Contributions of Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from World

Contributions of Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from World

This article deals with ‘Contributions of Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from World.’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’  . For more articles , you can click here

Theory of Ethics

Basic idea of this topic is – We will study Ethical Theories and Moral Thinkers . Then we will use these theories and views of thinkers to answer what is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. Each theory has it’s utility and person will have to apply mind to decide which theory is best suited to given situation

1 . Virtue Ethics

  • Virtue Ethics focus  on virtues (qualities/values) of person rather than his conduct /actions 
  • It focus more on person rather than action assuming that if person is having good values, he will do good deeds only.

For Civil Servant Virtue Ethics are very important  . Civil Servant must be man of great virtues because

  • If a civil servant is virtuous man , he will command respect of people and people will accept him easily.
  • All decisions taken by him will be influenced by his values  and values don’t change overnight. 

Thinkers belonging to this school

1.1 Socrates  (470-399 BC)

  • Greek Philosopher who spoke against unethical practices going on in society . Greece was under influence of Sophist Philosophy and it was considered that person can setup ethical standards on his own . People were educated to be clever (chalak). Due to this, unethical behaviour was observed in people

Contribution of Socrates

  • He was proponent of Virtue Ethics . Socrates made it clear that Perception is not knowledge and we shouldn’t act based on perceptions . Real Knowledge consist of ideas
  • “Knowledge is Virtue ”
  • Unity of Virtues
  • Knowledge can help to stop happening of unethical works.
  • Presented ethical directives like ‘Know Thyself’

Importance in present day

  • Even today, Perception is the main reason behind Domestic Violence and various illegal acts in which person develops negative feeling towards other person. Hence, we shouldn’t believe in Perceptions .
  • Socrates has emphasised on knowing oneself which is very important in realistic goal setting and reducing the pressure and stress (Emotional Intelligence) .

1.2 Plato (427-347 BC)

  • He was disciple of Socrates. Wrote book name ‘Republic’ 
  • Gave four  Cardinal virtues of a “good man”:  (CWTJ)
    1. Wisdom : taking correct decision at correct time
    2. Courage : heroism function 
    3. Temperance  : self-control 
    4. Justice

First three are personal virtues

All four  virtues  are  cardinal  because  they   are fundamental virtues. Other virtues depend upon them and are therefore subordinate to them .

  • Plato divided society into three classes  – Guardians, Auxiliaries and Civilians.
Guardians Constitute  the  class  of  rulers
– Wisdom is their principle virtue
They  can  be  philosopher-kings.
Auxiliaries They support the guardians , execute the laws made by the enlightened rulers or philosopher kings and  protect  the  society  from internal  disorder   and  external  attack. 
– Courage  is  their  principal virtue.
Civilians Consists of producers, such as farmers, blacksmiths,  fishermen,  traders,  carpenters,  etc.  
– Temperance is their main virtue.
  • When  each  class  does  its  appropriate function and doesn’t interfere in the functions of other,  justice  emerges .
  • Why Justice is the highest Virtue : Helps in maintaining the stability of society.
  • Theory of Justice of Plato = Non Interference  Policy (similar to Swadharma of Geeta) => every man should do that job which is according to his natural inclination. The interference in others affairs is not only against the requirement of justice but also cause of chaos.


  • Gave 4 most important virtues ie Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice inculcating which can help them in making good officers who can serve public well.
  • In country like India where classes like SC, STs, Backward Classes , Women etc are found who are denied rights, these virtues in Civil Servants can help in building a just society.
  • If PM and CM  act like Philosopher King of Plato, their actions can be more effective and moral.
  • His ideas about human soul are almost similar to philosophy of Bhagvad Gita which speaks about Satguna, Rajsik guna and Tamsik guna . Dr Sarvapali Radhakrishnan has called it to be merger of Western and Indian philosophy

