Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Modern Trends in Ethical Thought

Alice C. Linsley


Adam Smith                            1723-1790
Immanuel Kant                        1724-1804
Jeremy Bentham                      1748-1832
Arthur Schopenhauer               1788-1860
Charles Darwin                        1809-1882
Karl Marx                                 1818–1883
Nietzsche                                 1844-1900
Kierkegaard                             1813-1855
Margaret Sanger                       1883-1966

“It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”--Jeremy Bentham

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”--Nietzsche

When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race.”--Margaret Sanger

The ideal Renaissance individual, termed “Renaissance Man,” has wide interests and is expert in numerous areas: art, literature, philosophy, sciences and math. Such inquisitive and ardent learners stand out in every generation. They are people who think for themselves and are eager to investigate, explore and discover. These individuals gained recognition through outstanding personal achievements. Such people are willing to try different ways of doing things: new techniques in painting; new literary styles, and new perspectives on the world. They are optimistic about the potential of human reason and creativity.

This optimism characterized both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment there was a continued emphasis on individual accomplishment in the West. This spirit of inquiry paved the way for the Modern Era. People began to express new ways of thinking philosophically and to experiment in laboratories. They invented new machines and developed new technologies. Adventurers like Charles Darwin explored distant lands and encountered unfamiliar species of plants and animals.

As during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the great breakthroughs of the Modern Era were the result of individual achievements. Consider this list of significant contributions made by individuals between 1605 and 1775:

·        Johannes Kepler discovered first law of planetary motion (1605)
·        Galileo develops his first telescope (1609)
·        Isaac Newton publishes Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he formulated fundamental laws of gravity and motion (1687)
·        Francis Bacon developed inductive method of reasoning
·        René Descartes revolutionized algebra and geometry, and developed deductive method of reasoning
·        Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen (1774)

Advancement in Science Depends on Individuals
As the American historian Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the great breakthroughs in science were made by individuals: Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein are examples. None were part of a scientific community. Add to this list Darwin, Marx, and Freud, none of whom were academics working within institutions. All brought about a “paradigm shift” that would greatly influence the shape, perspective, and development of new fields.

A prime example of the contribution of individuals to science is Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). He came from a family of Dutch tradesmen and never attended the university. He was not part of the scientific community. Yet his curiosity and hard work led Leeuwenhoek to some of the most important discoveries in the history of biology. He discovered bacteria, free-living and parasitic microscopic protists, sperm cells, blood cells, and microscopic nematodes and rotifers. His research radically changed world awareness of microscopic organisms and led to more sanitary conditions in hospitals and homes.

Today we speak of innovators like Kepler and Leeuwenhoek as people who “stepped out of the box.” These individuals were more concerned with discovery than with what people thought of them. They were not afraid to take a risk. The values of individualism and innovation created an environment where individual achievement and discovery was encouraged. This is true in the Occident (western world), but not generally true in the Oriental (eastern word). In the East breaking with the customs and values of one’s ancestors was largely discouraged. This is one reason that the West advanced ahead of the East in science and technology and kept that advantage until the 20th century.

The cultural and intellectual changes in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s produced sweeping changes in Europe and the Americas in the late 1700s, the beginning of the Modern Era. The innovations and discoveries of the 17th and 18th centuries brought about the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Unlike the French and American revolutions, these were largely non-violent events.

The Scientific Revolution

During the Scientific Revolution of the late 1500s and 1600s new tools and machines changed the daily lives of most people. These included the printing press, steam engines, the cotton gin, the telegraph, and the first sewing machine. New technologies were possible because of willingness to experiment and innovate. This was being done on a scale never before seen in Europe.

A fundamental feature of the Scientific Revolution was the development and refinement of the scientific method. The scientific method uses observation and experimentation to test hypotheses about the workings of the material world. This research approach is the basis for modern science and is termed the “empirical method.”

Scientific Method
Courtesy William Harris

The empirical method has validated some theories held from very ancient times such as the mysterious nature of blood (hematology) and proved others to be inaccurate, such as the view that the earth is at the center of the solar system. It has shown some ancient theories to be deficient, though not entirely wrong, such as the binary feature (man-female) required for human reproduction, and the features of bilaterialism and a bicameral brain as precursors of greater complexity.

The binary feature in human perception has been studied by anthropologists, the most famous of whom is Claude Lévi-Strauss who observed binary thinking among preliterate Amazon peoples. Lévi-Strauss showed that both primitive and modern people think in terms of binary sets:  raw-cooked, male-female, dark-light, wet-dry.  He found that binary thinking is one of the "underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity."

