PHI 118 UCL Unfairness of Utilitarianism Philosophy Discussion
Here are the titles. The length is 1,000-1,500 words deadline is 12.00 noon on Tuesday 8th June.
1) What are the similarities and dissimilarities between Callicles’ view of justice and that of Thrasymachus? Do you find either position convincing?
2) Describe and critically assess the view of justice as mental health put forward by Socrates in the Republic.
3) How persuasive is the ‘function (ergon) argument’ of Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1.7?
4) On what grounds does Hume argue that there are no moral facts? Do you find his argument convincing?
5) On what grounds do Kant, Wollstonecraft and Douglass argue that all humans possess dignity and deserve respect? Do you find their arguments persuasive?
6) Does Utilitarianism lead to unfairness?
7) Does Nietzsche offer us a sound basis for a new ethics?
8) Does Rawls’ ‘Original Position’ provide a helpful starting-point either for constructing political and social institutions or evaluating current ones?
9) Do we have to choose between an ethics of care and an ethics of justice?
10) What makes someone’s life go best?
History of Ethics PHI 118
Spring Semester 2021
This module offers a critical introduction to the history of ethical thought in the West,
examining some of the key ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Wollstonecraft,
Douglass, Bentham, Mill, Taylor Mill, Nietzsche, Rawls and Gilligan. It thus provides
a textual introduction to some of the main types of ethical theory: the ethics of
flourishing and virtue; deontology; utilitarianism; contractualism.
interconnections between ethics and other branches of philosophy (e.g. metaphysics,
epistemology, aesthetics) will be highlighted, as will the connections between ethics
and other disciplines (e.g. psychology, anthropology).
Our main text will be Singer, P. (ed.), 1994, Ethics. Oxford University Press:
blackwells.co.uk is offering free U.K. delivery. Other recommended texts are
available online, either as an e-book from library, or as digitized extracts in the
module Resource List.
Set Text: P.Singer (ed.), 1994, Ethics.
www.blackwells.co.uk is offering free U.K. delivery
Student Learning Outcomes
At the end of the module students should have acquired:
1. basic knowledge and critical understanding of the work of some of the most
influential philosophers and thinkers in the field.
2. basic knowledge and critical understanding of some of the most important types of
3. an appreciation of the interconnections between ethics and other disciplines.
4. skills in reading and interpreting philosophical texts.
5. the ability critically to assess arguments in the field.
6. the ability to construct and present a lucid and rigorous argument, both orally and in
7. the ability to discuss a topic in a group with clarity, patience and sensitivity to the
views of others.
Structure of the Semester
Note: micro-essays are not assessed and are not compulsory, but you are strongly
encouraged to do them for your own benefit
Week 1 (from 8/2)
Week 2 (from 15/2)
Week 3 (from 22/2) First Tutorial
Week 4 (from 1/3)
Week 5 (from 8/3) Second Tutorial and First Micro-Essay
Week 6 (from 15/3)
Week 7 (from 22/3) Third Tutorial and Second Micro-Essay
28th March-18th April: Easter Vacation
Week 8 (19/4)
Week 9 (from 26/4) Fourth Tutorial and Third Micro-Essay
Week 10 (from 3/5)
Week 11 (from 10/5)
Week 12 (from 17/5) Reading Week
Coursework Deadline: 12.00 noon on Tuesday 8th June
Ideally, you would do all the recommended reading of source material, plus some of
the suggested secondary reading (see bibliography below) in preparation for each
week’s lecture: you will get much more out of the module if you do. However, if you
are really pushed for time, at least read the short extracts from Singer (in Week 2 there
is no Singer extract, but I have selected some short passages from Plato’s Republic,
easily available in translation online).
The Sophists : Callicles and the Lion King; Thrasymachus versus
Reading: Plato: Gorgias 481b- 507c and Plato: Republic 337b-367e;
Plato : Justice as Mental Health
Reading: Plato: Republic 400c-403c; 434e-444e; 580d-592b (not in
Singer, but easily available in translation online)
Aristotle : The Function of Man
Reading: Nicomachean Ethics Books 1 and 2; Singer: 26-7; 185-8
First Tutorial on Aristotle: The Function of Man
Question (though no micro-essay for this tutorial): What, for Aristotle, is the human
telos (end, goal)? Does his conception of ethics based on this notion make sense?
Hume: Reason, Passion and Sympathy
Reading: Hume: Treatise of Human Nature Book 2 Part III section 3;
Book 3 Part I Sections 1 and 2; Singer: 37-8; 118-23
Kant I: The Good Will
Reading: Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Section 1;
Singer: 123-31; 39-41
Second Tutorial on Kant 1: The Good Will
Micro-essay: Can the Categorical Imperative be used to sanction any action at all?
Kant II; Wollstonecraft; Douglass: Duty, Reason and Human
Reading: Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Sections 2 and
3; Singer: 274-81; 132-4; 281-305
Utilitarianism I: Bentham Goes to Las Vegas
Reading: Singer: 306-12 (extracts from chs. 1 and 4 of Bentham:
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)
Singer: 199-200 (from Bentham: The Rationale of Reward)
Third Tutorial: Bentham’s hedonic calculus
Micro-essay: What is the hedonic calculus and can it work?
Utilitarianism II: Mill and Taylor Mill: Porcine Satisfactions and
Reading: Mill: Utilitarianism, particularly ch.2 (an extract appears in
Singer: 201-5); Singer: 312-61
Nietzsche: The Origins of ‘Slave’ Morality and Heroic Affirmation
Reading: Nietzsche: The Genealogy of Morals; Singer 48-9
Fourth Tutorial: Nietzsche and the genealogy of morality
Micro-essay: What, for Nietzsche, is the ‘transvaluation of all values’? Is his analysis
of the genealogy of morality still of use?
Rawls: The Veil of Ignorance and the Social Contract
Reading: Rawls: A Theory of Justice; Singer 362-7 and 337-9
Gilligan: The Ethics of Care and the Ethics of Justice
Reading: Gilligan: In a Different Voice; Singer 51-6
Assessment is by one coursework essay of 1,000-1,500 words. The coursework essay
deadline is 12.00 noon on Tuesday 8th June. Course essay titles will be made available
During the course, you are strongly encouraged to write three 300-word micro-essays
and bring them to tutorials for discussion. These micro-essays will be for weeks 5, 7
and 9. Their purpose is to help you to develop a range of essential philosophical skills
relevant both to this course module and to your degree programme more generally. But
they will also help you to think through some of the course material as you go. Though
the skills you’ll be developing are especially relevant to philosophy, they are all
transferable skills that will be relevant to your degree course (and later life), whether
you are doing a philosophy degree or not. The various skills that you develop through
the micro-essays are also highly relevant to the assessed course essay.
The following examples of unfair means are serious academic offences and may result
in severe penalties, up to and including expulsion from the University.
Plagiarism (either intentional or unintentional) is the use of ideas or work of another
person (including experts and fellow or former students) without proper
acknowledgement. It is considered dishonest and unprofessional. Plagiarism may take
the form of cutting and pasting, taking or closely paraphrasing ideas, passages, sections,
sentences, paragraphs, drawings, graphs and other graphical material from books,
articles, internet sites or any other source (including lecture handouts) and submitting
them for assessment without appropriate acknowledgement.
Submitting bought or commissioned work (for example from internet sites, essay
“banks” or “mills”) is an extremely serious form of plagiarism. This may take the form
of buying or commissioning either the whole assignment or part of it and implies a clear
intention to deceive the examiners. The University also takes an extremely serious view
of any student who sells, offers to sell or passes on their own assignments to other
Double submission (self-plagiarism) is resubmitting work on one or more occasions
(without proper acknowledgement). This may take the form of copying either the whole
assignment or part of it. Normally credit will already have been given for this work.
Collusion is where people work together to produce a piece of work, all or part of which
is then submitted by each of them as their own individual work. This includes passing
on work in any format to another student. Collusion does not occur when students
involved in group work are encouraged to work together to produce a single piece of
work as part of the assessment process. Nor is it collusion for students to discuss their
ideas among themselves or read each other’s drafts – though if you end up using an idea
you owe to another student, you should acknowledge this in the essay.
In any essay or exam answer submitted for assessment, all passages taken from other
people’s work, either word for word or with small changes, must be placed within
quotation marks, with specific reference to author, title and page. No excuse can be
accepted for failure to do so, nor will inclusion of the source in a bibliography be
considered an adequate acknowledgement.
If the marker decides that plagiarism has occurred, it becomes a matter of report to a
University Committee. The student may be judged to have failed the essay and/or exam
and/or module (depending on the degree of severity). The plagiarism will also be
recorded on the student’s record.
A University tutorial on what counts as plagiarism and how to avoid it is available here
Part 2: Aids to Critical Scholarship and Philosophical Exploration
General Bibliography and Individual Thinkers/Topics in Order of Study
Please also see the module online Resource List.
‘Online’ after an item means it is available as an e-book from StarPlus.
‘RL’ after an entry means an extract has been digitized and is available from the module
I have also included some works not available online in case libraries open again!
(These works may also be relevant to you in future years, both at University and
You are not expected to read all of this, or even most of it: just sample what takes your
General Works and Collections of Essays
Annas, J, 2012, Intelligent Virtue. Oxford University Press (online).
Bond, E.J., 1996, Ethics and Human Well-Being. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cicero, On The Good Life. Penguin.
Crisp, R., and Slote, M., (eds.), 1997, Virtue Ethics. O.U.P. In this collection, Annette
Baier’s ‘What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory’ is in the RL. (See also particularly
163-177 Philippa Foot ‘Virtues and Vices’ and 239-262 Michael Slote ‘Agent-Based
Feinberg, J., 1969, Moral Concepts. O.U.P.
Foot, P., 1) 1967, Theories of Ethics. O.U.P.
2) 2002, Moral Dilemmas and Other Types of Moral Philosophy. O.U.P. (online).
Hobbs, A., 2010, ‘Virtue, Philosophical Conceptions of’ and ‘Virtue, Popular
Conceptions of’ in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. O.U.P.