1.3 Aristotle

  • Main Book : Nicomachean Ethics
  • Proposed “Golden Mean is a virtue
    • Virtuous conduct consists of avoiding the  extremes of excess or of deficiency.
    • Eg : Excessive indulgence  is  as  much  a  vice  as  the  excessive  repression  of desires. Self control, therefore, is a virtue.
    • Eg : courage is the mean between  rashness and cowardice.
    • Avoiding altruism (Maximum happiness to others while ignoring yours) and avoiding hedonism (maximum pleasure for yourself).
    • Buddhist philosophy of “Madhyama-pratipad” proposes the same ‘middle-way’.
  • He extended  the  meaning  of  the virtue  of  justice. 
    • He considered  justice  as  the supreme virtue.
    • It has two forms.
      • Distributive justice consists in the equitable distribution of wealth and honours 
      • Remedial  justice   consists  of  the  fair  transactions  among  the members of the  community
  • Willed Action : He discussed where Ethicality of Human Action can be guaged to decide whether action was good or bad . Right and wrong can be judged only when
    • Action should be done voluntarily ie no compulsion      .  Eg : Bribing Civil Servant on gunpoint.
    • There must be some human knowledge of the consequences of that action.
    • There should be presence of different choices
Plato Aristotle
4 virtues  – CWTJ Many virtues
Justice = Non Interference Policy Justice = Equitable distribution system
Known as Cardinal Virtues Known as Golden Mean Theory

Importance in present times

  • He elaborated ideas of Plato and Socrates making them more pragmatic .
  • Middle Path can help in containing materialism. It is essential for Middle Class to follow this idea in order to live a happy life.
  • His Willed Action Theory, is still used by Judges in order to decide whether Morality of particular action can be judged or not.

Criticism of Virtue Ethics

  • Different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue.
  • Theory is not “action-guiding”, and does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person
  • Virtue Ethics is self-centred because its primary concern is with the agent’s own character, whereas morality is supposed to be about other people, and how our actions affect other people.

Strengths of Virtue Ethics

  • Focuses on cultivating good people from which good actions will follow .
  • Very useful in spheres of international relations and probity in governance because here legalistic laws are seldom effective

2. Consequential / Teleological Ethics

  • It focuses on “End/Goals/Consequences” to check morality of action
  • Also known as teleological ethics (from ancient Greek telos, “end”; logos, “reason”)
  • Under this category, philosophy of various philosophers can be characterised . Eg : Bentham’s Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (1806–73), and Henry Sidgwick (1838– 1900), with its formula the “greatest happiness [pleasure]  of the greatest number.”
  • Even philosophy of Kautilya can be categorised in this  which says that

Sam (Moral way) , Dam (if Sam is not working go for bribe) , Dhand (if both aren’t working go for coercion),  Bhed (divide) – Any means can be justified if ends are achieved (same for Machiavelli)

  • But using this theory
    • Even robbing a bank can be justified if it is used for charity (hence promoting Social Banditry and Robinhood Methods)

2.1 Epicurus

  • Main belief: pleasure is the end (telos) of life: by pleasure he meant the lack of pain
  • Epicurus distinguished between higher and lower pleasures (an influence on J.S. Mill)
    • Higher pleasures : pleasures of the mind
    • Lower Pleasures : pleasures of food , drink and sex.

2.2 Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism

  • According to Bentham and his Utilitarianmism  ,
    • Nature has  placed mankind under the governance  of  two Sovereign  Masters  viz  Pleasure  and  Pain.  Anything that increases the Pleasure &  reduces the Pain has utility and brings sense of happiness.
    • Criteria to judge righteousness and wrongness of any action is ‘Greatest Happiness of Greatest Number‘ .
  • Bentham’s  happiness is more materialistic in nature .   Bentham believes that all pleasures are alike. Pleasures do not  have qualitative differences. Pleasures have only quantitative differences . Bentham argues that the quantity of  pleasure remaining the same, pushpin (a game) is as good as poetry.
  • It is Teleological approach because we will disregard what we will do to achieve that goal and just look into the merits of end goal only and that too in terms of number of people getting happiness out of it. Eg:  A lynch mob kills a person believing a committed a crime.
    • In this, 100 people are getting pleasure and 1 person who is killed / lynched is getting pain
    • According to Utilitarian thought, this action will be seen ethical .

=> Classical Utilitarianism is considered as social hedonism

Utilitarianism: Merits and demerits

Merits It is a Democratic way of decision making. 
Demerits   Minority voice  is not considered. It is concerned with benefit to majority.

