History Of Ethics Essay

What use is ethics?

Ethics needs to provide answers. Photo: Geoffrey Holman ©

If ethical theories are to be useful in practice, they need to affect the way human beings behave.

Some philosophers think that ethics does do this. They argue that if a person realises that it would be morally good to do something then it would be irrational for that person not to do it.

But human beings often behave irrationally - they follow their 'gut instinct' even when their head suggests a different course of action.

However, ethics does provide good tools for thinking about moral issues.

Ethics can provide a moral map

Most moral issues get us pretty worked up - think of abortion and euthanasia for starters. Because these are such emotional issues we often let our hearts do the arguing while our brains just go with the flow.

But there's another way of tackling these issues, and that's where philosophers can come in - they offer us ethical rules and principles that enable us to take a cooler view of moral problems.

So ethics provides us with a moral map, a framework that we can use to find our way through difficult issues.

Ethics can pinpoint a disagreement

Using the framework of ethics, two people who are arguing a moral issue can often find that what they disagree about is just one particular part of the issue, and that they broadly agree on everything else.

That can take a lot of heat out of the argument, and sometimes even hint at a way for them to resolve their problem.

But sometimes ethics doesn't provide people with the sort of help that they really want.

Ethics doesn't give right answers

Ethics doesn't always show the right answer to moral problems.

Indeed more and more people think that for many ethical issues there isn't a single right answer - just a set of principles that can be applied to particular cases to give those involved some clear choices.

Some philosophers go further and say that all ethics can do is eliminate confusion and clarify the issues. After that it's up to each individual to come to their own conclusions.

Ethics can give several answers

Many people want there to be a single right answer to ethical questions. They find moral ambiguity hard to live with because they genuinely want to do the 'right' thing, and even if they can't work out what that right thing is, they like the idea that 'somewhere' there is one right answer.

But often there isn't one right answer - there may be several right answers, or just some least worst answers - and the individual must choose between them.

For others moral ambiguity is difficult because it forces them to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, rather than falling back on convenient rules and customs.


Ethics and people

Ethics is about the 'other'

Ethics is concerned with other people ©

At the heart of ethics is a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest.

Ethics is concerned with other people's interests, with the interests of society, with God's interests, with "ultimate goods", and so on.

So when a person 'thinks ethically' they are giving at least some thought to something beyond themselves.

Ethics as source of group strength

One problem with ethics is the way it's often used as a weapon.

If a group believes that a particular activity is "wrong" it can then use morality as the justification for attacking those who practice that activity.

When people do this, they often see those who they regard as immoral as in some way less human or deserving of respect than themselves; sometimes with tragic consequences.

Good people as well as good actions

Ethics is not only about the morality of particular courses of action, but it's also about the goodness of individuals and what it means to live a good life.

Virtue Ethics is particularly concerned with the moral character of human beings.

Searching for the source of right and wrong

At times in the past some people thought that ethical problems could be solved in one of two ways:

  • by discovering what God wanted people to do
  • by thinking rigorously about moral principles and problems

If a person did this properly they would be led to the right conclusion.

But now even philosophers are less sure that it's possible to devise a satisfactory and complete theory of ethics - at least not one that leads to conclusions.

Modern thinkers often teach that ethics leads people not to conclusions but to 'decisions'.

In this view, the role of ethics is limited to clarifying 'what's at stake' in particular ethical problems.

Philosophy can help identify the range of ethical methods, conversations and value systems that can be applied to a particular problem. But after these things have been made clear, each person must make their own individual decision as to what to do, and then react appropriately to the consequences.


Four ethical 'isms'

When a person says "murder is bad" what are they doing?

That's the sort of question that only a philosopher would ask, but it's actually a very useful way of getting a clear idea of what's going on when people talk about moral issues.

The different 'isms' regard the person uttering the statement as doing different things.

We can show some of the different things I might be doing when I say 'murder is bad' by rewriting that statement to show what I really mean:

  • I might be making a statement about an ethical fact
    • "It is wrong to murder"
    • This is moral realism
  • I might be making a statement about my own feelings
    • "I disapprove of murder"
    • This is subjectivism
  • I might be expressing my feelings
    • "Down with murder"
    • This is emotivism
  • I might be giving an instruction or a prohibition
    • "Don't murder people"
    • This is prescriptivism

Moral realism

Moral realism is based on the idea that there are real objective moral facts or truths in the universe. Moral statements provide factual information about those truths.


Subjectivism teaches that moral judgments are nothing more than statements of a person's feelings or attitudes, and that ethical statements do not contain factual truths about goodness or badness.

In more detail: subjectivists say that moral statements are statements about the feelings, attitudes and emotions that that particular person or group has about a particular issue.

If a person says something is good or bad they are telling us about the positive or negative feelings that they have about that something.

So if someone says 'murder is wrong' they are telling us that they disapprove of murder.

These statements are true if the person does hold the appropriate attitude or have the appropriate feelings. They are false if the person doesn't.


Emotivism is the view that moral claims are no more than expressions of approval or disapproval.

This sounds like subjectivism, but in emotivism a moral statement doesn't provide information about the speaker's feelings about the topic but expresses those feelings.

When an emotivist says "murder is wrong" it's like saying "down with murder" or "murder, yecch!" or just saying "murder" while pulling a horrified face, or making a thumbs-down gesture at the same time as saying "murder is wrong".

So when someone makes a moral judgement they show their feelings about something. Some theorists also suggest that in expressing a feeling the person gives an instruction to others about how to act towards the subject matter.


Prescriptivists think that ethical statements are instructions or recommendations.

So if I say something is good, I'm recommending you to do it, and if I say something is bad, I'm telling you not to do it.

There is almost always a prescriptive element in any real-world ethical statement: any ethical statement can be reworked (with a bit of effort) into a statement with an 'ought' in it. For example: "lying is wrong" can be rewritten as "people ought not to tell lies".


Where does ethics come from?

Philosophers have several answers to this question:

  • God and religion
  • Human conscience and intuition
  • a rational moral cost-benefit analysis of actions and their effects
  • the example of good human beings
  • a desire for the best for people in each unique situation
  • political power

God-based ethics - supernaturalism

Supernaturalism makes ethics inseparable from religion. It teaches that the only source of moral rules is God.

So, something is good because God says it is, and the way to lead a good life is to do what God wants.


Intuitionists think that good and bad are real objective properties that can't be broken down into component parts. Something is good because it's good; its goodness doesn't need justifying or proving.

Intuitionists think that goodness or badness can be detected by adults - they say that human beings have an intuitive moral sense that enables them to detect real moral truths.

They think that basic moral truths of what is good and bad are self-evident to a person who directs their mind towards moral issues.

So good things are the things that a sensible person realises are good if they spend some time pondering the subject.

Don't get confused. For the intuitionist:

  • moral truths are not discovered by rational argument
  • moral truths are not discovered by having a hunch
  • moral truths are not discovered by having a feeling

It's more a sort of moral 'aha' moment - a realisation of the truth.