MacIntyre, A., 1981, After Virtue (particularly chs. 15 and 16). London: Duckworth
(online and RL)
Mackie, J.L., 1977, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin (RL).
McNaughton, D., 1988, Moral Vision (particularly ch.1). Oxford: Blackwell.
M.Midgley, 1979, Beast and Man. Harvester Press (online).
Norman, R., 1998 (2nd edition; 1st ed. 1983), The Moral Philosophers (introduction is
in RL and see also particularly ch.10 ‘Facts and Values’) O.U.P.
Singer, P., 1) 1986, Applied Ethics. O.U.P.
2) 1991, A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell (online).
Williams, B., 1) 1972, Morality (particularly ‘The Amoralist’ 3-13). C.U.P. (online).
2) 1973, Problems of the Self (particularly ch.15 ‘Egoism and Altruism’).
3) 1985, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (particularly ch.3 ‘Wellbeing’).
Wolff, J., 1) 2018, An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Norton.
2) 2018, Readings in Moral Philosophy. Norton.
Individual Thinkers/Topics in the Order of Study
Plato, Gorgias. Penguin (available online in Irwin’s translation).
Republic. Penguin (the Republic is also available online in Jowett’s translation)
Guthrie, W.K.C., 1969, A History of Greek Philosophy vol. 3. C.U.P.
Part of this
is reprinted as The Sophists, C.U.P., 1971. See particularly ch.4 ‘The Nomos-Physis
Antithesis in Morals and Politics’.
Hobbs, A., 1) 2000, Plato and the Hero ch.5. C.U.P. (online).
2) 1998, articles on Antiphon, Callicles, Thrasymachus and Nomos and Phusis
(Law/Convention and Nature) in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. E.
Kerferd, G.B., 1981, The Sophistic Movement (particularly ch.10 ‘The Nomos-Physis
Controversy’, which is in RL). C.U.P.
Mckirahan, R., 1994, Philosophy before Socrates (‘Early Greek Moral Thought – the
5th Century Sophists’ is in RL). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Plato, Gorgias. Penguin (available online in Irwin’s translation).
Republic. Penguin (available online in Jowett’s translation).
Annas, J, 1981, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. O.U.P.
1999, Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press
Hobbs, A., 1) 2019, Plato’s Republic: a Ladybird Expert Guide. Penguin. (e-book in
2) 2000, Plato and the Hero. C.U.P. (online).
Kraut, R. (ed.), 1992, The Cambridge Companion to Plato. C.U.P.
(ed.), 1997, Plato’s Republic: Critical Essays (J. M. Cooper ‘The psychology of
justice in Plato’ in this collection is in RL). Lanham, Maryland.
Nussbaum, M., 1986, The Fragility of Goodness Section II. C.U.P.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Penguin.
Ackrill, J.L., 1981, Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford: Clarendon (RL).
Barnes, J., 2000, Aristotle: a Very Short Introduction. O.U.P. (online and RL).
1995, The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. C.U.P.
Barnes, J., Schofield, M. and Sorabji, R. (eds.), 1977, Articles on Aristotle vol.2: Ethics
and Politics. London: Duckworth.
Curzer, H.J., 2012, Aristotle and the Virtues. O.U.P. (online)
Hobbs, A., 1998, ‘Commentary on “Aristotle’s Function Argument and the Concept of
Mental Illness”‘ in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology vol.5, no.3, 1998 (online).
Miller, J. (ed.), 2012, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: a Critical Guide. C.U.P.
Polansky, R. M. (ed.), 2011, Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Ethics. C.U.P.
Rorty, A.O. (ed.), 1980, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics. University of California Press.
Sherman, N. (ed.),1999, Aristotle’s Ethics (J. Annas ‘Aristotle on virtue and happiness’
in this volume is in RL). Rowman and Littlefield.
Urmson, J.O., 1988, Aristotle’s Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hume, D., An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, (online).
A Treatise of Human Nature, (online).
Baillie, J., 2000, Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hume on Morality. Routledge
Norton, D.F., 1993, The Cambridge Companion to Hume. C.U.P. (online and RL)
Stroud, B., 1977, Hume. Routledge and Kegan Paul (online).
There are many online translations of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of
Morals. See also:
Kant, 1991, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (trans. H.J.Paton). Routledge.
Guyer, P. (ed.), 1992, The Cambridge Companion to Kant. C.U.P. (online)
Guyer, P. (ed.), 1998, Kant’s Groundwork: Critical Essays. Lanham, Maryland
(online, and C. M. Korsgaard’s ‘Kant’s analysis of obligation: the argument of
Groundwork 1’ is also in RL)
Guyer, P., 2007, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Reader’s Guide.
Paton, H.J., 1965, The Categorical Imperative. New York: Harper (RL).
Stern, R., 2012, Understanding Moral Obligation: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard. C.U.P.
Stern, R., 2015, Kantian Ethics: Value, Agency and Obligation. O.U.P. (online).
Timmermann, J., 2009, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: a Critical Guide.
C.U.P. (online and RL)
Timmermann, J., 2007, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: a Commentary
Wood, A.W., 1999, Kant’s Ethical Thought. C.U.P. (online).
Wollstonecraft, M., 1995 (1790 and 1792), A Vindication of the Rights of Men; with A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Hints. Cambridge University Press (online)
Botting, E. H., 2016, Wollstonecraft, Mill and Women’s Human Rights. Yale University
Buxton, R. and Whiting, L. (eds.), 2020, The Philosopher Queens. Unbound (online).
Douglass, F., 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an America Slave.
1852, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (online) Speech given to
the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society.
1855, My Bondage and My Freedom (online)
Foner, P., (ed.), 1945, Frederick Douglass: Selections from His Writings. New York
McKivigan, J. R. and Kaufman, H.L. (eds.), 2011, In the Words of Frederick Douglass:
Quotations from Liberty’s Champion. Cornell University Press (online).
Sundstrom, R., 2017, ‘Frederick Douglass’, in Zalta, E. ed. The Stanford Encylopedia
of Philosophy (online).
Utilitarianism: Bentham, Mill and Taylor Mill
Bentham, J., Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. (any edition).
Mill J.S., Utilitarianism. (any edition).
Buxton, R. and Whiting, L. (eds.), 2020, The Philosopher Queens. Unbound (online).
Crisp, R., 1997, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. Routledge
Eggleston, B. and Miller, D. E. (eds.), 2014, The Cambridge Companion to
Utilitarianism. C.U.P. (online and RL).
Hare, R.M., 1981, Moral Thinking. O.U.P. (online)
Lyons, D., 1997, Mill’s Utilitarianism: Critical Essays. Rowman and Littlefield.
Skorupski, J. (ed.), 1998, The Cambridge Companion to Mill. C.U.P. (online and RL).
Skorupski, J., 2006, Why Read Mill Today? Routledge (online).
Smart, J.J.C., and Williams, B., 1973, Utilitarianism: For and Against. C.U.P. (RL)
Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals (any edition).
Nietzsche A Nietzsche Reader. Penguin. (‘Morality’ section in RL)
Acampora, C. D. (ed.), 1) 2006, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: Critical
Essays. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield (online).
2) 2011, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: a Reader’s Guide. Continuum (online).
Conway, D.W., 2008, Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’: a Reader’s Guide.
Continuum (‘Overview of Themes’ in RL).
Magnus, B. and Higgins, K.M., 1996, The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche C.U.P.
(online and RL).
May, S. (ed.), 2011, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: a Critical Guide.
Schacht, R., 1994, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s Genealogy
of Morality. University of California Press.
Rawls, J., 1971, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
Daniels, N., 1978, Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’.
Freeman, S.R., 2003, The Cambridge Companion to Rawls. C.U.P. (online and RL).
Lovett, F., 2011, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: a Reader’s Guide. Bloomsbury (online)
Gilligan, C., 1993, In a Different Voice. Harvard University Press (online, and ch.3
‘Concepts of Self and Morality’ also in RL).
Baier, A., 1997, ‘What do women want in a moral theory?’ in R. Crisp and M. Slote
Virtue Ethics. O.U.P. (in RL).
Hekman, Susan J., 1995, Moral Voices, Moral Selves. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hornsby, J. and Fricker, M., 2000, The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in
Philosophy. C.U.P. (online and ch.6 ‘Feminism in metaphysics’ in RL).
Glossary of Transliterated Greek Terms
to) agathon: (the) good, beneficial
agatha: good/beneficial things
aitia: cause, reason, explanation
aretê: excellence, virtue
doxa: opinion, belief
eidos: form, Form
epistemê: knowledge, scientific knowledge, understanding
the appetitive part of the psuchê
ergon: function; task
erôs: erotic love
flourishing, well-being, happiness
idea: form, Form
logistikon: the reasoning part of the psuchê
logos: utterance, speech, statement, argument, account, definition, formula, ratio,
language, reason, principle
(to) kalon: (the) beautiful, fine, noble
kala: fine/noble/beautiful things
nomos: law; convention
philia: friendship; familial love; love; attraction
life-force, soul, personality
telos: end, goal, fulfilment, completion
the spirited part of the psuchê (Plato); anger, mettle
History of Ethics Week 5
Kant I: The Good Will (Source: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (first published
1785) Sections I and 11; see Singer 123-31; 39-41)
Life and Works
Kant (1724-1804) was a major figure of the Enlightenment, who made seminal contributions
to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics. His distinction between the noumenal
and the phenomenal, between things-in-themselves and objects of experience, greatly
influenced a number of traditions in European and post-modern philosophy. And his claim
that all rational beings possess dignity, and should always be respected and treated as ends
and never solely as a means, provided a key part of the intellectual foundations for human
rights theories and their application to the position of women and the anti-slavery movement.
Yet for much of his life he endorsed allegedly ‘scientific’ racism. However, in his final years
he changed his mind and in Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch (1795) he rejected racial
hierarchies and European colonization. He argues in the same work that perpetual peace can
be achieved through international cooperation and universal democracy.
