least a plausible way of seeing the possible foundations of moral standards: they are either grounded in a more stable level of reality beyond social custom, or they are grounded in social custom.

            Finally, premise 3 states that it is hard to see how moral standards are grounded in an objective reality if they change from culture to culture. Moral objectivists believe that our objectively grounded moral beliefs should shape our cultural practices. For example, on the objectivist view, we condemn stealing in our culture because there is an objective standard that tells us that stealing is wrong. However, when we consider the wide variety of conflicting moral values in societies around the world, it does not seem reasonable that these all are grounded in a universal and objective standard. On face value, then, premise 3 also seems credible.

            The conclusion that we draw, then, is that moral values are grounded in social custom, which -- compared to moral objectivism -- more reasonably explains the moral diversity that we see. Suppose, for example, that I believe that polygamy is immoral while my friend from Saudi Arabia believes that polygamy is morally permissible. The more reasonable explanation is that our respective cultures influence our individual beliefs, rather than the objectivist alternative that objectively informed beliefs influence our cultures. Cultural relativism, then, is the most reasonable explanation for why our moral beliefs mimic our culture. Although this argument seems plausible at face value, critics have pointed out some flaws. We will look at two criticisms.


            Balfour’s Criticism: Many Customs are Simply Depraved. Over the centuries critics of cultural relativism have attacked the above argument from social diversity on several grounds. One response is to challenge premise 3, which states that “It is difficult to explain how these differing moral values are grounded in objective moral standards.” The entire argument from social diversity will topple if we can offer a cogent explanation as to how differing cultural values might be grounded in an objective reality. In responding to Hume’s statement of cultural relativism, 18th century Scottish philosopher James Balfour (1705-1795) argued that, even if customs do vary throughout time and from place to place, there is still an underlying ideal moral standard that these cultures simply ignore. The whole batch of these cultures are simply corrupt, and these corrupt values only highlight true morality all the more:


            Such an opinion leads to this unavoidable consequence, that whatever any set of men, or even any individual person, may think fit to do, however criminal in itself, must yet be deemed a virtue; because it is immediately agreeable to those who practise it.

            But let us suppose that a whole nation should universally countenance a bad practice, this never would alter the nature of things, nor give sanction to vice. ...

            But so far are the depraved customs of the multitude, or even the practices of the great from being the just standard of morality, that virtue shines forth with the greater lustre from amidst bad practices; and even an universal corruption renders it the more conspicuous. [Delineation, 5]


Part of Balfour’s attack is plausible, namely his contention that the customs of the multitudes may be depraved. Perhaps there exists an objective standard of morality and our particular moral beliefs become distorted as we try to perceive objective standards through our diverse cultures. So, if I believe that polygamy is immoral and my friend from Saudi Arabia believes polygamy is moral, then at least one of us, and perhaps both of us, might have a distorted understanding of objective morality.

            Even if this is so, we need to know how to determine which of our practices are depraved and which reflects true morality. Balfour’s solution is that the true standard of morality “shines forth with the greater lustre from amid bad practices.” For Balfour, the contrast between depraved practices and true morality is so pronounced that we all can intuitively see the difference. But Balfour’s solution does not work. There is no question that Balfour genuinely believed that some moral values “shine forth” as more legitimate than others. But it probably never occurred to Balfour that the strength of his moral convictions might have been shaped by his 18th century Scottish moral tradition, which was heavily influenced by Calvinistic religious beliefs. In a different culture, other moral values might “shine forth” to those people as more legitimate than those that Balfour holds as true. In short, since our internal intuitions themselves may be products of our respective cultures, then we can’t safely appeal to these intuitions to determine which of our practices are depraved, and which reflect true morality.

            Objectivist moral philosophers have offered a variety of more stringent litmus tests to help distinguish between true morality and depraved values; these proposed tests include rationality, natural law, religious scripture, and human nature. Although these appear to be more rigorous than Balfour’s test, they nevertheless all fall prey to the same problem that Balfour’s did. That is, they all may be products of our respective cultures. A chemical test to determine the pH level of swimming pools will work the same around the world. A mathematical test to determine the structural integrity of bridge designs will also work the same around the world. But notions of rationality, natural law, scripture, and human nature are matters of debate and do not represent uniform standards. Ultimately, if we can’t offer a uniform test to distinguish true morality from depraved values, then we should accept premise 3 in the above argument from social diversity.


            Rachels’s Criticism: Some Key Values do not Vary. A second approach to attacking the argument from social diversity is to challenge premise 1 above, which holds that “many morally significant values differ from culture to culture.” Some critics of relativism argue that there is less variation than relativists claim. According to critics, although it is true that many values do vary from culture to culture, a large number of these so-called “values” are not truly moral in nature and would be better classified as rules of prudence. That is, they involve personal lifestyle choices that, in spite of their strangeness, don’t warrant moral condemnation by anyone. Many of the culturally relative practices noted by Sextus Empiricus fall into the prudence category, such as his discussion here about men wearing dresses:


no man here would dress himself in a flowered robe reaching to the feet, although this dress, which with us is thought shameful, is held to be highly respectable by the Persians. And when, at the court of Dionysis the tyrant of Sicily, a dress of this description was offered to the philosophers Plato and Aristippus, Plato sent it away with the words “A man am I, and never could I don a woman’s garb”... [Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3:24]


Even Sextus’s above discussion of the differing cultural rituals surrounding dead human bodies also involves issues of prudence rather than morality. The same goes for many social customs that Montaigne lists.

            Distinguishing between true morality and prudence takes away some of the force from premise 1 in the above argument. But some critics of relativism argue even further that, if we look hard enough, we will actually find basic moral values that are the same in all cultures. In Hume’s “Dialogue” on cultural relativism, one character in the conversation who opposes relativism argues just this point:


It appears, that there never was any quality recommended by any one, as a virtue or moral excellence, but on account of its being useful, or agreeable to a man himself, or to others. For what other reason can ever be assigned for praise or approbation? Or where would be the sense of extolling a good character or action, which, at the same time, is allowed to be good for nothing? All the differences, therefore, in morals, may be reduced to this one general foundation, and may be accounted for by the different views, which people take of these circumstances. [“A Dialogue”]


The point of the above reasoning is that, although there might be some diversity with specific types of conduct, there is one general moral standard that we find in all societies. This uniform moral standard involves the usefulness of conduct and the pleasure that we immediately experience from conduct. Consequently, underlying general moral standards don’t vary from culture to culture.

             In recent years James Rachels made a similar argument for three core common values: caring for children, truth-telling, and prohibitions against murder. For Rachels, these are all necessary conditions for the survival of a society since, if a society consistently violated any one of these, it would disintegrate. As to caring for children, all societies need to replenish its supply of educated and productive citizens, otherwise in only a few generations that society would die out. As to truth telling, the successful operation of industries, businesses, schools and governments all rest on trusting each other’s word. I would not buy groceries at my local store if I couldn’t trust that the grocer would let me take home what I paid for. As to prohibitions against murder, if society allowed us to randomly kill other humans just for sport, then everyone would head for the hills and stay as far from society as possible.

            The list of common values doesn’t need to stop with the three that Rachels mentions. Society would fall apart if there were no prohibition against stealing either privately held or publicly held property. Imagine what would happen, for example, if, to expand my garden, I simply annexed my neighbor’s back yard or the street in front of my house. Society also must commit itself to enforcing its core values, otherwise the values themselves would be empty words.

            So, by distinguishing between issues of morality vs. prudence, and by hunting down common social values, the critic of relativism successfully raises serious questions about the truth of premise 1. What at first seems to be an obvious truth for relativists -- that moral values differ from culture to culture -- now seems more like a hasty generalization. The critic’s victory may not be absolute, though, especially when we consider sexual values such as those concerning pedophilia, incest, homosexuality, adultery, and polygamy. Most of us don’t see these as issues of mere prudence, and attitudes about these practices indeed vary so widely that we can’t link them with a core value. Nevertheless, enough damage is done to premise 1 of the argument from social diversity that the sweeping conclusion of that argument no longer follows. That is, it isn’t necessarily more reasonable to believe that differing moral values are grounded in social custom.




            Even if the argument from social diversity fails as a proof for cultural relativism, this isn’t a decisive loss for the cultural relativist. The issue of cultural variability is not necessarily the central issue behind the cultural relativism/objectivism dispute. For, even if all cultures throughout time consistently endorsed a particular value, such as “murder is wrong,” cultural relativists could still argue that this value is grounded in societal traditions and is not based on objective standards. There may be common factors that prompt all societies to create similar values, such as prohibitions against murder. But this doesn’t make these values any less social creations, and, on this view, moral values would still be grounded in social approval. So, we may distinguish between two ways of viewing cultural relativism:


Variable cultural relativism: moral values are grounded in social approval, and these values vary in different cultures.

Nonvariable cultural relativism: moral values are grounded in social approval, and these values do not necessarily vary in different cultures.


Nonvariable cultural relativism is a more modest approach to relativism since it grants in principle that moral values might be the same in different cultures. Although this sidesteps the objection that Rachels offered, even this more modest relativism has its critics. We will consider three objections.


            Whether Cultural Relativists deny all Moral Values. Critics of cultural relativism sometimes argue that denying an objective basis of morality amounts to rejecting all moral values. In response, this criticism confuses the cultural relativist’s position with that of the moral nihilist who holds that there are no moral values at all, but simply repressive social conventions that a truly free person will reject. The cultural relativist, on the other hand, recognizes society’s moral values, and even endorses them; he only denies that they are grounded in an objective realm. To clarify the relativist’s point, it is helpful to distinguish between the issues of metaethics and issues of normative ethics. Metaethics investigates where morality comes from, and one of the key issues of metaethics concerns whether moral values exist in an objective realm that is external to human society. The relativist denies that moral values exist in a realm outside of human society.

            Normative ethics, by contrast, involves a quest for the best values and guiding principles of human conduct. Some leading normative values are the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the Confucian principle of reciprocity that we should avoid treating others in ways we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves, and the utilitarian position that we should pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The cultural relativist will acknowledge the binding nature of some set of moral values such as these. Like everyone, the relativist too lives in societies, raises children, is appalled by crime, and hopes for a better future. There are many practical and emotional reasons to adopt and perpetuate normative moral standards. In short, it is only the more abstract metaethical issue of objectively existing values that the relativist questions. The relativist would argue that it is the normative question that really matters in life and makes us good citizens.


            Whether Cultural Relativism leads to Horrible Values. Critics of cultural relativism argue that, without the objective grounding of moral principles, societies will create many arbitrary and perhaps horrible values and simply give them the rubber stamp of “morality.” By grounding values in fixed objective principles, though, our values will be good ones. The cultural relativist has three replies to this charge. First, even if we grant that there are objective moral principles, objectivists simply assume that these principles are fixed, unchanging, and essentially good. However, this is a position that must be argued for, rather than merely assumed. The 19th century German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) believed that the universe is a giant spirit that is continually evolving. As the absolute spirit evolves through time, so too do human social values evolve on earth: they started out a bit rough but over time became better. Hegel may not have gotten the story of the universe right, but the cultural relativist will argue that even if moral principles are objective, they are not necessarily unchanging, nonarbitrary, or even good.

            Second, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that there are objective moral principles that are unchanging. However, if we have no clear litmus test for recognizing them, then, in point of practice, we may create our value system independently of them. So, the mere existence of objective moral principles alone doesn’t guarantee how we will formulate our social value systems. The objectivist needs to bolster his views with additional theories about how we recognize these unchanging moral truths and how we are motivated to follow them. In our discussion of Balfour’s criticism, we noted that this is difficult to do.

            Third, cultural relativists don’t necessarily hold that moral values are completely arbitrary creations of human society. Some aspects of human nature might influence the kinds of customs that we approve of. Sextus Empiricus and most other traditional philosophers argued that humans and animals alike are biologically designed to find some things pleasing and other things painful. Skeptical philosophers also point to other factors in human nature that might influence how we develop social conventions, such as our natural sense of self-preservation, fear of death, and desire to live in peace. Even Mackie argues that we “create” morality in response to our natural drive to improve our well being as active social creatures. Cultural relativists would still deny that moral values are permanently fixed through our natural drives; however, relativists don’t typically deny altogether the influence of human nature.


            Whether Cultural Relativism rules out Universal Judgments. Perhaps the strongest resistance to cultural relativism comes from our negative reactions to horrible customs such as female genital mutilation. Regardless of how defenders of these practices view them in their homelands, we feel strongly that they are wrong. It isn’t simply that they are wrong here in the United States, but they are wrong everywhere, even in the cultures in which they are practiced the most. The cultural relativist doesn’t seem justified in making this universal pronouncement if he denies the existence of an independent and objective moral realm.

            In response, imagine that morality is a game we play that involves following specific rules that society creates. Some of the rules have us arrive at a normative list of dos and don’ts. Other rules involve punishments and rewards for those that break or abide by these dos and don’ts. Finally, other rules govern the vocabulary that we use when playing the morality game. For example, I’m allowed to call you a “good person” if you consistently perform the “dos”. I am allowed to call you a “bad person” if you consistently violate the “don’ts.” The rules also allow me to make universal pronouncements, such as “female genital mutilation is wrong everywhere.” Not only can I say this, but, according to the rules, I can also mean it, argue for it, feel anger towards those who perform this practice, and stipulate that defenders of this practice are simply wrong. All of these rules are consistent with the cultural relativist’s view that morality is grounded in a combination of human nature and social convention.

            The moral objectivist won’t be satisfied with this game-based notion of “universal pronouncement.” Instead, objectivists such as Balfour will still argue that we need objective moral principles to give full force to universal pronouncements. The relativist can agree that there is in fact a greater metaethical strength to the objectivist’s notion of universal pronouncement. However, the relativist will argue that nothing is gained with objectivism from the standpoint of universal pronouncements. The rules of the morality game remain the same for both the objectivist and the cultural relativist, and both are entitled to make universal pronouncements according to the rules.


            Summary. The moral theory of cultural relativism began with Xenophanes who held that our common notions of god are culturally shaped. Philosophers of the skeptical tradition, beginning with Pyrrho, refined the notion of cultural relativism and drew attention to the  broad diversity of cultural practices. Cultural relativists were typically moral skeptics insofar as they denied an objective foundation of morality. The principal argument for cultural relativism is based on social diversity. That is, cultural relativism is a better explanation of social diversity than is moral objectivism. Against this argument, Balfour maintains that moral objectivism is really a better explanation insofar as many accepted social practices are corrupt and true objective morality is intuitively clear. In response, we noted that Balfour fails to provide an adequate test for distinguishing true morality from corrupt morality. A second criticism of the argument from social diversity is that social practices are not as diverse as the relativist contends, and, in fact, some key moral values are cross-cultural. We agreed with this criticism and concluded that the argument from social diversity fails.

            We noted that there are two distinct approaches to cultural relativism: variable cultural relativism and nonvariable cultural relativism. Although the variable approach has problems, we noted that the nonvariable approach does not suffer from the same problems and common arguments against it are not convincing. This nonvariable cultural relativism indeed allows for the adoption of traditional moral values. It also does not lead to the establishment of horrible values any more than moral objectivism might. And, finally, it allows for the possibility of making universal moral judgments.



Quotations on female genital mutilation is from “Combatting genital mutilation in Sudan,” Sara Mansavage, UNICEF Feature No. 00109.SUD

Quotations by Xenophanes are Richard D. McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), Chapter 7.

The quotation by Heroditus is from The Histories, tr. Aubery de Selincourt, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 220.

Quotations by Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book 3, Sect. 198-238, translated by R.G. Bury.

Quotations by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne are from “Of Custom, and That we should not Easily Change a Law Received” in his Essays (1580), adapted from the translation by Charles Cotton.

David Hume’s “A Dialogue” is included at the end of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), which is available in several modern editions.

Quotations by William Graham Sumner are from Folkways (Boston: Guinn, 1906), Chapter 1, section 31; Sumner’s discussion of incest is in Chapter 12.

Quotations by J.L. Mackie are from Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).

James Balfour’s attack on cultural relativism is in his A Delineation of the Nature and Obligation of Morality (1753), Chapter 5. That specific chapter is reprinted in James Fieser’s Early Responses to Hume, Volume 1 (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999).

James Rachels critique of cultural relativism is in “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” Elements of Moral Philosophy, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993).


Suggestions for Further Reading


For discussions of the Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition see J. Annas and J. Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); M.F. Burnyeat, ed., The Skeptical Tradition (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1983); Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925) 9:69-116; R.J. Hankinson, The Sceptics (London: Routledge, 1995); C.L. Stough, Greek Skepticism (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1969).

For discussions of cultural relativism and moral objectivism see Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New York: Pelican, 1946); Gilbert Harman, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Moral Objectivity, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Michael Krausz, ed., Relativism: Interpretation and Conflict, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989); John Ladd, ed., Ethical Relativism (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1973); Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Edward Westermarck, Ethical Relativity (Paterson: Littlefield, 1960).








            Many people believe that reality is limited to the physical world that we see around us. On this view, rocks, rivers, plants, bugs and all of the things that we experience throughout the day are physical in nature and can be fully explained through scientific investigation. Even human consciousness and social interaction are rooted in physical reality and, with enough investigation, science might fully unravel all of their mysteries, including the nature of morality. On the other hand, other people believe that the physical world around us is only the tip of the iceberg and that a grander reality exists beyond the immediate and superficial world of physical appearances. The New Age spiritualist movement today is a graphic example of this view, and New Age believers use a variety of paranormal techniques to help tap into that higher reality.

            A vivid example is the recently conceived spiritualist technique of past-life therapy. A New Age version of psychoanalysis, past-life therapy involves uncovering traumas from one’s previous lives. Past-life therapists argue that by dredging up and resolving past-life traumas, we can heal ourselves of psychological discomforts and mental disorders in our current lives. Reported traumas from past-life experiences often involve moral components. For example in one case study, a man with symptoms of schizophrenia revealed through hypnosis that in a past life during the middle ages he was unjustly tortured by religious officials. After working through that lingering issue, the man allegedly became a normal functioning person. In a training manual on past life-therapy, William J. Baldwin explains the underlying psychology of this technique. He argues that our subconscious minds retain memories of everything that our spirit-being has ever experienced:


This includes the present lifetime, prior lifetimes, potential future lifetimes, the non-physical realms between incarnations, and the entire track of awareness back to and including the experience of separating or extending from Creator Source.


Many people in the U.S. would probably view past-life therapy with great skepticism. Part of the reason is that reincarnation is inconsistent with the notions of the afterlife that we find in traditional Judeo-Christian theology. Also, paranormal phenomena such as past-life experiences don’t lend themselves to scientific scrutiny and so they lack the kind of hard evidence that impels belief. Although we might doubt the validity of past-life therapy, we must recognize that it reflects a common conviction that truth resides in a higher reality beyond what we see around us. At one time in the history of Western philosophy, theories of higher reality were commonplace. The most influential of these was offered by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE).

            By almost any standard, Plato ranks among the greatest philosophers of the world and many scholars view him as the most important philosopher of Western civilization. We find in Plato a drive for absolute truth that goes beyond the merely popular opinions of the multitudes. We also find in Plato a conviction that the physical world around us is a bad copy of the true reality of things that exists on a higher objective plane. True knowledge -- including true moral knowledge -- involves an intimate encounter with this objective plane. Plato holds a position called moral objectivism, which is the view that morality has an objective foundation that is independent of human approval. Over the centuries, philosophers have proposed a variety of theories of moral objectivism. Some philosophers argued that morality is grounded in the creative will of God, or the laws of nature, or in eternal truths. Plato’s theory, though, is the grandfather of all of these. Not only does Plato give the first detailed account of moral objectivism, but many moral objectivists after Plato incorporated his basic assumption into their own theories. That basic assumption is that moral standards are grounded in a higher and more perfect realm of moral truth. We will look at the central features of Plato’s moral objectivism and assess some of the criticisms launched against his theory.




            Like most philosophers, Plato devised his theory in reaction to other views that he wasn’t happy with. Plato was especially bothered by philosophers of his day who held that moral values are simply human inventions. A brief look at the intellectual climate of Plato’s day will help illuminate the motivation behind his theory.


            The Sophists and Socrates. Plato lived at a time when there was a special need for education throughout the ancient Greek city-states. Governments required more administrators and, to fill the void, aristocratic parents hired freelance philosophers to educate their sons for this vocation. Although not members of any particular philosophical school of thought, these teachers were collectively known as Sophists, a term which means “one who makes people wise.” They traveled widely throughout the Greek world and contracted out their services from one city-state after another. Many Sophists claimed the ability to teach any subject, but their specialization was rhetorical skills, particularly the kind of arguing and persuasive speaking techniques needed in public debates. The Sophists had a skeptical attitude toward the pursuit of truth and, by and large, maintained that in many areas of inquiry, truth is only a matter of persuasive argumentation. The true position in a debate is the winning position. To this end, they offered an argument strategy called “antilogic”, which involved learning to argue both sides of a case as strongly as possible. Using this technique, students could make the weaker argument become the stronger. Not only did the Sophists have flexible attitudes towards truth, but many also had flexible attitudes about morality and held that people create their own values to serve their particular needs. Civic leaders didn’t always admire the Sophists’ contributions to Greek society and leaders often questioned their moral and religious integrity.

            Plato’s teacher was Socrates (469-399 BCE) who, like the Sophists, spent much of his life teaching Aristocratic children in the city of Athens. Unlike many of the Sophists, though, Socrates had a more optimistic view of morality, and Plato was directly influenced by this. Socrates left no writings and the most reliable information that we have about him comes from Plato. Plato’s surviving writings consist mostly of dialogs, which, in modern editions, total around 1,500 pages. In honor of his teacher, Plato introduces a character named “Socrates” who is the main speaker and hero of many of the dialogs. In the dialogs the character Socrates moves among a strange cast of politicians, aristocrats, and Sophists -- most also modeled after historical figures. Socrates typically tries to point out conceptual flaws in the views held by the other characters, although rarely do these rivals concede to Socrates’ position. Scholars commonly divide Plato’s writings into chronological groups of composition. The consensus for the past century has been that Plato’s earliest dialogs aim at presenting the views of the historical Socrates while, in later periods of composition, the Socrates character is more of a dramatic mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. And, at times Socrates is no longer a central character at all. Although it is a nearly impossible task to mark off Socrates’ actual views from those of Plato’s even in the earlier dialogs, we may make a few generalizations about the historical Socrates’ views on morality.

            Historians of philosophy often credit Socrates with shifting the focus of philosophy from issues of cosmology to moral issues. Philosophers prior to Socrates were more like scientists and discussed questions about the primary elements of the physical world and how natural forces balance between perpetual change and regularity. Socrates, though, was principally concerned with moral choice, that is, with choosing to follow a lifelong path of philosophical inquiry, justice and courage, rather than a path of conventional expectations. For Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and “Know yourself” are mottoes that encapsulate this quest. By continually picking away at the moral and religious views commonly held by Athenian society, Socrates alienated himself from Athenian leaders. In their eyes, Socrates was just another troublesome Sophist that threatened to undermine social order. For this reason, when Socrates was around 70 years old, they put him on trial for atheism and corrupting the youth. He was found guilty and executed.


            Protagoras’ Individual Relativism. Socrates and Plato both strongly opposed the Sophists’ moral relativism – that is, the view that moral values are simply human inventions. The undisputed champion of moral relativism in Socrates’ day was the Sophist Protagoras (485-420 BCE). Protagoras expresses his moral relativism in his famous statement that “man is the measure of all things”. Most simply, this means that people are their own standard of truth in all judgments. Only fragments of Protagoras’ original writings survive and we are left to speculate about the precise meaning of this statement. Plato gives his own interpretation about what exactly Protagoras meant. First, when Protagoras states that “man is the measure of all things,” “man” refers to individual humans, rather than human society collectively. In this sense, then, Protagoras’ statement means that each person’s judgment constitutes the standard of truth -- rather than the view that a society’s judgment constitutes the standard of truth. So, on Plato’s interpretation, Protagoras is an individual relativist, which is the view that moral obligations are grounded in each individual person’s own approval. This stands in contrast to a different form of moral relativism called cultural relativism, which holds that moral obligations are grounded in the approval of social cultures. A second point that surfaces in Plato’s discussion concerns two possible interpretations of Protagoras’ statement:


§         each person’s private judgment constitutes the standard of truth for everyone

§         each person’s private judgment constitutes the standard of truth for whoever makes that judgment


Plato inclines towards the second interpretation, which is less radical.

            A third point about Protagoras’ statement concerns its longer and less familiar form as we find it in Plato’s discussion:


Man is the measure of all things – of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.


Literally speaking, Protagoras holds that individual people create their own truth, even to the extent that something exists or doesn’t exist. With many things, Protagoras’ individual relativism presents no serious problem. For example, if I taste some honey and find it sweet, then my judgment that it is sweet makes it true for me. If you, by contrast, don’t find honey sweet when you taste it, then it is true for you that honey is not sweet. In this situation, individual relativism makes sense, since I am describing how something tastes to me based on the physiology of my taste buds, and you are describing how it tastes to you based on your own physiology. But Protagoras pushes this individual relativism to an extreme and holds that the truth of everything is relative to the person. This is where many of us have problems with his individual relativism, since some truths don’t seem to be relative. For example, suppose that I believe it is true that “2+3=7” or “Tokyo is in France.” According to Protagoras, these statements are true for me, even though our normal reaction is that these statements are just plain false and are not true in any sense. For Protagoras, the same individual relativism that applies to judgments about honey or Tokyo also applies to judgments about morality. We all have our own perceptions about what things are good, evil, just and unjust. We can also defend our respective moral views with arguments. In this sense, each of our moral views is true for us respectively.

            In short, on Plato’s interpretation of Protagoras, my personal beliefs constitute the standard of truth for me in all matters. We don’t know precisely why Protagoras adopted individual relativism, but we can speculate based on a skeptical statement that he made about religion:


Concerning the gods, I am unable to know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what their appearance is like. For, there are many things that hinder knowledge, such as the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.


Protagoras argues here that our limited human construction seems unable to penetrate religious reality. Because of this, he pleads ignorance on the subject of religion. Using parallel reasoning, he might also hold that we are unable to penetrate any ultimate moral reality and thus must plead ignorance on this matter as well. In the absence of our knowledge of a moral reality, an alternative is to emphasize the authority of our personal moral preferences.




            Although Plato presents Protagoras’ individual relativism very meticulously, Plato nevertheless harshly rejected it. One problem that Plato had with this view is that he believed that it was self-defeating. For Plato, if I am the judge of what’s true and false for me, then I can simply judge that Protagoras’ theory of individual relativism is itself false, and it thereby becomes false. More precisely Plato’s criticism is this:


(1) According to Protagoras, if I judge something as false then it is false for me.

(2) Suppose that I judge it false that “individual people are the measure of all truth”

(3) Therefore, it is false for me that “individual people are the measure of all truth”


Plato has hit the nail on the head by locating the central problem with Protagoras’ theory of individual relativism. Specifically, the problem is with the sweeping claim that the truth of all things is relative to me, which includes the theory of individual relativism itself. Although the truth of many things certainly is relative to me, such as how something tastes, it is simply false that the truth of all things is relative to me. The most that Protagoras can justifiably say, then, is that “Man is the Measure of some things.” Even though we must reject Protagoras’ sweeping view of individual relativism, the question still remains about the status of moral truths. Is morality relative to individual people just as tastes are relative to individual people? In reaction to Protagoras, Plato maintains that moral truths aren’t relative but, instead, are grounded in a higher objective reality.


            Theory of the Moral Forms. Plato develops his account of moral objectivism in what scholars call the theory of the forms. Plato’s theory of the forms is complex and different features of the theory emerge in different writings of Plato. It will help to begin with a simplified view of his theory and focus on some details after that. According to Plato, the universe consists of two distinct realms. First there is a visible world of appearances, which contains physical objects such as rocks, chairs, cars, and people. Second, there is an intelligible world of the forms, which contains universal abstract objects, such as 2+3=5 and justice. Plato uses the Greek term eidos to refer to these abstract entities, a word that is often translated as idea, or form. “Idea”, though, isn’t the best translation since ideas exist only in the minds of people, whereas eidos, for Plato exist independently of anyone’s mind. The English word “form” avoids this pitfall and better captures Plato’s view of abstract entities that are eternal, unchanging, and nonphysical in nature.

            Imagine that we took a tour of the realm of the forms -- assuming that such a place exists. We first see that the form-realm contains no physical things, and, perhaps not even any three-dimensional things. It is tempting to see it as a realm of spirit beings, although we must avoid thinking of it as a heavenly domain containing the spirits of the dead. It is more like the unconscious furniture of the spirit-realm. On our tour we encounter mathematical relations such as 2+3=5. Although these aren’t conscious spirits, they are nevertheless spiritual substances. We might think of these as eternal mathematical laws and, for Plato, these are mathematical forms. Plato’s notion of the forms in general was likely sparked by the universal and unchanging nature of such mathematical principles. People often refer to mathematics as the universal language since, regardless of what country we are from, we rely on and understand the same basic mathematical notions. Not only do mathematical concepts cut across human cultures, fans of science fiction believe that mathematics is the universal language of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. In fact, a research organization called the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) makes a serious attempt to eavesdrop on mathematically-based messages broadcasted from distant parts of outer space.

            Moving beyond mathematical forms on our tour, we come across the essence of moral concepts such as justice, charity, honesty, and beauty. For Plato, these are the pure forms of moral traits that people have. For example, every person who exhibits the moral attribute of justice must possess a specific feature; according to Plato, that feature is “doing one’s own business”. Like mathematical and physical forms, moral forms function as ideal models for how we identify and categorize things. Specifically, we rely on moral forms to identify and categorize proper actions.

            Finally on our tour we encounter the grandest form of all, namely, the form of the Good. Higher than justice and the other moral forms, the Good is the source of ultimate moral perfection in the other moral forms, and perhaps is even ultimate perfection in general. Plato himself struggles to adequately explain the nature of the Good. He argues that we can’t simply reduce the Good to qualities that we commonly value, such as pleasure or wisdom. However, he argues, we all seek the Good and, like the sun, the Good illuminates everything that we know:


In like manner [to the sun] the good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power. [Republic, 509b]


The latter part of the above passage is especially puzzling. Plato states here that the Good “far exceeds essence”, that is, the Good does not exist in the way that the other forms exist. One interpretation of this is that the regular forms have one kind of spiritual existence while the Good has an even more pure kind of spiritual existence.

            Returning to the physical world, we see particular things, such as a bridge across a river, or a man donating to charity. For Plato, these physical things are imperfectly molded from various mathematical and moral forms. For example, when building a bridge across a river we rely on calculations about stress points and other mathematical components. In Plato’s terminology, the particular physical things that I see participate (methexis) in different abstract forms. The structure of the bridge, for example, participates in abstract mathematical forms. The bridge, though, will never be perfect given the faulty material nature from which it is made. Similarly, when a person donates to charity, he participates in the moral form of charity; the overall morally good person participates in the form of the Good.


            Recollection and Knowledge of the Forms. Perhaps the strangest part of Plato’s theory is his explanation of how we obtain knowledge of the forms. Plato describes this as a recollecting process (anamnesis): in a previous existence we were directly acquainted with all of the forms but over the years we’ve suppressed our knowledge of them. To know the forms, then, we must try to recollect them. This component of Plato’s theory places him in a spiritualist tradition that extends to the present New Age movement. Plato does not discuss the theory of past-life recollection in the Republic specifically. However, the theory of recollection appears so strongly in several of his other dialogs that we can’t dismiss it as a fluke. His most graphic description of it is this:


Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge -- learned it, in ordinary language -- there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection. [Meno, 81d]


The interesting thing about this passage is the statement that the soul “has seen all things both here and in the other world”. For Plato, it is in the other world that we encountered the forms. Suppose that I was born again and again in this present physical world. If I can’t gain knowledge of the forms through normal sense perception, then, even over a thousand lives, I would not be any closer to knowledge of the forms. By describing the procedure as recollection, rather than reacquaintance, Plato implies that it is impossible for us to directly encounter the forms in our present worldly situation, and all that we can do is recollect them. Our previous acquaintance with the forms, then, was in some other world.

            Plato states that this other world is one in which we did not have a “human shape.” More to the point, it is a world in which our souls were not restrained either by our bodies or by physical things. Plato has a low regard for both the physical human body and the visible world and blames them for our misfortunes. He writes that the body flusters, maddens, and imprisons the soul. It is diseased, destroys the value of life, and the true philosopher despises it. By contrast, the other world in which we encountered the forms is spirit-like, which is better suited to the spiritual makeup of our souls.

            These are the key points of Plato’s moral theory:


·        Moral values are eternal, unchanging, and nonphysical forms

·        The highest moral value is the form of the Good, which is ultimate moral perfection

·        People become moral by participating in the moral forms

·        We gain moral knowledge by recollecting the moral forms from a past-life encounter




            From Plato’s own day to the present, critics have exposed problems with various aspects of his moral theory. Shortly after his death, Plato’s pupil Aristotle (384-322 BCE.) took issue with the Platonic theory of the forms. Aristotle’s main dispute with Plato is vividly represented in a famous painting by Italian Renaissance artist Raphaello Santi (1483-1520) titled The School of Athens. In this painting, an elderly Plato and a young Aristotle are walking side by side down a staircase. Plato is pointing up at the sky, designating his view that ultimate reality exists above and beyond the physical world. Aristotle, though, is pointing down at the ground, designating his view that ultimate reality is imbedded right here in the physical and tangible world. For Aristotle, there simply is no higher objective realm of the forms. In is book Metaphysics, Aristotle launches a stream of attacks on Plato’s theory, two of which we will look at here.


            Aristotle’s First Criticism: The Forms do not add to our Knowledge. Plato is convinced that true knowledge about anything consists of knowledge of the relevant forms. For example, to truly understand the nature of charity, I must understand the form of charity. A second criticism by Aristotle addresses this specific point. According to Aristotle, introducing the idea of the forms neither explains the nature of particular things nor helps us better understand particular things:


Above all one might discuss the question what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, either to those that are eternal or to those that come into being and cease to be. For they cause neither movement nor any change in them. But again they help in no wise either towards the knowledge of other things ... or towards their being ...


Aristotle suggests that the theory of the forms simply confuses things by introducing unneeded concepts. Suppose that I want to better understand the notion of charity and I read in Plato that the true nature of charity rests in the form of charity. Not only does this fail to advance my understanding of charity, but it also clutters my discussion with unneeded metaphysical entities. Insofar as we understand a “form” of charity, we do so by studying specific instances of it. The medieval philosopher William of Ockham (d. 1347) recommended that we avoid multiplying entities beyond what we actually need. Known more popularly as “Ockham’s Razor,” Ockham suggests that we stick with our most metaphysically simple explanation. Aristotle anticipates Ockham’s recommendation by pointing out that Plato’s account of the forms merely adds useless metaphysical baggage.

            Aristotle and Ockham are correct that, as a rule, our theories should contribute to our knowledge and that we should rid our theories of pointless complications. However, this criticism loses sight of an important motivation behind Plato’s theory. The physical world around us is very imperfect. If we try to understand the concept of charity by surveying this world, we will arrive at an inadequate concept. Most people are not as charitable as they should be. Even when we are charitable we often act from ulterior motives, such as increased reputation. There may be very few truly representative examples of charity upon which we can draw. Nevertheless, in spite of the inadequacy of our real-life experiences of charity, we in fact have formed a more perfect conception of charity. For Plato, we need standards before we can evaluate specific instances. We need to know what charity ideally is before we can evaluate an alleged instance of charity. This requires more reflection than observation, and perhaps even requires that we cast our vision away from this imperfect world toward a more perfect world. By proposing the theory of the forms, Plato offers us a perfect world upon which we can contemplate. So, Plato’s hypothesis of the realm of the forms isn’t as needless as Aristotle charges.


            Aristotle’s Second Criticism: Participation is not Explained. We’ve seen that the notion of participation is a key element of Plato’s theory. For example, I am a charitable person to the degree that I participate in the form of “charity”. In our discussion above, the notion of participation was explained using the notion of “molding”, that is, I am charitable to the extent that I mold myself after the moral form of charity. However, Aristotle criticizes that no such descriptions adequately explain how physical things get their attributes from the realm of the forms:


All other things cannot come from the Forms in any of the usual senses of “from”. And to say that they are patterns and the other things participate in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors.


In this passage Aristotle argues that Plato’s reliance on the notion of “participation” does not help explain the connection between forms and physical things. He argues that Plato uses the notion of “participation” metaphorically, and that Plato never moves beyond the metaphor to give a more rigorous explanation.

            Taken literally, the term “participation” means that one thing shares in or takes part in another thing, such as when I participate in a game of checkers. This implies an activity of giving or receiving. In this sense, it seems clear that the dog in front of me does not literally give or receive anything with respect to the forms. Aristotle is correct, then, that Plato uses the term “participation” metaphorically, which only hints at the point that he wants to make. We might try to help Plato out by using other notions instead of “participation”, such as molding, mimicking, copying, or instantiating. But these too are only metaphors. We still lack a descriptive procedure that explains how the forms impact the world of appearances. What is worse, though, is that the nature of the issue itself will never allow for a literal and direct description. Plato is offering a theory concerning the interaction between two levels of reality -- the physical and nonphysical. Our words and experiences are firmly grounded in how things interact within the physical realm and we lack the conceptual framework to literally denote features of a nonphysical realm.

            Plato’s theory of the forms isn’t necessarily refuted by the fact that his notion of “participation” is unavoidably metaphorical. I am locked into metaphors in much of my daily conversation as when I talk about my mental events, such as a splitting headache or a painful thought. Religious believers are similarly locked into metaphors when saying anything about God or the spirit-realm. In these arenas we accept metaphors without demanding a more precise account. However, we also recognize that there is great margin for error in what we say on these subjects when using metaphors. The metaphorical nature of Plato’s description places his theory in the same camp as talk about mental events or religion: although we may allow his metaphors, at the same time we must also recognize the high margin of error.


            Mackie’s First Criticism: the Concept of the Forms is Queer. In recent decades Plato’s moral theory has come under sharp attack by Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie (1917-1981). For Mackie, there is something “queer,” or counterintuitive about any description that we might give of Plato’s realm of the moral forms:


This [argument from queerness] has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological. If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.


For Mackie, the metaphysical problem with Plato’s theory of the moral forms concerns its strange spirit-like realm. Where is this realm? How many dimensions does it have? Mackie argues that the strangeness of this realm alone is an argument against its existence. The epistemological problem with Plato’s theory concerns how we gain knowledge of these spirit-like things. We gain knowledge of the physical world through our five senses. But by what faculty do we gain knowledge of this spirit-like realm? Plato says that it involves a faculty of recollection -- similar to our memory faculty -- that dredges up knowledge from past-life experiences. However, few of us would claim to have this type of recollective faculty. Even if we say that it is a type of rational faculty, this presumes that it is like a mental eyeball that peers into another realm. It doesn’t seem that we have this kind of mental faculty either. The crux of the problem, for Mackie, is that it isn’t clear how the peculiar, non-natural realm of the forms has any connection with natural objects and human actions: the two realms are too distinct.

            How might Plato respond to this charge? Here’s one possible response. A classic issue in philosophy is the mind-body problem, which wrestles with how mental events -- which are nonphysical in nature -- connect with my body -- which is physical in nature. Suppose, for example, that I pull my physical hand away from a flame because of the pain that I mentally experience. For this to occur, the signal of pain must first travel through my physical nerves. At some point, then, this physical signal mysteriously jumps into my mental awareness. I then mentally decide to remove my hand, and this decision mysteriously turns into another physical nerve signal as my hand moves. The point is that mental experiences seem to be different kinds of things than merely physical events, and explaining the connecting links between the two is a mystery. So, using this as a parallel example, Plato might argue that, since we accept the mystery of the mind-body connection, then we can also accept the mystery concerning the connection between the natural realm and the realm of the forms.

            The problem with this response, though, is that the two situations are not truly parallel. With the mind-body connection, I have clear experience of both my mind and body, and I can’t reasonably question the existence of either of them. However, as Plato himself acknowledges, I don’t have direct experience of the realm of the forms; at best I recollect the forms. This means that I can reasonably doubt the existence of that realm. It also means that anything I say about that realm will sound strange and far-fetched. So, the puzzle that Mackie raises seems genuine, and it is here that we find the biggest problem with Plato’s moral theory. The questions that Mackie asks are in fact pertinent to any theory of moral objectivism, and not simply Plato’s theory of the forms. There are a variety of moral theories, which, like Plato’s, maintains that moral values are grounded in an objective reality that is independent of human approval. With any of these we may rightly inquire about the metaphysical nature of that reality and how we gain access to it. Whatever answer the moral objectivist gives to our inquiry, the odds are good that it will be as counterintuitive as Plato’s theory of the forms.


            Mackie’s Second Criticism: a Psychological Explanation of Objectification. In a second criticism of Plato, Mackie offers a psychological explanation for why people erroneously believe that there are objective values of any kind. According to Mackie, people have a natural tendency to objectify values that are actually subjective in origin. For example, if I smell a rotten orange and it disgusts me, then I automatically think that the rotten orange itself is disgusting in nature. Clearly, though, the element of disgust is a subjective quality pertaining to my reaction, and it isn’t really a feature of the orange itself. I erroneously project the quality of disgust onto the orange. One reason that we make this mistake is because something is in fact external, namely, the orange itself. We then mistakenly think that everything pertaining to the orange is also external.

            According to Mackie, the same psychological projection takes place with moral values. Society places external constraints on me to behave morally, such as society’s demand that I shouldn’t run around naked. This societal demand itself is external to me; that is, I didn’t invent this myself. Since this societal demand is external, I then erroneously think that everything about the demand is external, including the moral value in question, such as “it is wrong to run around naked in public.” Mackie concludes that it is more reasonable to adopt this psychological projection theory rather than the alternative view that moral values have a genuine external existence in a spirit-like realm of the forms.

            Mackie’s argument strategy here is appropriate. That is, it is relevant to consider a psychological explanation for why we might hold to an erroneous view. To illustrate, suppose that my neighbor wrongly believes that a grotesque monster is stalking him. One way of exposing his error is to hire a surveillance team to continually watch him; presumably they wouldn’t detect a monster. However, another way to expose his error is to offer a cogent explanation of why he is having these delusions. I might, for example, show that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family and that he is another unlucky victim. My neighbor himself may not be convinced by this and instead may think that I’m plotting with the monster against him. However, to an impartial observer, this would be decisive evidence that my neighbor was in error about the monster. Similarly, a follower of Plato might not be persuaded by Mackie’s theory of psychological projection. However, to the extent that we can consider the issue impartially, Mackie’s theory of psychological projection is reasonable enough to make us think long and hard about why we might hold to a conception of objective moral forms.




            In spite of criticisms such as Aristotles, Plato’s theory of the forms had a strong impact on philosophers for more than 2,000 years. His theory of moral objectivism in particular was kept alive by one generation of philosophers after another.


            Plato’s Influence. The fate of Plato’s theory in the years immediately following his death is one of the great ironies in the history of philosophy. Plato was very optimistic about our ability to know truth and he was very bold in his assertion about the existence of an ideal world beyond our immediate perceptions. He opened a school called the Academy to perpetuate his views, and when he died leadership of the Academy was passed onto Plato’s nephew. However Plato’s nephew quickly rejected the doctrine of the forms and transformed the Academy into a mathematical school. A few generations later the new leaders of the Academy completely abandoned Plato’s optimistic philosophy and instead embraced a radical skepticism that emphasized suspending judgment. The skeptical trend started by the new Academy reaches down to our present day, and Mackie among others is part of that skeptical tradition. Although the Academy in later years set skepticism aside, it never returned to a pure Platonist tradition, but instead adopted an eclectic approach to philosophy that blended the views of many philosophers. The Academy was eventually shut down in 529 CE by Roman emperor Justinian.

            The demise of Plato’s theory in the Academy by no means put an end to the influence of Plato’s philosophy in ancient times. Religious philosophers were especially attracted to Plato’s theory. The realm of the forms coincided with religious conceptions of the spirit-realm, and the notion of the Good coincided with the role that God plays as the most perfect being that permeates all things. The best examples of this are Plotinus (205-270 CE), an Egyptian-born mystical philosopher, and Augustine (354-430), a Bishop and theologian of the early Christian Church. Both of these philosophers offered moral theories that paralleled Plato’s, and their respective moral views inspired religious philosophers throughout the Middle Ages. During much of this time only one of Plato’s writings -- the Timaeus -- was accessible to scholars. More of Plato’s writings surfaced in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and with them came a revived appreciation of Plato’s moral theory.

            In 17th century England a group of philosophers educated at Emmanuel College in Cambridge championed a movement called Cambridge Platonism. These philosophers were especially turned off by Puritan and Calvinist Christian theologians who held that God somewhat arbitrarily ruled the universe according to the whims of his will. Instead, the Cambridge Platonists argued that there was a rational order to the universe and God, as a rational being, followed that rational order.

            The most influential of the Cambridge Platonists was Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Cudworth argued that moral principles are eternal truths that depend on no one’s will -- not even God’s. Following Plato, Cudworth insisted that moral truths have a reality in a spiritual realm, which was greater than the reality that physical things have in the “stupid and senseless” material realm:


... those things which belong to Mind and Intellect, such as Morality, Ethicks, Politicks and Laws are, which Plato calls, The Offspring and Productions of Mind, are no less to be accounted natural Things, or real and substantial, than those things which belong to stupid and senseless Matter. [Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, 4.6.8]


Cudworth departed from Plato somewhat in explaining how we gain knowledge of eternal moral truths. Plato believed that the moral forms existed outside of anyone’s mind, and that, in a previous existence, we encountered them directly. Cudworth, though, believes that we gain knowledge of eternal moral truths by tapping into God’s understanding of those truths. Even though God didn’t invent these eternal moral truths, God nevertheless thinks about them and this knowledge is then passed onto us.

            Cudworth’s view of eternal moral truths was widely adopted during the 18th century, and advocates clearly attributed the origins of this theory to Plato. We see this in the following passage by 18th century moral philosopher Catherine Macaulay:


… [morality involves] a necessary and essential difference of things, a fitness and unfitness, a proportion and disproportion, a moral beauty and a moral deformity, an immutable right and wrong, necessarily independent of the will of every being created and uncreated, explained by the philosopher Plato under the form of everlasting, intelligent ideas [i.e., forms], or moral entities, coeval with eternity....


Macaulay continues describing this Platonism as the “Catholic opinion in the creed of the moralist.” That is, from Macaulay’s perspective, the Platonist account of morality was the accepted view of the time. Macaulay’s observation is important in two ways. First, she indicates that moral objectivism was the standard philosophical view of morality in her time. Second, she indicates that – in spite of different terminology – the moral objectivism of her day was essentially Plato’s theory.


            Skepticism about Plato’s Moral Objectivism. The theory of morality that we find in Plato -- and those he inspired -- requires a unique belief commitment to higher objective levels of reality. Traditional Christian believers distinguish between an earthly realm and a higher heavenly realm. Nontraditional religious believers, such as advocates of New Age religion, also think that reality has higher levels than what we see around us. These religious believers may very likely feel that Plato and his successors have accurately captured the higher and objective nature of morality. Others of us, though, may feel that the physical world around us is all that we can be sure of, and notions of the forms or eternal truths don’t resonate with our earth-grounded view. This seems to be the conviction underlying the criticisms of Plato by Aristotle and Mackie. Aside from these earth-grounded criticisms, a skeptically-minded person might see an even greater problem with Plato’s assertions about objective moral reality. For the skeptic, the true nature of morality is completely inaccessible to us. We strive to be moral, but we will never know exactly what morality is and exactly why we approve of some actions and not others.

            To illustrate, imagine that someone gave you a box that you couldn’t open, but which has something inside. If you shake the box in one direction then you feel its weight shift and you hear a rattling noise. If you shake it in other directions then its weight shifts differently and it makes thumps, crackles or squeaks. You and your friends come up with different theories about what exactly is inside the box, but none of you knows for sure. When philosophers investigate the nature of reality, they frequently find themselves in a similar situation and don’t have direct access to the thing that they want to explain. Philosophers have recognized this to be so with a variety of things. For example, I don’t have direct access to the actual physical objects in front of me, such as rocks, trees, or houses. Instead my knowledge of rocks, trees, or houses is restricted to what appears to my five senses, and my senses are limited in what they can tell me about these objects. Similarly, when I’m speaking with other people, I don’t have access to their thoughts; for all I know, the people I talk to may not have any thoughts at all and may simply be unconscious biological robots. Even my own thinking process is to a large extent beyond my reach. When I go to the grocery store and buy vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, I don’t know exactly what is behind my decision to select one over the other. In all of these cases we devise theories to help explain the nature of external objects, or other people’s minds, or my own mental processes. Often these theories are a bit too aggressive and they make claims that go beyond the available facts.

            According to the skeptic, to this list of inaccessible things we need to add the nature of morality. We struggle to uncover the true nature of morality, but all that we end up with is a wide range of theories. These theories sometimes locate the nature of morality in our individual preferences, such as Protagoras suggested, or higher objective levels of reality, such as Plato suggested. These explanations are not only diverse, but they can’t easily be reconciled with each other. There’s a point at which we can reasonably abandon the quest for the true nature of morality and simply accept that the nature of morality is inaccessible to us. Theories such as Protagoras’s and Plato’s are interesting guesses about the hidden nature of morality. But, like other philosophical theories, these theories are frequently too aggressive and they make claims that go beyond the available facts. The skeptic’s approach to philosophy introduces its own set of problems, which we’d have to sort out before completely agreeing with the skeptic about the inaccessible nature of morality. Nevertheless, most philosophers agree that a dose of skepticism is a good thing insofar as it helps us from becoming too aggressive with our theories.

            The upshot of the situation for Aristotle, Mackie and the skeptic is that, although we regularly read and admire Plato, it is difficult for us to actually believe in his theory of the objective moral forms. When we can’t accept a literal interpretation of a theory, a common tactic is to salvage something of the theory through a metaphorical interpretation. With past-life therapy, for example, William J. Baldwin suggests that, for past-life therapy to work, a therapist does not have to literally believe in reincarnation:


Whether these [past-life] are memories of actual events or metaphoric, symbolic, even archetypal images, the therapist must work with the imagery and narrative and emotions as if they were real. They are real for the client, and the emotional impact of these memories can seriously disrupt a person’s life.


We may adopt a similar strategy in handling Plato’s theory. Rather than seeing the forms as objectively existing spiritual things, we might simply see the forms as expressing a demand for unchanging standards for moral judgment. Protagoras’s “man is the measure” doctrine is simply inadequate, and, in its place, we require a more fixed criterion of morality.

            We can also take Plato’s theory metaphorically as a statement about our own moral state as we strive for perfection. Most of us try to be good people. We avoid stealing, we try to be polite, and we try to help others in need. Unfortunately, most of us fall short of moral perfection. We behave selfishly, disregard other people’s feelings, speak unkind words about others and perform a host of other bad acts. However, in spite of our failed efforts to be morally good, we always know that there is a more perfect version of each of us. If I am truly concerned about moral improvement, I will think about what that more perfect me is like. How might that more perfect me be more generous, courageous, or even-tempered than I am now? What are the key features of justice or charity that I lack and the more perfect me has mastered? Plato and his successors all warn against limiting ourselves to what we see when looking in a mirror. They also warn that moving beyond the present world is a very difficult task. By reading objectivist account of morality such as Plato’s, I may learn from philosophers who have struggled to look beyond the present world, and I may discover the features of that more perfect me.


            Summary. Prior to Plato, Protagoras articulated the view that “Man is the measure of all things.” Plato interpreted this as a statement of individual relativism, namely, that whatever I judge to be true is true for me. Against Protagoras’s individual relativism, Plato offered a theory of moral objectivism. According to Plato, moral truth is located in the spirit-realm of the forms. We gain moral knowledge through past-life recollection of the moral forms, especially the form of the Good. Aristotle criticized Plato for offering a theory that was unnecessarily complex. In response, we noted that, given the state of moral imperfection around us, Plato was justified in offering his complex theory of the forms. Aristotle also criticized that Plato does not adequately explain the key notion of participation, but simply rests on a metaphor. In response, we noted that Plato’s use of metaphors may be justified, although such metaphors have the disadvantage of being imprecise. Mackie criticized that Plato’s theory is “queer” with regard to the nature of the forms and how we gain knowledge of the forms. We agreed with Mackie’s criticism and noted that this is a central problem for other theories of moral objectivism. Mackie also offered a psychological projection theory  that explains why philosophers such as Plato wrongly believe that moral values are objective.