This is the ethical theory that most non-religious people think they use every day. It bases morality on the consequences of human actions and not on the actions themselves.

Consequentialism teaches that people should do whatever produces the greatest amount of good consequences.

One famous way of putting this is 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people'.

The most common forms of consequentialism are the various versions of utilitarianism, which favour actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness.

Despite its obvious common-sense appeal, consequentialism turns out to be a complicated theory, and doesn't provide a complete solution to all ethical problems.

Two problems with consequentialism are:

  • it can lead to the conclusion that some quite dreadful acts are good
  • predicting and evaluating the consequences of actions is often very difficult

Non-consequentialism or deontological ethics

Non-consequentialism is concerned with the actions themselves and not with the consequences. It's the theory that people are using when they refer to "the principle of the thing".

It teaches that some acts are right or wrong in themselves, whatever the consequences, and people should act accordingly.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics looks at virtue or moral character, rather than at ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of actions - indeed some philosophers of this school deny that there can be such things as universal ethical rules.

Virtue ethics is particularly concerned with the way individuals live their lives, and less concerned in assessing particular actions.

It develops the idea of good actions by looking at the way virtuous people express their inner goodness in the things that they do.

To put it very simply, virtue ethics teaches that an action is right if and only if it is an action that a virtuous person would do in the same circumstances, and that a virtuous person is someone who has a particularly good character.

Situation ethics

Situation ethics rejects prescriptive rules and argues that individual ethical decisions should be made according to the unique situation.

Rather than following rules the decision maker should follow a desire to seek the best for the people involved. There are no moral rules or rights - each case is unique and deserves a unique solution.

Ethics and ideology

Some philosophers teach that ethics is the codification of political ideology, and that the function of ethics is to state, enforce and preserve particular political beliefs.

They usually go on to say that ethics is used by the dominant political elite as a tool to control everyone else.

More cynical writers suggest that power elites enforce an ethical code on other people that helps them control those people, but do not apply this code to their own behaviour.


Are there universal moral rules?

One of the big questions in moral philosophy is whether or not there are unchanging moral rules that apply in all cultures and at all times.

Moral absolutism

Some people think there are such universal rules that apply to everyone. This sort of thinking is called moral absolutism.

Moral absolutism argues that there are some moral rules that are always true, that these rules can be discovered and that these rules apply to everyone.

Immoral acts - acts that break these moral rules - are wrong in themselves, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences of those acts.

Absolutism takes a universal view of humanity - there is one set of rules for everyone - which enables the drafting of universal rules - such as the Declaration of Human Rights.

Religious views of ethics tend to be absolutist.

Why people disagree with moral absolutism:

  • Many of us feel that the consequences of an act or the circumstances surrounding it are relevant to whether that act is good or bad
  • Absolutism doesn't fit with respect for diversity and tradition
Different cultures have had different attitudes to issues like war ©

Moral relativism

Moral relativists say that if you look at different cultures or different periods in history you'll find that they have different moral rules.

Therefore it makes sense to say that "good" refers to the things that a particular group of people approve of.

Moral relativists think that that's just fine, and dispute the idea that there are some objective and discoverable 'super-rules' that all cultures ought to obey. They believe that relativism respects the diversity of human societies and responds to the different circumstances surrounding human acts.

Why people disagree with moral relativism:

  • Many of us feel that moral rules have more to them than the general agreement of a group of people - that morality is more than a super-charged form of etiquette
  • Many of us think we can be good without conforming to all the rules of society
  • Moral relativism has a problem with arguing against the majority view: if most people in a society agree with particular rules, that's the end of the matter. Many of the improvements in the world have come about because people opposed the prevailing ethical view - moral relativists are forced to regard such people as behaving "badly"
  • Any choice of social grouping as the foundation of ethics is bound to be arbitrary
  • Moral relativism doesn't provide any way to deal with moral differences between societies

Moral somewhere-in-between-ism

Most non-philosophers think that both of the above theories have some good points and think that

  • there are a few absolute ethical rules
  • but a lot of ethical rules depend on the culture


The ancient Middle East and Asia

The first ethical precepts must have been passed down by word of mouth from parents and elders, but as societies learned to use the written word, they began to set down their ethical beliefs. These records constitute the first historical evidence of the origins of ethics.

The Middle East

The earliest surviving writings that might be taken as ethics textbooks are a series of lists of precepts to be learned by boys of the ruling class of Egypt, prepared some 3,000 years before the Christian Era. In most cases, they consist of shrewd advice on how to live happily, avoid unnecessary troubles, and advance one’s career by cultivating the favour of superiors. There are, however, several passages that recommend more broadly based ideals of conduct, such as the following: rulers should treat their people justly and judge impartially between their subjects; they should aim to make their people prosperous; those who have bread should share it with the hungry; humble and lowly people must be treated with kindness; one should not laugh at the blind or at dwarfs.

Why, then, should one follow these precepts? Did the ancient Egyptians believe that one should do what is good for its own sake? The precepts frequently state that it will profit a man to act justly, as in the maxim “Honesty is the best policy.” They also emphasize the importance of having a good name. These precepts were intended for the instruction of the ruling classes, however, and it is not clear why helping the destitute should have contributed to an individual’s good reputation among this class. To some degree, therefore, the authors of the precepts must have thought that to make people prosperous and happy and to be kind to those who have least is not merely personally advantageous but good in itself.

The precepts are not works of ethics in the philosophical sense. No attempt is made to find any underlying principles of conduct that might provide a more systematic understanding of ethics. Justice, for example, is given a prominent place, but there is no elaboration of the notion of justice or any discussion of how disagreements about what is just and unjust might be resolved. Furthermore, there is no probing of ethical dilemmas that may occur if the precepts should conflict with one another. The precepts are full of sound observations and practical wisdom, but they do not encourage theoretical speculation.

The same practical bent can be found in other early codes or lists of ethical injunctions. The great Code of Hammurabi is often said to have been based on the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” as if this were some fundamental principle of justice, elaborated and applied to all cases. In fact, the code reflects no such consistent principle. It frequently prescribes the death penalty for offenses that do not themselves cause death—e.g., for robbery and for accepting bribes. Moreover, even the eye-for-an-eye rule applies only if the eye of the original victim is that of a member of the patrician class; if it is the eye of a commoner, the punishment is a fine of a quantity of silver. Apparently such differences in punishment were not thought to require justification. At any rate, there are no surviving attempts to defend the principles of justice on which the code was based.

