Theory of Knowledge: Moral Judgement

Sections :

  1. The Realm of Morality
  2. The Nature of Moral Argument
  3. Free Will and Determinism
  4. Brief Survey of Moral Positions
    Lecture: Nietzsche
    Teaching Notes

When people talk of knowledge, they often consider only 'factual' knowledge, like the knowledge we have discussed so far, of scientific or mathematical truths. However, I would also want to say that I know that murdering someone is wrong: I do not just feel or strongly believe this, I know it.
I am aware, of course, that some of the moral truths I know, or claim to know, are not accepted by everyone else. An example is that I am against the death penalty on moral grounds; (one can be against it on practical grounds too, as being ineffective.) But some other people, who hold moral views different from mine and consider the death penalty a just punishment, also claim to have knowledge of moral truths.
What we shall therefore have to discuss in this section is how we justify claims to know moral truths. Whereas in subjects like the natural sciences and mathematics, and even in history, it is generally agreed how we should justify claims to knowledge, (even if there are of course times when it is not known whether a particular proposition is true or not,) there seems to be no such consensus on when to accept a proposition as expressing a moral truth. So we shall have to consider the nature of moral propositions, and the grounds on which we can claim to know them to be true.

Note that whereas ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with moral values, the ethics or morals of an individual or a group are the values according to which they act.

1. The Realm of Morality

Exercise 1.1

We have distinguished before between three types of propositions: empirical, normative and metaphysical. Which of the following statements express propositions of the three types? Discuss how you would argue for or against each of them.

a.2 + 2 = 5

b.You are a figment of my imagination.

c.That painting is beautiful.

d.Giving is better than taking.

e.Truth is Beauty.

f.The sun is bigger than the moon.

One of the characteristics of normative propositions is that they are categorical, i.e. unconditional, unqualified, absolute. Thus, one of the following statements does not quite make sense. Which one?

a.70% of offenders who have not received corporal punishment re-offend, but only 40% of those who have.

b.Corporal punishment is 30% right.

c.30% of the population believe that corporal punishment is right.

d.Corporal punishment is right in 30% of the cases.

Exercise 1.2

We have to distinguish two meanings of the word ''moral''. Try to describe the difference between the statements in the following pairs.

a.They had a moral debate. -- They always acted very morally.

b.Prostitution is immoral. -- The problem of prostitution is amoral.

Note that some words can be used either morally or amorally (i.e. non-morally.) Try to describe the differences between the statements in the following pairs.

a.That was a good meeting. -- That was a good deed.

b.He had a good life. -- He led a good life.

c.What they said was right. -- They did the right thing.

Moral actions typically involve a person, the 'agent', doing something and a person or some thing which something is done to, the 'recipient' of the action, (who may be the same as the agent: for instance when I do something, like reading good books, to improve myself.)

Exercise 1.3

In which way do you think the following figure in our moral discourse: as agents, as recipients of actions, both, or neither?

a.inanimate objects,

b.our natural environment,


d.small children,

e.responsible adults.

Think of examples of situations where we would not hold someone morally responsible for something they have done.

One of the basic choices we make -- and it is itself a moral choice -- is to what actions we apply moral judgments, and we can evade moral criticism by restricting the range of what we consider moral.

Conservatives have often of course proved obsessive on the topic of sexuality, viewing morality as about adultery rather than armaments, sexual deviancy rather than starvation.

Democracy is not the absence of ranking: on the contrary, it involves privileging the interests of the people as a whole over the interests of anti-social power-groups. Everyone subscribes to some hierarchy of values, a commitment which is arguably constitutive of the self. As Charles Taylor puts it [in Sources of the Self, 1989]: ''To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.'' Valuing belongs with social identity, and social life would grind to a halt without it.

Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, 1996.

  1. One can consider politics as outside morality, an area where only expediency counts: for instance, how one distributes the tax burden, or whether one should sign the Chemical Weapons Convention;
    alternatively one can think of the actions of politicians as moral or immoral, like those of other members of society.
  2. One can consider minor actions as outside morality: for instance jumping the queue, or 'borrowing' a teabag from a fellow-student;
    alternatively one can think of all actions as moral or immoral, and revealing of (or even constituting) the person's moral character.
  3. One can consider events which no-one has deliberately brought about as outside morality: for instance the damage we are inflicting on the environment;
    alternatively one can take the view that we are responsible for all foreseeable consequences of our actions, especially those we benefit from, (such as, in the case of the environment, low energy costs.)
  4. One can adjust the definitions of one's terms in such a way that certain actions are outside morality: if a negro is not quite human, then there may not be much wrong with having black slaves;
    this is unavoidable, but we should be consistent in our definitions, and lay ourselves open to being challenged on them, (as Shakespeare's Shylock is challenging how he as a Jew is classed:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions ...? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?)

Exercise 1.4

Give other examples of the different ways sketched above, to avoid moral judgment, or evade moral criticism.
Can you think of other such ways of considering actions as amoral, or outside morality?

2. The Nature of Moral Argument

Normative propositions can be of different forms:

  1. they can express moral judgments, or non-moral (amoral) judgments;
  2. they can assert that one should or should not do something, or that something or someone is good or bad; and
  3. they can be made generally, or about particular events or actions.