            Tracing the influence of Plato’s moral theory, we noted Cudworth’s view that we access eternal moral truths by seeing them in God’s mind. In conclusion, we noted that religious believers have an affinity with Plato’s notion of a higher moral realm. However, more earth-bound people have difficulties accepting his theory literally, and may wish to view it more metaphorically as a demand for unchanging moral standards or a vision of a more perfect self.



William J. Baldwin Past Life Therapy: A Training Manual, (Bethel Publications, 1997).

The Sophists are discussed in Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).

Protagoras’s views are described in Plato’s Theaetetus 152a, 161-173; his statement about the existence of the gods is from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, ix. 52.

Plato’s distinction between the physical and intellectual realms is vividly illustrated in his analogy of the divided line in the Republic, 6:510-511; his theory of recollection is presented in Phaedo, 75; the analogy between sense perception and knowledge appears in the Republic, 6:507-509 and Theaetetus, 185-187. Quotations from are The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1901).

Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato’s theory of the forms are found in Metaphysics 1.9, which is available in several recent translations.

J.L. Mackie’s criticisms of Plato are in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).

Plotinus’s discussion of morality is from Enneads 1.2.1, the best translation of which is by A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus, 7 vol. (Cambridge, Mass.: Heinemann 1966-1988).

Augustine’s discussion of virtue is from City of God, 19.25, which is available in several recent editions.

The quotation by Ralph Cudworth is from Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, 4.6.8, which is recently edited by Sarah Hutton (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The quotation by Catherine Macaulay is from A Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth (London: Dilly, 1783); there is no recent edition of this work.

Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of paradigm shifts is in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).


Suggestions for Further Reading

For discussions of Plato’s moral theory see Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Terence Irwin, Plato’s Moral Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

For discussions of Plotinus see The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Dominic J. O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

For discussions of Augustine’s theory of knowledge and ethics see E. Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, (Chicago, IL: Regnery, 1960); C. Kirwan, Augustine, (London: Routledge, 1989).

For a discussion of Cudworth see J.A. Passmore Ralph Cudworth, an Interpretation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1951).







            The media has recently focused on a phenomenon called road rage in which drivers become enraged at offending motorists and confront them. In Durham, North Carolina a driver’s education teacher was enraged when his car was cut off by another vehicle:


[David] Cline was teaching two female students how to drive when the other car cut them off, according to police. Cline instructed the student driver to chase down the car, police said. They caught up to [Jon David] Macklin, and Cline got out and punched him, police said. Macklin then took off, and the instructor allegedly had the student chase him again.


The teacher was charged with simple assault and was suspended from his job. He later resigned from his middle school position. Although this particular situation has an element of irony, many other stories of road rage are nothing but tragic. On Virginia’s George Washington Parkway, two motorists confronted each other when changing lanes, and the dispute erupted in a high-speed battle. Both drivers lost control, passed over the centerline, and killed two innocent motorists. Studies by the AAA suggest that about 30 deaths in a one-year period are directly attributable to road rage. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that in a one-year period, two thirds of 41,000 total highway deaths are at least partly attributable to road rage. In either case, most of the deaths occur from assailants using their vehicle as a weapon or by using guns they have with them.

            The circumstances that spark road rage are mostly trivial. A motorist might brake abruptly, swerve into another lane or honk the horn. This prompts shouting, tailgating, obscene gestures, high-speed chases, and direct physical confrontations. There are several psychological explanations for the road rage phenomenon. Traffic is continually becoming heavier and thereby causing sensory overload. Many assailants are in large sports utility vehicles, which perhaps gives them a false sense of invulnerability. The root of the problem, however, is that the assailant experiences a strong emotion of anger and seemingly loses ability to control it. Many relatively minor events in our daily lives have the potential to make us angry. The cat might knock over a plant, the new stereo might malfunction, a store clerk might be rude, or the neighbors might be too noisy. We learn to combat our angry urges, though, and react in a civilized manner.

            Anger is just one strong feeling that we must keep in check. Others are sexual appetite, hunger, envy, malice, hatred, resentment, fear, pride, and desire. Imagine what people would be like if we never retrained any of these emotions. We would constantly be at war with others and society as we know it would collapse. Controlling strong emotions is a matter of training. Our parents and teachers begin training us when we are young. As we get older, we continue the training process on our own. Eventually we develop habits that become fixed character traits of our personality. In short, we acquire what moral philosophers call virtues. A virtue is a good character trait that we develop that regulates emotions and urges. Typical virtues include courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, and truthfulness. Vices, by contrast, are bad character traits that we automatically develop in reaction to the same emotions and urges when we fail to acquire virtues. Vices include cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. As a fully developed moral theory, virtue theory is the view that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits, or virtues. A person is good if he has virtues and lacks vices.


            Early Greek View of Virtues. Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest moral theories in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. The Greek term for virtue is arete, which means “excellence.” Greek epic poets and playwrights, such as Homer and Sophocles, described the morality of their heroes and antiheroes in terms of their respective virtues and vices. Their characters’ successes and failures hinged on their virtuous or vicious character traits. For example, in Sophocles’s tragic play Oedipus Rex, king Oedipus’s life crumbles after he unknowingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother. These tragic acts themselves, though, are a consequence of his character flaws, particularly pride and overconfidence.

            Discussions of the virtues become more formalized by Plato who stressed four particular virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Early Christian theologians dubbed these cardinal virtues, given their central role for Plato, especially regarding Plato’s description of the human psyche. According to Plato, the human psyche has three distinct parts: one that reasons, one that wills, and one that has appetites. The job of our reason is to make sound judgments, and the job of the will is to ally itself with reason rather than appetite. We have wisdom when our reason is informed by general knowledge of how to live. We have courage when our will always obeys reason, regardless of what our appetites say. We have temperance when our reason governs our appetites. We have justice when each of the three parts of our psyche performs its proper task with informed reason in control. Plato believed that these virtues were unified insofar as all four require a properly developed reason. So, for Plato, if I have one of these virtues, I will necessarily have them all. Although Plato’s vision of reason’s involvement in virtues influenced later theorists, the details of his four cardinal virtues had limited impact given their somewhat forced reliance on his specialized theory of the psyche. The more developed analysis of virtues was left to his student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE.).




            Aristotle’s account of virtue is found in his work The Nichomachean Ethics, which he named in honor of his son Nichomachus. The work is long, at around 200 pages, and only the highlights of his theory can be presented here.


            Appetite-Regulating Habits. There are three main steps in Aristotle’s discussion of virtues. The first step involves establishing the fact that humans strive after an ultimate good that defines who we are. The subject of ethics is an attempt to discover this goal. For Aristotle, our ultimate good is an end that we seek in and of itself, and not merely for the sake of something else. In general, we call this ultimate end “happiness” (eudamonea), although this term is used in so many ways that we need to specify more precisely what it involves. Human happiness is different than the contentment that dogs experience, for example, and such happiness is unique to our human construction and purpose. The second step in Aristotle’s discussion involves discovering our uniquely human purpose by analyzing our uniquely human psyche. He offers this division of the human psyche:


                                                Calculative (logic, math, science)

                        Rational <

            Psyche                         Appetitive (emotions, desires)


                                                Vegetative (nutrition, growth)


According to Aristotle, the psyche has an irrational element that is similar to that of non-human animals, and a rational element that is distinctly human. The highest aspect of the rational part is calculative in nature, and is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. This is a uniquely human ability. At the other extreme, the most primitive and irrational element of our psyche is the vegetative faculty that is responsible for our physical nutrition and growth. This is a factor present in all life forms, and not just in humans and other animals. Between the two extremes there is an additional faculty that is by nature irrational but is guided by reason. This is the appetitive faculty and is responsible for our emotions and desires. The appetitive faculty is irrational since even lower animals experience desires. However, this faculty is rationally guided since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of ethics.

            The third and last step in Aristotle’s discussion involves a description of the moral virtues themselves. Aristotle makes three general observations about the nature of moral virtues. First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires isn’t instinctive, but learned and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he argues that desire-regulating virtues are character traits, or habitual dispositions, and shouldn’t be seen as either emotions or mental faculties. Third, moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits that are at a mean between more extreme character traits. If we regulate our desires either too much or too little, then we create problems. For example, in response to our natural emotion of fear when facing 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 notes that this is similar to how “excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength.”

            Most moral virtues, and not just courage, fall at the mean between two accompanying vices. Aristotle describes 11 virtues in particular that follow this model. Each virtue and vice arises in reaction to some specific appetite or desire we have. His analysis is summarized in this table:


Appetite          || Vice of Deficiency | Virtuous Mean | Vice of Excess


Fear danger      || Cowardice                 Courage                       Rashness

Pleasure           || Insensibility    Temperance                 Intemperance

Give money      || Stinginess                   Generosity                    Extravagance

Spend money   || Pettiness                    Magnificence                Vulgarity

Self-worth        || Humility                     Self-respect                  Vanity

Honor              || No Ambition  Right Ambition Over-ambition

Anger               || Spiritlessness Good Temper               Ill temper

Social life          || Unfriendliness             Friendly Civility Bootlickingness

Truth                || False Modesty           Sincerity                       Boastfulness

Amusement      || Humorlessness           Wittiness                      Buffoonery

Fear dishonor   || Immodest                   Modesty                       Bashfulness


Of these 11 virtues, the pinnacle of these for Aristotle is self-respect, which is also translated as “pride” or “high-mindedness.” It involves having a respectful attitude about our self-worth in everything that we do. For example, it is unbecoming for a self-respecting person to be cowardly when facing danger, or to be insensible with pleasure, or to be stingy about giving money.

            Aristotle notes that that there weren’t enough terms in his language to adequately name all the virtues and corresponding vices. This is also the case with the English language, and it may be difficult at first to grasp the relation between the various virtues and vices on the above list. Aristotle also notes that not all virtues fall at a mean between two more extreme dispositions. One such virtue is that of justice, which simply has injustice as its contrary. The virtue of justice involves being lawful and fair. The unjust person, by contrast, is unlawful, unfair, and greedily grasps at things.


            Practical Wisdom. Although Aristotle’s analysis of the above 11 virtues fits into a nicely organized scheme, in common life situations it is in fact hard to pinpoint the mean between two extreme dispositions. Suppose that I am a soldier and I know in theory that if my fear gets the best of me I will be a coward, and if I completely ignore my fear I will be rash. Somewhere in the middle lies courage. However, how many bullets need to fly above my head before I can courageously crawl back into my foxhole for safety? Suppose I am a college student and I understand that temperance involves knowing how to regulate my desire for pleasure. Am I insensible if I completely avoid going to fraternity parties? And, if I do go, how many beers can I have before I am intemperate? Suppose that, in my drive for success at my job, I understand that lack of ambition will get me fired, but too much ambition will destroy my home life. How much devotion should I show at my job?

            Aristotle confesses that it is indeed difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because of the challenges presented in finding the mean between the extremes. He notes that calculating the mean isn’t simply a matter of taking an average. For example, if drinking 20 cans of beer at a party is too much, and drinking zero cans is too little, this doesn’t imply that I should drink 10 cans of beer, which is the mathematical mean. However, there is a solution to this problem. Aristotle explains that an aspect of our calculative reasoning called practical wisdom (phronesis) helps us find the virtuous mean. There are two components to practical wisdom. First, it intuitively grasps our ultimate purpose in life. In a nutshell, our ultimate purpose is to be community-oriented rational creatures. Each properly formed virtue contributes to fulfilling this ultimate purpose. Second, practical wisdom involves deliberating about and planning the best way of attaining this ultimate purpose. As a soldier, cowering in my foxhole won’t help me attain my community-oriented purpose; being too rash won’t help me either. Practical wisdom will help me assess the risks in different combat situations, and it will help me see when it would be most effective for me to charge against the enemy. Similarly, practical wisdom will help me figure out how many beers I should drink at a party, and how much ambition I should have at my job. With each dilemma we face, then, our practical wisdom will help us chisel out the appropriate conduct that will facilitate our ultimate purpose.

            In spite of the assistance that we receive from practical wisdom, we shouldn’t see it as a small voice within us that tells us for each action whether that action hits the mean or one of the extremes. First, when we are in the process of developing virtuous habits, practical wisdom doesn’t pronounce judgment on each of our actions. Instead, through our life experiences, we gradually develop a sense of our ultimate purpose and just as gradually we cultivate virtuous habits. Second, once our virtuous habits are developed, we act spontaneously without step by step rational prompting. For example, once I learn how to be a safe automobile driver, my highway manners become second nature and I slow down before approaching a stop sign without consciously thinking about it.

            If I successfully acquire virtues, then I attain the status of a good person. As a good person, each of my actions will be a reflection of the virtuous character traits that I developed. However, Aristotle argues, each action must be freely chosen. That is, the action must have its causal origin within me, and can’t be mechanically imposed on me by other people. Further, for my choice to be truly free, I must know all of the important details pertaining to the action in question. He argues that freedom of the will is a factor with both virtuous choices and vicious choices.


            Good Temper. In view of our opening illustration of road rage, let’s look at Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of good temper, which is the seventh virtue listed on the above chart. Good temper properly curbs one’s appetite of anger. If I curb my anger too much I have the vice of spiritlessness, and if I don’t curb it enough I have the vice of ill temper. For Aristotle, there are five factors involved in our appropriate response to anger. We should only become angry (1) at the appropriate person, (2) for an appropriate offense, (3) to an appropriate degree, (4) with appropriate quickness, and (5) for an appropriate length of time. He concedes that it is difficult to precisely define what counts as “appropriate” in these five circumstances, but maintains that the good tempered person won’t allow himself to be dragged around by his passions, and will be guided by practical wisdom. Aristotle believes that it is appropriate to get angry when someone callously insults us. However, the good-tempered person isn’t vengeful, and to a degree he accepts his situation.

            As for the vice of spiritlessness, there are several reasons why it is bad for us to completely lack expressions of anger. If we never react in anger even when there is a proper cause, then it will appear to others that we will tolerate injustice. People will think that we won’t defend ourselves and, for example, we will sit back and put up with insult after insult against our loved ones and ourselves. In a word, people will see us as fools. In spite of how bad it is to be completely unaffected by anger, Aristotle believes that it is better to err on the side of spiritlessness than on the side of ill-temper since spiritless people are easier to live with.

            On the other extreme, ill-tempered people respond inappropriately to anger with at least one of the above five factors. In fact, Aristotle notes that we have different names for ill-tempered people based on the combination of factors in which they fail. Hotheaded people get angry too quickly, with the wrong people, for the wrong reason, and to the wrong degree (factors 1-4). However, they get over their anger quickly (factor 5), which is the best thing about them. Choleric people get angry quickly at everything on every occasion (factors 1, 2 and 4). Brooding people fail mainly with the fifth factor and carry out their anger far too long. Bad-tempered people get angry at the wrong things for a long period of time (factors 2 and 5) and won’t be satisfied until they inflict punishment on the offender. How would Aristotle view the person who exhibits road rage? The enraged driver has perhaps picked out the appropriate person for an appropriate offense, and maybe is angry for an appropriate length of time. But the degree of his reaction is far too extreme and his angry reaction is far too quick. His principal failure, then, is with factors (3) and (4).

            These are the main points of Aristotle’s virtue theory:


·        Moral virtues are habits that regulate the desires of our appetitive nature

·        Most virtues are at a mean between two vicious habits

·        Our practical wisdom guides us in developing moral virtues by gradually informing us of our ultimate purpose and showing us the best means of attaining it

·        My moral actions are freely chosen and are an extension of my virtuous habits


Aristotle himself summarizes his notion of moral virtue here:


Virtues are means between extremes; they are states of character; by their own nature they tend to the doing of acts by which they are produced; they are in our power and voluntary; they act as prescribed by right governance [i.e., practical wisdom]. [Nicomachean Ethics, 1114b 25]


            Virtue Theory After Aristotle. For almost 2000 years Greek notions of virtue -- and Aristotle’s theory in particular -- were central to Western conceptions of morality. The details were sometimes different, but moral philosophers consistently emphasized the need to acquire good character traits that guide our actions and thereby make us good people. Immediately after Aristotle, the rival philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism offered competing views of morality and the virtues. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) identified the virtuous life with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. By contrast, Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, emphasized the importance of resigning oneself to fate and suppressing our desires for things beyond our control. For Zeno, virtue is intimately connected with our knowledge of the physical world and, to this end, the virtuous person develops four knowledge-oriented virtues. Through intelligence I know what is good and bad. Through bravery I know what to fear and what not to fear. Through justice I know how to give what is deserved. Through self-control I knows what passions to ignore.

            With the arrival of Christianity, the Apostle Paul endorsed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which were later dubbed the “theological virtues” in contrast to Plato’s four “cardinal virtues.” Medieval theologians sometimes referred to the “seven virtues,” combining the three theological virtues with the four cardinal virtues. Medieval theologians such as Aquinas held Aristotle in especially high regard and wrote commentaries on the Nichomachean Ethics, and this perpetuated Aristotle’s analysis of the virtues. By the Renaissance, philosophical discussions of virtue were mainly analyses of Aristotle’s theory.




            In the 17th century, interest in Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics declined. His theory wasn’t outright rejected; instead, leading moral philosophers believed that virtues were only of secondary importance in explaining moral obligation. Of primary importance was the need to follow rational moral rules and make sure that our actions abided by those rules.


            Grotius’s Criticism: Many Virtues are not at a Mean. In his work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) began the attack on Aristotle by arguing that his theory fails as a systematic account of morality. Grotius focuses specifically on Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. For Aristotle, virtues regulate our desires insofar as we form middle-ground habits between more extreme habits. According to Grotius, some virtues do indeed control our passions through a middle course, but not all virtues do this, and, in fact, some virtues are actually extreme dispositions. For example, Aristotle lists insensibility -- or contempt for pleasure -- as a vice, but Grotius believes that this is a virtue. Aristotle lists ambitionlessness -- or contempt for honor -- as a vice, but Grotius believes that this too is a virtue. In religious matters, Grotius believes that it is impossible to worship God too much, or seek heaven too much, or fear hell too much. The larger point, for Grotius, is that morality consists of following the rational rules of natural law, and not in scouting about for an elusive middle ground of behavior. Grotius believes that everyone has access to the rules of natural law, and our reason will quickly tell us when we should seek a middle ground, and when we should do something in the extreme.

            On face value Grotius’s criticism seems plausible: we can understand how Aristotle might have forced a number of virtues into a mold that they didn’t quite fit. However, if we carefully examine the specific cases that Grotius cites, Aristotle’s account of middle-ground virtues seems on target. Are contempt for pleasure and honor really virtues as Grotius claims? For average people in average social situations, these extreme behaviors don’t seem appropriate. By having contempt for all pleasure, we cut ourselves off from many of life’s best opportunities, such as romance, good food, or entertainment. By having contempt for all honor, we feel incomplete in what we try to accomplish in life. Grotius also believes that it is virtuous to be extreme in our worship of God, fear of hell, or desire of heaven. Similarly, though, for average people in average social situations, if we focus too much on religious matters, then we may neglect our earthly responsibilities.

            When praising these extreme character traits, perhaps Grotius has in mind religious believers, such as monks, who devote their lives to austerity. Monks deny all bodily pleasures and any emotional pleasure that comes from personal accomplishment. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) discusses what he calls “monkish virtues” and, unlike Grotius, Hume readily calls them vices:


Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues ... server to no manner of purpose .... We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices ... [Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 9:1]


For Hume, these monkish qualities are actually vices since they don’t make life more agreeable for ourselves or other people. Instead, they inhibit our happiness. Perhaps, like Grotius, Hume has also gone too far in assessing extreme monkish character traits. Although these may be vices for people in normal social situations, they are not vices for the monks themselves. The monks themselves believe that they are bettering their lives through their more extreme behavior. And -- most significantly for Aristotle’s theory -- the monks will likely feel that they too are following a middle ground life-style. Even a zealous monk could become too extreme and starve himself to death, or whip himself to death, or pray to the point of becoming insane.

            So, contrary to Grotius, it seems appropriate to discover virtues through middle-ground dispositions -- both for ordinary people and for monks. Many Eastern religions provide two separate lists of moral codes: one for monks, and one for non-monks, and each of these codes are reasonable in their own contexts. The key issue, then, is identifying one’s social context and finding the appropriate mean in that context.


            Kant’s Criticism: Without Moral Principles Misapplied Virtues become Vices. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) recognized that virtues are important for developing our worth as people. However, he argued that virtues have no moral value unless they are directed by rational moral principles. In fact, for Kant, if our virtues are not guided by moral principles, then they actually become vices. For example, according to Kant, “the coolness of a villain makes him not only much more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been regarded by us without it.” That is, we typically think that it is a virtue to be cool headed; but when a villain is cool headed, this actually makes him more evil than he would have been otherwise. Although Kant does not reject virtues, he believes that they are secondary to our need to follow moral principles. Our primary moral task is to discover the rules of morality, and then shape our character based on these rules.

            Philosophers before Kant also recognized that misapplied virtues become vices. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this is given by French statesman Maximilien de Béthune (1559-1641). De Béthune describes a man he knew who had an extraordinary number of virtues:


His genius was so lively that nothing could escape his penetration, his apprehension was so quick, that he understood every thing in an instant, and his memory so prodigious, that he never forgot anything.  He was master of all the branches of philosophy, the mathematics; particularly fortification and designing.  Nay, he was so thoroughly acquainted with divinity, that he was an excellent preacher ... He applied this talent to imitate all sorts of persons, which he performed with wonderful dexterity; and was accordingly the best comedian in the world.  He was a good poet, an excellent musician, and sung with equal art and sweetness. ... His body was perfectly proportioned to his mind. He was well made, vigorous and agile, formed for all sorts of exercises. He rode a horse well, and was admired for dancing, leaping, and wrestling.  He was acquainted with all kinds of sports and diversions, and could practice in most of the mechanical arts.


As de Béthune continues his description, he suggests that all of these virtues become tainted when we consider the horrible qualities of the same person:


Reverse the medal: He was a liar, false, treacherous, cruel, and cowardly, a sharper, drunkard and glutton.  He was a gamester, an abandoned debauchee, a blasphemer and Atheist.  In a word, he was possessed of every vice, contrary to nature, to honour, to religion, and society: he persisted in his vices to the last, and fell a sacrifice to his debaucheries, in the flower of his age; he died in a public stew, holding the glass in his hand, swearing, and denying God.


Both de Béthune and Kant expose a genuine problem for virtue theory, which is that virtuous character traits by themselves are not necessarily good. Kant indeed gives one successful solution to this problem, namely, that we should develop our virtues in response to general moral principles that we follow. Although a successful solution, this isn’t the best solution.

            Many moral philosophers -- including Cicero, Hutcheson, Balfour, and Beattie -- distinguished between two groups of character traits, the first being more important than the second:


Moral virtues: benevolence, fidelity, integrity, justice, humanity, generosity

Intellectual abilities: courage, coolness, industry, intelligence, wit, good manners, eloquence


According to these philosophers, it is more ethically important for me to develop moral virtues, such as benevolence, rather than intellectual abilities, such as courage. In fact, my overall moral goodness depends on me developing moral virtues, rather than intellectual abilities. So, if we first develop moral virtues, such as benevolence, then we won’t be able to misapply intellectual abilities such as courage. We can see this by returning to Kant’s example of the cool-headed villain. Kant’s villain lacks moral virtues, but has the intellectual ability of coolness, which he misapplies. Suppose, though, that the villain had a moral conversion and acquired moral virtues such as justice. As a morally just person, his coolness would then become a moral asset rather than a moral liability. It is difficult to even see how a just person could ever misapply his intellectual virtue of coolness. The distinction between moral virtues and intellectual abilities also solves the puzzle raised by de Béthune’s example. The man’s “virtues” first listed by de Béthune are really only intellectual qualities, and the man’s vices next listed are mostly genuine moral vices.

            In short, to solve the puzzle of misapplied virtues, we don’t have to subordinate virtues to moral rules, as Kant argues. Instead, we can recognize and adopt a superior class of truly moral virtues, and this will prevent us from misapplying our intellectual abilities.


            Mill’s Criticism: Morality involves Judging Actions and not Character Traits. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) recognized the importance of virtues in forming our personal character and our opinion of people. Good people, he believed, are people who have virtues, such as charity. Mill also recognized that virtues are important for inclining us to act properly. If I have the virtue of charity, for example, then I will be more inclined to help others in need. Nevertheless, Mill argued that the job of morality is to assess people’s actions and not their character:


 ... no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a band 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 ... [Utilitarianism, Ch. 2]


According to Mill I am morally guilty only for what I actually do, and not for what I am inclined to do. Suppose, for example, that I dive into a river to rescue someone from drowning, and that I’m motivated by the hope of getting a reward. Mill believes that I did the morally right thing. What matters is that I in fact rescued that person, and it doesn’t matter what specifically inclined me to do it. So, since virtues are only inclinations, then they are not relevant in our assessment of the actions themselves.

            Although we should disregard virtuous inclinations when making moral judgments, Mill is quick to point out that we must recognize the immediate intention behind an action. The intention involves the action’s specific purpose. For example, when I dive into the river, my intention is to rescue you, and it is not my intention to drag you out of the river and torture you to death. My intention to rescue you will be the same, regardless of whether I am motivated by greed or benevolence. Mill recognizes that he might be going too far by devaluing the importance of virtues, but he believes that is best to err on the side of caution and rigidly judge people for each of their intended actions.

            Mill is correct that we often judge people’s intended actions, and not their predispositions. This is similar to how we legally judge criminals for the crimes that they actually commit, and not for their criminal predispositions. However, contrary to Mill, there are clear cases in which both moral and legal judgments go beyond the intended action and focus also on predispositions. This is clearly the case with repeat offenders who show a predisposition towards immoral or illegal actions. Suppose that you are typically a mild-mannered person, but on one occasion you get into a bar fight and break a guy’s nose. This is certainly bad, but not as bad as if you were predisposed to violence -- and especially if you displayed this predisposition by routinely getting into bar fights. Sometimes we carry our moral track record around with us, and we expect that people will judge our actions based on the kind of person that we’ve become.

            The upshot of the situation is that moral judgments are more multifaceted than Mill allows and sometimes we look beyond the intended action to the virtue or vice.




            Continuing the trend set by Grotius, Kant and Mill, moral philosophers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries typically assigned virtues a secondary place within their theories. In 1958, philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published an influential article titled “Modern Moral Philosophy” in which she harshly criticizes the direction of moral philosophy since the days of Grotius. According to Anscombe, modern moral theories inconsistently advance moral rules without any notion of a rule giver. She advises that we abandon the entire rule-based approach in favor of the virtue-based approach offered by Aristotle, which avoids this inconsistency.

            Anscombe and other critics suggest that there are essentially two approaches to morality: virtue-based theories and action/rule-based theories. According to virtue-based theories, (1) greater importance is placed on developing good character traits, rather than acting in accord with moral rules; (2) good actions are those that flow from our virtuous character traits; and (3) morality is a matter of being a good person, which involves having virtuous character traits. By contrast, according to action/rule-based theories, (1) emphasis is placed on proper actions, which conform to moral rules; (2) although good character traits might help us perform good actions, they don’t define good actions; and (3) people are judged based on their actions, not on whether they are good people.


            Feminine Ethics and Virtue Theory. Virtue-based theories received an extra boost from some recent feminist philosophers who argue that action/rule-based morality is male-centered. Contemporary feminist writers express a wide range of ideas, and it is a mistake to associate any particular moral theory with the entire group. However, a theme in many feminist writers is that, historically, the creation of strict moral rules is modeled after practices that were traditionally male-dominated, such as acquiring property, engaging in business contracts, and governing societies. The rigid systems of rules required for trade and government set a pattern for creating equally rigid systems of moral rules, such as lists of moral rights and duties. Some of this may be the result of a male instinct to organize and pigeonhole things. It may also be the result of self-serving male interests, which involved creating moral rules that subverted the interests of women, such as requiring women to be obedient, industrious, servile, and silent. Men not only created the rules of morality itself, but they also created the rules that govern proper discussion of morality, so input from women became almost impossible.

            Women, by contrast, traditionally had a nurturing role by raising children and overseeing domestic life. These tasks require less rule-following, and more spontaneous and creative interaction. Proponents of a view called feminine ethics argue that we should use the woman’s experience as a model for moral theory, and the basis of morality should be caring for others as would be appropriate in each unique circumstance. On this view, we first listen to people’s concerns and try to understand the total situation; we then respond to the diversity of needs and perspectives reflected in the situation. This involves acquiring nurturing character traits and having our actions flow from these. This stands in sharp contrast with male-modeled morality in which the agent mechanically performs his duty as moral laws require. Some feminist philosophers argue that a morality based on female virtues should replace male-modeled moral systems that emphasize rules. More moderate writers argue that it should only be a supplement.

            Although many feminists endorse virtue-based approaches to ethics in general, contemporary philosopher Nel Noddings argues that Aristotle’s specific account needs modification. Aristotle’s list of specific virtues comes from an elite social class, as opposed to social classes of slaves and women who had more subservient roles in society. For Noddings, feminine morality is a quest for new virtues based on traditional women’s practices that we see in everyday experiences. For example, accepted women’s occupations today are cooking, cleaning, nursing, secretarial services, and childhood education. Although these are roles that women should rise above, they nevertheless reflect a caring mentality, which Noddings believes is inherent to women.


            Virtues With or Without Rules? Anscombe and some feminine ethicists suggest that virtue theory should be completely independent of moral rules. Is this plausible? One side of the dispute, which we will call strong virtue theory, maintains that rules must be eliminated from all notions of virtue. That is, morality is founded entirely on virtuous character traits such as courage, and these virtues are independent of ideal principles. The other side of the dispute, which we will call weak virtue theory, maintains that there is either a single rule or a core set of rules that establish when a character trait is good or bad. Some of the appeal of strong virtue theory undoubtedly stems from a frustration with the inadequacies of various action/rule-based approaches to morality, such as those proposed by Kant and Mill. As some feminists argue, rigid rules seem so contrary to the nurturing dispositions needed for genuine morality that we should simply reject them. However, in spite of the appeal of strong virtue theory, it isn’t clear that classical virtue theorists held to this strong notion when devising their theories. Three aspects of Aristotle’s theory in particular suggest that rules are at least part of virtue-based morality.

            First, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is itself a general principle, which some followers of Aristotle call “the principle of the golden mean.” This principle is that right or virtuous actions are those that intermediate between extreme responses. This rule is somewhat flexible and depends on our specific circumstances and the guidance of practical wisdom. Nevertheless, it is still the standard in determining virtuous conduct. Second, each specific virtue is a standard by which we assess the correctness of our own actions as well as those other people. This is clear in Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of good-temper noted above. We praise people who abide by the virtuous mean of good temper, and blame those who don’t. He also advises us as individuals to “cling to the middle state” of good temper so that we become praiseworthy. Similarly, the virtues of courage, temperance, generosity, and self-respect all become standards by which we praise and blame actions.

            A final “rule” aspect of Aristotle’s theory involves the intimate connection he establishes between ethics and politics. Ethics involves the discovery of our ultimate human purpose as developed in virtuous character traits. Politics extends directly from this and involves legislating “what we are to do and what we are to abstain from” (Nichomachean Ethics, 1.2). Part of this is establishing just actions and just punishments (Politics, 7:13). Virtues, then, are only the starting point; the next step is to create governing bodies, social classes, and the obligations of both rulers and citizens, all of which is rule-oriented. In view of these “rule” aspects of Aristotle’s theory, he is best seen as a weak virtue theorist as defined above.


            Contemporary Criticisms. In spite of the recent strong support for virtue-based morality, defenders of action/rule-based approaches point out several limitations with virtue theory. However, most of these are attacks on strong virtue theory. Because of the popularity of such criticisms, it is important to see how defenders of weak virtue theory can quickly answer these charges. First, critics charge that there is a problem with determining precisely who is virtuous. It doesn’t help to look for some external criterion, such as visible indications in the person’s action, since outward actions are no guarantee that the person’s inner self is virtuous. It also doesn’t help to look for an inner criterion, such as the agent’s self-respect or integrity, since we don’t have the ability to read people’s minds. In response, weak virtue theorists say that we look at people’s actions as indicators of their character traits. For example, we spot whether a given action appears ill tempered. We then praise or blame the action based on whether it approaches the virtuous mean.

            Second, critics argue that some acts are so intolerable, such as murder, that we must devise a special list of prohibited offenses. Virtue theory doesn’t provide such a list. In response, it is easy for the weak virtue theorist to construct a list of prohibited actions. When we assess how well a person’s actions conform to the virtuous mean, it becomes evident that some actions are more blameworthy than others are. We then make a list of these actions. Although Aristotle doesn’t provide a definitive list, he does note that certain vices are worse than others. For example, in the above discussion of good-temper, he argues that the vice of ill temper is worse than the vice of spiritlessness. Also, other virtue theorists do provide short lists of prohibited actions that stem from serious vices, the most famous of which is the medieval list of seven deadly sins.

            Finally, critics argue that virtue theory permits us to occasionally act badly, as long as the virtue in question remains intact. For example, virtue theory emphasizes long-term character traits, such as honesty or generosity. Because of this long-term emphasis, we might overlook particular lies or particular acts of selfishness on the grounds that they are only temporary departures from our overall dispositions. The weak virtue theorist has two responses to this charge. First, once we set virtues up as standards of praise and blame, we are in a position to judge every particular action that departs from a given virtuous standard. The occasional lie, for example, will stand out and call for judgment. Second, it may be a mistake to think that occasional departures such as white lies don’t compromise virtuous character traits. With many virtues, to be virtuous means to always have exemplary conduct. For example, even a single act of marital infidelity sufficiently signals a lack of virtue. A politician who publicly lies even once loses the trust of the people. It may sometimes seem as though we can still be virtuous while occasionally acting unvirtuously, but this may only mean that we have compromised our standards of morality.




            Virtues play some role in most traditional moral theories and even Grotius, Kant, and Mill don’t suggest that we completely abandon interest in them. The real questions concern, first, how important of a role virtues should play in a theory, and, second, what specific virtues should we adopt.


            Incorporating Virtue Theory into Other Moral Theories. Regarding the first question -- how important of a role virtues should play -- our discussion so far suggests that they certainly deserve a central role, but not the only role. First, even the simple task of listing various virtues involves at least some rules. To determine whether a given character trait is virtuous as opposed to vicious, we will likely fall back on some rule, such as the Principle of the Golden Mean. We are also likely to see each specific virtue itself as a standard and rule that indicates proper conduct. So, at minimum, we should prefer weak virtue theory to strong virtue theory. Second, moral judgments are quite varied and even weak virtue theory can’t adequately explain this diversity without bringing in other theories. Suppose that, when driving down the highway, I accidentally cut off another driver who then flies into a rage and runs me into a ditch. Aristotle would say that the other driver was immoral largely because he had the vice of intemperance. This, though, is only one kind of moral assessment, and it isn’t even the most natural assessment that we might make. Instead, I might say that the driver was immoral because he caused me emotional pain for no justifiable reason. I might also say that the driver violated my rights -- specifically my right not to be physically attacked. If I am religious, I might say that the man sinned by going against God’s will.

            Contemporary virtue theorist Alasdair MacIntyre would say that I’m uttering nonsense with these other moral assessments -- regardless of how commonly we speak about personal happiness, individual rights, or the will of God. MacIntyre believes that today we have only fragments of conflicting moral traditions:


… we continue to use many of the key expressions [of morality]. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. [After Virtue, 1]


To make sense of morality, according to MacIntyre, we need to follow Aristotle’s view of virtues. Contrary to MacIntyre, though, it isn’t reasonable to simply dismiss most of our moral vocabulary simply because it doesn’t draw on virtue theory. More importantly, it is not even possible for us today to abandon these other moral notions in exclusive favor of virtue theory. Notions of moral rights are firmly imbedded into American moral consciousness, particularly the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as endorsed by the Declaration of Independence. Religious believers who ground morality in God’s will are not likely to shift to Aristotle’s virtue theory anytime soon. To best understand morality and theorize about it, we should begin by acknowledging the wide range of approaches that people actually do take to the subject. Virtue theory is only one of many approaches.

            Concerning the second question -- what specific virtues we should focus on -- it is clear that Aristotle’s short list of virtues is incomplete. Whereas Aristotle stopped at about a dozen virtues, 17th and 18th century virtue theorists expanded the list to as many as 100 distinct virtues. Today we should modify the list even more. Feminist critics such as Noddings correctly point out that Aristotle’s list reflects an aristocratic bias that we should reject. Following the observations of feminists, we should include more feminine and nurturing qualities. As social trends shift and we become more receptive to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, we should adopt virtues of social tolerance and acceptance. With growing interest in animal rights and environmental issues, we should cultivate virtues that display a sensitivity to these concerns. Part of the task of moral philosophers is to sift through social trends and update moral theories in this way.


            The Best Teacher of Morality. Although we want to view virtue theory as only one of many approaches to morality, we want to keep in mind virtue theory’s unique asset. Imagine that, as a parent, you want to teach your child that it is wrong to become inappropriately enraged. When your child is older, you don’t want him to give in to road rage, beat his wife, or perform any other action that is the consequence of inappropriate anger. Imagine further that you had two teaching methods available. The first method established meticulous rules for what counts as inappropriate anger in virtually every circumstance. It also included rules describing the kinds of punishments that were justified for each type of violation. According to this first teaching method, your child would memorize all these rules so that, for each situation that arises, your child immediately knows the right thing to do. The second method doesn’t involve memorizing specific rules, but, instead, focuses on instilling good habits. Using various techniques, such as behavior modification, you teach your child to avoid inappropriate action and become habituated towards appropriate action. You also give him techniques so he can properly modify his behavior on his own, without your constant monitoring. All other factors being equal, which of these two methods would work best in preventing inappropriate anger? The habit-instilling method appears to be the winner.

            Virtue theorists capitalize on the benefits of teaching morality through creating virtuous habits. They argue that the most important thing about studying ethics is its impact on conduct. Aristotle himself said that he wrote the Nichomachean Ethics “not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good.”  Detailed lists of rules in and of themselves don’t make us better people, but instilling good habits does. In 1993, attorney William J. Bennett edited an anthology titled The Book of Virtues, which quickly became a best seller. The work contains classic stories and folk tales highlighting 10 virtues, including self-discipline, compassion, responsibility and friendship. Bennett says that the work is meant to assist in the “time-honored task of the moral education of the young.” Among the essential elements of moral training, he notes that “Moral education must provide training in good habits. Aristotle wrote that good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

            In our actual lives as we raise our children, we will likely adopt a hybrid approach to teaching morality which involves both teaching rules and instilling good habits. The fact remains, though, that it is a mistake to completely ignore the benefits of virtue theory in moral instruction. Society needs all the help it can get in improving its moral climate. To that end moral philosophers of all traditions should welcome the contributions of virtue theory.


            Summary. Aristotle offered the view that morality consists of developing virtuous habits that are a mean between extreme vicious habits. Philosophers during the Middle Ages adopted Aristotle’s view, although virtues were reduced to a secondary status by 17th and 18th century moral philosophers. Grotius argued that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean fails since some virtues such as religious worship actually require extreme behavior. In response, we noted that virtues in fact do occupy a middle-ground, although the middle ground must be seen within particular social contexts. Kant argued that some virtues -- such as cool-headedness -- might become vices if they aren’t guided by higher moral principles. We’ve seen, however, that we can avoid misapplying virtues by distinguishing between more important moral virtues, such as justice, and less important intellectual qualities, such as cool-headedness. By acquiring the more important moral virtues, we thereby avoid misapplying the less important intellectual qualities. Mill argued that morality involves judging a person’s actions and not a person’s character. Contrary to Mill, though, we saw that at least sometimes it is relevant to consider a person’s character when judging actions, especially with repeat offenders.

            Contemporary discussions of virtue assess the relative merits of virtue-based morality vs. action/rule-based morality. Some feminist philosophers reject the action/rule-based approach for being to male in orientation, and instead suggest that morality involves acquiring more feminine virtues such as nurturance. In response, we distinguished between strong virtue theory, which rejects all rules, and weak virtue theory, which involves some rules. We noted that Aristotle himself is a weak virtue theorist, and that weak virtue theory sidesteps many common criticisms against virtue theory in general. In conclusion we saw that virtue theory is only one of many approaches to moral philosophy, although virtue theory is uniquely suited for teaching morality.



Quotation on road rage is from The Washington Post, Thursday, October 16, 1997.

Plato’s discussion of the divisions of the soul is in the Republic Book 4.435, and his account of the unity of the virtues is in the Protagoras 349b.

The discussion of Aristotle’s theory presented here is from Nichomachean Ethics, Books 1-5, which is available in several modern translations.

Grotius’s discussion of Aristotle is from On the Law of War and Peace (1625), Prolegomena, 43-35. The best current translation of this work is that by Francis W. Kelsey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925).

Hume’s discussion of monkish virtues is from his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 9.1. The best current edition of this work is edited by Tom Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1999).

Kant’s criticism of virtue theory is from his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), which is available in several modern translations.

The quotation from Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully (1559-1641) appeared in his Mémoires des sages et royales oeconomies (Amsterdam, 1652-62), translated into English in Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, duke of Sully, prime minister to Henry the Great (London, Printed for A. Millar, 1756). The quotation is as appears in James Balfour’s A Delineation of the Nature and Obligation of Morality (1753), Chapter 5, which is available in a recent facsimile reprint (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1989).

Mill’s criticism of virtue theory is in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism (1863), which is available in several modern editions.

Elizabeth Anscombe’s contemporary defense of virtue theory is in “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), Philosophy, 1958, Vol. 33; this article is reprinted in her Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).

Nel Noddings discussion of feminist ethics and virtue theory is in “Ethics From the Stand Point of Women” in Woman and Values, ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Wadsworth)

Some of the contemporary criticisms of virtue theory are taken from Robert Louden “On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics” (1984), American Philosophical Quarterly, 1984, Vol. 21

Alasdair MacIntyre’s contemporary defense of virtue theory is in After Virtue, second edition, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984).


Suggestions for Further Reading

Commentaries on Aristotle’s ethical theory include John M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), W. Hardie, Aristotle’s Ethical Theory (Oxford University Press, 1980); H.H. Joachim, Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1954); Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge University Press, 1986); Amelie Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (University of California Press, 1980).

John Duns Scotus discusses various medieval philosophers on the subject of the interconnectedness of virtues (Ordinatio III, suppl. dist. 36), translated in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington D.C.: Catholic Uiversity of America Press, 1986) tr. Allan B. Wolter. James Beattie discusses early virtue theorists who distinguished between moral virtues and intellectual abilities; see Beattie’s Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), Part 3, Chapter 2, recently edited by James Fieser (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2000). For a discussion of 18th century philosophers who also made this distinction, see James Fieser “Hume’s Wide View of the Virtues” in Hume Studies, November 1998.

J.B. Schneewind describes the post-Renaissance decline of virtue theory as a matter of continual revision, rather than a matter of complete rejection; “The Misfortunes of Virtue” in Ethics, 1990, Vol. 101.

For contemporary discussions of virtue theory see Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices, (University of California Press, 1978), William Frankena, Ethics (Prentice-Hall, 1963), Chapter four, R. Kruschwitz, ed., The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character (Wadsworth, 1987), and Greg Pence, “Recent Work on the Virtues,” in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1984, Vol. 21.







            Richard Cooper, an artist from Pennsylvania, often put images of himself in his paintings. In one work he painted a woman on the left side of the canvas, a man on the right side, and himself between the two. He depicted himself pivoting away from the woman and reaching toward the man. The painting represents a moment in Cooper’s life when he resolved an ongoing struggle with his gender orientation. Although attracted to men even in his youth, he followed society’s expectations and dated women. Eventually the inner tension became too great and he acknowledged his homosexual leaning. Social attitudes about homosexuality have varied greatly throughout time. Some ancient Greek literature, such as Plato’s Symposium, describes homosexual relations between a master and his apprentice as commonplace. In a recent controversial work, John Boswell argues that during the early middle ages, the Catholic Church endorsed same-sex unions, which may have been a cover for homosexual activity. On the other hand, passages in the Jewish Old Testament take strong stands against homosexuality, stating that “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22). A medieval Eastern religious text states in even stronger terms that it wouldn’t be murder if anyone sees two men having sex with each other and, in a fit of rage, smashes their skulls with a rock.

            American society today is somewhere in between these two extremes. We appreciate the social contributions of our overtly gay friends and acquaintances. Reflecting the value system of political correctness, several recent television situation comedies teach gay toleration and gay rights as a running theme. Yet, at the same time, most Americans resist the idea of officially endorsing homosexual marriages and some even publicly express revulsion at homosexual behavior. How we deal with homosexual family members is also revealing. One third of American teenagers who inform their parents of their homosexuality are thrown out of their houses.

            The most common criticism against homosexual behavior is that it is unnatural or abnormal for properly functioning people. But in what sense is homosexuality “unnatural” or “abnormal”? It can’t merely mean that homosexual behavior falls outside the statistical mean of human behavior. Although it is true that we find regular homosexual activity in only a small percentage of the population, many practices that we find morally acceptable are also statistical aberrations. Stamp collecting, deep-sea fishing, hang gliding, and thousands of other pastimes, are all practiced by only a small segment of the population. Similarly, we often condemn many behavioral practices even when they are practiced by a statistical majority of the people, such as premarital sex. So, if homosexuality is wrong because it is “unnatural,” it must be for reasons other than mere statistics. The natural law theory of morality offers a detailed account of what it means for an action to be natural or unnatural, and discussions of natural law often focus on homosexuality as an example of unnatural conduct.

            It is difficult to succinctly define natural law theory. It isn’t a single theory, per se, but a system of several smaller theories. Further, over the years, natural law philosophers proposed different systems and it is hard to find features common to them all. However, common themes of natural law theory are these:


·        God endorses specific moral values and pronounces them as “law” by fixing them in human nature.

·        There is one highest principle of natural law, which we discover by looking at aspects of our human nature (such as, “people ought to be sociable”).

·        We rationally deduce subsidiary moral rules from this highest principle (such as, “we ought not murder”).

·        These subsidiary rules carry the force of natural law to the degree that they are necessary for fulfilling the highest principle of natural law.


The notion of moral deduction is central to natural law theory. For example, suppose that God plants within me the intuition that “people ought to be sociable.” I recognize that there are many kinds of actions that run contrary to this, such as murder, stealing and lying. I can then deduce that murder, stealing and lying are wrong because they are contrary to the intuition that I ought to be sociable.


            Origins of Natural Law Theory. Natural law theory has its roots in ancient Greek thought, particularly Stoicism, which maintained that we should live in agreement with nature. Stoic philosophers believed that god permeates the entire world and strictly regulates all events. Everything in life -- including natural disasters, the rise and fall of governments, and human conflicts -- happens according to a pre-ordained rational plan. Our moral responsibility is to conform our expectations to this pre-ordained plan, and, thus, live in agreement with nature. Inspired by the Stoic view of nature, Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) gives an early account of the key ingredients of natural law:


True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong doing by its prohibitions. ... We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchanging law will be valid for all nations and all times and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. [The Republic, 3:22]


According to Cicero, God establishes within nature one eternal and unchanging moral law that applies to all countries. Whether we are from Rome or Athens, we are under the command of the same natural law. We discover this natural law by looking within ourselves, and not by consulting any external political governing bodies, such as the Roman Senate. The commanding force of natural law is so strong that we are automatically impelled to obey it.

            The natural law tradition also has its roots in Roman Law, which developed over a 1,000 year period -- from about 500 BCE to 500 CE. Emperors, statesmen, and legal experts all contributed to evolving discussions about laws pertaining to everything from marriage contracts to slave ownership. In the 6th century CE these discussions were gathered together into a multi-volume collection called the Body of the Civil Law (Corpus iuris civilis). Although this great work focused mainly on practical legal matters, it also had a philosophical side. Specifically, it makes the philosophical distinction between three realms of law: civil law, law of nations, and natural law. Civil law (ius civile) concerns the laws created by a particular country, such as the Roman Empire, and apply mainly to its own citizens. For example, specific laws of the Roman Empire determined who could buy or sell slaves. Law of nations (ius gentium) concerns international laws that apply to citizens and foreigners alike. For example, laws of various countries establish the institution of slavery in general. Natural law (ius naturale) concerns laws that apply to animals as well as humans. For example, animals and humans alike are born free by natural law, although we may become enslaved according to the laws of nations.

            With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, the Christian Church stepped in as the dominant political and intellectual force within Western Europe. As Christian philosophers and jurists turned to the issue of natural law, they viewed it from a distinctly Christian perspective. According to Christian doctrine, humans are inherently corrupt because of our sinful heritage that began with Adam and Eve’s first sin. Virtually everything that we do carries some sinful taint, and, so even the best human laws that we devise will be flawed. Christian philosophers argued that, because of our sinful nature, we need to distinguish between the perfect divine law as mandated by God, and more imperfect human laws that we devise on our own. For these philosophers, natural law is part of the perfect divine law. Early medieval discussions of natural law were often brief and sketchy. That changed, though, with Italian Christian monk Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who systematically explored the topic of natural law and offered what quickly became the definitive medieval account of the subject.




            Aquinas’s account of natural law appears in his “Treatise on Law,” a section of his several thousand page Summa Theologica (1a2ae q. 90-144). Drawing on discussions by his predecessors, Aquinas begins his analysis by distinguishing between different kinds of law.


            Four Types of Law: Eternal, Natural, Human, and Divine. Drawing on the views of his predecessors, Aquinas argues that there are four distinct kinds of law: eternal law, natural law, human law and divine law. Eternal law is the most perfect and complete set of God’s laws, which govern “the whole community of the universe”. Similar to earlier Stoic notions of divine order, Aquinas also believed that God’s rule permeates the entire universe. We might view eternal law as something like a master database of all of God’s laws. From a moral standpoint, these laws include both general moral rules of conduct, such as “murder is wrong,” and more particular rules, such as, “angry employees shouldn’t gun down their bosses.” Only God has access to the complete list of rules, and we humans will at best only ever have partial knowledge of this list. Natural law, for Aquinas, is a subset of eternal law and includes only general rules of conduct, such as “murder is wrong.” In different ways these rules are imbedded in our human nature and we access them through rational intuition.

            Human law is our attempt to deduce more specific rules from the general rules of natural law. For example, from the general rule that “murder is wrong” we might deduce the more specific rule that “angry employees shouldn’t gun down their supervisors”. According to Aquinas, it is all too easy to make mistakes when deducing specific rules and, for that reason, we commonly assign this task to legislators and other legal experts. As long as governing bodies carefully and rationally deduce specific laws from natural law, then these specific laws will conform to eternal law. However, even the slightest error of reasoning may result in improper human laws, and these would clearly not be contained in eternal law. Finally, divine law is a special subset of eternal law that God reveals to us in divinely inspired texts, such as the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible. The purpose behind divine law is to help eliminate human error when searching for moral rules. For example, we might not correctly grasp the general principle of natural law that “murder is wrong”; similarly, we might incorrectly deduce particular rules of human law. Divine law is a safeguard that helps us confirm our results.

            In short, for Aquinas, all moral laws are ultimately grounded in God’s unchanging eternal law, and we discover general rules of natural law through intuition. Legal experts then deduce more specific rules of human law from these, and in scriptural divine laws we find examples of both general and specific rules. Since we don’t have access to the complete list of eternal law, from our limited human perspectives morality begins with a search for the general rules of natural law. But where do we begin looking for the general rules of natural law? Aquinas says that we must look to human nature as a guide:


... [each human being] has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law. [Summa Theologica, 1a2ae 90:2]


According to Aquinas, when God created us he gave us natural instincts that reflect the general moral principles of natural law. There are two distinct levels of morally-relevant instincts. First, God implanted in us an instinctive intuition that we should pursue our proper human end. Second, God implanted in us a series of instincts that define our proper end as living, reproducing, and rational creatures.


            The Synderesis Principle. Concerning the first level of morally-relevant instincts -- the intuition to do good and avoid evil -- Aquinas says that we get this through an intuitive faculty called synderesis. The word “synderesis” is a Greek term that means “innate moral consciousness”. Christian theologians described it as a “spark” that ignites our conscience, or the “fuel” that feeds our conscience. Aquinas has a more precise psychological analysis of the synderesis faculty. First, he describes it as an instinctive habit. According to Aquinas, some human habits are very strong, such as the ability to acquire language, and others are much weaker, such as our inclination to be religious. For Aquinas, synderesis is a weak habit. Second, he describes it as a component of our reason. According to Aquinas, sometimes we reason about things simply as a matter of speculation, such as whether 2+3=5. Other times, though, we reason about things for the practical purpose of performing an action, such as whether I should get a drink from the refrigerator. For Aquinas, synderesis is an aspect of practical reasoning, and it involves reasoning about performing moral actions.