The Hebrew people were at different times captives of both the Egyptians and the Babylonians. It is therefore not surprising that the law of ancient Israel, which was put into its definitive form during the Babylonian Exile, shows the influence both of the ancient Egyptian precepts and of the Code of Hammurabi. The book of Exodus refers, for example, to the principle of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Hebraic law does not differentiate, as the Babylonian law does, between patricians and commoners, but it does stipulate that in several respects foreigners may be treated in ways that it is not permissible to treat fellow Hebrews; for instance, Hebrew slaves, but not others, had to be freed without ransom in the seventh year. Yet, in other respects Hebraic law and morality developed the humane concern shown in the Egyptian precepts for the poor and unfortunate: hired servants must be paid promptly, because they rely on their wages to satisfy their pressing needs; slaves must be allowed to rest on the seventh day; widows, orphans, and the blind and deaf must not be wronged; and the poor man should not be refused a loan. There was even a tithe providing for an incipientwelfare state. The spirit of this humane concern was summed up by the injunction to “love thy neighbour as thyself,” a sweepingly generous form of the rule of reciprocity.

The famed Ten Commandments are thought to be a legacy of Semitic tribal law from a time when important commands were taught one for each finger, so that they could be remembered more easily (sets of five or 10 laws are common among preliterate civilizations). The content of the Hebrew commandments differed from other laws of the region mainly in its emphasis on duties to God. This emphasis persisted in the more detailed laws laid down elsewhere; as much as half of such legislation was concerned with crimes against God and ceremonial and ritualistic matters, though there may be other explanations for some of these ostensibly religious requirements concerning the avoidance of certain foods and the need for ceremonial cleansings.

In addition to lengthy statements of the law, the surviving literature of ancient Israel includes both proverbs and the books of the prophets. The proverbs, like the precepts of the Egyptians, are brief statements that do not demonstrate much concern for systematic presentation or overall coherence. They go farther than the Egyptian precepts, however, in urging conduct that is just and upright and pleasing to God. There are correspondingly fewer references to what is needed for a successful career, though it is frequently stated that God rewards the just. In this connection, the Book of Job is notable as an exploration of the problem raised for those who accept this motive for obeying the moral law: why do the best of people frequently suffer the worst misfortunes? The book offers no solution beyond faith in God, but the sharpened awareness of the problem it offers may have influenced some to adopt the belief in reward and punishment in another realm as the only possible solution.

The literature of the prophets contains a good deal of social and moral criticism, though most of it consists of denunciation rather than discussion about what goodness really is or why there should be so much wrongdoing. The Book of Isaiah is especially notable for its early portrayal of a utopia in which “the desert shall blossom as the rose…the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”


Unlike the ethical teachings of ancient Egypt and Babylonia, Indian ethics was philosophical from the start. In the oldest of the Indian writings, the Vedas, ethics is an integral aspect of philosophical and religious speculation about the nature of reality. These writings date from about 1500 to 1200 bce. They have been described as the oldest philosophical literature in the world, and what they say about how people ought to live may therefore be the first philosophical ethics. (SeeIndian philosophy.)

The Vedas are, in a sense, hymns, but the gods to which they refer are not persons but manifestations of ultimate truth and reality. In the Vedic philosophy, the basic principle of the universe, the ultimate reality on which the cosmos exists, is the principle of rita, which is the word from which the Western notion of right is derived. There is thus a belief in a right moral order somehow built into the universe itself. Hence, truth and right are linked; to penetrate through illusion and understand the ultimate truth of human existence is to understand what is right. To be an enlightened person is to know what is real and to live rightly, for these are not two separate things but one and the same.

The ethics that is thus traced to the very essence of the universe is not without detailed practical applications. These applications were based on four ideals, or proper goals, of life: prosperity, the satisfaction of desires, moral duty, and spiritual perfection—i.e., liberation from a finite existence. From these ends follow certain virtues: honesty, rectitude, charity, nonviolence, modesty, and purity of heart. To be condemned, on the other hand, are falsehood, egoism, cruelty, adultery, theft, and injury to living things. Because the eternal moral law is part of the universe, to do what is praiseworthy is to act in harmony with the universe, and accordingly such action will receive its proper reward; conversely, once the true nature of the self is understood, it becomes apparent that those who do what is wrong are acting self-destructively.

These basic principles underwent considerable modification over the ensuing centuries, especially in the Upanishads, a body of philosophical literature dating from about the middle of the 1st millennium bce. The Indian caste system, with its intricate laws about what members of each caste may or may not do, is accepted by the Upanishads as part of the proper order of the universe. Ethics itself, however, is not regarded as a matter of conformity to laws. Instead, the desire to be ethical is an inner desire. It is part of the quest for spiritual perfection, which in turn is elevated to the highest of the four goals of life.

During the following centuries the moral philosophy of this early period gradually became a rigid and dogmatic system that provoked several reactions. One, which is uncharacteristic of Indian thought in general, was the Charvaka, or materialist school, which mocked religious ceremonies, saying that they were invented by the Brahmans (the priestly caste) to ensure their livelihood. When the Brahmans defended animal sacrifices by claiming that the sacrificed beast goes straight to heaven, the members of the Charvaka asked why the Brahmans did not kill their aged parents to hasten their arrival there. Against the postulation of an eventual spiritual liberation, Charvaka ethics urged each individual to seek his or her pleasure in the here and now.

Jainism, another reaction to the traditional Vedic outlook, reached exactly the opposite conclusions. The Jain philosophy is based on spiritual liberation as the highest of all goals and nonviolence as the means of attaining it. In true philosophical manner, the Jains found in the principle of nonviolence a guide to all morality. First, apart from the obvious application to prohibiting violent acts directed at other humans, nonviolence is extended to all living things. The Jains are vegetarian. They are often ridiculed by Westerners for the care they take to avoid injuring insects or other living things while walking or drinking water that may contain minute organisms; it is less well known that Jains began to care for sick and injured animals thousands of years before animal shelters were thought of in Europe. The Jains do not draw the distinction usually made in Western ethics between their responsibility for what they do and their responsibility for what they omit doing. Omitting to care for an injured animal would also be in their view a form of violence.

Other moral duties are also derived from the notion of nonviolence. To tell someone a lie, for example, is regarded as inflicting a mental injury on that person. Stealing, of course, is another form of injury, but because of the absence of a distinction between acts and omissions, even the possession of wealth is seen as depriving the poor and hungry of the means to satisfy their wants. Thus, nonviolence leads to a principle of nonpossession of property. Jain priests were expected to be strict ascetics and to avoid sexual intercourse. Ordinary Jains, however, followed a slightly less-severe code, which was intended to give effect to the major forms of nonviolence while still being compatible with a normal life.

The other great ethical system to develop as a reaction to the ossified form of the old Vedic philosophy was Buddhism. The person who became known as the Buddha (flourished c. 6th–4th century bce), which means the “enlightened one,” was born the son of a king. Until he was 29 years old, he lived the sheltered life of a typical prince, with every luxury he could desire. At that time, legend has it, he was jolted out of his idleness by the “Four Signs”: he saw in succession an old man, a sick person, a corpse being carried to cremation, and a monk in meditation beneath a tree. He began to think about old age, disease, and death, and decided to follow the way of the monk. For six years he led an ascetic life of renunciation, but finally, while meditating under a tree, he concluded that the solution was not withdrawal from the world, but rather a practical life of compassion for all.