Progressive voices are crushed and Orthodox views are legitimized. e.g. According to this theory, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was doing an unethical action by championing the cause of abolition of Sati because most of the people were in favour of practice  

2.3 John Stuart Mill’s revision of Utilitarianism  (Refined Utilitarianism / Refined Hedonism)

  • John Stuart Mill also believed in Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number but to correct the anomalies of Bentham’s theory,   he applied some conditions .
  • Conditions were
    • Liberty of every individual is important and Liberty cant be negotiated (if making dam will help 1000 families and we have to uproot 20 tribal families to make dam, this theory says that although in this case too GHGN is important but liberty of 20 families to decide whether they want to be uprooted or not is more important. Government should go for negotiation with these 20 families and give them deal that they vacate area on their own without coercion)
    • Happiness differ in quality and not just in quantity. He says , ” It is better to be a human being  dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

2.4 Hedonism

  • Hedonism says maximize your own pleasure/happiness.
  • Person should look only his own pleasure and take actions based on that. According to Hedonism , pleasure is the only truth of life.
  • Charvaka School of Philosophy of Indian thought propounds it . (‘Rather a pigeon today than a peacock tomorrow’. ‘A bird in hand is worth two in the bush’.)
Merits Promotes consumerism : It can give boost to economy  & can help in employment generation.
Demerits Hedonism justifies Drug abuse because it gives  pleasure
Overlook rights of others

Egoistic Hedonism vs  Altruistic Hedonism

Hedonism is of two types

Egoistic Hedonism Advocates that achieving one’s own happiness/pleasure should be goal of all conduct.

It is not the real pleasure because it includes physical and psychological aspects only . Along with that Intensity, Durability etc are absent as it always aims to take something from others.  
Altruistic Hedonism It is such a condition in which person derives pleasure by working for others

It is real pleasure
In this, person is not taking something from others but is  giving something which doesn’t depend on wish of others

Question : What is pleasure ? Give example of your real life when you have experienced maximum pleasure .

2.5 Egoism and Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism

  • Egoism says maximize your own self-interest (not happiness) .
  • If parents sacrifice personal comforts for better education of children, if businessman gives part of his income in philanthropic causes, if a soldier sacrifices his life for protection of the nation -how does Egoism interpret them? => Egoism says all such actions are unconsciously selfish. e.g. philanthropy – hidden objective of gaining fame and respect. Although hidden motives are difficult to verify.

Ayn Rand’s : Ethical Egoism

  • Rand speaks about three modes of living. They are:
    • Plant model: Plants don’t have to move in order to get their life-supporting elements.  They  get  them  from  the  soil  in which they grow.
    • Animal model: Animals and birds have to seek their food and water. Even the lion, the king of jungle, has to seek his food.
    • Human model: Man does not merely seek food. He has to do productive work. For that purpose he has to choose actions. He  has  to  think.  He  has  to  seek  knowledge.  He  needs knowledge  in order to live.

Hence, she argued selfishness is a virtue. According to Rand, Selfishness  means  the  pursuit  of one’s rational  self-interest. Concern  with  one’s   own  interests  is  not  evil. ‘Selfishness’ is also not to be identified with evil.

  • Man is neither a mere animal nor a robot. He is a rational animal.  Man has a right to live. Life itself is a value. So whatever supports a happy and healthy life is good. Whatever is detrimental to life is bad.
  • Rand was opposed to Altruistic Morality. Altruism orders man to sacrifice one’s interest for the good of others.