The Industrial Revolution

Man is the rational animal with the special genius to establish social controls, organize for war and commerce, and improve his living conditions through innovation and technology. This human potential seemed boundless during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1852), a time in which wealthy industrialists built factories, railroads, and steam ships, and created jobs for workers. The growth of national economies inspired the attitude that progress could be made and problems could be solved. R.M. Hartwell addresses this in his book The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (London: Methuen and Co. 1971). He explains:

The new attitude to social problems that emerged with the industrial revolution was that ills should be identified, examined, analyzed, publicized, and remedied, either by voluntary or legislative action. Thus evils that had long existed—child labor, for instance—and had long been accepted as inevitable, were regarded as new ills to be remedied rather than old ills to be endured  (Hartwell, p. 343).

Indeed many of history’s greatest social reforms took place between 1760 and 1852. In 1791, Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man. Reflecting on the victory of American independence and the message it sent to the old powers of Europe, Paine wrote: “From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen not to be extinguished… it winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed, he scarcely perceives how. He acquires a knowledge of his rights by attending justly to his interest, and discovers in the event that the strength and powers of despotism consist wholly in the fear of resisting it, and that, in order "to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it” (The Rights of Man, chapter 5).

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about women’s rights, arguing against the prevalent paternalistic view of marriage: “The divine right of husbands, like the divine rights of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects)

Between 1830 and 1840 all white males received the right to vote.  Before this only white men who owned land were able to vote. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, some women in some areas were able to vote, but universal suffrage for women was not guaranteed until 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

In 1793, Francis Place organized the first trade strike in Britain. Place was involved with virtually every reform movement that took place in England between 1790 and 1854.
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work that had a profound effect on American sentiments about slavery.

The optimism stirred by economic growth, new inventions, and expanding frontiers in America permeated every area of social and political thought in the 18th century. Capitalism was viewed as a means of economic progress, and in Adam Smith’s celebrated treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, it was presented as the ideal system for the development of wealth. Smith’s treatise was the first serious study of capitalism and the historical development of industry and commerce in Europe.

The emergence of a new class of rich industrialists raised questions about their moral obligation to workers. The greatest critic of the wealth of industrialists was the German Jew Karl Marx, whose book Communist Manifesto became the Bible for Socialists and Communists. Marx addressed the issue of class antagonism. He wrote, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

Marx advocated the uprising of workers against their pay masters and a world without Jews. He regarded his fellow European Jews as greedy businessmen and bankers who corrupted society by lending money at interest (usury). He wrote:

"Money is the zealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money degrades all the gods of mankind and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal and self-constituted value set upon all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world.”

"What is the object of the Jew's worship in this world? Usury. What is his worldly God? Money.”

"Very well then: emancipation from usury and money, that is, from practical, real Judaism, would constitute the emancipation of our time."

Marx’s book The World Without Jews contributed to economic anti-Semitism, an movement that blames the Jews for the negative aspects of capitalism. Marx argued that earning a living by collecting interest of loans is a form of capitalistic exploitation of the working class.

Adam Smith and Karl Marx held diametrically opposite views, yet both greatly influenced political and economic developments in the Modern Era. The opposition of their ideas underscores the Modern Era as a time of ideological opposition and contradiction. The competing modern ideologies expressed themselves in numerous conflicts: World War I, The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), World War II, and the Cold War. In ethics, the contradiction is represented by the Kantian system of deontological ethics and Bentham’s utilitarian ethics.

Ethical Concerns of the Modern Era

Many ethical concerns of the Modern Era hinge on new ideologies such as Socialism, Communism and Fascism. Some arise as responses to philosophical views such as Nihilism, Skepticism, Perspectivism, Existentialism and Supernaturalism. Many ethical concerns of the Modern Era are related to technological advances. Factories created jobs, but not always the best working conditions. Smoke from factories caused air pollution which made living conditions hazardous in large urban centers like London and Chicago.

Here are the main ethical concerns of the Modern Era:

The Ethics of Wealth Creation and Management
Critique of Capitalism
The Evolution of Man and Social Darwinism
The Search for Meaning
Deontological Ethics
Utilitarian Ethics
Modern Romanticism
Nietzsche’s Immoralism
Kierkegaard’s Supernaturalism

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Adam Smith believed that humans were innately compassionate once they were faced with the suffering of others. He argues that this occurs either when we witness the fortune or misfortune of another person, or when the fortune or misfortune is vividly depicted to us. He developed this idea in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In this work, Smith sets down the ethical, philosophical, and methodological foundation for his later best-known work The Wealth of Nations (1776).  The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following assertion:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

Smith believed humans have a natural tendency to care about one another, and asserted that we derive pleasure from seeing other people’s happiness. Smith used the term “sympathy” in a psychological way; that is to imagine oneself in another’s situation, what we call “empathy.” He derived his theory of the imagination from his good friend, David Hume. Smith believed that sympathy arises from an innate desire to identify with the emotions of others. It operates through a logic, whereby a spectator imaginatively reconstructs the experience of the person he watches.

Smith wrote,“As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.”

Smith believed that this innate moral sentiment makes us desire to obey the natural laws. This innate sympathy makes cooperation possible, contributing to good relations and the general social order.