Buddhism is conventionally regarded as a religion, and indeed over the centuries it adopted religious trappings in many places. This is an irony of history, however, because the Buddha himself was a strong critic of religion. He rejected the authority of the Vedas and refused to set up an alternative creed. He regarded religious ceremonies as a waste of time and theological beliefs as mere superstition. He refused to discuss abstract metaphysical problems such as the immortality of the soul. The Buddha told his followers to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their own future. In place of religious beliefs and religious ceremonies, the Buddha advocated a life devoted to universal compassion and brotherhood. Through such a life one might reach the ultimate goal, nirvana, a state in which all living things are free from pain and sorrow. There are similarities between this morality of universal compassion and the ethics of the Jains.

In keeping with his own previous experience, the Buddha proposed a “middle path” between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. In fact, it is not so much a path between these two extremes as one that draws together the benefits of both. Through living a life of compassion and love for all, a person achieves the liberation from selfish cravings sought by the ascetic and a serenity and satisfaction that are more fulfilling than anything obtained by indulgence in pleasure.

It is sometimes thought that because the Buddhist goal is nirvana, a state that can be reached by meditation, Buddhism teaches a withdrawal from the real world. Nirvana, however, is not to be sought for oneself alone; it is regarded as a unity of the individual self with the universal self in which all things take part. In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the aspirant to enlightenment even takes a vow to become a bodhisattva (buddha-to-be) and not to accept final release until everything that exists in the universe has attained nirvana.

The Buddha lived and taught in India, and so Buddhism is properly classified as an Indian moral philosophy. Yet Buddhism did not permanently take hold in the land of its origin. Instead, it spread in different forms south into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and north through Tibet to China, Korea, and Japan. In the process, Buddhism suffered the same fate as the Vedic philosophy against which it had rebelled: it became a religion, often rigid, with its own sects, ceremonies, and superstitions.


The two greatest moral philosophers of ancient China, Laozi (flourished c. 6th century bce) and Confucius (Kongfuzi, or Kongzi; 551–479 bce), thought in very different ways. Laozi is best known for his ideas about the Dao (literally “Way,” the Supreme Principle). The Dao is based on the traditional Chinese virtues of simplicity and sincerity. To follow the Dao is a matter not of observing any set of duties or prohibitions but rather of living in a simple and honest manner, being true to oneself, and avoiding the distractions of ordinary living. Laozi’s classic book on the Dao, Daodejing, consists only of aphorisms and isolated paragraphs, making it difficult to draw an intelligible system of ethics from it. Perhaps this is because Laozi was a type of moral skeptic: he rejected both righteousness and benevolence, apparently because he saw them as imposed on individuals from without rather than coming from their own inner natures. Like the Buddha, Laozi found the things prized by the world—rank, luxury, and glamour—to be empty and worthless when compared with the ultimate value of a peaceful inner life. He also emphasized gentleness, calm, and nonviolence. Nearly 600 years before Jesus, he said: “It is the way of the Dao…to recompense injury with kindness.” By returning good for good and also good for evil, Laozi believed that all would become good; to return evil for evil would lead to chaos.

The lives of Laozi and Confucius overlapped, and there is even an account of a meeting between them, which is said to have left the younger Confucius baffled. Confucius was the more down-to-earth thinker, absorbed in the practical task of social reform. The province in which he served as minister of justice became renowned for the honesty of its people, the respect shown to the aged, and the care taken of the poor. Probably because of their practical nature, the teachings of Confucius had a far greater influence on China than did those of the more withdrawn Laozi.

Confucius did not organize his recommendations into any coherent system. His teachings are offered in the form of sayings, aphorisms, and anecdotes, usually in reply to questions by disciples. They aim at guiding the student toward becoming a junzi, a concept translated as “gentleman” or “superior man.” In opposition to the prevailing feudal ideal of the aristocratic lord, Confucius presented the superior man as one who is humane and thoughtful, motivated by the desire to do what is good rather than by personal profit. Beyond this, however, the concept is not discussed in any detail; it is only shown by diverse examples, some of them trite: “A superior man’s life leads upwards.…The superior man is broad and fair; the inferior man takes sides and is petty.…A superior man shapes the good in man; he does not shape the bad in him.”

One of the recorded sayings of Confucius is an answer to a request from a disciple for a single word that could serve as a guide to conduct for one’s entire life. He replied: “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” This rule is repeated several times in the Confucian literature and might be considered the supreme principle of Confucian ethics. Other duties are not, however, presented as derivative from this supreme principle, nor is the principle used to determine what should be done when two or more specific duties—e.g., the duty to parents and the duty to friends, both of which are prominent in Confucian ethics—conflict with each other.

Confucius did not explain why the superior man chooses righteousness rather than personal profit. This question was taken up more than 100 years after his death by his follower Mencius (Mengzi; c. 372–c. 289 bce), who asserted that humans are naturally inclined to do what is humane and right. Evil is not part of human nature but is the result of poor upbringing or lack of education. But Confucius also had another distinguished follower, Xunzi (c. 300–c. 230 bce), who said that humans naturally seek profit for themselves and envy others. The rules of morality are designed to avoid the strife that would otherwise follow from acting according to this nature. The Confucian school was united in its ideal of the junzi but divided over whether such an ideal was to be obtained by controlling people’s natural desires or allowing them to be fulfilled.

Ancient and Classical Greece

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was the birthplace of Western philosophical ethics. The ideas of Socrates (c. 470–399 bce), Plato, and Aristotle (384–322 bce) will be discussed in the next section. The sudden flowering of philosophy during that period was rooted in the ethical thought of earlier centuries. In the poetic literature of the 7th and 6th centuries bce, there were, as in other cultures, moral precepts but no real attempts to formulate a coherent overall ethical position. The Greeks were later to refer to the most prominent of these poets and early philosophers as the seven sages, and they are frequently quoted with respect by Plato and Aristotle. Knowledge of the thought of this period is limited, for often only fragments of original writings, along with later accounts of dubious accuracy, remain.

Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 bce), whose name is familiar because of the geometric theorem that bears his name, is one such early Greek thinker about whom little is known. He appears to have written nothing at all, but he was the founder of a school of thought that touched on all aspects of life and that may have been a kind of philosophical and religious order. In ancient times the school was best known for its advocacy of vegetarianism, which, like that of the Jains, was associated with the belief that after the death of the body, the human soul may take up residence in the body of an animal (seereincarnation). Pythagoreans continued to espouse this view for many centuries, and classical passages in the works of writers such as Ovid (43 bce–17 ce) and Porphyry (234–305) opposing bloodshed and animal slaughter can be traced to Pythagoras.