            Third, as a habit of practical reasoning, synderesis involves reasoning from principles. Aquinas argues that reasoning always begins with general principles, and from these we deduce more specific things. For example, I may begin with general principle that “all men are mortal” and deduce from that the more particular statement that “Bob is mortal”. Practical reasoning similarly involves starting with the general principles and moving to specific things. The synderesis faculty feeds us a single general principle of natural law, which commentators conveniently call the synderesis principle. Aquinas explicitly states the synderesis principle here:


... every agent acts on account of an end, and to be an end carries the meaning of to be good. Consequently the first principle for the practical reason is based on the meaning of good, namely that it is what all things seek after. And so this is the first command of law, “that good is to be sought and done, evil to be avoided.” All other commands of natural law are based on this. Accordingly, then, the commands of natural law extend to all doing or avoiding of things recognized by the practical reason of itself as being human goods. ... As converging on one common primary precept these various precepts of natural law all take on the nature of one natural law. [Summa Theologica, 1a2ae, 94:2]


In this passage Aquinas states that the highest principle of natural law is that “good is to be sought and done, and evil to be avoided.” At first, we might think that the synderesis principle is so general that it is almost useless. In fact, some critics of Aquinas say that his synderesis principle is an empty concept since it is true by definition; according to critics, “doing good and avoiding evil” is simply built into the definition of “what is to be done and avoided”.

            However, the synderesis principle isn’t as meaningless as critics charge, particularly because Aquinas defines “good” and “evil” in a very specialized sense. Specifically, “good” is  that which conforms to our proper human end, and “evil” is that which does not. Using somewhat technical jargon, Aquinas makes this point here.


...the good or evil of an action, as of other things, depends on its fullness of being or its lack of that fullness. Now the first thing that belongs to the fullness of being seems to be that which gives a thing its species. [Summa Theologica, 1a2ae, 18:2]


The synderesis principle tells us that we should do those things that are conducive to our proper end, and avoid those things that are not conducive to our proper end. More precisely, the synderesis principle contains two distinct parts:


(1) If X is for our proper human end, then X ought to be done.

(2) If X is not for a proper human end, then X ought not to be done.


From these two parts of the synderesis principle, we can deduce two separate lists of actions: first, those that we should perform, and, second, those that we should avoid. For simplicity, let’s refer to these two parts of the synderesis principle as the “pursue good” and “avoid evil” clauses respectively.

            The upshot of Aquinas’s account of the synderesis principle is that it is a divinely implanted habit of practical reason that tells us to act according to our proper end. This is the highest principle of natural law, and from this we are to deduce more specific moral principles. There is clearly a religious element to Aquinas’s theory insofar as God creates us with the instinctive synderesis faculty. However, according to Aquinas, we don’t actually need to believe in God for the synderesis faculty to give us knowledge of natural law. We are all created with this instinct in spite of our individual religious views, and we all have the ability to grasp its meaning, just as we have the ability to grasp any other general rational principle.


            Primary, Secondary and Super-added Principles. We’ve seen that the first instinctive component to natural law is our innate knowledge of the synderesis principle, namely, that we should act according to our proper end. The second instinctive component of natural law involves a series of human instincts that define our proper end as living, reproducing and rational creatures. Aquinas argues that we must discover our proper human end by considering our most basic human natural inclinations. Following Aristotle’s theory of human nature, Aquinas lists our basic inclinations according to three distinct faculties of the human psyche: the vegetative, appetitive, and rational faculties. First, our vegetative faculty is responsible for keeping us alive through nutrition and growth. Arising from this faculty, then, we have an inclination for self-preservation. Second, our appetitive faculty provides us with an array of emotions and desires that prompt us to act out in different ways. From our appetitive faculty we have an inclination to reproduce through heterosexual activities, and also an inclination to educate our offspring. Third, our rational faculty sets us apart from other animals and from this we have inclinations to be rational, know God, and live in society. In total, then, Aquinas lists six human inclinations: (1) self-preservation, (2) heterosexual reproduction, (3) education of offspring, (4) rational thought, (5) knowledge of God, and (6) living in society. Just as God implanted the synderesis principle within us, God also implanted these six inclinations within us. At this point, God’s task is done, and it is up to us to discover draw out the moral implications of the synderesis principle combined with our natural inclinations.

            Aquinas argues that, from these six natural inclinations, we will discover six primary principles of natural law: (1) preserve human life, (2) have heterosexual (as opposed to homosexual) intercourse, (3) educate your children, (4) shun ignorance, (5) worship God, and, (6) avoid harming others. Aquinas notes specifically that divine law corroborates the last two of these: “you should love the Lord your God,” and “you should love your neighbor”. For Aquinas, we arrive at these six primary principles by logically deducing each of them from the synderesis principle. For example, with the sixth primary principle -- avoid harming others -- we can see the precise deduction process here:


1. All acts that are unsuitable for human ends are acts that we should not do.

2. All acts that harm others are acts that are unsuitable for human ends.

3. Therefore, all acts that harm others are acts that we should not do.


The first premise in this argument is the “avoid evil” clause of the synderesis principle. The second premise is based on the observation that humans instinctively live in society. Following the rules syllogistic logic, from these two premises we deduce the primary principle of natural law that we should avoid harming others. We deduce all six of the primary principles of natural law in a similar way. Aquinas believes that these deductions are so intuitive that any reasonable person can arrive at these six primary principles.

            Aquinas argues that the deduction process does not stop here with the six primary principles of natural law. Rather, we must continue to draw out more precise secondary moral principles. At this stage, we leave the domain of natural law and enter the domain of human law. For example, from the primary principle “avoid harming others” we can deduce a secondary principle that we should not unjustifiable kill others:


1. All acts that harm others are acts that we should not do.

2. All acts of unjustified killing are acts that harm others.

3. Therefore, all acts of unjustified killing are acts that we should not do.


The first premise in this argument is the primary principle that we should avoid harming others -- which we previously deduced from the synderesis principle. The second premise here is the observation that we harm others when we unjustifiably kill people. For Aquinas, this is a premise that is supplied through the “careful reflection of wise people”. Following the rules syllogistic logic once again, from these two premises we deduce the secondary principle of human law that we should not kill people unjustifiably. When deducing secondary principles of human law, any mistake of reasoning will pervert its connection with natural law. For this reason, unlike the primary principles that can be deduced by everyone, secondary principles of human law require “careful reflection of wise people”. To guard against errors at this level, divine law has confirmed the most general precepts of human law in the Ten Commandments.

            Aquinas argues that the deduction process continues further by drawing out even more specific principles, which calls super-added principles. We derive these directly from secondary moral principles. At this stage, we leave the domain of natural law and enter the domain of human law. For example, from the secondary principle “do not kill people unjustifiably” we can deduce a super-added principle that employees should not kill their bosses:


1. All acts of unjustified killing are acts that we should not do.

2. All acts of killing one’s boss are acts of unjustified killing.

3. Therefore, all acts of killing one’s boss are acts that we should not do.


The first premise in this argument is the secondary principle that we should not kill others unjustifiably. The second premise here is an observation by legal experts that we are not justified in killing our bosses at work. From this we deduce the super-added principle that we should not kill our bosses. The force of natural law diminishes as we move to more and more particular principles. The reason, according to Aquinas, is that specific cultures have their own views as to what counts as harm or unjustified murder. For example, if I am an indentured servant in a third world country and my boss routinely tortures me, I may indeed be morally justified in killing my boss. So, as we move further away from the self-evident primary principles of natural law, we must rely more and more on the judgments of wise people and legal experts.

            The key points of Aquinas’s theory of natural law are these:


·        Natural law consists of general principles of eternal law that God fixes in human nature.

·        Our instinctive synderesis faculty informs us of the highest principle of natural law: we should act according to our proper end.

·        Six specific natural inclinations define our proper end and give us six primary principles of natural law.

·        From primary principles of natural law we deduce secondary and super-added principles of human law.


Here is a final illustration that links together all the deductive stages, beginning with the “avoid evil” clause of the synderesis principle, on through primary, secondary, and super-added principles:


1. All acts that are unsuitable for human ends are acts that we should not do. [“avoid evil” clause of the synderesis principle]

2. All acts that harm others are acts that are unsuitable for human ends. [based on the inclination of humans to live in society]

3. Therefore, all acts that harm others are acts we should not do. [primary principle of natural law]

4. All acts of stealing are harmful acts. [carefully reflected observation of wise people]

5. Therefore, all acts of stealing are acts we should not do. [secondary principle of human law]

6. All acts of fraud are acts of stealing. [observation by legal experts]

7. Therefore, All acts of fraud are acts we should not do. [super-added principle]




            Aquinas was canonized by the Catholic Church about 50 years after his death, and his writings became enormously influential. Aquinas’s conception of natural law in particular became the dominant view of morality throughout Europe for the next 300 years. Medieval moral philosophers after Aquinas took issue with minor points of his theory, but the general scheme remained intact: by looking at human nature, we understand the primary moral principles of natural law, and we deduce more specific principles from these. During the seventeenth century, though, a new wave of natural law philosophers questioned more central features of Aquinas’s theory, especially the role that Aquinas assigns to our six human inclinations.


            Suarez’s Revision: Knowledge of Natural Law is based on Conscience, not Natural Inclinations. Spanish monastic philosopher Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) was one of the more devoted followers of Aquinas and, in his On Law and God the Law Giver (1612) Suarez discusses and expands on Aquinas’s theory of natural law. On the issue of our natural human inclinations, though, Suarez parts company with Aquinas. Aquinas believed that we discover the primary principles of natural law by looking at our six natural inclinations, which define our purpose. For example, I first recognize my natural inclination to live in society, and only then do I discover the primary principle of natural law that I must avoid harming others. However, according to Suarez, the connection between natural law and human inclination is actually reversed. I must begin with an independent knowledge of natural law, and this knowledge will then help me regulate my six natural inclinations:


...  the natural law brings man to perfection, with regard to every one of his tendencies and, in this capacity, it contains various precepts. ... all these propensities in man must be viewed as being in some why determined and elevated by a process of rational gradation. For, if these propensities are considered merely in their natural aspect, or as animal propensities, they must be bridled, [so] that virtue may be attained[.] [A]nd on the other hand, if the same propensities are considered with respect to their capacity for being regulated by right reason, then proper and suitable precepts apply to each of them. [On Law and God the Law Giver, 2:8:4]


Suarez argues here that, by themselves, natural inclinations are animalistic and we must perfect them through natural law. And, we perfect our inclinations by following moral precepts, which are supplied by “right reason”, that is, conscience.

            Although the difference between Aquinas and Suarez is subtle, it is important in two respects. First, Suarez is more pessimistic than Aquinas about the value of human nature. For Aquinas, natural inclinations do a good job of reflecting our true human purpose. For Suarez, natural inclinations are little better than animalistic urges. Second, Aquinas and Suarez differ concerning how we learn about natural law. According to Aquinas, we discover natural law through observation and experience -- specifically by surveying the natural inclinations of our human nature. For Suarez, though, we discover natural law more intuitively: our conscience rationally dictates primary moral principles to us.

            We might commend Aquinas both for his optimistic view of human nature and his attempt to bring the subject of morality into the arena of public observation. However, there are serious and perhaps irresolvable problems with Aquinas’s emphasis on natural inclinations, and Suarez appears correct in his suspicions about them. The central problem is that Aquinas’s list of natural inclinations is too contrived. Again, Aquinas lists six specific inclinations: (1) self-preservation, (2) heterosexual reproduction, (3) education of offspring, (4) rational thought, (5) knowledge of God, and (6) living in society. However, a genuine list of human inclinations would be much longer. If our list includes the inclination for sexual intercourse, then we should also include our inclination to eat food, to excrete waste outside of our sleeping area, to get angry, to laugh, to cry, or any other behavior that is linked with the natural release of hormones. By pre-selecting only these six, Aquinas reveals a special moral agenda that he wishes to impose on the subject of our natural inclinations. If we adopt his restricted list, then we follow Aquinas’s moral hunch, rather than an objective survey of human inclination. Not only is Aquinas’s list too short, but at least one of the six items on the list isn’t really a “natural” inclination, namely, knowledge of God. Rather than being a natural inclination, this seems more like a culturally shaped inclination, which not everyone has, and which also differs dramatically depending on one’s religious affiliation and conception of God. Again, by listing this as a natural inclination, Aquinas advances a special moral agenda and doesn’t present an objective list of human inclinations.

            In short, it appears that a purely objective understanding of human inclinations won’t give us the knowledge of natural law that Aquinas supposes. Suarez offers one possible solution to this problem: abandon all natural instincts as a source of natural law, and look to conscience instead. This, though, is only one of many approaches taken by natural law philosophers.


            Grotius’s Revision: Natural Law is founded only on the Instinct of Sociability. Shortly after Suarez, Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) took natural law theory in a different direction. Suarez consciously endorsed Aquinas’s basic theory and saw himself as part of Aquinas’s philosophical tradition. This is not so for Grotius. In the opening of his landmark book The Law of War and Peace (1625), Grotius announces that he aims to systematize Roman law since “the welfare of mankind demands that this task be accomplished.” By analyzing Roman law directly, Grotius was looking at a natural law tradition that predated Aquinas and, so, Grotius avoided many of the assumptions that Aquinas made. Specifically, Grotius does not attempt to base natural law on a wide range of human inclinations, such as Aquinas’s list of six. Taking his lead from Stoic philosophy, Grotius considers only one human inclination: sociability:


... among the traits characteristic of man is an impelling desire for society, that is, for the social life -- not of any and every sort, but peaceful, and organized according to the measure of his intelligence, with those who are of his own kind; this social trend the Stoics called “sociableness.” [On the Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena, 6]


According to Grotius, we are naturally inclined to live in peaceful societies with other intelligent and like-minded humans. This basic fact of human sociability is the foundation of natural law:


This maintenance of the social order, which we have roughly sketched, and which is consonant with human intelligence, is the source of law properly so called. [On the Law of War and Peace, Prolegomena, 8]


            For Grotius, then, the highest principle of natural law is simply to be sociable. Like previous natural law theorists, Grotius also believed that we can deduce more specific rules of natural law from this highest principle, and he lists five specific ones: (1) do not take things that belong to others; (2) restore to other people anything that we might have of theirs; (3) fulfill promises; (4) compensate for any loss that results through our own fault; (5) punish people as deserved. These more specific rules focus largely on issues of personal property and punishment, and it seems clear that the list is not complete. Specifically, we don’t see rules about sexual behavior, family responsibilities, religious obligations, and similar moral issues that philosophers of the time commonly addressed. However, Grotius is not interested in offering a handbook of morality for use in our ordinary lives. Instead, he wants to explain the foundation of international laws that apply to warring nations around the world. What are the causes of war? When are wars justified? How can we maintain peace? Grotius’s five specific principles of natural law help answer these questions and they are the standard of proper conduct for all countries around the world.

            Although Grotius didn’t draw out the implications of natural law for our day to day moral behavior, he set the agenda for natural law philosophers after him. On Grotius’s view, as we search for the rules of natural law that govern our personal lives, we should look towards our instinct of sociability -- and not the broader list of six instincts that Aquinas suggested.


            Hobbes’s and Pufendorf’s Revision: Natural Law is Founded on the Instinct of Self-Preservation. British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one of the many ethical writers influenced by Grotius’s account of natural law. Like Grotius, Hobbes sees laws of nature as the basis for establishing peaceful societies and ending warring conflicts. However, unlike Grotius, Hobbes explains in great detail how laws of nature impact our daily moral behavior. As Hobbes begins his account of natural law, he immediately parts company with Grotius concerning the instinct of sociability: for Hobbes, humans simply have no such natural inclination. Not only do we lack instinctive sociability, but our human nature continually blocks the path for living sociably with each other. We have differing likes and dislikes with virtually everything, from our favorite foods to our political views. From these differences arise “disputes, controversies, and at last war.” Hobbes also explains how we differ from other more sociable animal species, such as ants, which naturally live peacefully in groups. Unlike ants, humans continually compete with each other for honor, and we take great pleasure in acquiring more things than our neighbors. We also commonly think that we are smarter than our leaders, and we have rhetorical skills that enable us to make evil things appear to be good.

            Having rejected the instinct of sociability, Hobbes finds another instinct upon which to base natural law: the instinct of self-preservation. Self-preservation is so central to Hobbes’s account of natural law that he even defines “law of nature” as a rational principle that mandates self-preservation:


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 taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. [Leviathan, 1:14]


Hobbes lists 12 specific laws of nature and each one of these is rooted in our inherent need to survive. His first and most important law of nature is “to seek peace, and follow it … [and] by all means we can, to defend ourselves.” Hobbes believes that the best way of preserving ourselves is to live in peace with other people, but if we can’t do this then we should defend ourselves in any way that we can.

            Hobbes’s view of self-preservation had a direct impact on German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), the most widely published natural law theorist of the 17th century. Echoing Hobbes, Pufendorf argues that we are naturally unsociable and self-preservation drives us more than all of our other natural inclinations. However, striking a compromise between Grotius and Hobbes, Pufendorf argues that our instinct of self-preservation ultimately forces us to be sociable:


So, then, man is an animal which is very desirous of his own preservation. He is liable to many wants, unable to support himself without the help of others of his kind, and yet wonderfully fit in society to promote a common good. But then his is malicious, insolent, and easily provoked, and not less prone to do harm to his fell man than he is cable of executing it. From this it must be inferred that to attain our self-preservation, it is absolutely necessary that we be sociable. [The Duty of Man and Citizen, 1:3]


According to Pufendorf, we are too weak to survive on our own and, so, we must rely on help from others. Pufendorf finds sociability so important to our survival that, following Grotius, he makes sociability the highest principle of natural law: “From what has been said, it appears that this is a fundamental law of nature: to the extent that we can, every person ought to preserve and promote society, that is, the welfare of mankind.” In short, although Pufendorf denies instinctive sociability, he endorses the mandate to be sociable in our instinct to survive.

            The trend in natural law theory from Suarez onward shows a growing discontentment with using natural inclinations as a source of moral guidance. Although abandoning Aquinas’s optimistic view about the wide range of human inclinations, these philosophers nevertheless used at least some of our natural inclinations as foundations of moral laws. Eventually, though, even this more cautious view of human inclinations came under fire.


            Hume’s and Bentham’s Criticism: Natural Law Theories erroneously derive Ought from Is. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1771-1776) argued that there is a big difference between statements of fact, such as “stealing is harmful to society” and statements of obligation, such as “you should not steal.” We establish statements of fact through observation and scientific investigation. For example, a sociologist could confirm the claim that “stealing is harmful to society.” By contrast, Hume believes that we cannot establish statements of obligation through observation or scientific investigation. For example, no sociological study can establish the moral mandate that “you should not steal.” According to Hume, moral theories commonly err by beginning with statements of fact and concluding with statements of obligation. Philosophers today sum up Hume’s point with the motto “We cannot derive ought from is.” After reading Hume, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was convinced that natural law philosophers made the blunder that Hume describes:


Some fourscore years ago, by David Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature, the observation was, for the first time, (it is believed,) brought to light -- how apt men have been, on questions belonging to any part of the field of Ethics, to shift backwards and forwards, and apparently without their perceiving it, from the question, what has been done, to the question, what ought to be done, and vice versa: more especially from the former of these points to the other. ... Such it has been in general, for example to the writers on International Law; witness Grotius and Puffendorf.  In their hands, and apparently without their perceiving it, the question is continually either floating between these two parts of the field of Ethics, or shifting from one to the other. [Chrestomathia, Appendix 4, Section 20, note]


Although Bentham mentions Grotius and Pufendorf by name, his criticism applies equally to most natural law philosophers from Aquinas onward. Aquinas begins with facts about our six human inclinations and concludes that we ought to follow the six primary principles of natural law. Grotius begins with the fact about our instinct to be sociable and concludes that we ought to be sociable. Hobbes begins with the fact of self-preservation and concludes that we ought to seek peace to preserve ourselves. Finally, Pufendorf begins with the fact of self-preservation and concludes that we ought to be sociable to survive.

            Bentham is certainly correct that natural law philosophers derive ought from is, and they do so more blatantly than most other moral philosophers. However, we need to ask, what is so bad about deriving ought from is? One key problem is that there is too much flexibility in how we deduce ought statements from is statements. For example, from the natural inclination toward self-preservation Aquinas infers that we should always preserve our lives and never resort to suicide, even when terminally ill. However, there are more modest inferences that we could make. For example, from the natural inclination toward self-preservation we might reasonably deduce that we should preserve our lives in cases of self-defense, but we are morally permitted to end our lives when terminally ill. With every instinct mentioned by natural law philosophers, there are both extreme and modest conclusions that we can draw, and the differences between the two can be dramatic. It seems, then, that something more than mere facts guides us in selecting the extreme vs. the modest recommendation. We might be guided by our intuitions, personal feelings, or our social customs, and, if so, the pure facts are far less important than natural law philosophers believe. So, although it may appear as if we are simply deducing obligations of moral law from facts about natural inclination, we are not really doing this and instead we are relying on some other means of moral assessment. We should then just drop the factual facade in our moral theories and instead highlight the true basis of moral assessment – whether that is intuition, personal feeling, social custom, or something else.




            It seems that nature does not magically hand us moral principles through our natural inclinations in the way that natural law theorists believed. Natural law theorists themselves disagree about which natural inclinations are relevant for morality, and this disagreement itself is an argument against distilling morality from natural inclinations. Hume and Bentham appear correct that we cannot simply deduce moral obligations from facts about natural inclinations. One of the attractive features of natural law theory is that it aims to provide a clear and universal standard of morality that any reasonable human can grasp. Unfortunately, natural law theory does not fulfill this promise. The limitations of natural law theory become especially clear when we examine the standard argument from natural law against homosexuality.


            Natural Law and Homosexuality. We noted at the outset that natural law philosophers often focus on homosexuality as an example of unnatural and immoral conduct. This is specifically so with Aquinas and his followers since they believe that heterosexual reproduction is one of the six natural inclinations that define our purpose. We can reconstruct Aquinas’s argument against homosexuality here, beginning with the avoid evil clause of the synderesis principle:


1. All acts that are unsuitable for human ends are acts that we should not do.

2. All acts of homosexuality are acts that are unsuitable for human ends.

3. Therefore, all acts of homosexuality are acts that we should not do.


The success of this argument rests on the claim in premise 2 that all homosexual acts are unsuitable for human ends. Aquinas would defend premise 2 by noting that humans have a natural inclination towards sexual reproduction and this partly defines our proper end as human beings. The continuation of our species depends on sexual reproduction, and our heterosexual inclinations are designed for this purpose. Homosexual activity clearly runs contrary to our natural inclination to reproduce through heterosexual activity, and, so, homosexuality is unsuitable for our proper human end. There are two distinct assumptions in this defense: (a) humans have a natural inclination towards heterosexual activity, and (b) sexual activity is exclusively for the purpose of reproduction. There are problems with both of these assumptions.

            Concerning Aquinas’s first assumption – that humans have a natural inclination towards heterosexual activity -- researchers today believe that sexual orientation is largely a matter of genetic predisposition. Although most humans are indeed genetically predisposed to heterosexual orientation, around 1 percent of the human population is genetically predisposed to homosexual orientation. For that 1 percent, homosexual orientation is indeed their natural inclination, and heterosexual activity is as foreign to them as homosexuality is foreign to heterosexuals. Contrary to Aquinas, then, human beings don’t have a single natural predisposition regarding sexual activity, and it is a mistake to talk about “human ends” as though there is a single end that applies to everyone. So, we must reject premise 2 since it is based on the false assumption that there exists a uniform sexual inclination that defines a single human end. At best we are only justified in saying for premise 2 that “All acts of homosexuality for heterosexuals are acts that are unsuitable for heterosexual human ends.” That is, for people naturally predisposed to heterosexual activity, it is unsuitable for them to engage in homosexual acts since it is contrary to their human end of heterosexual reproduction.

            Concerning Aquinas’s second assumption – that sexual activity is exclusively for the purpose of reproduction – this seems like an overstatement. Again, for Aquinas, the continuation of the human species depends on reproduction, and our sexual inclinations are there for that purpose. Aquinas is correct that a large amount of sexual activity must be devoted to the continuation of the human species. On average, a man and woman who want children must actively try for almost an entire year before the woman successfully conceives. Although that certainly is a lot of sexual activity, it does not account for many sexual activities that aren’t devoted to reproduction, such as oral sex, phone sex, cyber-sex, sex with contraception, and sex after menopause. A defender of Aquinas might see some of these as mating rituals that, in the long run, serve the purposes of reproduction, such as phone sex with couples who temporarily live far away from each other. However, even for married couples, this still leaves a large amount of sexual activity that is unrelated to reproduction. Should we see all of these sexual acts as distortions or violations of the reproductive purpose of sexual activity? Few of us would probably go that far. Although our sexual nature serves a fundamental task in propagating the species, it also serves non-reproductive tasks by shaping our identities, our intimate relationships, and our conceptions of happiness. These other tasks may certainly overlap with the reproductive tasks, but they don’t need to for most people. We must then reject Aquinas’s assumption that sexual activity is exclusively for the purpose of reproduction. And once we reject that assumption, we can’t single out homosexuality for violating the reproductive purpose of sexual activity.

            The upshot of Aquinas’s argument against homosexuality is that it fails because it makes unwarranted assumptions about the existence of a universal natural inclination and the purpose of such an inclination. If we closely examined the other natural inclinations listed by Aquinas, we’d likely find similar problems with these.


            The Legacy of Natural Law Theory. During the 17th and 18th centuries there were essentially two distinct traditions of natural law theory: one started by Aquinas, and another started by Grotius. Aquinas’s specific theory was perpetuated by philosophers in the Roman Catholic tradition who held that we discover our proper human end by considering a wide range of human natural inclinations. To this day Aquinas’s theory plays a vital role in Roman Catholic moral philosophy. However, non-Catholic philosophers perpetuated the theory that was first forged by Grotius and later developed by Pufendorf. This approach draws more selectively from our human nature, and founds natural law only on a specific human inclination, such as sociability. By the 19th century, though, moral philosophers lost interest in Grotius’s tradition of natural law. In spite of this decline in interest, the impact of natural law theory on moral philosophy was so strong that it left a legacy that is still with us today. We find this continuing legacy principally in minor themes of the natural law theory, which have since become major themes in moral philosophy.

            One of these themes involves natural rights and duties. Grotius and Pufendorf argued that natural law dictates both a list of natural rights that protect me from the hostility of other people, and another list of specific moral duties that obligate me towards other people. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, draws on this notion natural rights in its claim that God endows us with unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Another theme of natural law theory is that of the social contract. Hobbes argued that the principles of natural law compel us to create peaceful societies through social contracts. That is, we mutually agree to set aside our hostilities and live in peace since this is the best way for each of us to preserve our own lives. Again, the U.S. Declaration of Independence rests on social contract theory, particularly in its view that “governments are instituted among men” to bring about our “safety and happiness.”

            Another child of natural law theory is the notion of a supreme moral principle. Aquinas believed that the highest principle of natural law was to “do good and avoid evil.” Grotius and Pufendorf believed it was “be sociable”. Natural law philosophers during the 18th century offered similar supreme principles, and, influenced by this tradition, later moral philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and J.S. Mill offered their own highest principles of morality. A related notion in natural law theory is the idea that we deduce specific moral rules from more general ones. Many moral philosophers today believe that this kind of deduction is a normal part of moral reasoning.

            Although moral theories today regularly incorporate these secondary features of natural law theory, we should not simply assume the validity of these features. Just as we scrutinized the natural law conception of human inclinations, so too should we scrutinize the notions of rights, duties, social contracts, and supreme moral principles.


            Summary. We find the first hints of natural law theory in the Stoic notion that we should live in agreement with nature as mandated by God. Roman Law introduced the term “natural law” in contrast to more narrow notions of civil law and law of nations. The first systematic account of natural law, though, was offered by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that natural law is a subset of God’s eternal law that rules the universe. Specifically, natural law consists of general principles of morality that God imbeds in our human nature. Through the faculty of synderesis we receive knowledge of the highest principle of natural law: do good and avoid evil, as defined by our proper human end. By reflecting on this principle and our six main human inclinations, we deduce six primary principles of natural law, such as “avoid harming others”. From these six principles we deduce more specific principles of human law. As natural law theory developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, philosophers abandoned Aquinas’s view that we gain knowledge of natural law by inspecting our six natural inclinations. Francisco Suarez believed that our conscience gives us knowledge of the principles of natural law, and this helps us regulate our six natural inclinations.

            Returning to earlier Stoic and Roman notions of natural law, Hugo Grotius argued that we gain knowledge of natural law through our inclination of sociability, and the highest principle of natural law is simply to be sociable. Thomas Hobbes believed that natural law is founded on our instinct to survive, and the highest principle of natural law was to preserve our lives by seeking peace and defending ourselves. Influenced by both Hobbes and Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf argued that natural law is founded on our survival instincts, and the best way to survive is to be sociable. Following Hume, Bentham criticized the natural law tradition for deriving ought from is, that is, beginning with facts about human nature and concluding with statements of moral obligation. Using the example of homosexuality, we how natural law theories can make unwarranted assumptions about the existence and purpose of some human inclinations. Although interest in natural law theory declined during the 19th century, its influence lives on in moral theories involving rights, duties, social contracts, and supreme moral principles.



John Boswell’s account of medieval church attitudes towards homosexuality is in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, (New York: Villard, 1994).

Quotation by Cicero is from The Republic (De Re Publica) 3:22, translated by Clinton Walker Keyes (Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard University Press, 1928).

Quotations by Aquinas are from “The Treatise on Law” (1a2ae q. 90-144) and other portions of Summa Theologica, tr. Laurence Shapcote, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (London: 1911-1936).

For a more detailed account of the deductive process in Aquinas’s theory see James Fieser’s “The Logic of Natural Law in Aquinas’ ‘Treatise on Law,’“ Journal of Philosophical Research, 1992, Vol. 17, pp. 147-164.

Quotation by Suarez is from On Law and God the Lawgiver (De Legibus ac Deo Legislatoro, 1612), 2:8:4, translated by Gwladys Williams, et al, in Selections From Three Works of Francisco Suarez (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944).

Quotation by Grotius is from On the Law of War and Peace (De jure belli ac pacis, 1625), Prolegomena, translated by Francis W. Kelsey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925).

Quotation by Hobbes is from Leviathan (1651) 1:14, which is available in several modern editions, the best of which is that by Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).

Quotations by Pufendorf are adapted from The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature (London, 1691), a 17th century English translation of his book De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (1673). Pufendorf also presents his theory in a longer and more detailed work titled Of the Law of Nature and Nations (De Jure Naturae et Gentium, 1762).

Hume’s view about not deriving ought from is in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) 3:1:1, which is available in several recent editions.

Quotation from Bentham is from Chrestomathia: being a collection of papers (1816), Appendix 4, Section 20, note; from The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring (London: 1838-1843).


Suggestions for Further Reading

For discussions of Aquinas’s theory of morality and natural law see R.A. Armstrong, Primary and Secondary Precepts in Thomistic Natural Law Teaching (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, l966); Alan Donagan, Human Ends and Human Action (Milwaukee: Marquette, 1985). D.J. O’Connor, Aquinas and Natural Law, (London: MacMillan, 1968); Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

For discussions of the history of natural law theory see Lloyd L. Weinreb, Natural Law and Justice (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987); J.B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),







            On April 19, 1993, around 80 members of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians burned to death in their communal home in Waco, Texas at the close of a siege initiated by the FBI and other US Government military organizations. The siege was prompted by the FBI’s concern about weapons that the group stockpiled. The FBI was also concerned that the Davidians’ 34-year-old leader, David Koresh, was sexually and physically mistreating children in the group. During the siege Koresh admitted to fathering more than 12 children by different wives who were around 12 or 13 years old when becoming pregnant. At earlier Bible study sessions Koresh taught that the younger girls in the compound would have the privilege of having sex with him once they reached puberty. Koresh also harshly disciplined the children by beating them and withholding food from them. The FBI became increasingly frustrated by the Davidians’ failure to surrender and, on the 51th day of the siege, the FBI launched an assault against their communal home. Rather than comply, the Davidians set themselves on fire and died.

            The theology of the Branch Davidian group is complex, but many of their views hinge on their belief in divinely inspired prophecies. According to their view, we find some divine prophecies in the Bible, which foretell of events leading to the end of the world. Other divine messages, though, come from recent prophets -- including David Koresh himself. Koresh believed that, as a prophet, he was in a unique position to know God’s plan for the world. In a taped message during the siege, he explains that God’s saints know how to slowly uncover God’s truth, one precept at a time:


... if she [i.e., God’s bride] has the  righteousness of saints, we as saints, should we not know rightly how to divide the Word of God (line upon line,  precept on precept; to see here, there;  and a little here, and there a little) the Truth of God?  [Taped Message of March 2nd, 1993]


More specifically, Koresh believed that God’s plan involved a bloody confrontation between the Church and the US government -- which was his reason for stockpiling weapons. He also believed that God directed him to father children with his various young brides.

            An underlying component of Koresh’s prophecies is that God is a law to himself and can order things as he sees fit. This appears to include God’s ability to create moral standards. Although at times God might tell us to cooperate with our governments, at another time he might tell us to resist our government with military force. Although at times God may give us specific rules regarding marriage and having children, at another time he might instruct a special person -- such as David Koresh -- to defy these rules in a manner that we would ordinarily find morally repugnant. Theological positions such as Koresh’s prompt us to think more closely about the relation between morality and the will of God. Does God simply invent moral rules as he sees fit or does God himself answer to a higher standard? A longstanding tradition in Christian philosophy holds that God indeed does create moral rules purely as a matter of his free will. We will look at the central arguments for and against this position.


            Plato and the Euthyphro Puzzle. The philosophical issue surrounding morality and the will of God first came to light by the Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) in his dialog Euthyphro. In this dialog, a character named Euthyphro is prepared to turn his father over to the authorities for mistreating and causing the death of a slave. In ancient Greece, children were expected to show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and, so, by turning in his father, Euthyphro would be violating the standard code of morality. Nevertheless, Euthyprho believes that he is following the will of the gods and therefore doing the right thing. On his way to the courthouse, Euthyphro bumps into Socrates, and the two start debating on the connection between morality and religious obedience. Socrates then poses this question to Euthyphro: “Are good things good because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are good?” In this puzzle, Socrates presents two options regarding the relation between the gods and morality. The first option is that something becomes good when the gods will that it is good. For example, the gods might will that children should show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and, by so willing, it is thereby morally good and obligatory that children should show unconditional loyalty to their parents. On this view, the gods invent morality and, in a sense, the gods create morality completely from scratch without any source of guidance. If the gods will that something should be morally good, then it simply becomes morally good.

            The second option in the above puzzle is that good things are objectively good, and the gods merely recognize them as such. For example, it may be objectively good and obligatory for children to show unconditional loyalty to their parents, and the gods simply endorse this moral standard. On this view, morality is grounded in a pre-existing standard of moral goodness, which the gods themselves have no control over and which the gods themselves must adopt. The genius of Plato’s puzzle is that -- assuming that God has an interest in morality -- these are the only two choices available for explaining the connection between God and morality: God either invents it from scratch or God abides by a pre-existing standard. Further, since we can’t endorse both of these options at the same time, we are locked into choosing one over the other. Plato himself believed that morality is grounded in external and pre-existing standards, and, so, Plato went with the second option above. Many philosophers after Plato followed his lead and held that there exists an eternal and independent standard of morality.




            During the middle ages, Christian philosophers thought about the connection between God and morality and considered more seriously whether God might be the author of moral standards. The philosophers who debated this issue were all part of the natural law tradition of moral philosophy. That is, they all roughly held that God endorses specific moral standards and fixes them in human nature. We then discover the natural laws of morality through our conscience or by reflecting on our natural human inclinations. Although natural law philosophers agreed on these basic points, they disagreed about where God got moral standards to begin with. Aquinas, for example, believed that, although God endorses the moral principles of natural law, God doesn’t literally author these principles. Instead, moral principles are rational laws that exist independently of God. God simply adopts moral principles because, as a rational being, God has a kinship with rational notions such as moral principles. Since God created humans as rational creatures, then we too have the capacity to rationally grasp these moral principles. This position is commonly called intellectualism, insofar as it emphasizes the view that moral principles issue from God’s intellect. Other medieval philosophers took the opposing view called voluntarism, which is that moral principles of natural law are not independent rational principles. Instead, they are creations of God’s will, or in Latin, voluntas. In recent years the voluntarist position also goes by the name of divine command theory.


            Scotus’s Voluntarism. One of the great defenders of voluntarism in the middle ages was Scottish born philosopher John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308). There are two components to Scotus’s view. First, Scotus believed that God has a genuinely free will in the sense that God could have willed things differently than he actually did. Suppose, for example, that God willed to create the planet Mars at a specific point in time. At the precise moment that he willed to create Mars, God could have willed instead to not create it. Scotus’s notion of God’s will is substantially stronger than the views of God’s will held by intellectualist philosophers before him. Aquinas, for example, believed that God’s will is intimately bound up with God’s rational abilities, so that when God willed something he would thereby will things that were rational. For Aquinas, when God willed to create the laws of morality, he did so because such laws involve a rational and orderly way for moral beings to conduct their lives. Scotus, though, believes that Aquinas’s notion of God’s will is inadequate since it constrains God’s will with prior reasons or causes. A genuinely free will, for Scotus, is unconstrained.

            The second component of Scotus’s view is that God has absolute power in the sense that God can bring about anything that he wants, so long as it doesn’t involve a logical contradiction. Scotus makes this point here:


God, therefore, insofar as he is able to act in accord with those right laws he set up previously, is said to act according to his ordained power; but insofar as he is able to do many things that are not in accord with, but go beyond, these [divinely] preestablished laws, God is said to act according to his absolute power. For God can do anything that is not self-contradictory or act in any way that does not include a contradiction (and there are many such ways he could act); and then he is said to be acting according to his absolute power. [Oxford Commentary, 1:44]


In this passage Scotus explains that God has two kinds of powers: ordained and absolute. God’s ordained power involves a basic ability for God to act in accord with laws that he previously sets up, such as laws of salvation or laws of physics. By contrast, God’s absolute power involves a stronger ability to act contrary to his previously established laws, and God can do this in any way that he wants, so long as there is no logical contradiction. A statement is logically contradictory when it both asserts and denies the same thing. Take, for example, the statement that “Bob is a married bachelor”. Since the definition of “bachelor” includes being unmarried, then this statement is contradictory insofar as it implies that Bob is married and unmarried at the same time. Similarly, the statement “Bob has a tattoo of a round square” is contradictory since it implies that a specific shape contains 90-degree angles and lacks 90-degree angles at the same time.

            When we put together God’s free will with his absolute power, we see that God is free to do what he wants, and he has the power to do what he wants -- so long as there are no logical contradictions. We can better understand the scope of God’s free will and absolute power by considering three kinds of laws:


·        Physical laws, such as the law of gravity

·        Mathematical laws, such as “2+2=4”

·        Logical laws, such as the law of identity (the Empire State Building is the Empire State Building)


According to Scotus, God’s absolute power gives him control over some of these laws, but not others. Concerning physical laws, Scotus and most theologians quickly grant that God has creative control over the structure of the physical world and the rules that govern it. For any physical law that we pick, such as gravity, God could change it without logical contradiction. However, mathematical and logical laws can’t be changed without logical contradiction. If we say that God has the power to make 2+2=4, then God would also have the power to make 2+2=5. And this seems absurd. Similarly, if we say that God has the power to create logical laws such as the law of identity, then he also has the power to institute the opposite law. So, for example, God could make the Empire State Building not identical to itself, or, for that matter, God could make himself not identical to himself. Since Scotus holds that God can’t perform logically contradictory tasks, then he would reject the view that God has power over mathematics and logic. Most medieval philosophers also held this view. However, medieval philosophers didn’t see this as a restriction on God’s absolute power, since no possible being can perform logically contradictory tasks.

            When we turn to the issue of moral laws, we must determine whether moral laws are more like physical laws, which God has control over, or more like mathematical and logical laws, which God doesn’t have control over. For Aquinas, moral laws, such as “murder is wrong” are more like mathematics and logic, which God has no control over. Scotus, though, sees moral laws as more like physical laws, which God does have control over. For Scotus, God first freely wills a specific conception of morality, and then institutes these values through his absolute power. He creates these without reliance on any pre-existing external standards, and he implants knowledge of them in our human nature.

            Scotus’s voluntarism creates a paradox: if morality is a creation of God’s will, then God could will whatever moral values he wants, even the exact opposite of present moral values. For example, although God in fact mandates that stealing is wrong, God could have made stealing morally permissible. So too for killing, lying, and marital infidelity. So, God’s moral commands seem arbitrary. Scotus is willing to accept this paradox and all of its strange implications. In fact, he believes that at specific points in history God actually did reverse the rules of morality to suit his own special purposes. Scotus draws attention to three particular stories from the Hebrew Bible in which several of the Hebrew patriarchs commit seemingly immoral acts at God’s command:


To kill, to steal, to commit adultery, are against the precepts of the decalogue, as is clear from Exodus [20:13]: “You shall not kill” [etc.]. Yet God seems to have dispensed from these. This is clear in regard to homicide from Genesis 22, regarding Abraham and the son he was about to sacrifice; or for theft from Exodus 11:[2] and [12:35] where he ordered the sons of Israel to despoil the Egyptians, which despoilment is taking what belongs to another without the owner’s consent, which is the definition of theft. As for the third, there is Hosea 1: “Make children of fornications.” [Oxford Commentary, 3:37]


The first story depicts how God commands Abraham to offer his son as a human sacrifice. At the last minute, as Abraham raises his knife in the air to kill his son, God provides an animal as a substitute. Nevertheless, Abraham’s intent is already fixed and he attempts to carry out the act in accord with God’s will. The second story relates how, just before the Israelites leave Egypt, God commands the Israelites to steal vessels from their Egyptian neighbors. In the third story, God commands Hosea to have sex with an adulteress.

            Scotus believes that these are genuine examples of God granting a special dispensation or privilege for these people. By granting such dispensations, God is temporarily revoking a specific moral law and setting up a new and possibly opposite standard in its place:


... any legislator dispenses unconditionally when he revokes a precept of positive law made by himself. He does not allow the prohibited act or precept to remain as before, but removes the prohibition or makes what was formerly illicit now licit. [Oxford Commentary, 3:37]


Scotus concludes that God could alter virtually all of the moral laws if he wanted. The only exceptions are moral laws involving our subservience to God, such as the commands to worship and obey God. To alter these, God would need to stop being the infinitely great God that he is, and, because doing so would be in contradiction to God’s nature, God cannot do this.

            These are the main points of Scotus’s view of voluntarism:


·        God has a genuinely free will, which is unconstrained by prior reasons or causes.

·        God has absolute power insofar as he can do anything that is logically possible.

·        Moral standards are creations of God’s will, and God can alter them without logical contradiction.

·        Some Biblical stories depict God revoking previously established moral standards.


            Voluntarism after Scotus. In the centuries after Scotus, advocates continued to line up on both sides of the intellectualism/voluntarism debate. The dispute became so central to moral theory that virtually every moral philosopher felt compelled to state one way or the other whether morality is a creation of God’s will. One of the more dramatic defenders of voluntarism after Scotus was English-born philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1349). Like Scotus, Ockham believed that God could revoke any moral law he wanted. For example, Ockham argued that although God will in fact punish us for being immoral, nothing requires him to do so. And, supposing that we didn’t repent, God could still grant us forgiveness and not punish us, if that’s what God wanted to do. Ockham pushes this line of reasoning further and argued that, although God commands us to love him, God could command us to hate him instead:


Every will can conform to the commands of God. God can, however, command a created will to hate Him. Therefore, the created will can do this. Moreover, any act that can be just on earth could also be just in heaven. On earth the hatred of God can be just, if it is commanded by God Himself. Therefore, the hatred of God could also be just in heaven. [Fourth Book of the Sentences, 13]


Ockham argues here that if God did command us to hate him, then this would in fact be the morally right thing to do. Ockham’s statement was so controversial that it contributed to his excommunication from the Church in 1328.

            During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) came down strongly on the side of voluntarism. In a statement that sounds like a direct answer to Plato’s Euthyphro puzzle, Luther writes, “What God wills is not right because he ought or was bound so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because he wills.” Following Luther’s lead, French Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) argued that God’s will is the highest authority for morality:


God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he has so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:23:2]


Calvin argues here that God’s will is the final authority behind everything that God does, including God’s pronouncements about morality. If we attempt to explain why God chose this or that moral standard, our only answer is that God simply willed it that way. Luther’s and Calvin’s statements were important for moving the voluntarist position beyond its Catholic origins and establishing it within the Protestant philosophical tradition.

            Within a century after the Reformation, though, several Protestant moral philosophers resisted the idea that God creates moral standards. The trend started with Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who stated directly that God cannot change moral standards:


The law of nature, again, is unchangeable -- even in the sense that it cannot be changed by God. Measureless as is the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain things over which that power does not extend; for things of which this is said are spoken only, having no sense corresponding with reality and being mutually contradictory. Just as even God, then, cannot cause that two times two should not make four, so he cannot cause that that which is intrinsically evil be not evil. [Law of War and Peace, 1:10:5]


In this passage, Grotius appears to accept the notion of God’s absolute power as Scotus defined it, namely, the ability to do anything that is not logically contradictory. However, Grotius rejects voluntarism by suggesting that moral laws are similar to mathematical laws, which can’t be altered without contradiction. As we’ve seen, voluntarists such as Scotus believe that moral laws are more like physical laws, which can be changed without contradiction. Grotius, then, does not technically ascribe less power to God’s abilities, but, instead, Grotius elevates the status of moral standards, which places them beyond God’s reach.

            We don’t know why Grotius was motivated to elevate moral standards to the level of mathematical laws. However, shortly after Grotius, a group of philosophers known as the Cambridge Platonists gave very clear reasons behind their rejection of voluntarism. Cambridge Platonists, such as Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), were bothered by followers of Calvin who made God’s will the final authority in all moral matters. According to Calvinists, God somewhat arbitrarily chooses some people for salvation, and other people for damnation, and nothing that we do on our own can change God’s choice. Following Plato, Cudworth believed that there exists an objective standard of moral goodness that humans must submit to. This moral standard is independent of God’s will and everyone can grasp it through the use of reason. For Cudworth, then, I don’t have to worry about whether God arbitrarily chose me for salvation. Instead, as long as I follow this objective standard of morality, then I will be in God’s favor.

            Over the next 150 years, dozens of critics of voluntarism similarly claimed that moral standards are eternal and immutable, and even God can’t change them. Although rejecting voluntarism per se, many of these philosophers believed that God’s will still plays at least some role in morality. Suppose, for example, that by using my reason I learn the eternal moral truth that I should not steal from other people. Although I now know that I should not steal, I nevertheless may not be motivated to actually follow this moral rule. And that’s where God’s will enters the picture. If God wills that we should all follow these eternal moral truths -- and we don’t want to disappoint God -- then we’ll all be motivated to follow those moral truths. So, even though God does not willfully create moral truths, he willfully mandates them on humans, and this motivates us to be moral.

            Voluntarists and intellectualists differ about whether God creates moral standards, but both sides of the dispute held equally that God is an important component in morality. Virtually no one publicly questioned the existence of God until the 18th century, and philosophers commonly held that no true atheists either did exist or could exist. So, the climate was well suited for mixing morality and religious belief. Since the 18th century, however, the tables have turned regarding the connection between religion and morality. Scientifically minded moral philosophers of the 18th century attempted to create a science of ethics, which, like the physical sciences, stands independently of religious doctrines. During the 19th century, several philosophers and scientists publicly affirmed atheism or agnosticism, and this further established a secular agenda for moral philosophy. We’ve inherited this agenda, and an academic book on ethics published today might not contain the word “God” even once.




            Traditional voluntarists offer two central arguments for the position that God freely creates moral standards: an argument from revoking established moral standards and an argument from absolute power. We will examine each of these in turn.


            Argument from Revoking Established Moral Standards. Scotus and like-minded voluntarists often argue that the Bible and other sacred texts give us examples of how God temporarily revokes previously established moral standards for special purposes. Since God has the ability to revoke previously established moral standards, then this implies that these standards must be creations of God. Put more precisely, the argument is this:


(1)  If God has the ability to temporarily revoke a moral standard, then he has the power to freely create moral standards.

(2)  Some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard.

(3)  Therefore, God has the power to freely create moral standards.


The success of this argument depends on the truth of premises 1 and 2. However, both of these premises have problems.

            Premise one makes the basic claim that if someone has the power to revoke a standard, then that person had the initial power to create that standard. Suppose, for example, that the State of Tennessee decided to raise the speed limit from 70 miles per hour to 80 miles per hour. If the Tennessee government has the authority to revoke the 70 mile per hour limit, then it is reasonable to assume that they are the ones who created that speed limit to begin with. However, although this is a reasonable inference, it isn’t absolute. It is possible that some other governing body, such as the Federal government, established the original 70 mile per hour limit, and simply assigned power to the State of Tennessee to revoke that standard if they saw fit. Similarly, it is possible that something other than God set in place our basic moral values, and God simply has the power to revoke those standards. For example, perhaps the fabric of the cosmos itself set in place our basic moral values, and God uses his power to override them on occasion. Alternatively, perhaps human societies invented our basic moral values, and sometimes God enters into the moral decision making process and uses his power to override the values that we invented. So, just because someone has the power to revoke moral standards this does not necessarily mean that he had the power to create those standards.

            Premise two in the above argument states that some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard. The stories of Abraham, the Israelites fleeing Egypt, and Hosea seem to be examples of this. The most obvious problem with these examples is that they carry weight only for believers within religious traditions that recognize the authority of specific scriptures. In the case of stories from the Hebrew Bible, these principally carry weight for Jews and Christians, which together constitute only a minority of the world’s population. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and members of other religions might find these stories interesting, but not authoritative.

            For the sake of argument, let’s confine our discussion to the stories from the Hebrew Bible and to the Jews and Christians who see these stories as authoritative. Even so, there is still a major problem with premise two: these stories don’t conclusively illustrate God revoking moral standards. Take, for example, the story of Abraham who is prepared to kill his son. Although murder is certainly wrong, it is often difficult to determine whether an act of killing is unjustified to the point that it counts as murder. If an intruder breaks into my house and threatens my family, I may be justified in killing him and, so, it may not count as “murder”. To determine if an act of killing rises to the level of murder, we must examine the context of a person’s act and consider his motivations for killing someone. If Abraham slaughtered his son for no good reason, then that would certainly appear to be murder. However, Abraham does have a reason for preparing to kill his son, and this reason involves a complex relationship with God. In addressing the story of Abraham, Aquinas believes that Abraham’s act was justified in view of God’s ultimate role in the life and death process:


All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Kings. 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. [Summa Theologica, la-2ae, Q. 94:5]


According to Aquinas, God has ultimate authority over when and how anyone dies. Although it might be wrong for Abraham to kill his son on his own, it would not be wrong for Abraham to carry out God’s orders since, on Aquinas’s view, God is and always was the final authority over human life.

            Aquinas similarly runs through the examples of the Israelites’ leaving town with the property of their Egyptian neighbors, and Hosea sleeping with an adulteress. Once again, although stealing and adultery are immoral, Aquinas argues that God ultimately owns all property and spouses, and he can assign them to whomever he wants. Even if we don’t agree with Aquinas’s precise explanations, his larger point is still valid: the Biblical stories don’t conclusively depict God revoking previously established moral standards. So, there are serious problems with premise 2, which, like the problems with premise 1, force us to reject the argument from revoking established moral standards.


            The Argument from Absolute Power. Scotus and other voluntarists offer a second argument for the position that God freely creates moral standards, and this argument is grounded in the notion of God’s absolute power. If God has absolute power, then he can do basically anything, including create moral principles in any way that he sees fit. The more precise argument is this:


(1)  If a being is absolutely powerful, then that being can freely create moral standards without contradiction

(2)  God is absolutely powerful

(3)  Therefore God can freely create moral standards without contradiction


Again, the success of this argument rests on the truth of premises 1 and 2. Premise 1 draws on Scotus’s notion of absolute power, namely the ability to do anything that doesn’t involve a contradiction. Premise 1 also claims that, in principle, moral standards can be created and altered in various ways without logical contradiction. For example, according to Scotus, it is not logically contradictory to state that “we are morally obligated to murder, steal, or commit adultery.” This statement may be false, and it certainly sounds strange when we say it out loud, but it contains no logical contradiction, such as we find in the statement “Bob is a married bachelor”.