Smith’s optimism about human sympathy and desire to cooperate for the common good was balanced by his recognition of human greed. However, Smith shows that a free market economy does not depend on greed; indeed, Smith's notion of self-interest is quite different to greed. In Smith’s thinking, the wise man will always act in his self-interest to provide for his health and well-being, and do the same for his family. The man who does not act to provide for himself and his family is regarded as morally deficient. But Smith expands this to include actions taken for the well-being of relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. In other words, the wise man must consider the well-being of others along with his personal well-being, performing actions consistent with the highest moral sentiments.

Smith formulated original theories of conscience, moral judgment and the virtues. His enlightened idea of ethics as a science encompasses politics, economics, and law and government.

The Search for Meaning

In his youth, the French philosopher Voltaire advocated a hedonistic lifestyle, embracing worldly pursuits in order “to flee sadness in the arms of pleasure.” There was a hopeless quality to his early thought that resembles the nihilism of the ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias. The nihilist believes that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. This generally produces a sense that life is meaningless. Nihilism is a philosophical dead end because there is nothing to discuss if all truth claims are baseless and no truth can be communicated. Since there is no basis for determining moral values or defining what constitutes happiness, nihilism offers nothing to ethics.

In the ancient world, philosophers discussed happiness as a virtue. In a letter to one of his students, Epicurus wrote, “We recognize pleasure as the first and natural good…” Plato and Aristotle treated happiness as the supreme good, though they did not agree on how happiness was to be achieved. For Aristotle, happiness means thriving in all aspects of one’s life in order to fulfill one’s destiny. For Aristotle, this was largely an intellectual pursuit, though he recognized that happiness is more easily achieved where there is good government and a stable economy.

In the Modern Era, Adam Smith considered happiness to be absolutely dependent upon good government, human kindness, and expanding economic opportunities (capitalism). He articulated a balance between self-interest and the interests of others in order to achieve happiness for the greater number.

Smith did not believe that poverty could be completely eliminated through capitalism. He considered capitalism to be the best approach to building personal fortunes and those who have the resources should use them to help alleviate suffering. This is the philosophy underlying American philanthropy. Some of the greatest public servants were the great American philanthropists of the 19th century.

Smith’s approach has less following in America today. Public welfare and other entitlements administered by the Federal government represent a different approach to the problem of poverty involving redistribution of wealth through taxation of the rich.

While wealth redistribution and programs like food stamps and school lunch subsidies can help to alleviate human suffering, they do not bring meaning to our daily lives. The plague of Modern Man is the loss of meaning or a sense of purpose for one’s life.

Many factors contributed to the loss of meaning in the Modern Era. Philosophical nihilism and a breakdown of close family and communities ties were significant factors, but other factors were significant also. There was a growing sense that humans are insignificant in comparison to the immensity of the expanding universe. The new scientific materialism stressed that the existence of God or the soul cannot be proved and tended to portray people of faith as deluded individuals. Social Darwinism had the effect of reducing the value of human life, especially that of infants, minorities, the poor, the handicapped, and the mentally retarded.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The influence of Darwin’s writings, especially The Origin of Species, was pervasive and the cause of great debate at the dawn of modernism. Darwin introduced the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. His writings presented evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. Darwin included evidence that he had gathered on the Beagle expedition in the 1830s and through subsequent research.

A youthful Charles Darwin
Painted after his voyage on the Beagle (1931-1936)

Darwin’s ideas have been applied to social patterns in the works of social Darwinians. In their view, societies can evolve through the mechanism of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” He was an early social Darwinist, along with Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. They believed an ideal society might be achieved through discouraging the reproduction of inferior humans. From the beginning, social Darwinism had racial overtones.

Since 2002, state governments in Virginia, Oregon, and South Carolina, have published apologies to tens of thousands of women who were sterilized against their will in state hospitals between the 1900s and 1960s. In March 2003, California Governor Gray Davis and Attorney General Lockyer issued statements of regret for the injustices committed in the name of "race betterment.” The involuntary sterilization laws, enacted in the early 1900s, were not repealed until 1979.

Darwinism and eugenics became comrades in demonstrating that traits such as disease and lack of intelligence were inherited and that selecting against these traits would benefit society. The idea targeted the poor, although history has shown that many great contributors to societal good have been people who began their lives in poverty. The leading 20th century economist, John Maynard Keynes, was a staunch eugenicist who served as the director of the Eugenics Society in Britain from 1937 to 1944.