Ironically, an important stimulus for the development of moral philosophy came from a group of teachers to whom the later Greek philosophers—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—were consistently hostile: the Sophists. This term was used in the 5th century to refer to a class of professional teachers of rhetoric and argument. The Sophists promised their pupils success in political debate and increased influence in the affairs of the city. They were accused of being mercenaries who taught their students to win arguments by fair means or foul. Aristotle said that Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 bce), perhaps the most famous of the Sophists, claimed to teach how “to make the weaker argument the stronger.”

The Sophists, however, were more than mere teachers of rhetorical tricks. They regarded themselves as imparters of the cultural and intellectual qualities necessary for success, and their involvement with argument about practical affairs naturally led them to develop views about ethics. The recurrent theme in the views of the better-known Sophists, such as Protagoras, Antiphon (c. 480–411 bce), and Thrasymachus (flourished late 5th century bce), is that what is commonly called good and bad or just and unjust does not reflect any objective fact of nature but is rather a matter of social convention. Protagoras is the apparent author of the celebrated epigram summing up this theme, “Man is the measure of all things.” Plato represents him as saying, “Whatever things seem just and fine to each city, are just and fine for that city, so long as it thinks them so.” Protagoras, like Herodotus, drew a moderate conclusion from his ethical relativism. He argued that, while the particular content of the moral rules may vary, there must be rules of some kind if life is to be tolerable. Thus, Protagoras stated that the foundations of an ethical system needed nothing from the gods or from any special metaphysical realm beyond the ordinary world of the senses.

Thrasymachus appears to have taken a more radical approach—if Plato’s portrayal of his views is historically accurate. He explained that the concept of justice means nothing more than obedience to the laws of society, and, since these laws are made by the strongest political group in its own interest, justice represents nothing but the interest of the stronger. This position is often represented by the slogan “Might makes right.” Thrasymachus was probably not saying, however, that whatever the mightiest do really is right; he is more likely to have been denying that the distinction between right and wrong has any objective basis. Presumably he would then encourage his pupils to follow their own interests as best they could. He is thus an early representative of moral skepticism and perhaps ethical egoism, the view that the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interest (see belowEthical egoism).

It is not surprising that, with ideas of this sort in circulation, other thinkers should react by probing more deeply into ethics to see whether the potentially destructive conclusions of some of the Sophists could be resisted. This reaction produced works that have served ever since as the cornerstone of the entire edifice of Western ethics.


Socrates, who once observed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” must be regarded as one of the greatest teachers of ethics. Yet, unlike other figures of comparable importance, such as the Buddha or Confucius, he did not tell his audience how they should live. What Socrates taught was a method of inquiry. When the Sophists or their pupils boasted that they knew what justice, piety, temperance, or law was, Socrates would ask them to give an account, which he would then show was entirely inadequate. Because his method of inquiry threatened conventional beliefs, Socrates’ enemies contrived to have him put to death on a charge of corrupting the youth of Athens. For those who thought that adherence to the conventional moral code was more important than the cultivation of an inquiring mind, the charge was appropriate. By conventional standards, Socrates was indeed corrupting the youth of Athens, though he himself considered the destruction of beliefs that could not stand up to criticism as a necessary preliminary to the search for true knowledge. In this respect he differed from the Sophists, with their ethical relativism, for he thought that virtue is something that can be known and that the virtuous person is the one who knows what virtue is.

It is therefore not entirely accurate to regard Socrates as contributing a method of inquiry but as having no positive views of his own. He believed that virtue could be known, though he himself did not profess to know it. He also thought that anyone who knows what virtue is will necessarily act virtuously. Those who act badly, therefore, do so only because they are ignorant of, or mistaken about, the real nature of virtue. This belief may seem peculiar today, in large part because it is now common to distinguish between what a person ought to do and what is in his own interest. Once this assumption is made, it is easy to imagine circumstances in which a person knows what he ought to do but proceeds to do something else—what is in his own interests—instead. Indeed, how to provide self-interested (or merely rational) people with motivating reasons for doing what is right has been a major problem for Western ethics. In ancient Greece, however, the distinction between virtue and self-interest was not made—at least not in the clear-cut manner that it is today. The Greeks believed that virtue is good both for the individual and for the community. To be sure, they recognized that living virtuously might not be the best way to prosper financially; but then they did not assume, as people are prone to do today, that material wealth is a major factor in whether a person’s life goes well or ill.


Socrates’ greatest disciple, Plato, accepted the key Socratic beliefs in the objectivity of goodness and in the link between knowing what is good and doing it. He also took over the Socratic method of conducting philosophy, developing the case for his own positions by exposing errors and confusions in the arguments of his opponents. He did this by writing his works as dialogues in which Socrates is portrayed as engaging in argument with others, usually Sophists. The early dialogues are generally accepted as reasonably accurate accounts of the views of the historical Socrates, but the later ones, written many years after Socrates’ death, use the latter as a mouthpiece for ideas and arguments that were in fact original to Plato.

In the most famous of Plato’s dialogues, Politeia (The Republic), the character Socrates is challenged by the following example: Suppose a person obtained the legendary ring of Gyges, which has the magical property of rendering the wearer invisible. Would that person still have any reason to behave justly? Behind this challenge lies the suggestion, made by the Sophists and still heard today, that the only reason for acting justly is that one cannot get away with acting unjustly. Plato’s response to this challenge is a long argument developing a position that appears to go beyond anything the historical Socrates asserted. Plato maintained that true knowledge consists not in knowing particular things but in knowing something general that is common to all the particular cases. This view is obviously derived from the way in which Socrates pressed his opponents to go beyond merely describing particular acts that are (for example) good, temperate, or just and to give instead a general account of goodness, temperance, or justice. The implication is that one does not know what goodness is unless one can give such a general account. But the question then arises, what is it that one knows when one knows this general idea of goodness? Plato’s answer is that one knows the Form of the Good, a perfect, eternal, and changeless entity existing outside space and time, in which particular good things share, or “participate,” insofar as they are good.

It has been said that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. Certainly the central issue around which all of Western ethics has revolved can be traced to the debate between the Sophists, who claimed that goodness and justice are relative to the customs of each society—or, worse still, that they are merely a disguise for the interest of the stronger—and the Platonists, who maintained the possibility of knowledge of an objective Form of the Good.

But even if one could know what goodness or justice is, why should one act justly if one could profit by doing the opposite? This is the remaining part of the challenge posed by the tale of the ring of Gyges, and it is still to be answered. For even if one accepts that goodness is something objective, it does not follow that one has a sufficient reason to do what is good. One would have such a reason if it could be shown that goodness or justice leads, at least in the long run, to happiness; as has been seen from the preceding discussion of early ethics in other cultures, this issue is a perennial topic for all who think about ethics.

According to Plato, justice exists in the individual when the three elements of the soul—intellect, emotion, and desire—act in harmony with each other. The unjust person lives in an unsatisfactory state of internal discord, trying always to overcome the discomfort of unsatisfied desire but never achieving anything better than the mere absence of want. The soul of the just person, on the other hand, is harmoniously ordered under the governance of reason, and the just person derives truly satisfying enjoyment from the pursuit of knowledge. Plato remarks that the highest pleasure, in fact, comes from intellectual speculation. He also gives an argument for the belief that the human soul is immortal; therefore, even if a just individual lives in poverty or suffers from illness, the gods will not neglect him in the next life, where he will have the greatest rewards of all. In summary, then, Plato asserts that we should act justly because in doing so we are “at one with ourselves and with the gods.”