            A critic of Scotus might argue that prohibitions against murder, stealing, and adultery are actually built into our notion of moral obligation. That is, when we speak about our moral obligations, we actually refer to a specific collection of moral obligations, which include our obligations against murder, stealing, and adultery. So, according to the critic, a contradiction is lurking beneath the surface in the statement that “we are morally obligated to murder, steal, or commit adultery.” In response, Scotus would deny that we define the notion of “moral obligation” with a specific collection of moral obligations. Instead, “moral obligation” has a much more general meaning and is linked to what God freely wills. It is too soon in the argument to grant Scotus’s point that God himself defines the nature of moral obligation. Nevertheless, Scotus’s view is at least logically possible, and this by itself shows that prohibitions against murder, stealing and adultery are not logically part of the definition. Although we’ve gotten used to linking “moral obligation” with prohibitions against murder, stealing, and adultery, these prohibitions are not logically included in the notion of moral obligation.

            Premise 1 of the above argument, then, seems acceptable. That is, it seems that moral standards might be created and altered in various ways without logical contradiction. The success of the above argument, then, rests on premise 2: God is absolutely powerful. According to this premise, there exists a God who has the power to do anything that doesn’t involve a logical contradiction. Should we accept this premise? Medieval philosophers devised proofs to demonstrate that God exists and that God has infinitely great qualities -- including the power to do all logically possible things. Scotus himself formulated one of the most elaborate proofs for God’s existence that any philosopher has ever offered. Suppose, though, that we are not convinced by such proofs, or we aren’t even interested in wading through the details of these proofs to see if they work. We might instead wish to simply grant that God exists and then consider as a matter of personal faith whether God has absolute power. For traditional believers, the idea of a God with limited power doesn’t make much sense. Who would want to believe in a puny God with restricted abilities? Instead, a dedicated believer motivated by a sense of devotion should want to attribute as much power to God as possible, including creative power over moral principles. So, a strong sense of religious devotion should incline the believer to accept premise 2.

            There are two problems with this devotion-based endorsement of premise 2. First, just because we want to attribute absolute power to God, that doesn’t mean that an absolutely powerful God actually exists. Our devotion may be misdirected and we may be only thinking wishfully -- just as we might hope to hit the big lottery jackpot. Wishful thinking isn’t a strong enough basis for concluding that God freely creates morality. Second, it is not clear that, as a matter of devotion, we should want to attribute absolute power to God. How much power must we ascribe to God before we are psychologically content in our devotion towards him? A believer may certainly be psychologically compelled to believe in a God that is very powerful. But as the believer heaps more and more powerful abilities on God, there is a point at which ascribing that extra power is unnecessary for spiritual contentment and even collapses into self-indulgence.

            Suppose, for example, that I love to eat apples and for the next month I vow to eat nothing but apples. During this one-month period there are physical limits to the number of apples I could eat, which would be about 1,000 apples. Suppose next that a local apple grower decides to support my efforts during that one-month period and brings by a truckload of 1,000 apples. Upon delivering the apples, I protest “that’s not good enough, and I demand 2,000 apples even though I won’t be able to eat them all!” Like my desire for more apples than I can eat, a believer can stipulate more divine power than the believer actually needs to be spiritually satisfied, and anything beyond that is something like spiritual gluttony. The least admirable form of religious faith is that which is directed by the believer’s personal cravings, such as the desire for heavenly rewards. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita makes this point here:


The foolish utter flowery speech, and rejoice in the letter of the Vedas [i.e., Hindu scriptures]. For them there is nothing but a desire for the self with only the intent on reaching heaven. [Bhagavad Gita, 2]


This passage condemns established religious practices that are rooted in the believer’s selfish desires. The Bhagavad Gita recommends instead that we distance ourselves from any personal benefit that our faith might give us. Although traditional Christians may resist taking spiritual advice from Hindu texts, this particular point in the Bhagavad Gita is universal: selfish interests shouldn’t guide faith. Accordingly, it isn’t appropriate for us to grant God creative power over moral principles when we are motivated by spiritual gluttony.

            In the absence of a convincing proof for the existence of an absolutely powerful God, we should hold premise two in suspicion and thereby reject the argument from absolute power. So, we’ve rejected both the argument from revoking established moral standards and the argument from absolute power. Although both of these arguments fail, it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that voluntarism is false; it only means that these specific arguments fail as proofs for the view that morality is a creation of God’s will. The voluntarist may offer other more successful proofs or simply hold voluntarism as a matter of faith in spite of the criticisms.


            Criticism: Voluntarism implies that Divine Goodness is Meaningless. Although voluntarism is no longer part of mainstream moral philosophy, some Christian philosophers today continue to argue that God creates morality. Like their medieval predecessors, contemporary voluntarists often rely on both the argument from revoking established moral standards and the argument from absolute power. This continued interest in voluntarism has sparked a number of critical reactions. The most commonly discussed contemporary criticism is that if God does create moral goodness, then we can’t meaningfully say about God himself that “God is morally good.” According to voluntarism, “moral goodness” simply means “that which God ordains.” This definition by itself does not present problems when we make moral statements about human beings. Suppose, for example, that I say, “Bob is morally good.” Based on the voluntarist’s definition of moral goodness, this statement means “Bob does that which God ordains,” and this is a perfectly meaningful statement. However, suppose that I next say, “God is morally good.” Based on the voluntarist’s definition of moral goodness, this statement translates “God ordains that which he ordains,” and here the notion of divine moral goodness is lost. The critic’s general point appears correct: if voluntarism is true, then moral statements about God aren’t as meaningful as moral statements about human beings. It also seems clear that the voluntarist’s notion of divine moral goodness isn’t as meaningful as the intellectualist’s notion of divine moral goodness. According to intellectualism, “moral goodness” means “that which conforms to an independent moral standard.” If I then say that “God is morally good”, for the intellectualist, this means that “God conforms to an independent moral standard”-- and this is perfectly meaningful.

            For the critic, then, the voluntarist implicitly abandons any meaningful notion of divine moral goodness. This is a problem since, without moral goodness, God wouldn’t be much better than an absolutely powerful bully. The heart of this issue involves a tension between the notions of divine power and divine goodness. On the one hand, if God has absolute power over moral principles, then the notion of divine moral goodness is not meaningful. On the other hand, if we wish to preserve the notion of divine moral goodness, then we must deny God’s absolute power over moral principles. The critic advises that we should take this second option and preserve God’s goodness at the expense of God’s power, which is the intellectualist position on the issue. Should the believer follow the critic’s intellectualist advice? The question appears to hinge on the believer’s differing levels of psychological comfort. Presumably, according to the critic, it is more comforting to retain a meaningful notion of divine goodness rather than it is to retain the notion of God’s absolute power over morality.

            However, we run into problems when basing arguments on issues of comfort. We’ve seen above that endorsing the notion of absolute power may simply be motivated by spiritual gluttony, which isn’t very admirable. Similarly, if we inspect the intellectualist’s psychological motives for retaining a meaningful notion of divine goodness, we may find something equally unadmirable. Intellectualism retains a meaningful notion of divine goodness because it sets up an independent standard of morality that is external to God. Perhaps this is motivated by a sense of distrust in God. If God creates moral standards on his own, then who knows what whimsical commands he might come up with? And, if we instead see that morality is grounded in an independent standard from God, then we are free from God’s moral authority. To a degree, this was the motivation behind the endorsement of intellectualism by the Cambridge Platonists.

            In short, the worst-case motivation for voluntarism is spiritual gluttony, and the desire to heap more power on God than is necessary. On the other hand, the worst-case motivation for intellectualism is a distrust of God, and the desire to have a more reliable standard of morality. Neither of these are particularly good motives for a believer to have. If believers hope to resolve the dispute between intellectualism and voluntarism, they will need to find more pure motives for adopting one of these options over the other. Without a more pure motive, the dispute collapses into self-indulgent assertions. The safest route for the believer, though, is to set the whole issue aside and concede the inability to mark off the boundaries between God’s absolute power and God’s moral goodness. Whether God creates moral principles or not, it should be sufficient for the believer to see that God endorses these principles.




            In recent years the tables have turned against religious morality so much that contemporary moral philosophers hold with suspicion, simply dismiss, or even ridicule those who vocalize any religious ethics. What, though, is so bad about linking morality with God? On one level, the religious ethics of Aquinas and Scotus is a purely academic issue with little immediate practical implication. For Aquinas, God simply endorses the same rational moral standard that any other rational being would also endorse, including humans. Aquinas contends that we don’t even need to believe in God to rationally uncover moral standards. To a degree, this is also the case for Scotus. Even though God freely creates moral standards as he pleases, Scotus argues that we gain knowledge of these divinely created moral standards through our conscience, which is a natural faculty that we all possess. Since I have this faculty regardless of whether I personally believe in God, then, just like the believer, I too will intuit these proper moral standards. It is true that Aquinas and Scotus both believe that God encourages us to be moral, and will punish us for immoral conduct. This, they believe, has an impact on our motivation to be moral. However, as long as our moral views are firmly grounded in our conscience, then the component of divine punishment simply adds an exclamation point to their views of morality. It is like saying, “Stealing is wrong and, by the way, God will punish you if you steal.” This, though, isn’t much different than saying “Stealing is wrong and, by the way, the cops will get you if you steal.”


            Lingering Problems with Religious Ethics. Critics don’t seem upset about the above aspects of religious ethics as found in Aquinas’s and Scotus’s theories. The big problem for critics, though, is when believers merely stipulate that God morally endorses a particular type of conduct. For example, David Koresh believed that God morally endorsed him to have sex with 12-year-old girls for the purpose of siring children. The mere sound of this is likely to make anyone cringe – believer and nonbeliever alike. Critics, though, have the same negative response when believers appeal to God’s authority concerning a wide range of moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, interracial marriages, and handgun ownership. When pressed, the believer might justify his views by appealing to the Bible, his religious tradition, or his religious conscience. Again, though, we must ask, what is so bad about this? There are three problems that the critic of religious ethics might point out. First, according to the critic, appealing to religious intuitions on moral issues is a conversation stopper. We would like to at least dialog on an issue, but we can’t since the believer quickly appeals to his foundational and non-negotiable religious assumption. In response, the believer maintains that there is room for dialog within his religious tradition, but that the critic stops the conversation with his secular viewpoint. In one swoop, the critic shuts off an entire range of religious-based discourse because of his own foundational and non-negotiable secular assumptions. If there is a stoppage of conversation, much of the fault rests with the critic.

            Second, the critic might argue that the believer’s chain of reasoning isn’t long enough, and rests too quickly on his foundational religious assumption. Proper ethical decisions involve detailed reasoning. The typical believer, on the other hand, has a one-step reasoning process: abortion, for example, is wrong because the believer’s religious intuitions tell him so. In response, other nonreligious moral theories also have a one-step reasoning process. A utilitarian, for example, might argue that it is wrong to torture animals since this increases the quantity of pain in the world. A rights theorist might argue that stealing my car is wrong since it violates my property rights. What is relevant in these cases is (a) the strength of the initial moral standard, such as the importance of reducing pain, and (b) the applicability of the moral standard to a given issue, such as torturing animals. So, if we dismiss religious ethics because it involves a one-step reasoning process, then we must also dismiss many secular theories.

            Finally, the critic might argue that the believer blindly perpetuates bigotry when pronouncing, for example, that God commands men to be in charge of women. Bigotry is certainly bad, but if there is a link between bigotry and religious ethics it is at most a sociological connection, and not a logical one. Religious intuitions don’t logically entail that one must single out and unjustly condemn specific groups of people. And even from a sociological perspective, it isn’t immediately clear that believers in religious ethics tend more towards bigotry than does the population as a whole. Unless such a connection can be established through responsible sociological studies, then it is bigotry itself to dismiss proponents of religious ethics for being bigots, simply on the basis of a hunch.

            Critics of religious ethics may be bothered by appeals to religious intuitions for additional reasons. However, critics aren’t justified in declaring a monopoly on the field of ethics by restricting it to only nonreligious approaches which, historically, are relatively recent, and, geographically, are confined mostly to European and American culture. In today’s secular environment, the religious believer undoubtedly limits his audience by appealing to religious intuitions in moral matters. For example, if I debate the issue of women’s rights with a Muslim and he appeals to the Koran for his perspective, his appeal will carry little weight for me. However, we must distinguish between arguing to win a debate, and arguing to justify a moral view. We can only expect the latter of anyone making ethical choices and, in their own contexts, at least some religious appeals are legitimate justifications.

            There are, though, limits to religious appeals. First, religious appeals won’t be morally binding for nonbelievers who question fundamental points about religion, such as the existence of God. Second, believers should consider that there are limits to the authority of religious appeals even for themselves. Interpretations of scripture change, religious organizations redefine their doctrines, and an individual’s religious conscience often shifts over the years. For example, throughout much of their long history, the Roman Catholic Church held that slavery was morally permissible since it reflected a natural hierarchy in social groups. In more recent times, though, the Catholic Church harshly condemns slavery. Several centuries ago the Catholic Church and many early Protestant denominations believed that they were morally justified in torturing and killing vocal members of rival Christian denominations. Today this idea is appalling to all Christian groups. When contraception devices became widely available in the early 20th century, most Protestant denominations harshly condemned their use since they felt that the use of these devices would thwart God’s plan for human reproduction. Within 50 years, though, virtually all Protestant denominations reversed their views. So, even for the believer, religious assessments of moral matters should be viewed in light of this changing backdrop.


            Summary. Medieval Christian philosophers heavily debated the relation between morality and God’s will. Intellectualist moral philosophers such as Aquinas believed that moral standards are independent of God and God endorses them because of his rational nature. By contrast, voluntarist moral philosophers such as Scotus argued that moral standards are created by God and don’t exist independently of God. Scotus believed that God has a genuinely free will and absolute power to create anything that does not involve a logical contradiction. For Scotus, moral principles fall under the domain of God’s absolute power. Scotus and other voluntarists offer two arguments for this position. First, voluntarists argue that, insofar as religious texts depict God as revoking previously established moral laws, then God has creative power over these moral laws. In response, we’ve seen that the power to revoke moral laws does not necessarily imply the power to create moral laws. We’ve also seen that the specific Biblical stories discussed by voluntarists are not clear illustrations of God revoking moral standards. Second, voluntarists argue that, insofar as God has absolute power, God has the ability to create moral standards. We agreed that, in theory, moral standards might be created and altered in various ways without logical contradiction. However, there are problems with granting that God is absolutely powerful. In the absence of a proof, belief in God’s absolute power may be driven by either wishful thinking or spiritual gluttony.

            A common contemporary argument against voluntarism is that, if God creates moral standards then the notion of divine moral goodness becomes meaningless. That is, the statement “God is morally good” simply means “God ordains that which he ordains.” The issue involves a tension between God’s goodness and God’s absolute power. According to an intellectualist, it is best for us to preserve God’s moral goodness even though this means reducing God’s range of power. In response, we’ve seen that both sides of the dispute may have questionable motives: the voluntarist may be motivated by spiritual gluttony, and the intellectualist may be motivated by distrust of God. The safest way to address the dispute is simply to concede ignorance about the nature of God’s goodness and power and contend only that God endorses moral principles. Although religious-based ethics is currently unpopular in secular discussions of morality, we noted that there is nothing wrong with religious morality as long as believers recognize that there are limits to this approach.



Plato’s statement of the Euthyphro puzzle is in the dialog Euthyphro 10a-11b, translated by Benjamin Jowett in The Dialogues of Plato (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1901).

Quotations by Scotus are from Oxford Commentary on the Four Books of the Sentences, translation by Allan B. Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986).

Quotation by Ockham is from Fourth Book of the Sentences, Question 14, as translated by Lucan Freppert in The Basis of Morality According to William Ockham (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988).

Quotation by Luther is from Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: 1961), p. 196.

Quotation by Calvin is from Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, (London: 1941).

Quotations by Aquinas are from “The Treatise on Law” (1a2ae q. 90-144) in Summa Theologica, tr. Laurence Shapcote, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (London: 1911-1936).

The Bhagavad Gita is available in several modern translations; the quotation here from Chapter 2 is rendered from the translation by Annie Wood Besant, (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1895).


Suggestions for Further Reading

For a discussion of Scotus’s moral theory see Allan B. Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986); B.M. Bonansea, Man and his Approaches to God in John Duns Scotus (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1983).

For a discussion of Ockham’s moral theory see Lucan Freppert, The Basis of Morality According to William Ockham (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988).

For contemporary defenses of divine command theory see Robert M. Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness,” in The Virtue of Faith (Oxford, 1987); Richard J. Mouw, The God who Commands (University of Notre Dame, 1990); Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

For a contemporary criticisms of divine command theory see Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Pemberton, 1973).







            On April 19, 1995 a terrorist car bomb exploded outside of a nine-story federal office building in Oklahoma City. The explosion was so powerful that people in buildings several blocks away were thrown from their chairs and others 30 miles away could feel the blast’s vibration. About 550 people were inside the federal building at the time, and 168 of those people were crushed to death by the collapsed structure, making the explosion the worst terrorist activity on U.S. soil. The FBI immediately distributed composite drawings of two bombing suspects and within days the bombers were identified as 27-year-old Timothy McVeigh, a former Army mechanic, and 39-year-old Terry Nichols. Both McVeigh and Nichols had ties with anti-government paramilitary organizations.  These organizations opposed government gun control efforts and were hostile to any freedom-restricting activities of the Federal government. For McVeigh and Nichols, the message behind the bombing was that the Federal government should not take away our freedoms.

            The Oklahoma City bombing is among the saddest events in recent U.S. history, and the bombers’ callous disregard for human life violates everything we know about morality. One troubling aspect about this tragedy is its underlying ideological message, part of which we accept as freedom-lovers, and part of which we reject for its extremism. According to many anti-government groups, we establish governments to perform only a specific range of tasks, principally protection from outside invasion. However, the U.S. government pushes its authority beyond its established purpose by unjustly restricting people’s freedoms. This justifies resistance, which even the U.S. Declaration of Independence endorses: “… whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [i.e., rights to life, liberty and happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government….”

            The underlying philosophy of such anti-government groups is that of social contract theory. In its less extreme form, social contract theory is both a legitimate and historically important account of political and moral obligation. Briefly, social contract theory describes a disease, and then proposes a cure. The disease is that humans have unsociable tendencies and are unable to construct and live in cooperative societies. The cure is that we contractually agree to be civil to each other under threat of punishment from a governing body that we establish for this purpose. This mutual contract then becomes the backbone for our moral obligations to each other.

            Social contract theory has a long but spotty history. Plato hints at a social contract theory in his great dialog the Republic. A skeptical character in that dialog named Glaucon argues that people are naturally inclined to exploit each other. Since I don’t like being exploited, then I agree not to exploit others on the condition that others don’t exploit me:


... when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. [Republic, 2: 358e]


For Glaucon, the mutual contracts that we create are the basis of the rules of justice. Plato himself didn’t accept this skeptical view of the origins of morality and, instead, Plato argued that moral truths are fixed in a higher and more eternal realm of the universe. For almost two thousand years, most moral philosophers largely agreed with Plato’s view. In particular, they believed that both morality and governmental authority are grounded in objective natural laws that God himself endorses. During the 17th century, a few skeptically-minded philosophers offered alternative explanations of morality that were grounded more in the human realm than the heavenly realm. One of these was British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who offers the first detailed account of social contract theory.




            Hobbes presents his social contract theory in a series of works, the most famous of which is The Leviathan (1651). The term “Leviathan” refers to a large mythological sea creature as depicted in the Hebrew Bible and earlier Canaanite mythology. For Hobbes, the powerful governing body that we establish for protection is like the giant Leviathan. The Hebrew Bible describes the great sea creature as the “king over all the children of pride.” Similarly, Hobbes sees that the government is the king over prideful people insofar as our human pride forces us to create a government for our own protection.


            The State of Nature. A common story line in science fiction movies is that modern society crumbles because of a nuclear world war or a colossal ecological disaster. A few isolated surviving humans forage through the ruins of destroyed cities, hoping to find a stray can of food, a container of gasoline, or a box of bullets. Every contact with another human is a life-or-death struggle to acquire the other person’s goods. Rather than looking into the future to describe a post-apocalyptic world, Hobbes instead looks to the distant past and asks us to imagine what life might have been like before there were any governing bodies. The condition that Hobbes describes is as selfish and brutal as any science fiction story. Hobbes calls this primitive condition “the state of nature.” Hobbes isn’t describing an actual time in human history, but he offers this thought experiment only to highlight the limits of our human nature and how our unsocial inclinations affect our interaction with others.

            Hobbes argues that, in this state of nature, we are roughly equal to each other in both intellectual cunning and physical strength. Intellectually, we all gain knowledge through experience and, given enough time and effort, we can all rise to a decent intellectual level. Physically, although a bigger person might be able to beat me in an arm wrestling contest, with a little cunning I can overpower him. Hobbes writes that, “as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret mechination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” Although intellectual and physical equality might seem like good things, in the state of nature they only perpetuate struggle. If someone stood out with superhuman physical abilities, such as Superman, then he could simply take control and force people to cooperate. Perhaps the same thing could happen if someone stood out with superhuman intellectual abilities. But since we’re all equal in the state of nature, no one will naturally emerge who can take charge.

            In view of our equality, Hobbes notes three factors that immediately cause us to quarrel. First, we equally desire things that are in limited supply. All of us seek after basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. If all of my physical needs in life could be met by simply reaching up and picking things off a tree, then there would be no need to engage in conflict with anyone. The reality of the situation, though, is otherwise. Necessities are in limited supply, and, as we compete for the same things, we quickly see each other as enemies. Through violence, then, we seek to subdue “men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle.” The second cause of quarrel is that, once we acquire some goods, we are immediately distrustful of people who come near us and thus we will attack them. This isn’t merely paranoia, but a necessary means of protecting things that we’ve acquired. For example, when people win large amounts of money in a lottery, they are often inundated with scam artists who try to defraud them of their winnings with shady investment opportunities. The more distrustful I am of outsiders, the better I’ll be able to retain what I’ve acquired. In the state of nature, this distrust translates into violence. The third cause of quarrel is that I will attack someone simply to preserve my reputation as a tough guy that people shouldn’t mess around with. If my reputation diminishes, then others will see me as easy prey.

            The consequence of all this is a state of war of all against all. It includes actual wars as well as anticipated wars that, similar to the cold war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, involve constant military posturing. Hobbes’s description of this state of war is one of the most famous passages in philosophy:


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. [Leviathan, 13].


For Hobbes, in the state of nature we would lack all social comforts that come about through mutual cooperation. We wouldn't even attempt to grow food, import goods, or build dwellings on our own since we would simply make ourselves targets of attack by other people. Our rivals would see what we have, desire it, and kill us to acquire it. We would have no "knowledge of the face of the earth" since the only geographical area that counts is the one immediately around us as we seek to survive from attacks by others. We would have "no account of time" since the only time that matters is the present moment in which we struggle to survive. We would have no arts and no literary compositions since these are luxury items that humans create only after we secure our survival. We would have no society since social interaction requires trust and cooperation, which we wouldn't be capable of. In essence, our human lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

            What kind of morality is there in this state of nature? In a word, none! Hobbes argues that in this condition the “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place.” It is a moral free-for-all in which we have rights to do whatever we want. It is a condition in which “every person has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Hobbes offers several examples from ordinary life situations to prove his gloomy description of human nature. When we go on trips we take guns with us for protection against robbers. When we go to bed at night we lock our cabinets to prevent our housekeepers and even our own children from stealing from us. We take these extra steps to protect ourselves in addition to the protection that we get from the police and court systems. Also, when we consider that individual countries around the world are like independent people, we see that countries are always poised for war to defend themselves against invaders who want to plunder their resources.


            The Laws of Nature. The state of nature that Hobbes describes is so gloomy that we have good reasons to rise above that condition if possible. None of us wants to die violently; we all want decent living conditions; we also carry hopes that we can improve our living conditions through work. We can’t fulfill any of these desires until we achieve peace, and Hobbes next describes what we need to do to secure such peace. This part of his discussion is influenced by natural law theory, particularly the version developed by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). In his work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Grotius explains that there are fixed moral laws of nature that are binding on everyone worldwide. Further, according to Grotius, we set up governing bodies to ensure that we follow these moral mandates of natural law and thus live peacefully. Hobbes not only follows Grotius’s basic solution to securing peace, but he also adopts the language of natural law theory. For Hobbes, then, we get out of the state of nature by following laws of nature. Hobbes lists 15 distinct laws of nature that facilitate ending conflict and securing peace, the first three of which are the most important.

            Hobbes describes the first law of nature as this:


… every man ought to endeavour 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. [Leviathan, 14]


This first law of nature tells us that we should seek peace, and defend ourselves if we can’t achieve peace. The binding nature of this law is clear: we all wish to survive, and peace is the best way to survive. When peace fails, we need to defend ourselves. The second law of nature describes more precisely how we achieve peace with each other. We saw that in the state of nature “every person has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Imagine that each of us carried around a bag with slips of paper that listed all of our respective rights in the state of nature. The rights that I have in the state of nature are almost infinite in number and allow me complete liberty. For example, I might pull one slip out of my bag that says that I have a right to hop around on one foot. I might pull another slip out that says that I have the right to kill you. The second of these rights surely worries you. However, in your rights bag, you have a similar slip of paper that says that you have the right to kill me, and that worries me. As long as we both hold onto our rights to kill each other, we can never achieve peace.

            The second law of nature, then, says that you and I should agree to give up those specific rights that threaten each of us respectively:


... a man [should] be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence 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. [Leviathan, 14]


According to this law of nature, if you're willing to remove from your bag the slip of paper that grants you the right to kill me, then I should be willing to remove from my bag the slip of paper that grants me the right to kill you. We should do this with all rights that breed hostility, such as my rights to kill you, steal from you, to lie to you, or assault you. We should also do this with any person that is willing to cooperate with us. In short, the second law of nature tells us “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.” Why should I be willing to give up any of my personal rights? Because my survival depends on it. However, Hobbes implies that we should only mutually give up those rights that are necessary for securing peace. For example, my right to hop around on one foot has no bearing on the peace process, so I shouldn’t give up that right.

            The third law of nature is simply that “people perform their covenants made” since our agreements are empty words if we don’t keep them. For Hobbes, even if you and I have the best of intentions and we plan on giving up our hostile rights forever, we must actually abstain from those hostilities, otherwise we are still in the state of nature. Assuring that we abide by our agreements is tricky. I will always be looking for ways to cheat the system, and I can only assume that you will to. Our verbal agreement alone isn’t enough, and we both need some extra motivation to follow through on our agreements. The solution is that we both agree to give unlimited power to a political authority that will punish us if we break our agreements. This means that you and I must give up a few more of our rights and hand them over to this political authority. But it is worth it if this is the only way to guarantee our contractual arrangement, which in turn ends the state of nature.

            Hobbes’s remaining 12 laws of nature are principally rules of diplomacy that preserve peaceful coexistence once it gets going. The fourth law tells us that we should show gratitude toward others who comply with contracts. If we don’t, then others might regret participating in the contract. The fifth law is that we should compromise on minor issues that serve the larger interests of society. If we debate every little issue, then the peace process grinds to a halt.


            Political Theory and Moral Theory.  Hobbes’s social contract theory serves double duty as both a political theory that justifies the existence of a government, and also a moral theory that tells us specifically about our moral obligations. As a political theory, Hobbes’s social contract theory maintains that governments are the creations of people, and not the creations of God. The complete justification of a government’s existence is its role as preserver of the peace. However, even though we are the ones that create governments, we are never allowed to overthrow them once they are established, even if we’re not happy with the job that they’re doing. The reason for this is that, to guarantee that governments will be effective in their mission to keep peace, we must give them absolute and irrevocable authority over us. For Hobbes, if governments have anything less than this then they will be unable to enforce the laws. The governments that we establish can be monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies. However, Hobbes believes that monarchies will be the most effective in preserving peace, and he offers several reasons for his view. For example, a monarch will receive better counsel since he can select experts and get advice in private. A monarch’s policies will also be more consistent since he is operating as a single person, unlike other forms of government that have many leaders. Similarly, there is less chance of a civil war with a monarchy since the monarch will not disagree with himself.

            As a moral theory, scholars debate about the precise details of Hobbes’s view. Two features, though, seem prominent. First, morality isn’t a permanent feature of the nature of things but is only a creation of the social contract. We saw that in the state of nature “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place.” The notions of morality that emerge through the laws of nature are contractual agreements. In this regard, Hobbes is a moral skeptic insofar as he holds that moral principles have no objective foundation independent of human society.

            The second feature of Hobbes’s moral theory is that our specific moral obligations are intimately linked with the 15 laws of nature. For example, the third law of nature maintains that we should keep our contracts. When we do this, we have the moral virtue of justice, and when we fail to do this we have the moral vice of injustice. Similarly, the fourth law of nature is that we should show gratitude towards those who keep their contracts. When we follow this fourth law, we have the virtue of gratitude and when we fail to do so we have the vice of ingratitude. Other virtues that Hobbes lists are sociability, modesty, equity, and mercy, each linked directly with one of the 15 laws of nature. Hobbes also notes that his theory recognizes the same virtues as traditional virtue theories, such as Aristotle’s, which includes courage and fortitude. So, Hobbes writes that the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy, and therefore the true doctrine of the Laws of Nature is the true moral philosophy.” There are two specific implications to Hobbes’s virtue account of morality. First, the job of moral philosophy is to find out specifically which virtuous character traits facilitate adherence to the various laws of nature. Second, our job as morally responsible people is to cultivate virtuous character traits since, if we don’t, we place the peace of society at risk.

            Here are the main points of Hobbes’s theory:


§         The pre-political state of nature for humans is a condition of mutual conflict that contains no objective moral values.

§         We achieve peace by mutually agreeing to give up our rights to harm each other.

§         To assure compliance, we create governments that punish those who break the agreements.

§         To further secure compliance we recognize various laws of nature and acquire moral virtues.


            Social Contract Theory in the 17 and 18th Centuries. Shortly after Hobbes’s writings appeared, theologically-minded critics attacked Hobbes for eliminating God’s role in mandating morality and establishing political authority. Charges of atheism and irreligion were so strong that several bishops reportedly discussed burning Hobbes to death. Fortunately for Hobbes, threats like this never materialized. In spite of these harsh reactions, Hobbes’s general notion of the social contract captured the imagination of philosophers after him and for a century and a half social contract theory was a dominant theme among political philosophers. These social contract theorists modified features of Hobbes’s account to make it less skeptical, but they all followed the basic pattern of an original state of nature, followed by a social contract that addresses limitations of our natural state. For example, German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) agreed with Hobbes that the state of nature is pretty miserable and that, to survive, we enter into a social contract and establish political authorities to punish contract violators. However, Pufendorf argued that God sets the basic terms of the social contract by mandating that we should be sociable. For Pufendorf, then, the social contract is grounded in God’s authority, and not simply in the authority of people.

            British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) also put a more positive spin on social contract theory. According to Locke, the state of nature isn’t a condition of moral anarchy as Hobbes supposed; instead, it is an environment in which we have God-given natural rights to life, health, liberty and possessions. According to Locke, we still need to contractually form governments to punish rights violators. However, whereas Hobbes believed that governments have absolute authority once we put them in place, Locke believed that citizens may justly overthrow their government if it fails at its peace-keeping role. So, on Locke’s version of social contract theory, political revolutions are sometimes justifiable. The British Whig party quickly adopted Locke’s version of social contract theory and its justification for revolution. This, in turn, provided the intellectual climate to justify the American Revolution as we find expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

            As in Great Britain, social contract theory played an equally vital role in 18th century French political thought, especially in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Contrary to Hobbes who described the state of nature as a condition of mutual conflict, Rousseau argued that it is a condition of individual freedom in which creativity flourishes. According to Rousseau, in this state of nature people can’t avoid interacting with each other, and, so, citizens set up a social contract to regulate this interaction. The contract specifically establishes an absolute democracy that is ruled by the general will of the people, which, for Rousseau, involves what is best for all people. Just as social contract theory offered a philosophical justification for revolutionary activity in Great Britain, it similarly offered justification for the French Revolution of 1789.




            For decades after his death, Hobbes was the principal target of criticism among moral and political philosophers, and dozens of negative reactions were published that criticized almost every part of his theory. We will look at three criticisms that are directed at central features of Hobbes’s account of morality.


            Hyde’s Criticism: Hobbes Denies that Morality is Immutable and Eternal. We saw that, for Hobbes, traditional moral values are nonexistent in the state of nature and that morality is a creation of the social contract. Although Hobbes is bold in denying morality in the state of nature, he fudges the issue a little when describing the invented status of morality within the social contract. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal.” Traditionally, when philosophers such as Grotius claimed that morality is “eternal” and “immutable” they meant that moral values are universal and unchanging, and are not creations of human convention. Hobbes’s choice of the words “immutable” and “eternal” was probably politically motivated, in an attempt to avoid condemnation from conservative critics. If so, Hobbes’s ruse wasn’t successful. Edward Hyde (1609-1674), a British politician and contemporary acquaintance of Hobbes, criticizes that Hobbes’s laws of nature are not at all “immutable” and “eternal” in the usual philosophical understanding of those terms:


If nature has thus providently provided for the peace and tranquillity of her children, by laws immutable and eternal that are written in their hearts, how come they to fall into that condition of war, as to be every one against every one, and to be without any other cardinal virtues, but of force and fraud? [A Survey of Mr. Hobbes]


According to Hyde, even the content of Hobbes’s laws of nature reveal that they are not immutable and eternal in the traditional sense:


But where are those maxims to be found -- which Mr. Hobbes declares and publishes to be the laws of nature -- in any other author before him? That is only properly called “the law of nature” [when] that is dictated to the whole species…. [A Survey of Mr. Hobbes]


            Hyde has two complaints against Hobbes. First, Hobbes in reality denies the immutable and eternal nature of morality, as seen in Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature. Second, Hobbes tries to flimflam us by describing the laws of nature as immutable and eternal, when Hobbes clearly doesn’t mean it. Hobbes must plead guilty on both of these charges. However, from today’s perspective, neither of these charges are as bad as Hyde makes them to be. As to Hyde’s first charge, philosophers today typically don’t describe moral principles as “immutable” and “eternal.” To do so requires that we postulate some eternal realm in which moral principles permanently exist – a realm completely outside of human society. This calls for more metaphysical speculation than philosophers today are comfortable with.

            As to Hyde’s second complaint, even flimflamming on key terminology is defensible. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, philosophers, theologians, and scientists could be imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for publishing controversial ideas. The most famous example of this is the case of Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) in which, under threat of torture, Galileo retracted his sun-centered views of the heavens. Sometimes controversial authors could appease religious and political authorities by simply being diplomatic in their choice of words. Hobbes was concerned about negative reactions from authorities, and it is reasonable to see his choice of the terms “immutable” and “eternal” as an act of diplomacy.

            We can also see Hobbes’s choice of these words as an attempt to scientifically redefine traditional moral vocabulary. Like astronomers and other scientists of his time, Hobbes hoped to break from medieval traditions and set his area of inquiry on a new and more scientifically rigorous course. The context of Hobbes’s comments about the immutable and eternal nature of morality show how he tried to redirect discussions on the nature of morality:


The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal. For injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawful. For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it. [Leviathan, 15]


Hobbes argues here that the laws of nature are “immutable and eternal” to the extent that they are required for preserving life through making peace. Hobbes, then, shifts the discussion of moral truths from a mysterious eternal realm of things to the observable realm of human nature and our desire for survival. In the end, the history of philosophy shows that the terms “immutable” and “eternal” didn’t take to redefining and, instead, simply dropped out of use.


            Clarke’s Criticism: Punishment Alone won’t Motivate us to Always Keep Contracts. Suppose that I agree to participate in the social contract. Although I understand that I’m supposed to keep the agreements that I’ve made, I occasionally see opportunities to violate these agreements when it benefits me. For example, while my neighbor isn’t looking I could sneak next door, steal his lawnmower and then sell it to a pawnshop. If I’m careful, I won’t get caught. What should stop me from violating the social contract if I can get away with it? British philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) draws attention to this problem and contends that ultimately Hobbes’s theory offers no safeguard to ensure that we keep our agreements in such situations:


If the Rules of Right and Wrong, Just and Unjust, have none of them any obligatory force in the State of Nature, antecedent to positive Compact, then, for the same Reason, neither will they be of any force after the Compact, so as to afford men any certain and real security; (Excepting only what may arise from the Compulsion of Laws, and Fear of Punishment, which therefore, it may well be supposed, is all that Mr. Hobbes really means at the bottom.) [Discourse, 1]


Clarke argues here that, if we aren’t motivated to follow moral rules in the state of nature, then we won’t be motivated any more to follow moral rules once we enter into the social contract. Clarke recognizes that fear of punishment may provide some motivation to follow the rules, but he argues that this isn’t enough. For Clarke, our main motivation to follow moral rules comes directly from an awareness of eternal and immutable moral truths themselves -- and Hobbes denies this as a source of moral obligation. In short, according to Clarke, fear of punishment is the only source of motivation that Hobbes provides, and that is not enough to motivate us to always keep our agreements.

            Hobbes addresses this issue himself, and he agrees that someone might reason as follows: “there is no such thing as justice ... [and that] to make or not make, keep or not keep, covenants was not against reason, when it conduced to one’s benefit.” However, Hobbes believes that this line of reasoning is flawed:


He, therefore, that breaketh his covenant, and consequently declareth 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 when he is received, be retained in it without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security ...   [Leviathan, 15]


Hobbes’s response here is that it isn’t reasonable for the sneaky contract breaker to base his own security entirely on his ability to go undetected. If he is caught, then he will be expelled from society, and, it is just not reasonable for him to take this risk. So, for Hobbes, fear of punishment is sufficient to restrain the sneaky contract breaker.

            Hobbes is probably right that we won’t take the risk if there is a good chance that we’d be detected. But what if we scheme the perfect crime, with no reasonable chance of getting caught? In this case, Hobbes needs another source of moral obligation that goes beyond an immediate fear of punishment. Perhaps we can rescue Hobbes from this problem by drawing on the virtue component of his theory. Suppose that I carefully scheme to steal my neighbor’s lawnmower, and I succeed without getting caught. As a creature of habit, I am likely to scheme similar crimes against other neighbors, and each time I do I increase the risk of being detected. By starting down the initial path of stealing, then, I am taking an unreasonable risk since the odds of me getting caught are increased. To eliminate this risk, the reasonable thing for me to do is develop the virtue of justice so that I will habitually avoid stealing and never even start down that risky path. So, when I recognize my tendency to fall into dangerous habits, my fear of punishment should motivate me to develop consistent virtues, which in turn will keep me from breaking the rules. Hobbes’s actual comments on the role of virtues are brief and he doesn’t offer this specific solution there. However, given Hobbes’s view that “the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy,” this virtue-based solution fits neatly into his overall theory.


            Hume’s Criticism: We Don’t even Tacitly Agree to a Social Contract. Hobbes didn’t believe that there was an actual point in history when people got together and signed a social contract. However, if the social contract isn’t a specific historical agreement, then serious questions are raised about what kind of agreement it actually is, and how this agreement forms the basis of morality and governments. Hobbes himself tries to address this problem and he notes that we can agree to contracts in either of two ways. First, we may agree through a concrete verbal expression, such as “I hereby agree to abide by the terms of the contract.” Second, we may indicate agreement by inference and, according to this method, through either our silence or actions others will understand that we’ve agreed to something. Social contract theorists after Hobbes emphasized this second method, which they dubbed tacit consent. Locke provided the definitive description for what counts as tacit consent:


... every Man, that hath any Possession, or Enjoyment, of any part of the Dominions of any Government, doth thereby give his tacit Consent, and is as far forth obliged to Obedience to the Laws of that Government, during such Enjoyment, as any one under it ... [Two Treatises of Government, 2:119]


According to Locke, if I obtain any possession or benefit from a government, then I’ve tacitly agreed to abide by the rules of that government. For example, if I rely on protection from the local police or the U.S. military, then I’m receiving a benefit from these governments and I thereby tacitly agree to their rules.

            Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wasn’t satisfied with this notion of tacit agreement. According to Hume, willful consent is the key element in any agreement -- including tacit agreements -- and virtually no one has willfully consented to the authority of their governments:


A tacit promise is, where the will is signified by other more diffuse signs than those of speech; but a will there must certainly be in the case, and that can never escape the person's notice who exerted it, however silent or tacit. But were you to ask the far greatest part of the nation, whether they had ever consented to the authority of their rulers, or promised to obey them, they would be inclined to think very strangely of you: and would certainly reply, that the affair depended not on their consent, but that they were born to such an obedience. [Treatise of Human Nature, 3:2:8]


Hume argues that most people believe that they were simply born into a condition of obedience. In fact, for Hume, politicians try hard to trick people into believing that governments have natural authority over their citizens, and the main trick is based on the idea of a line of succession. Our current rulers claim that many years ago an earlier generation of citizens tacitly consented to a specific government, and governments today inherit that authority over citizens. Since citizens today can’t go back in time and interview that first generation of citizens, we then accept the politician’s story and we see ourselves as born into a condition of obedience. In short, we are tricked into accepting governmental authority and neither we nor earlier generations of citizens ever tacitly agreed to a social contract. Ironically, Hume feels that this deception is actually a good thing. We need governments for protection, and if governments are forced into tricking us into accepting their authority, then so be it. The fact remains, though, that there neither is nor ever was a valid social contract that people tacitly consented to.

            Hume is correct that people don’t willfully consent to the terms of a social contract – either explicitly or tacitly. Critics after Hume recognized this problem, and British political philosopher William Godwin (1736-1836) highlights a range of related conceptual problems:


Upon the first statement of the system of a social contract various difficulties present themselves. Who are the parties to this contract? For whom did they consent, for themselves only, or for others? For how long a time is this contract to be considered as binding? If the consent of every individual be necessary, in what manner is that consent to be given? Is it to be tacit, or declared in express terms? [Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 3:2]


According to Godwin, not only is there a problem with whether the contract is tacit or explicit, but there are also questions about who is involved in the contract, how long the contract is binding, and, in general, what are the precise terms of the contract. Suppose that a defender of Hobbes concedes all of these problems and grants that there is no actual contract taking place. Instead, according to the defender, the contract is only hypothetical. That is, we are only considering how a rational person would respond if he were placed in the state of nature and if he were presented with a social contract agreement.

            However, appealing to hypothetical contracts creates yet a different problem. It doesn’t make sense to say that I specifically am obligated to the terms of the contract simply because some imaginary rational person would agree to the terms of a social contract. We don’t convict real people for crimes that imaginary people commit. We don’t reward real people for heroic deeds that imaginary people perform. Why, then, should real people be contractually bound by an agreement made by an imaginary person? We simply aren’t. In short, we must reject the idea of an actual social contract that we supposedly agree to tacitly. We must also reject the idea of an hypothetical social contract that an imaginary person agrees to.




            Serious interest in social contract theory declined during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent years, though, scholars have turned again to this theory, particularly Hobbes’s version. Contemporary discussions usually expand upon three central aspects of the social contract.  First, there is a description of a hypothetical environment in which we interact. This involves an account of the limits of our human rationality, the levels of risk that we take in making decisions, how we balance our short-term vs. long-term interests, how self-regarding vs. other regarding we are, and the degree to which we are physically and mentally equal. Second, in view of this hypothetical environment, there is a description of conflicts that inevitably arise. According to one explanation, our emotions drive us to act selfishly in ways that conflict with other people. According to another explanation, conflicts arise based on how we rationally calculate what is in our respective best interests. Third, in view of the inevitable conflicts with others, there is a description of the type of political authority that is reasonable for us to create.


            The Prisoners’ Dilemma. One of the best-known contemporary discussions of social contract theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, which describes how conflicts inevitably arise in a hypothetical state of nature. Specifically, the prisoner’s dilemma clarifies how our rational calculations lead to conflict. Imagine that you and I are caught robbing a bank, but the District Attorney doesn’t have quite enough evidence to guarantee a strong conviction. He needs us to confess to our crime, so, using a common interrogation tactic, he puts you and me in separate rooms and tries to get each of us to turn on the other. In this case, he offers a plea bargain based on various confessions that we might make:


§         If I confess and you do not, then I will get only a 3 month sentence, but you will get a 10 year sentence.

§         If you confess and I do not, then you will only get a 3 month sentence, but I will get a 10 year sentence.

§         If neither of us confesses, then we will both get a 1 year sentence.

§         If both of us confess, then we will both get an 8 year sentence.


If you and I could communicate, then the best arrangement would be for both of us to not confess, since then we’d each only get a 1 year sentence. Since we can’t communicate, though, I can’t trust that you’ll keep your mouth shut. Even if you and I are friends, I need to calculate what the best deal is for me, regardless of how you respond to the District Attorney’s offer. So, in spite of what you decide to do, I’ll clearly be better off by confessing since it is better to serve either 3 months or even 8 years than it is to serve 10 years.

            The point of this illustration is that, although mutual cooperation is the best mutual deal, I will still be rationally motivated to pursue the best deal for me individually. That is, since I can’t trust your decision, I have to look out for my own interests and do what’s best for me. In Hobbes’s terminology, since I can’t trust you in the state of nature, then I’ll have to look out for my own interests and attack you before you attack me. If I eliminate you first, then I serve my interests better than if I sat around passively. Ultimately, cooperation in the state of nature isn’t reasonable for any of us individually, and we will always be poised for war.

            The original prisoner’s dilemma scenario rests on the assumption that I can’t communicate with you about devising the best mutual strategy to shorten our stays in jail. The parallel in Hobbes’s state of nature is the assumption that I can’t trust you even if you say that you won’t attack me. Is this distrust justified? My reasons for distrust in the state of nature rest on a variety of intricate questions about human nature, specifically whether we can be naturally kind to strangers. Hobbes believed that we just aren’t psychologically designed to be naturally kind to people that we don’t know. If we agree with Hobbes’s pessimistic view about human kindness, then, yes, I am justified in distrusting all strangers in the state of nature in spite of the good intentions that they express. However, this pessimistic view is a matter of debate, and, in fact, this is among the more hotly debated issues in ethics. The best that we can say is that if the pessimists are correct, then -- as the prisoner’s dilemma suggests -- the state of nature will be a perpetual state of conflict.


            Rawls and Social Contract Theory. The most influential contemporary proponent of social contract theory is John Rawls, as he develops it in his book A Theory of Justice (1971). Paralleling Hobbes’s state of nature, Rawls describes a hypothetical original position. In the original position, we are neither at war with each other nor trying to actually start a government. Instead, we are merely a group of rational, equal, and self-interested people who want to devise a mutually beneficial moral guideline for reforming our social system. To help us arrive at the most impartial moral guideline, we temporarily ignore our actual status in society, such as the size of our bank accounts and the amount of property that we own. Metaphorically, it is as though we voluntarily stand behind a veil of ignorance. This assures that I won’t try to rig the system and create a moral guideline that benefits me the most – whether I am rich or poor.

            According to Rawls, after some back and forth discussion, we will eventually arrive at two rules of justice. We will then use these two rules to generate a longer and more specific list of obligations. The two rules of justice are these:


(1)        Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

(2)        Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.


The first rule here tells us that we should give each other as much freedom as we can. This includes moral liberties such as free speech and free movement. It also includes economic liberties, such as acquiring property and making money. Finally, it includes political liberties of voting and holding public office. So far none of this is controversial from the standpoint of American society, which was founded on broad notions of liberty.

            Sometimes, though, we need to place limits on the wealth and power that we individually accumulate from our various liberties. Economic liberty is nice, but when we look at the vast fortunes accumulated by billionaires like Bill Gates, we might feel that enough is enough. The second rule above is a guideline for regulating the accumulation of wealth and power. According to the above rule, Bill Gates can have an unequal amount of money only if such a capitalist economic system is to everyone’s advantage – including poor people. This aspect of Rawls’s theory is controversial. The default economic arrangement is that Bill Gates should only get an equal share of wealth. The burden of proof, then, is on the capitalist businessperson to show that even poor people benefit when an entrepreneur can pursue his economic dreams unimpeded. This, though, is a tough case to make, which makes socialism the default economic policy. Rawls clearly thinks that this socialistic orientation is the most impartial way to distribute wealth. However, Bill Gates and other capitalist businesspeople would simply reject Rawls’s second rule of justice for being too biased towards socialism.




            Since the 17th century, social contract theory has been a useful tool for justifying political revolutions when governments fail to do their jobs. In the years ahead, political revolutionaries will likely continue to draw on social contract theory to justify overthrowing incompetent governments. Social contract theory also helps us understand why we allow our governments to have so much control over our lives. Take, for example, the power that we give our local police officers. We permit them to walk around with guns and even shoot us if necessary. We give them the authority to kick down our doors, storm through our homes, haul us to jail, and interrogate us for hours. Why would we want to give someone this kind of power over us? Social contract theory offers the best and perhaps only reasonable answer: we give the police this power in exchange for protection. In spite of social contract theory’s strong points, there are two distinct limitations to the social contract tradition.


            Social Contract vs. Social Reciprocation. The first limitation of social contract theory is that it is naive to take the notion of a contract literally. We noted in our discussion of Hume’s criticism that a literal social contract requires consciously willful consent, and in point of fact no one really gives this kind of consent to social contracts. Even Rawls’s theory suffers from this problem. When people negotiate the rules of justice they willfully consent to step behind the veil of ignorance. In point of fact, neither we nor our legislators do this. We may not even be psychologically capable of doing this.

            Although we may not be able to fully rescue social contract theory from this problem, we might recast the theory in a more modest form as a theory of social reciprocation. That is, instead of seeing our situation as involving a formal contract that we consciously consent to, it is more plausible to see it simply as a kind of social reciprocation that we are content with. We pay our taxes, follow the laws, and acknowledge the authority of our government; what do we get from this in return? We receive governmental protection and some governmental benefits, such as free education and use of public highways. Most of us are content with this give-and-take relationship, and we may not really care about who established the relationship to begin with. We’re happy to leave that issue to the historians. From our individual perspectives, we don’t object to keeping the social relationship going and many of us are even grateful for this relationship when we consider the horrible alternatives that we find in war-torn countries around the world. For example, without strong governmental protection, ethnic or religious factions might rise up and slaughter each other. To the extent that we are content with this reciprocal relationship, then we will routinely follow the moral and legal rules of the relationship to keep the social machine working.

            The key difference between a social contract and social reciprocation is that a contract involves a distinct mental act of consent that occurs at a distinct point in time. Philosophers today refer to this kind of psychological act as an occurrent mental state, which means that it principally occurs during a short and fixed period of time. By contrast, a merely reciprocal relationship only requires a long-term mental viewpoint of contentment. We might compare this mental viewpoint to the outlook of someone who is persistently happy. Suppose, for example, that you are a persistently happy person and I asked you when you first became happy. You answer “As far as I know I’ve always been happy, and I don’t remember any distinct point in time when I wasn’t.” Philosophers today refer to this as a dispositional mental state insofar as it is long-term and persistent within a person’s mind. Such is the case concerning our mental contentment with the give-and-take relationship between ourselves and society. Insofar as we’ve been consistently content with this reciprocal relationship, then we will follow the required rules.

            Traditional social contract theorists might object that mere contentment isn’t strong enough to assure that we consistently abide by society’s rules. Even if I am content today, I may become discontent a week from now and then stop following the rules. In response, it is true that the words “contract” and “consent” are much stronger than the words “reciprocation” and “contentment”. However, peppering our moral vocabulary with these stronger words won’t necessarily make us take our moral obligations more seriously. The Oklahoma City bombing is a good illustration of this. A traditional social contract theorist would say that, earlier in their lives, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols tacitly consented to the terms of the contract, but later in life they both violated those terms. In spite of the weighty implications of the word “contract”, McVeigh and Nichols nevertheless didn’t take their moral obligation seriously. A less cumbersome explanation would be that, early in life, McVeigh and Nichols were dispositionally content with the give-and-take relationship between themselves and society. Later, though, they became dispositionally discontent and no longer felt compelled to continue the relationship and abide by the rules.