Synopsis of the Structure of the Groundwork
Section I: Kant claims that his moral philosophy is based in ‘common understanding’; but
some have thought that ‘common eighteenth century Protestant Christian understanding’
might be nearer the mark. In Section 1 Kant puts forward his view that moral goodness
consists in acting out of duty for duty’s sake, irrespective of consequences and even
Section II: clarifies and elaborates Section I, by distinguishing hypothetical imperatives from
the categorical imperative and giving four formulations of the latter.
Section III: sketches the metaphysical foundation that Kant believes to be necessary for
morality to be possible. In as far as we live in the phenomenal world, the natural world of
cause and effect, we are determined, and for Kant determinism is not compatible with the free
will which morality presupposes, and hence not compatible with morality. But as rational
beings we also belong to the noumenal realm (the realm of ‘things in themselves’), and here
we are free.
Nothing is unconditionally good except the good will. The worth of a good will is entirely
separable from the consequences it brings about. Later says that even intended consequences
irrelevant. So: how to define the good will?
Actions done from duty are actions governed by reason and actions have moral worth only if
they are done from duty/ reason. So, does this mean that an action can have no moral worth
if it is in accordance with one’s inclinations? Or can an action in accordance with one’s
inclinations possess moral worth provided it is motivated by duty? i.e. you would have done
it anyway, even if you had not wanted to? But even this weaker reading gives rise to possible
problems, as Kant clearly says that when x is directly inclined to perform action F, it is more
difficult to determine whether s/he is also motivated by duty. This might tempt us to wonder
whether it is preferable to act out of duty against our inclinations. But this is tricky: for
Aristotle, the test for a morally good person is whether he or she takes pleasure in their
morally good actions. So: who do we most admire? The person who successfully struggles
against temptation or the person who is effortlessly good, who takes pleasure in being good?
If duty cannot be defined by reference to content, then how is it to be defined? It is a formal
requirement – the requirement of acting out of respect for the moral law, seen as a universal
principle. The moral law is not imposed on us from without: it is the expression of pure
reason and is legislated for him or herself by any rational being. However, these rational
laws are usually experienced by us as commands which we must dutifully obey because we
are creatures of inclination as well as reason.
The moral law stipulates that one’s actions should be law-abiding (‘Obey this law’). But
Kant thinks that law, as the expression of reason, will also have embedded in it the concept of
universality, so ‘be law-abiding’ is unpacked as ‘so act that you can will that the maxim of
your action become universal law’.
Hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
Commands are related to laws as duty is related to the good will. The language of
‘commands’ and ‘duty’ suggests the opposition between reason and inclination. All rational
beings act according to the conception of laws. A purely rational being would not experience
these laws as commands (a ‘holy will’). We, however, do experience them as commands.
The commands of the moral law are expressed as categorical imperatives (which I interpret as
four different formulations of one, basic, categorical imperative):
1) Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a
2) Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.
3) So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of any other, never solely
as a means but always also as an end.
4) So act as if you were by your maxims in every case a legislating member in the universal
kingdom of ends (i.e. in so far as we are rational we would all will the same things as
universal laws, and we would all respect these same laws).
History of Ethics Week 1: Thrasymachus
Thrasymachus (Source: Plato Republic Book 1 336b-354b)
(These notes are a revised version of part of my entry on Thrasymachus in the Routledge
Encylopedia of Philosophy ed. E. Craig)
Plato probably wrote the Republic, a dialogue about justice (and pretty much everything else),
throughout the 370s B.C.E. The dramatic date of the dialogue is the late fifth century B.C.E.
Thrasymachus was a sophist and orator of the late fifth century B.C.E, of an apparently
aggressive and sarcastic disposition (sophists were travelling professional teachers of rhetoric
and philosophy, who taught the sons of wealthy men the skills needed to get on in public life,
and Plato is usually unsympathetic in his depiction of them). He makes two main statements
concerning the nature of justice, and it is debated whether their claims are compatible. In the
first he declares that what we call justice is simply the interest of the stronger: in every city the
‘stronger’ are those who wield political power and they make the laws in their own interest,
and then declare that obedience to these laws is what constitutes ‘justice’. So, whether the
government is a tyranny, aristocracy, democracy or of any other form, the institution of justice
is simply a cover for force majeure (for an illustration of these views being put into chilling
practice in Greece in the late fifth century, see the historian Thucydides’ History of the
Peloponnesian War 3.37-48 (the Mytilene Debate) and 5.84-116 (the Melian Dialogue)). At
first sight this looks like a legalistic conception of justice – ‘justice’ is simply obeying the law
– but, under probing from Socrates, Thrasymachus admits that obeying the laws will only
constitute justice when the laws really are in the interests of the rulers, since the rulers may be
mistaken about where their true interests lie.
Socrates tries to persuade Thrasymachus that all arts and skills are aimed at the good of their
subject matter, so the art of ruling must be aimed at the good of the ruler’s (or rulers’) subjects.
Thrasymachus is having none of this, claiming that the rulers are like shepherds: just as
shepherds only care for their flocks so that they can fatten them up and get a better price for
them at market, so rulers only appear to care for their subjects so that their subjects can be of
more use to them. He then extends the discussion to include private as well as political
relations. What we term injustice is simply the pursuit of self-interest and pays the individual
far better than justice. He boldly suggests that injustice is positively a virtue (aretȇ), the virtue
of common sense. The unjust are prudent and admirable; the just are naïve fools. Indeed, we
partially admit this: although we criticize and punish petty wrongdoers, when injustice is
practised on a sufficiently large scale by, say, a tyrant, we merely call the tyrant fortunate. We
would all be tyrants if we could.
These two positions may appear at odds. If justice is simply the interest of the stronger party,
then surely the tyrant who supremely promotes his own self-interest is supremely just? Yet
Thrasymachus clearly states that the tyrant is supremely unjust. Some have argued that he is
operating with two notions of justice, the conventional and the natural (as Callicles does in the
Gorgias), but a simpler reading suggests that a conventional notion of justice is retained
throughout. Injustice is ruthlessly promoting your own desires at the expense of others; justice
is giving others their due. In theory each can be practised by both rulers and ruled (as
Thrasymachus admits in his second speech); in practise, however, opportunities for injustice
will mostly be available to the rulers, whereas the ruled will generally have to accept the
imposition of justice. The initial statement that justice is the interest of the stronger is therefore
not to be taken as a complete definition, but as a description of how justice operates in the
world of realpolitik.
Thrasymachus does, however, complicate his position by admitting that the practice of injustice
may sometimes be an unsuccessful means of satisfying one’s desires (one may get caught and
imprisoned), and this leaves open the possibility that in some circumstances justice would be
the more prudent course of action. His implicit ideal is the man (definitely a male …) who
successfully promotes his own interests. This may well involve acting unjustly, but not always
– a key consideration will be one’s political status, whether one is one of the rulers or the ruled.
Underlying this ideal is a notion of human flourishing seen in terms of the possession of
material wealth and power.
1. Do you think Thrasymachus actually endorses the doctrines he voices? Could he be
exposing current hypocrisies rather than applauding their manipulation? What is his
2. What would happen if everyone holds that justice is a beneficial institution providing
he or she does not have to take part in it?
3. What are the similarities and dissimilarities between Thrasymachus’ position and that
4. Do you agree with Thrasymachus’ views on what our true interests are?
5. Do you agree that ‘justice’ is simply a cynical device of those in power to manipulate
and exploit the weak and powerless?
Guthrie, W.K.C, 1969, A History of Greek Philosophy vol. 3. Cambridge University Press.
Part of vol. 3 is reprinted 1971 as The Sophists (Thrasymachus is discussed on pp.294-8 and
passim). Cambridge University Press.
Hobbs, A, 1) 2000, Plato and the Hero pp.164-174. Cambridge University Press.
2) 1998, Entry on ‘Thrasymachus’ in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
3) 2019, Plato’s Republic: a Ladybird Expert Book. Penguin.
Kerferd, G.B., 1981, The Sophistic Movement (Thrasymachus is discussed 120-3 and passim).
Cambridge University Press.
Mckirahan, R., 1994, Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
History of Ethics Handout Week 6
Kant 2 (this follows on directly from the Kant 1 handout of Week 5)
Formulation 2 of the Categorical Imperative suggests that our universalized maxims must be
consistent with the empirical facts of the natural world in which we have to act.
Formulations 3 and 4 need to be understood in the light of Kant’s conception of rationality,
and his belief that the requirement of universality can be derived from the concept of
rationality. 3 requires us to universalize our conception of ourselves as rational beings and to
treat all other beings likewise as rational beings. 4 suggests that in so far as we are all
rational beings we would all will the same things as universal laws; these are the universal
laws that would be agreed by a hypothetical community of rational beings, beings who see
both themselves and others as ‘ends’ and not just as ‘means’ – the so-called ‘kingdom of
ends’. There is, I believe, a particular problem with the notion of universalizability implied
by 3 (and to some extent by 4), and I will return to this below.
First, let us see how Kant applies the Categorical Imperative. He uses four examples:
i) the duty to refrain from suicide
ii) the duty to refrain from making false promises
iii) the duty to develop our talents
iv) the duty to help others
Examples i) and ii) are what Kant calls ‘perfect’ duties; examples iii) and iv) are ‘imperfect’
duties. I agree with Richard Norman that the best way to interpret this distinction is to say
that perfect duties admit of no exceptions whereas imperfect duties can be overridden by
perfect duties or other imperfect duties (though it is important to point out that this is not
what Kant actually says in the second section of the Groundwork – what he does say is that
perfect duties admit of no exception in favour of inclination; but this is baffling, as Kant
thinks that no duty admits of an exception in favour of inclination). These four examples of
the Categorical Imperative show that it is to be used to distinguish between impermissible
and permissible actions. Kant believes that some actions, such as suicide or making false
promises, cannot be universalized without destroying the conditions – living humans; the
institution of promising – which are needed for the maxim even to be a possibility.
Two main types of argument have been used against the Categorical Imperative:
A) If sufficient qualifiers are added to the act description, then a false promise could be
universalized without the institution of promising breaking down e.g. making a promise to
repay money when one knows one cannot keep it and one has red hair and it’s a Monday in
June. But the point here is that the maxim is the description of the act under which one acts.
