Moral Philosophy & Ethics: Definitions

The importance of moral philosophy in philosophy

Moral Philosophy is one of the major schools of philosophy. Moral philosophy relates to practical philosophy, while metaphysics refers to theoretical philosophy. Morality thus speaks of action (and answers questions such as “May war be fair? Is the death penalty moral?), Some focusing on intentions that preside over actions, others on the consequences of our actions.

Moral philosophy ultimately attempts to answer the following question: What should I do?

Moral Philosophy or Ethics?

We must distinguish moral philosophy from ethics. If the first refers to intersubjectivity (the relation to others), the second refers to personal actions, to the relation of the subject to himself. We often use one for the other in a wrong way.

In some thinkers, ethics is a philosophy derived from ontology (Plato, Sartre), in others derived from politics (Aristotle). Some even reverse the theoretical/practical relationship: moral philosophy is the first philosophy (Levinas), it is from it that the other branches of philosophy must flow.

The origin of morality

There are two ways to look at the source of morality:

  • the heteronomous theory of morality: the man receives morality from elsewhere that of himself (God, moral law, society). This is the position of St. Thomas, Kant (Critique of Practical Reason), Schopenhauer, Bergson or Durkheim.
  • the autonomous theory of morality: man creates, invents himself the principles of his action (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus)

Schools of moral philosophy

Here is a brief overview of the main branches of moral philosophy, from ancient times to the present day.

  • Formalism or Deontology: Kant’s practical philosophy is related to this current. Formalism asserts that the morality of an act depends on the form of the act, and not on its content.
  • Individualism: Individualism, in morality, posits the primacy of the individual over the social totality: values emanate from the individual. Nietzsche or Dumont are representatives of moral individualism.
  • Eudemonism: According to eudemonism, the goal of action is the search for happiness.
  • Pessimism: Pessimism, in morality, consists in thinking evil prevails over good, so man is condemned to act badly.
  • Utilitarianism: Utility must be the criterion of action. According to the utilitarians, the principle of utility supposes a calculated search for pleasures (arithmetic of pleasures). In both quantitative and qualitative terms.
  • Hedonism: Happiness is immediate pleasure. Happiness is enjoyment.
  • Stoicism: It is the concept of destiny (fatum) that governs the morality of the Stoics. The actions of man must be guided by the acceptance of destiny. The man only mastering his view of things, not the things themselves.
  • Epicureanism Epicurean morality consists in satisfying only the natural and necessary pleasures.
  • Consequentialism: Only the consequences of an act make it possible to qualify it in terms of moral or immoral.
  • Cynicism: Cynicism consists of despising morals, conventions or even traditions.
  • Ethical Relativism: The relativists consider that no morality can claim to the universal, that the cultures have a proper morality, equivalent to each other.
  • Altruism: Altruism affirms that only moral acts guided by disinterestedness and the love of others.
  • Nihilism: Nihilism defends a conception according to which there is no absolute, transcendent morality.
  • Existentialism: Man invents his way and his morality freely. The bastard, on the contrary, guided by the spirit of seriousness, hides behind a legacy morality.

10 Major philosophers of morality and their main moral work

– Plato: It is in Gorgias that his moral philosophy is best illustrated, even if the Republic also presents the main concepts of Platonic moral philosophy.

– Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

– Rousseau: The origin of inequalities among men

– Kant: Metaphysics of Morals

– Hume: Treatise on Human Nature

– Nietzsche: The Genealogy of Morals

– Schopenhauer: Aphorisms on wisdom (very easy to read)

– Spinoza: Ethics

– Sartre: Existentialism is a humanism (very easy to read)

– Levinas: Totality and Infinity (difficult work for neophytes)

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Cite this article as: Tim, "Moral Philosophy & Ethics: Definitions, August 28, 2018, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, August 28, 2018,