            Mixing Moral Theory and Political Theory. A second limitation of social contract theory is that it does not adequately account for moral obligations that go beyond our political obligations. Social contract theories commonly weave together issues of political authority and moral obligation. Hobbes, for example, believed that we have no moral obligations outside of the social contract, and morality emerges as a tool for preserving a peaceful society under the absolute authority of a ruler. From one perspective, this is an advantage of social contract theory since it reduces the conceptual clutter of having two separate theories to explain our distinct moral and political obligations. Moral theories and political theories both talk about the behavioral obligations that we have to fellow human beings, and it makes sense to connect these obligations. From another perspective, though, the close relationship between political theory and moral theory is a liability of social contract theory, particularly Hobbes’s version. Issues of political authority and political obligation are important in all of our lives, and if we ignore these issues then we create legal problems for ourselves. However, political issues are not the only important issues in our lives, and for many of us, they are not even among our most important issues. Moral issues permeate our lives, and every encounter we have with other people involves a proper and improper way of behaving. Although some of these obligations have direct ties to political issues, many have only a very remote connection.

            Suppose, for example, that you cheat on your spouse and you continually lie to your family and friends concerning your secret life. Suppose also that you wipe out your family bank account on personal pleasures and, when you’re home you are drunk most of the time. Although all of these actions are immoral, they don’t violate any laws and they pose no threat to political authorities and the continuation of a peaceful political society. So, issues of political obligation only go so far in defining the scope of our moral obligations. The Oklahoma City bombing illustrates this point too. Most of us feel that McVeigh and Nichols were grossly misdirected in their belief that the U.S. government unjustly overstepped its authority. For the sake of argument, though, let’s concede their bizarre political point and grant that the U.S. government forfeited their status as a legitimate authority. Does this make the bombing any less of an immoral deed? Certainly not. Completely apart from the political issue, there remains the moral issue concerning the value of the 168 victims’ lives, which McVeigh and Nichols callously ignored.


            Summary. Thomas Hobbes presented the first systematic account of social contract theory. According to Hobbes, our human nature prevents us from naturally living at peace with each other. Hobbes depicts this by describing a pre-political state of nature in which people are at constant war with each other. To move beyond this state of nature, we recognize the need to seek peace, the need to give up our hostile rights, and the need to keep our agreements. Accordingly, we enter into a social contract with each other and establish a government with absolute authority over us to assure that we abide by our agreements. Morality, for Hobbes, involves acquiring virtues that habitually incline us to do what the terms of the social contract require of us. Edward Hyde criticized Hobbes for denying the immutable and eternal status of morality. In response, we noted that contemporary moral philosophers have abandoned the specific concepts of immutability and eternality because of the metaphysical difficulties that they create. Samuel Clarke criticized Hobbes for thinking that fear of punishment would sufficiently motivate people to follow the rules of the social contract. If we scheme a perfect crime and there is no risk of getting caught, then fear of punishment alone will fail as a motivation. In response, we saw that, as creatures of habit, we are inclined to repeat crimes, and this continually increases our chances of getting caught and punished. To eliminate all risk, we should develop virtues that habitually incline us to follow the rules in all situations.

            Hume criticized social contract theory on the grounds that people don’t willfully consent to the terms of the contract; and, without willful consent, there just is no contract. We granted Hume’s initial point and noted that social contract theorists can’t rescue themselves by claiming that the contract is only hypothetical. Many recent discussions of social contract theory draw on the scenario of the prisoner’s dilemma, which helps explain why people are so uncooperative in the state of nature. We saw that the prisoner’s dilemma succeeds as an explanation only if we grant that people are not naturally kind to strangers. Rawls offers a contemporary version of social contract theory, which involves a group of rational people devising rules of justice in an original position. We saw that Rawls’s theory is controversial since it leans towards socialism. In conclusion, we noted two limitations of social contract theory. First, we must abandon the idea of a contract involving an occurrent mental state of willful consent. Instead, we should see the relationship as involving a dispositional mental state of contentment. More precisely, people are simply content to have a reciprocal relationship with governing bodies whereby we follow rules in exchange for protection and benefits. Second, we should recognize that social contract theory does not adequately account for moral obligations that rise above our politically-based obligations.



Plato hints at social contract theory in both the Republic, Book 2 and in Crito. Both dialogs are available in several modern editions.

Quotation by Hobbes is from Leviathan (1651), 1:14, which is available in several modern editions, the best of which is that by Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994). Hobbes also wrote a trilogy of works covering the similar issues in On the Citizen (1642), On the Body (1655), and On Man (1658). Early drafts of Hobbes’s thoughts were published without his permission in On Human Nature and On the Political Body (1650). Spelling and punctuation in the quotations have been modernized for clarity.

Quotations by Edward Hyde’s criticism of Hobbes is in A Survey of Mr. Hobbes (1676), in Leviathan: Contemporary Responses, ed. G.A.J. Rogers (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994), pp. 201-202. Spelling and punctuation in the quotations have been modernized for clarity.

Quotations by Samuel Clarke are from, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706). This text is available in reprints of Clarke’s collected Works (1738) and in British Moralists, ed. D.D. Raphael (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1991).

Quotation by Locke is from Two Treatises of Government (1690), 2:119, which is available in several modern editions. The best current edition is the critical edition by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).

Quotation by Hume is from Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), 3:2:8, which is available in several modern editions.

Quotation from William Godwin is from An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), 3:2, the most recent edition of which is edited by Mark Philip (London: William Pickering, 1993).


Suggestions for Further Reading

For discussions of Hobbes’s moral theory see David Boonin-Vail, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Arnold W. Green, Hobbes and Human Nature (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1993); Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996); George Shelton, Morality and Sovereignty in the Philosophy of Hobbes (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

Social contract theories after Hobbes include Samuel Von Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (De Jure Naturae et Gentium, 1762); The Duty of Man and Citizen according to Natural Law (De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem, 1673); John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762), tr. Maurice Cranston (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1968).

For a discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma and other contemporary contractarian issues, see Jody S. Kraus The Limits of Hobbesian Contractarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

For discussions of Rawls see Chandran Kukathas, Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Thomas W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).







            Some years ago a popular philosophy professor at Florida State University named Michael Bayles killed himself. Putting the final touches on a book manuscript a few days before, Bayles went to a nearby National Forest and shot himself with a handgun. The area was one where he and his wife had gone walking in the past. The event was a great shock to his family, colleagues and students. Bayles was having some personal problems but refused therapy since he feared that it would undermine his freedom. In a letter to a philosophy publication, a former student of Bayles’s commented on the suicide. According to the former student, preserving one’s freedom -- even in the face of suicide -- shows an integrity of choice:


I believe that for oneself it's better to be -- whatever, than to survive as a treated half-person. Once therapeutized, the self of moral action is lost. The life that asserts the meaningfulness of moral reflection, the life that animates moral choice, is itself no longer there by reason of choice. In the worst case one is maintained as the effect of a drug -- and then what can anything one does mean?


On this view, it is better to be internally tormented and retain one’s ability for moral choice than it is to therapeutically relieve this torment -- presumably through antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs -- yet live like a zombie with lost freedom.

            In response to the former student’s depiction, a jointly written letter appeared in the same publication, which harshly criticized the former student for portraying Bayles’ suicide as an act of moral heroism. The authors argued that suicide “is typically an act that is the product of mental illness and which usually originates from a chemical imbalance.” The patient is not reduced to a “half-person” by treating chemical imbalances with drug therapy, but, instead, the patient has his autonomy and moral agency restored. The former student’s view of mental illness and psychiatry, they conclude, is tragic since it might prompt some to heroically embrace suicide rather than seek treatment.

            The position on drug therapy taken by the authors of this joint letter is more responsible than the view advocated by the former student. The number of suicides that occur each year is staggering. A recent study by the Center for Disease Control reports that, in one year, 31,284 Americans died of suicide, which surpasses the 22,552 homicides for that same year. This makes suicide the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Even if we could find a few examples of a genuinely heroic suicide, the vast numbers are nothing but tragic, as anyone can testify who had a friend or relative kill himself.

            Although we might reject the view that suicide is an act of moral heroism, we can still ask whether it is morally permissible to kill oneself, or whether acts of suicide are essentially wrong. Philosophers from the earliest days have taken different stands on this issue. Plato, for example, believed that suicide was wrong since it “frustrates the decree of destiny”. By contrast, the Roman philosopher Seneca argued that suicide is permissible when age destroys our faculties one by one. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a common argument against suicide was that it violates a duty that we have to ourselves -- specifically, a duty to survive. Proponents of this view believed that all of our moral obligations fall into one of three groups: duties to God, duties to oneself, and duties to others. Although suicide might violate some duties to God and others, duty theorists argued that its principal crime is that it violates a duty to oneself. According to duty theorists, we all know that we have this duty, and w    e know this intuitively, without deriving it from any more basic moral principles. Duty theorists listed as many as a hundred moral duties that we have to God, oneself, and others. For these philosophers, to be moral means to understand and act according to our long list of duties. We will look at the key elements of traditional duty theory and consider problems that it encountered.


            The Development and Popularity of Traditional Duty Theory. Moral philosophers from ancient Greek and Roman times offered lengthy lists of moral duties. The best surviving example of this is a work titled The Offices by the Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) in which he discusses hundreds of duties in every capacity of our private and social lives. Medieval philosophers continued this tradition and sometimes emphasized distinct duties to God, ourselves, and our neighbors. However, an explicit three-part list of duties to God, oneself, and others emerged in the 17th century. By the mid 18th century, this approach was so popular that it would have been difficult to pick up an ethics book that didn’t discuss that three-part scheme of duties. In fact, many ethics texts were structured entirely according to that scheme. We also find this scheme in reference works of the time, such as the 1773 Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Moral Philosophy.” One reason for the popularity of this approach is that it provided a convenient way of classifying an otherwise cumbersome list of moral obligations. Another reason, though, is that duty theorists believed that the three-part list of duties served as a check list by which a person could determine whether a given action was right or wrong.  In that way, the list of duties to God, oneself and others performed much the same function as the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.

            An example may help illustrate the popularity and function of the three-part division of duties. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote a short defense of suicide that rested squarely on this concept of duties. Hume opens his defense stating that “If Suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbour, or ourselves.” Going against the trend of his time, Hume continues by arguing that suicide does not violate duties in any of these three groups. What is most interesting about Hume’s discussion is that, in another book, Hume formulates an entirely different check list of moral conduct that doesn’t rest on the traditional division of duties. However, rather than using his newly devised litmus test, Hume felt that, if he wanted to make his case in defense of suicide, he had to proceed from what at the time was the accepted criterion of moral permissibility, namely, duties to God, oneself, and others.




            The first fully developed account of traditional duty theory was given by German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694). Pufendorf was directly influenced by two great moral philosophers of his time. From Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Pufendorf adopted the notion of an original condition of humans and the need for us to bond together through contracts. From Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1585-1645) Pufendorf adopted the notion of laws of nature from which we derive our moral obligations.


            Survival and Mutual Cooperation. In his book The Duty of Man and Citizen according to the Law of Nature (1673), Pufendorf argues that all of our moral duties spring from our instinctive drive for survival. Like other animals, we humans have a sense of our own existence and we value our individual selves more than anything else. We learn every manner of self-preservation that we can and we will set aside all other human inclinations when our survival is at stake. When anyone makes an attempt on our lives, we develop a deep hatred towards them and seek revenge. Although survival is the first order of business for us, we must rely on the cooperation of other people to survive, and Pufendorf paints a gloomy picture of the isolated man who tries to survive on his own:


He has nothing left but herbs and roots to pluck and the wild fruits to gather; to quench his thirst at the next spring, river or ditch; to shelter himself from the injuries of weather by creeping into some cave or covering himself with any sort of moss or grass; to pass away his tedious life in idleness; to jump at every noise, and be afraid at the sight of any other animal. In a word, he will ultimately perish either by hunger or cold or some wild beast. [The Duty of Man and Citizen, 1:3]


To keep from starving to death or being eaten by wild animals, we must band together with other people, spend years of our lives learning time-honored survival skills, and rely on others for protection from dangers that even the best of us can’t handle alone.

            In spite of this obvious need to cooperate with others, we have other natural instincts that block the path to mutual cooperation. We are very cruel and we exhibit a stronger tendency to harm each other than any other animal. We are also very picky. When satisfying our need for food, it isn’t enough to simply eat, we must enjoy what we eat. When obtaining clothing for protection, our sense of vanity inclines us to acquire ornamental or stylish clothes. We are driven to possess much more than we ever need, as we see from the history of invasions and wars that have plagued human society. We are predisposed to insult other people, which only aggravates them against us. Because of our higher intelligence we are also capable of doing more harm than other animals. Each human is also motivated by a different set of desires: “there are as many minds as there are heads, and everyone has his unique opinion.” This makes us unpredictable.

            These unsociable inclinations make it all the more important for us to cooperate with others. In view of the importance of mutual cooperation, Pufendorf proposes this as the fundamental law of nature: “to the extent that we can, every person ought to preserve and promote society, that is, the welfare of mankind.” For Pufendorf, it is one thing to simply recommend mutual cooperation, and it is quite another to command mutual cooperation as a law. A mere recommendation won’t do the trick since we could adopt or abandon the recommendation as it suits our needs. To attain the status of a law, according to Pufendorf, it must be authored and commanded by God. God also instills in us a natural knowledge of this law, which we progressively acquire in the same manner that we progressively acquire language.


            Duties to God, Oneself, and Others. Pufendorf argues that our knowledge of the law of mutual cooperation involves duties to God, oneself, and others. We don’t have a master list of all of these duties stamped into our minds, but we deduce them through a natural reasoning process.

            Duties to God, for Pufendorf, are of two basic kinds: the duty to know God and the duty to obey God. Our duty to know God first means that we should know that he exists. During the middle ages theologians offered a variety of proofs for God’s existence, some based on the idea that God is the first cause of everything, and others based on the idea that God is the master designer of all the order that we see in the universe. Philosophers and theologians in Pufendorf’s day refined these arguments, and Pufendorf himself offers five distinct proofs for God’s existence. As to our duty to obey God, Pufendorf argues that this first involves honoring God with our internal thoughts and, second, copying God’s will into our external actions.

            Pufendorf, like most traditional philosophers, held that we have both a soul and a body; so, duties to oneself are directed at one or the other of these. As far as our souls are concerned, we have a duty to develop our talents and learn a trade that will make us useful to human society. If we don’t, then “we will become a useless burden to the earth, cumbersome to ourselves, and troublesome to others.” As far as our bodies are concerned, we should first keep ourselves healthy through proper nourishment and exercise, and avoid “gluttony, drunkenness, [and] the immoderate use of women.” Not only do these excesses harm ourselves, but they frequently disturb society as well. More important than staying healthy, though, is that we should stay alive; that is, we should not kill ourselves. In some special situations -- if it benefits society -- we may engage in a demanding occupation that shortens our lives, such as hard labor or military service. However, as a rule, suicide is not permissible for reasons of infirmity, indignity, fear of pain, or bravery:


Some voluntarily put an end to their own lives, either for being tired with the many troubles which usually accompany this mortal state; or from an abhorrence of indignities and evils which yet would not make them scandalous to human society; or through fear of pains or torments (although by enduring them with fortitude they might become useful examples to others); or out of a vain ostentation of their fidelity and bravery. All these are to be certainly reputed as sinners against the law of nature. … [The Duty of Man and Citizen, 1:4]


            The final category of obligations is that of duties to others, and Pufendorf’s discussion of these is longer and more detailed than the previous two categories of duties. Pufendorf first distinguishes between absolute and conditional duties to others. The absolute duties are common obligations that every person has, regardless of his or her situation. Our first absolute duty is that “one do no wrong to another” through physical harm or the destruction of another’s property. Our second absolute duty is that “every man respect and treat another as naturally equal to himself.” In practical terms, this means that we treat people justly, such as fairly compensating those we hire for their labor, and that we treat people equally when distributing wealth. The third and final absolute duty is that “every man ought to promote the good of another as far as conveniently he may.” That is, we should actively try to benefit others, such as through acts of charity.

            Our conditional duties to others arise from contracts that we make between each other. Some of us are not inclined to perform good deeds simply from the goodness of our hearts. Instead, we will do things only if we know exactly what we will receive in return. For this reason, we devise contracts between each other. The principle duty surrounding contracts is that “every man keep his word, or fulfill his promises and make good his contracts.” If we don’t, then contracts are useless and we lose out on social benefits that we might otherwise obtain.

            These are the main points of Pufendorf’s theory:


§         The principal law of nature mandates that we should be sociable in order to survive, which we fulfill through duties to God, oneself, and others

§         Duties to God include the duty to know that God exists and the duty to conform our actions to his will

§         Duties to oneself include duties of the soul (develop one’s talents) and duties of the body (stay healthy, don’t kill oneself)

§         Duties to others include absolute duties (don’t harm, acknowledge equality, promote the good of others), and conditional duties (keep one’s contracts)


            Intuitionism and other Features of Duty Theory. Pufendorf discusses additional issues about duties, which were adopted and refined by moral philosophers after him. One issue is the intuitive nature of duties. If I asked you “Why should we be kind to other people?” you might answer “We simply should be kind to others, and there is no ‘why’ about it.” Duty theorists give the same answer and this has become the most distinctive feature of duty theory. According to duty theorists, our core notions of duty are foundational in the sense that they are not derived from any more basic notions. It is much the way that we instinctively recognize the color blue and it makes no sense for us to trace our notion of “blue” back to any more basic concept. Pufendorf, for example, believed that knowledge of all of our duties originates from an instinctive mandate to be sociable, which God implanted in us all.

            Duty theorists after Pufendorf were even more explicit about the intuitive nature of duties, and they often described these as common sense intuitions. Scottish philosopher James Beattie (1735-1803) defines this notion of common sense here:


The term Common Sense ... [is a] power of the mind which perceives truth, or commands belief, not by progressive argumentation, but by an instantaneous, instinctive, and irresistible impulse; derived neither from education nor from habit, but from nature; acting independently on our will ... [An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, 1.1]


According to Beattie and many other duty theorists, God implanted common sense moral instincts in us and we cannot seek for a justification of morality beyond these instincts. We don’t logically deduce moral duties from rational principles or infer them from any human experience. We simply know them as they are, with absolute certainty and we can trust that they are true since we have complete confidence in God who implanted these intuitions in us. The intuitive component of duty theory became so prominent, that during the 19th century duty theory was often simply called intuitionism.

            A second issue about duty theory concerns its connection with other traditional notions of morality, specifically moral virtues and moral rights. Virtues are good habits that we develop, which inclines us towards the morally right thing. Philosophers beginning with Plato and Aristotle placed the notion of virtue at the center of their moral theories. Pufendorf and other duty theorists also emphasized the importance of virtues, and argued that for each duty there is a corresponding virtue. On this view, virtues are simply the good habits that we developed to assure that we comply with our various duties. For example, if we have a duty to worship God, then we should develop the virtue of piety. If we have a duty to keep our promises, then we should develop the virtue of fidelity. This connection between duty and virtue was so fixed that many duty theorists used the terms “duty” and “virtue” interchangeably.

            Duty theorists also held that there is an intimate relationship between moral duties and moral rights. The basic notion of a right is that it is a justified constraint that we have on another person’s actions. For example, if I have a right to life, then other people are morally constrained from killing me. Pufendorf and other duty theorists held that for every right that I have, someone else has a corresponding duty. My right to life implies that others have a duty not to kill me. My property rights to my car imply that others have a duty not to steal my car. The distinction between rights and duties is largely one of perspective. When I talk about my rights, I refer to what other people owe me, and when I talk about my duties I refer to what I owe other people. By linking moral duties with both virtues and rights, traditional duty theory became especially versatile, which contributed to its popularity.

            A third issue of duty theory involves some technical distinctions between various duties, specifically distinctions between perfect/imperfect duties and direct/indirect duties. The distinction between perfect and imperfect duties traces back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Cicero describes perfect duties as obligations that are complete and beyond dispute, whereas imperfect duties are those that require special justification or argument. Although Cicero’s distinction is a little obscure and he doesn’t give examples, Pufendorf gives us a much clearer account. Perfect duties for Pufendorf are those requiring or prohibiting precise behavior of everyone, such as our duty not to kill others and to keep our contracts. If we violate these duties, we may be punished. Imperfect duties, by contrast, involve less precisely defined behavior, such as helping others through good advice or generosity. If we violate these then we would not ordinarily be punished.

            Concerning the distinction between direct and indirect duties, we may illustrate this by considering the care that we take in laying to rest the bodies of our dead relatives. In theory, if your uncle dies you could throw his body out with the trash. You wouldn’t do that, though, because you have a clear duty to treat his body respectfully. But this duty isn’t directly owed to your uncle, since your uncle no longer exists, and non-existing things can’t make moral demands on us. Instead, your direct duty in this case is to avoid insulting your uncle’s living relatives; your duty to properly bury your uncle, then, is indirect. So, a direct duty is a moral obligation towards someone who himself has a claim against us, and an indirect duty is a moral obligation towards someone because of a claim that a third person has against us.




            For over 100 years, Pufendorf’s basic arrangement of intuitive moral duties was the accepted view of the subject. No one offered a serious objection to the scheme and the most original moral philosophers of the time incorporated that division into their systems. Eventually, though, critics -- both in and outside of the duty theory tradition -- chiseled away at its central components.


            Kant's Revision: No Duties to God since we cannot Know God. Pufendorf clumps duties to God together with the moral duties that we have to humans. But this seems strange since – assuming that God exists -- God is an entirely different kind of being from you and me. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) drew attention to this problem. Kant himself falls squarely within the intuitionist tradition of duty theory. From his earliest to his most mature writings on ethics, Kant argued that moral duties are divided between those to oneself and those to others. However, Kant was more suspicious about whether we have moral duties to God. He believed that we had any number of religious duties to God, but none that are genuinely moral. His specific views on the subject evolved over the years. In an early set of lectures on ethics he attacks the view that we have duties to higher spiritual beings -- such as angels or demons -- on the grounds that we have no real knowledge of them:


Spirits may exist or they may not; all that is said of them may be true; but we know them not and can have no intercourse with them. This applies to good and to evil spirits alike. [Lectures on Ethics]


In these early lectures Kant does not use this reasoning directly against duties to God. However, in a later work he does:


As far as reason alone can judge, a human being has duties only to human beings (himself and others), since his duty to any subject is moral constraint by that subject's will.  Hence the constraining (binding) subject must, first, be a person; and this person must, secondly, be given as an object of experience, since the human being is to strive for the end of this person's will and this can happen only in a relation to each other of two beings that exist (for a mere thought-entity [i.e., God] cannot be the cause of any result in terms of ends). [The Metaphysics of Morals, 442]


Kant himself believed in God and he argues that we need to act as though there is a God. His point here, though, is that God exists in a world that transcends the world of experience around us, and we can’t acquire knowledge of God in that transcendent realm. In fact, he argues that it is nonsensical to even talk about knowledge of God. Since we have no experiential knowledge of God, then we don’t know if we have duties to him or what they would be.

            A century before Kant, Thomas Hobbes made a similar point about God’s inaccessibility, and by looking at Hobbes’s statement we may better understand Kant’s criticism. Hobbes considers the kinds of beings with which humans can make agreements or contracts. He writes that we can’t make agreements with God because we don’t know whether God accepts the agreements that we devise:


To make covenant with God is impossible, but by mediation of such as God speaketh to (either by revelation supernatural or by his lieutenants that govern under him and in his name); for otherwise we know not whether our covenants be accepted or not. [Leviathan, 14.23]


According to Hobbes, communication with humans is two-way: I can speak directly to you, and you can speak directly back to me. However, except in rare cases when God communicates through revelation, communication with God is one-way: I can speak to God, but God doesn’t directly speak back to me. Agreements require two-way communication, such as when I offer to sell you my car and you agree to purchase it. I may try to make an agreement with God, such as “If God cures my cancer then I promise to be a better person.” But if I don’t know whether God accepts my proposal, then no genuine agreement has been reached. Kant similarly feels that we must have some access to God in order to determine whether we have duties toward him. For Kant, philosophy can’t give us such knowledge of God.

            Religious mystics disagree with Kant and Hobbes about our ability to directly access God. For mystics, our life’s goal should be to encounter God, realize our inherent connection with God, and thereby acquire immediate knowledge of God’s nature. Similarly, rationalist theologians believe that we can rationally deduce knowledge of God’s nature, and thereby have access to God. Hobbes holds open the possibility of accessing God through supernatural revelation. However, this concession isn’t a real option for either Hobbes or Kant. So, whose intuition should we follow on this issue: Kant’s or the religious mystic’s?

            The heart of the issue concerns the extent to which we may dispute about the existence and nature of the person to whom we might owe a moral duty. We can’t dispute about the existence of other humans and the moral demands that they place on us. It is clear for all of us, then, that we have duties towards other humans. However, many people do dispute about God’s existence and nature. It is not clear, then, that we have duties to God. To resolve the issue of duties to God, we need to strike a compromise. People who doubt knowledge of God should follow Kant, and people who assert knowledge of God should follow the mystic and allow for duties to God to the degree that their knowledge of God requires. In formulating this compromise, we are not so much granting permission to the religious believer, but simply acknowledging what many believers are already doing. That is, many believers feel duty-bound to God’s expectations and will follow those moral duties, regardless of Kant’s objection. Unless we are prepared to challenge the believer’s claim to know God, we must recognize that the believer may accept special moral duties that stem from this knowledge.


            Mill’s Criticism: Duties to Oneself reduce to only Self-Respect and Self-development. A 21-year-old man recently died in a dirt bike accident. Riding in a wooded area, he launched his bike off an embankment and collided in midair with another biker. A friend of the deceased biker commented that “He died exactly the way he wanted, doing what he loved.” The friend’s statement reflects a common attitude that society shouldn’t interfere in our private leisure activities, even if they put our lives at risk. 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) defends this view of personal freedom in his book On Liberty (1859). In a famous passage, Mill argues that society may rightfully constrain us only when our actions harm others, but not when they only harm ourselves:


That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. ... The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty, 1]


According to Mill, when our actions don’t affect others, we have absolute independence over what we do to both our bodies and minds.

            Mill’s principle of liberty -- as we now call it – has implications on the traditional view of duties to oneself, namely, that duties to oneself are not socially obligatory:


What are called duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others. The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development; and for none of these is any one accountable to his fellow-creatures, because for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them. [On Liberty, 4]


Mill argues here that duties to oneself are not socially binding on us unless they spill over into the arena of duties to others. Technically, Mill doesn’t deny that we have duties purely to oneself; he only argues that society can’t force us to abide by these duties. For example, on Mill’s view, the biker in the above story did nothing socially wrong by harming himself, although he did do something socially wrong to the degree that he harmed the other biker in the collision. The person who disregards duties to himself may displease or disgust us, and even cause us to pity him. Think of a town drunk who wallows in his own filth, but is harmless to other people. In spite of our negative reaction to people like this, Mill believes that we would not be justified in punishing them.

            For the sake of argument let’s grant Mill’s political point that we don’t want society to interfere in this arena of our personal lives and enforce duties to oneself. Lurking beneath the surface of Mill’s political point, though, is an interesting ethical point, namely, that duties to oneself are relatively insignificant. Traditional duty theorists believed that duties to oneself were as urgent and inflexible as duties to others. Pufendorf, in particular, believed that duties to oneself rest on both religion and the necessity of society, and that we cannot willfully dispense with duties to oneself:


The duties a person owes to himself arise jointly from religion and from the necessity of society. Thus, no person is completely lord of himself, but, instead, there are many things relating to himself which are not to be disposed altogether according to his will. This is partly because of the obligation he lies under for being a religious worshiper of the Deity, and partly so that he may keep himself a useful and beneficial member of society. [The Duty of Man and Citizen, 1:3]


Mill agrees that duties to others are indeed significant and relatively inflexible, insofar as they are firmly grounded in the greater good of humankind. The case is different, though, with duties to oneself. Why, according to Mill, aren’t duties to oneself socially obligatory? The answer in the above passage is that they are simply matters of “self-respect or self-development.” And, for Mill, we define our personal notions of self-respect and self-development based on our individual conceptions of what is good – conceptions which are flexible. For example, the biker in the above story may have been morally justified in his death-defying behavior if, based on his personal conception of goodness, he believed that his behavior was an expression of self-respect and self-development. Heroic suicides, such as we described at the outset, might also be morally permissible in view of that person’s concept of self-respect. In short, insofar as duties to oneself hinge on self-respect, self-development and personal good, they rest on matters of personal preference, and this is more flexible and less urgent than duties to others.

            In his other writings, Mill may not have consistently held to this reduced status of duties to oneself, but the implications in his discussion here are clear. Mill is probably right that moral duties to oneself have a less urgent and more flexible foundation than duties to others. However, we still might find a common theme that underlies our duties to oneself and others -- and also any possible duties to God. Our duties to others are informed by our knowledge of what other people demand of us. Our duties to God -- if there are any -- are informed by the extent to which we know what God demands of us. On parallel reasoning, our duties to ourselves should be informed by what demands we make on ourselves. Those who choose to make special demands on themselves, then, have special duties to themselves. Those who choose not to make demands, then, don’t have those duties. If the harmless town drunk claims that he has no duties to himself, then I must accept him at his word unless I am prepared to show that he in fact makes special demands on himself. However, this would be difficult for me to show since the information that I need exists mainly in the mind of the town drunk, which I don’t have direct access to.


            Sidgwick’s Criticism: Common Sense Moral Intuitions are Imprecise. We noted that perhaps the most distinctive feature of duty theory is its view that we have intuitive knowledge of our duties. In Methods of Ethics (1874), British philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) criticizes this aspect of duty theory and he contends that we cannot base our moral obligations on common sense intuitions. Specifically, Sidgwick explains that there are two possible ways to discover our moral intuitions, and both of these have serious problems. The first way is that we discover our moral intuitions by simply surveying the specific moral beliefs of ordinary people; these common beliefs will then supposedly reflect the underlying moral instincts within us. However, Sidgwick criticizes that the moral opinions of the ordinary person are “loose, shifting, and mutually contradictory”. For example, the average person would think it wrong to take items from a grocery store without paying. But, that same person might nevertheless have no problem with taking home pencils that are the property of his employer or failing to report miscellaneous income on his income tax statement. Sidgwick is probably right in his negative assessment about the ordinary person’s moral views. However, no duty theorist would recommend that we discover our moral intuitions in such a crass manner. Rather than asking an average real person “How do you feel about stealing?” duty theorists suggest that we should instead consider how a hypothetical reasonable or an impartial human would answer this question. This leads us to the second way of discovering our common sense moral intuitions as noted by Sidgwick.

            According to the second way, we should look beyond specific attitudes of the ordinary person to find “clear and precise principles commanding universal acceptance.” That is, we should search for universal moral principles that underlie common moral beliefs. But Sidgwick argues that once we attempt to precisely define these principles, several problems emerge. Some principles that we arrive at may not be universally accepted. In other cases “moral notions seem to resist all efforts to obtain from it a definite rule.” In still other cases the duty becomes so complicated that it is no longer self-evident. A rule against suicide would be a good example. Once we say that it is wrong to kill oneself, we then need to consider cases in which a person is dying of a painful disease, or creates a life-threatening situation through reckless behavior, or is about to be captured and tortured by an enemy, or goes on a suicide mission in military combat. The moral rules on suicide become so complex that they are no longer intuitively obvious. Sidgwick concludes with a fairly pessimistic opinion of common sense moral intuitions:


... in each case what at first seemed like an intuition turns out to be either the mere expression of a vague impulse, needing regulation and limitation which it cannot itself supply ... or a current opinion, the reasonableness of which has still to be shown by a reference to some other principle. [Methods of Ethics, 3.11]


            Most traditional duty theorists such as Pufendorf and Beattie believed that our moral intuitions are fixed and universal since God implanted them in us that way. However, Sidgwick’s judgment about the looseness and inconsistency of moral intuitions seems more realistic, and most moral philosophers today agree with Sidgwick’s assessment. For the sake of argument, let’s accept Sidgwick’s dismal portrayal of moral intuitions, and let’s assume further that we cannot systematically make them any more fixed and universal. As inconsistent as they may be, it may still be premature to outright reject our common sense intuitions as a guide for moral conduct. Philosophers such as Sidgwick are convinced that true morality requires consistency and universal application. In fact, the usual way of attacking any proposed moral theory is to expose inconsistencies or show that a theory cannot be universally applied. Perhaps there is a moral theory out there that can live up to this standard. Perhaps there is not. In either case, we can’t put our actions on hold while we search for that perfect theory. In the mean time, we know for a fact that we have common sense moral intuitions, despite their looseness and flexibility. It seems reasonable -- and inevitable -- to use these intuitions as the default guide for moral conduct until something better comes along. We might just rely on common sense intuitions as our guide, but avoid generalizings our duties beyond our current circumstance.




            Since the late 19th century, few moral philosophers have defended lists of intuitive duties to God, oneself and others. The criticisms by Kant, Mill, and Sidgwick are partly responsible for the decline in interest. Another reason is the advent of newer moral theories that encapsulated moral obligation in single principles, rather than lists of duties.


            Ross’s Theory of Prima Facie Duties. Perhaps the last major proponent of traditional duty theory was British philosopher W.D. Ross (1877-1971) in his book The Right and the Good (1930). Dissatisfied with the newer moral theories of his time, Ross proposed a list of intuitive duties, which he believes are the basis of our moral judgments. There are two key features of Ross’s theory, the first of which is the list of duties that he offers. Unlike traditional duty theorists who offer dozens of duties to God, oneself and others, Ross pares down the list to seven types of duty:


(1) Duties of fidelity: keep promises, tell the truth

(2) Duties of reparation: make good on previous harm done

(3) Duties of gratitude: show thanks for services done to us by others

(4) Duties of justice: distribute happiness in accord with a person’s merit

(5) Duties of beneficence: help improve the lives of others

(6) Duties of self-improvement: develop virtue or intelligence

(7) Duties of non-injury: avoid actively harming others


Ross’s list of duties differs from earlier lists in several important respects. First, duties to God don’t appear on the list; in fact, Ross does not discuss religious issues at all in his book. Second, although Ross includes a duty to oneself -- self-improvement -- he does not list the survival duty to not kill oneself. It seems, for Ross, that we can kill ourselves if we so choose, but if we don’t kill ourselves, then we need to improve our lives. The remaining duties on Ross’s list are standard duties to others that we find on earlier lists. Like earlier duty theorists, Ross too believes that these duties are self-evident intuitions, which we naturally develop as we mature. And, like his predecessors, we discover these duties by looking at “the moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people”, and not by surveying the attitudes of ordinary people.

            The second key feature of Ross’s theory is his distinction between one’s prima facie duty and one’s actual duty. This distinction arises from the occurrence of moral dilemmas, that is, situations in which if we follow one moral duty then we necessarily violate a different moral duty. Suppose, for example, that I borrow your gun and promise to return it when you ask for it. The next day you have a fight with your boss and you ask me to return your gun. Should I give you back your gun? I am clearly torn between two duties. First, the duty of fidelity requires me to keep my promise and return it to you. Second, my duty of non-injury requires that I not participate in harming your boss. Cicero believed that conflicts such as this weaken both duties and make them less “perfect” than they would otherwise be. Ross too feels that all moral duties are somewhat diminished by possible conflicts with competing duties. For Ross, all duties are tentatively binding on us; that is, they are prima facie duties. The Latin term prima facie literally means “at first appearance,” and implies this is how something appears immediately. Even though these duties are immediately clear, they are still open for consideration in the face of moral dilemmas. If there is no moral dilemma, then the duty becomes my actual duty. However, if there is a moral dilemma, then only the stronger of the competing duties emerges as my actual duty.

            According to Ross, there is no clear formula for determining which duty in a moral dilemma emerges as my actual duty. He suggests that we are guided once again by our intuitions. With the above illustration of the borrowed gun, it seems intuitively obvious that my actual duty is to avoid injuring my neighbor’s boss and my duty to keep promises essentially disappears. However, Ross argues that intuitions about our actual duties are not self-evident and are subject to error. For Ross, then, there are two distinct intuitive components to his theory: first, a self-evident intuition that we tentatively have the seven prima facie duties listed above, and, second, an error-prone intuition about our actual duty in moral dilemmas.


            The Value of Duty Theory. Since Ross, philosophical discussions of moral duties have been few and far between. Technically speaking, contemporary moral philosophers haven’t rejected the theory of moral duties. Given the intimate connection between moral duties and moral rights, as long as we believe in moral rights, then we implicitly hold to moral duties. However, discussions of duties have taken such a back seat to discussions of rights that they are almost invisible. The key difference between moral duties and moral rights is that duties involve what I owe others, and rights involve what others owe me. Although it is risky to speculate about shifts in social trends, we appear to be more self-oriented today than in past centuries; to that extent, I may be more inclined to think about what others owe me, rather than what I owe others. That is, asserting my moral rights will come easy to me and I may not even think about the moral duties that I owe others.

            Although the difference between moral rights and moral duties is only a matter of perspective, it is an important psychological difference and the decreased emphasis on duties is a great loss. If I only focus on my moral rights, then I will principally think about what other people owe me; this won’t necessarily make me a better person, for, even criminals assert their moral rights. On the other hand, if I focus on my moral duties, then I am forced to think about what I owe other people and this will make me a better person. This is probably why Pufendorf and other early theorists emphasized the duty component of morality more than the rights component. By focusing on moral duties we not only awaken within us a sense of what we owe others, but we may also awaken within us a sense of what we owe ourselves. With the issue of suicide, for example, rather than focusing on my moral right to die, I may instead think about my duty to live.


            Duties and Suicide. We opened with the issue of suicide and we may now close by considering whether suicide is wrong for violating any possible duty to God, oneself, or others. Two notions in our earlier discussion are central to answering this question. First, we noted that our duties arise in recognition of reasonable demands that someone places on us -- demands by either God, ourselves, or others. To see if we have a duty to avoid ending our lives, then, we must see if there is a reasonable demand on us to stay alive. Second, following Ross, we should recognize that each of our duties is only tentative in view of competing duties that arise in moral dilemmas. So, even if we do have a duty to stay alive, this may be over-ridden by a stronger competing duty.

            Beginning with duties to others, from this arena we recognize a variety of demands to stay alive, some of which are weak, and others strong. Insofar as suicide is illegal, the government demands that we stay alive. But, given the impersonal and often artificial nature of governing bodies, this is among the weakest demands, and the corresponding moral duty may be negligible. We have a stronger demand to stay alive from our friends, but even this demand is limited. In crisis situations friends often distance themselves from us, and when they are available it is typically for only limited amounts of time. If my friend says “You mustn’t kill yourself,” but then he doesn’t contact me for a few weeks, then the force of my friend’s demand won’t be very strong. Clearly, the strongest demand that we have to stay alive comes from our family, especially family members that depend on us emotionally or financially. In this case, the resulting duty to stay alive is so strong that it overrides most conceivable considerations to the contrary.

            Concerning duties to God, these are restricted to people who claim to know some demand that God makes of them. Many believers look to organized religion as a way to discover God’s demands. Since virtually all organized religions around the world condemn suicide, then followers of these religions may claim to have a duty to God to stay alive. More mystically-inclined believers may claim to access God’s demands more directly. In either case, the strength of one’s religious belief will determine the comparative strength of a divinely-mandated duty to stay alive. For devout believers, this duty may be very strong.

            Finally, concerning duties to oneself, these are restricted to people who make special demands on themselves to stay alive. Interestingly, this may be one of our stronger duties to not commit suicide. The strength of this duty rests in the fact that one’s private demand to stay alive is by its very nature irrevocable. Suppose that when I was 20 years old I vowed to never commit suicide. Implicit in this vow is a demand on myself to never commit suicide at any future stage of my life, regardless of how I feel later on. Suppose that, at age 50, a series of misfortunes pushes me to consider suicide. If I did kill myself, I would be violating the duty that I placed on myself 30 years earlier. It is true that I may be an entirely different person at age 50, but that makes my earlier vow no less binding on me. In matters of morality we assume a continuity of personal identity over a person’s entire life. One example of this is long-term punishment of criminals. We are comfortable in handing out prison sentences that last a person’s entire life, regardless of how many changes the prisoner goes through. Marriage is an example of a long-term duty that may continue throughout one’s life. Although parole hearings and divorce courts allow us to undo the long-term nature of punishment and marriage, we purposefully make these procedures exceedingly difficult.

            In many ways, then, the important moral events that occur early in life stay with us through the long haul. Not many of us literally vow to stay alive by uttering the words “I hereby place a demand on myself to never commit suicide.” However, we may come very close to this. We denounce suicide as an option for other people, which implies that we denounce it for ourselves. When having a conversation about suicide with someone, we may say, point blank, “I would never kill myself.” These are implicit demands and vows. They are also very strong implicit demands and vows and, so, our corresponding duty to stay alive would be equally strong.

            Although there are plenty of opportunities to reject suicide from our duties to God, oneself, and others, we must again reiterate the limitations of this theory. A person who doesn’t believe in God would have no duty to God to stay alive. A person without friends, relatives, or social connection would have no duty to others to stay alive. And, a person who never vowed against suicide would have no duty to himself to stay alive. Further, even if a person had duties to God, himself, and others to stay alive, these would only be tentative duties that might be overridden by stronger duties to God, himself, or others.


            Summary. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the most consistently adopted notion of moral responsibility consisted of a list of self-evident and intuitively known duties to God, oneself, and others. Pufendorf argued that these duties stemmed from a divine mandate to be sociable in view of our dependence on others for survival. Kant revised traditional duty theory by arguing that we have no duties to God since we lack knowledge of God. In response to Kant, we noted that believers who claim to have knowledge of God may have special duties to God that spring from such knowledge. Mill criticized that duties to oneself reduce to self-respect and self-development; this makes duties to oneself largely a matter of personal preference. We agreed with Mill that duties to oneself are more flexible and less urgent than duties to others; we saw, though, that individuals who make special demands on themselves may have special duties to themselves. Sidgwick criticized duty theory for its reliance on shifting and inconsistent common sense intuitions. In response, we noted that it is reasonable to rely on such unstable common sense moral intuitions in the absence of a moral standard that is more consistent and universally applied. In the early 20th century Ross offered a shorter list of intuitively known duties. These prima facie duties are all tentatively binding on us, but when two duties compete with each other in moral dilemmas we intuitively recognize the strongest duty as our actual duty. In conclusion we noted that the key value of duty theory is its emphasis on what we owe others, rather than what others owe us. We also noted the possibility of deriving a tentative obligation against suicide from our duties to God, oneself, and others.



An initial memorial announcement of Bayles’s death by Alan K. Mabe, appeared in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, "Michael D. Bayles: 1941-1990," June 1991, Vol. 64, No. 7, pp. 30-31. The sympathetic response from a former student was by Thomas Steinbuch, Letter to the Editor, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Sept. 1991, Vol. 65, No. 1, p. 33. The joint critical attack on Steinbuck’s response was by Joram Graf Haber, Lina Levit Haber, Jack Nass, Bernard H. Baumrin, Letter to the Editor, Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association, Jan. 1992, Vol. 65, No. 5, p. 90.

Plato’s views on suicide are in Laws, Bk. 8, 873c; Seneca’s views on suicide are in De Ira, 1:15; Hume’s view of suicide is in “Of Sucide” included in recent editions of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary.

Cicero’s discussion of perfect and imperfect duties is in The Offices, Book 1.3.

Quotations from Pufendorf are adapted from The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature (London: Charles Harper, 1691), a 17th century English translation of his book De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (1673). Pufendorf also presents his theory in a longer and more detailed work titled Of the Law of Nature and Nations (De Jure Naturae et Gentium, 1762).

Kant’s early discussion of duties is in his Lectures on Ethics, given around 1780, translated by Louis Infield (London: Methuen & co. ltd., 1930), “Duties towards Inanimate Objects.” Kant’s later statement is from his Metaphysics of Morals (1785), tr. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). In an even later statement on the issue in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) Kant associates duties to God with a duty to the holiness of the moral law itself (Part 2, Methodology).

The story of the young man on the dirt bike is from the Tribune Democrat (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), July 1999.

Beattie’s discussion of common sense is from An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), the most recent edition of which is edited by James Fieser, in Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2000), Vol. 2.

Henry Sidgwick’s critique of common sense moral intuitions is from The Methods of Ethics (1874); the quotation is from the 7th edition of 1904, recently reprinted (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), Book 3, Chapter 11.

Ross’s account of prima facie duties is from Chapter 2, "What Makes Right Acts Right," in The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).


Suggestions for Further Reading

For a discussion of Pufendorf’s philosophy see J.B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: 1998), Chapter 7.

Many ethics books from the 18th and 19th centuries discuss duties to God, oneself and others. All of the following by British authors are available in recent editions or facsimile reprints: David Fordyce, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (London: 1754), Book 2; William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political philosophy, (London: 1785), Books 3-5; James Beattie, Elements of Moral Science (London: 1790-1793); Dugald Stewart The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (Edinburgh: 1828), Books 3-4.

For a recent discussion of duties to ourselves see Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958), Chapter 9.

For a recent discussion of W.D. Ross, see Martin Curd’s “Ross’s Intuitionist Theory of Prima Facie Duties” in Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics, ed. James Fieser (Wadsworth Publications, 2000).







            One of the worst things that we can say about a country today is that it violates the human rights of its citizens. We find reports of a broad range of human rights abuses in scores of countries around the world. Certain governments routinely torture and execute political dissenters. In other countries, women are little more than the property of their husbands and have only a fraction of the rights that men do. In some places ethnic and religious minorities are rounded up, exiled and often murdered.

            Surprising as it seems, the practice of slavery -- one of the grossest violations of human rights ever -- continues today in some countries. A major offender is the West African country of Mauritania, which has a several-hundred-year slavery tradition. In Mauritania, wealthier light-skinned Arab people have historically enslaved poorer black people and used them for labor; as with any other property, the slaves are bought and sold, given as gifts, traded for other items, and passed on through inheritance. Journalist Samuel Cotton describes the kinds of tortures to which the Mauritania slaves are subjected:


These black African slaves in Mauritania are subjected to mental and emotional torments that have always been concomitant with slavery. "Routine” punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food and prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. "Serious" infringement of the master's rule can mean prolonged tortures, documented in a report by Africa Watch. These include 1. The "camel treatment," where a human being is wrapped around the belly of a dehydrated camel and tied there. The camel is then given water and drinks until its belly expands enough to tear apart the slave. 2. The "insect treatment," where insects are put in his ears. The ears are waxed shut. The arms and legs are bound. The person goes insane from the bugs running around in his head. 3. The "burning coals" where the victim is seated flat, with his legs spread out. He is then buried in sand up to his waist, until he cannot move. Coals are placed between his legs and are burnt slowly. After a while, the legs, thighs and sex organ of the victim are burnt. There are other gruesome tortures--none of which is fit to describe in a family newspaper, states Africa Watch. Another report states that some slaves caught fleeing are often castrated or branded like cattle.


Slavery was outlawed several times in Mauritania’s recent history. However, there are no meaningful criminal penalties and slave owners insist on retaining possession of the slaves until the owners can be financially compensated. Recent reports place the number of Mauritanian slaves at around 90,000, with perhaps another 300,000 living in near slave-like conditions.

            Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch try to reduce the number of human rights abuses by publishing reports of atrocities. These reports not only expose and embarrass the perpetrators, but they also give ammunition to governing bodies such as the United Nations, which are in a position to help the human rights victims and punish the offenders.

            The notion of “rights” is complex and, in addition to “human rights” we find discussions of “natural rights,” “moral rights,” “positive rights,” “legal rights,” and “civil rights.” Implicit in all of these notions is that some rights are not invented by governments, and we all have certain rights regardless of which country we live in. The notions of human rights, natural rights, and moral rights all emphasize this universal feature. The universal right to be free from slavery is a concrete example of this kind of right. By contrast, other rights are grounded in the legislative decisions of specific governments, and are more limited in who they apply to. For example, my right to vote in a U.S. presidential election is established by U.S. law, and wouldn’t apply to elections in China. The notions of positive rights, legal rights, and civil rights emphasize this more limited feature. Often these two groups of rights overlap, as with the right to be free from slavery, which is both a universal right and is also a more limited right that we find in the U.S. Constitution. Legal scholars as well as moral philosophers try to make sense of the different domains of rights. We will focus on the more universal concept of rights as we find in discussions of human rights.


            Natural Rights and Natural Law. The term “human rights” was coined in the 20th century to designate a group of rights that all humans around the world supposedly possess. Historically, the forerunner to the notion of human rights is the notion of natural rights, which emphasizes that some rights are grounded in nature, rather than in governments. Arising out of the natural law tradition, proponents of natural rights believed that all rights -- whether natural or legal -- rest on laws. Suppose, for example, that a group of political radicals prevent me from voting in a U.S. presidential election by physically blocking an election booth. When I protest that my rights have been violated, my protest is based on U.S. laws that allow me safe passage to election booths. This is an example of how a legal right is grounded in a law created by a governing body. Natural law theorists believed that natural rights also emerge from a higher kind of law. Roman and medieval theorists drew a distinction between law of nature (lex naturalis) and right of nature (ius naturale). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) suggested that the laws of nature are the formulated expressions of natural rights. The link between rights and laws passed on to natural law philosophers of later centuries and reached its peak in 17th and 18th century discussions.

            The concept of “natural rights” went through an important change from medieval to more modern discussions; specifically, later theorists saw rights as permanent features of who we are. For Aquinas, my rights merely emerge in the face of some relation that I have with another person. For example, if you owe me money, then I have a right to be paid. However, if I were stranded alone on an island, then technically I wouldn’t have any rights since no one would be there to have some relation with me. Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) first articulated the more modern notion of rights, and in the passage below he describes them as moral qualities that attach to a person:


There is another meaning of law viewed as a body of rights ... which has reference to the person. In this sense a right becomes a moral quality of a person, making it possible to have or to do something lawfully. Such a right attaches to a person .... [On the Law of War and Peace, 1.1.4]


For Grotius, my rights are like an item of property that I carry around with me – like my shirt of shoes. On Grotius’s view, then, even the lone island dweller carries his rights with him, although his isolation limits his opportunities to act on them.

            Influenced by Grotius and the natural law tradition, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) took the notion of natural rights further by viewing it principally as a liberty:


The right of nature, which writers commonly call ius 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. [Leviathan, Ch. 14]


According to Hobbes, this right of nature implies a liberty to protect myself from attack in any way that I can. The next giant step in the development of natural rights theory was made by British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Like Grotius, Locke thought that rights were permanent features of who we are. Like Hobbes, liberty is a key component of rights. However, for Locke, natural law dictates four principal natural rights: life, health, liberty, and possessions.




            Locke was a physician by training and profession. In the later years of his life, though, he focused on philosophy and produced several works that made him among the most influential writers of the late 17th and 18th centuries. One of these works is Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690) in which he presents his most mature view of natural rights.


            Natural rights within the State of Nature. Thomas Hobbes began his discussion of natural laws and rights by considering what humans would be like in a state of nature, prior to any civil government. For Hobbes, the state of nature is a horrible environment, with nothing to guide us but the desire to survive and the impulse to satisfy our various particular desires. Because we are equally powerful, and resources are limited, we are in constant conflict with others as we pursue our desires. In this condition, “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.” Locke too begins his account of natural rights by speculating about the state of nature before the establishment of governments. Following Hobbes, Locke sees it as a “state of perfect freedom” and a “state of equality”. But, unlike Hobbes, Locke does not view it as a moral free-for-all. Instead, within this condition we are guided by a law of nature to avoid harming others regarding their life, health, liberty, and possessions:


The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: 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... [Two Treatises, 2:2:6]


This law of nature, then, grants each of us the fundamental rights to life, health, liberty and possessions. Locke believes that we get this law from God, and in one of his writings he states that nobody would be so brutish to deny that “God has given a rule whereby men should govern themselves.” In the Two Treatises he argues further that the law of nature is grounded in our roles as God’s servants and creations. Given that God created us equally, we are not justified in bringing others under our power -- and that is precisely what happens when we harm others regarding their life, health, liberty or possessions.

            Not only do we have natural rights to life, health, liberty and possessions, but we also have the right to punish those who violate our rights to these. Without the right to punish offenders, our other rights would be useless. This right to punish is very sweeping and entitles us to kill offenders. By violating my rights, the offender declares war on me and at that point I can’t reason with him any more than I can reason with a wolf or a lion that attacks me. Just as I am entitled to kill an attacking animal, I can also kill the human offender. Not only may I kill an attacker who threatens my right to life, but I may also kill a thief even if the thief doesn’t show an intention to kill me.