Exercise 2.1

For each of the following value judgments, state whether it is moral or non-moral, whether of obligation or of value, and whether it is general or particular.

a.You deserve to be punished.

b.Democracy is the best form of government.

c.The man who can forgive such carelessness is a saint.

d.I ought not escape from prison now.

e.You just have to go to that concert.

f.That is a good car.

g.All men have a right to freedom.

h.In building a bookcase one should use nails, not just glue.

It is manifest that morality has social aspects: not only do our moral values depend in part on how we have been brought up, but morality is closely related to systems of social regulation, like the law and good manners.

Exercise 2.2

The sociologist David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, 1950, portrayed four moral or social types; try to briefly characterize these types, and give examples.

a.the tradition-directed individual (and/or society,)

b.the inner-directed individual (and/or society,)

c.the other-directed individual (and/or society,)

d.the autonomous individual (and/or society.)

Exercise 2.3

Discuss the following questions.

a.In which respects is morality like the law and unlike conventions?

b.In which respects is morality like conventions and unlike the law?

c.Can a person stranded alone on a desert island act immorally?

d.In which way, if any, do animals figure in our morality?

Some people hold the view that morality is no more than a system of social regulation, or perhaps a kind of personal feeling; or that it is only a matter of opinion anyhow -- and there may be no way of proving such people 'wrong,' (although one may choose not to associate with them ...) These kinds of views are called 'reductionist': they reduce moral value to other, simpler things like statistics, or psychology.
However, even if we often don't agree in our moral judgments, a wide range of values seem to be universal -- in the sense that we might even question someone's humanity if they did not hold them.

What is under ... fire, however, is perhaps less the notion of some practical ranking of priorities than the assumption that such priorities are eternal and immutable. ... But there seems nothing terribly objectionable about absolute hierarchies ... . It is hard to imagine a situation in which tickling the starving would be preferable to feeding them, or torturing people less reprehensible than teasing them.

Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, 1996.

Moreover, even if we often don't agree in our moral judgments, we do seem to think of moral values as objective -- in the sense of being capable of justification by a certain kind of argument; and we do seem able to recognise moral arguments as such, even if personally we hold different values.

Exercise 2.4

How 'moral' do you think each of the following reasons is? What kind of reasons are those that are not moral?

''I believe I shouldn't take someone else's things, because ...

a.the Bible says I shouldn't.''

b.what would happen if everyone did that kind of thing?''

c.I might get caught and punished.''

d.I do not like my things being taken either.''

e.if I did, even if no one knew, I would be a thief.''

f.I would feel so bad afterwards.''

g.I was brought up that way.'' would be a selfish thing to do.''

i.I don't need them.''

j.they need (or want) them as much as I do.''

You will probably agree that some of the above 'moral' arguments are valid while others are not. Try to give general characterisations of those that you consider are moral arguments.

Knowing a mathematical truth requires that one be able to give an appropriate kind of justification: one must be able to prove it, say, or have learnt it from someone of whom one can reasonably suppose that he is able to prove it. Similarly, knowing what time it is requires having looked at a working clock recently, or having heard the time signal on the radio, or having asked someone with a watch; and so on. And knowing moral truths is no different, which is the reason that we consider moral judgments in Theory of Knowledge.
Moral judgment, no less than scientific or historical knowledge, depends on a particular kind of justification. I can therefore recognise the opinion of another person as the result of a moral judgment they have made -- rather than as no more than a prejudice, or a mere expression of their feelings -- even if I do not agree with them. This is one way in which morality is objective, despite the obvious fact that we don't all agree in our moral judgements.

Whatever morality we hold, the requirements we make of moral arguments would presumably include the following:

  1. CONSISTENCY, which includes applying one's moral values equally to oneself and to others, to one's friends and to one's enemies.
    Thus, the declaration of human rights, like Thomas Jefferson's ''All men are created equal ...,'' was originally rather limited in scope:

It was not at all true in practice that everyone -- women, for example, or non-Europeans, or the lower peasantry -- was accorded equal respect. But everyone's freedom mattered in theory, and 'in theory' is a sizeable improvement on its not mattering even as that. It is an improvement not least because middle-class society could now be challenged by those it suppressed according to its own logic, caught out in a performative contradiction between what it said and what it did.

Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, 1996.

  1. DISINTERESTEDNESS, i.e. viewing actions 'sub specie aeternitatis': looking at them 'from eternity,' as it were, not from one's present situation only, here and now.
    Someone who has just had a member of their family murdered, for instance, may not be capable of making a proper moral judgment about the death penalty, as their opinion may be affected by a desire for revenge.
  2. FORETHOUGHT, so that one views one's actions together with their foreseeable consequences.
    When boys and girls start going out, the boys often 'benefit' from the fact that the girls may want to be more deeply involved than the boys feel like being. Instead of taking advantage, boys ought to take into account that the girls may be more liable to be hurt.
  3. RESPONSIBILITY, i.e. being willing to accept one's actions as one's own rather than disowning them.