Today, this may seem like a strange conception of justice and a farfetched view of what it takes to achieve human happiness. Plato does not recommend justice for its own sake, independent of any personal gains one might obtain from being a just person. This is characteristic of Greek ethics, which refused to recognize that there could be an irresolvable conflict between the interest of the individual and the good of the community. Not until the 18th century did a philosopher forcefully assert the importance of doing what is right simply because it is right, quite apart from self-interested motivation (see belowKant). To be sure, Plato did not hold that the motivation for each and every just act is some personal gain; on the contrary, the person who takes up justice will do what is just because it is just. Nevertheless, he accepted the assumption of his opponents that one could not recommend taking up justice in the first place unless doing so could be shown to be advantageous for oneself as well as for others.

Although many people now think differently about the connection between morality and self-interest, Plato’s attempt to argue that those who are just are in the long run happier than those who are unjust has had an enormous influence on Western ethics. Like Plato’s views on the objectivity of goodness, the claim that justice and personal happiness are linked has helped to frame the agenda for a debate that continues even today.


Plato founded a school of philosophy in Athens known as the Academy. There Aristotle, Plato’s younger contemporary and only rival in terms of influence on the course of Western philosophy, went to study. Aristotle was often fiercely critical of Plato, and his writing is very different in style and content, but the time they spent together is reflected in a considerable amount of common ground. Thus, Aristotle holds with Plato that the life of virtue is rewarding for the virtuous as well as beneficial for the community. Aristotle also agrees that the highest and most satisfying form of human existence involves the exercise of one’s rational faculties to the fullest extent. One major point of disagreement concerns Plato’s doctrine of Forms, which Aristotle rejected. Thus, Aristotle does not argue that in order to be good one must have knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Aristotle conceived of the universe as a hierarchy in which everything has a function. The highest form of existence is the life of the rational being, and the function of lower beings is to serve this form of life. From this perspective Aristotle defended slavery—because he considered barbarians less rational than Greeks and by nature suited to be “living tools”—and the killing of nonhuman animals for food and clothing. From this perspective also came a view of human nature and an ethical theory derived from it. All living things, Aristotle held, have inherentpotentialities, which it is their nature to develop. This is the form of life properly suited to them and constitutes their goal. What, however, is the potentiality of human beings? For Aristotle this question turns out to be equivalent to asking what is distinctive about human beings; and this, of course, is the capacity to reason. The ultimate goal of humans, therefore, is to develop their reasoning powers. When they do this, they are living well, in accordance with their true nature, and they will find this the most rewarding existence possible.

Aristotle thus ends up agreeing with Plato that the life of the intellect is the most rewarding existence, though he was more realistic than Plato in suggesting that such a life would also contain the goods of material prosperity and close friendships. Aristotle’s argument for regarding the life of the intellect so highly, however, is different from Plato’s, and the difference is significant because Aristotle committed a fallacy that has often been repeated. The fallacy is to assume that whatever capacity distinguishes humans from other beings is, for that very reason, the highest and best of their capacities. Perhaps the ability to reason is the best human capacity, but one cannot be compelled to draw this conclusion from the fact that it is what is most distinctive of the human species.

A broader and still more pervasive fallacy underlies Aristotle’s ethics. It is the idea that an investigation of human nature can reveal what one ought to do. For Aristotle, an examination of a knife would reveal that its distinctive capacity is to cut, and from this one could conclude that a good knife is a knife that cuts well. In the same way, an examination of human nature should reveal the distinctive capacity of human beings, and from this one should be able to infer what it is to be a good human being. This line of thought makes sense if one thinks, as Aristotle did, that the universe as a whole has a purpose and that human beings exist as part of such a goal-directed scheme of things, but its error becomes glaring if this view is rejected and human existence is seen as the result of a blind process of evolution. Whereas the distinctive capacity of a knife is a result of the fact that knives are made for a specific purpose—and a good knife is thus one that fulfills this purpose well—human beings, according to modern biology, were not made with any particular purpose in mind. Their nature is the result of random forces of natural selection. Thus, human nature cannot, without further moral premises, determine how human beings ought to live.

Aristotle is also responsible for much later thinking about the virtues one should cultivate. In his most important ethical treatise, the Nicomachean Ethics, he sorts through the virtues as they were popularly understood in his day, specifying in each case what is truly virtuous and what is mistakenly thought to be so. Here he applies an idea that later came to be known as the Golden Mean; it is essentially the same as the Buddha’s middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. Thus, courage, for example, is the mean between two extremes: one can have a deficiency of it, which is cowardice, or one can have an excess of it, which is foolhardiness. The virtue of friendliness, to give another example, is the mean between obsequiousness and surliness.

Aristotle does not intend the idea of the mean to be applied mechanically in every instance: he says that in the case of the virtue of temperance, or self-restraint, it is easy to find the excess of self-indulgence in the physical pleasures, but the opposite error, insufficient concern for such pleasures, scarcely exists. (The Buddha, who had experienced the ascetic life of renunciation, would not have agreed.) This caution in the application of the idea is just as well, for while it may be a useful device for moral education, the notion of a mean cannot help one to discover new truths about virtue. One can determine the mean only if one already has a notion of what is an excess and what is a defect of the trait in question. But this is not something that can be discovered by a morally neutral inspection of the trait itself: one needs a prior conception of the virtue in order to decide what is excessive and what is defective. Thus, to attempt to use the doctrine of the mean to define the particular virtues would be to travel in a circle.

Aristotle’s list of the virtues and vices differs from lists compiled by later Christian thinkers. Although courage, temperance, and liberality are recognized as virtues in both periods, Aristotle also includes a virtue whose Greek name, megalopsyche, is sometimes translated as “pride,” though it literally means “greatness of soul.” This is the characteristic of holding a justified high opinion of oneself. For Christians the corresponding excess, vanity, was a vice, but the corresponding deficiency, humility, was a virtue.

Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of justice has been the starting point of almost all Western accounts. He distinguishes between justice in the distribution of wealth or other goods and justice in reparation, as, for example, in punishing someone for a wrong he has done. The key element of justice, according to Aristotle, is treating like cases alike—an idea that set for later thinkers the task of working out which kinds of similarities (e.g., need, desert, talent) should be relevant. As with the notion of virtue as a mean, Aristotle’s conception of justice provides a framework that requires fleshing out before it can be put to use.