And no-one is likely to make a false promise because they have red hair and it is a Monday in
B) Hegel and many others have protested that in fact absolutely any act can be universalized
without contradiction. There is nothing self-contradictory about the absence of e.g.
promising: Kant’s formal principle can only be used to generate a substantive ethical
conclusion if one in addition wants the institution of promising to exist i.e. if an implicit
appeal is made to an additional value.
As indicated above, there are also problems using Kant’s conception of rationality as
implying universalizability to get to the third formulation and claim that one should never
treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of any other, solely as a means but always
also as an end. To get to this, Kant needs universalizability to imply the following three
things, but I believe only the first two – at most – can be presented as a requirement of formal
i) universalizability as consistency i.e. the requirement that my reason for performing a
particular action in certain circumstances must be a reason for me to perform the same action
in relevantly similar circumstances (giving rise of course to the question whether there ever
can be ‘relevantly similar circumstances’).
ii) universalizability as impersonality i.e. the requirement that my reason for performing a
particular action in certain circumstances must be a reason for anyone to perform the same
action in relevantly similar circumstances (giving rise to the same question about ‘relevantly
similar’ as above).
But I don’t think these two necessarily lead to iii) universalizability as impartiality i.e. the
requirement that my reasons must give equal weight to everyone else’s desires and interests,
along with my own. I can perfectly well rationally acknowledge that others have good reason
to act in a certain way and yet want them not to act in such a way. Yet it is this third
understanding of universalizability that is needed to get to the 3rd formulation of the
Categorical Imperative and treat people always as an end and never solely as a means.
Nevertheless, even if it cannot be logically grounded, the notion of respect for persons is
hugely important and influential. It requires us not simply to care about other people’s
interests – which could be compatible with various forms of beneficent authoritarianism – but
to view them as rational, free and autonomous agents, persons who have ends and are ends.
Persons possess dignity, not just value. Things which have value can be replaced by things
of equal value; in so far as persons possess dignity, they are irreplaceable and are the proper
objects of attitudes of respect, which will set limits on my pursuit of my own ends. Things
have value because persons give them value; persons, therefore, are the source of value, and
cannot just be objects of value themselves: they have intrinsic worth i.e. dignity.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)
Wollstonecraft also argues that all humans are entitled to equal respect and equal rights on
the basis of universally shared rationality. She claims that women only appear to be
intellectually inferior to men because they lack education, and she sought to address this in
Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787); she also helped set up a school for girls in
Newington Green in London. In 1790 she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, inspired
by the initial aspirations of the pre-Terror French Revolution and in response to Burke’s
fierce critique of those aspirations (another response to Burke was Paine’s Rights Of Man
(1791)). She followed this in 1792 with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a powerful
and – eventually- hugely influential call for women to treated with the same respect and
afforded the same education and rights as men.
Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895)
Douglass, who escaped from slavery in Maryland, was a political theorist, abolitionist,
women’s rights campaigner and orator. He too bases his coruscating attacks on slavery on
shared human rationality and the universal rights to respect, dignity and autonomy which he
argues arise from it. In his autobiographies and in ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’,
he argues powerfully that the fact that slave owners and masters punish slaves in itself proves
that they think slaves are morally responsible for their actions, both good and bad, and this in
turn shows that slaves must possess reason and free will. In his speeches he aims to transform
his audience’s notion of what constitutes respect and who merits it, and their appreciation of
the dignity and accountability of all humans.
‘What, to the American slave, is the fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more
than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant
victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your
national greatness, swelling vanity … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery;
your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and
solemnity, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy …’
From ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ delivered on 5th July 1852 to the women of
the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society
History of Ethics Week 8: Mill and Taylor Mill
John Stuart Mill (1806-73): Life and Works
John Stuart Mill was a philosopher, political economist and (on the whole) progressive
campaigner for freedom of speech, women’s rights, suffrage and education and the abolition
of slavery; he warned about damage to the natural environment of unlimited economic growth.
He was a Utilitarian but made major adjustments to Bentham’s theory.
Mill’s father, James Mill was a Utilitarian who worked with Bentham. John Stuart Mill was
taught at home by his father (with some assistance from others, including Bentham); it was an
extraordinarily intense and rigorous programme of academic study in (amongst other
disciplines) philosophy, history, literature, economics and mathematics. He was, for example,
taught ancient Greek from the age of 3 and was reading Platonic dialogues in the original by 8.
He had no opportunities to mix with other children or form friendships. In early adulthood he
suffered a breakdown, which he writes about movingly in his Autobiography (1873).
From 1823-58 he worked as a civil servant for the British East India Company. He married
Harriet Taylor in 1852 after 20 years of friendship, and credited her with helping to influence,
shape, edit and in some cases co-author much of his work, especially Principles of Political
Economy, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. He was a Liberal Party M.P. 1865-8.
Despite his forceful condemnation of slavery, he still advocated ‘benevolent despotism’ in
regard to Britain’s colonies, ‘providing the end is the barbarians’ improvement’.
Key works include Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism
(1863) and Autobiography (1873).
‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do
nothing.’ (1867, in his inaugural address as Rector of St Andrews.)
Harriet Taylor Mill (1807- 1858): Life and Works
Born Harriet Hardy, she was educated at home, learning several languages and reading widely
in philosophy, history and literature. She married John Taylor in 1826, and then John
StuartMill in 1852 after John Taylor’s death. She wrote on marriage, women’s rights and
education, including The Enfranchisement of Women (1851).
John Stuart Mill repeatedly said how profoundly she helped shape his thought and writings.
When she died in 1858 he dedicated On Liberty (1859) to her:
‘… Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me …’
Yet until very recently, and despite Mill’s efforts, her contributions have largely been erased
from history. However, there is now a chapter on her in The Philosopher Queens (eds. Buxton
and Whiting 2020), and her considerable achievements are finally being recognised.
Although Mill had studied under Bentham he later came to revise some of Bentham’s criteria
for the hedonic calculus, notably insisting (in Utilitarianism and elsewhere) that quality of
pleasure needs to be considered as well as quantity, and that the so-called ‘higher pleasures’
are to be preferred to the ‘lower’ ones. Underlying the distinction is Mill’s commitment to a
largely Platonic conception of human psychology and flourishing i.e the belief that desires
which arise from the intellect are ‘higher’ than those which originate in the body. Mill,
however, broadens Plato’s conception of the desires of our rational element for truth and reality
and the corresponding pleasures to include certain imaginative and aesthetic pleasures; he also
allows a wider range of emotional pleasures than Plato to count in the ‘higher’ category. So,
whereas Bentham held that ‘quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry’,
‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is
because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison
knows both sides.’
This argument is heavily dependent on Plato Republic 581d-592b, and purports to be
psychological: the claim is that we just will find particular intellectual, imaginative, aesthetic
and emotional pleasures more satisfying than bodily ones.
Mill’s introduction of quality differences and his distinction between higher and lower
pleasures both raise problems:
1) Both rest on Mill’s assumption that there is a difference between ‘happiness’ and
‘contentment’. Can this be justified?
2) Bentham’s possible response. Bentham could perhaps argue that the so-called higher
pleasures are termed that simply because they do in fact offer more quantitative pleasure in
terms of e.g. duration or purity or fecundity (see the handout for Week 7).
3) But this does not adequately address the thorny issue of whether ‘quality’ can be brought
into the arithmetic. The hedonic calculus requires commensurables. Sometimes, but only
sometimes, qualitative differences can be fitted into a quantitative scheme because it will be
clear that (as 1 above suggests) the qualitatively ‘higher’ pleasure offers more pleasure. But
this will not always be the case, and Mill is clear that he wants us to opt for qualitatively
‘higher’ pleasures even when they yield less in terms of quantity.
4) Who, exactly, are the ‘only competent judges’ (Singer p.204) who Mill says are to judge
what is to count as a ‘higher’ pleasure? Is Mill being elitist? He would say not: he would say
that his claim is simply that the ‘competent judges’ are those who have experienced both higher
and lower pleasures. However, his argument is certainly open to the charge of being circular:
his position is that if you have experienced these kinds of ‘higher’ pleasures, you just will find
them more satisfying – and if you don’t, then you haven’t truly experienced them. Mill may
claim his position is empirical, but it seems to me that essentialism is lurking not far beneath
the surface. Because …
5) He seems to believe that the intellect is both empirically and essentially superior to the
body. Why? And, indeed, why should we even believe Mill’s empirical claim? Perhaps it is
not so much that the sensualist cannot truly experience intellectual pleasures, but that certain
intellectuals such as Mill cannot truly experience sensual ones.
6) Mill also seems to want to separate the mind from the body in a way that many would want
to question. He says he is in favour of aesthetic pleasure, but it is not clear that he has fully
thought through what ‘aesthetic’ implies, given that ‘aesthetic’ means ‘to do with the aisthêseis,
the senses’, and sight and hearing are only two of these. Mill allows music and painting to
count as ‘higher’ pleasures, but he appears to discount the aesthetic pleasures that arise out of
touch, taste and smell, probably because of the direct or very close physical proximity involved
in the last three. To be fair, the study of aesthetics very often concentrates wholly or mainly
on the senses of sight and hearing; but why should not a chef be an artist? Or a parfumier? Or
Reading: Singer 201-5; Utilitarianism.
History of Ethics Handout Week 9 Nietzsche 2
The Eternal Recurrence (Die Lehre von der ewigen Wiederkunft)
Despite the fact that N. claims that there are ‘no moral phenomena, only the moral
interpretation of phenomena’ (Beyond Good and Evil 108), it seems to me that he does hold
on to one objective ethical dictum: the affirmation of life. It is this which underpins his
idealisation of, for example, the Homeric and Viking warlords in the Genealogy of Morals
and Beyond Good and Evil, whom he portrays as healthy and exuberant manifestations of the
life-force, and it is this which also explains his corresponding disgust with what he believes
to be the life-denying forces of Platonism, Christianity and Kant:
‘Plato against Homer: that is the whole, authentic antagonism – on that side the deliberate
transcendentalist, the great slanderer of life; on this side, the instinctive panegyrist, the golden
nature’ (Genealogy of Morals 3.25);
‘I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak
to you of otherwordly life’ (Thus Spake Zarathustra Prologue Section 3).