Exercise 2.5

What, if anything, is wrong with the following denials? What general requirements do they fail to satisfy?

a.''I couldn't help it, I was drunk.''

b.''How could I have known he'd use the gun I sold him to shoot someone?''

c.''I always copy software: firms like Microsoft are so rich anyhow.''

d.''I didn't steal it. I just borrowed it and forgot to give it back.''

e.''Of course I am having fun right now; but when I marry, I am going to make sure my wife is a virgin.''

f.''I didn't have any choice: they threatened to kill me and my family.''

g.''I didn't kill anyone. I was just driving quickly to an important meeting when that silly person walked onto the road.''

h.''God told me to do it.''

In considering moral judgment it is not enough, though, to investigate what kinds of arguments we can use. As with other kinds of knowledge, the justification of a claim to know some moral truth ultimately requires some basis for the argument. In the case of science, for instance, we cannot avoid ultimately going back to perception. In the remainder of this chapter we shall consider different ways in which a morality can be grounded.

3. Free Will and Determinism

(Note that the various '-isms' which will be introduced in the remainder of this chapter are not intended as anything other than convenient labels: there is no agreed way of naming different moral positions.)

A necessary requirement for morality to be possible at all would appear to be that we have free will, or be capable of it: i.e. we must be free to do as we choose (-- which is, however, different from behaving randomly!) How else can we be responsible for our actions, and they subject to moral judgment?

Exercise 3.1

Discuss what it means for a decision -- to study a certain subject at university, for instance -- to have been taken freely. What kinds of things make us unfree?

DETERMINISM is the view that every event, including human volitions and choices, is caused by other events and happens as an effect or a result of these other events, so that the freedom of choice we appear to have is an illusion.

Exercise 3.2

On what grounds might someone hold a determinist position? Try to distinguish different kinds of determinism.
Try to think of some argument against each kind of determinism.

FATALISM is the stronger view -- or perhaps a basic emotional attitude -- that every event occurs according to a fixed and inevitable destiny, over and above mere causality, and that what we do is wholly controlled by something independent of our choices and desires. This is the position expressed in the following limerick:

There was a young man who said: ''Damn!
It grieves me to think that I am
Predestined to move
In a circumscribed groove:
In fact, not a bus, but a tram.''

Exercise 3.3

Fatalism denies the efficacy of the human will and so is clearly incompatible with moral responsibility, but is that true of determinism as well?
Can you see how we might be morally responsible, even if the determinist was right?

Like many philosophical problems, the question of free will and determinism, and whether we can be morally responsible, although it has been discussed and argued about for many centuries, has not been resolved.
But here is an attempt -- based on ideas of the American philosopher Donald Davidson -- that may go some way towards an answer:

While in the world there are only things and events, we can think of events only in terms of their descriptions, such as ''a ball hitting the ground.''
But certain events are capable of having essentially different descriptions: thus, the same event can be described as my arm moving upwards, or as my moving my arm up. The first is a physical description, the second a psychological one in terms of my intention or will.
Similarly, another event can be described as the pulling of a trigger, as the deliberate killing of someone I dislike, or as cold-blooded murder. The first is a physical, the second a psychological, and the third a moral description.
Now, if the different descriptions of an event were such that they could not be translated into each other in an automatic way, then it would be possible for events to be related deterministically, as cause and effect, under the physical description, but not under their moral description.
What kind of description we use for an event is a (partly moral) choice we make: it would be odd to talk of the 'love' of the electron for the positive plate, but immoral to talk of the holocaust without taking a moral stand. So if we choose to talk of human actions in moral terms, then we can assume free will and avoid the conflict with determinism.

Exercise 3.4

To give substance to the above very brief summary of a difficult philosophical argument, try to answer the following questions:

a.What might be the cause of my arm moving upwards, and what the reason for my moving my arm up?

b.Which of the following descriptions would you consider as physical, which as psychological, and which as moral?

They share many interests and enjoy one another's company.
They are close friends.
They spend a lot of time together.

c.Give physical, psychological and moral descriptions of some other events.

d.Have you come across words or sentences in your language that it has not been possible to translate completely into another language, so that you could not express the same thing in the other language?

4. Brief Survey of Moral Positions

There are different outlooks on which a person's morality may be based, and on the basis of which they put forward moral arguments. It is helpful to divide these into three groups.
(The philosophers whose names are here associated with particular views are representative only; and in most cases a range of different versions and developments of the basic position can be found. It is also worth bearing in mind that these are philosophical positions, and that in many cases the advocates of a view may not have lived by it themselves ... )

  1. Non-Moral Positions :

On some accounts of morality there are no specifically moral values at all, and what we need to do is just give a psychological explanation of the origin of morality, or to 'explain morality away.'

One version of this is ETHICAL EGOISM (from Lat. ego, I) put forward by Thomas Hobbes, 1588 -1679, a political philosopher (Leviathan, 1651.)
Rather than trying to justify moral values or judgments, ethical egoism merely accounts for them in terms of man's character: starting from the principle that everyone always acts out of self-interest, it maintains that an action is called right just because it is in the interest of the agent.
It is because homo homini lupus
[''man is as a wolf to man''], so that in the state of nature there is bellum omnium contra omnes [''war of all against all''] and the life of man is ''solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,'' that people must submit to the absolute supremacy of the state, the great Leviathan, which is pictured as like a human being, whose health is peace, and whose soul is the sovereign: he establishes morality, he creates the law.
(The opposite of egoism is ALTRUISM (from Lat. alter,
the other,) according to which the good of others is the ultimate end for any moral action.)

