Mini Courses of GS IV: The Development of Ethical Theory

Mini Courses of Ethics, Integrity, Attitude, Aptitude and case studies for IAS Mains Examination



The history of European ethics can be conveniently divided into three periods each with its own special characteristics. The Greek period lasted from the beginning of ethical study, which was certainly not earlier than 500 B.C., to A.D. 500. The medieval period of ethics may be dated from A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500, and the modern period from A.D. 1500 onwards. Each period has its characteristic ethical institution. In the Greek period the Greek city state formed the background of the moral life, and the man who performed his duties as a citizen was regarded as a good man. In the medieval period morality was dominated by the Church and, generally speaking, the good life was identified with the holy life or the religious life. In the modern period neither Church nor state are so important in the moral life, and morality is more concerned with the free individual and his rights and duties in relation to other free individuals. While we may regard our three periods as the period of the city state, the period of the Church and the period of the free individual respectively, we must not exaggerate the differences between them. To the present day, our ethical thinking is largely determined by two influences, the free reflection that arose in the Greek city states and the moral tradition of Jews and Christians that was taught by the Church of the Middle Ages.


The study of ethics is an outcome of that development from the level of custom to the level of conscience which we have described in an earlier chapter. When an individual realizes that his conscience shows to him the Tightness of some action which other people regard as wrong, his reflection, if at all thorough, is likely to lead him to the fundamental problem of ethics - what it is in an action that makes it right or wrong, or what is the standard or test by which we discriminate good and bad actions. While ethical reflection of this kind occurred in a vague way in many countries, it was in ancient Greece in the fifth century before Christ that European ethics really began. The Sophists were a group of teachers, generally itinerant, who were primarily concerned with the education of young men for that political career which was open to every freeborn citizen in the city states of Greece. The Sophists lived in an age like our own, when there was a good deal of questioning of the value of established institutions, partly because certain of these institutions had actually outlived their usefulness (the use of Homer as a basis for all literary education, for example), and partly because there occurred at that period one of those outbursts of freedom in human thought that seem to happen periodically in the history of the human race without there being any very adequate reasons for them. The Sophists raised the moral question by asking what in the good life was according to nature, and what was merely a matter of custom or convention. The more revolutionary among them thought that all morality was a matter of human convenience, and that we call things good merely because they suit ourselves or the majority of mankind. To use the famous phrase of one of the greatest of the Sophists: ‘Man is the measure of all things’; he decides for himself what is right and what is wrong, and there is no other standard.

Socrates, who is commonly regarded as the founder of Western philosophy, while he shared to the full the tendency of the Sophists to ask questions about matters of conduct, was less confident than most of his colleagues of his ability to answer these questions. This was especially unfortunate, because he considered that a thorough understanding of the nature of goodness was a necessary condition for living a thoroughly good life. He expressed this view in the maxim ‘Virtue is knowledge’. Socrates’ own personal goodness of character seems to have concealed from him the fact that in the case of most men good will or the purpose to do what is right is needed along with knowledge of the nature of goodness to secure practical goodness of living. Or it may be that Socrates realized this, and that his maxim was simply his way of emphasizing the importance of a knowledge which most people regard as of no importance at all. It is not known whether Socrates himself ever made an explicit statement that morality is a matter of nature and not of custom, but this was almost certainly his view. He quoted with approval the saying ‘Know thyself’,1 and this suggests that he realized that a knowledge of human nature is important for the good life, or even perhaps that goodness is natural in the sense of being based on human nature.

The two great followers of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, pursued systematically that knowledge of ethical matters which Socrates had considered to be essential for virtue. For Plato this knowledge was a metaphysical knowledge, chiefly the understanding that the real world is not the world which is perceived by our senses, but a world of realities, which Plato called ‘ideas’, and which are perfect types corresponding to those things that exist in imperfect forms in the world that is known to us through perception. The most fundamental of these realities is the ‘idea of the good’, and whatever else this implies it certainly means that goodness is natural in the sense that it is the most fundamental fact about the universe. Aristotle accepted in general the ethical position of Socrates and Plato, although there was a marked difference in his philosophical outlook, for temperamentally he was more interested in the concrete details of the moral life than in the abstract underlying principles, and we have in his Ethics not a description of an ideal community as we have in the Republic of Plato, but an analysis of the moral life as it was found in the Greek city states of his own day. Aristotle too, however, fully realized the importance of ethical knowledge.

It is perhaps an indication of the greatness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that, while most later schools, of ethics have claimed them as among their founders, they cannot be labelled with the name of any particular ethical school. What they taught was the need and the importance of understanding the nature of goodness and, although they did not put it in this way, the truth that goodness belongs to the nature of things. To understand goodness means to understand the nature of the universe as a whole, and particularly that part of it we call human nature.

There were two groups contemporary with Plato and Aristotle in which one of the fundamental cleavages between later ethical schools is already found. The Cyrenaics held explicitly that a good action is one which gives pleasure, and this is the view called hedonism which has persisted as one of the great ethical theories until our own day. The Cynics, on the other hand, held that the good life consisted in being independent of human desires and their satisfaction, so that for them pleasure had no connexion with goodness. In later Greek thought, the Cyrenaics were followed by the Epicureans, who had a more developed theory of pleasure being the one good at which men ought to aim, while the Cynics were followed by the Stoics, who found the good life in the avoidance of feeling and the rational pursuit of duty.