3. Deontological Ethics

  • Aka Kantian Ethics /Duty Based Ethics
  • Propounder : Immanuel Kant

Basic Philosophy of Deontological Ethics

  • Right & Wrong is determined on the basis of MEANS  & end result is immaterial here .
  • People have a duty to do the right thing, even if it produces a bad result. So, for example, the philosopher Kant thought that it would be wrong to tell a lie in order to save a friend from a murderer.
  • According to Kant , Dignity of every individual is important value & it should be used as a criteria for judging right & wrong . He says , ” every individual should be treated as end in himself & shouldn’t be treated as means to some end.”   
  • Intention is also important in Deontological Ethics. It is seen whether an act is carried out with good or bad intentions. If good work is done with bad intentions, then actions are unethical . 
  • Instances where human beings are treated as means to some other ends are
    • Surrogacy 
    • Clinical Trials
    • Consumerism (MNCs use common people as means to maximise their profits) 
  • Mahatma Gandhi  too has emphasized a lot on means as an ethical aspect . According to Gandhi, means should be equally pious & moral as that of end .
  • Nishkama Karma : Hindu philosophy which says that do your duties without expectation of fruit are inline with Deontological Ethics /Duty Based Ethics .
  • Gives motivation to work, even when the result is uncertain or far away. e.g. Lord Krishna advising Arjun to fight in the war against the Kauravs

3.1 Kant

Morality Kant lays down following rules of conduct to make the moral law i. e. the Categorical Imperative more definite :

  • Act only on that principle which can be a Universal law :  Kant says,  Act  in  such  a  way  as  you  could  wish that everyone  else should  act  in  same  way.  Example 
    • breaking promises :  act is wrong because it cannot be universalized. If everyone breaks promise,  no one can make any promise.
    • Suicide : If everyone commits suicide in despair no one would be left to commit suicide.
    • Theft : Wrong because if everyone else also resort to such activity it will create chaos.
  • Do not use any person including yourself as only means  : This maxim holds a person as an end in itself and not as a means to some ends. Man is essentially a rational being. The rational nature is an end and has absolute value. 
  • Act as a lawmaker of Kingdom of ends  (Autonomy of morality)  : Everyone in this kingdom is sovereign i.e. imposes moral law upon himself and subject at the same time i.e. he obeys the  moral law imposed by himself. 

Complete Good: Virtue & Happiness

  • Kant believes that virtue is the supreme Good but it is not  complete good.
  • The complete Good consists in association of virtue with  happiness
  • Virtue depends upon good will within our control. Happiness depends upon the external circumstances which are beyond our control.  Virtue  does  not  include  happiness,  nor  does  happiness include virtue.  The  harmony  of  virtue  and  happiness  is  brought about by the God.

4. Rights as Theme for Ethics

  • Every individual has certain rights which he gets because of the fact that he is a human called Human Rights . They are minimum rights which a person will surely get whatever be the view of government . Apart from this, constitution and laws can give rights in addition to these bare minimum rights called constitutional and statutory rights. 
  • This theory uses Rights to judge whether action is ethical or not
    • If Rights are violated , then it is unethical
    • If Rights arent violated, then it is ethical

3 Generation of rights

1st Gen Negative rights
Like Freedom from exploitation etc
But it did not lead to their real development. This gave birth to 2nd generation rights
2nd Gen Positive Rights
These were Enabling and developmental rights
e.g. Social security, right to health, education
3rd Gen Various other rights like
Environmental rights: Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Group rights & cultural rights e.g. ensuring protection of the culture of North East people.

4.1 Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism

  • Indigenous economic model that puts human being at center of development.
  • It is opposed to both western capitalist individualism  and  marxist socialism (although welcoming to western sciences).

It seeks a middle ground between capitalism and socialism, evaluating both systems on their respective merits, while being critical of their excesses and alienness

5. Justice as Theme 

  • Justice = Fairness
  • It is related to  aspect that how the common goods & resources should be distributed in the society .
  • Criteria which can be used is Equity (not Equality) ie Distribution of resources should be done on the basis of  capacity and needs of different sections of society (poor need more) . It involves
    • Preferential treatment / positive discrimination  of weaker section of society .
    • Taxation of rich and welfare schemes for weaker sections of society .

