History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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I. This course was a study in the beginnings of modern ethical philosophy. Starting simultaneously with the rise of modern science, together the attendant demise of an Aristotelian teleological metaphysics of nature, and the rise of the liberal state, dedicated to the possibility of a peaceable framework for reasonable cooperation that tolerates substantial and significant differences in matters of religion and fundamental value, philosophers in Europe began to try to articulate an adequate conception of what ethics and morality might be, if this was to be properly responsive to the newly emerging understanding of nature and the practical ethical and political context.

II. One way of trying to understand the range of their diverse responses to this modern philosophical problematic is to group them into three main categories:

  1. Those who defend morality as a set of mutually advantageous conventions, and who see the fundamental motive underlying morality as self-interest. This category would include Hobbes and Hume's theory of the artificial virtues.
  2. Those who defend morality as a system of evaluation centrally connected to impartial concern for the welfare of all, to utility and universal benevolence.

    Although there are great differences within this category, it includes Hutcheson, Bentham, and, broadly speaking, Hume.

  3. Those who defend morality as deeply related to a kind of freedom or autonomy that can be realized only by rational agents (perhaps within some social whole). In this category we could place Butler, Rousseau, and Kant.
Finally, we have Nietzsche who gets a category all by himself. While perhaps not the very first, Nietzsche was the most psychological and philosophically penetrating representative of a strain of thought we might call antimoralist. The concepts structuring moral thought---right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and evil---he argued are naked in their unattractiveness when we understand their true origins and sustaining causes---the envy and hatred of the weak. The emperor has no clothes.

III. Let us recall these major trends in more depth. In some ways what unites them is this. We begin with some rough agreement in common sense views about what kinds of conduct, broadly speaking, are right and wrong, what kinds of character and motive are virtuous and vicious. Of course, there are differences. So Hume is notoriously critical of such traditional Christian virtues as humility, and Hobbes believes it is always wrong to revolt against the established political order. But, by and large, the interesting philosophical disagreements occur less within our writers' moral understandings, and much more within their philosophical accounts of what we should understand morality to be. Thus, Hobbes includes within his extensive list of laws of nature many precepts that could only be considered good, earnest moral advice, precepts that are surely part of ordinary moral common sense, even if his philosophical explanation of what these precepts derive from is profoundly different from anything contemplated in common sense.

We might put the common moral sense this way. There are just certain things one should and should not do. [Obviously, I don't mean to say that the common sense includes the idea that certain things are right or wrong regardless of consequences.] And there are certain kinds of character that are morally admirable, and others that are rightly censured. Again, there is broad agreement about both of these, although there will be differences in detail.

The philosophical challenge with which the moderns were faced was how to provide a philosophically adequate understanding of these common sense views, once the Aristotelianized Christian (Scholastic) view of morality is given up. Once we abandon the view that every natural being has a proper end or telos, as part of its very essence, and that for rational beings this involves the capacity to be guided by prescriptions (laws), being guided by which is essential to our achieving our distinctive (God-given) end, many questions can then be asked:

  1. Granted we agree that various forms of conduct are right, other wrong, and various kinds of character are virtuous, other vicious, but in what do these respective moral features consist? What makes it the case that stealing, for no good purpose, is wrong, or that malevolence is vicious?
  2. And,
  3. How do we know these things?
  4. And finally,
  5. Does our understanding of these things enable us to see why, if something is wrong, it is something we ought not to do (in any sense other than the truistic one that anything we agree is morally wrong is something we will agree we morally ought not to do)? And likewise for character.

This question is the one that keeps getting asked in our period with the concept of obligation. Does our understanding of morality enable us to explain our common sense that morality obligates.

IV. The power and perennial interest of Hobbes's philosophy surely derives from the fact that he keeps this question directly before his attention. Despite his official view that the concept of obligation must be reserved to a state that derives from transferring a right, what is most interesting in his thought is the idea that the obligatoriness of morality can derive from the way in which an agent finds (rationally) compelling a rational understanding of the only means available to an end he cannot give up. Self-preservation is such an end, Hobbes thinks. And once we see that we can achieve this only by undertaking and complying with conventions (suitably backed by sanctions), we will see that we must be moral. Morality, then, derives its force from instrumental rationality---it is our only hope of achieving our ends.

V. Hume agreed with this as a very important insight about justice, or what he called the artificial virtues. Part of morality can be understood as conventions adopted, and complied with, for mutual advantage. We can fully understand the underlying motivation behind such arrangements by looking no farther than the agent's own interests, and her desire to realize her own ends (and, he would add, her desire for those to whom she is close to realize theirs). But Hume thought this was only part of the picture, indeed only part of the picture of what is so deeply attractive to us about justice. The ``natural obligation'' to justice can be accounted for in this way, but not the ``moral obligation''. Justice attracts us, not just when we view it from the standpoint of our own individual interests, but also when we view it distinterestedly or impartially.

This second idea was common to a proto-utilitarian, and later utilitarian, tradition that ran through Hutcheson, Hume, and Bentham. In some form or other, the idea of evaluation through impartial sentiment, and of utility, or the happiness of all (well, not really all for Hume), runs through all of these writers. For all the importance of these similarities, however, we have also noticed fascinating differences in the way these common themes are played out in each thinker. Since one of the study question asks you to recall these, I will not discuss them further here, except to exhibit how Bentham's thought brings explicitly to the fore the modern concern with finding a conception of moral justification that will provide a framework for reasonable cooperation among people who may have deep and irresolvable differences on matters of religion, fundamental values, and, as we often say in a trivializing way these days, ``lifestyle''. Thus, Bentham's argument for the principle of utility emphasizes that it can function as an ``external standard'' in a public moral debate that meets certain liberal constraints.

VI. If we think of the first two categories as trying to anchor morality in a substantive concern, by showing that morality can help realize this concern---the first, in the agent's concern for his own welfare, to realize his own ends, the second, in a disinterested concern for the interests of all---it is a distinctive mark of the third category of writers that they downplay both of these thoughts, and, in at least one case (Kant), utterly reject it. To put the point in Kant's terms, morality is a formal concern rather than a material one. The demands of morality are forced on us by the very logic of our situation as rational agents. As agents we seek to guide ourselves by reasons and the fundamental principle of morality, the Categorical Imperative, is anchored in this project.

This theme is hinted at in different, and less well developed ways, in Butler and Rousseau. For Butler, moral agency itself requires that an agent have a principle of reflection, or capacity for guidance by motives that can be self-critically endorsed. And, for Rousseau, the capacity for moral liberty, requires that the agent have a similar perspective, although one which, Rousseau maintains, can only be realized in the shared standpoint of an actual community: its general will.

VII. Finally, we have Nietzsche's thesis that all of these attempts to ground morality philosophically are but vain efforts to support something whose real sources include some of the darkest emotions in the human psyche---a self-deceiving envy and hatred that will not be recognized for what it really is, and that insinuates itself as an impersonal or objective, ``moral'' feeling or judgment. I will leave you to consider whether this is so.

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Nietzsche Lecture 2