The Stoics taught explicitly that goodness is natural, for the laws of morality are the laws of nature, perfectly rational and so comprehensible to human reason. As the desire for pleasure was of all things the most likely to lead men away from rational living, this was to be altogether avoided. In their emphasis on rational knowledge, the Stoics were true disciples of Socrates. We have in the Epicureans and the Stoics two ways of looking at the moral life. The Epicureans held that good things are those that satisfy our human desires, and particularly the desire for pleasure; this is the fundamental view of the moralists called Utilitarians in modern times. The Stoics held that a good action is an action done in accordance with some principle known to reason; this is the view of Kant and the many moralists influenced by him in modern times


The spread of Christianity in Europe meant that a new emphasis was given to the individual. This helped to change the Greek outlook which had identified the good man with the good citizen and had regarded ethics as a part of politics. It also meant that more attention was given to the inner aspect of morality; it was a man’s inner motives that indicated his true spiritual state and fitted him for the life of heaven, which was the aspiration of every good man. Yet, on the whole, the Middle Ages did not encourage moral speculation and the consequent development of ethical theory. The standard of right and wrong had been given finally beyond dispute in the revelation of God’s law in the Bible as it was interpreted by the Church, and to raise doubts or to ask questions was dangerous heresy if not impious blasphemy which the Church had the power to punish with a becoming severity. All that was left for ethics to do was to deduce from the principles and illustrations provided by the Bible and the Church the particular applications of these to individual cases, and so we find in the Middle Ages the teaching of casuistry or applied ethics taking a very large place. The degradation of casuistry, which has given the word its modern evil suggestion, belongs to a slightly later period.


In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Church lost the authority which it had held over the larger part of Europe for nearly a thousand years. One cause of this was an outburst of individualism, emphasizing human freedom and human accomplishment, which was largely brought about by a revival of Greek learning with its evidence of what man could accomplish apart from the Christian revelation; another cause was the division and consequent weakening of authority of the Church itself. Whatever the causes may have been, and they were by no means as simple as our statement has suggested, individual men were no longer willing to accept the decision of the priest as the final word in moral matters. Many in religious circles tried to find in the words of the Bible itself the moral authority that had formerly been given to priest and Church, and for Protestantism the final moral standard was the teaching of the Bible with a great deal of liberty of individual interpretation. More reflective people, however, felt impelled to look for a standard of right and wrong that was intelligible and acceptable to their reason, and these are the standards which we will have to examine critically in the following chapters. The various views may be classified as follows:

  1. Some thinkers maintained that the difference between right and wrong was merely subjective, depending upon the attitude of the individual making the moral judgement. For example, what a man likes is regarded by him as right; what he dislikes is regarded by him as wrong. We may include in this group all who maintain that the difference between right and wrong is merely a human convention. This had been the view of the more extreme Sophists in ancient Greece, and it became the view of all the more sceptical among modern thinkers.

  2. Some thinkers maintained that the difference between right and wrong was known by direct insight or intuitively, and the more extreme of them held that this is all that can be said about it. A moderate intuitionism was maintained both by the moral sense school of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and by the Scottish ‘commonsense’ school led by Reid in the eighteenth century.

  3. Some thinkers maintained that the difference between right and wrong is based on some law, but there were many different views of the nature of that law. The Greek Stoics had suggested that the moral law was both a law of nature and a law of reason, and this view was held by the greatest Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas. In the eighteenth century we find two schools of thought as to the laws underlying morality. For the one school the moral law is a law of human nature to be revealed by a study of man’s psychological constitution. Butler is the leading moralist of this school, but similar views were held by Adam Smith and Hume. All of these attempted to analyse conscience or the moral sense psychologically and so to discover the basis of morality. The other school emphasized the view that the moral law is a law of reason. We find this view in the Cambridge Platonists, Clark and Wollaston, among English philosophers, and in Kant, the German philosopher. Through Kant, this view has been developed in the modern idealism of Hegel and his followers, who maintain that the moral law is a law of logic and consequently a law of nature, for it is their metaphysical view that the structure of the universe is logical throughout.

  4. Some thinkers maintained that the difference between right and wrong depends on the result of our actions, and particularly on their power of satisfying our desires and causing pleasure to ourselves and others. We have seen this view in the Greek schools of the Cyrenaics and Epicureans, and in the modern period it has been maintained by the great school of English Utilitarians, including John Stuart Mill and Sidgwick.

All these types of ethical theory have been affected by various influences in the course of their development. In the eighteenth century the associationist psychology prevalent among English philosophers undoubtedly led such moralists as Butler, Hume, and Smith to study ethics by attempting to analyse conscience into its elements. In the nineteenth century, the study of evolution in biology affected more than one type of ethical theory, as well as trying to offer a purely evolutionary explanation of the nature of good and bad. The theory that pleasure is the moral standard was developed on evolutionary lines by Herbert Spencer; the theory of idealism was developed on evolutionary lines by Hegel in Germany and T.H. Green in England; and the theory that morality merely depends on human likes and dislikes has been developed in the modern theory of ethical relativity by Westermarck, who takes full advantage of the evolutionary study of the development of the sentiments. Another influence which has strongly affected ethical study in our own day has been the analogy of moral goodness with other forms of value. The moral sense school of the eighteenth century made a rather simple analogy between goodness and beauty, but the development of economics and the study of the nature of art have led men to examine more closely the nature of value, and there is a tendency to try to discover the nature of goodness by seeing its place in the scheme of values. Today, under me influence of Bergson and others, the creative aspect of artistic activity is suggesting a similar creativeness in the doing of good actions.

This is Part of Online Coaching & Study Kit of IAS Mains General Studies - IV

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