  1. Heteronomous Positions :

On some other accounts there are moral values according to which we should act, but these are derived from the non-moral consequences our actions have, such as individual pleasure, or happiness. Therefore such theories are called consequentialist or teleological (from Gk. telos, end, purpose.) According to consequentialist views, the morality of an action is determined solely by its consequences.

A typical example is UTILITARIANISM (from Lat. utilitas, usefulness, advantage,) which was founded by Jeremy Bentham, 1748 -1832, and then developed by John Stuart Mill, 1806 -1873.
According to Bentham, our actions should maximize the balance of pleasure over pain, for which he devised scales to be able to compare them; and since a greater interest should not be given up for a smaller one, the morally right action is that which produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Whereas Bentham had only recognised the intensity of pleasures and pains, so that ''quality of pleasure being equal, [the game of] push-pin is as good as poetry,'' Mill distinguished pleasures and pains of different qualities and maintained that ''it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.''
And whereas according to Bentham the utilitarian principle was to be applied to each action separately, Mill argued that it should be used to establish moral rules which would generally produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

  1. Autonomous Positions :

On the third kind of outlook, moral value resides in some aspect of the action itself, and depends either not at all or only partly on its consequences: after all, these consequences can often not be foreseen. Such theories are called non-consequentialist or deontological (from Gk. deon, duty.) Deontological theories claim, variously, that the morality of an action depends on its intrinsic nature, or on its motives, or on its being in accordance with some rule or principle.

An example of such a position is the FORMALISM of Immanuel Kant, 1724 -1804: if morality is to be objective and universal, it can only be founded on pure reason, and reason has two kinds of demands: whereas Immanuel Kant. 19kBa 'hypothetical imperative' tells me how to act to reach a particular end, the 'categorical imperative' dictates a course of action because it is right.
This categorical imperative, which is the only moral law, characterizes the form of moral actions and is in fact a restatement, in logical form, of 'the golden rule' -- to do unto others as you would have others do unto you: ''Act only on a maxim which you can will, through your action, [without logical contradiction] to become a universal law'' (Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, 1785.) This being the only moral law, moral worth can be accorded to an action, however beneficial etc. it may be, only in so far as it is done out of a duty to follow its requirement.
Kant further derives a principle that has been adopted by various modern philosophers, that one must treat others as ''in every case an end, never as a means only.''

Exercise 4.1

Try to construct moral arguments for protecting the environment according to each of the three positions outlined above.

Exercise 4.2

Using examples to illustrate your points, discuss what it is that we make moral judgments of: is it the agent, his action, his motives, or something else?

Exercise 4.3

Choose one of the moral positions from the overview below, and prepare a brief résumé (summary) of it, for presentation to the class in a lesson.

  1. Non-Moral Positions :
    1. ETHICAL EGOISM : Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1679)

Whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good; and the object of his hate and aversion evil. ... these words are ever used with relation to the person that useth them; there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651.

      'Deep down' all our actions are based on self-interest, so that even so-called good deeds are done just for the satisfaction we get -- presumably because that is how we have been brought up.

A counter-argument by Bishop Joseph Butler (1692 -1752) :
Suppose B wants A to enjoy the sight of the ocean: the egoist is committing a logical error, in confusing the object of B's desire -- A's enjoying the ocean -- with the satisfaction that results for B when the object is attained. That this is an error can be seen by considering the case of B failing to get A to the ocean, or A not enjoying it: would in that case his lack of satisfaction been B's goal?

    1. PSYCHOLOGISM : David Hume (1711 -1776), Moritz Schlick (1882 -1936)
      In its later positivist version, this view asserts that only analytic propositions, such as ''2 + 2 = 4,'' and empirically verifiable ones have meaning, whereas ethical statements, like metaphysical and religious ones, are factually empty.

The notion of morals implies some sentiment common to all mankind, which recommends the same object to general approbation. ... when a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstance and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language and expresses sentiments in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here ... depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to himself with others. ... [So mankind had to] invent a peculiar set of terms, in order to express those universal sentiments of censure or approbation. ... Virtue and vice become then known; morals are recognized; certain general ideas framed of human conduct and behaviour. ...
I esteem the man whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society; as I hate and despise him who has no regard to anything beyond his own gratifications and enjoyments div class=ref>David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751.

There are various versions of Hume's position, differing in how many people are expected to share the moral sentiments:

        Moral values are variable between people in the same way as taste.
        Moral values may differ, depending on the individual, on their group, on their culture, or on the period in history (HISTORICISM.)

Appealing and open-minded though this appears, cultural relativism, not only in ethics, is not borne out by our experience.

Cultural relativism ... imagines that different cultures are wholly self-validating and mutually incommensurable. Even if there were some sort of rationality in common between them, it would first have to be translated into both cultures' entirely different terms and so, presuming that they could identify it at all, would instantly cease to offer common ground. Hardly anyone actually responds like this when they run into someone from another culture; nobody actually behaves as though there was nothing in common between them, whatever the daunting difficulties of mutual dialogue. But the case has stubbornly survived its empirical implausibility

Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, 1996.

        Moral values reflect judgments that are made universally.