            Locke’s reasoning on this point is especially interesting. When the thief steals from me, he uses force to get me into his power, such as a mugger who pulls a knife on me. For Locke, “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 every thing else.” That is, if the aggressor forcefully subordinates me to steal my money, I can only assume that he will also kill me. Not only can I kill thief on the spot, but, because I am now in a state of war with the thief, I can hunt him down and kill him later. However, Locke notes that if there is a functioning government in place, then the state of war between the thief and me ends once the thief runs away. At that point, it is up to the laws to address the wrong. For this reason Locke believes that the best way of minimizing “wars” with others is to form societies in which authorities take over the task of punishment.


            Slavery and the Right to Life. Earlier natural law philosophers believed that slavery was justified. Aquinas argued that slavery was natural because society benefits from enslaving some people. Appealing to Hebrew and Roman law, Grotius argued that “To every man it is permitted to enslave himself to any one he pleases for private ownership.” That is, according to Grotius, I can voluntarily become slaves if it suits my purposes. Today the notion of voluntary enslavement expressed by Grotius makes no sense, and it is difficult to even envision a scenario in which voluntary enslavement would be a real option. Hobbes, though, gives us one scenario. Suppose that our country was overrun by a despot who wanted to control everything, and those who didn’t comply would simply be killed. To save our lives, we agree to become his slave for some period of time. While enslaved, we must obey the despot, and if we don’t, then the despot could kill us for breaking the agreement. Hobbes believes that this kind of voluntary slavery is contractually binding.

            Locke takes a middle ground on the subject, based on a specific definition of the term “slavery”. Strictly speaking, if I am your “slave”, then my entire existence is in your hands and you can kill me as you see fit. This notion of slavery, for Locke, isn’t morally acceptable: I cannot voluntarily give you the right to kill me since I myself don’t have the right to dispense with my own life. Locke believes that the right to life is inalienable in the sense that we cannot simply cast it aside or give it to someone else. It is as though our right to life is on loan to us from God, and we don’t have the authority to rid ourselves of it. For this reason, I cannot kill myself, since doing so wrongly assumes that I have the authority to dispense with my right to life. Similarly, I cannot transfer my right to life to someone else in a voluntary slave contract.

            But even though I can’t transfer my right to life to someone else, according to Locke I can forfeit that right by harming someone. It is as though God loans me my right to life on the condition that I abide by the law of nature; if I violate the law of nature by harming someone, then God takes back my right to life and gives it to my victim. In this case, I am not so much a slave as I am a justly condemned prisoner. My victim can then either kill me on the spot, or delay killing me and force me to labor for him. Suppose that my victim delays killing me but he makes my life so miserable through hard labor that I wish I were dead. Even at this point I don’t have the right to kill myself and end my misery since my victim still holds my right to life. The best that I can do is disobey my victim’s orders and prompt him to kill me.

            So, for Locke, although I can’t voluntarily enslave myself, I can essentially make myself a prisoner on death row by harming someone and thereby forfeiting my right to life. There is yet another twist to Locke’s view on slavery. Locke describes a more moderate form of servitude called drudgery that does not give the master control over the servant’s right to life. The servant in drudgery loses his liberties and possessions -- and his condition may be dreadful -- but the servant still retains his right to life. Locke believes that we can voluntarily submit ourselves to drudgery.

            Although there is certainly an important technical distinction between slavery and drudgery, most of us would still identify such drudgery as “slavery” in the broader sense of the term. It is disappointing that an original philosopher like Locke didn’t condemn drudgery as he did the more severe form of slavery. But, with some modification to Locke’s theory, we can go that extra mile. Locke rejects the severe form of slavery because it violates our inalienable right to life. We might similarly reject drudgery on the grounds that it violates our inalienable right to liberty. That is, through drudgery, I lose my liberty to select my own occupation and to come and go as I please. It would be hard to argue that all components of my right to liberty are inalienable. For example, when I sign an employment contract I transfer over to my employer a large part of my liberties from 9 AM to 5 PM. However, there is always a core set of liberties that I retain. For example, my employer can’t chain me to an office computer and force me to balance the books under penalty of torture. The problem with drudgery, then, is that it violates this core set of liberties.

            Locke didn’t take this route against drudgery because he had a different conception of liberty, confined mainly to issues of governmental authority. For Locke, the right to liberty is the freedom from absolute and arbitrary power, and the freedom to act within the rules established by a consentually and self-determining created government:


... 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. [Two Treatises, 2:4:22]


The problem with Locke’s account of liberty is that a consentually created government might agree to permit drudgery, in which case drudgery would not violate our liberty rights. To reject drudgery, then, we need to expand Locke’s notion of liberty beyond the rules of a consentually created government. That is, we need a notion of liberty that meaningfully retains our ability to come and go, in spite of what a government decides. Rights theorists in more recent years view the right to liberty in this expanded sense.


            The Right to Property. Locke discusses the right to property in more detail than any of our other principal rights. Although this seems unusual at first, it makes sense when we consider the impact that property ownership has on us all. We labor much of our lives to acquire possessions, most of which we could survive without. More wars break out over land disputes than for any other reason. In giving advice to political rulers, the Italian political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) emphasized the importance of respecting an individual’s property. Machiavelli dramatically states that “Above all he [i.e., the ruler] must keep his hands off the property of others, because people more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance.” Locke similarly believed that property is of the greatest importance to us.

            Locke begins his account of the right to property by explaining how we first obtain property. In the original state of things, everything in the world belonged in common to all humans. People then took some items from the common storehouse, altered it and improved it through their labor, and thereby created something that was uniquely their own. For example, someone may have cut down a tree and carved it into a boat, which he then called his own. We first acquire property, then, by mixing our labor with a commonly held object. In Locke’s words, “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.” According to Locke, this is an activity that people could freely engage in on a first-come-first-served basis, without needing to get consent from others first. If prior mutual consent were required, then people would have starved to death while waiting for permission from everyone. Locke considers the objection that this formula for acquiring property will incite people to be greedy and mix their labor with as much as they can to acquire as many things as they can. The common storehouse of goods would then run out, and people would begin to fight over possessions. Locke counters that this worst case scenario would never happen: God has provided such a bounty that the common storehouse of goods will never run out, regardless of our greed.

            Locke’s formula for acquiring property applies to land as well as to things like wooden boats. Locke writes that “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common.” Again, Locke believes that God has provided such an abundant amount of land that we all can take what we can use and there will always be more. It is like each of us drinking from an ever-flowing river, which couldn’t conceivably run dry. Today -- with world population ten times that of Locke’s day -- Locke’s view seems naive. All land on the earth is spoken for and the best that we can hope for is to buy or inherit a tiny piece of land from someone else. Locke recognized that most of the land in modern European communities was already claimed and cultivated. However, he argues that in other parts of the world “there are still great tracts of ground to be found” which the local inhabitants don’t make use of.

            It is easy to see how Locke’s view of property could justify the conquering of foreign land by early explorers. Suppose that an explorer landed on American shores and found none of the signs of land cultivation that were common in Europe. Although the local inhabitants lived off the land with primitive agricultural techniques, no one claimed “ownership” of the vast wild woodlands. So, to the explorer, the land was still part of the common storehouse, ready to be claimed and cultivated. Locke argues further that society actually benefits by claiming land and maximizing its use:


I ask, whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [would] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated? [Two Treatises, 2:5:37]


So, not only are we justified in claiming the “uncultivated waste of America”, but it is actually good for us to do this. Again, from a contemporary ecological perspective, Locke’s view seems naive. We now know that the survival of life on earth depends on not cultivating large tracts of land. Also, today we cringe at Locke’s disrespect for indigenous cultural traditions that don’t match European standards, particularly in areas of economics and property ownership.

            Although there are serious problems with Locke’s specific notion of land acquisition, his more general intuition about property acquisition rings true for other kinds of property. When I invest my time and labor into some project, I typically feel that I own the project. This sense of ownership is superbly reflected in U.S. copyright law, which states that we immediately own a literary or artistic work once we create it:


Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.


It is the job of governing bodies to work out the details of acquiring and transferring property. However, we find in Locke a convincing explanation of where I first get the right to call something mine.


            Political Authorities and the Right to Liberty. We noted above that the right to liberty, for Locke, is a freedom from the arbitrary rule of some political authority. For Locke, the reason why we submit ourselves to any political authority is for protection. When we are off by ourselves, or even with family clans, we can’t completely protect ourselves from attack. The solution is that we must band together in larger communities by forming a compact, which requires that we give up some of our liberties. As we try to make political decisions within these communities, we cannot reasonably expect everyone to agree on every point, such as who should serve in the military or whether there should be rules against public drunkenness. We must, then, follow the will of the majority, otherwise our compact will be meaningless. The will of the majority is the only legitimate political authority, and we usually determine the will of the majority by empowering representative assemblies to make decisions for us all.

            Locke explains that the government that we form can fall apart in a number of ways. First, it may be squashed by an invading foreign power. Second, we may voluntarily disband the government with the aim at creating something better in its place. Third, the people may revolt. Locke believes that political revolutions are fully justified when a government acts contrary to its appointed purpose, namely, to protect our lives and our property. The government forfeits its power and the people essentially return to the state of nature in which they can form a new government:


... 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. [Two Treatises, 2:19:222]


Locke believes that this justifies all out civil wars as well as more minor insurrections.

            Locke’s position on the overthrowing of governments was very radical for its time. Although Hobbes similarly believed that governments are created by people in a social contract, Hobbes argued that we can’t overthrow governments -- even bad ones -- since, to effectively keep the peace, governments must exercise absolute authority. In an early essay on the subject of natural law, written about 30 years before his Two Treatises, Locke also argues that we must show absolute obedience to political authorities. Locke states in this early work that “the law of nature decrees that princes and a law-maker ... should be obeyed.” However, Locke’s view on the subject of absolute obedience changed during the English revolution of 1688, which was a revolution that Locke supported. Locke wrote his Two Treatises at this time and, as we saw, he valued the preservation of our natural rights more than obedience to political authorities.

            Here are the central points of Locke’s theory:


§         In the state of nature, we have the rights to life, health, liberty, and possessions, and we may rightfully punish people who violate these rights

§         We cannot voluntarily transfer our right to life to someone else, although we can forfeit this right by violating the rights of others

§         Our right to acquire property -- including land -- arises by mixing our labor with something that is held in common

§         Our right to liberty is a freedom from absolute and arbitrary power, and we may rightfully overthrow governments that violate our natural rights or fail to protect them




            Occasionally a great philosopher will write a book that has an impact beyond the world of philosophers and also influences lives and events in the larger world. Locke is a case in point. Aside from influencing other moral and political philosophers of his time, Locke’s view of natural rights directly impacted the views of political reformers and revolutionaries. The Virginia Declaration of Rights from June 12, 1776 is one example. Echoing Locke, the Declaration opens by recognizing the natural rights of life, liberty, property, happiness, and safety:


That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursing and obtaining happiness and safety.


The Declaration continues in Lockean fashion noting that governments are “instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people” and that we may “reform, alter or abolish” a government when if fails in its purpose. We find these same points in the more famous U.S. Declaration of Independence from July 4, 1776:


We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


The Lockean notion of natural rights appears yet again in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, adopted by the French assembly in 1789 at the outset of the French Revolution:


Men are born and remain free and equal in rights ... [and the] aim of all political association is the conservation of the natural and imperscriptable rights of man ... [including] liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.


With real world events tied to the notion of natural rights, early critics of natural rights theories focused less on Locke’s actual words and more on the documents and manifestos of political movements that supported natural rights.


            Burke’s Criticism: Abstract notions of Natural Rights are too Simplistic. Shortly after the French Revolution, Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797) harshly denounced the French uprising in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Although Burke supported the more moderate American Revolution, he believed that the French Revolution uprooted important social values involving religion, property, and the nobility. Part of Burke’s attack focused on the revolutionaries’ notions of natural rights. For Burke, their conception of natural rights was simply abstract metaphysical speculation with no consideration of the complex manner in which societies actually operate. Although bold statements about our natural rights stir our emotions, the assertion of an abstract right to food, for example, is useless in resolving the practical issue of feeding people. In this case, we are better advised to listen to a farmer or a physician:


What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.


            The underlying problem, according to Burke, is that notions of natural rights are simple, neat and tidy, whereas “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” Once we latch onto such simplistic concepts of natural rights, our “complicated mass of human passions” pulls those notions in any number of directions and the original simplicity is entirely lost. So, in proportion as these notions of natural rights are “metaphysically true” because of their simplicity, “they are morally and politically false” for failing to apply to the real world. Burke didn’t completely reject the notion of rights, but he believed that rights occupy a middle ground between purely abstract speculation, and purely practical issues, such as starving people. Because rights are in a place of limbo, they are impossible to define. However, we can still recognize them when we properly apply them in real world issues. For Burke, our true understanding of rights is shaped through the art of compromise as we balance different social interests through a kind of rational “computing principle.”

            In short, Burke has two observations about rights theory. First, 18th century discussions of natural rights were very abstract with little real world application; second, we gain a true understanding of rights by balancing different social interests. Burke is correct in both of these observations. In the years since Burke, though, rights theory has developed to the point that it now adequately addresses Burke’s two points. As to Burke’s first point -- the overly abstract nature of rights --  there is a reason why early rights theorists such as Locke listed only a few general rights. Most proponents of natural law argued that nature mandates only one very general law, such as “do that which is suitable for human ends”, or “be sociable”, or “don’t harm others”. It is then the job of politicians and legal experts to deduce more specific guidelines and continue the deduction process until they arrive at very specific rules. Theorists such as Locke and documents such as the Declaration of Independence stopped with a short and general list of rights. However, since then, the legal machinery in the United States has carried out the deduction process and given us precise guidelines for applying rights in very precise situations. For example, I have the right to stand in front of a courthouse and protest against a corrupt judge. Discussions of human rights today typically draw on the subtle distinctions made in such discussions of legal rights.

            As to Burke’s second point -- the issue of balancing different social interests --  rights theory today does this exceptionally well. When you assert any right, such as your right to smoke, that right is only one claim that must be weighed against competing claims, such as my right to be free from secondhand smoke. Although both the smoker’s and nonsmoker’s rights may be equally legitimate, it takes a lot of compromise and real world application to determine when one right overrides the other. The smoker/nonsmoker conflict is a good illustration of how many conflicts between rights emerge. Rights theorists distinguish between two classes of rights that inevitably come into conflict. The first class involves a freedom to various liberties, such as the freedom to smoke, to speak publicly, to print and circulate information, to engage in religious worship, or to travel around. The second class involves a freedom from various harms, such as the freedom from secondhand smoke, from being physically attacked, from being publicly insulted, or from having property stolen. If I exercise my freedom to speak out against a corrupt judge, this might conflict with the judge’s freedom from public insult. Again, the legal process in the United States continually works out compromises between conflicting legal rights. In this case, my right to speak out against a public official has priority over that official’s right to protect his reputation. In the case of smoker’s vs. nonsmoker’s rights, our freedom from harm has priority over someone else’s freedom to smoke. As these issues play out in the theater of legal rights, we have more concrete ideas for how to resolve moral conflicts between human rights.


            Bentham’s Criticism: Legal Rights are grounded in Fact, Natural Rights are not. Burke held open the possibility that there were some sort of natural rights, although we could not define them. British political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) rejected the notion of natural rights completely and called it “nonsense on stilts”. The heart of Bentham’s critique is his view that real laws will give us real legal rights, but imaginary natural laws will only give us imaginary natural rights. He picturesquely makes this point here:


Right … is the child of law; from real laws come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoricians, and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons, come imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters ‘gorgons and chimaeras dire.’ [Anarchical Fallacies, Conclusion]


Bentham believes that all rights -- legal and natural -- are fictions that we create for the convenience of discussion. We talk about rights as though they were personal possessions, but this is only symbolic language since we clearly don’t possess rights as we possess other things, such as cars or houses. Although all rights are fictions, Bentham concedes that legal rights are at least grounded in some kind of fact. People in power -- presidents, congressmen, and judges -- all seek to uphold the laws upon which our legal rights are based. The “tangible facts” involved here are the psychological dispositions of these government officials concerning their interest in upholding the laws. However, Bentham argues, there is no tangible reality whatsoever to natural laws that might form a factual basis for natural rights. Defenders of natural rights say that these rights are of divine origin and factual in that sense. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But, Bentham argues, this explanation places the issue beyond the realm of factual investigation and we are simply left with the defender’s private conviction. For Bentham, without a concrete factual foundation, the notion of “natural rights” is completely empty of meaning. Even if we would grant in theory that a person has a natural right to something, “his condition is not in any respect different from what it would be if he had it not.”

            Bentham believes that we can help rid ourselves of natural rights language if we see exactly how politicians and philosophers first blundered into assertions about natural rights. He blames English-speaking people specifically for not being careful in how they used the term “right”. Suppose that you own a coat; I then recognize that the coat is your property and I say this:


(1) You ought to possess your coat.


Here I am expressing my satisfaction at the idea of you owning the coat and I also imply that you should have legal protection to your property. Suppose then that I say this:


(2) It is right for you to possess your coat.


Here I am saying exactly the same thing as in (1): I am pleased with you owning the coat and your property should be legally protected. Suppose next that I say this:


(3) You have a right to your coat.


The words here are very similar to those in (2), but there is a big difference. In (3) I am implying that you can knock someone down who tries to take your coat, but I don’t imply this in (2). For Bentham, (2) is the language of peace, and (3) is the language of mischief. Once I’ve asserted that you have a right to your coat, it is easy for me to start calling it a natural right if I think that you are naturally entitled to knock someone down who tries to take your coat. Given how close the wording is between (2) and (3), we quickly slide from one to the other, and then add the word “natural”. Again, Bentham recognizes that, for the purpose of some discussions, we need to use the word “right” in the sense of (3). However, we need to see it only as a legal right, and not a natural right.

            Even if we don’t find Bentham’s linguistic explanation convincing, his larger point remains: natural rights are not grounded in the kind of hard facts that legal rights are. How might  we respond to Bentham? On the one hand, in the face of tragedies today like slavery in Mauritania, we want to assert a universal right against slavery beyond what governments say. On the other hand, Bentham raises serious questions about the factual foundation of these alleged natural rights. It is unlikely that the dispute will be resolved anytime soon. In fact, scholars today still debate about whether there are any natural rights beyond the legal rights established by governments. However, we can offer one solution here that tries to preserve the meaningfulness of natural rights while at the same time acknowledging Bentham’s skepticism about them.

            Let’s grant Bentham’s point that natural rights aren’t factually grounded in the authority of God or some other intangible realm as natural law theorists maintained. Nevertheless, we still might be able to find a factual basis of natural rights that parallels legal rights, namely, a factual basis in some feature of human thinking. Perhaps this feature of human thinking is a culturally shaped intuition that is shared by everyone who lives in and appreciates humane societies. Perhaps instead it is only an attitude shared by smaller group of impartial and socially sensitive people. In either case, it is rooted in some fact of human psychology. And this is in the same ballpark as the psychological facts surrounding government officials who desire to uphold the laws upon which legal rights are based. We are, then, inventing natural rights just as we do legal rights. Locke would be horrified at the thought that he -- or the spirit of his times -- “invented” natural rights. Today, though, this idea isn’t nearly so horrifying. A recent book on human rights opens stating “Undoubtedly human rights are among the greatest inventions of our civilization.” According to that author, the importance of natural rights is in no way diminished by the fact that they are invented.


            Marx’s Criticism: Natural Rights emphasize Selfishness and ignore Community. German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) had a long-standing dislike for social structures that allowed a ruling class of people to exploit an underclass. He spent his entire adult life in revolutionary politics, urging a revolution of the working class. In view of this, we might think that Marx would appreciate the theory of natural rights and its emphasis on equality. On the contrary, Marx believed that natural rights theory was seriously flawed, particularly as expressed in American and French political documents. For Marx, natural rights theories reinforce the selfish side of human nature and suppress our community-oriented side, which is our true identity. Marx makes this point by drawing a contrast between the egoistic man and the species-being. The egoistic man is what we are when we act in isolation of each other within the neutral territory of civil society. I may not know or care who my neighbor is as long as he leaves me alone. On the other hand, the species-being is what we are when we see ourselves connected with other members of our species in a kind of extended family.

            Marx looks at each of the key natural rights as expressed in political documents and exposes their selfish orientation. The right to liberty allows me to do what I want so long as I don’t harm others. However, this separates me from other people, rather than unites me with them. The right to property allows me to enjoy my own possessions and arbitrarily dispose of them without regard for other people. Equality allows me to be treated as a self-sufficient singleton. Security simply preserves the status quo and guarantees that we remain selfish. Marx concludes that “none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as he is in civil society, namely an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community.” By following natural rights theory, we won’t see ourselves as community-oriented species-beings, and the only bond that will hold us together is our selfish need for protection, especially the protection of our private property.

            Marx is correct that 18th century discussions of rights were exceptionally self-oriented, and it is no secret why this was so. Writers on natural rights were launching revolutions against oppressive rulers and social classes. By revolting against their oppressors they were essentially saying “leave me alone!” The problem with Marx’s critique, though, is that he wrongly assumes that we are either self-oriented or community-oriented, and we can’t be both at the same time. Most of us have a mixture of selfish interests and community interests, and, when oppressed by others even the best of us occasionally shouts “leave me alone!” 18th century natural rights theorists successfully tapped into our self-oriented side while neglecting our community-oriented side. However, later rights theorists addressed that deficiency and in fact put forward a more community-oriented set of rights, which requires that we help others in need.

            We can best understand this community-oriented set of rights by distinguishing between negative rights to be let alone and positive rights to our welfare. Negative rights are our rights to not be mistreated, as brilliantly expressed by 18th century rights theorists. By contrast, positive rights, also called welfare rights are our rights to be helped by others. If I am injured, I can rightfully demand medical help. If I am starving, I can rightfully demand food. In these cases I don’t want people to leave me alone; instead I want them to do something for me. To the extent that I demand welfare rights for myself, I am duty-bound to assist others when they demand welfare rights for themselves. So, with one eye we look towards ourselves to protect our negative rights to be let alone, and with another eye we look towards others to help secure their welfare rights. Some conservative rights theorists today question the legitimacy of welfare rights and, instead, believe that our true rights are limited to negative rights to be let alone. But to the extent that we agree with Marx that traditional natural rights are too selfish, we will want to endorse the more community-oriented set of welfare rights.




            Since the time of Burke, Bentham and Marx, rights theory has only grown in its influence and we can’t conceive of dismissing the theory as these early critics suggest. We noted that more recent rights theorists introduced distinctions between types of rights that help address some of the problems pointed out by early critics. These are the particular distinctions that we noted:


§         Negative rights: rights to be left alone

·        Freedom to various liberties (such as smoker’s rights)

·        Freedom from various harms (such as nonsmoker’s rights)

§         Positive (or welfare) rights: rights to other people’s help


In the 20th century, rights theorists have dropped the term “natural” with its somewhat dated reliance on natural law theory, and instead prefer the term “human rights”, which simply designates that every human alive has a specific set of rights.


            The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The greatest single contribution to human rights theory in recent decades is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted on December 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration is a short document of about 4 pages, listing several dozen human rights that apply to all humans world wide. 18th century political documents grounded natural rights in God’s authority and natural law. By contrast, the Universal Declaration completely avoids these appeals and takes a more practical approach by founding human rights on our shared desire for peace. According to the Universal Declaration, by recognizing human rights we bring about “freedom, justice and peace in the world.” By disregarding human rights we bring about “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” and oppressed citizens are compelled to rebel against tyranny.

            The central theme of the Universal Declaration is that human rights are universal in the sense that everyone has the same rights, regardless of nationality or ethnicity:


            Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

            Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

            Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.


After establishing the universal nature of human rights, the Universal Declaration makes a statement similar to 18th century declarations: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.”

            Unlike 18th century political documents that stop with a short general list of rights, the bulk of the Universal Declaration consists of very particular rights. At the top of the list is a prohibition against slavery and servitude: “slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Next is a prohibition against torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Targeting tyrannical governments, the Universal Declaration lists various rights to fair criminal trials, political asylum, and tribunals concerning human rights violations. Moving to more domestic issues, we have rights “to marry and to found a family” and own property. We also have liberty rights to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and the right to “peaceful assembly and association.”

            One of the boldest components of the Universal Declaration is a list of economic rights. These include the “free choice of employment,” “equal pay for equal work,” the right to “periodic holidays with pay” and various forms of social welfare including special assistance for childcare. A common criticism of the Universal Declaration is that the standard of rights is set so high that few countries in the world can actually meet them. In fact, some of the above listed economic rights are not realities here in the United States. However, this argument is like saying that all standards of morality are invalid since few people have perfect moral conduct. The important question is whether the human rights listed are (in the words of the Universal Declaration itself) “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” It is not clear what kind of person would answer “no” to this question.


            The Interrelation between Human Rights and Legal Rights. The notion of rights is so firmly embedded into our thinking today that it is difficult for us to discuss moral issues without quickly talking about various rights. If someone vandalizes your car, you may say that your property rights have been violated. If the police make you remove some old refrigerators from your backyard, you may say that your liberty rights have been violated. When asserting our rights, some of the time we may be referring to our basic human rights, and other times our basic legal rights. However, many times we may not really know whether we’re referring to our human rights or legal rights. In our common thinking, the lines between the two have become blurred. One of the reasons for this blurring is that there is a unique interrelation between human rights and legal rights. On the one hand, discussions of legal rights draw from our more basic intuitions about human rights. Suppose, for example, that a legislator is trying to write something about the legal right to free speech. He will very likely draw from his intuitions about our human right to free speech and related liberties. On the other hand, our intuitions about human rights draw from the refined discussions of legal rights. Suppose, for example, that as a moral philosopher I want to say something about my human right to criticize government officials. I will be less abstract if I look at how this issue is addressed in the laws and in court cases. Even if I don’t fully agree with the laws and court decisions, my thoughts on this issue will be more appropriate to real world situations than they would be otherwise.

            So, the lines of distinction between human rights and legal rights seem to be blurred and it seems that we need to accept them both as a package. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights blurs the distinction between human rights and legal rights even more. On the one hand, the Universal Declaration is an expression of our moral intuitions about human rights, and, on the other, it is a legal document of a governing body with some power of enforcement. This extra blurring between human rights and legal rights has particular advantages when addressing major human rights violations today, such as the lingering practice of slavery in Mauritania. A simple moral condemnation may not be enough to end that abuse. But a condemnation by the United Nations, backed with sanctions, is more likely to have an impact.

            Although the marriage between human rights and legal rights may be a good thing for society at large, it is a loss for moral philosophers. If we want to speak intelligently on a specific issue of human rights today, we may need an intimate knowledge of U.S. case law and perhaps even knowledge of international law. Without this knowledge, our abstract philosophical discussions risk being “morally and politically false” in Burke’s terms, or what is worse, “nonsense on stilts” in Bentham’s terms. So, much of the discussion of specific human rights today is taken on by legal scholars and political scientists. The task that remains for moral philosophers is to show what is uniquely moral about our human rights intuitions.


            Summary. Influenced by natural law theory, the theory of natural rights took its first distinctive form in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Locke argued that we have basic natural rights to life, health, liberty, and possessions, and that we form governments to help protect our rights. According to Locke, slavery isn’t justified since it violates our right to life insofar as our owners supposedly can kill us as they see fit. However, Locke held that drudgery is justified to the extent that our owners can’t kill us. We saw that, by expanding Locke’s notion of the right to liberty, we can also make drudgery unjustified. Locke held that the right to property rests on mixing our individual labor with something that is held in common. We saw that there are problems in applying this principle to land acquisition, but that it is a reasonable explanation for how we might acquire other kinds of property – such as intellectual property. For Locke, the right to liberty principally means the freedom from absolute and arbitrary power, and this forms the basis for justifying revolutions. Natural rights theories were adopted by 18th century political revolutionaries, and critics of natural rights theory often focused on these statements.

            Burke criticized natural rights theory for being too abstract and failing to see the importance of compromise in working out social problems in real life situations. We agreed with Burke that the early advocates of natural rights were too abstract and stopped at short lists of rights; however, later rights theorists have indeed deduced more specific rights. We also agreed with Burke that we need to balance competing social interests; however, later rights theorists have indeed acknowledged this insofar as we need to balance freedom from rights against freedom to rights. Bentham criticized natural rights theory for failing to be grounded in fact and, in essence, being a purely imaginative construct. We agreed that it is best to abandon the traditional idea of rights founded in natural law; however, it is nevertheless reasonable to base natural rights on psychological facts involving culturally-shaped intuitions. Marx criticized natural rights theory for being too egoistic and failing to be community-oriented. We agreed with Marx that early advocates of natural rights were principally interested in securing personal freedom; however, recent rights theory allows for the possibility of welfare rights which involves a community-oriented duty to help other people. We concluded noting that legal rights and human rights are interdependent: our intuitions about human rights prompt us to systematize and enforce them in the form of legal rights; the details of legal rights, then, help us refine our concepts of human rights.



Samuel Cotton, “The African Slave Trade”, February 1-February 7, 1995, The City Sun.

Thomas Aquinas’s views on natural rights and slavery are in Summa Theologica 2a2ae q. 57.

Hugo Grotius’s views on natural rights and slavery are in On the Law of War and Peace (1625) 1.1.3 and 4. The best current translation of this work is that by Francis W. Kelsey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925).

The best current edition of Locke’s Two Treatises is the critical edition by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963). Locke’s statement about God giving us a moral rule is from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.28.8. Locke’s early views of natural law are from Essays on the Law of Nature ed., W. von Leyden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954).

Thomas Hobbes’s views on slavery are discussed in Leviathan Chapter 20 (paragraphs 10-13 in Curley’s edition).

Nicolo Machiavelli statement about property is in The Prince, Chapter 17, which is available in several recent editions.

The quotation on US copyright is from Circular 1: Copyright Basics, US Copyright Office.

Bentham’s critique of natural rights is Anarchical Fallacies, Conclusion (in Works, ed. John Bowring, Vol. 2, p. 522 ff.) and Pannomial Fragments, Chapter 3 (in Works, Vol. 3, p. 217 ff.). Both of these titles remained unpublished during Bentham’s life.

The quotation that “human rights are among the greatest inventions of our civilization” is from Carlos Santiago Nino, The Ethics of Human Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Marx’s critique of natural rights is in his review article “On the Jewish Question”, originally published in 1843 and is available in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld’s articles on rights were collected in Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning (1919), more recently edited by W.W. Cook, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).

The quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is taken from Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics, ed. James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth Publications, 2000).


Suggestions for Further Reading.

For a discussion of natural rights theories before Locke see Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

For discussions on Locke’s moral theory and the Two Treatises see R. Ashcraft, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, (London: Unwin & Hyman, 1987); J. Colman, John Locke’s Moral Philosophy, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983); J. Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

An influential analysis of rights is given by Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld; his articles on rights were collected in Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning (1919), more recently edited by W.W. Cook, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).

For recent discussions of rights theory see Joel Feinberg, Social Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973); Joel Feinberg, Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980); R. Martin, A System of Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Carlos Santiago Nino, The Ethics of Human Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).







            Approximately 12 million children die each year from disease and hunger-related illnesses, most of whom are from developing countries that lack adequate social and economic structures. Developing countries are often overpopulated and farmers just barely grow enough food to meet the country’s normal food demand. Then, during occasional times of drought, food production greatly drops, and there’s simply not enough to go around. Children are hit harder than adults in times of famine mainly because adults can go longer without food than children. Charitable organizations in the U.S. and other industrial countries try to reduce the number of casualties by providing food and health supplies to needy families. The Save the Children organization is recognized as one of the most effective charities of this kind in America. Part of its success owes to the heart-wrenching descriptions it provides of needy and abused children around the world, such as this:


Daniel was born in a small village in Mozambique and spent his first ten years there. ... One summer night seven years ago, a band of armed rebels burst into their family compound, then kidnapped Daniel ... at gun point. All night long he marched. He arrived at the rebel camp the next morning ... his bare feet badly cut and swollen ... his body shaking with fear. ... Daniel was held captive for five years. He didn’t see his parents or anyone he knew. Beatings were common. At first he took care of the cattle and served the soldiers. Later, he was given a gun, taught to use it and forced to kill.


The story continues that, after a peace treaty, Save the Children helped reunite Daniel with his family. Celebrity spokespeople for this organization -- such as Sally Struthers, Brooke Shields and David Bowie -- make public appeals and tell us that for only a few dollars a month we can help these children. The appeals are convincing and our hearts go out to the young victims. If we feel enough compassion for them, then we might even give money to the organization to support their efforts.

            The appeals made by such charitable organizations are blatantly emotional. They tug on our heartstrings to prompt us into action, specifically to get us to make a financial commitment. They imply that there is an intimate connection between our sympathetic feelings and our sense of moral obligation. We can feel that it is our duty to assist these needy children. However, some philosophers believe that emotional appeals are manipulative and have nothing to do with morality. True morality, they argue, is purely rational and must be free from all emotional considerations. Although we naturally feel pangs of sympathy for people in need, true morality requires that we set these feelings aside and base our judgments on the cool and impartial dictates of reason. Other philosophers, though, disagree and argue that moral judgments have little to do with human reason. We are morally motivated by emotions and our moral assessments of other people are basically emotional reactions.

            During the 18th century, British moral philosophers hotly debated the role of reason vs. the role of emotions in moral matters. Several philosophers of the early 18th century took the hard line position that morality is strictly a matter of rational judgment. Perhaps the most famous advocate of this view is Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Clarke’s chief opponent was David Hume (1711-1776) who argued that moral approval is not a rational judgment, but a pleasing emotion that we experience when we observe someone’s conduct. We will look at this 18th century dispute between reason and emotion and consider the impact of this discussion on later moral philosophy.




            Since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, philosophers often argued that moral truths exist in a spiritual realm and that we access these moral truths through a special rational faculty. The theory of natural law forged in the Middle Ages perpetuated this view and held that moral truths are imbedded in nature. Clarke is at the tail end of this tradition. Many of the great figures in natural law theory, such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), emphasized the political implications of natural law, specifically how we form governments and international laws. Clarke, though, focuses mainly on the moral implications of natural law, and how we as ordinary people discover moral truths through the use of our reason.


            Eternal Moral Relations. Clarke’s central message is simple: moral truths are like mathematical truths, which are eternal. Just as we access mathematical truths through reason alone, we also access moral truths through reason alone. Clarke argues for his view by first examining mathematical truths. According to Clarke mathematical truths rest on relations between numbers, specifically the relations of “greater than,” “less than” and “equal to”:


That there are differences of things; and different relations, respects or proportions, of some things towards others; is as evident and undeniable, as that one magnitude or number, is greater, equal to, or smaller than another. [Discourse, 1]


According to Clarke, these mathematical relations have fixed and eternal meanings, which even God can’t change. We rationally grasp these mathematical notions and use them in our ordinary lives. For example, I might make the statement that “the money in my bank account is less than the money in my attorney’s bank account.” This statement is true if it lives up to the ideal mathematical meaning of “less than.” In Clarke’s words, my statement will be fit or proportioned with respect to the mathematical relation of “less than.”

            Clarke continues that there are also nonmathematical eternal laws, which he calls laws of righteousness. Just as mathematical laws are grounded in eternal mathematical relations, moral laws are grounded in moral relations. Clarke lists three specific laws of righteousness, each of which involves a distinct moral relation. First, there is the law of righteousness towards God, which hinges on the relation of “infinite greatness”. Since God is infinitely great in comparison to us, then it is fit or proportioned for us to worship and adore God. The second law of righteousness is the law of equity, which involves dealing with others in ways that are right and just. For Clarke, the law of equity hinges on a relation of equity that exists between people, and this relation is simply the Golden Rule: “Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable for another to do for me; that, by the same judgment, I declare reasonable or unreasonable, and I in the like case should do for him.” For example, it would be unreasonable for me to steal my neighbor’s lawnmower, since I would find it unreasonable for him to steal my lawnmower. When I follow the Golden Rule, then my actions are fit and proportioned to this relation of equity. By and large, the law of equity demands that we only avoid harming others in ways that we ourselves would not want to be harmed. However, Clarke argues that the third law of righteousness moves beyond the issue of harm and instead mandates us to more actively promote the well-being of others. This third law is the law of benevolence, which hinges on a relation of doing the greatest good. This law requires us to help others in need and, more generally, to strive to make the world a better place.

            Just as even God can’t alter mathematical laws and their relations, Clarke argues that God can’t alter the three laws of righteousness and their relations either. Further, just as our knowledge of mathematical relations is self-evident and purely rational, so too is our knowledge of moral relations. In fact, Clarke feels that our knowledge of moral relations is so self-evident that he even ridicules those who would deny them:


These things are so notoriously plain and self-evident, that nothing but the extremest stupidity of Mind, corruption of Manners, or perverseness of Spirit can possibly make any Man entertain the least doubt concerning them. For a Man endued with Reason, to deny the Truth of these Things, is the very same thing, as if a Man that has the use of his Sight, should at the same time that he beholds the Sun, deny that there is any such thing as Light in the World; or as if a Man that understands Geometry or Arithmetic, should deny the most obvious and known Proportions of Lines or Numbers, and perversely contend that the whole is not equal to all its parts, or that a Square is not double to a triangle of equal base and height.  [Discourse, 1]


Clarke argues here that it is as stupid for a rational person to deny moral relations as it is for a person with eyes to deny that the sun shines. Clarke continues noting that these moral relations are binding on all beings that can rationally intuit them. Since God is a supremely rational being, then he can flawlessly intuit these moral relations and will carry them out in practice. Humans are rational and, so, we too perceive moral relations and are bound by them. However, our reason is limited and we are distracted by our human emotions. Also, through improper upbringing, our rational abilities might become corrupted. So, unlike God, we are morally fallible.

            Here are the main points of Clarke’s theory:


·        There are three eternal laws of righteousness, namely, worship of God, equity, and benevolence, which rest on three related moral relations.

·        Our knowledge of moral relations is purely rational and self-evident to all humans, just as is our knowledge of mathematical relations.

·        We judge the fitness or unfitness of our actions in reference to these eternal moral relations.

·        Although we are morally bound by these eternal moral relations, our finite reason and human emotions sometimes prevent us from proper moral motivation.


Clarke didn’t think that his list of the laws of righteousness was particularly original, and he says a more detailed list of our various duties “may easily be supplied abundantly out of several late excellent writers.” What is unique with Clarke, though, is his notion of moral relations and how these parallel mathematical relations.


            Hume’s Criticisms of Clarke. Hume thought that natural law philosophers were wrong about the eternal status of moral truths and also about the role of reason in making moral judgments. In attacking this tradition, Hume focuses specifically on Clarke’s theory of moral relations. According to Hume, moral assessments can’t be judgments about relations since we find exactly the same relations in both moral and nonmoral situations. Hume makes this point here by comparing a young tree killing its parent tree and a man killing one of his parents:


... let us chuse any inanimate object, such as an oak or elm; and let us suppose, that by the dropping of its seed, it produces a sapling blow it, which springing up by degrees, at last overtops and destroys the parent tree: I ask, if in this instance there be wanting any relation, which is discoverable in parricide or ingratitude? [A Treatise of Human Nature, 3:1:1]


Hume suggests here that it is no moral crime when a young tree overgrows and kills its parent tree. However, it is a moral crime when someone like the Roman Emperor Nero kills his mother. Since both of these situations exhibit the same relation, then moral assessments must be different than rational judgments about relations. Stated more precisely, Hume’s argument is this:


(1)        Anything that exhibits a given moral relation would be judged good or bad accordingly. [Clarke’s target supposition]

(2)        A young tree overgrowing and killing its parent exhibits the same relation as Nero killing his mother.

(3)        Since Nero’s act is morally bad, then so too is that of the young tree.

(4)        Clearly, this is absurd; hence, it is false that anything that exhibits a given moral relation would be judged good or bad accordingly.


On the face of it, Hume’s argument appears weak, particularly regarding premise two. There is a big difference between Nero killing his mother and a young tree overgrowing and killing its parent. Nero acted with a motive, but young trees are not the kind of things that can have motives. In response to Hume’s attack, then, Clarke would simply reject premise two in the above argument. Hume anticipates this problem, though, and challenges us to specify exactly the kind of relation exhibited between Nero and his mother. Suppose that Clarke says that the relation involves ill will in Nero’s motive toward his mother; young trees clearly don’t have motives of ill will. According to Hume, that particular relation won’t work since we would all be guilty of a moral crime anytime we felt ill will towards another person, even when we never actually acted on our ill will. To avoid this conclusion, suppose, instead, that Clarke locates the relation in Nero’s action towards his mother, and not Nero’s motive. For Hume, that relation won’t work either since it would apply to non-human things that don’t have motives, such as trees, and we are back where we started. So, premise two in Hume’s argument is stronger than we might initially think.

            However, there is a third option that Hume doesn’t consider. Instead of looking at either motives or actions, suppose that we look at what philosophers call intentional actions. Some of our actions are nonintentional, such as seizures, sneezes, and coughs. They just happen without any planning or purpose on our part. Other actions, though, are intimately connected with some intended goal, such as me brushing my teeth, or Nero killing his mother. Although trees might exhibit nonintentional movements, such as swaying in the wind or growing towards the sun, they certainly don’t exhibit intentional action. Based on this understanding, Clarke could say that Nero’s act is wrong since it displays the relation of an intentional act of killing an innocent person. This relation won’t apply to people who simply have bad thoughts, nor will it apply to young trees. So, Hume’s argument against Clarke fails.

            Although Hume’s young tree argument doesn’t successfully refute Clarke, Hume offers two additional arguments that are more compelling. First, Hume argues that when we closely examine the contents of any morally significant action, such as a murder, we will never locate a special moral fact or moral relation about which we can make a rational judgment. All that we will find is our own feeling. Second, Hume asks us to compare whether moral assessments are more like rational judgments, such as “4 is greater than 3,” or more like aesthetic pronouncements, such as “this painting is beautiful.” Hume believes that moral assessments are clearly more like aesthetic pronouncements, and these are feelings and not rational judgments. Hume’s point in both of these arguments is that we can easily see the emotional component of moral assessments, but we can’t so easily articulate the rational component. Although a diehard rationalist like Clarke might still insist that the rational component is obvious, most of us will probably agree that the emotional component is more obvious.

            Hume summarizes his attack on moral rationalism in what has become one of the most famous passages in Western moral philosophy:


In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs. When [all] of a sudden I am surprised to find that, instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and isn’t, I meet with no proposition that isn’t connected with an ought or an ought not. The change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last [and greatest] consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained. And at the same time, [it is necessary] that a reason should be given for (what seems altogether inconceivable) how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 3:1:1.]


Hume’s point is that rationalistic discussions of morality all begin with statements of fact, such as “Daniel is starving,” and then conclude with a statement of obligation, such as “We should help feed Daniel.” According to Hume, we can’t simply rationally deduce statements of obligation from statements of fact. Even if it is a fact that Daniel is starving, we need our emotions to make the assessment that we should help feed Daniel. Clarke’s blunder is that he claims as a point of fact that there are eternal relations, and then he concludes that we ought to follow these relations as laws of righteousness. Contemporary moral philosophers encapsulate Hume’s point with the slogan that, “We cannot derive ought from is.” That is, we can’t rationally deduce statements of obligation from statements of fact. No collection of facts will ever entail a judgment of value, so values must come from another source.




            Once Hume dispenses with Clarke’s notion of moral rationalism, he then explains in more detail how emotion is involved in moral assessments. Hume was inspired by several earlier British moral philosophers who proposed that we have a moral sense that enables us to perceive and assess right and wrong conduct.


            Early Moral Sense Theories. The first British writer to use the term “moral sense” was Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury. In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), Shaftesbury maintains that our moral sense perceives moral qualities in much the same way as our eyes perceive colors:


The case is the same in mental or moral subjects, as in [our sense perceptions of] ordinary bodies, or the common subjects of sense.  The shapes, motions, colors, and proportions of these latter being presented to our eye, there necessarily results a beauty or deformity, according to the different measure, arrangement and disposition of their several parts.  So in behavior and actions, when presented to our understanding, there must be found, of necessity, an apparent difference, according to the regularity or irregularity of the subjects.


Although Shaftesbury doesn’t give a detailed description of our moral sense, it appears that he takes the notion of “sense” literally and is willing to classify it as a sixth sense. This literal understanding of the moral sense is in part based on a broad definition of “sense perception”. For example, British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) broadly defines the notion of sense perception here:


... when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external Objects convey into the mind what produces there those Perceptions.” [Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2:1:3]


Based on Locke’s definition, any mental faculty that can convey external qualities may be called a “sense”.

            Shaftesbury’s suggestion took hold, and other moral philosophers developed the notion of the moral sixth sense in greater detail. The most influential of these was Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747). Hutcheson made it clear that he took the notion of moral sense literally:


[The] power of receiving these [moral] perceptions may be called a moral sense, since the definition [of “sense”] agrees to it, viz. a determination of the mind, to receive any idea from the presence on an object which occurs to us, independent on our will. [Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, 1:1]


According to Hutcheson, all of our senses involve two things: (1) an object that we perceive, and (2) a mental perception that we form in response. For example, with my sense of sight I am presented with a physical object, such as a chair, and I form a visual perception of that object in my mind. Similarly, the objects of my moral sense are benevolent actions that people perform, such as donating to charity. The mental perception that I form is a feeling of pleasure. For Hutcheson, then, my moral sense enables me to detect benevolence in an action and my subsequent feeling of pleasure constitutes my approval of that benevolent action.

            Hume not only read Hutcheson’s description of the moral sense, but Hume knew Hutcheson personally and corresponded with him. In his own moral theory, Hume downplays the literal notion of “moral sense” proposed by Hutcheson, but nevertheless agrees with Hutcheson’s main point: moral approval is a pleasing feeling, and not a rational judgment.


            The Moral Spectator’s Sympathetic Feelings. Most simply, Hume’s theory is that moral approval is only a pleasing feeling that we experience when we observe conduct. When I see someone donate to charity, I sympathetically feel pleasure for the receiver of that donation. On the other hand, if I see someone steal a car, I sympathetically feel pain for the car owner. The experience of pleasure is my moral approval, and the experience of pain is my moral disapproval. Hume states his basic view here:


... moral distinctions depend entirely on certain peculiar sentiments of pain and pleasure, and that whatever mental quality in ourselves or others gives us a satisfaction, by the survey or reflexion, is of course virtuous; as every thing of this nature, that gives uneasiness, is vicious. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 3:3:1]


Hume’s account of morality involves a complex chain of events between three players: a moral agent, a receiver, and a moral spectator. The moral agent is a person who performs an action, such as donating to charity or stealing a car. The receiver is the person directly affected by the agent’s action, such as a person who receives charity, or a victim who gets his car stolen. The moral spectator is a person who observes or imagines the receiver, and makes a moral assessment about the agent. All moral assessments start with an agent’s motivated action, extend through the consequences to a receiver, and end with sympathetic feelings of pleasure or pain in the mind of a spectator.

            When moral spectators pass judgment on the actions of moral agents, there are distinct psychological events going on in the minds of all parties involved, which we can chart out here:


  AGENT         |          RECEIVER               |          SPECTATOR


character trait               useful or agreeable                    sympathetic

leading to action            consequences                           pleasure/pain


To illustrate these various psychological components, suppose that you (the agent) donate to Save the Children to specifically help improve the life of Daniel (the receiver). I (the spectator) assess that your act of charity is morally good. According to Hume, my feelings of moral approval are in response to your character trait as reflected in your action. Hume also argues that your character trait is the motive behind your action, and your trait will either be instinctive, or it will have been acquired through social conditioning. In this case, your act of charity is motivated by benevolence, which, according to Hume, is largely an instinctive character trait.

            If we suppose that Save the Children does its job properly, then your act of charity will have a direct impact on Daniel’s life. Specifically, you will make him happier than he would otherwise be. According to Hume, there are two types of effects stemming from morally approvable actions. First, the action will be immediately agreeable to the receiver, and thereby give him pleasure. Second, the action will be useful to the receiver and indirectly give him pleasure. In Daniel’s case, he will be immediately pleased by your simple act of charity in and of itself, and he will also be pleased by the use that his family can make of the donated money, such as providing him with more food. In both cases, Daniel experiences pleasure from your charitable act.

            As a spectator, I can personally witness or at least imagine the pleasure that Daniel experiences through your act of charity. Once I observe Daniel’s pleasure, I too will experience pleasure for him vicariously or, in Hume’s words, sympathetically. Hume uses the term “sympathy” in a literal sense and he sees it as a human instinct by which the receiver’s emotions are transferred to a spectator. An illustration from physics will help explain this literal notion of sympathy. Imagine that I have two acoustic guitars side by side. If I pluck the low E string on one guitar, then, the low E string on the second guitar will automatically vibrate, without me even touching the second guitar. Physicists refer to this phenomenon as the “sympathetic vibration of strings.” Analogously, Hume describes what we may call a “sympathetic transference of emotion.” If Daniel experiences pleasure because of your donation, then that pleasure will be transferred to me and I myself will be pleased. My sense of pleasure, then, constitutes my moral approval towards your benevolent motive. That is, my feeling of pleasure is my moral approval of you. I then deem that your initial character trait is a virtue, as opposed to a vice.

            According to Hume, all moral assessments follow the above formula, even when we assess that a person is morally bad. Suppose that you steal your neighbor’s car. You, again, are the agent, but this time you are motivated to steal because you have an unjust character trait concerning property rights. Your unjust act of stealing has negative consequences on your neighbor’s life. First, your neighbor will be immediately outraged because you simply took something of his. Second, he will be inconvenienced. For both of these reasons he will experience emotional pain. When I, as the spectator, see your neighbor’s pain, I too experience his pain sympathetically. My pain, then, constitutes my moral condemnation of your unjust character trait, which I thereby deem to be a vice.

            The radical part about Hume’s theory is that moral assessments aren’t rational judgements, as Clarke and other moral rationalists believed, but only feelings in the mind of the spectator. Hume boldly makes this point here:


To have the sense of virtue, is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration. We go no farther; nor do we enquire into the cause of the satisfaction. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 3:1:2]


For Hume, the spectator’s feelings are the final authority in moral assessments, and we can’t seek for a further explanation of moral assessment beyond these. In addition to his radical claims about the spectator’s moral approval, Hume made equally daring claims about the nature of moral motivation and God’s role in morality.


            Moral Motivation and Morality Without God.  For the sake of argument, let’s grant Hume’s point that the spectator’s moral approval is an emotion and not a rational judgment. There is still a question of what motivates the agent to perform a given action to begin with. For example, what specifically sparks you as an agent to donate to Save the Children or to perform any other moral action? According to Clarke, your reason tells you that it is the right thing to do, and, so, your reason motivates you to act. According to Hume, though, for any action that you perform as an agent, you are only ever motivated to act from emotion, and never from reason. Reason is inert, and won’t by itself incline us to do anything even if our lives depend on it. Hume illustrates his view here:


It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 2:3:3]


Although a little extreme, Hume’s basic observation is correct. Something must motivate us to prefer one thing over another, and even a truckload of reasons won’t motivate us. According to Hume, human reason only addresses questions of truth and falsehood, such as whether it is true or false that children are starving in Third World countries. But, reason is completely indifferent to what it determines, and reason won’t get us to act one way or another. So, without emotion there is nothing to keep me from preferring the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.

            Even though reason won’t motivate us to act in any way whatsoever, Hume concedes that reason plays a minor role as an information gatherer. Specifically, reason helps us discover facts that we might emotionally respond to -- such as facts about the specific countries in which people are starving. But, I still need emotions to make me prefer to do something about it. In Hume’s words, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

            In short, Hume believes that moral rationalists are misguided about both the spectator’s evaluation of moral conduct and about the agent’s motivation for acting. Hume pushes this a step further and concludes that morality as a purely human phenomenon – involving only human emotion – and morality has no relation to God. Hume makes his case most clearly in one of his letters to Hutcheson:


If morality were determined by reason, that [determination] is the same to all rational beings. But nothing but experience can assure us that the sentiments are the same. What experience have we with regard to superior beings? How can we ascribe to them any sentiments at all? They have implanted those sentiments in us for the conduct of life like our bodily sensations, which they possess not themselves. [Hume to Hutcheson, March 16, 1740]


In this passage Hume gives two reasons for denying that morality applies to superior rational beings, such as God or angels. First, moral feelings depend on a physical body, which God and angels lack. This means that spiritual beings cannot be emotionally motivated to act in the way that human moral agents are motivated. This also means that spiritual beings won’t have sympathetic feelings of moral approval in the way that human spectators have such feelings. Second, in this passage Hume argues that it is only through experience that we can conclude that all human beings have similar moral feelings. Since we have no experience of superior beings, then we cannot make similar conclusions about their moral nature.