In the United States, eugenics persisted among the intellectual “elite” and was supported by racial discrimination. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was a member of the American Eugenics Society, an organization that promoted sterilization of poor, mostly black women. Sanger said, “The most merciful thing that a family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

Eugenics became less attractive when many of the elite became poor as a result of the Great Depression. Popularity of the Darwinian ideal of a “higher humanity” further declined when the atrocities of the Holocaust became more widely known. Social Darwinism found expression in the Nazi dogma of a superior Aryan race.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

The work of Immanuel Kant is unusual in that he proclaimed duty, not happiness, to be the supreme ethical motivation. He insisted that the only way a person can be happy is in the fulfillment of his duty simply because it is his duty.  Kant holds that “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.”  Such action has in itself the fruit of happiness.

Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a human being's will in fulfilling his duty.” According to Kant, the nature of morality is to do one’s duty even when we are not inclined to do it. Someone who does his duty to appear virtuous is not moral. Someone who does his duty to get it over and done with, or to avoid negative consequences, is not moral. The moral person does his duty simply because it is his duty. This is called “deontological ethics.”

Kant called the central principle of his ethical theory the “Categorical Imperative.” His moral philosophy involves three formulations: the Formula of Universal Law, the Formula of the End in Itself, and the Formula of Autonomy.

The “Formula of Universal Law” holds that it is morally imperative to chose actions that correspond to universal laws of nature. According to Kant, “the agent’s maxim” is the person’s action paired with its motivation. For example: "I will steal for personal benefit." Stealing is the action, and the motivation is to get what I desire. Paired together they form my maxim. To judge the morality of my maxim I now must imagine a world in which everyone in my situation steals for personal benefit. What kind of world would that be?  It would be futile, contradictory and irrational since none would benefit in a world where everyone steals.  Since such a world is clearly irrational, acting on my maxim to steal for personal benefit is not moral. However, if I can imagine an action and motivation in the possible world where there is no contradiction or irrationality, acting on that maxim is permissible, and probably morally required.

Kant’s “Formula of the End-in-Itself,” commands that one treat all humans as an end and never merely as a means to an end. This approach upholds the dignity of each individual human. Kant writes, “He who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another man merely as a mean, without the latter containing at the same time the end in himself. For he whom I propose by such a promise to use for my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my mode of acting towards him, and therefore cannot himself contain the end of this action.”

The “Formula of Autonomy” is a synthesis of the first two and is the basis for the "complete determination of all maxims." Act consistent with your maxims as a legislator of universal laws. The focus shifts from our status as universal law followers (Formula of Universal Law) to universal law givers. In order to be legislators of universal laws, we are required to conform our actions and decisions to principles that express the autonomy of our rational will. The Autonomy Formulation stresses the source of our dignity and worth as free rational agents with moral authority to determine the moral laws that bind us.

Kant’s Idea of Happiness

Much of what Kant wrote was an attempt to defend the Christian understanding of God and divine revelation against David Hume’s skepticism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant agrees with Hume that there is no absolute ground to assume the existence of God. However, against Hume, he adds that the idea of God is intrinsically connected to happiness and morality as the “ideal of the supreme good.” In his later treatment on Logic (1800), Kant argues that the idea of God is proved only through the moral law and only with “the intent so as to act as if there be a God.”

Kant argued that the source of the good lies in the human subject, not in nature or divine revelation. A good will is one that acts from duty in accordance with the universal moral law that the autonomous human being freely applies to himself. This law obliges one to treat humanity as an end in itself rather than as something to be used to achieve ends selfish ends.

Kant’s moral philosophy represents an absolutist moral system, that is to say that he regarded some acts always to be wrong, regardless of the situation. He falls squarely in the Judeo-Christianity moral tradition and follows Plato and Aristotle.  However, as influential as Kant’s system of Deontological Ethics was, it had its detractors, in the persons of Arthur Schopenhauer, Jeremy Bentham, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher of considerable brilliance. He is unique in intellectual history for being both an atheist and sympathetic to Christianity. He found that it is possible to establish a moral standard which reflects the same values taught by the great religions of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This moral standard applies to all human beings and is therefore a universal standard of morality.  It is a standard set by the motive of compassion, which includes the cardinal virtues of natural justice and loving kindness. Schopenhauer explains: “Whoever is filled with compassion will assuredly injure no one, do harm to no one, encroach on no man’s rights; he will rather have regard for everyone, forgive everyone as far as he can, and all of his actions will bear the stamp of justice and loving kindness.”

Schopenhauer was acutely aware of the suffering in the world and believed that the cause of continual strife and sorrow is conflict between individual wills. The world is a place of unsatisfied wants and suffering. He echoes Adam Smith’s idea of “sympathy,” maintaining that when the moral will feels another’s hurt as its own, it makes an effort to relieve the pain.

In his most important work, The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer stresses a Buddhist-like renunciation of worldly desires as a way to escape pain (Schopenhauer studied Buddhist and Hindu texts). Escape is possible through the eradication of our desires and instincts, what he called “a negation of the will.” He also advocated temporary relief of pain through philosophy, art, and especially music.

An early animal rights advocate, Schopenhauer said, “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality."