Counter-argument by G. E. Moore: that all such theories are guilty of the 'naturalist fallacy', of deriving normative conclusions from purely factual premises.

It may well be true that everything that is good is also something else (pleasant, for instance), just as it is true that everything that is yellow gives rise to light of a certain kind ... But all too many philosophers have believed that by describing this other they are defining the quality 'good'

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, 1903.

  1. Heteronomous Positions
    1. DIVINE COMMAND THEORY : Saint Augustine (354 - 430), William Paley (1743 -1805)
      The ultimate moral authority lies with God, and the right thing is always to do his will, which is revealed to us generally in the holy scriptures, or personally and directly. This view is of course not limited to Christianity.
    2. Hedonistic Theories :

The only evidence we can produce that something is desirable is that people actually desire it.
... if human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness [-- which here means pleasure --] or a means to happiness, we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable. [He then argues that human nature is so constituted and concludes that pleasure, and pleasure alone, is good as an end, basically at least:]
... pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends

Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863.

      1. Hedonism (from Gk. hédoné, pleasure) :

EGOISTIC HEDONISM : Aristippos (435 - 355), the Cyrenaics
The supreme end of existence is the gratification of one's own immediate personal desires.

RATIONAL HEDONISM : Epicurus (341 - 270)
Although nowadays (according to the O.E.D.) an Epicurean is a person ''devoted to refined sensuous enjoyment,'' Epicurus actually did not recommend every momentary pleasure of the flesh; rather, to achieve the good life, a life of moderate and enduring pleasure, a man must cultivate the virtues, particularly prudence, and study philosophy.

      1. Utilitarianism, or universalistic hedonism, in its different forms :

(ACT-)UTILITARIANISM : Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832)
One ought to act in each situation so as achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

RULE UTILITARIANISM : John Stuart Mill (1806 -1873)
One always ought to act according to the rules which will generally achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

Five counter-arguments:
The argument moves from saying that something is the case to saying that something ought to be the case, i.e. it derives a value judgment from a statement of fact.
The 'hedonist paradox': that if we consciously take pleasure as our end, we somehow miss it, while if we pursue and attain other things for their own sakes, we can gain pleasure.
Although, on the whole, actions which we consider as morally good are ones that the utilitarian principle prescribes, are they good because they give rise to the greatest happiness of the greatest number?
If two acts produce the same balance of good over evil, but such that they distribute that balance in different ways -- do they have to be equally right?
''It is quite compatible with the principle of utility that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. ... It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied'' (J. S. Mill.)

    1. Non-Hedonistic Theories
      1. IDEAL UTILITARIANISM : G. E. Moore (1873 -1958)
        Utilitarianism generally defines a 'utility-function' -- as in economics -- from which the value to be maximized is 'calculated', but this value need not be pleasure or happiness, and here is an alternative:
        Of all the actions available in the circumstances one ought to do the one which would produce the most good, things being good not because they are desired, but because it is rational to desire them for their own sakes. (Cf. Intuitionism, below.)
      2. SELF-REALISATIONISM, or PERFECTIONISM : Aristotle (384 - 322), Thomas Hill Green (1836 -1882)
        An individual's highest good is self-realization. If, as Green believed, this can be achieved only in society, then society has an obligation to provide for the good of all its members; this moral position therefore has not only personal but can have wider political implications.

Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue ... [which] is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle ... by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

  1. Autonomous Positions
      There exist moral values independently of the attitudes of any individuals.

Plato (?427 - ?347) :
For Plato, morality is less a matter of rules or principles than of dispositions, or traits of character: his is an ethics of virtue.
To be virtuous is to be happy, and since all men desire happiness, they always desire to act morally. Virtue being knowledge of the Good, it can be taught, and when someone acts wrongly, he must be acting in ignorance and just requires teaching (-- 'ethical optimism'.)
The four cardinal virtues consist in the right application of our three faculties: the virtues particular to reason, to feelings and to desires are wisdom, courage and temperance; but the highest virtue is justice, both towards oneself, i.e. between one's various faculties, and towards others.

    1. FORMALISM : Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804)

Max Scheler (1874 -1928) :
From the phenomenological perspective, specific moral values present themselves directly to consciousness, they are self-evident and not in need of justification by any form of argument, psychological or (contrary to Kant's view) logical.

Ethics can actually teach us what is morally good, just as geometry can teach us what is geometrically true [-- by deriving it from axioms that are intuitively obvious]

Nicolai Hartmann, Ethics, 1926.

G. E. Moore (1873 -1958) :
Or it may be the quality of goodness that is self-evident, not apprehended by sense experience but intuitively, in such things as friendship and aesthetic experience; morality is then the means to bring about that goodness.

      The starting point of existentialism are the experience and responsibility of the individual, viewed as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe.
      This way of thinking has been compatible with a fervent Christianity -- according to Sřren Kierkegaard (1813 -1855) the believer has no guarantees but has to affirm his faith again in every choice, Either ... Or -- as well as with the rejection of any belief: the position of Friedrich Nietzsche (1846 -1900) and Jean Paul Sartre (1905 -1980) is that we must create values ourselves precisely in the absence of God.

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. ... To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. ... When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind -- in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. ... What is at the very heart and centre of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity -- a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch -- and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment. ... Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstances upon him

Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1946.