            Hume’s moral theory appears to be the first account of ethics since ancient Greece and Rome that doesn’t involve the existence of God. Some philosophers during the modern period, such as Grotius and Hobbes, tried to minimize God’s involvement in moral matters. However, these philosophers still maintained that God endorses the same moral values that we do, and that God also urges us to be moral. According to Hume, though, even if God exists, it doesn’t seem that morality has anything to do with God.

            Here are the main points of Hume’s theory:


·        Moral agents perform actions that are motivated by either instinctive or acquired character traits, and, in either case, are sparked by emotions and not reason.

·        Receivers experience pleasure (pain) either immediately from the agent’s action, or from the usefulness (inconvenience) of that action.

·        Moral spectators sympathetically experience pleasure (pain) when observing the receiver’s pleasure (pain).

·        The moral spectator’s pleasure (pain) constitutes his moral assessment of the agent’s character trait, thereby deeming the trait to be a virtue (vice).




            When Hume’s moral theory first appeared, reactions were almost unanimously critical. One opponent accused Hume of “sapping the foundations of morality” insofar as Hume links morality exclusively with human psychological makeup. Most moral philosophers agreed with Hume that feelings play some role in moral assessment. However, they attacked Hume for making moral assessment exclusively a matter of emotion. The most articulate critic to make this point was Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796).


            Reid’s First Criticism: Hume Abuses Common Moral Language. Shortly after Hume’s death, Reid published a detailed critique of Hume’s moral theory, which, even today, remains one of the most insightful discussions of Hume. Reid agrees with Hume that the moral spectator in fact does have an emotional response to the agent’s action. However, for Reid, the emotional reaction is only of secondary importance. Like Clarke, Reid held that true moral assessment is a rational judgment, and, for Reid, our emotional reaction is almost like an afterthought. According to Reid, Hume’s theory fails because it blurs the distinction between the spectator’s rational assessment and the spectator’s emotional response. Reid makes his point with two distinct arguments. Reid’s first argument is straightforward: our common use of moral language shows that moral assessments are really rational judgments, and Hume abuses language by linking moral terms with the spectator’s feelings:


When Mr Hume derives moral distinctions from a moral sense, I agree with him in words, but we differ about the meaning of the word sense.  Every power to which the name of a sense has been given, is a power of judging of the objects of that sense, and has been accounted such in all ages; the moral sense therefore is the power of judging in morals.  But Mr Hume will have the moral sense to be only a power of feeling, without judging: This I take to be an abuse of a word. [Essays on the Active Powers of Man, 5:7]


Reid argues that we all can clearly distinguish between a spectator’s report about feelings, and a spectator’s rational judgment about an agent’s action. And, based on how we in fact use common moral terms, we all clearly understand that moral assessment is a rational judgment, and not a report of feelings. Hume, though, abuses language by giving key moral terms an unconventional meaning; specifically, Hume implicitly defines the term “moral sense” to mean only a power of feeling, without any rational judgment. Not only does Hume do this with the term “moral sense” but, Reid argues he also does this with the terms “decision,” “determination,” “approbation,” “praise,” and several other key terms. So, according to Reid, if Hume would have paid attention to how we commonly use moral terms, then Hume would have seen that moral assessment is a rational judgment, and not a report about feelings.

            But if Reid is correct that common language is so clear about moral assessment, then how did Hume manage to even get his theory published? According to Reid, Hume plays a trick with language by carefully selecting specific terms, such as “approval,” which in English commonly involve both a rational judgment and an emotional reaction. So, if Hume says, “moral assessment only involves a spectator’s approval,” then we initially agree with Hume, since our common notion of approval has a rational component. However, Hume then pulls the wool over our eyes by explaining that “approval” means only that a spectator feels pleasure. We then agree with this too, since our common notion of “approval” also has an emotional component. As logicians say, Hume equivocates on the term “approval” by secretly playing off of two meanings of a single word.

            For the sake of argument, let’s grant Reid’s point that Hume equivocates on key moral terms such as “approval” when Hume claims that moral assessments are only reports of feelings. However, we can accuse Reid and other moral rationalists of doing the same thing. As Reid himself notes, the common meaning of the word “approval” includes both a rational and an emotional component. When Reid and others emphasize the rational component of moral approval, they then ignore the built-in emotional component of this term. Even the term “judgment” has an emotional component in common language. For example, when I “judge” that a hamburger doesn’t taste as good as a cheeseburger, or that the blue curtains don’t look as nice as the green curtains, these clearly involve emotional reactions. Almost any similar term that we use for moral assessment will include an emotional component. In our common moral discourse, we rarely use purely rational terms such as “deduce” as in, for example, “I deduce that it is wrong for Smith to kill Jones.” Instead, we select terms that have both an emotional and a rational component. So, our common moral language in fact indicates that moral assessment is not purely a matter of rational judgment, but also involves an emotional response.

            In short, although Reid attacks Hume for restricting moral approval to a spectator’s emotions, at best Reid only shows that there is some rational component to morality along with an emotive component. And it isn’t clear from Reid’s observations whether reason or emotion play the dominant role. Perhaps reason only plays a secondary role as a “slave of the passions” as Hume suggests. Common language alone won’t settle this.


            Reid’s Second Criticism: Reporting Feelings differs from Approving. Reid’s second argument against Hume is that reporting my feelings about an agent’s conduct isn’t logically equivalent to my approval of an agent’s conduct. To make is point Reid asks us to compare two statements such as these:


(1) I (the spectator) approve of an agent’s conduct.

(2) An agent’s conduct gave me (the spectator) an agreeable feeling.


According to Hume’s theory, the two statements are essentially the same since my approval of an agent’s conduct is identical to a specific agreeable feeling that I experience. However, contrary to Hume, Reid argues that the two statements are not at all the same. The first expresses an assessment about the agent, whereas the second merely testifies that the spectator had a feeling. This difference becomes more apparent when we examine the logical relation between the two statements, as Reid describes here:


the first [statement] may be contradicted without any ground of offence, such contradiction being only a difference of opinion, which, to a reasonable man, gives no offence.  But the second speech cannot be contradicted without an affront; for, as every man must know his own feelings, to deny that a man had a feeling which he affirms he had, is to charge him with falsehood. [Essays on the Active Powers of Man, 5:7]


Suppose, Reid suggests, that we negated the first sentence, yet at the same time asserted the second:


(1’) It is not the case that I approve of an agent’s conduct; and

(2) An agent’s conduct gave me an agreeable feeling.


If Hume’s theory is correct, then we would contradict ourselves if we asserted the above two statements at the same time. For Reid, however, it is totally plausible that I could disapprove of an agent’s conduct, yet at the same time have an agreeable feeling about that agent’s conduct. Take Robin Hood, for example, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I may disapprove of the fact that he stole, but I may still feel good about Robin Hood’s actions if I sympathize with the plight of the poor. So, although Hume believes that statements (1) and (2) are identical, according to Reid they really aren’t identical since we can meaningfully deny statement (1) while asserting statement (2) at the same time.

            How might Hume respond? Reid poses a genuine problem that pushes Hume’s theory to its limits. If we analyze the Robin Hood case in more detail, we can see precisely how the problem arises. In this situation, Robin Hood is the agent who steals from the rich with the intention of giving to the poor. I am the spectator who feels either pleasure or pain in sympathy with the receivers. Who, though, are the receivers? In this case there are two groups of receivers: the rich and the poor. The rich are victims of Robin Hood’s thievery, and the poor are beneficiaries of his benevolence. This explains why I can disapprove of Robin Hood’s conduct (on behalf of the rich) yet also feel good about it (on behalf of the poor). To be more precise, then, we must reword the two apparently contradictory statements as follows:


(a) I disapprove of (i.e., feel bad about) Robin Hood’s conduct on behalf of the rich; and

(b) I approve of (i.e., feel good about) Robin Hood’s conduct on behalf of the poor.


Strictly speaking, statements (a) and (b) aren’t logically contradictory, since the laws of logic don’t prevent me from having mixed and competing feelings about something. So, once we speak more precisely about the object of our disapproval and the object of our agreeable feelings, the contradiction disappears.

            Although this solves the apparent logical problem that Reid points out, our solution creates a different problem for Hume. Specifically, we still need to make some definitive moral pronouncement about Robin Hood’s conduct: should we approve of it or disapprove of it? Four options suggest themselves in cases like Robin Hood’s, in which a single action has good consequences for one receiver, yet bad consequences for another receiver:


(1) We should side with our feeling of approval (on behalf of the poor).

(2) We should side with the feeling of disapproval (on behalf of the rich).

(3) We should compare the approval against the disapproval, and side with the strongest one.

(4) We should both approve and disapprove of Robin Hood’s conduct at the same time.


Hume simply didn’t address this issue. If we speak on behalf of Hume, though, the best solution seems to be option 3. That is, we should, consider all the positive and negative consequences of the agent’s action as all receivers are affected. We should then endorse the action if it produces a stronger feeling of approval vs. disapproval.




            Hume’s moral theory involves an interplay between (1) the agent’s character trait, (2) the consequences of the agent’s action on the receiver, and (3) the spectator’s sympathetic feeling of approval/disapproval. Hume’s immediate critics, such as Reid, focused mainly on this third component and, so, they believed that Hume’s fundamental contribution to moral theory concerned the role of the moral spectator. However, in the years following Reid, moral philosophers became more intrigued by the second component, specifically Hume’s view that an agent’s actions have useful and agreeable consequences on the receiver. When Hume spoke about an agent’s “useful” consequences, he often used the word utility as a synonym. So, according to this next generation of moral philosophers, the heart of Hume’s theory was his theory of utility, namely, that morality involves assessing the pleasing and painful consequences of actions on the receiver.


            Utilitarianism and The Fate of the Agent and Spectator.  By the late 18th century – about 10 years after Hume’s death --  many  moral philosophers latched onto Hume’s “theory of utility” as it was then commonly called. One of these was William Paley (1743-1805). Paley was a religiously conservative philosopher and he made a name for himself by writing books that defended God’s existence and the Christian faith. In his first published book, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), Paley adopts Hume’s theory of utility and argues that we should act in ways that bring about the most pleasure. However, Paley gives his theory a Christian spin by arguing that we should maximize utility since God wants us to be happy. Paley’s book quickly became a standard ethics textbook in many British and American universities, and this greatly increased the popularity of the theory of utility. A second important philosopher who was influenced by Hume was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham endorsed social contract theory in his youth, but writes that after reading Hume’s account of utility, “I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes.” In his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham greatly enlarges on Hume’s theory of utility and provides the foundation for 19th century discussions of utilitarianism.

            Although Paley and Bentham were advocates of Hume’s general view of utility, they both strongly rejected the role of the spectator in moral decision-making -- which Hume believed was so important. Bentham argued specifically that if you --as a spectator -- appeal to your feelings as a way of determining morality, then you make right and wrong “just what you please to make them.” According to Bentham, your feelings are too whimsical, and relying on them would make you despotic or dictatorial. Just as Paley and Bentham rejected the role of the spectator’s sympathetic feelings, later utilitarian philosophers rejected the role of the agent’s character traits. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) makes a clear argument for rejecting considerations about the agent’s mental dispositions:


It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their moral feelings toward individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard considerations of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which those actions estimate. … [I answer that] These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons … [Utilitarianism, 2]


According to Mill, an action isn’t made right simply because it is done by someone who has a noble character trait. Instead, it is only the consequences of an action that make it right or wrong.

            The thrust of the utilitiarian approach after Hume was that the only things that matter in morality are the consequences of an agent’s action on the receiver. The agent’s character traits are not particularly relevant, and neither are the spectator’s feelings. In essence, utilitarians snipped off both the agent and the spectator parts of Hume’s system, leaving only the pleasing and painful consequences as affect receivers. Utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill believed that it was important to make moral judgments as scientific and objective as possible. Emphasis on the mental states of agents and spectators muddle the process, and the most objective procedure is to simply inspect the balance of pleasure and pain as affects all receivers. The outcome of this inspection then will constitute our moral judgment. This involves only a little observation and a little calculation, which anyone can do objectively. It is roughly the same kind of empirical assessment that I make when I say, for example, that “Smith has more hair on his head than Jones has on his head.”

            Time, though, seems to have vindicated Hume against utilitarian efforts to eliminate the roles of the agent and spectator from moral theories. In recent years, many moral philosophers have come to the defense of virtue theory – a theory that stresses the importance of the agent’s character trait in moral assessment. For virtue theorists, when we judge people’s actions, we in fact make pronouncements against their habitual traits, along with all the social history that contributed in forming those traits. Similarly, contemporary philosophers of language maintain that the role of the spectator is central to understanding the meaning of moral assessments. Some philosophers go as far as to say that morality involves only a consideration of the spectator’s emotional response to a given situation. The genius of Hume’s theory is that it links together the views of the virtue theorist concerning the agent, the utilitarian concerning the receiver, and the language philosopher concerning the spectator.


            Summary. We can summarize the various views presented here by returning to the issue of charity. All moral theorists believe that charity is one of our chief moral obligations. Clarke believed that we’re obligated to be charitable since there exists an eternal moral relation of benevolence, which we immediately grasp through our reason. As a moral agent, my sheer awareness of this relation should motivate me to act charitably. As a spectator, you have a rational ability to judge eternal truths, including eternal truths about charity. Hume criticized Clarke for deriving ought from is, that is, beginning with the factual claim about eternal relations, and concluding that we ought to follow these relations as laws of righteousness. Hume argued that charity begins with an instinctive motive in the mind of the spectator, has useful and agreeable consequences on the receiver, and produces a feeling of moral pleasure in the mind of the spectator. Hume also argued that when I, as an agent, donate to charity, I am motivated completely by emotion, and not by reason. Hume maintained that morality has nothing to do with God since, first, morality rooted in human physical makeup, and, second, God is a spirit and does not have any physical emotional makeup.

            Reid criticized Hume for abusing common language by downplaying the rational component of terms like “approval”. In response, we saw that rationalists such as Reid also abuse language by downplaying the emotional component. such terms. Reid also criticized Hume for failing to distinguish between the act of moral approval and a report of one’s feelings. In response, we saw that Hume can consistently identify the two. We concluded that a key benefit of Hume’s theory is that it connects together the concerns of virtue theorists, utilitarians, and language philosophers.



Quotations by Samuel Clarke are from A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706). This text is available in reprints of Clarke’s collected Works (1738) and in British Moralists, ed. D.D. Raphael (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1969).

Quotations by Francis Hutcheson, Inquiry Concerning Moral Good And Evil (1725), included in Raphael’s British Moralists.

David Hume’s moral theory is found in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3 (1740), and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Both of these texts are available in several modern editions.

Thomas Reid’s critique of Hume is found in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Essay 5 (1788). Reid’s text is available in several modern editions. Quotations are from Essay 5, Chapter 7.

The quotation by Jeremy Bentham concerning Hume’s influence on him is from A fragment on Government (1776), 1:36, footnote. The quotation concerning the despotism of moral spectator theories is from Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), 2:14, footnote. Both of these are taken from the The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring (London: 1838-1843).

The quotation by J.S. Mill is from Utilitarianism (1863), 2, which is available in several modern editions.


Suggestions for Further Reading

For selections from the writings of 17th and 19th century British moral theorists, see L.A. Selby-Bigge, ed., British Moralists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), and D.D. Raphael, ed., British Moralists: 1650-1800 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1969).

For a discussion of British moral theories see W.D. Hudson, Ethical Intuitionism. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967).

For 18th and 19th century commentaris on Hume’s moral theory, see Early Responses to Hume’s Moral, Literary and Political Writings, ed. James Fieser (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999), Vol. 1.

For commentaries on Hume’s moral theory see Pall S. Ardal. Passion and Value in Hume’s “Treatise”. (Edinburgh:  University Press, 1966); J.L. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,  1980).







            For 150 years, a section of New York City called the Bowery had a notorious reputation for being home to countless bums and vagrants. Originally a high profile business district, after the Civil War business shifted to more northern districts of the city and activity in the Bowery was confined to seedy entertainment and flop houses. The Bowery became the most famous Skid Row in the country and, in spite of recent economic revitalization, its homeless problems continue today. Here is a sketch of a modern day Bowery vagrant:


David was homeless for eight years. He slept in cardboard boxes in the dead of winter. He descended deep into dangerous subway tunnels where the screech of trains shook him from his sleep and where he competed with rats for food. Sometimes the police would chase him out of the subways -- even on the coldest of winter nights.


What was typical of the Bowery for over a century is now typical of many parts of large U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington DC. If you live in or visit these cities you can’t help notice homeless people camping on sidewalks, wandering the streets, and panhandling from pedestrians. On any given day there are about 3 million homeless people in the United States, most of which are male. In addition to the adult homeless, there are a growing number of homeless families, which typically consists of a 20-year-old mother with two children under the age of six, usually fathered by different men. Because of the increase in such homeless families, about one in four homeless people today are children.

            Although we may cringe at the site of the homeless, most are victims of circumstances beyond their control, such as domestic violence, poor education, and economic disadvantage. Contrary to stereotypes, only small numbers are mentally ill or drug users. Many have full-time jobs, but at minimum wage they cannot afford housing and cannot fall back on families for assistance. The presence of this large group of homeless people should embarrass us for perpetuating irresponsible economic and social policies.

            Aside from the vast majority of the homeless who clearly deserve our help, there remain about 6 percent of the homeless people who are that way by choice. That by itself is a very large number, totaling about 200,000 people. It is difficult to understand why someone would voluntarily become homeless since life would be far from easy and the hardships would probably outweigh any benefits. Perhaps these people simply hate to go to work, or they want their freedom to do nothing, or they don’t want to commit themselves to anything stable. They then accept their homelessness as their default condition, rather than their preferred way of life. We may not easily sympathize with this group of people and we may feel that it is pointless to offer them any meaningful help. We may also feel that -- in spite of their problems with organized social life -- they have responsibilities to themselves to develop their talents, better their lives, and become productive people.

            German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that we have a clear moral responsibility to develop our talents. For Kant, our human reason makes moral demands on our lives. If we think rationally about how we should behave, then we will immediately see that some kinds of actions are unreasonable. Voluntarily living on the street, for Kant, is an unreasonable decision. Many philosophers before Kant also said that morality is linked with the rational part of human nature. Kant goes a step further, though, and formulates a supreme rational principle that tells us precisely whether a specific action is right or wrong. Kant calls this principle the categorical imperative: act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. According to the categorical imperative, it is wrong for me to voluntarily live on the street since I couldn’t reasonably want everyone to live on the street. Kant explains that “activity is part of life’s sustenance” and “if a man has no occupation whatever, he loses some of his life-force, and by degrees grows indolent.” So, it is unreasonable for me to wish this fate on humanity. If the categorical imperative succeeds as a true test of moral conduct, then it is the most important contribution to moral philosophy ever. All moral controversies would be quickly resolved, and no one could claim ignorance about their moral obligations. But does it succeed? We will look at Kant’s account of the categorical imperative and discuss some of its limitations.




            Kant presents his moral theory in three principal books, published in the final two decades of his life: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Metaphysics of Morals (1797). The first of these, the Foundations, is the most influential, and our discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative will come mainly from this.


            Influences on Kant’s Theory. To understand why Kant devised the categorical imperative as he did, it will help to look at his influences. It often takes detective work to discover the principal influences on major philosophers. Scholars sometimes investigate where a great philosopher was educated and what texts were used in that school. They might comb through the philosopher’s personal correspondences to find references to books that he read. They might also discover the contents of a philosopher’s personal library by locating records of estate sales after the author’s death. In Kant’s case, the task of discovering his influences is easy. Kant was born in Königsberg -- a Prussian city of about 70 thousand people. He attended the University of Königsberg and later held teaching posts there for 40 years. In his writings as both a teacher and scholar, Kant left a clear paper trail indicating various influences on his philosophy.

            From the beginning of his university teaching job Kant offered a course in ethics, and the contents of his lectures were eventually transcribed by some of his students. From these lectures we know that Kant assigned two standard ethics textbooks that were written by German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten (1715-1762). Baumgarten’s texts discuss in detail the various moral duties that we have to God, oneself, and others. For example, for Baumgarten, we have duties to believe in and pray to God. We have duties to ourselves to develop our intellectual abilities. We have duties to others to be benevolent. 18th century moral philosophers commonly offered similar lists of duties to God, oneself and others -- an approach that was formalized a century earlier by Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694). Influenced by Baumgarten and this tradition, Kant also believed that the task of morality is to inform us of our various duties, specifically duties to ourselves and others.

            We also see in his lectures that Kant was influenced by the ethical writings of the German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Wolff believed that morality involved a quest to make ourselves and others more perfect. According to Wolff, I make myself more perfect by improving my body and mind. I make others more perfect by helping and not harming them. For Wolff, all of my actions should be directed by this rule: “Do what makes you and your condition, or that of others, more perfect; omit what makes it less perfect.” Following the natural law tradition of moral philosophy, Wolff sees this rule as the fundamental law of nature. He also argues that human reason informs us of this rule and guides us in applying it. In contrast to some earlier philosophers – such as Pufendorf -- who believed that God invents morality, Wolff argues that this fundamental rule of morality would be obligatory even if God did not exist:


... because this rule is a law because it obligates, and the obligation comes from nature, the law of nature is validated by nature itself and would hold even if man had no superior who could obligate him to it. In fact it would hold even if there were no God. [Reasonable Thoughts on Human Action, 1.1.23]


            Kant adopted different components of Wolff’s view of morality. First, like Wolff, Kant believed that we can express our moral obligation in a single principle. Kant rejects Wolff’s specific moral principle, though, and instead proposes the categorical imperative, which Kant believes better captures our duty dictated by reason. Second, like Wolff, Kant wholeheartedly believed that morality comes from the authority of human reason, and isn’t simply invented by God. Kant states that “no one, not even God, can be the author of the laws of morality, since they have no origin in will, but instead a practical necessity.” Both Wolff and Kant believed that morality could not arise from authoritarian mandates. The 18th century was a time when writers rejected traditional authorities in a variety of areas including religion, politics, and academics. The only true guideline is human reason and an enlightened person will follow his reason rather than the arbitrary edicts of self-proclaimed authorities. Kant clearly expresses this attitude in a brief essay on the subject of enlightenment:


Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. [“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”]


Kant continues noting how we hear authoritarian commands all the time. “The taxman says ‘do not argue, pay!’ The pastor says ‘do not argue, believe!’” Instead, Kant believes that we should argue and follow our reason.

            Aside from Baumgarten and Wolff, both of whom Kant followed to some extent, there were others that he completely rejected. In his ethics lectures he lists several philosophers who ground morality on emotions or feelings. For example, ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE.) stressed that morality involves satisfying our senses and gaining selfish fulfillment. British philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) believed that an internal moral feeling distinguishes between right and wrong conduct. Kant rejects all of these theories because they depend too much on the accidental physical makeup of humans and on the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Instead, Kant argues that morality is grounded in our reason, which is stable and universal.


            Motives that Influence our Human Will. The aim of Kant’s book Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is, in his words, “to seek out and establish this supreme principle of morality” -- that is, to explain the origin and function of the categorical imperative. Before presenting the categorical imperative, though, Kant says some things about human psychology and he explains how the categorical imperative fits into the moral decision-making process.

            We all recognize that morality involves choices between different courses of action. If I see an accident victim alongside the road, I can choose to either help that person or not. To understand morality, then, I need to understand the factors that influence my will when making decisions. Philosophers of the 18th century commonly viewed the human will as something like a switch that turned on and off specific actions. We have countless motives that incline us towards various actions. My motive of thirst inclines me to act out by getting a drink. My motive of greed inclines me to act out by accumulating money and possessions. My motive of sympathy inclines me to act out by helping people. The function of the will is to select a specific motive and thereby switch on a specific action.

            Kant similarly believes that various motives tug at our human will, prompting us to act in different ways. For Kant, motives fall into one of two classes: (1) selfish inclinations, and (2) rational obligations. Unfortunately, most of our motives are of the selfish variety, and as long as we willfully select these motives, then our actions will never be truly moral. This is so even if I perform an action that appears to be morally proper. Suppose, for example, that I help an accident victim because I hope to get a reward. My motive in this case is selfish, so my act isn’t truly moral. Kant believes that morally pure motives must be rational considerations, which are universal and not personal or selfish. Specifically, the motive must be a rationally-informed duty toward the categorical imperative. Let’s look more closely at Kant’s reasoning here.

            First, Kant believes that a moral choice must be a rational decision since morality involves what is necessary for us to do, and only rational considerations are necessary. For example, there is nothing necessary about my selfish inclination to obtain material wealth. On the other hand, when we hear the moral command “don’t steal!” we recognize an element of necessity insofar as this command applies to everyone. Further, when we assess that anything in life is “necessary”, such as the truth of mathematical formulas, we are making a rational assessment, and this applies to morality as well. Second, Kant believes that, in moral choice, our rational motive must be in the form of a principle since human reason operates by issuing principles. Our reason gives us universal and necessary principles of mathematics and principles of logic, and, in this case, our reason also gives us a principle of morality. Third, the principle must be in the form of a command or imperative since morality involves commands, such as “don’t steal!”

            To better clarify how the categorical imperative differs from selfish inclinations, Kant distinguishes the categorical imperative from hypothetical imperatives. Compare these two imperatives:


(1) If you want to be a lawyer then you must go to law school.

(2) You must help others in need.


Although both of these statements are imperatives in the sense that they command us to perform some action, only the second of these is a moral imperative. The first is a hypothetical imperative in the sense that the commanded action (go to law school) applies to me only if I have a particular desire (to be a lawyer). Hypothetical imperatives will always be of the form “If you want some thing, then you must do some act”. Since all people won’t want the same thing, then hypothetical imperatives lack the element of necessity, and so are not truly moral commands. They are instead rules of personal preference. By contrast, the second imperative above does not depend on whether you have some desire. Instead, it simply mandates “You must do some act.” This is the form that our moral obligations take when they arise from the categorical imperative.


            The Formula of the Law of Nature. So much for the psychology behind the categorical imperative. The most important part of Kant’s theory is the categorical imperative itself:


Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.


The categorical imperative offers us a step-by-step procedure for determining the moral status of particular actions. First, I take a specific action, such as stealing my neighbor’s lawnmower. Second, I see what the guiding principle or “maxim” is behind the action, such as “I will steal my neighbor’s lawnmower to gain material wealth”. Third, I reflect on what that maxim would be like if it were a universal rule that everyone would follow, such as “everyone may steal his or her neighbor’s lawnmower to gain material wealth.” Fourth, if the universal rule is reasonable, then I accept the action as moral; if unreasonable, I reject the action as immoral. It is almost like asking “what would happen if everyone did this?” However, we don’t want to consider what happens regarding our selfish inclinations, such as whether a universal rule would make me happy or not. Instead, we only want to look at what happens in our reasoning process as we think about a universalized rule. Kant has a specific notion of reason in mind, with specific indicators about when a rule is rational or irrational. Kant gives four formulations of the categorical imperative that reflect different facets of human rationality.

            The first and most famous formulation is sometimes called the formula of the law of nature: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” The wording of this is very close to that of the original statement of the categorical imperative. However, as Kant explains, the distinguishing feature here is that we consider whether our maxim could function as a law of nature, and specifically whether it is free from contradiction. Suppose that I tell you that gravity will make the rock in my right hand fall to the ground, and gravity will at the same time make a similar rock in my left hand hover in mid air. You will think that this is impossible since laws of nature can’t be inconsistent like this. Similarly, this formula of the categorical imperative instructs us to search for a contradiction within a universalized maxim.

            To illustrate, Kant gives four examples that he thinks represent our main types of moral duties. The clearest of the four examples is this. Suppose that I borrow money from you promising to return it later, but I know full well that I won’t return it. The intended maxim or guiding principle behind my action is this: “Whenever I believe myself short of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, though I know that this will never be done.” Kant continues noting that a contradiction arises once I view this maxim as a universal rule. Specifically, if such deceit were followed universally, then the whole institution of promising would be undermined and I couldn’t make my promise to begin with. So, on the one hand I state “I promise such and such” yet, once universalized the practice of promise keeping itself would be gone.

            In another example Kant explains why it is wrong to kill myself when misfortunes push me to the point of despair. The maxim of this action is “From self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.” Kant explains that a law of nature of this sort would be contradictory: the self-love principle inclines me to preserve my life, but, according to this maxim, it inclines me to end my life. In a third example Kant explains why I must develop my talents rather than let them waste away. The maxim of the contrary action might be something like “I will let my talents decay and devote my life to idleness.” Kant concedes that this maxim by itself isn’t contradictory since in theory everyone could become an idle slug. However, the contradiction emerges when I willfully assert this maxim while at the same time acknowledging my inherent rational obligation to develop my talents. In the final example Kant explains why it is wrong to be uncharitable. The maxim of this action might be “I will not help someone in need”. Similar to the last example, a contradiction arises when I willfully assert this maxim while at the same time acknowledging my inherent rational obligation to receive charity when I am in need.

            From these four examples we find two different types of contradictions emerge. The first one in particular involves an internal contradiction within the proposed universal rule; the last two involve a contradiction between the proposed universal rule and another inherently rational obligation. The important point, though, is to see that a particular maxim fails as a universal law of nature if a contradiction arises at some point once a maxim is universalized.


            The Formula of the End Itself. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is called the formula of the end itself: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” In a nutshell, this says that we should not use people as objects, but instead recognize the dignity and value that we all have because of our freedom. It helps to understand Kant’s point if we distinguish between things that have merely instrumental value and things that have inherent value. Some things in life are valuable only as instruments to obtain something else. My car keys, for example, are very valuable to me and when I lose them my life grinds to a halt. But my car keys are valuable only as tools that perform a task, namely, the task of starting my car. Even the value of my car itself is mainly instrumental insofar as it allows me to get from one place to another. By contrast, other things in life are inherently valuable and we appreciate them for what they are, and not for what they lead to. Companionship and the enjoyment of music are good examples. Kant believes that human beings have inherent value and should never be treated as instruments:


... in so [improperly] acting man reduces himself to a thing, to an instrument of animal amusement. We are, however, as human beings, not things but persons, and by turning ourselves into things we dishonor human nature in our own persons. [Lectures, “The Supreme Principle of Morality”]


The reason that we have inherent value, according to Kant, is because, unlike animals, we have the ability to rise above our brute instincts and to freely make crucial decisions in shaping our lives and the world around us. The ability to freely make these decisions is a feature of our human reason, and this ability confers on us an inherent dignity that is valuable in and of itself. We have a moral responsibility, then, to treat people in ways that reflect their inherent value, and we should not reduce people to mere objects of instrumental value. So, when I treat someone as an end, I respect their inherent value, and when I treat people as a means I see them as having only instrumental value.

            Kant explains that there is both a negative and positive component to this formula. The negative component is that we should avoid treating people as a mere means. This only tells us to abstain from using people as instruments, which is a bare minimum obligation. The positive component is that we should undertake treating people as an end in themselves. This tells us to actively assist or support others in retaining their dignity. It isn’t enough to simply avoid abusing people, we must go a step further and help them, especially when misfortune strikes them. Kant again illustrates this formula with the same four examples that we considered earlier. If I make a bad promise to you with the intention of acquiring financial gain, then I’m using you as a thing or instrument and not recognizing your inherent value. If I commit suicide, then I am using myself as a means to attain a tolerable state of affairs until the point that I’m actually dead. If I let my talents decline, then I am not acknowledging my inherent worth as a rational person who shapes the world through my decisions. So I don’t treat myself as an end. If I fail to help people in need, then I am not helping them maintain their dignity. So, I fail to treat that person as an end. The first two examples illustrate the negative obligation to avoid treating people as a means, and the last two examples illustrate the positive obligation to undertake treating people as an end. Kant’s first two formulations of the categorical imperative are the most famous of the four and Kant devotes the most attention to these.

            The remaining two formulations of the categorical imperative draw from the central points of both the first and second formulations. The third is the formula of autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.” The focus of this formula is the authority that rests within the human will to productively shape the world around us when following reason. As we act we should consider whether our intended maxims are worthy of our status as shapers of the world. The fourth formulation is 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.” The point here is that the moral fate of all people hangs together. We saw that Kant thinks of human beings as ends in themselves, and so together we are a “kingdom of ends” or, more simply, a moral community. As I act I should consider whether my actions contribute to or detract from the moral community. Specifically, I should consider whether the intended maxim of my action could productively function as a universal rule in the moral community.

            Here are the main points of Kant’s theory:


·        Motives behind true moral choices are not those of selfish inclination but instead those of a rational duty conforming to the categorical imperative.

·        Hypothetical imperatives have the form “If you want some thing, then you must do some act”; the categorical imperative mandates “You must do some act.”

·        The general formula of the categorical imperative has us consider whether the intended maxim of our action would be reasonable as a universal law.

·        Specific formulations of the categorical imperative focus on a particular feature of human rationality, such as the absence of contradiction, free choice, and inherent dignity.




            Kant was an original thinker not only in the field of ethics but in virtually every area of philosophy. His reputation skyrocketed during the last two decades of his life, and during the 19th century his writings were more influential in Europe than those of any other philosopher. Many philosophers adopted his theories and perpetuated a specialized Kantian vocabulary. Other philosophers were less happy with Kant’s elaborate philosophical system and picked away at parts of it, including the categorical imperative.


            Schopenhauer’s Criticism: The Categorical Imperative reduces to Egoism. Kant’s writings were a source of inspiration for German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Although Schopenhauer followed Kant in many particulars, in an appendix to his work The World as Will and Representation (1818) Schopenhauer politely critiques different aspects of Kant’s philosophy that don’t quite coincide with Schopenhauer’s own. This includes Kant’s categorical imperative. Schopenhauer believes that human conduct is sometimes guided by sympathy for other people, and at other times is guided by selfish or egoistic concerns for oneself. Truly moral conduct, he argues, must be sympathetic. Kant denies the role of sympathy as the motive behind truly moral action, and Schopenhauer was aware of this. Sympathy is a fellow feeling or sense of commiseration that we have with other people. Like other feelings -- such as happiness and self-love -- sympathy focuses on specific people and specific situations. All such feelings, according to Kant, are too unstable and unreliable to be an effective foundation for morality.

            According to Schopenhauer, if I shun my feelings of sympathy -- as Kant recommends -- then egoism will drive how I consider the universal implications of my actions in the categorical imperative. Without sympathy, the real step by step procedure of the categorical imperative is this: first, I consider how far I am willing to allow the egoism of others to encroach on my territory; second, I recognize that this is as far as I can allow my own egoism to encroach on other people’s territory. Schopenhauer makes this point here:


This aim [concerning the well-being of all], however, still always remains [egoistic] well-being. I then find that all can be equally well off only if each makes the egoism of others the limit of his own. It naturally follows from this that I ought not to injure anyone, so that, since the principle is assumed to be universal, I also may not be injured. This, however, is the only ground on account of which I, not yet possessing a moral principle but only looking for one, can desire this to be a universal law. But obviously in this way the desire for well-being, in other words egoism, remains the source of this ethical principle.


For Schopenhauer, the categorical imperative simply reduces to the egoistic principle that “I shouldn’t do to others what I don’t want done to myself.” Schopenhauer believes that this is good enough for the purpose of establishing political laws that regulate how we behave as citizens; for, political laws mainly limit how much I can encroach on other people’s territory. However, Schopenhauer argues that this is not good enough for establishing moral obligations that go beyond the bare minimum obligations that we find in legal codes. For example, morality may require that we more aggressively help others in need.

            For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Schopenhauer is correct that either something like sympathy or something like egoism must be the driving force behind how we consider the universal implications of our actions. How might we defend Kant from the Schopenhauer’s charge of egoism? Even though Kant rejects a specific notion of sympathy -- that is, sympathy as a feeling towards particular people -- Kant still believes that there is a humanitarian emphasis within human reason. Although reason cannot directly instruct me to sympathize with this or that particular person, reason does instruct me to sympathize with the whole race of humans. This more generalized notion of sympathy emerges in the formula of the end in itself, which tells us to respect the inherent value of all people. We’ve seen that this formula includes the positive mandate to treat people as ends in themselves by helping them when in need. This goes beyond the purely negative mandate to avoid treating people as a means or using them as an instrument. This addresses Schopenhauer’s precise point that there is more to morality than simply not encroaching on other people’s territory. The solution, then, to Schopenhauer’s egoistic spin on the categorical imperative is to accept a more generalized notion of sympathy towards humanity.

            We must note, though, that there is a drawback to this solution. If sympathy is directed only towards humanity at large, then sympathy will lack personal feelings towards individual people. For example, if I visit my friend in the hospital, then, on Kant’s view, my action should be motivated by a concern for humanity at large, and not by a concern for my friend specifically. This, though, seems unrealistically cold.


            Mill’s Criticism: The Categorical Imperative reduces to Utilitarianism. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) developed a theory of morality that was about as opposite to Kant’s theory as one could imagine. Kant believed that our moral duties spring immediately from human reason, without any consideration of the specific effects of our actions on our personal happiness. For Kant the categorical imperative is a method of directly accessing the commands of our reason, independently of other considerations. By contrast, Mill believed that our moral obligations spring only from considering how our actions affect human happiness. Mill proposed his own principle of morality, which he calls the utilitarian principle: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” According to this principle, we look at the consequences of our actions and see whether they bring about more happiness than unhappiness.

            Mill was aware of Kant’s categorical imperative and the enormous influence that Kant’s theory had on philosophers of the time. In a brief passage Mill argues that the categorical imperative does not succeed as a purely rational source of obligation. Instead, Mill argues, it is actually a disguised version of the utilitarian principle -- which is the very last thing that Kant thought his principle was:


This remarkable man [i.e., Kant], 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 a 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. [Utilitariansim, 1]


Although Mill cites the general formula of the categorical imperative, he directs his attack against the formula of the law of nature, which tells us that an action is wrong if a contradiction arises when universalizing the intended maxim. To illustrate Mill’s complaint, suppose that I want to borrow money from you, intending to never pay you back. Kant believes that this is immoral since my intended maxim is contradictory; specifically, I’m promising to do one thing, but when universalized the practice of promise keeping itself is undermined. According to Mill, the categorical imperative fails to reveal any logical contradiction in my universalized maxim. The only thing that it does reveal is that the consequences of universalizing my maxim involve more unhappiness than happiness, so I must reject the maxim. In this case, deceitful promises as a rule make us distrust each other, and distrust, in turn makes life unhappy. So, although Kant thinks that we merely look for the presence of a contradiction, we in fact are looking at the unpleasant effects of a universalized rule.

            Mill is correct that it is easy for us to look at the unpleasant effects of a universalized rule. However, Kant does not do this and the contradictions that Kant exposes are genuine. The example of deceitful promises is a perfect illustration of how an immoral maxim may produce an internal contradiction when universalized. If we universally allow deceitful promises this means that we may (a) keep our word and (b) not keep our word at the same time. This is as explicit of a contradiction as one can get. Other immoral maxims don’t lead to explicit internal contradictions like this, and, instead, Kant tries to show how they lead to external contradictions. We’ve seen that external contradictions occur between (a) the proposed universal rule and (b) another inherent rational obligation. For example, it is wrong to waste my talents since it is contrary to my inherent rational obligation to develop my talents. It is wrong to deny charity to others since it is contrary to my inherent rational wish to receive charity when I am in need. For most other immoral actions that Kant does not specifically illustrate, it is easiest to see these as involving external contradictions as well. Stealing is wrong, perhaps, because it is contrary to our rational obligation to live in peace with our neighbor. Murder is wrong, perhaps, because it is contrary to our rational obligation to respect the lives of others. These seem to be genuine enough contradictions to sidestep Mill’s criticism.


            Anscombe’s Criticism: There is no Procedure for Constructing Maxims. In a famous essay titled “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe criticizes virtually the entire lineup of traditional moral philosophers. Turning to Kant she argues that Kant’s “rule about universalizable maxims is useless without stipulations as to what shall count as a relevant description of an action with a view to constructing a maxim about it.” That is, for any action I pick, I could devise a wide variety of maxims that could represent my action. How do I know which one is the correct maxim? To illustrate Anscombe’s criticism, we will use a grotesque example that Kant himself discusses. Suppose that I yank out one of my healthy teeth and sell it to a dentist who will then insert it into someone else’s mouth. We would expect any adequate moral theory to condemn this action. So, if Kant is correct, then universalizing this action should generate a contradiction. But what is the maxim of my action here? It might be that “I should pull out my tooth and sell it to a dentist.” It might also be that “I should extract a healthy part of my body and sell it.” It might also be that “I should pull out my right upper molar and sell it to a dentist by the name of John Smith.” Each of these maxims has entirely different implications, and if I can’t figure out exactly which maxim represents my action, then I can’t test the action by universalizing it. So, Kant’s categorical imperative fails to give us the guidance that we need.

            However, Anscombe’s criticism misses the point about what a “maxim” is, and Kant really does provide an appropriate way to construct maxims. The key to constructing a maxim is to determine the intention behind an action. Kant illustrates the connection between maxims and intentions here:


Every immoral man has his maxims. ... May a man, for instance, mutilate his body for profit? May he sell a tooth? May he surrender himself at a price to the highest bidder? ... What is the intent in these cases? It is to gain material advantage. [Lectures, “The Supreme Principle of Morality]


Kant is correct that if we want to understand the moral worth of someone’s action then we must look beyond the specific action and examine the underlying intention. For example, if I hit a pedestrian while driving my car, from a moral standpoint it makes a big difference whether I was hoping to hit the pedestrian or hoping to avoid the pedestrian. Just as it is important to discover one’s underlying intention in moral assessments, it is also important in criminal law, especially in determining the severity of punishment. Today we don’t speak about the “maxim” of our actions, and are comfortable to speak simply about our intention. Philosophers in Kant’s time, though, were familiar with seeing intentions as “maxims”. Wolff, for example, writes that “man must have certain maxims or general rules according to which he directs his action, even if he himself does not clearly recognize this.”

            In constructing my maxim, then, I look to my intention. In the case of the extracted tooth, my intention is, in Kant’s words, “to gain material advantage.” The more precisely stated maxim is that “I should disfigure myself by extracting my tooth to gain material advantage.” In the spirit of Anscombe’s criticism, we must acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to uncover the exact intention behind our actions, but that’s a problem that plagues morality in general, and not just Kant’s theory. In criminal court cases, prosecutors and defense attorneys may battle for days over a criminal suspect’s true underlying intention. It may not be any easier for us as individuals when we struggle to discover why we do things. In fact, Kant believes that it is nearly impossible to discover our precise intentions:


... we can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret incentives of action; since, when the question is of moral worth, it is not with the actions which we see that we are concerned, but with those inward principles of them which we do not see. [Foundations, Chapter 2]


Although I may not know what my exact intentions are behind a specific action, I can make a best guess or even consider a few possible intentions just to cover all grounds. With the categorical imperative, then, I may have to devise a few maxims and see what the outcome of each would be when universalized. This adds extra steps to the categorical imperative, but they are steps that realistically reflect our limited knowledge of our intentions.




            Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative continues to hold an important place in moral philosophy today. Of the various formulations of the categorical imperative, the most popular ones today are the formula of the law of nature and the formula of the end itself. In conclusion, we will consider the merits of each of these.


            Traditional Duty Theory and the Formula of the Law of Nature. Kant undoubtedly believed that his theory of the categorical imperative was unique, and that he departed from the moral traditions prior to him. Not only did he believe he departed from moral theories that emphasized personal happiness, he also felt that he moved beyond the traditional duty theories that first inspired him. Again, traditional duty theorists such as Pufendorf, Wolff and Baumgarten argued that the laws of nature mandate a specific set of duties to God, oneself and others. On this view, an action is wrong if it violates our specific duties. These philosophers also believed that all of our specific duties flow from a single principle of natural law. In spite of Kant’s attempt to depart from traditional duty theory, he may not have moved beyond it as much as he believed. We can see this more clearly if we speculate about how Kant came up with the idea of the categorical imperative. A section of Kant’s ethics lectures titled “The Supreme Principle of Morality” presents an early discussion of the categorical imperative and by comparing this to the Foundations we can construct a plausible story line for the development of his theory.

            The story begins in the ethics lectures. In these Kant expresses dissatisfaction with the single principle of morality proposed by Baumgarten and Wolff. Roughly, for Kant, their principle reduces to the claim that “we must do good and avoid evil”. According to Kant, this principle has no content and simply means that we are morally obliged to be moral. Kant, then, believed that we need a better first principle. Perhaps around the same time Kant was struck by a unique feature of deceitful promises. If we say as a general rule that we may make deceitful promises, then we logically contradict the concept of promise keeping itself. Specifically, we make a promise and deny the institution of promise keeping at the same time. This example of deceitful promises appears very prominently in the ethics lectures. Kant apparently looked for other examples of immoral actions that resulted in similar internal contradictions when universalized, but he found none that perfectly matched. If we try to assist Kant by thinking up parallel examples on our own, we will likely not find any. This seems to be a one-of-a-kind example. The definitive formulation of the categorical imperative does not appear in the ethics lectures. However, Kant does refer to “the supreme principle of morality” in the ethics lectures, and this is clearly modeled after the example of deceitful promises.

            The story continues from here in the Foundations. In the Foundations, the deceitful promise example is the model for Kant’s general formulation of the categorical imperative as well as the step-by-step procedure of the formulation of the law of nature. That is, we take the maxim of an action, consider it as a universalized rule, and see if a contradiction arises. Since the deceitful promise example was the only illustration that fit this step by step procedure perfectly, Kant then modified other examples to fit this procedure, such as the examples of suicide, wasting one’s talents, and being uncharitable. These examples were modified in two ways. First, the contradictions that Kant exposes in these are not internal but external. For example, wasting one’s talents is wrong since it is contrary to a rational obligation to develop one’s talents. In more traditional terminology, wasting one’s talents is wrong since it is contrary to our duty to develop one’s talents. The contradiction arises only when we presume the existence of an independent duty. In our discussion of Mill’s criticism we saw that this is probably the best way to see contradictions with most other immoral actions, such as stealing or murder.

            The second type of modification involves universalization. With deceitful promises, an internal contradiction arises only when the act is considered as a universal rule. However, the process of universalization is not at all needed to detect external conflicts with our rational obligations or “duties”. If I alone fail to develop my talents then I am still acting contrary to my rational obligation to develop my talents. If I alone kill myself, then I am still acting contrary to my rational obligation to stay alive. Again, though, to fit the model Kant modified these examples by universalizing them, even though universalization is not needed in these cases.

            Once we de-modify Kant’s examples, what does the formula of the law of nature amount to? Aside from the one-of-a-kind example of deceitful promises, it tells us that an action is wrong if it violates a duty. And this is essentially what we find in the traditional duty theories of Pufendorf, Wolff, and Bamugarten.


            The Value of the Formula of the End Itself. Most discussions of Kant’s categorical imperative focus on the formula of the law of nature and the quest for a contradiction. We’ve just seen that this may be less original than it appears. Perhaps the real original contribution of Kant’s categorical imperative rests in his formula of the end in itself. This principle tells us that we should always treat people with dignity, recognizing their intrinsic value, and never treat people as mere instruments to manipulate for our own purpose. If we survey our various immoral actions, they all seem to involve using people as instruments and not recognizing people’s intrinsic value. If I commit an act of theft, deception, assault, or murder, I am using my victim as a tool for my own gratification, and I am certainly not respecting that person’s dignity. If we think of moral principles as guidelines for our conduct, then the formula of the end itself seems especially accurate. It also preaches a message to us about how to become better people: don’t think of people as things that we can manipulate. Kant devised this notion only after thinking for years about the importance of human freedom and the ability to make personal and rational choices in the face of authoritarian attempts to restrict us. To be rational humans means that we make choices that shape our lives and the world around us. We need to respect that feature within all people, and it is reasonable to make this respect the cornerstone of morality.

            If we see that morality mandates respect for our decision-making abilities, it is clearer why we shouldn’t voluntarily become homeless. If I choose to waste my talents and live on the street, then I’m not exercising the kind of positive freedom that makes me human. It may seem as though I’m making a choice when I voluntarily waste my talents. However, this is only a weak and default choice that results from my failing to scope out life’s possibilities and act on them. So, by wasting my talents I’m disrespecting my decision-making abilities and not acknowledging my own intrinsic worth. This is probably the best explanation anyone could give for why it is wrong to voluntarily become homeless.

            Kant believed that the formula of the end itself was a different version of the categorical imperative, specifically a different version of the quest-for-contradiction strategy. It takes a great stretch of the imagination, though, to see how they have much in common, and Kant’s motive in linking them may again owe to the influence of his predecessors. Natural law theorists from the time of Aquinas believed that natural law dictates a single highest principle of morality, and all of our duties are unified in that principle. We saw that Kant proposed his categorical imperative to replace the empty principle suggested by Wolff and Baumgarten. To Kant’s way of thinking, then, everything that we say about our moral obligations must be grounded in a single principle. Kant then labored to show how the different facets of our moral reasoning tie together in a unified system. Fortunately today we don’t have to follow the systematic plan of morality laid out by natural law theorists. It is enough to simply acknowledge and appreciate Kant’s conception of human dignity and see that it has important moral implications for how we view ourselves and others. We don’t need to continue by squeezing this insight into a unified system.


            Summary. Influenced by his predecessors in the natural law tradition, Kant offered the categorical imperative as the supreme principle of morality from which all moral duties emerge. The categorical imperative originates from human reason -- as opposed to selfish inclinations -- and Kant argues that it can be formulated in different ways, emphasizing different components of human reason. The formula of the law of nature suggests that truly moral actions are those that are free from contradiction when universalized. The formula of the end itself suggests that truly moral actions are those that acknowledge and support a person’s dignity and inherent value. Schopenhauer argued that the categorical imperative is essentially egoistic since Kant rejects the role of sympathetic feelings. In response, we saw that Kant emphasized the importance of inherent human value, which is a generalized sympathy. Mill argued that the categorical imperative is really utilitarianism in disguise. However, we saw that the categorical imperative does not appeal to happiness; it exposes genuine contradictions. Anscombe criticized that the categorical imperative fails because it doesn’t tell us how to construct maxims. We saw, though, that maxims are statements of intention behind an action, which may be difficult to accurately identify. In conclusion, we saw that the formula of the law of nature does not depart much from traditional duty theory, and the true contribution of the categorical imperative is the formula of the end itself, and its emphasis on human freedom and dignity.



The quotation about the Bowery homeless person named David is from The Bowery Mission home page (

Statistics on the homeless are based on fact sheets from the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Quotations from Kant without citations are from Lectures on Ethics, tr. Louis Infield (London: Methuen & co. ltd., 1930), “The Supreme Principle of Morality,” “The Lawgiver,” and “Occupation”.

Quotations from Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals are from the translation by H.J. Paton (Harper, 1948). Other translations are by Lewis White Beck (Prentice Hall, 1959), and James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981).

Quotations by Christian Wolff are from Reasonable Thoughts on Human Action in Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, ed. J.B. Schneewind (Cambridge: 1990), Vol. 1.

Quotations by Arthur Schopenhauer are from The World as Will and Representation, tr. E.F.J. Payne, (Dover, 1958), Vol. 1, appendix.

Quotations by J.S. Mill are from Utilitarianism (1863), which is currently available in several editions.

Quotations by Elizabeth Anscombe are from “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, 1958, Vol. 33, p. 3; this article is reprinted in her Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).


Suggestions for further Reading.

Paul Arthur Schilpp’s Kant’s Pre-Critical Ethics (Northwestern University Press, 1938) is a classic discussion of Kant’s moral views prior to the Foundations.

Roger J. Sullivan’s Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory (Cambridge, 1989) is a detailed discussion of Kant’s moral theory as appears in Kant’s various publications.

Roger J. Sullivan’s An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics (Cambridge, 1994) is a readable discussion of Kant’s Foundations.

Robert Paul Wolff’s edited collection Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals with Critical Essays (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969) contains a translation of the Foundations along with several influential essays.

Robert Paul Wolff’s The Autonomy of Reason (New York, 1973) is a commentary on Kant’s Foundations.







            On February 3, 1998, 38-year-old Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the state of Texas in over 130 years. Formerly a drug addict and prostitute, in 1983 Tucker and a friend ended a three-day drug binge by attempting to steal a young man’s motorcycle. They broke into the man’s apartment, and hacked him and a visiting woman friend to death with a pickax. After the episode, Tucker bragged that she got a sexual thrill from the murders. She and her accomplice were caught a month later, and ultimately sentenced to death. Because of her unique situation as a woman on death row, her newly found religious conviction, and her paradoxically warm personality, Tucker gained worldwide notoriety as her execution day approached. Pope John Paul II made a public appeal for clemency. Tucker herself believed that her life should be spared since she reformed to the point that she was no longer part of society’s crime problem, but part of the cure. In an interview two weeks before her execution Tucker explained,


I can witness to people who have been on drugs or into prostitution or into all of that, and they’ll listen to me because they know I understand and can relate to them. And I can keep them from going down that road, because I can let them know. I changed. You can too.