Aristotle distinguished between theoretical and practical wisdom. His conception of practical wisdom is significant, for it involves more than merely choosing the best means to whatever ends or goals one may have. The practically wise person also has the right ends. This implies that one’s ends are not purely a matter of brute desire or feeling; the right ends are something that can be known and reasoned about. It also gives rise to the problem that faced Socrates: How is it that people can know the difference between good and bad and still choose what is bad? As mentioned earlier, Socrates simply denied that this could happen, saying that those who did not choose the good must, appearances notwithstanding, be ignorant of what the good is. Aristotle said that this view was “plainly at variance with the observed facts,” and he offered instead a detailed account of the ways in which one can fail to act on one’s knowledge of the good, including the failure that results from lack of self-control and the failure caused by weakness of will.

Later Greek and Roman ethics

In ethics, as in many other fields, the later Greek and Roman periods do not display the same penetrating insight as the Classical period of 5th- and 4th-century Greek civilization. Nevertheless, the two schools of thought that dominated the later periods, Stoicism and Epicureanism, represent important approaches to the question of how one ought to live.

The Stoics

Stoicism originated in the views of Socrates and Plato, as modified by Zeno of Citium (c. 335–c. 263 bce) and then by Chrysippus (c. 280–206 bce). It gradually gained influence in Rome, chiefly through Cicero (106–43 bce) and then later through Seneca the Younger (4 bce–65 ce). Remarkably, its chief proponents include both a slave, Epictetus (55–c. 135), and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121–180). This is a fine illustration of the Stoic message that what is important is the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, a quest that is open to all human beings because of their common capacity for reason, no matter what the external circumstances of their lives.

Today, the most common meaning of the word stoic is a person who remains unmoved by the sorrows and afflictions that distress the rest of humanity. This is an accurate representation of a Stoic ideal, but it must be placed in the context of a systematic approach to life. As noted above, Plato held that human passions and physical desires are in need of regulation by reason. The Stoics went farther: they rejected passions altogether as a basis for deciding what is good or bad. Although physical desires cannot simply be abolished, the wise person will appreciate the difference between wanting something and judging it to be good. Only reason can judge the goodness or badness of what is desired. If one is wise, he will identify himself with reason rather than with desire; hence, he will not hope for the satisfaction of physical desires or worry that they might not be satisfied. The Stoic will feel physical pain as others do, but he will know that physical pain leaves the true reasoning self untouched. The only thing that is truly good is to live in a state of wisdom and virtue. In pursuing such a life, one is protected from the play of fortune that afflicts those who aim at physical pleasure or material wealth, for wisdom and virtue are matters of the intellect and under the individual’s control. Moreover, if matters become too grim, there is always a way of ending the pain of the physical world. The Stoics were not reluctant to counselsuicide as a means of avoiding otherwise inescapable pain.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Stoicism, however, is its conviction that all human beings share the capacity to reason. This led the Stoics to a fundamental belief in equality, which went beyond the limited Greek conception of equal citizenship. Thus, Seneca claimed that the wise man will esteem the community of rational beings far above any particular community in which the accident of birth has placed him, and Marcus Aurelius said that common reason makes all individuals fellow citizens. The belief that the capacity to reason is common to all humans was also important because from it the Stoics drew the implication that there is a universal moral law, which all people are capable of appreciating (seenatural law). The Stoics thus strengthened the tradition that regarded the universality of reason as the basis on which to reject ethical relativism.

The Epicureans

Although the modern use of the term stoic accurately represents at least a part of the Stoic philosophy, anyone taking the present-day meaning of epicure as a guide to the philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 bce) would go astray. True, the Epicureans regarded pleasure as the sole ultimate good and pain as the sole evil, and they did regard the more refined pleasures as superior, simply in terms of the quantity and durability of the pleasure they provided, to the coarser pleasures. To portray them as searching for these more refined pleasures by dining at the best restaurants and drinking the finest wines, however, is the reverse of the truth. By refined pleasures, Epicurus meant pleasures of the mind, as opposed to the coarse pleasures of the body. He taught that the highest pleasure obtainable is the pleasure of tranquillity, which is to be obtained by the removal of unsatisfied wants. The way to do this is to eliminate all but the simplest wants; these are then easily satisfied even by those who are not wealthy.

Epicurus developed his position systematically. To determine whether something is good, he would ask if it increased pleasure or reduced pain. If it did, it was good as a means; if it did not, it was not good at all. Thus, justice was good but merely as an expedient arrangement to prevent mutual harm. Why not then commit injustice when we can get away with it? Only because, Epicurus says, the perpetual dread of discovery will cause painful anxiety. Epicurus also exalted friendship, and the Epicureans were famous for the warmth of their personal relationships; but, again, they proclaimed that friendship is good only because of its tendency to create pleasure.

Both Stoic and Epicurean ethics were precursors of later trends in Western ethics: the Stoics of the modern belief in equality and the Epicureans of a utilitarian ethics based on pleasure (see belowUtilitarianism). The development of these ethical positions, however, was dramatically affected by the spreading from the East of a new religion, Christianity, that was rooted in a Jewish conception of ethics as obedience to a divine authority. With the conversion of Emperor Constantine I (c. 280–337) to Christianity by 313 ce, the older schools of philosophy lost their sway over the thinking of the Roman Empire.

Christian ethics from the New Testament to the Scholastics

Ethics in the New Testament

The Apostle Matthew (5:17) reports Jesus as having said, in the Sermon on the Mount, that he came not to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. Indeed, when Jesus is regarded as a teacher of ethics, it is clear that he was more a reformer of the Hebrew tradition than a radical innovator. The Hebrew tradition had a tendency to place great emphasis on compliance with the letter of the law; the Gospel accounts of Jesus portray him as preaching against this “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” championing the spirit of the law rather than the letter. This spirit he characterized as one of love, for God and for one’s neighbour. But since he was not proposing that the old teachings be discarded, he saw no need to develop a comprehensive ethical system. Christianity thus never really broke with the Jewish conception of morality as a matter of divine law to be discovered by reading and interpreting the word of God as revealed in the Scriptures.

This conception of morality had important consequences for the future development of Western ethics. The Greeks and Romans—and indeed thinkers such as Confucius—did not conceive of a distinctively moral realm of conduct. For them, everything that one did was a matter of practical reasoning, in which one could do either well or poorly. In the more legalistic Judeo-Christian view, however, falling short of what the moral law requires was a much more serious matter than, say, failing to do the household budgets correctly. This distinction between the moral and the nonmoral realms now affects every question in Western ethics, including the way the questions themselves are framed.

Another consequence of the retention of the basically legalistic stance of Jewish ethics was that from the beginning Christian ethics had to deal with the question of how to judge the person who breaks the law from good motives or keeps it from bad motives. The latter half of this question was particularly acute, because the Gospels describe Jesus as repeatedly warning of a coming resurrection of the dead at which time all would be judged and punished or rewarded according to their sins and virtues in this life (seeLast Judgment). The punishments and rewards were weighty enough to motivate anyone who took this message seriously, and the warning was given added emphasis by the fact that the resurrection was not going to be long in coming. (Jesus said that it would take place during the lifetime of some of those listening to him.) This is therefore an ethics that invokes external sanctions as a reason for doing what is right. At the same time, it is an ethics that places love above mere literal compliance with the law. These two aspects do not sit easily together. Can one bring oneself to love God and neighbour in order to be rewarded with eternal happiness in another life?