Lecture :

Is There a Morality of Slaves?
The 'Immoralism' of Friedrich Nietzsche

1. Facts

N's Life:


is born, in Saxony;

Friedrich Nietzsche. 19kB

1864 -

studies first in Bonn, then in Leipzig;

1869 -

professorship in philology in Basel;
starts to write: turning increasingly from academics to being a critic of his time;


voluntary medical orderly in the German-French war;

1873 -

beginning illness: headaches, eye and stomach troubles;

1879 -

has to stop teaching owing to bad health;
frequent stays in Italy and Switzerland;
writes and publishes his main philosophical works;

1889 -

mentally ill, looked after by his sister Elisabeth;


dies; (notebooks published posthumously as The Will to Power.)



a pious Protestant minister, died when N was 5 --
N brought up by women;


possessively attached to her son;

sister, Elisabeth:

sometimes a help to N, often his scourge;
married an anti-Semitic activist, Förster, who tried to found a Teutonic colony in Paraguay;
took on role of sole interpreter of N's thought after his collapse, and death;

no wife, (though he considered a marriage, in 1877.)


first theology, (though later he rejected Christianity --

perhaps most famous for his ''God is dead.'')

classical philology:

hence ancient Greek culture as the ideal and Greek tragedy as the model art;
hence also: emphasis on careful interpretation;

Schopenhauer (1788 --1860):

man cannot recognize the true nature of things (cf. Kant)
and is subject to his selfish will (cf. N's will to power, Freud's libido) -- even in his morality;
hence redemption can come only by willingly denying the will in moral action, or by the contemplation of beauty.


Jacob Burckhardt, 1818 -1897, professor of history in Basel,

author of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, (lectures in 1870,) etc.

Richard Wagner, 1813 -1883


first meeting,
N sees only ''unconditional idealism,'' ''deep humanity,'' ''exalted seriousness,''
admires the creator of the Gesamtkunstwerk
[''total work of art'']:
opera = drama + music -- esp. Die Meistersinger, 1868;
is blind to the selfish, domineering, unscrupulous, squandering side of Wagner;


infatuated with Wagner -- and/or his wife Cosima?
frequent visits, common holidays, shared reading;


perhaps N could not subordinate himself;
e.g. in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, 1876: Wagner is an ''interpreter and transfigurer of a past'' only, not (like N?) ''the seer of the future;''


final break,
for personal-ideological reasons,
e.g. Wagner's anti-Semitism, and that Parzival, 1882, showed him ''broken before Christianity's cross;''
but N is not free from him: cf. as late as 1888: N contra Wagner;

Peter Gast, a young composer (-- N had tried composing, too)

from 1875: admirer, friend, supporter, editor;
N even tried to champion Gast's compositions;

the young Lou Andrea Salomé,

who later knew Freud, and 'collected' other famous people.

Character, Personality:

an outsider at school;
a quiet, polite, unassuming gentleman,

but with ''piercing eyes,'' who could become forceful in his speech;

his illness, and his ambivalence towards it:

pain etc. -- but sickness gives one time to think, pain liberates;
hence sickness necessary to achieve ''the great health;''
mankind may be sick -- but hence interesting.

2. Unfacts

that N was anti-Semitic:

in fact he was outspokenly anti-anti-Semitic:

''since Wagner had been in Germany again, he had descended step by step to everything I despise -- even to anti-Semitism ... It was indeed high time for me to say good-bye'' (N contra Wagner,) and
''What pleasure is a Jew amongst Germans!'' (Der Wille zur Macht,)
though he was concerned with Jews in his writings, (as was everyone;)

origin of the legend:

systematic mis-interpretation, by Elisabeth and others, even forgeries have been discovered;
deliberate exploitation of his works by the Nazis, quoting out of context etc. (cf. Kaufmann, Nietzsche, 1968, 1974, p. 290;): a travesty of Also sprach Zarathustra, 1883 -1885, was distributed to German troops in WWII.

that N was a proto-Nazi:

der Übermensch [''the over-man'']:

not a 'master race', the result of breeding or evolution --
there is no plural (Übermenschen
) or opposite (Untermensch) in N;
(he does talk of 'superior men' though: those who create themselves, and a system of values;)

Herrenmoral [''master morality'']:

not the 'grand values' of some 'master race' --
the Nazi hordes are precisely who N would have considered 'slaves';

der Wille zur Macht [''the will to power'']:

not the simple desire to rule over others, (although that is one of its possible expressions) --
rather it is the characteristic of all life forces.

that N need not be taken seriously:

because of his later insanity/ monomaniacal conceit,

e.g. wanted to found an anti-German league of European nations,
in 1889 he signed himself ''the Crucified;''
but: we must avoid the ad hominem
fallacy --
N himself: we must not confuse origin and value;

because his work is in bits and pieces, or contradictory, or just 'poetic':

thus, Karl Jaspers: ''the work lies as a pile of debris,'' but ''the stones, already more or less hewn, point to a whole,'' and
we must ''not rest content at any place until we have also found its opposite somewhere'' --
N himself: from the ''frog's perspective'' of believing in simple truth and falsehood one cannot capture all that needs to be said;
N's elegance of style should be no argument against his philosophy, even if his most poetic work Zarathustra is not a good place to start reading him.