Perhaps the strongest form that this ethics of life-affirmation can take is the affirmation of the
Eternal Recurrence (please note: this is my personal interpretation of a highly controversial
and problematic doctine and for reasons of space I have had to leave out many important
debates concerning it).
To get some understanding of the Eternal Recurrence, we first need to make two moves:
1) Joy is more important than sorrow:
‘Joy is deeper than heart’s agony’ (Thus Spake Zarathustra IV: ‘The Drunken Song’).
N. reacting strongly against Schopenhauer’s view that joy and pleasure merely the temporary
cessation of suffering and pain.
2) But if you want to affirm joy then you must affirm pain and suffering too, because
everything is somehow interconnected (there is much scholarly debate about whether this
interconnection is supposed to be cosmological, metaphysical, or both):
‘Did you ever say yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said yes to all woe as well. All
things are enchained and entwined together, all things are in love.’
(Thus Spake Zarathustra IV ‘The Drunken Song’)
The Greek Presocratic philosophers Heraclitus and Empedocles are both influences here: in
Ecce Homo III, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ 4, N. says that Heraclitus may already have
proclaimed the Eternal Recurrence.
So what form does this affirmation of the interconnected joy and sorrow of life take? A
desire for eternal recurrence (note: the German can also mean ‘perpetual’, ‘everlasting’):
‘Joy wants eternity, wants recurrence, wants everything eternally the same’
(Thus Spake Zarathustra IV, The Drunken Song).
Perhaps the clearest articulation of this test of yes-saying to life comes in The Gay Science
The heaviest burden. – ‘What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest
solitude and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live
again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain
and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life
must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence – and in the same way
this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I
myself. The eternal hour-glass of existence will be turned again and again – and you with it,
you dust of dust!’ – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the
demon who thus spoke? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment in which you would
have answered him: ‘You are a god and never did I hear anything more divine!’ If this
thought gained power over you it would, as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you;
the question in all and everything: ‘do you want this again and again, times without number?’
would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards
yourself and life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate
sanction and seal?’
Note the demon and contrast the demons in Luther and Descartes. And remember that for N.,
the arch-critic of Christianity and later to be the author of The Antichrist, a demon is not
Other key texts are in Thus Spake Zarathustra. For example, In Z III, ‘The Convalescent’:
‘“But the complex of causes in which I am entangled will recur – it will create me again! I
myself am part of these causes of the eternal recurrence.
I shall return with this sun and this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent, – not to a new life
or a better life or a similar life:
I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life, in the greatest things and in the
smallest, to teach once more the eternal recurrence of all things …”’
Does N. offer any cosmological evidence for this theory? In Z III ‘Of the Vision and the
Riddle’, the dwarf (not, we may note, Zarathustra himself), says,
‘All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.’
Why should N. expect us to believe this view of time? In his later notebooks, he tries to
come up with a supporting theory based on his belief that time is infinite and stuff is finite.
But it’s all pretty unconvincing.
From our point of view in this course, the key question is whether the cosmological and
metaphysical problems that have been raised about the theory have any bearing on it as an
ethical test and way of viewing the world. Some commentators think that the doctrine has
ethical value even if it is cosmologically improbable and metaphysically impossible. But I’m
not so sure.
How Should the Eternal Recurrence Be Used?
In my view, the desire for eternal recurrence is the toughest test of life-affirmation that N. can
conceive (contrast the view of Heidegger, who thought of the ER as a consolation for
awareness of transience and finitude). In The Birth of Tragedy, the unbearable vision is said
to be the vision of the self-destructive Dionysian chaos: it’s a vision so terrible that we simply
cannot bear witness to it without the mediating veil of the Apollinian dream. But now the
challenge is to contemplate one’s life just going on and on repeating itself, in all its
apparently meaningless banality. See also Beyond Good and Evil 56, Ecce Homo ‘Why I Am
So Clever’ 10, and Ecce Homo ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ 2-3 (an essay within Ecce Homo to be
distinguished from the earlier book The Birth Of Tragedy).
Note how the tragic vision is here distinguished from the pessimistic. It is the acceptance of
suffering and the ability to love it which distinguishes the tragic philosopher from the
Questions about the Eternal Recurrence
Why is it said to be ‘the heaviest burden’? The weight of responsibility? The weight of all
those repetitions? The weight of the thought that ‘the small man’ will also recur? Or the
weight of the thought that there is no telos to the cosmos? (i.e. the weight of meaninglessness
rather than meaning?)
But to what should we attribute significance? The unique event or the repeated one? (See
the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)
We have seen how N. tries to divest himself of the shackles of what he perceives to be the
fictions of theology, metaphysics and morality. But now it seems that taking on this search
for freedom means taking on the heaviest burden he can dream of, the burden of the Eternal
Is it supposed to help us determine how to act? Is it N’s version of e.g. the Categorical
Imperative? But how can it function in this way if our choices are predetermined and have
already been made an infinite number of times? It could only help with decision-making if it
was going to set off an eternal chain – but then the cosmology and metaphysics required to
support it unravel.
So it looks as if it is supposed to be a test of our attitude to our present and past (nonrecurring?) life. Also, through accepting, affirming and loving our inevitable present and past
(amor fati) and willing them to return, no matter how painful, we can turn them into
something beautiful. The apparent mess of your life can be turned, through changing your
attitude towards it, into material for you to sculpt. It is a change of perspective designed to
remove the need for the Christian heaven, or the Platonic Forms, or the Kantian noumenal.
N. may also view the ER as the ultimate manifestation of the Will to Power and test of the
But still: why shouldn’t joyous affirmation of uniqueness, transience and finitude be the
And doesn’t a willingness to desire Eternal Recurrence make us in danger of being too
History of Ethics Week 10 Rawls
Rawls (1921-2002): Life and Works
American political and moral philosopher of great influence: his work has been cited in the
courts in the U.S. and Canada and also by politicians in the U.S. and U.K.
Served in the Pacific in WWII and awarded the Bronze Star.
Received the U.S. National Humanities Medal in 1999 for helping to strengthen ‘faith in
Asteroid 16561 Rawls named after him.
A Theory of Justice: the Musical! first performed in Oxford in 2013.
Key Works: A Theory of Justice 1971; Political Liberalism 1993; The Law of Peoples 1999.
Justice as Fairness
In his seminal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls (19212002) argued powerfully for a conception of justice as fairness. Such a conception has its
core a Kantian view of people as separate persons, individual bearers of rights and duties.
People are not just numbers who can be added up in Utilitarian hedonic calculations.
Rawls argues that to create a just society or form of government people first need to agree on
the principles of justice, which he thinks are the principles that free, rational and mutually
disinterested persons concerned to further their own interests would agree to in a position
of liberty and equality.
But how are we to achieve this position of equality given all the actual inequalities that exist?
Rawls’ solution is a thought experiment: we are to imagine what principles of justice we
would adopt if we did not know what our position in society was to be. This is what he
terms the Original Position. We do not know what our economic or social status will be, or
our gender, or our particular talents and abilities. We do not even know what our desires will
be, or our conception of the good life; we only know that we will have such a conception.
We are all equal in our ignorance – what Rawls terms the veil of ignorance.
Rawls argues that in these conditions we would agree to two basic principles:
1) The Liberty Principle, which says that each person is to have an equal right to the most
extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. He is thinking of such
things as freedom of expression and association, freedom to vote and run for office, freedom
from arbitrary arrest.
2) The Difference Principle, which says that social and economic inequalities are only to be
permitted providing they are attached to positions open to all, and providing they maximally
benefit the least advantaged in society.
It is notable that Rawls does not think that we would agree to the principles of Utilitarianism.
It is a rich and ambitious vision. Rawls is trying to create a mechanism which will provide a
justificatory framework for liberal democracy and thereby, as he sees it, help humans
actualize what he regards as their best potential and build strong and stable communities. By
postulating a hypothetical social contract, his theory avoids some of the problems that beset
supposed actual social contract theories. Did the contract really happen? Who signed up?
Who was excluded? etc. It also seeks to allow for a pluralism of values and conceptions of
the good life. Furthermore, it has been, and continues to be, influential in law courts and
(possibly to a lesser extent) in political decision-making. It has also entered popular culture:
when a character in The West Wing is looking for a theory to justify progressive taxation, it is
Rawls to whom he turns. There has even recently been been A Theory of Justice: the Musical
staged in Oxford. Nevertheless, it is a work which undoubtedly raises some challenging
issues and questions:
a) Are Rawls’ ‘persons’, stripped of all context, in fact not much like human beings and of
little use in helping formulate an ethics fit for humans?
b) How can a ‘veil of ignorance’ ever help anything? Does the world really need more
ignorance? (Though note that we do approve of the stripping away of context in some
circumstances e.g. examiners being ignorant of the candidates’ identities.)
c) What of non-rational, or not fully rational, beings who are unable to enter into the social
contract? Rawls says that we still have duties of care towards non-rational beings, but is this
good enough? Does Rawls give too prominent a place to rationality in his ethics? (The same
question, of course, can be asked of Kant, who was a huge influence on Rawls.) Can nonrational beings be incorporated into the sphere of justice as well as care?
d) What do we make of Rawls’ conception of rationality in terms of the desire to satisfy
one’s own interests? Is it too narrow?
e) How compelling a case does Rawls make for inequalities which maximally benefit the
f) Rawls says that he wants his hypothetical contract to function as a test for current
institutions, relations and ethical theories. Is it an effective test?
g) Are we naturally so risk-averse as Rawls assumes?
h) Does Rawls sufficiently reward merit, hard work and ambition?
i) With its emphasis on justice, principles, rights and duties, followers of Gilligan (see Week
11) might say that it is a very male ethic. Do you agree?
j) In any case, what do we make of an ethic which so privileges justice? Does justice take
over when community and education have failed, as some might claim? (See Sandel
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.)