Schopenhauer’s Argument with Kant

Kant claimed that virtuous living results from practical reason. Schopenhauer claimed that virtuous conduct has nothing to do with reason and may even be opposed to it, as with Machiavelli’s rational expediency. In the face of a bloody civil war in Italy (1502-03) that involved mass killing, street assassinations, and widespread anarchy, Machiavelli wrote:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.  Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency.  Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty.  And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

In other words, reason might lead, as it does in Machiavelli’s mind, to actions which in most contexts are regarded as immoral. Schopenhauer discredited Kant’s moral system on mainly because it is based on individual duty. He believed that the individual’s sense of duty cannot be the grounds for every moral decision or action. Instead he emphasized that a study of the great world religions suggests a universal moral code which he expressed in these words:  “Don't do to another what you don't want done to you.”

Schopenhauer’s Views on the State

Schopenhauer was a citizen of Prussia, the first government to implement compulsory public education (1819), with the goal of producing citizens who thought alike about major issues. Other components Prussian state control included public pensions, laws prohibiting citizens to bear arms, state identification papers, and military conscription. Unlike Hegel, who taught philosophy at several Prussian universities as an employee of the state, Schopenhauer tried to avoid being co-opted by the Prussian thought police. Not surprisingly, his political views were quite contrary to those of Hegel.

This is what Schopenhauer wrote about Hegel and his state-loving cohorts: “It is easy to see the ignorance and triviality of those philosophers who, in pompous phrases, represent the state as the supreme goal and greatest achievement of mankind and thereby achieve the apotheosis of philistinism.”
Schopenhauer’s view of the state is one that Americans would share. He believed in the separation of the branches of government to create a system of checks and balances. He writes in The World as Will and Representation:

“The State is nothing more than an institution of protection, rendered necessary by the manifold attacks to which man is exposed, and which he is not able to ward off as an individual, but only in alliance with others. [This] protection [includes] the safeguarding of private right. But, as is usual in things human, the removal of one evil generally opens the way to a fresh one, [which requires] protection against the protection… This seems most completely attainable by dividing and separating from one another the threefold unity of protective power, the legislative, the judicative, and the executive, so that each is managed by others, and independently of the rest.”

Like Hobbes, Schopenhauer saw the brutishness of human existence, but unlike Hobbes, he believed that the solution was to be found in increased knowledge, not in the protection of the State. He wrote:
“This world is the battle-ground of tormented and agonized beings who continue to exist only by each devouring the other. Therefore, every beast of prey in it is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of torturing deaths. Then in this world the capacity to feel pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree that is the higher, the more intelligent the man” (On the Vanity and Suffering of Life).

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Bentham was a British philosopher, economist and lawyer who formulated utilitarianism. Like Schopenhauer, he was an advocate of animal rights. Unlike Schopenhauer, he supported broad government involvement in citizen’s affairs. Bentham’s philosophy is the opposite of Kant’s deontological ethics. He does not see universal moral laws that are binding on all people at all times and in all places. For Bentham, what makes a law or policy right is its utility in bringing “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” This is called the “happiness principle” or the “principal of utility.”

Bentham’s approach to moral choices is based on the “principle of utility” (borrowed from Hume), and the “principle of extension.” The first directs us to decisions that increase the happiness of the greatest number of people across the social spectrum. The second directs us to decisions that increase the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. Bentham hoped that British law makers would apply this approach when considering new laws.

Bentham's so-called “happiness principle” refers to the extent to which actions promote the general happiness. What is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, and creates the least amount of pain. He writes, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

While Kant identified happiness with moral duty, Bentham identified happiness with pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In Introduction of the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.”

Bentham thoroughly rejected the Enlightenment belief in natural law on the grounds that no two people could agree what is was. He also rejected the notion of natural rights because such an idea seemed to stir violence and bloodshed, such as were witnessed in the French Revolution. If there is no natural law and no natural rights then no class of actions can be categorized as immoral. Instead it is the consequences of an action that indicate whether it is immoral or moral. Here we see how Bentham departs most moral philosophers who believe that some kinds of actions (murder and adultery, for example) are always intrinsically wrong and should never be done. Bentham, on the other hand, believes that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences and that no class of action is intrinsically wrong. His approach to moral philosophy is called “consequentialist.”

Bentham believed that real rights were established by laws enacted by lawmakers.  He proposed many legal and social reforms himself, not on the basis of natural rights, but on the basis of his utilitarian principle of extension, that is how widely the pains and pleasures of a law or policy will be felt across the social spectrum. This is not as subjective as it may first appear. Bentham developed what he called a “felicific calculus” which enabled him to estimate the amount of pleasure and pain likely to come as a consequence of an action or policy.

Bentham held that calculating the pleasures and pains caused by a course of action involves a commitment to human equality. The principle of utility presupposes that “one man is worth just the same as another man” and so there is an egalitarian guarantee that “each person is to count for one and no one for more than one.”