3. Moral Ideas

N the man of his time, the philologist:

veneration of genius,

esp. the ancient Greeks', Wagner's;

on history:

it distinguishes man from the animals,
but is dangerous:

brutal and senseless,
history is but the scorn of the victorious;

and romantic alienation from the present:

the agent was always without conscience,
only in the contemplation can there be conscience;


the unhistorical ability to forget,
the supra-historical insight that all is relative, all is becoming;

representative of the pessimism, the nihilism of his culture and his time.

N the free spirit, ''the first psychologist'':

icy truthfulness:

rejects romantic notions of genius now;

naturalist psychology:

aphorisms often amusing and full of insight:

''Tourists. -- They climb up the mountains like animals, stupid and sweating; one has forgotten to tell them that there are beautiful views on the way.''
''Lack of trust. -- Lack of trust between friends is a fault which cannot be criticized without becoming incurable.''

a school of suspiciousness of surfaces:

''Why there are still beggars alive. -- If alms were given out of kindness only, all beggars would by now have starved to death.''
''Delicacy of shame. -- People are not ashamed to have dirty thoughts, but are ashamed when they imagine that others might attribute such thoughts to them.''

but we have to beware of misunderstandings:

''Beggars. -- Beggars should just be abolished: for one is annoyed when one gives something, and annoyed when one doesn't.''

against moral and religious prejudices,

against everything that reduces life and its instincts,
esp. in the name of the supernatural:

''Luke 18.14 improved. -- He that humbleth himself wants to be exalted.'' (-- in the Bible: ''... shall be exalted.'')

N the immoralist:

on religion:

understanding why people believe in God,

e.g. because this life is so miserable,

and who benefits from religion:

the church, the priests, etc., suppressing human instincts by means of guilt: ''God degenerated to a contradiction to life,''
e.g. one shows pity because it pleases God -- but in fact one just wants 'to go to Heaven;'

one can ask: why believe in God?

so: ''God is dead.''
(not: ''There is no God.'' -- this would require metaphysical arguments, like those that try to show that there is;)

on morality:

understanding why people have moral values,

e.g. so as to feel good, to have security,

and who benefits from moral systems:

i.e. the weak, the ''incurably mediocre,'' driven by their ''herd instinct,'' and their resentments, wanting revenge against the strong,
e.g. pity is good because it is unegoistic -- but in fact one is just thinking of oneself;

one can rise above the Sklavenmoral [''slave morality''], according to which

usefulness, conformity = good,
strength, passion, independence = bad;
e.g. Christianity, nationalism;

Herrenmoral [''master morality''],

values Beyond Good and Evil, 1886:

not a prescriptive moral code,
but aristocratic individualism, (which has nothing to do with the aristocracy;)

represents a healthy egoism:

also due to selfishness,
but not just a living out of one's instincts: the strong need not assert themselves aggressively or violently;
e.g. pity, now, is ''courtesy of the heart'' -- not due to striving for some Heaven or avoiding a bad conscience;

the superior, noble man creates himself:

Werde der du bist! [''Become who you are!'']
e.g. Goethe, but also Cesare Borgia (a ruthless Renaissance ruler;)

N as an early existentialist:

each man is responsible for choosing his own values,
so living by a system, or by one's instincts or desires, is being inauthentic, (to use Sartre's term);

der Übermensch [''over-man''] is the expression of the individual's freedom,

is the self-overcoming of man;

N on N: ''I am no man, I am dynamite.''

Teaching Notes :

The purpose of this section in the course can clearly not be to teach moral values, nor to discuss particular moral issues, interesting though they might be, other than as occasional examples, but must be to discuss the nature of morality and moral argument.
I have found that there is quite commonly, (and not only amongst Th.o.K. students,) a 'prejudice' against normative or value-judgments, so that they are immediately pounced upon, and suspected of being unfounded or manipulative. Whereas problems only arise, really, if the different kinds of proposition are confused, if a value judgment is made as if it was an empirical statement, say.

1. The Realm of Morality

Exercise 1.2.:

''Amoral is frequently and incorrectly used where immoral is meant. In careful usage, however, immoral is applied to that which infringes moral rules and amoral is only used of that to which considerations of morality are irrelevant or of persons who lack any moral code'' (Collins English Dictionary, 1991.) -- Cf. also the 'morale' of a group and the 'moral' of a story.
The amoral judgments are extrinsic rather than intrinsic, i.e. the event is judged according to some further purpose.

Exercise 1.3.:

Examples of when we would not hold someone morally responsible for something they have done:

ˇWhen a witch doctor has killed someone by a potion which he believed would 'dispatch' only evil spirits, though he may well be legally responsible;

ˇinsanity, which is accepted as a legal defence if the culprit would have done the same thing with a policeman standing next to him (M'Naghten rules, 1843;)

ˇperhaps temporary insanity, as in pathological jealousy -- although a 'crime of passion' may be due to weak self-control rather than to overwhelming passion.

But not:

ˇintoxication, unless the state has been reached without one's own actions;

ˇacting under duress, where one does have a choice how to act, even if the choice one makes is obvious and right (-- the bank manager who has handed over his employer's money because his family was being held hostage is lessening his standing as a full, responsible human being if he denies that he acted as a free agent who made the obvious choice.)