The fact that Jesus and the Apostle Paul too believed in the imminence of the Second Coming led them to suggest ways of living that were scarcely feasible on any other assumption: taking no thought for the morrow, turning the other cheek, and giving away all one has. Even Paul’s preference for celibacy rather than marriage and his grudging acceptance of the latter on the assumption that “it is better to marry than to burn” makes some sense, once one grasps that he was proposing ethical standards for what he thought would be the last generation on earth. When the expected event did not occur and Christianity became the official religion of the vast and embattled Roman Empire, Christian leaders were faced with the awkward task of reinterpreting these injunctions in a manner more suited for a continuing society.

The new Christian ethical standards did lead to some changes in Roman morality. Perhaps the most vital change was a new sense of the equal moral status of all human beings. As mentioned earlier, the Stoics had been the first to elaborate this conception, grounding equality on the common capacity to reason. For Christians, humans are equal because they are all potentially immortal and equally precious in the sight of God. This caused Christians to condemn a wide variety of practices that had been accepted by both Greek and Roman moralists, including many related to the taking of innocent human life: from the earliest days Christian leaders condemned abortion, infanticide, and suicide. Even killing in war was at first regarded as wrong, and soldiers who had converted to Christianity refused to continue to bear arms. Once the empire became Christian, however, this was one of the inconvenient ideas that had to yield. Despite what Jesus had said about turning the other cheek, church leaders declared that killing in a “just war” was not a sin. The Christian condemnation of killing in gladiatorial games, on the other hand, had a more permanent effect. Finally, but perhaps most important, while Christian emperors continued to uphold the legality of slavery, the Christian church accepted slaves as equals, admitted them to its ceremonies, and regarded the granting of freedom to slaves as a virtuous, if not obligatory, act. This moral pressure led over several hundred years to the gradual disappearance of slavery in Europe.

The Christian contribution to improving the position of slaves can also be linked with the distinctively Christian list of virtues. As noted above, some of the virtues described by Aristotle—for example, greatness of soul—are quite contrary in spirit to Christian virtues such as humility. In general it can be said that, whereas the Greeks and Romans prized independence, self-reliance, magnanimity, and worldly success, Christians emphasized meekness, obedience, patience, and resignation. As the Greeks and Romans conceived virtue, a virtuous slave was almost a contradiction in terms; for Christians, however, there was nothing in the state of slavery that was incompatible with the highest moral character.

St. Augustine

At its beginning Christianity had a set of scriptures incorporating many moral injunctions, but it did not have a moral philosophy. The first serious attempt to provide such a philosophy was made by St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Augustine was acquainted with a version of Plato’s philosophy, and he developed the Platonic idea of the rational soul into a Christian view in which humans are essentially souls, using their bodies as a means to achieve their spiritual ends. The ultimate objective remains happiness, as in Greek ethics, but Augustine conceived of happiness as consisting of the union of the soul with God after the body has died. It was through Augustine, therefore, that Christianity received the Platonic theme of the relative inferiority of bodily pleasures. There was, to be sure, a fundamental difference: whereas for Plato bodily pleasures were inferior in comparison with the pleasures of philosophical contemplation in this world, for Christians they were inferior to the pleasures of spiritual existence in the next world. Moreover, Christians came to regard bodily pleasures not merely as inferior but also as a positive threat to the achievement of spiritual bliss.

It was also important that Augustine could not accept the view, common to so many Greek and Roman philosophers, that philosophical reasoning was the means to achieving wisdom and happiness. For a Christian, of course, wisdom and happiness can be had only through love of God and faith in Jesus Christ as the Saviour. The result was to be, for many centuries, a rejection of the use of unfettered reasoning in ethics.

Augustine was aware of the tension between the dual Christian motivations of love of God and neighbour on the one hand and reward and punishment in the afterlife on the other. He came down firmly on the side of love, insisting that those who keep the moral law through fear of punishment are not really keeping it at all. But it is not ordinary human love, either, that suffices as a motivation for true Christian living. Augustine believed that all human beings bear the burden of Adam’s original sin (seeAdam and Eve) and so are incapable of redeeming themselves by their own efforts. Only the unmerited grace of God makes possible obedience to the “first greatest commandment” of loving God, and without it one cannot fulfill the moral law. This view made a clear-cut distinction between Christians and pagan moralists, no matter how humble and pure the latter might be; only the former could be saved, because only they could receive the blessing of divine grace. But this gain, as Augustine saw it, was purchased at the cost of denying that humans are free to choose good or evil. Only Adam had this choice: he chose for all humanity, and he chose evil.

St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics

After Augustine there were no major developments in ethics in the West until the rise of Scholasticism in the 12th and 13th centuries. Among the first significant works written during this time was a treatise on ethics by the French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard (1079–1142). His importance in ethical theory lies in his emphasis on intentions. Abelard maintained, for example, that the sin of sexual wrongdoing consists not in the act of illicit sexual intercourse, nor even in the desire for it, but in mentally consenting to that desire. In this he was far more modern than Augustine and more thoughtful than those who even today assert that the mere desire for what is wrong is as wrong as the act itself. Abelard recognized that there is a problem in holding a person morally responsible for the mere existence of physical desires. His ingenious solution was taken up by later medieval writers, and traces of it can still be found in modern discussions of moral responsibility.

Aristotle’s ethical writings were not known to scholars in western Europe during Abelard’s time. Latin translations became available only in the first half of the 13th century, and the rediscovery of Aristotle dominated later medieval philosophy. Nowhere is his influence more marked than in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), who is often regarded as the greatest of the Scholastic philosophers and is undoubtedly the most influential, since his teachings became the semiofficial philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. Such is the respect in which Aquinas held Aristotle that he referred to him simply as The Philosopher. Indeed, it is not too far from the truth to say that the chief aim of Aquinas’s work was to reconcile Aristotle’s views with Christian doctrine.

Aquinas took from Aristotle the notion of an ultimate end, or goal—a summum bonum—at which all human action is directed; and, like Aristotle, he conceived of this end as necessarily connected with happiness. This conception was Christianized, however, by the idea that happiness is to be found in the love of God. Thus, a person seeks to know God but cannot fully succeed in doing so in this life on Earth. The reward of heaven, where one can know God, is available only to those who merit it, though even then it is given by God’s grace rather than obtained by right. Short of heaven, a person can experience only a more limited form of happiness through a life of virtue and friendship, much as Aristotle had recommended.

The blend of Aristotle’s teachings and Christianity is also evident in Aquinas’s views about right and wrong and about how one comes to know the difference between the two. Aquinas is often described as advocating a “natural law” ethic


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