History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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I. This course will focus on the beginnings of modern moral philosophy in the seventeenth century, running through the enlightenment, ending with Nietzsche.

Motivations for studying this period:

A. Continuity with contemporary moral philosophy. Several factors combined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to create a context for a kind of philosophical reflection about ethics that is continuous with the present day:

  1. Decline of Aristotelian science and threat to conceptions of moral order that depend on teleological metaphysics. Thomist (St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)) metaphysical foundations for ethics (a kind of Aristotelianized Christianity) challenged in favor of a more nominalist theological voluntarism: obligation derives from God's commands. [Keep in mind when you read Hobbes]
  2. The Reformation (Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564)):
    1. Traditional religious institutional authority increasingly questioned and tested by individual experience and reason; the authenticity or sincerity of the individual's internal relationship to God was held to matter more than conformity to external religious forms.
    2. There were long, bloody ``wars of religion'' in Europe---e.g. in France and England---that severely shook confidence that a common religion could form the basis of a stable social order. With the doctrine of religious tolerance (even if only within Christianity), began a leading idea of contemporary liberalism---viz., that some basis for just social cooperation must be found that did not presuppose agreement on matters of faith (broadly construed).
  3. Reconnection with ancient Greek texts, of Plato and Aristotle (though Aristotle suffered from his association with Aquinas and Scholasticism), but also of Hellenistic philosophers---Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics---and of more eclectic Latin writers, e.g. Cicero and Seneca who derive especially from the Stoic tradition.
  4. Focus on epistemological issues (the challenge of skepticism--not just ancient skepticism as a way of life, but to an adequate philosophical foundation of ethics) the analogue in ethics of Cartesian skepticism. An important figure here is Montaigne.

B. There has been, over the last thirty years, a gathering critique of orthodox moral philosophy, on the grounds that they are based on a view of morality, especially, of moral obligation, that derives from earlier premodern Christian assumptions, but which the enlightenment philosophers tried in vain to work out in modern secular terms. Prominent here are Anscombe, ``Modern Moral Philosophy'' (1957), Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981), and Bernard Williams Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). This provides another reason to investigate what MacIntyre called the ``enlightenment project''.

II. As context for reading Hobbes, and to appreciate how radical a break Hobbes helped to make with the past, it is useful to consider the major elements of the Thomist and Scholastic orthodox background. This was in its essentials a combination of Aristotelianism and Christianity.

A. This tradition assumed Aristotle's metaphysical teleology: every species or natural kind is partly defined by its distinctive telos, our species included. An individual's good is determined by his nature as human---it is an individual human being's good.

B. Since nature as a whole is teleological, when each individual pursues the proper end of its species, it is playing its appropriate role in the whole order---and likewise for individual human beings. Thus assures a harmony of real interests.

C. From Christianity was added the following elements:

  1. Nature is created by God as a teleological whole.
  2. Rational thought is part of the distinctively human functioning, and this involves the capacity to be guided by directives the following of which enables us to achieve our good (as humans). These directive are natural law, and they issue from God. He commands us to obey them for our own good. Thus, unlike other creatures, we achieve our good only by following directives given us for our own good.

J. B. Schneewind describes the resulting picture as the ``Divine Corporation'' model of ethics: [graduate students: read ``The Divine Corporation and the History of Ethics'', in Rorty, Schneewind, and Skinner, Philosophy in History (Cambridge, 1984).] Imagine individuals who are part of a cooperative endeavor to realize a supremely valuable good, that each kind of creature has its role to play in realizing this good, that for some creatures this is simply wired in, but others (rational ones) are made aware of their function by directives from their boss, that the boss infallibly allocates tasks and is known infallibly to allocate tasks, and that, though each individual knows this, none knows the master plan. These directives will then be: (i) universal (to the species), categorically overriding, and performable.

III. In the modern period, both the metaphysics (teleology) and the epistemology (reason as intuiting essences) of this position come under increasing pressure. And this creates what we might call the modern problematic of ethics: how can one defend philosophically a basis for social order that doesn't depend on these metaphysical and epistemological assumptions:
  1. Conflicts of interests and the problem of collective action.
  2. Morality as the solution to the problem of collective action: a set of universal norms the general following of which is mutually advantageous.
  3. Since these norms require people to act contrary to their own interest, what can the normativity, the obliging or binding power, of these norms derive from?

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