Exercise 1.4.:

Another way: one can consider actions that are done as part of a large group, or that are socially sanctioned, as outside morality: for instance, many people who were involved in lynching would not have been violent as individuals.

2. The Nature of Moral Argument

Examples of different kinds of moral judgments:




We ought to keep our promises.

To keep one's promises is a virtue.


He should have kept his promise.

Not keeping his promise was selfish.

Exercise 2.1.:

















Exercise 2.2.:

a.Goals and rules are defined externally, by one's culture in 'primitive' societies or one's parents, and followed indiscriminately.

b.Adult authority, or social ideals and demands, have been internalized, but are supported by one's own reasoning.

c.Values formed chiefly by expectations of one's contemporaries, peers; 'escape from freedom': when anxiety leads to dependence, on the church, one's partner.

d.Requires constant questioning of one's morality, its origin and basis; rational inner-direction, an examined life.

Exercise 2.3.:

It is interesting that the roots of both the words, ''ethics'' (from Gk. ethós) and ''morality'' (from Lat. mores,) mean 'custom(s)' -- which is quite different from the meaning they have nowadays.

a.The law, like morality, deals with more serious matters than conventions: theft and murder, rather than what wine to have with what dish;
breaking with convention can be positive, but not breaking the law (except of course in cases when ...) or going against morality;
in fact, the law is to some extent a formalisation and codification of moral values.

b.Conventions, like morality, are not deliberately created, changed and maintained by some institution, like the law is, and they are less specific and have no formal sanctions attached.

d.Not usually as agents, but as recipients of our action (cf. vegetarianism):
either out of consideration for or sympathy with them,
or out of consideration for how we act, i.e. what kinds of agents we are.

Exercise 2.4.:

Moral arguments may ...

ˇinvoke some general principles, ideals, virtues -- e.g. not to disregard the interest of others, not to kill.

ˇappeal to altruism -- e.g. ''Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.''

ˇre-describe the action or agent -- e.g. abortion can be called either murder, or just a surgical procedure.

ˇevaluate actions in terms of their motives and foreseeable consequences: this may depend on knowledge available, intellectual ability, etc. -- e.g. hurting someone when trying to help them.

(Could practise different arguments and non-argumments by considering jumping the queue at lunch instead of taking someone else's things.)

3. Free Will and Determinism

Exercise 3.1.:

It must have been possible for us to act otherwise. But can one ever know that? -- seeing that one only did what one did.
And am I not most determined in my action when I was most free and decided most deliberately, with the best reasons?
Perhaps freedom can only be described negatively, i.e. we can argue that we were not unfree in certain respects
, e.g. free from our parents' influence, or from a hidden desire for money or status, in choosing to become a doctor.

Exercise 3.2.:

a.Religious: if ''the eternal destiny of a person is predetermined by God's unchangeable decree,'' or even if God only has foreknowledge of what they will do, how can the person -- even if it is Judas -- be held responsible?
''Predestination is determination plus the belief in a supernatural power that has established a determining natural sequence of causes.''

b.Scientific: in Laplace's ''clockwork universe'', if only we knew all the 'initial conditions' well enough, we could predict all future events, at least theoretically, and so a person is not free to choose even if they feel they are.

c.Genetic: since our genes already determine, to some extent at least, our character, we cannot be fully responsible for some of our actions, as we are not for the inherited diseases we develop.
For instance, amongst certain, usually rather conservative groups there has been a change in the attitude to homosexuality: if it was a (partly) genetic trait, as some recent evidence has suggested, then it should no longer be considered a sin (-- even though homosexual behaviour might still be.)

d.Social: the way someone has been brought up and their experiences determine, to some extent at least, how they will behave -- e.g. more often violently if they come from the inner city, and more often studiously if they come from a certain kind of middle class family, so it cannot all be their fault, or to their credit.

Exercise 3.3.:

''Fatalism [is the] doctrine that all events occur according to a fixed and inevitable destiny that is neither controlled nor affected by the individual will. Fatalism is frequently confused with determinism, the doctrine that events are determined by the events that precede them. According to fatalism, however, preceding events have no causal connection with the events that follow. A fated event takes place not according to a natural law but in accordance with some mysterious decree issued by some mysterious power, perhaps ages before. Determinism, in its tenet that every event has its determining conditions in its immediate antecedents, which may include the human will, is consistent with a belief in the efficacy of the human will, but fatalism is not.
Both fatalism and determinism, thus distinguished from each other, should likewise be distinguished from predestination. Predestination is determination plus the belief in a supernatural power that has established a determining natural sequence of causes. Fatalism is a belief in a supernatural power that predetermines without recourse to natural order.
Fatalism appeared among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans and is particularly prevalent today among Muslims. In the modern West, though, it has retained a degree of acceptance only where science has not had a controlling influence in developing the doctrine of causality'' (Microsoft, Encarta, 1996.)

It may be that if I don't know -- and cannot ever know -- what is predetermined, or predestined, then I am still 'sufficiently' capable of free action to be held responsible. (Another, more rigorous answer is suggested below.)

Picture of Kant from: Microsoft Encarta 96.
Picture of Nietzsche from: Microsoft Bookshelf 1993.