Bentham's moral philosophy reflects his view that the primary motivators in human beings are pleasure and pain. He argues that, if pleasure is the good, it is good regardless of whose pleasure it is. This being the case, the pursuit of maximum pleasure has moral force independent of the interests of the individual acting. As with Adam Smith, Bentham holds that individuals should seek the general happiness simply because the interests of others are inextricably bound up with their own. He proposes that the identification of interests and the bringing together of diverse interests is the responsibility of lawmakers.

Bentham’s utilitarianism met with opposition in Nietzsche’s perspectivism, which we consider next.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Nietzsche called himself an “immoralist” and criticized the thought of just about every moral philosopher.  He wrote, “Whether it be hedonism or pessimism or utilitarianism or eudaemonism: all these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and suffering, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naïvetés which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down on with derision” (Peoples and Fatherlands, 7:225).

Nietzsche’s moral framework is his own peculiar interpretation of history. He says that history reveals two kinds of morality, the morality of the masters and the morality of the slaves. The master morality ascribes to itself noble qualities such as bravery, daring, truthfulness and blondness, but regards inferiors as swarthy cowards, given to lies and vulgarity. Nietzsche’s philosophy calls for the strong of the world to assert their power and it glorifies conquerors like Alexander the Great and Napolean.
According to Nietzsche, the weak constructed a different system of values and morals which stressed humility, sympathy and cooperation among themselves as the underdog.  He called this “a transvaluation of values” and he blamed it on the Jews. He wrote, “It was the Jews who, reversing the aristocratic equation (good = noble = beautiful = happy = loved by the gods), dared with a frightening consistency to suggest the contrary equation, and to hold on to it with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of the powerless)” (On the Genealogy of Morals 19).

Nietzsche held that the revolt of the slaves reached it peak in first-century Christianity.  He blamed Christianity for the downfall of ancient Rome, the fatherland of aristocratic virtues embodied in the Caesars. Rome was destroyed, in Nietzsche’s mind, because people began to honor four Jews:  Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul (GM 36).  He argues that the success of Christianity meant the degeneration of the virtuous ideals of power in favor of compassion for the lowly.

He believed that immoral rulers and those who sought world domination embody the highest morality.  He praised Napoleon as one who showed the world what it means to be noble.  He wrote:
“But there are cases where a leader or bell-wether is felt to be indispensable; in such cases people keep trying to set up an aggregation of clever herd-men in place of real commanders: that is the origin, for instance, of all parliamentary constitutions.  But what a blessing, in spite of everything, what a release from an increasingly unbearable burden is the appearance of an absolute commander of these herd-Europeans!  This was demonstrated most recently by the effect of Napoleon when he appeared on the scene. The history of the impact of Napoleon can be said to be the history of the highest happiness this entire century has achieved…” (Beyond Good and Evil 86).

Nietzsche’s ideal of a master race would require the overthrow of all world religions that emphasize divine authority.  He claimed that modern man no longer needs of the idea of God. He declared that “God is dead” and that the death of God would eventually lead to the loss of every universal perspective. Once this happens, there can no longer be any coherent sense of objective truth. Instead we would be guided in our moral decisions by only our own perspectives.

Some argue that Nietzsche’s view renders all truth so subjective that the very idea of truth becomes meaningless. However, this is not Nietzsche’s intention.  He places a high value on truth as blunt honesty, especially among those who would be masters. What Nietzsche calls honesty is the opposite of compassion and sympathy.  Nietzsche’s highest virtue is cruelty justified by power. Nietzsche calls for the strong in the world to break their self-imposed chains and assert their power and vitality upon the world.  Nietzsche admits that “a philosophy that dares to do this has already placed itself beyond good and evil” (BGE 7).

Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra about how the Übermensch (Superman) must create the noble values of power, enthusiasm for war, and world domination to bring human existence to a new level. “Renouncing war,” Nietzsche wrote, “means renouncing the great life” (TI 23).

For Nietzsche the “will to power” is the secret of life and the destiny of humanity.  He believes that a historical figure will arise who will bring perfection to the world.  He describes this figure as a “Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ.” His methods will include predation and biological engineering (eugenics) of human populations. Perhaps his entire ethical view is best summarized in this grotesque statement:

The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape, and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student's rag.... When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a "Master," when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him?... To judge morality properly, it must be replaced by two concepts borrowed from zoology: the taming of a beast and the breeding of a specific species.

Nietzsche has been the subject of numerous psychological studies. Some believe that his paranoia and grandiosity were products of a mind affected by advanced stage syphilis, which he had.  According to the memoirs of his sister, who cared for him, the signs of third-stage syphilis became acute in the last years of Nietzsche’s life.