History of Ethics Week 11 Gilligan
How might ethics relate to questions of sex and gender? (Note: for the purposes of this
handout, ‘sex’ = ‘biological sex’ and ‘gender’ = ‘cultural conception of the ‘feminine’ or
‘masculine’’, though clearly scientific developments are making the notion of a ‘biological
sex’ more and more problematic. BUT it is a distinction which is relevant for most of the
writers that we will be considering.)
1) The (or at least ‘a’) traditional view, found, for example in Homer passim, is that some
virtues are specifically ‘male’ and others ‘female’, and that a virtuous man will necessarily
display different characteristics from those displayed by a virtuous woman. These different
virtues are closely tied to the different roles that men and women occupy in society, with men
largely operating outside the home and women largely within it. It is hard to prove the
degree to which men and women were considered to be essentially different, and thus
essentially suited to different social roles and essentially suited to the display of certain types
of behaviour and certain virtues and not others, but the weight of evidence suggests a strong
This traditional view is explicitly articulated by the character of Meno in Plato’s dialogue
Meno 71e, where the aristocratic young Meno is asked by Socrates to define aretê
‘But there is no difficulty, Socrates, in saying what it is. First of all, if it is the virtue of a
man that you are after, it is easy to see that a man’s virtue consists in managing the city’s
affairs capably, and in such a way that he will help his friends and injure his enemies, while
taking care to come to no harm himself. Or if you want a woman’s virtue, that is not difficult
to describe either – she must run the house well, look after the indoor property and be
obedient to her husband.’
Another good example is Aristotle Politics 1277b20-3:
‘The temperance and courage (andreia, literally = ‘manliness) of a man and a woman are
different. For a man would appear a coward if he only possessed the andreia of a woman, and
a woman would appear a gossip if she were only as discreet as a good man.’
If you think that men and women are naturally different, and that these natural differences
give rise to different social roles, then the view that there are differences between the virtues
of a man and the virtues of a woman, dependent on the excellent performance of their
different roles, is at least comprehensible. You may even think the distinction in virtues is
comprehensible if it simply arises from performing different social roles, without making any
claims for a natural basis for these roles (this will be particularly relevant when we come to
Gilligan) – though of course in this case you might well want to consider whether society is
constructed on the right, or good, lines, particularly if the roles that women occupy are seen
not merely as different but as subordinate, as they were in ancient Greece: subordinate to men
in the home and almost entirely excluded from public life i.e. almost entirely excluded from
politics, law, war, finance and markets.
Note that this traditional view (clearly not just evident in ancient Greece) does not only give
rise to questions about the roles, position and virtues of men and women; it also gives rise to
questions about the relation between private and public:
a) is the public/private distinction a helpful one?
b) to what extent do or should men occupy the public space and women the private space?
So, if this is at least one traditional set-up, what responses to it might there be (in addition to
2) It is acceptable for social roles and distinctions to continue much as they are, BUT there is
no difference between a man’s virtue and a woman’s virtue: virtue belongs to a universal
human subject. This seems to be the view that the character of Socrates takes in the Meno
73a-c (and as far as we can tell it was the view of the historical Socrates as well):
‘Didn’t you say that a man’s virtue lay in directing the city’s affairs well, and a woman’s in
directing her household well?’
‘And is it possible to direct either a city or a household or anything else well, if you do not
direct it temperately and justly?’
‘ … Then both men and women require the same qualities, temperance and justice, if they are
going to be good.’
‘So it seems.’
‘ … So all humans are good in the same way, since they become good by acquiring the same
3) Plato adopts this notion of a universal human ethical subject but takes the idea in an even
more radical direction. He argues in the Republic that, for its implementation, this view will
require the radical restructuring of social roles, at least in the two Guardian classes (the
Philosopher-Rulers and the Auxiliaries): women as well as men will be soldiers and
philosopher-rulers. In addition, he argues that these Guardian roles can only be performed
properly if, amongst the Guardian classes, private life is abolished: Guardian women will
not be confined to private, domestic life because no Guardian will have such a life. All
Guardians will live in camp communes and their children will be taken away at birth and
raised in state nurseries.
While clearly few would want to argue for such an extreme form of communism, Plato does
leave us with some hugely important questions: if both men and women are to flourish as
human ethical subjects, how should society be arranged and, in particular, what relation
should there be between private and public spaces and how should men and women
relate to those private and public spaces?
Until fairly recently, this notion of a universal human ethical subject was predominant in
western philosophy (though male philosophers did not always live up to the ideal they said
they espoused even in their published writings, and certainly not in their private lives). And
the notion of a universal ethical subject came to be viewed as entailing a commitment to
universal human rights (see, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights
of Woman 1792). In a linked move, western philosophy until the 2nd half of the twentieth
century generally either postulated (or more often assumed) a universal reasoning subject,
applying universal principles i.e. the practice and methods of philosophy in general as well as
ethics in particular were generally assumed to be ungendered.
This view that philosophy and its methods are independent of culture and hence also of
gender was still prevalent after 1950 (and is still prevalent today): Rawls’ persons in the
Original Position, trying to decide on the principles of justice that they want to adopt when
they do not even know what their gender (or their economic or social status) in society is
going to be, are a case in point. However, some philosophers, such as Janet Radcliffe
Richards, while subscribing to this view of philosophical tools as themselves independent of
culture, have nevertheless argued that these tools should be used to tackle problems that
directly concern women, such as pornography.
4) However, in the last 50 years or so there have been some prominent rejections of this
conception of philosophy in general and ethics in particular as independent of culture and
gender – and in some instances these reappraisals have also embraced the idea that
philosophy and ethics are tied to sex as well as gender. Mary Daly, for instance, although
she began by advocating equality between the sexes, later claimed in Gyn/Ecolgy that there
are essential differences between the sexes and that the female ethic is superior: the ‘female
ethic’ is claimed to be co-operative, caring, intuitive, emotional, and personal. There are
clearly many things to say both about the interpretaton of such a position and how society
should respond to it, but for the purposes of this handout it is simply mentioned as an
example of an extreme viewpoint.
5) A less extreme but still radical position is that of Carol Gilligan, who in her seminal work
In A Different Voice argues that there are two main ethical styles, the ethic of justice and the
ethic of care or responsibility, and that, for historical and cultural rather than essentialist
reasons, women are more likely to favour the latter and men the former. In the ethic of
justice, the aim is to decide problems in a formal way by appealing to a hierarchy of abstract,
universal principles; at the zenith will be justice, construed in terms of rights. There will be a
clear yes/no answer. It is an impartial ethic which assumes a discrete, autonomous self
(such a self is also a goal). The ethic of care posits a different approach to ethical problems.
The central value is, unsurprisingly, care and the main aim is the fostering and maintenance
of social relations through informal procedures and the accomodation of principles: there is
not necessarily a clear yes/no answer. People are viewed as interdependent and the self is
viewed as relational, embedded in a particular historical and social context and a
particular web of relationships.
Gilligan claims that women both constitute and understand themselves in terms of stories; we
need to listen to women’s narratives.
In order to understand Gilligan’s position, we need to understand the position she is
specifically combatting, which is that of her former supervisor Lawrence Kohlberg.
Kohlberg had argued that there are 6 main stages of ethical development:
i) the very small child is motivated by a desire to avoid punishment.
ii) motivated by self-interest
iii) a desire to maintain good social relations
iv) desire to maintain social order by obeying the laws and social conventions
v) desire to abide by the/a social contract.
vi) motivated by universal ethical principles grounded in the overarching ethical principle of
Kohlberg did not believe that many could reach the post-conventional stages v) and vi), but
held that those that do will almost always be male. Women, he claimed, almost always cease
to develop ethically beyond the conventional stage iii). Women are thus ethically
It was largely as a response to this claim that Gilligan developed her view that there are two
main ethical approaches, not one, and that both are valid. She agrees that, as a result of their
historic roles of caring, women tend to be ethically motivated by a desire to maintain good
social relations, but argues that this is not a sign of ethical immaturity, but rather a sign of a
different – but not worse – set of ethical priorities and a different – but not worse – ethical
Whether there really are these two distinct ethical approaches, and whether women really do
tend to favour one and men the other, are both clearly matters for debate. But even if one
accepts Gilligan’s theory, it still gives rise to many pressing questions about how it is
supposed to be implemented. She says that we need a mix of both the ethic of justice and
the ethic of care, both within the individual and within society, but we still need to ask
just how, in each case, the mix is supposed to work, particularly in respect of public and
private spaces (if, indeed, we are supposed to continue with this distinction). Is it the case
that the ethic of justice is most appropriate when conducting certain public activities e.g. the
making and administering of laws, the judging of alleged cases of legal infringement,
marking exams etc? And is it the case that an ethic of care is more appropriate in private,
domestic spaces and personal relations? But if that is the case, what happens if women enter
the public spaces and men the private ones? Will or should an ethic of care become more
prominent within the public realm and will or should an ethic of justice more prominent in
the private one? The ways in which alleged male/female, masculine/feminine and
public/private distinctions are supposed to interrelate in Gilligan’s theory are extremely
Other questions and critiques of Gilligan’s theory have also been raised:
a) She claims that her position does not claim essential differences between men and women,
but rather claims that the different ethical approaches have arisen as a result of different
social roles. But is there in fact an implicit essentialism in her work? If I ask about the many
women who seem to operate by universal, abstract principles of justice, or the women who do
not seem that interested in care and more interested in aggression and war, I may be told that
they have bought into the male patriarchy and unconsciously absorbed ‘male’ values i.e. that
they are unnatural women. And this at the very least seems to be begging the question.
b) Does Gilligan overemphasize issues of gender and sex at the expense of considering the
influence of class, income, race, sexual orientation etc.? Women may differ as much
amongst themselves as they do from men.
c) In addition, supposedly ‘female’ practices of e.g. nurturing (and definite female practices
of giving birth and breast-feeding) are also influenced by class, income and race etc. so the
resulting values will also be influenced by theses things.
d) One needs to be careful about ideologizing childbirth and childcare. They have often,
historically, been ideologized by men, so one needs to be careful about saying that ethical
values and modes of doing things which result from these activities are ‘female’.
e) And this is particularly true given that the ideologization of childbirth and childcare (by
both men and women) has often been to the economic impoverishment and political
disempowerment of women. While not wishing to advocate Nietzsche’s position on care, it
is salutary to remember that he viewed an emphasis on care and compassion as an ethic for
the weak and powerless.
f) Care burnout can also be a risk (though Gilligan does of course say that we need a mix of
ethical approaches in our individual lives to avoid pathology).