Clemency was not granted, and the execution took place as planned.

            Tucker argued that her life should be spared since remaining alive would serve the greater social good. Her reasoning strategy was utilitarian in nature. Most generally, utilitarianism is the moral theory that an action is morally right if it serves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. To determine whether Tucker should be executed, the utilitarian compares the total good resulting from her execution with the total good resulting from her remaining alive. Tucker believed that more good would result if she remained alive. However, defenders of capital punishment also use utilitarian reasoning and argue that the greater social good is served by executing some criminals. After her execution, a relative of one of Tucker’s victims said in utilitarian fashion that “The world’s [now] a better place.”  Presumably, executing criminals such as Tucker sends a strong signal to other would-be criminals and deters them. It also assists in the psychological healing process of victims and their families.

            Utilitarians believe that the sole factor in determining an action’s morality is the balance of social good vs. social evil. Appeals to moral intuitions, social traditions or God’s wishes are not relevant. Utilitarianism has a long history, but the most famous versions of the theory emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly as championed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. We classify their particular theories as hedonistic utilitarianism. The word “hedonistic” means pleasure-seeking, and hedonistic utilitarians argue that morality is determined according to how much pleasure or pain is produced from a course of action. For example, on the issue of capital punishment, hedonistic utilitarians would argue that this practice is justified only if it produces a greater amount of pleasure vs. pain. Other non-hedonistic versions of utilitarianism emerged in later years. We will discuss the development of the utilitarian theory here.




            Utilitarianism isn’t the invention of any single philosopher and the general theory is as old as ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE.) gives a clear statement of the role of pleasure in moral judgments:


We count pleasure as the originating principle and the goal of the blessed life.  For we recognize pleasure as the first and fitting good, for from it proceeds all choice and avoidance, and we return to it as the feeling-standard by which we judge every good. [Letter to Menoeceus]


Pleasure is clearly an important motivator in our lives, and most moral philosophers find at least some place for pleasure within their theories. What is distinct about Epicurus’s view, though, is that pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the single standard by which we determine happiness and thereby judge our actions. Ultimately, Epicurus’s theory didn’t take hold and, in the centuries following Epicurus, moral philosophers emphasized the roles of virtue, natural law, and the will of God. Humanist philosophers of the Renaissance revived Epicurus’s theory, and by 18th century, several philosophers defended the pleasure criterion of morality.


            18TH Century Contributions. Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) offered this systematic formula linking morality with happiness:


That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery. [An Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, 3:8]


Here and in his other ethical writings, we find most of the key elements of utilitarianism. First, in Hutchesons words, we are to compute the consequences of our actions. Second, the standard of moral evaluation is the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure that results, as all people are affected. Third, Hutcheson provides details about the range of consequences that count: long-term, short-term, direct, and indirect consequences all enter into the computation. Finally, he provides details about what counts as happiness or pleasure: higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures are relevant, both with varying degrees of intensity and duration.

            Influenced by Hutcheson, David Hume (1711-1776) further developed this intuition. Hume argues that when we survey what people commonly consider to be moral conduct, we must conclude that morally right actions are those that produce useful or immediately pleasing consequences for oneself or others. Two features are unique to Hume’s theory. First, as criteria of moral evaluation, the useful consequences of actions are as important as the immediately pleasing consequences of actions. Sexual chastity, for example, is morally proper primarily because it has useful consequences in holding together the family unit. Hume uses the term utility in reference to these useful consequences, and it is from Hume’s expression that later commentators coined the term utilitarianism. The second unique feature of Hume’s theory is that some actions are useful only when followed as a rule. Again, with sexual chastity, isolated instances of sexual fidelity won’t have the consequence of holding together family units. Hume believes that, to have useful consequences, chastity needs to be followed as a rule, even by single women who are past childbearing age. In Hume’s words,


... a single act of justice [or chastity], considered in itself, may often by contrary to the public good; and it is only the concurrence of mankind, in a general scheme or system of action, which is advantageous. [A Treatise of Human Nature, 3:3:1]


Hume’s reasoning here is the foundation of what has later been called rule-utilitarianism. By the end of the 18th century dozens of prominent moral theorists were influenced by Hume’s theory of utility and proposed similar views. The most important of these theorists was British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who acknowledged Hume as his immediate source of inspiration.


            Bentham’s Utilitarian Calculus. Bentham presents his theory of utility in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which he wrote as a kind of moral guidebook for legislators as they make public policy. Although the bulk of this work focuses on issues of criminal conduct, the opening chapters systematically describe how utility is the ultimate moral standard for all actions. Bentham states his principle of utility here:


By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same ting in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government. [Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1:2]


Two features of Bentham’s theory are especially unique. First, Bentham offers a bare-bones moral theory, which consists of only one factor: the pleasing or painful consequences of actions. Although the above theorists put forward the basic elements of utilitarianism, they also incorporated non-utilitarian doctrines into their moral theories. Some of these extraneous doctrines are that morality is ultimately founded on the will of God, that sympathy is needed to counterbalance human selfishness, that virtues underlie our moral actions, that we rationally intuit our duty, and that we judge conduct through a moral sense. For Bentham, some of these doctrines are nonsensical, and the rest are irrelevant. His rejection of these more traditional elements of moral theory gave utilitarianism the reputation of being Godless, impersonal, skeptical, and relativistic.

            The second and most important feature of Bentham’s theory is his method for precisely quantifying pleasures and pains, better known as the utilitarian calculus. Bentham argues that the complete range of pleasing and painful consequences of actions can be quantified according to seven criteria: (1) intensity; (2) duration; (3) certainty; (4) remoteness, that is, the immediacy of the pleasure or pain; (5) fecundity, that is, whether similar pleasures or pains will follow; (6) purity, that is, whether the pleasure is mixed with pain; and (7) extent, that is the number of people affected. In footnote to a later edition of the Principles, Bentham summarizes these criteria in a rhyme, which he says might assist us in “lodging more effectually, in the memory, these points”:


Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure --

Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.

Such pleasures seek if private by thy end:

If it be public, wide let them extend.

Such pains avoid, whichever by they view:

If pains must come, let them extend to few.

[Principles of Morals and Legislation, 4:2]


            Bentham is very explicit about how the calculus works. For example, if we wanted to determine the morality of executing Karla Faye Tucker, we would first calculate all of the pleasure and pain that she personally would receive from the execution. We do this by examining her relevant pleasures and pains, one at a time. One specific pleasure/pain that she would experience would involve her contemplating her own death. As she sits in her cell, and thinks about the fact that she will soon die, she undoubtedly has a strong painful experience of dread. According to Bentham’s calculus, we need to construct a pleasure-pain chart that takes into account the first four factors above. We also assign numerical values to these factors, perhaps on a scale of one to ten:


                                    Pleasure           Pain


Intensity:                       0                      10

Duration:                      0                      2

Certainty:                      0                      10

Immediacy:                   0                      10


Concerning the intensity of her pleasure/pain, we may presume that Tucker would derive no pleasure from the events immediately surrounding her death, and she would experience very intense emotional pain at the prospect of losing her life. The duration of the emotional pain would be relatively brief, but it would be certain and immediate.

            After we chart out the first four factors, we then consider the other three factors separately. Bentham’s purity factor involves whether an act produces both pain and pleasure. We’ve already taken this into account in the above chart by noting that she will experience only pain and no pleasure. The fecundity factor involves any similar long-term residual pleasures and pains that might result from an action. Since Tucker’s execution was carried out successfully, then there are no residual pleasures and pains for her. On the other hand, if her execution was botched on its first attempt and she had to go through the process again a month later, then we would need to devise another pleasure-pain chart for the new execution. The above chart quantifies only the psychological anguish that Tucker would experience when contemplating her own death. However, there are other distinct pleasures and pains that she would experience regarding her execution. For example, she would be distressed by being permanently separated from her family, and she would be frustrated with the criminal justice system. For each of these additional pains or pleasures, we need additional pleasure-pain charts.

            Finally, Bentham’s extent factor involves all the pleasures and pains experienced by other people. So, once we fully account for Tucker’s pleasures and pains, we then construct similar pleasure-pain charts for each pleasure and pain experienced by each person affected by Tucker’s execution. This includes the pleasures experienced by people who want Tucker dead, such as the victim’s relatives and those who commiserate with the relatives. This also includes the pains experienced by those who want her alive, such has Tucker’s own relatives and even people like the Pope who oppose capital punishment and are pained by another execution. At this stage, thousands and perhaps millions of pleasure-pain charts would be involved. We then take the combined pleasure score from all charts and compare it to the combined pain score from all charts. If the pleasure column has the higher score, then executing Tucker would be moral. If the pain column has the higher score, then the execution is immoral.


            Limitations of Bentham’s Theory. There are two fundamental problems with Bentham’s utilitarianism. First, Bentham imposes a precision on a subject that doesn’t allow for such close detail. Walking through even a single illustration shows that it is virtually impossible to do a complete utilitarian calculus, and this constitutes the strongest argument against it. When the Principles first appeared, two book reviewers attacked Bentham for the excessive detail that appears throughout his entire discussion. The Analytical Review charged that “perhaps the love of discrimination has been sometimes carried too far, and been productive of divisions and subdivisions of little use to a legislator”. The Critical Review commented more strongly that “Long and intricate discussions end in trifling conclusions; affected refinement sometimes stands in the place of useful distinctions, and the parade of system is so highly labored as frequently to disgust....” Bentham was well aware of this overall problem with the Principles, and for that reason he delayed its publication for nine years.

            The second problem with Bentham’s theory is that every conceivable human action becomes a moral issue that should be submitted to the utilitarian test. Even a simple act such as selecting toothpaste may involve a pleasure/pain calculus of purchasing one toothpaste brand vs. another. Also, when pushed to its extreme, I couldn’t justify spending my time on any simple leisure activities, such as watching TV. Instead, I presumably should spend my time on actively increasing general pleasure, such as doing volunteer work for Meals on Wheels. The root of the problem is that Bentham endorses what commentators call act-utilitarianism, rather than the rule-utilitarian view hinted at by Hume. The two approaches may be defined here:


Act-Utilitarianism: in determining morality, we should calculate the pleasurable and painful consequences of our individual actions.

Rule-Utilitarianism: in determining morality, we should calculate the pleasurable and painful consequences of the moral rules that we adopt.


Act-utilitarianism involves a two-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) right actions are determined by appealing to (2) the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be wrong for me to steal my neighbor’s car since this act would produce more general unhappiness. Rule-utilitarianism, though, involves an intermediary step and is a three-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) right actions are determined by appealing to (2) moral rules, which are determined by appealing to (3) the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to rule-utilitarianism, it would be wrong to steal my neighbor’s car since this act violates the rule against stealing, and we endorse this rule since it promotes general happiness. Although act-utilitarianism has the problem that every conceivable action becomes a moral issue, this isn’t a problem with rule-utilitarianism. For example, we wouldn’t be promoting general happiness by making hard and fast rules about choosing toothpastes or watching TV. Instead, general happiness would be better served if we endorsed a rule that allows each of us a range of free activity.

            In spite of the problems with Bentham’s theory, his view of utilitarianism gained a following. By the mid 19th century Bentham’s name was so strongly linked with utilitarianism that one commentator of the time felt compelled to remind people that Bentham didn’t invent the doctrine. The next great step in the development of utilitarianism came with British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).




            Bentham was John Stuart Mill’s Godfather and teacher, and the young Mill followed his mentor’s account of utilitarianism. In early adulthood, Mill suffered an emotional breakdown, which he attributed to his heavily analytic education. Bentham died shortly after, and Mill felt free to reevaluate the ideas of his upbringing. Mill’s early writings show a growing with discontentment Bentham’s overly technical utilitarian calculus. In his fifties, Mill finally took the opportunity to write a popular defense of utilitarianism in view of the excessively scientific and skeptical reputation that the doctrine obtained through Bentham. This appeared in three installments in Fraser’s Magazine in 1861, and was published in book form in 1863 under the title Utilitarianism.


            Elements of Mill’s Theory. Commentators argue that there is little in Mill’s theory that is completely original. In fact, we can outline many features of Mill’s theory by simply listing its similarities with previous theories. First, like Bentham, Mill believes that the sole criterion of morality is general happiness, that is, the maximum pleasures and the minimum pains that a society of people can experience. Second, like Bentham, Mill believes this criterion can be expressed somewhat scientifically in the form of a single principle:


Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote [general] happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of [general] happiness. [Utilitarianism, 2]


Third, like Hutcheson, Mill argues that happiness consists of both higher intellectual pleasures, and lower bodily pleasures. Finally, like Hume, Mill focuses on the good or bad consequences that emerge from rules of conduct and, as such, Mill is classified as a rule-utilitarian. According to Mill, we appeal to the utilitarian principle only to establish moral rules. On rare occasions, though, I may be caught in a moral dilemma between two conflicting rules. Suppose that I borrow your gun and promise to return it when you ask for it. The next day, you have a dispute with your boss and in a fit of rage you ask for the gun back. I am now caught in a dilemma between two conflicting moral rules: I should keep my promises, yet I shouldn’t contribute to the harm of others. In such rare cases, I can determine the proper course of action by appealing directly to the utilitarian principle to see which rule has priority. Mill explains this point here:


We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles [that is, rules] is it requisite that first principles [of general happiness] should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved ... [Utilitarianism, 2]


In this case, I bring about more happiness by following the rule to avoid harming others, and, so I should hold onto your gun.

            As noted, Bentham presents a bare bones account of utilitarianism by not incorporating traditional moral concepts such as the will of God, virtues, a moral sense, rational intuition, and sympathetic feelings. Mill also rejects most of these traditional notions, although he does find a place in his theory for socially-oriented moral feelings such as sympathy, the feeling of duty, and the feeling of unity. For Mill, these feelings are necessary to give people the motivation to pursue general happiness. Without such motivation, utilitarianism would be a sterile principle without any practical value.


            General Happiness and Higher Pleasures. The most characteristic feature of Mill’s utilitarianism is his distinction between higher intellectual pleasures and lower bodily pleasures. Although Hutcheson made this general distinction, Mill develops the notion and makes it central to his theory. Mill introduces the topic as a response to a specific criticism: utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine since swine too pursue pleasure. Mill responds that the concept of pleasure includes intellectual as well as bodily pleasures, and pigs clearly can’t experience intellectual pleasures.


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. [Utilitarianism, 2]


Lower pleasures traditionally include those from food, sex, self-gratification, and other base instincts. By contrast, higher pleasures are those derived from music, art, and other intellectual accomplishments. According to Mill, higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures insofar as they are more highly valued even when limited in number. For Mill, Bentham erred by attempting to determine total happiness through assigning numerical values to pleasures and pains, with no regard for their qualitative differences. An early commentator wrote that Mill’s emphasis on higher pleasures established a “new utilitarianism” since higher pleasures are subjective, and thus can’t lend themselves to objective quantification. For Mill, then, we can’t technically have a utilitarian calculus in which we tally numbers that represent differing quantities of pleasures and pains.

            Although we can’t calculate general happiness in the way that Bentham describes, Mill nevertheless tried to offer some objective standard for ranking the comparative value of differing pleasures. Specifically, Mill presents a test for determining whether one pleasure is qualitatively superior to another. Take, for example, the pleasures that we may experience from visiting an art museum verses attending a monster truck rally. Assume first that an impartial judge is acquainted with both events. The pleasure from the museum visit will be qualitatively superior if (a) the judge prefers the museum visit over the truck rally, (b) the museum visit is accompanied by some pain (such as a two hour drive), and (c) the truck rally is quantitatively superior (such as a four night truck-a-rama). Mill believes that an impartial judge will prefer the higher pleasure to the lower because we all have a sense of dignity, at least initially. People sometimes choose the lower pleasure since it is easy to kill our more noble feelings, and we often don’t have the opportunity to keep our intellectual tastes alive:


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 refer 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. [Utilitarianism, 2]


In short, according to Mill, higher pleasures are (1) the main ingredients of general happiness, (2) grounded in our intellectual abilities, (3) qualitatively superior to lower pleasures, (4) spawned by our sense of dignity, and (5) vulnerable to neglect.

            These are the main points of Mill’s utilitarianism:


·        General happiness is the sole criterion of morality, and “happiness” is defined as pleasure.

·        Higher intellectual pleasures are more valuable than lower bodily pleasures.

·        We appeal to the greatest happiness principle only when evaluating rules of conduct, and not individual actions.

·        We cannot quantifiably calculate which rules produce the greatest pleasure, although we can objectively determine whether one pleasure is higher than another.




            Because Utilitarianism was written in a popular format, one early commentator noted that he expected Mill to follow up with a “longer and more elaborate” book on the subject. But Mill never did. Within a decade several studies appeared attacking virtually every aspect of Mill’s theory, and, by the turn of the century, Mill’s book became, as one commentator said, “more universally familiar than any other book in the whole literature of English Utilitarianism.” Criticisms of Mill’s work continue to this day, many of which attempt to refine his theory and bring it in line with our common moral intuitions. We will look at three classic criticisms of Mill’s theory.


            Bradley’s Criticism: Utilitarianism Conflicts with Ordinary Moral Judgments. One of the earlier arguments against Mill, launched by British philosopher F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), is that utilitarian moral judgments often conflict with our ordinary conceptions of moral obligation. For example, it is theoretically possible that cheating on one’s spouse maximizes general happiness, but we nevertheless believe that adultery is wrong:


Let us take the precept, Do not commit adultery. How are we to prove that no possible adultery can increase the overplus of pleasurable feeling? [Ethical Studies, 3]


According to Bradley, there are morally proper behaviors that “we should choose even if no pleasure came from them.”

            We can illustrate Bradley’s point further by considering cases in which we might exploit someone if doing so produces general happiness. For example, suppose that a town hero is brutally murdered, the police have no suspects, and the city is on the verge of rioting in protest. In response, the police trump up charges against some insignificant person, knowing full well that this person is innocent. The town is satisfied, and life returns to normal. To use another illustration, suppose that a society arbitrarily singles out a handful of people to become their slaves. The slaves surely suffer, but we might argue that the greater good of that society is served through the slaves’ services. However, we commonly feel that it is simply wrong to frame an innocent person or enslave someone, in spite of the general good that these actions might produce. On Bradley’s reasoning, then, utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory since it can be used to justify these kinds of exploitation in the name of general happiness.

            Defenders of utilitarianism have made great efforts to show how their system won’t exploit individuals. First, utilitarians argue that long-term consequences are a factor in the morality of any action. The possibility of exposing police conspiracies, or the emergence of slave rebellions are long-term negative consequences of the above two cases. In fact, the long-term negative consequences of slavery in the U.S. are still unfolding. Utilitarians are correct that attention to long-term consequences will show the disutility of exploiting individuals in some circumstances. However, the problem remains that, with careful planning and an eye to the future, we might successfully exploit individuals without the penalty of long-term negative consequences. For example, if the police are careful to contain their conspiracy, or slave owners successfully address the problem of slave uprisings, then, perhaps, their acts won’t have long-term negative consequences.

            A second line of defense against this problem is open to proponents of rule-utilitarianism such as Mill. According to rule-utilitarianism, we don’t calculate the consequences of each action, such as enslaving Jones in particular; instead, we calculate the consequences of each rule we adopt, such as “slavery ought to be permitted.” When we focus on these exploitive rules, it becomes clear that adopting them will produce more unhappiness than happiness. But critics have countered that, although this may block the adoption of many exploitive rules, some carefully worded exploitive rules may still produce more happiness than unhappiness. For example, it may serve general happiness to adopt the rule that “we may torture terrorist prisoners to extract terrorist plots from them.” But rule-utilitarians have a answer to even this problem. Let’s take this rule: “We may never exploit individuals, even for an alleged greater good.” Adopting this blanket policy would cover all exploitive situations, including both exploitive actions, and exploitive rules. Further, utiltarians would argue that adopting this blanket rule will promote more general happiness than would be the case if it wasn’t adopted. For, even if some instances of exploitation (either acts or rules) do serve general happiness, most exploitation will result in unhappiness. The tendency of exploitation in general, then, is toward unhappiness. So, a rule prohibiting all exploitation will be one that, on balance, serves general happiness.


            Grote’s Criticism: Utilitarianism only Perpetuates the Status Quo. Suppose that we wanted to determine whether capital punishment was morally proper. According to Mill, we find this out by looking at how much pleasure and pain results from allowing capital punishment. This involves an experiential inspection of the various consequences, and, in essence, this approach grounds morality in our factual observations. In his posthumously published book An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870), John Grote (1813-1866) criticizes this purely experiential approach to determining our moral obligations. For Grote, appeals to experience will only perpetuate the status quo, and won’t include an ideal moral goal towards which we should aim. In Grote’s words, Mill bases morality only on what is the case, rather than what ought to be the case. Morality should include guidelines for moral improvement, but we will never get such guidelines by appealing to only what is the case. Grote makes this point here:


Man has improved as he has, because certain portions of his race have had in them the spirit of self-improvement, or, as I have called it, the ideal element; have been unsatisfied with what to them at the time has been the positive, the matter of fact, the immediately utilitarian; have risen above the cares of the day… [An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy, 13]


According to Grote, to get ideal guidelines, we need an intuitive knowledge of morality, which is beyond mere experience.

            Mill has a solution to this problem. The notion of general happiness is very elastic insofar as it includes “many and various pleasures,” with “few and transitory pains.” In his Systematic Logic, Mill argues that the notion of pleasure is broad and includes all pleasing conscious states. Among these various pleasures, certainly there is room for the pleasure we derive from attempts at moral reform and social improvement. In fact, a key theme throughout Utilitarianism is that, over time, the status quo of general happiness will improve through education and science. This prospect is something that we can take pleasure in right now. Therefore, although the criterion of general happiness is based on experiential observation, general happiness is elastic enough to include the pleasure of establishing ideal moral goals.

            Unfortunately, elasticity in the notion of general happiness has negative implications as well as positive ones. To illustrate, Italian philosopher Caesar Beccaria (1738-1794) describes a situation in which a cruel government inflicts pain on its citizens to keep them in fear. However, over time, the government will be de-sensitized to the suffering it inflicts, and the citizens themselves will increase their toleration for the suffering they can endure. So, over time, the government must become more cruel and unjust to maintain the same level of fear that was previously achieved with less cruelty. If Beccaria is accurate in his description of our ability to adjust to cruelty, then Grote’s criticism re-emerges. For, our perception of happiness at any given moment -- either now or in the future -- may not be sufficient to either recognize or condemn excessively cruel conduct. An independent standard of ideal morality is required to assure that cruelty is correctly identified, and then condemned. From this perspective, the experiential basis of Mill’s utilitarianism appears inadequate.


            Albee’s Criticism: Higher Pleasures are Inconsistent with Hedonism. We saw that the most distinctive feature of Mill’s utilitarianism is his view that happiness consists of both higher and lower pleasures, and that higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures. It is also this aspect of Mill’s theory that has generated the most criticism. The problem is that Mill appears to offer two separate standards of general happiness: (1) pleasure, and (2) dignity. If we see pleasure as the sole criterion, then we must de-emphasize dignity. However, if we see dignity as the principal criterion, then we must de-emphasize pleasure. Critics of Mill, both past and present, see this as a big problem. American philosopher Ernest Albee (1865-1929) concisely states the central problem here:


The inconsistency, in truth, may be expressed in a word: If all good things are good in proportion as they bring pleasure to oneself or others, one cannot add to this statement that pleasure itself, the assumed criterion, is more or less desirable in terms of something else (e.g., human dignity) which is not pleasure. [A History of English Utilitarianism, 12]


We can also express this problem in terms of the distinction that Mill draws between quantitative and qualitative pleasures. If the superiority of higher pleasures is quantitative, then the higher/lower distinction is unnecessary and Mill contradicts himself; if the superiority of higher pleasures isn’t quantitative, then Mill’s hedonism is compromised.

            The problem here is genuine, and Mill simply can’t hold up both pleasure and dignity as the principal standard of happiness. We might try to rescue Mill from this problem and side with either one standard or the other. One option is to reject pleasure as the ultimate standard and judge actions based on the dignifying nature of conduct. This, though, is a rather clumsy standard since we don’t typically think of morality in terms of dignifying vs. undignifying behavior. Also, this standard will produce counterintuitive moral judgments. For example, any number of medical procedures are undignifying, such as pap smears or prostate exams. Or, think of the indignity of simply going to the bathroom – an activity that we share with the lowest of animals. However, in spite of their inherent indignity, these activities are certainly not immoral. And, compared to more dignifying activities, it doesn’t make sense to say, for example, that prostate exams are less moral than visiting an art museum.

            The other option is to set aside the notions of dignity and qualitative superiority, and simply see pleasure as the standard of happiness. This solution ultimately makes Mill more like Bentham, since the difference between pleasures would only be quantitative. This even allows for the possibility of a utilitarian calculus of differing quantities of pleasure. However, this option resurrects the problem that Mill hoped to avoid, namely, that utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine since swine also pursue pleasure. Ultimately, then, dignity and quantitative pleasure each seem to be inadequate standards of morality.




            Bentham and Mill’s hedonistic utilitarianism is a mixed bag. On the plus side, by focusing exclusively on the pleasure that results from a course of action, morality stands up to experiential and even scientific judgment. Hedonistic utilitarians argue that we can record experiences of pleasure, quantify degrees of pleasure, and use this as the basis of our moral judgments. Moral assessment, then, isn’t a matter of wishy-washy feelings or personal intuitions; instead hedonistic utilitarianism places the issue of morality squarely in the arena of public observation. Even today many philosophers and social scientists defend hedonistic utilitarianism because of its objectivity. Books in microeconomics routinely include chapters on techniques for numerically measuring utility. On the minus side, critics point out that pleasure isn’t the only thing in life that is morally significant. Religious and political martyrs are vivid illustrations of this. Many people throughout history felt morally compelled to defend their religious or political ideals knowing full well that they would be tortured and ultimately killed for their actions. Their lives would have been more pleasurable – or at least far less painful -- if they simply conformed to social expectations. It seems, then, that an important part of our moral assessments go beyond mere pleasure.

            Mill himself acknowledged that mere pleasure isn’t the only thing that counts and, as we’ve seen, he addressed this problem with the notion of higher pleasures. Perhaps Mill would say that martyrs experience higher pleasures that counterbalance their pains. To more successfully address this problem, some contemporary defenders of utilitarianism abandon pleasure altogether as the ultimate criterion, and propose a standard that is broad enough to include cases like religious and political martyrs. The two most popular alternatives are ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism.


            Ideal Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism. Ideal utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that brings about the greatest amount of goodness, regardless of what we specifically identify as good. Many things in life are intrinsically good, such as aesthetic beauty, integrity, friendship, fulfillment of desires, fairness, or freedom. However, we shouldn’t single out any one of these qualities as definitive, which is exactly what Bentham and Mill did by focusing on pleasure. According to British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958), it is actually impossible for us to pinpoint all of the qualities that constitute absolute goodness:


It is just possible that the Absolute Good may be entirely composed of qualities which we cannot even imagine. This is possible, because, though we certainly do know a great many things that are good-in-themselves, and good in a high degree, yet what is best does not necessarily contain all the good things there are. [Principia Ethica, 6:11]


Rather than focusing on a specific quality, such as pleasure, we should instead recognize that any consequence that counts as good needs to be entered into the utilitarian tally. Suppose that I live in a repressive country and am considering voicing my unpopular political opinions. I not only tally the pain I will experience from being tortured, which is clearly bad, but I also tally the assertion of my freedom and the integrity of my convictions, which are good things. How do we recognize the various things that count as good? Moore argues that we should start by pointing out the flaws in popular standards of goodness that leave out important goods. Moore concludes that the ideal standard that we arrive at will emphasize a mixture of aesthetic enjoyments, such as beauty, and admirable mental qualities such as sociability. Ultimately, we must rely on intuition to recognize the various goods.

            Preference utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that maximizes our preferences. Again, if I live in a repressive country and am considering expressing my unpopular political opinions, I would tally my preference of free expression in addition to the pain I would experience from being tortured. Preference utilitarianism is most associated with British philosopher R.M. Hare (b. 1919). There are three key aspects to Hare’s account. First, to say `that I “prefer” something simply means that I would choose that thing if the appropriate situation arose. For example, to say, “I prefer that Karla Faye Tucker should be executed,” means that I would choose for her execution if I had the chance. Second, my preferences include a combination of both immediate preferences and long-term preferences. Among other combinations, it includes (a) what I prefer right now to attain right now; (b) what I prefer right now to attain in the future, and (c) what I will prefer in the future to attain in the future. Third, my preferences are not merely restricted to myself, but also include preferences for other people. That is, some of my preferences must be impartial and universal, and I must imagine what my preferences would be if I was in someone else’s shoes. For example, I would not prefer that, if I were Tucker, I should be executed. But I would prefer that, if I were a relative of the victim, Tucker should be executed. According to Hare, I need to tally my own preferences for myself, and weigh them against what I’d prefer if I were other parties involved. If my preferences focused only on myself, then I would be an egoist, and not a utilitarian.

            Both ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism allow us to tally a broad range of possible consequences in our utilitarian calculus. Contrary to hedonism, they recognize that pleasure isn’t the only thing that counts. However, ideal and preference utilitarians pay a price for being so inclusive, namely, that they lose objectivity. As mentioned earlier, according to hedonistic utilitarians, pleasure can be experientially measured. However, ideal goodness and personal preferences cannot be experientially measured. These are founded in gut feelings and private intuitions, which don’t lend themselves to public inspection. Consequently, many utilitarians stick with the old hedonistic version in spite of its narrowness.


            Problems with the Bare Bones Utilitarian Formula. Utilitarians from Bentham and onward are united in the view that morality is a matter of weighing the positive vs. the negative consequences of a course of action. We described this earlier as a bare bones concept of morality, which doesn’t involve other considerations such as virtues, God’s will, natural law, or natural rights. Utilitarian writers present different claims about the purpose of the bare bones utilitarian formula. They sometimes see it as (1) a description of how we actually make moral decisions; or (2) a description of how we should make moral decisions; or  (3) a quick and easy test to use in making moral decisions. But no version of utilitarianism is successful in any of these claims. First, utilitarianism doesn’t accurately describe how we always make moral decisions, as we can see from the Tucker story. Although both sides of the dispute at some point offered utilitarian reasoning for their views, they also appealed to a variety of non-utilitarian reasons. Tucker herself believed that, as a matter of simple mercy, society should forgive criminals who reform. Her critics argued that she should be executed based on an “eye for an eye” notion of justice. Appeals to simple mercy or “eye for an eye” justice don’t involve utilitarian tallies of good or bad consequences. Also, utilitarianism involves a type of arithmetic by which we subtract the weight of the negative consequences from the weight of the positive consequences. Those calling for Tucker’s execution appear to have simply dismissed the positive consequences of her staying alive. That is, they did not subtract the positive consequences from the negative ones, as a true utilitarian would.

            Second, it isn’t clear that we should adopt the utilitarian formula when making all of our moral decisions. Immanuel Kant made this point specifically with regard to capital punishment. Although Kant himself defended the death penalty, he argued that if we execute a criminal because of its positive value on society, such as crime deterrence, then we are using the criminal as a tool for our own purposes. For Kant, it is always bad to use someone as a tool, even if the person in question is a criminal. Finally, in many if not most cases, the utilitarian formula is neither a quick nor an easy way of making moral decisions. It is difficult to see how many people might be affected by a given course of action. It is also difficult to know how to assign weight to the various good or bad consequences that emerge. Although hedonistic utilitarians brag that pleasure can be experientially quantified, the fact remains that scientists haven’t yet invented a pleasure meter. Assigning weight to pleasures and pains will still involve some level of subjective judgment.

            Perhaps the problem with utilitarianism is its bare bones claim that morality depends entirely on calculating consequences. Philosophers today are drawn to simple formulas and to simple explanations to complex philosophical puzzles. But moral decision-making appears to be one area that we can’t account for with a simple and unified formula. Our actual moral decision-making process depends on a patchwork of various theories and explanations that can’t be reduced to a single theme. At times we do rely on utilitarian reasoning and, to that extent, it is an important part of moral decision-making. Utilitarians just need to abdicate their claim to sole authority.


            Summary. Many philosophers from ancient times believed that pleasure is the standard by which we should judge moral conduct. Philosophers during the 18th century refined this notion and, with Bentham, we find the classic statement of hedonistic utilitarianism. According to Bentham, we determine whether an action is right by calculating all of the pleasure and pain that results from that action. We noted two problems with Bentham’s approach. First, the process of calculating consequences is too long and involved to be of practical value. Second, on Bentham’s view, even trivial actions that I perform have moral significance since I should be maximizing general happiness. Both of these problems rest on Bentham being an act-utilitarian, insofar as we must calculate the consequences of each of our actions. Mill offered a version of rule-utilitarianism, which holds that we only test the utility of moral rules, not each action. Mill also parted company with Bentham by emphasizing the difference between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. For Mill, higher pleasures are more important than lower ones and are also incapable of numerical computation.

            Bradley criticized that utilitarianism conflicts with common moral values; for example, on utilitarianism, I could justifiably exploit people if doing so maximized happiness. In response, utilitarians point out that such exploitation is not justifiable if we consider long-term negative consequences and if we adopt rules against exploitation. Grote criticized that utilitarianism locks us into the morality of the status quo, and doesn’t account for moral progress. In response, a utilitarian might argue that we can take pleasure now in the possible moral reforms of the future. Albee criticized that Mill inconsistently holds to two standards of moral value: pleasure and dignity. We’ve seen that this poses a genuine problem for Mill’s theory. Contemporary critics argue that hedonistic utilitarianism is misguided since pleasure isn’t the only thing of value in life. In response, ideal utilitarians such as Moore note recommend that we tally the total good vs. bad that results from a course of action. Preference utilitarians such as Hare recommend that we assess our total preferences regarding a course of action. We noted in conclusion that we should take into account utilitarian considerations, but this should not comprise our entire moral evaluation.



The interview with Karla Faye Tucker is from Larry King Live, January 31, 1998.

The quotation by Epicurus is from Letter to Menoeceus, tr. Norman Lillegard, in Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics, ed. James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth Publications, 2000).

The quotations by Francis Hutcheson, Inquiry Concerning Moral Good And Evil (1725), 3:8, in British Moralists, ed. D.D. Raphael (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1969).

The quotation by David Hume is from in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), 3:3:1, which is available in several modern editions.

Quotations by Jeremy Bentham are from Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring (London: 1838-1843).

The review of Bentham’s Principles in the Analytical Review is from Vol. 5, 1789, pp. 306-310; the review in the Critical Review is from Vol. 68, 1789, pp. 333-340.

The early comment about the popularity of Bentham’s theory is from Simon Laurie’s On the Philosophy of Ethics (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1866).

The early comment about Mill establishing a “new utilitarianism” is from Simon Laurie’s Notes Expository and Critical on Certain British Theories of Morals (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1868), p. 114.

Quotations by Mill are from Utilitarianism (London: Parker, Son and Bourn, 1863), which is available in several modern editions.

In An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (London: Bell, 1870), p. 9, John Grote writes that he expected Mill to follow up with a longer book.

Ernest Albee describes the universal familiarity of Mill’s book in A History of English Utilitarianism (New York: MacMillan, 1902), p. 249.

The quotations from F.H. Bradley are from Ethical Studies (London: Henry S. King, 1876), Essay 3, p. 81, 97.

The quotations by John Grote are from An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (London: Bell, 1870), p. 308.

Caesar Beccaria’s point about mental adjustment to cruelty appears in On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Ch. 27, which is available in several recent translations.

The quotation by Ernest Albee is from In A History of English Utilitarianism (New York: MacMillan, 1902), p. 252.

G.E. Moore’s version of utilitarianism appears in the closing chapter of Principia Ethica, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903). The term “ideal utilitarianism” was coined in reference to Moore’s theory by W.D. Ross in The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930)

R.M. Hare’s version of preference utilitarianism is in his book Moral Thinking, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Kant’s discussion of capital punishment is in The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, tr. John Ladd (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp. 99-107.


Suggestions for Further Reading

18th century writers that adopt utilitarian-type reasoning include Claude-Adrien Helvetius’s Essays on the Mind (1758), Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Joseph Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768), William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), and William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).

For recent commentaries on Mill’s moral theory, see Fred Berger, Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Wesley E. Cooper, New Essays on John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism (Guelph, Ont.: Canadian Association for Publishing in Philosophy, 1979); Samuel Gorovitz, Utilitarianism with Critical Essays (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merril, 1971); J.B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

For contemporary discussions of utilitarianism, see Michael D. Bayles, ed. Contemporary Utilitarianism, (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968); Richard B. Brandt, Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Samuel Scheffler, Consequentialism and its Critics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).







            For decades science fiction writers and futurists have forecasted bizarre possibilities of genetic engineering. We might stockpile human clones for spare body parts. With some genetic cutting and pasting, we might create human drones for menial labor and more brainy people for leadership positions. We might also select from a menu of genetic options and design superhumans who are stronger, healthier, smarter, and who live longer. Although these science fiction scenarios grab our attention, until recently their scientific reality seemed too remote to take seriously. In 1997, though, Scottish scientists at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute announced that they successfully cloned a sheep from the cell of another sheep’s utter. The new sheep, named Dolly, was the first cloned mammal in scientific history, and the announcement of Dolly brought science fiction much closer to reality. This event sparked an array of heated ethical discussions and, in a knee-jerk reaction, scientists and politicians around the world declared that cloning humans was immoral and should be banned. Some explained that the procedure was too risky at current stages of research. Perhaps at best only 1 in 10 attempted human clones would be viable, and the remaining 9 couldn’t simply be treated as human waste. Others argued that, even if the odds of viability were substantially improved, it would still be inherently immoral to clone humans in view of the potential abuses of this technology, such as creating specialized races. While these critics voiced their cautionary views, scientists continued to announce the creation of even more cloned and genetically altered animals.

            It was only a matter of time before other scientists and politicians put a different spin on the ethics of human cloning. Scientists in Britain held public debates on the issue, and one scientist commented that “I think what we probably want is to stop the wild and irresponsible notion of cloning whole human beings …. But we would like the scientific analogues, the procedures that might in five years’ time lead to curing of diseases, to continue.” More dramatically, a Chicago physicist publicly announced that, in spite of current opposition, he would begin work on cloning a human: “I’ve said many times that you can’t stop science … God made man in his own image. God intended for man to become one with God. ... Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God.” In a controversial book, Princeton University biologist Lee M. Silver argued that ethical debates on bioengineering are all but irrelevant. Regardless of the cautious positions taken by some legislators and scientists, research into these areas will continue at full speed. In our human drive for better health, longer life and even perfection, we won’t be hampered by ethical questions.

            The genetic engineering debate today attempts to determine the morality of intentionally altering and improving human DNA. In the second half of the 19th century, philosophers asked a related ethical question about the evolutionary development of humans. Although 19th century philosophers couldn’t foresee the possibility of altering human DNA through gene splicing techniques, they understood the evolutionary forces at work that might more naturally alter our human nature. Evolutionary theorists noted three such mechanisms. First, human biology is the product of millions of years of natural evolutionary development, and we have every reason to believe that human biological evolution will continue. Second, through selective breeding techniques, we may speed up the natural evolutionary process of human development. Third, evolutionary development doesn’t end with biology, but also extends to social and ethical behavior: value systems themselves are shaped by human survival.

            From an ethical perspective, the first of these evolutionary mechanisms isn’t particularly noteworthy since hundreds of thousands of years might pass before evolution by itself could produce noticeable changes in human physiology. The second of these mechanisms -- selective breeding -- can no longer be viewed as a serious option in view of the effects of forced sterilization policies in the U.S., as well as Nazi efforts at creating a master race in World War II Germany. At their best, selective breeding practices might violate reproductive rights of individuals, and, at their worst, they may too easily lead to genocide. The more mainstream evolutionary ethicists of the 19th century focused on the third of these evolutionary mechanisms, namely, that human social behavior is an extended development of biological evolution. In this context, the phrase “evolutionary ethics” refers to the view that moral behavior is that which tends to aid in human survival.




            Theories of evolutionary ethics hinge directly on more general accounts of biological evolution. Biologists of the 18th and early 19th century offered a variety of explanations for how animals evolve over time. However, in his landmark book, The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) championed the explanation of evolution that we’ve come to accept.


            Darwin and the Evolution of Moral Faculties. Darwin’s account of evolution, which he calls “natural selection,” has three main elements. First, Darwin argues that living beings undergo random mutations that are passed on to offspring. Second, most creatures are doomed to early death either because there isn’t enough food to go around or because other animals eat them. Third, animals that have the most beneficial mutations will survive and pass that attribute on to their offspring. For example, suppose that two animals were born of the same parents, but one of the newborns had longer legs because of a random mutation. The longer legs enable this animal to run faster than its sibling, and, so, it is faster at catching food and also at escaping from predators. The normal sibling, then, dies while the mutated animal survives, reproduces, and passes the attribute of long legs on to its children. Eventually all of the short-legged members of the species die out in the struggle for survival, and the long-legged members live on. In this manner, attributes of a species change slowly over time, and eventually a new species emerges. For Darwin, species are mutable and each group of organisms represents only the present status of its species. The apparent development of species over time, from less complex to more complex, is completely unguided and shouldn’t be attributed to a built-in natural purpose of things.

            Darwin’s Origin of the Species focuses only on the evolutionary development of nonhuman animals. Privately, though, Darwin believed that humans were just one more type of animal and thereby subject to the same evolutionary mechanisms as other animals. In his Descent of Man (1871), published 12 years after the Origin, Darwin openly takes on the issue of human evolution and devotes almost 30 pages of this work to the evolutionary development of morality. His explanation has two parts, one psycho-physiological, and the other social. From the psycho-physiological perspective, our moral faculties develop directly from our social instincts, such as the inclination to care for children and live in groups. Darwin argues that any animal that developed social instincts “would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience” as soon as that animal reached a high level of intelligence. In point of fact, though, only humans have attained that level. The social instincts of ordinary animals enable them to sympathize with members of their social units and to respond to praise and blame, such as the ability we find in dogs. Humans, however, move beyond this and are, in Darwin’s words, moral beings. For Darwin, “a moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.” In this regard, humans developed a moral sense and also a conscience, both of which aid in our survival, just as social instincts aid in the survival of some animals. The job of the moral sense is to tell us what we ought to do, and the job of the conscience is to give us the appropriate motivation to do the right thing.

            The second part of Darwin’s evolutionary explanation of morality is social. As we move from a primitive to a moderate state of civilization, we adopt moral principles and attitudes that assist in the survival of our small social unit. We put aside individual interests for the good of the group and advocate patriotism, loyalty, obedience, and self-sacrifice:


A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase. [Descent of Man, 5]


As societies become larger and more advanced, we can trace the consequences of our actions to wider groups of people and our sympathies become more diffused to all races. Ironically, once we reach an advanced level of a civilization, many moral rules we adopt are less related to the preservation of our social group. For example, we care for physically weak and mentally impaired people, which, according to Darwin, is “highly injurious to the race of man.” We do this mainly as a byproduct of our enlarged moral sympathies. We also harm the human race when we send our strongest young men to fight in wars, thereby leaving procreation to weaker men who stay at home. Darwin also notes that the practice of inheriting wealth from our parents is damaging since it makes us “useless drones.” However, always looking to our survival, we create other moral rules that restrict the damage done by these practices.

            Although Darwin’s account of evolutionary ethics is suggestive, it doesn’t systematically explore the subject of ethics. Darwin’s defenders took on this task, most notably British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).


            Spencer’s Evolutionary Ethics. In his book The Data of Ethics (1879) Spencer offered what is probably the most detailed 19th century account of evolutionary ethics. Like Darwin, Spencer distinguishes between a biological and sociological component of evolution. In fact Spencer sees three interrelated areas of evolution in animals: (1) the animal’s species, (2) the animal’s bodily functions, and (3) the animal’s conduct:


... three [evolutionary] subjects are to be definitely distinguished... the subject of conduct lies outside the subject of functions [movement of limbs, bodily actions], if not as far as this lies outside the subject of structures [types of animals, organisms] still far enough to make it substantially different. [The Date of Ethics, 2:3]


Ethics involves the third of these three aspects of evolution, namely, the development of the animal’s conduct. Spencer argues that more biologically complex organisms have more complex conduct. Insects, for example, have a very low level of biological complexity and thus have comparatively less complex conduct. Humans, on the other hand, have the most biological complexity, and thus have the most complex conduct, and ethics is the final stage in the development of that conduct. Spencer explains this point here:


… Ethics has for its subject-matter, that form which universal conduct assumes during the last stages of its evolution. We have also concluded that these last stages in the evolution of conduct are these displayed by the highest type of being, when he is forced, by increase of numbers, to live more and more in presence of his fellows. And there has followed the corollary that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as the activities, becoming less and less militant and more and more industrial, are such as do not necessitate mutual injury or hindrance, but consist with, and are furthered by, co-operation and mutual aid. [The Date of Ethics, 2:7]


During this final stage of behavioral development, our conduct is more complex principally because it involves such a high degree of mutual cooperation. Think of the mutual cooperation involved in making a city run efficiently. Utility companies, factories, truckers, retail stores, and consumers all must carefully cooperate with each other. When enough people fail to cooperate, such as in work strikes or criminal activities, then society breaks down.

            So, if we ask Spencer where morality comes from in the larger scheme of things, his answer is that ethics is the highest evolutionary development of human conduct, namely, mutual cooperation. Suppose that we press Spencer further and ask him what is so morally significant about mutual cooperation. His answer is that mutual cooperation brings about the greatest amount of universal pleasure. Ultimately, then, highly evolved conduct is good because it facilitates universal pleasure. Drawing on both Bentham and Mill, Spencer proposes a version of hedonistic utilitarianism: ethical conduct is that which maximizes both our selfish and unselfless motivations. There are several steps to Spencer’s theory of hedonism. First, Spencer argues that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain motivate all of our actions, and, consequently, moral good must be associated with pleasures. Second, we have both self-regarding and other-regarding impulses, each of which gives us pleasure when fulfilled. Third, the playoff between our selfish and selfless impulses in larger social groups results in a compromise. My other-regarding inclinations prompt me to give up my selfish interests. However, because you also have other-regarding inclinations, you won’t let me completely abandon my selfish interests. As a result, proper conduct is that which produces the greatest satisfaction, as regards both others and myself.

            Fourth, and finally, to apply this compromise in practice, we devise principles of equity. At our present and early stage of morality, we advocate the principle that “each [person] claims no more than his equitable share.” In time, however, we will evolve beyond this. We will be more other-regarding, and our principle of equity will be that “each [person] restrains himself from taking an undue share of altruistic satisfactions.” Ultimately, Spencer believes, we will evolve beyond even this and we will adopt the principle that “each [person] takes care that others shall have their opportunities for altruistic satisfaction.” Right now these altruistic tendencies within us are “occasional and feeble.” With further evolution, though, they will become habitual and strong.

            Here are the main points of Spencer’s theory:


·        Ethical conduct is the most evolutionarily advanced conduct, emerging only in the most developed life form, and in the most advanced human societies.

·        The most advanced human conduct involves mutual cooperation, which in turn promotes universal pleasure.

·        In our present evolutionary condition, the promotion of universal pleasure involves a compromise between self-regarding and other-regarding inclinations.

·        As we evolve, ethical standards will become more altruistic.




            In 1903, British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) published a work titled Principia Ethica, which in many ways set a new direction for ethical theory in the 20th century. Moore analyzed the most influential ethical theories of his time – including those of Kant, Mill, and Spencer – and noted a fundamental mistake that they all make. In each case, they fail because they wrongly equate moral goodness with some natural or metaphysical property. Spencer, for example, identifies moral goodness with advanced evolutionary development. According to Moore, these philosophers commit what he calls the naturalistic fallacy.


            The Naturalistic Fallacy. Moore’s explanation of the naturalistic fallacy appears in the opening chapter of Principia. His discussion rests on a distinction between simple properties and complex properties. Compare these two statements: (1) “the new banana is yellow,” and (2) “the old banana is speckled.” The attributed “speckled” is a complex property since it involves splotches of several colors. By contrast, the attribute “yellow” is a simple property since it can’t be broken down into any constituent part. According to Moore, although we can define complex properties such as “speckled” in terms of their constituent parts, we can’t define simple properties such as “yellow”. Moore argues that the term “good”, like the term “yellow”, is a simple property, and thus can’t be reduced to any constituent parts. Therefore, we can’t define “good” as “pleasure,” “highly evolved conduct” or any other property. If we try to define “good” by identifying it with another property, then we commit the naturalistic fallacy. To illustrate the naturalistic fallacy, assume that commendable actions such as charity have these attributes: (1) they constitute the most highly evolved conduct, (2) they promote universal pleasure, and (3) they are morally good. We would commit the naturalistic fallacy if we identified the third attribute with either of the first two attributes. This would happen, for example, if we claimed that “moral goodness” and “the promotion of universal pleasure” were the same attributes.

            The name “naturalistic fallacy” implies that it is a fallacy to define “good” in terms of properties that we find in nature, such as pleasure or evolved conduct. Moore writes that if someone “confused ‘good’... with any natural object whatever, then there is reason for calling that the naturalistic fallacy. However, there is more to the naturalistic fallacy than simply identifying “good” with a natural object. In Chapter Four of Principia, Moore argues further that it is improper to define “good” in reference to any non-natural or metaphysical quality as well as natural quality. For instance, it is also a fallacy to define goodness as doing the will of God, which is a nonnatural quality. Scholars now suggest that Moore is actually describing a definist fallacy, which has as subsets the naturalistic fallacy and the metaphysical fallacy. Moore defends his notion of the naturalistic fallacy with what has been called the open question argument. For any property that we attempt to identify with “goodness,” we can ask, “Is that property itself good?” For example, if I claim that universal pleasure is goodness, the question can be asked, “But, is universal pleasure itself good?” The fact that this question makes sense shows that “universal pleasure” and “goodness” are not identical. Moore believes that no proposed natural or metaphysical property can pass the test of the open question argument.

            Even though it is a fallacy to define moral goodness, it isn’t a fallacy to claim that qualities such as universal pleasure always accompany goodness. For example, it is no fallacy to say that every time I find an action that is “morally good,” I also see that the action produces “universal pleasure.” I am simply correlating the presence of two qualities, and not identifying them. Moore writes that “it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good.” Moore himself believes that we can intuitively recognize a group of such accompanying qualities. He argues that they include aesthetic enjoyments, such as beauty, and admirable mental qualities such as sociability.

            Here are the main points of Moore’s notion of the naturalistic fallacy:


·        Moral goodness is a simple, indefinable concept.

·        Moral goodness cannot be identified with any natural property (e.g., pleasure).

·        Moral goodness cannot be identified with any metaphysical property (e.g., God’s will).

·        We can note properties that always accompany moral goodness, although we don’t actually identify these as moral goodness.


            Identifying “Goodness” with “More Evolved”. Moore believes that Spencer’s evolutionary ethics commits the naturalistic fallacy in several respects. In each case, Spencer supposedly identifies moral goodness with some aspect of the evolutionary process. First, in the following passage, Moore accuses Spencer of committing the naturalistic fallacy for identifying “being more evolved” with “gaining ethical sanction”:


All that the evolution-hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others; and this is, in fact, all that Mr. Spencer has attempted to prove in the two chapters concerned. Yet he tells us that one of the things he has proved is that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as it displays certain characteristics. What he has tried to prove is only that in proportion as it displays those characteristics, it is more evolved, it is plain, then, that Mr. Spencer identifies the gaining of ethical sanction with the being more evolved. [Principia Ethica, 2:31]


The above phrase, “gains ethical sanction,” means that some conduct is ethically commendable. In this sense, Moore complains that Spencer identifies more evolved (a natural property) with ethically commendable (goodness), and thereby commits the naturalistic fallacy. In response, Moore is attacking a straw man since Spencer has in mind a weaker claim than the identification of ethically commendable with more evolved. Look at these two statements:


(1) ethical commendability is identical with more evolved conduct

(2) ethical commendability is always accompanied by more evolved conduct


The first statement above clearly commits the naturalistic fallacy, but the second statement doesn’t. As we’ve seen, we commit the naturalistic fallacy when we identify some property with goodness, not merely when we note that a property always a