Nietzsche devoted much of his writings to demonstrating that Christianity is irrational and degrading. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard agreed with the first part of Nietzsche’s evaluation of Christianity, but not the second part. Kierkegaard believed that the validity of Christianity was not dependent on its reasonableness and that the individual’s unique identity in the universe is derived from taking possession of his nature as a creature of God. Far from being degrading, Kierkegaard saw Christianity as essential to realize both one’s despair and one’s existential duty.  Here we see the Kantian aspect of Kierkegaard’s ethical thought.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher who was critical of 18th century Romanticism’s emphasis on naturalism. He was also critical of Empiricism’s claim that moral judgment must be based on reason and verifiable data.  Kierkegaard believed that the basis for forming moral judgment is always subjective and that the purpose of Philosophy should be to enhance the individual’s quality of life and freedom. 

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared an overarching realization that anything decided to be meaningful or important must come from within the individual. It is the human race itself that attributes meaning. They both regarded the objective truth of the Enlightenment as a concept that ultimately leads to frustration, despair and anxiety. In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, each philosopher sets out to discover the importance of subjective human emotion, and the role of human freedom in the universe.

In his personal life Kierkegaard suffered from depression. Before age 21, he lost his mother and five of his family members. He never married because he regarded marriage as “the deepest form of revelation” and he doubted that he could so thoroughly self-reveal as to fulfill his ideal of marriage. His struggle with depression did not keep him from expressing his ideas. Kierkegaard was an extraordinarily prolific writer, contributing in the areas of philosophy, theology, psychology and social criticism.
Kierkegaard refers to biblical Abraham as a “knight of faith” and sees him as the embodiment of his existentialist philosophy. For Kierkegaard, true individuality comes through surrendering one’s individuality. Abraham discovers his meaning in the cosmos through losing himself in God, but when one tries to explain this to another person, the explanation seems absurd.
Kierkegaard wrote:

 “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?” 

In this statement, Kierkegaard expresses “existential anxiety” or “angst.” Existential angst is not the same as normal fear.  It is not caused by outside events that signal danger, it never leaves, it touches every area of our lives, and it does not respond to counseling or cognitive therapy.

Although the term “existentialism” does not appear in Kierkegaard’s writings, he is regarded as the founder of existentialism. He believed that the value of philosophers’ thoughts should be judged by their lives rather than by their intellectual conceptions. According to Kierkegaard, the individual’s life is the basis upon which he is judged by God. A writer's work is an important part of his existence, but his life as a whole is what ultimately matters to God. This is why he was attracted to the lives of the saints, especially John Climacus, a 6th century monk who spent much of his time in solitude, prayer and fasting.

Here are some of Saint John Climacus’ famous sayings:

A Christian is one who imitated Christ in thought, word and deed. A lover of God is one who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless.

Repentance is a contract with God for a second life.  A penitent inflicts his own punishment upon himself.

Purity is putting on the nature of angels.  It is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart.

He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below. He who has not, only finds joy in possessions.

Humility is a divine shelter which prevents us from seeing our achievements.

It is evident from these sayings that John Climacus was concerned about the cultivation of personal spiritual integrity. This same focus is found in Kierkegaard’s writings.

Kierkegaard’s esteem for Saint John was such that he published Philosophical Fragments under the pen name John Climacus. In this work, Kierkegaard poses three questions:

  • What is the relationship between history (temporal existence) and human consciousness (eternal existence)?
  • Is there any purpose or meaning to events in our temporal existence other than historical interest?

  • Is it possible to base eternal happiness upon historical knowledge?

Kierkegaard’s solution was to find a link between the historical/temporal and the eternal/non-temporal. He does that by explaining that knowledge is by nature miraculous. Drawing of John Climacus’ understanding of spiritual enlightenment, Kierkegaard argues that learning involves a mysterious change that takes place in the learner at a specific moment of existential enlightenment. In this moment, the learner is absolutely certain that he has grasped eternal knowledge. Kierkegaard maintains that this miracle of knowledge is supernatural because it is initiated by God through a series of historical/temporal events.  This enlightenment is highly individual and subjective, and it is unique for every learner.

Kierkegaard further argues that individuals are unable to know anything that is certain except through this supernatural enlightenment.  In this sense, Kierkegaard is a Skeptic. He doubts that humans are able of our own faculties to learn or know anything.

So what makes this miraculous learning possible?  Kierkegaard recognizes that human existence involves suffering, anguish, pain, sickness and death.  That being our plight, we naturally desire an escape. This desire is very powerful.  It is a yearning for the eternal that leads us to “leap into absurdity.”

What is the absurdity?  It is the supernatural intervention of the divine Person Jesus Christ entering history, making it possible for us to know that God exists.  The existence of God can’t be proved by reason, by experimentation, by logic or through observation. Only by faith in this divine intervention can one hope to escape the suffering of this life and move from ignorance to enlightenment. This is the “supernaturalism” of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and it is clearly the opposite of the naturalism of Nietzsche and the Romantics.