However, despite all the many problems, there is no doubt that Gilligan lays down a powerful
challenge to the assumption that the ethical subject is universal and that the methods of ethics
in particular and philosophy in general do not and should not take account of either sex or
gender. She certainly shows that female experiences and women’s stories need to be heard
and taken seriously, and her work raises fascinating questions about how our private and
public lives can best be conducted – or, indeed, whether we should be working to break down
History of Ethics Week 4
Hume: Reason, Passion and Sympathy (Sources: Hume Treatise of Human Nature
particularly Book 2 Part III Section 3; Book 3 Part I Sections 1 and 2; Hume Enquiry
Concerning the Principles of Morals)
Life and Works
Hume (1711-1776) is a major Enlightenment philosopher who made seminal contributions to
epistemology and ethics. In political theory he provides the intellectual foundations of
moderate conservatism. He conversed and corresponded about his ideas with some of the
leading intellectuals and literary figures of the day, such as Rousseau, Diderot and the
Comtesse de Boufflers.
He was amiable, sociable and even-tempered. He also endorsed slavery on racial grounds and
in 2020, after student protests, the David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University was renamed
40, George Square.
The source of moral judgements – in this case, ascriptions of praise and blame – is not reason,
but the sentiment of sympathy (which Hume also refers to as ‘humanity’ or ‘fellow-feeling’).
‘Sympathy’ does not mean ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’; it is simply the capacity to be affected by
the joys and sufferings of others. It is not itself a virtue and is to be distinguished from the
virtue of benevolence. It is the source of moral approval and disapproval – not their object.
What we praise or blame are, primarily, the qualities (and secondarily the actions) which give
rise to the joys and sorrows of others and ourselves.
Qualities count as virtues if they are agreeable or useful, either to their possessor or to others
(‘useful’ is here defined as whatever brings about the agreeable).
Qualities agreeable to others: decency, modesty, politeness.
Qualities useful to others: benevolence, justice, fidelity.
Qualities agreeable to their possessor: cheerfulness; tranquillity; courage.
Qualities useful to their possessor: industry; frugality; strength of mind.
Feelings of sympathy, however, vary according to circumstances (how well we know the
person etc.), whereas – in Hume’s view, at any rate – moral judgements are made, or purport to
be made, in accordance with fixed general standards. In other words, the display of the same
qualities should give rise to the same judgements of praise and blame, even though the degree
of sympathy we may feel varies. So our immediate feelings of sympathy need to be corrected
by general standards which will lead to greater uniformity and, in consequence, better
communication i.e. general standards will allow person A to say ‘Nelson Mandela is a very
courageous man’ and person B will understand that; without general standards, Hume seems
to think, all person A could say would be ‘I admire Nelson Mandela’. It is not clear, however,
that person B could not understand ‘I admire Nelson Mandela’; in other words, it is not clear
that human communication would really break down.
Finally, in the case of some virtues, what we admire is not so much a disposition to perform
particular acts, but a disposition to abide by a particular set of social rules. In the case of justice,
these rules will apply to the distribution of property, and Hume argues that the set of rules
should aim at protecting the property people already own. Even if the existing distribution of
property is itself unjust, Hume still thinks that protecting the status quo will be the best option,
as ‘justice as desert’ would lead to chaos (it’s not clear what people actually do deserve, and
we will tend to be biased in our own favour), and ‘justice as equality’ would be either
impossible to implement (and thus lead to chaos), or could only be implemented by extremely
authoritarian measures – as Hume thinks we are naturally unequal). Hume believes that society
will be best served overall, therefore, by a set of rules which protect existing property, even if
a particular act of justice results in harmful consequences, and a particular act of injustice (e.g.
robbing from the rich to give to the poor) in beneficial ones. (In the Treatise of Human Nature,
Hume describes justice and similar virtues as ‘artificial’ because they presuppose a set of social
conventions. In the later Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals he stops using the term
‘artificial’ because of possible negative connotations.)
Reason and Sentiment
Why does Hume think that the source of our moral judgements is sentiment and not reason?
This is because reason (according to Hume) is our capacity to judge of truth and falsity, whether
by means of pure thought or by experience, whereas sentiment is concerned with feelings and
emotions to do with beauty and virtue, deformity and vice. But moral judgements, he claims,
are simply not the kind of thing that can be true or false: this is because reason judges of matters
of fact and relations; but no fact or relation is in itself always good or bad (you may think that
it is, for example, always wrong for a child to kill its parent, but what of the sapling which
grows out of the parent tree and eventually smothers it? Similarly, you may think that incest
is always wrong, but sexual intercourse between close relatives often occurs amongst other
animals, and we do not blame them). Thus, there are no moral facts and there is no moral
knowledge. Ascriptions of praise and blame are a matter of taste: Hume compares moral
approval to the perception of beauty and says that since the latter is simply a matter of taste, so
is the former.
This of course will depend on how you define ‘fact’ and ‘relation’. Hume’s ‘facts’ and
‘relations’ are mostly context-free: he assumes ‘relations’, for example, are purely formal or
Hume acknowledges that reason does alert us to the consequences of human qualities and
actions, so it does have some role in moral thinking. But we need sentiment, he believes, to
tell us whether these consequences are desirable or not. If someone loves chaos, then you
cannot tell them that they are mistaken.
A well-known passage in Hume is usually taken to support this interpretation (A Treatise of
Human Nature Book III, Part 1, Section 1). In this passage Hume argues that it ‘seems
altogether inconceivable’ that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ i.e. it is ‘altogether
inconceivable’ that one can move from a fact to a value, from a description of how things are
to a prescription of how they ought to be.
Some interpreters point out that Hume does not here say that such a move is impossible; only
that it is inconceivable. They argue that some ‘ought’-propositions do follow from certain
kinds of ‘is’-propositions, namely statements of fact about human sentiments of approbation
or disapprobation (see Enquiry Appendix I.10). But it may still be relevant to point out that
these facts do not establish that e.g. kindness is a virtue regardless of human approbation, but
only that people regard it as such. So saying that ‘kindness is a virtue’ is simply an expression
of sentiment; it is not the result of a reasoned argument. There are still no moral facts.
Hume further argues that only sentiment leads to action, and moral responses certainly lead to
action. But all this proves is that moral responses are not solely a matter of reason.
1. Supposing someone does not feel sympathy?
2. If sympathy is compatible with cruel or ruthless behaviour, why should we allow it to form
the basis of determining our actions?
3. Why, in any case, should we act on the basis of sympathy? Sympathy may give rise to
moral judgements, but why act morally? Is it enough for Hume to say that it is agreeable to be
liked and to feel inward peace of mind and a consciousness of integrity?
4. Is Hume right to think that communication will break down if sentiments of sympathy are
not corrected by general standards?
5. Hume claims that the relevant question to ask about justice is not ‘What would happen if I
broke the rule?’, but ‘What would happen if everyone broke it?’ But supposing I were to reply
‘But people aren’t breaking the rule, and are not likely to break it even if I do. Why should I
take hypothetical consequences into account?’
6. Do you agree with Hume that ‘facts’ and ‘relations’ need to be stripped of context?
7. Can moral approval usefully be compared to the perception of beauty?
8. Could ‘beauty’ be an objective matter, rather than the subjective one that Hume assumes?
9. What might Aristotle say about Hume’s claim that it is ‘altogether inconceivable’ that an
‘ought’ can be derived from an ‘is’?
For secondary reading, see the Course Booklet ‘Hume’.
History of Ethics Week 2: Plato
Responses to Callicles’ and Thrasymachus’ Challenges to Conventional Morality
Both Plato and Aristotle argue that human flourishing is not to be achieved through the
acquisition of material wealth and worldly power. They base their arguments on accounts of
the human psychê which differ from the psychological assumptions implicit in Callicles and
Plato: Justice and Flourishing as Mental Health (Source: Republic 434e-444e and 580d592b; see also 400c-403c)
After Thrasymachus’ attack on conventional justice as a device of the de facto strong rulers
to exploit the ruled weak in Republic Book 1, Glaucon and Adeimantus argue (or pretend to
argue by playing devil’s advocates) that the best thing is to pretend to be just but actually to
be unjust: that way one reaps the rewards of both. Glaucon then challenges Socrates to show
that justice is beneficial for its own sake. Socrates replies that it will be easier to see the
benefits – or otherwise – of justice on the larger canvas of the ideally just state, and he sets
about constructing such a state from scratch. He claims that it will be divided into 3 classes,
each with its own particular functions and appropriate virtue: the rulers are to rule for the
good of the state as a whole and their virtue is wisdom; the Auxiliaries are to support the
decrees of the rulers and their virtue is courage; and the Producers are to supply the state with
its material needs. They have no distinctive virtue of their own, but they are to do what they
are told and be temperate. Socrates then goes on to argue that justice will be the condition
that makes all the other virtues possible: the condition that each individual perform his or her
own job and not interfere with anyone else (433d). If each individual is performing his or her
own job, then, even more critically, each class will also be performing its proper function. It
is this maintenance of the proper divisions between classes that can strictly be called justice
in the state (434b-c).
Justice, therefore, appears on this account to be in Socrates’ eyes unquestionably beneficial to
the state: it makes for peace and security, wise ruling and concord between the classes.
Without it, the state would simply fall apart (434b). Thrasymachus’ challenge, however, was
directed at justice in the individual. If Socrates is to show that, pace Thrasymachus, justice in
fact benefits its possessor, then he must show that justice in the individual operates in a
similar way. To do this, he must in turn show that the individual’s psychê is also in some way
divided into 3 parts, and he does this, in a series of arguments which many have questioned,
in Rep. 435e-441c (for a discussion see my Plato and the Hero pp.15-21).