5.1 John Rawls

  • Propounder of social justice
  • Primary Good :  Rawls identified ‘primary goods’ as basic  ‘things that every rational man is presumed to want’. These include Liberty, Opportunity, Wealth, Income & Self-Respect .  For good life
    • Liberty is most important among all
    • Equality of income & wealth
    • Equal opportunities for progress
    • Political setup shouldn’t impinge self respect of any person
  • Concept of Veil of Ignorance
    • Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly?
    • Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. The only safe principles will be fair principles, for you do not know whether you would suffer or benefit from the structure of any biased institutions. 
  • Theory of Justice (1971) : For achieving justice, 3 criteria on which  society should be based upon
    • Each person has same  claim to equal basic liberties 
    • Equality of opportunity to all
    • Difference principle : Recognise the poor and give them preferential treatment in resource allocation . Preference should be given to Justice over Merit (Positive Discrimination & Reservation )

First two principles are based upon absolute equality of all and third is based on reducing the inequality

  • He tried to reconcile between Liberty (capitalism) and Equality (Communism) using taxation theory

5.2 Amartya Sen

  • He took Socio-Economic Justice to another level. According to Sen, Resource allocation is not that important but Empowerment is most important . (Don’t give him fish but teach him how to catch fish)
  • This approach is called ‘capability approach’ which consists of two distinct notions: functionings and capabilities
    • Functionings refer to the number of  parameters  person manages to achieve in life. Sen mentions both basic functionings like nutrition, life expectancy, health and education as well as complex functionings like self-respect, social recognition and political participation.
    • Capabilities refer to the extent of freedom that a person has in order to achieve different functionings .

5.3 Joseph Stiglitz

  • We have to accept the reality that Globalisation has created more inequalities. Stiglitz has written in that respect.
  • He didn’t say that globalisation should stop. His critique was Globalisation is reality but Globalisation should happen with humane face
  • Globalisation should happen in a way that it decreases gap between rich and poor . This can be done by skilling people (empowerment)

6. Social Contract as Theme

This theme is mainly used to check ethicality of laws and rules made by the government

  • Contractialism implies that there is social contract between state and people based on which state should act and make laws .
  • Social contract theorists do not propose that persons living in a “state of nature” at some point in time actually drew up and gave consent to a social contract, which set the rules by which they would live; but they do find this a useful model for judging the legitimacy of ethical rules.
  • Proponents : Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), John Rawls (1921–2002) , David Gauthier (born 1932)

6.1 Thomas Hobbes (Psychological Egoism)

  • Book : Leviathan
  • Hobbes argues that society originates out of self-interest and fear, not  out  of  natural  feeling  for  one’s  fellow  men. 
  • Morality requires social authority which must be in the hands of the sovereign  whose authority  is  absolute.  Morality is based upon the law of the absolute sovereign.  
  • Hobbes ethical theory leads to the political doctrine which is designed to end the natural war of every man with every other man. 

6.2 John Locke

  • Locke based his ethical theories upon belief in the natural goodness of humanity.
  • Contradicting Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. In that state all people were equal and independent. The state was formed by social contract because in the state of nature each was his own judge, and there was no protection against those who lived outside the law of nature. The state should be guided by natural law.

7. Ethics and Marxism

  • Marxists believe that “old morality”—the morality of the reigning capitalist class—exploits the working class. According to this view, old religious moral codes must be abandoned. For Karl Marx and Frederick Engels “Thou shalt not steal” establishes a society in which some have property and some do not and such an establishment is the root of the problem.
  • Marxists believe that end justifies the means. When pursuing Marxist ethics, revolution is the most efficient means for creating a society without class distinctions. According to Marxists, revolution is unavoidable and it is the only way to overthrow the bourgeoisie and lift up the proletariat. The obligation to work toward the overthrow of the bourgeoisie may very well include the duty to kill.

8. Feminine Ethics / Care Ethics

Carol Giligan has divided Ethics between Masculine Ethics & Feminine Ethics

Masculine Ethics More logical and rational decision making
Decisions are taken on basis of rules , regulations and laws (ie Justice)
Feminine Ethics /care ethics More emotional aspect of decision making
Based on feeling of love, care , compassion etc

Most of time, ethics is judged from Masculine aspect (earlier this was the case) .  But there is other side too and if feminine aspect comes in decision making, it cant be termed as unethical.

9. Chinese / Confucianism

  • Confucianism main emphasis => tell about appropriate behavioral norms like
    • bowing to one’s superior
    • gestures that are appropriate to one’s social status.

But for modern scholars, it presents difficulty as Confucianism has  backward pull in their dictates.

  • Confucianism goal is making not only the man virtuous, but also making him the man of learning and of good manners. The perfect man must combine the qualities of a saint, scholar, and gentleman

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