Whereas Nietzsche rejected common morality in favor of his immoralism, Kierkegaard regarded social norms as the universal measure of service to the community. Even human sacrifice is justified in terms of how it serves the community, so when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia he is performing a tragic sacrifice in order that the Greek expedition to Troy may succeed. Were Abraham’s intention in sacrificing Isaac to gain worldly success, he would simply be another tragic hero like Agamemnon. But as Kierkegaard understands the story of Mount Moriah, it is Abraham’s absolute surrender to God that makes possible his receiving back his offering and much more. Kierkegaard explains, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith …for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”

Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to a creator God as more authoritative than human social norms. Ultimately God's definition of the distinction between good and evil outranks any human definition. He holds up biblical Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, not as an example of obedience to social norms, but as the consequence of a "teleological suspension of the ethical." Abraham recognizes a duty to obey something higher than his fatherly commitment to his son and only proper heir.  (Fear and Trembling)

From Kierkegaard's perspective, the distinction between good and evil is dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible for Abraham to live and act beyond the prescribed norms of his day to fulfill a spiritual destiny that he alone can fulfill. This renders ethical cases such as Abraham's problematic, since we have no public policy to guide our decision about whether Abraham is obeying God's command or is a deluded would-be murderer.

Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy is so personal that it cannot be used to formulate ethical guidelines for society. While existentialism became a popular philosophy in the 20th century, post-modern ethics was influenced more by analytic and linguistic philosophy, and especially the work of the brilliant Ludwig Wittgenstein, who we will consider in Lesson Seven.


The Modern Era was characterized by revolutions in science and technology. These breakthroughs or “paradigm shifts” were the result of gifted and curiosity-driven individuals who worked apart for the scientific community. This was a natural outcome of the optimism and individualism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The scientific method and the industrialization of western societies produced both benefits and hazards. Many ethical concerns arose as the direct result of problems such as air and water pollutions, child labor, growing urban populations, and exploitation of the poor and working classes. This was a time of social reforms in the areas of suffrage, slavery, and guaranteed rights for citizens.

There were different approaches to social reform; some were entirely contradictory. Such is the case with Smith’s capitalism and Marx’s socialism; and Kant’s deontological ethics and Bentham’s utilitarian ethics. The opposition of their ideas underscores the Modern Era as a time of ideological contradiction.

During the Enlightenment and the Modern Era, thinkers continued to address the question of happiness as the chief Good. For Hobbes, happiness meant being protected by the State. For Rousseau, it meant returning to Nature to live as the Noble Savage, without interference from the State. For Descartes it meant loving life without fear of death. He wrote, "One of the main points of my own ethical code is to love life without fearing death.”

In Bentham’s utilitarian ethics, happiness requires that laws be based on of his principle of extension. A good law will be felt across the social spectrum as beneficial, not detrimental. He developed a system for measuring the level and extent of happiness – his “felicific calculus.” He wrote, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham’s approach seems to work best in smaller, more homogeneous societies, such as England was in his time. In multicultural societies it is much more difficult to formulate laws that benefit everyone. Consider how difficult it has been for Congress to agree on the issues of gun control and immigration reform.

For Nietzsche, the “will to power” was the secret of a good life and the destiny of humanity. He believed that history tells the story of masters and slaves. Masters are the heroic figures because they establish their own moral guidelines. They are above the law that binds slaves, and autonomous of the moral conventions of society. Happiness for Nietzsche results when one places oneself beyond good and evil (immoralism).

Kierkegaard held that true fulfillment is found only when the individual surrenders individuality by losing oneself in God. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard recognizes a moral authority greater than that of social norms, but he rejects Nietzsche’s “will to power” as the highest moral duty. Instead, Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to God as the Creator. While Nietzsche urges going beyond good and evil, Kierkegaard argues that the distinction between good and evil is dependent on God in whom the individual’s spiritual destiny rests. In this, Kierkegaard is closer to Kant’s idea of happiness and God is as being intrinsically connected and the “ideal of the supreme good.”

Nihilists viewed modern life as meaningless. The search for meaning was expressed in these lines from a T.S. Elliot poem:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
(Choruses from "The Rock”)

Darwin was taken as an authority on human evolution (though he never studied any human fossils en situ), and the idea developed that humans are in no way special. They are simply animals who have adapted better than their inferior ape relatives. The special nature of humans was further diminished by popular speculation that the universe may contain creatures far superior to humans.

Social Darwinism became a platform for elitist attitudes toward the poor and minorities and led to sterilization projects. Marx advocated a worldwide workers’ revolt and went so far as to exalt a world without his own Jewish people. Nietzsche likewise blamed the Jews for “a transvaluation of values.” This anti-Jewish sentiment continued to build in Germany and was appropriated by Hitler. Because of these ideological threads, the Modern Era became a period in which the rights of life, liberty and private property were blatantly violated in Europe and America.

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