By 441c Socrates believes he has shown that there are ‘the same three elements in the
individual as there are in the state’, namely reason, a spirited element (thumos/thumoeides)
and an appetitive element. He accordingly proceeds to analyse the virtues of the individual
along similar lines. It is owing to his/her reason that the individual is wise, and owing to
his/her thumos that s/he is brave; simply possessing reason and thumos, however, is not
enough; they must also be performing their proper functions. Reason must be in control of
the psychê as a whole, and thumos must be supporting reason’s orders. Similarly, the
individual will be temperate and self-disciplined when all three parts of the psychê are in
‘friendly and harmonious agreement’ about which part ought to rule, and there is no ‘civil
war’ amongst them. And justice in the individual will again be the condition which makes
such harmonious agreement possible, namely the condition that each part perform its own
proper function and not try to usurp the function of any other part. As justice in the state
brought about concord, so justice in the individual allows him/her to keep ‘all three elements
of himself in tune, like the notes of a scale.’ He can live at peace with himself, and channel
all his energies into achieving his overall goals, because he has ‘genuinely become one
instead of many.’ Injustice, on the other hand, is a ‘kind of civil war’ which occurs when the
elements of the mind are ‘confused and displaced’.
Justice is, therefore, Socrates claims, unquestionably to the benefit of the individual as well
as the state: it is ‘a kind of psychic health or beauty or fitness’ (444d-e) and we all want
mental health at least as much as we want physical health. The implication is that in
dismissing the value of justice to its possessor, Thrasymachus simply got it wrong.
1) Has Socrates so changed the meaning of the term ‘justice’ that he has failed to answer
Thrasymachus’ challenge to conventional justice (i.e. treating others decently and fairly)? (To
answer this, you need to consider what Republic 8 and 9 have to say about what motivates us
to behave unjustly (in the conventional sense of treating others indecently and unfairly) and
which part of our psychê is in control when we commit a crime).
2) Do you agree with Socrates that moral virtue is not only a kind of mental health but also a
kind of beauty? What are the implications of associating goodness and beauty so closely?
3) What are the possible medical, political and social consequences of saying that moral
goodness is mental health and moral wickedness mental illness?
4) Are the appetites and the Producers portrayed as being able to understand why they should
be ruled by reason/ the Rulers? What are the consequences if they cannot understand this?
5) Do you think mental harmony and health can be achieved only if reason rules in our
For secondary reading, please see the Course Booklet bibliography: ‘Plato’.
History of Ethics Week 3: Aristotle
Aristotle: the Function of Man (Source: Nicomachean Ethics (often just called the
Ethics) Book 1, particularly 1.7.)
In the Ethics 1.1, Aristotle claims that all human activity is aimed at one final goal (telos); he
goes on to argue that everyone agrees that this goal is eudaimonia, ‘flourishing’ (often less
accurately translated ‘happiness’). Both claims can be disputed, but our concern in this
course is to examine Aristotle’s next claim, which is that although everyone agrees that we all
want and pursue eudaimonia, there is no settled agreement over what a flourishing life is:
some say that it is the life of sensual pleasure, others that it is the political life which aims at
honour and worldly success; others go for a third option (which we will later learn is a life of
rational contemplation). But we share sensual pleasures with animals, and the flourishing
human life needs to be primarily constituted by distinctively human activities. And the
political life which aims at honour is far too dependent on the opinions and accolades of
others: the flourishing human life needs to be self-sufficient (Ethics 1.5).
So it looks as if the third option will be best. But 1.5 does not actually provide a positive
argument for human flourishing consisting in rational activity; it is simply the only option left
after the other two are eliminated as candidates. But 1.7 does provide such an argument, and
it is often called the Function Argument. In order to understand the nature of human
flourishing, we need to understand the human function (ergon). Just as ‘the good and the
doing well’ of the pipe-player or sculptor are determined by their functions, so the good of
humans will be determined by the human function – always supposing, of course, that
humans possess one. But is it likely that a shoemaker, or a hand, or a foot, has a function, but
that humans do not? The human function, then, must exist, and it must be something peculiar
(idion) to humans, not something shared with plants or animals. But this can only be rational
activity. The good human, therefore, will reason well, and it is the life of reason that
comprises the good life for humans.
1) Why should Aristotle suppose that humans qua humans possess a function at all?
2) How persuasive are the ‘analogies’ between humans and pipe-players, or humans and
feet? Do humans perform a socially agreed role? Are humans part of a greater whole, and if
3) Is Aristotle assuming the existence of a cosmic designer?
4) Even if there is a human function, why does Aristotle further assume that a human’s
eudaimonia depends on the performance of this function?
5) Is Aristotle arguing from a) what it is to be a human to b) what it is to be a good human?
6) Is he further arguing from b) what it is to be a good human to c) what is good for a
7) Does the entire argument rest on an illegitimate move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, from a
fact to a value?
A Possible (Partial) Solution
Perhaps Ethics 1.7 implicitly relies on Aristotle’s doctrine of natural kinds, and the essential
properties pertaining to such kinds. The ergon of a member of a natural kind is to actualize
its essential properties: this actualization is its natural goal (telos), and the achievement of its
telos is intrinsically and categorically good for it. If this is so (as Megone argues in
Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology vol.5, no.3 1998), then a number of the standard
objections fail. As members of a natural kind, humans cannot, for instance, be viewed simply
as instruments or as occupiers of a non-natural role (Megone does not sufficiently emphasise
these points). Aristotle has not chosen his ‘analogies’ with sufficient care. Nor does
anything hinge on peculiarity per se; rather, everything hinges on the notion of the human
essence, which may comprise some peculiarly human features, but will also comprise some
features which humans share with other beings – they will, for example, share rational
contemplation with god (or the gods). The human essence, in other words, is only peculiar to
humans when viewed as a whole package, and idion is perhaps best translated not as
‘peculiar’ at all, but as ‘essential’. Finally, accusations that Aristotle illegitimately moves
from a description to a prescription miss the point. Aristotle cannot move from fact to value
because for him all biological facts are already value-laden (or perhaps more accurately
value-rich); his biology is intrinsically teleological, and his account of the human good is thus
normative from the bottom up.
Some More Questions
8) Can Aristotle (or anyone) make sense of the notion of a ‘human essence’?
9) Are Aristotle’s appeals to unchanging natural kinds destroyed by Darwin?
10) Even if we accept the notion of essences, why should we suppose that, in actualizing its
essence, each living thing is fulfilling its goal or telos, and that this is an intrinsically good
thing for it to do? (In the language of Aristotle’s Physics, why should we suppose that formal
and final causes coincide?)
For additional bibliography, see the Course Booklet: Aristotle.
History of Ethics Week 7 Bentham
The foundation of Bentham’s ethics is what he takes to be the fact that all sentient creatures
are attracted to pleasure and recoil from pain:
‘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.’ (The Principles of Morals and Legislation 1789 ch.1 p.1)
Bentham believes that an act should be performed or avoided depending on its
consequences: specifically, depending on whether it leads to more pleasure or to an
avoidance of pain overall. He then makes two further assumptions, both of which can be
questioned: firstly that pleasure and happiness are interchangeable (he also uses the terms
felicity and utility); and secondly, that the pleasure or avoidance of pain in question is that of
the greatest number (the greatest number of what will be considered below). Putting all this
together he states the ‘fundamental axiom’ of his utilitarian philosophy:
‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and
So what is needed is a ‘hedonic calculus’ by which we can work out the overall pleasure,
pain, or reduction of pain caused by a particular action: Bentham is attempting to establish a
scientific technique for the promotion of pleasure/happiness. There are 7 yardsticks to use:
The first 4 apply to the pleasure or pain of the individual(s) involved:
3) Certainty or uncertainty
4) Propinquity (i.e. nearness) or remoteness.
There are 2 further yardsticks which can loosely be used of the pleasure or pain, though more
strictly belong to the act which produces the pleasure or pain:
5) Fecundity (i.e. will the act produce further pleasures (or pains).
6) Purity (i.e. will the pleasure lead to pain or the pain to pleasure).
Finally, one needs to consider the
7) Extent of the pleasure or pain produced by the act.
a) Think what life would be like if the hedonic calculus worked – a scientific technique for
human happiness. Unless two proposed actions offered the same amount of happiness,
mental conflict would be eradicated (compare the hedonic calculus in Plato’s Protagoras,
although that only considers the greatest amount of pleasure (in this argument also equated to
the good, although Plato may well want us to question this equation) of the individual, not of
the greatest number).
Bentham’s system has a number of other attractive features:
b) Deontological systems, such as that of Kant, are often charged with leading to avoidable
suffering (see J.J.C. Smart ‘Desert Island Promises’ in Singer 317-19); advocates of
utilitarianism, such as Smart, believe that Bentham’s system avoids such a charge.
c) It is unsnobbish about the activities which give pleasure: ‘quantity of pleasure being
equal,’ Bentham claims, ‘pushpin is as good as poetry’.
d) It is realistic, based on our natural attraction to pleasure and desire to avoid pain. It is a
morality fit for humans.
e) As it is based on the supposedly universal attraction to pleasure, rather than rationality, it is
easier to see how e.g. the mentally disabled or infirm and animals can be included.
But it is also a system about which many questions can be asked, even from within the
i) Is the apparent equation between pleasure and happiness/felicity/utility O.K?
ii) How does Bentham move from claiming that I am motivated by the pursuit of my own
pleasure and happiness to claiming that I should be motivated by the pursuit of the greatest
happiness of the greatest number? General sympathy (see Hume) and benevolence? Will
this be sufficient?
iii) Is the hedonic calculus even theoretically possible? And what practical problems might
there be with performing it?
The Ice-Cream example!
You are standing in the world’s best gelateria in Rome …Do you buy and eat one of its
sublime ice-creams? How would buying and eating the ice-cream score in the 7 c…