History of Ethics, Volume 2

Modern and Comtemporary Ethics
By Vernon J. Bourke
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-0-9753662-5-7

History of Ethics is…

an important, perhaps even a definitive, book

“It is surely destined to be used as a panoramic guide to the development of Western moral philosophy, from approximately 500 BCE to the present. A clear and comprehensive treatment.”


a clear and objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy

Dr. Bourke is well known for his writings on ethics and the history of ethics. He has here written a clear and objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy.”

Theology Digest

a more-than-your-money’s worth outline of ethics

“that, while virtually indispensable for classrooms, also makes for interesting and informative private reading.”

Christian Century

the fruit of forty years spent studying and teaching philosophy

“Professor Bourke performs a valuable service for the amateur, as well as the professional student of philosophy. It is not to be gulped at one sitting, or a dozen. But the lively, human treatment is a great aid to digestion.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

a summary of the major themes of many seminal thinkers on the subject of right and wrong

“After learnedly surveying Graeco-Roman, patristic and medieval, early modern and modern views, Professor Bourke outlines—with eminent clarity and judicious apportionment of space— contemporary viewpoints, expertly classified as axiological, self-realizing and utilitarian, naturalistic, and existential and phenomenological.”

Library Journal


History of Ethics is a clear, objective account of the ethical theories of Western philosophy, covering all the important schools of thought from 500 BCE through the 20th century, and touching on a great variety of thinkers.

Volume 2 continues the modern period with a consideration of the Utilitarian ideas of Hume, German and French theories, and other ethical theories from Marx to Rosenberg . The final section is devoted to such key 20th century ethical theorists as Dewey, Huxley, Tillich, and Sartre; it ends with a chapter on existential and phenomenological ethics.

About the Author

Vernon J. Bourke (1907-1998) was a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University for 45 years and the author of twenty books.

Part Four

Modern Theories

X: Utilitarian and Subjectivist Ethics in Britain

XI: German Idealistic Ethics

XII: Franco-Latin Spiritistic Ethics

XIII: Societal Ethics in Europe

Part Five

Contemporary Ethics

XIV: Axiological Ethics

XV: Self-Realization and Utilitarian Ethics

XVI: Naturalistic Ethics

XVII: Analytic Ethics

XVIII: Existential and Phenomenological Ethics




From Chapter X: Utilitarian and Subjectivist Ethics in Britain

It was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the contrast between the utilitarian and the intuitionist approaches to ethics came to the fore. This division is not restricted to British thinkers but it is most evident in their attempts to do practical philosophy. The utilitarian thinks that judgments about human actions to the effect that they are good, right, and ought to be done (or contrariwise, that they are bad wrong and ought to be omitted) are justified by considering the knowable consequences of such actions to the agent or to other persons, or to both. These consequences or results may be viewed either in terms of the advantage of the individual agent (egoistic utilitarianism), or in the light of the advantage of a plurality of persons other than the agent (universal utilitarianism). Sometimes the first type is called hedonism and the second simply “utilitarianism.” In its broadest sense utilitarianism maintains “that the right or wrong of an action is to be judged by its utility in the production of happiness.” J. S. Mill thought that he had picked up the term “utilitarianism” from John Galt’s novel Annals of the Parish (1821), but it had been used as early as 1781 by Jeremy Bentham.

Ethical intuitionism, on the other hand, is the view that a person directly knows or feels the good (or “oughtness”) of an action or moral judgment, without any need to consider other items, such as consequences, in justification. As Henry Sidgwick understood the term: “Writers who maintain that we have ‘intuitive knowledge’ of the rightness of actions usually mean that this rightness is ascertained by simply ‘looking at’ the actions themselves, without considering their ulterior consequences.” Broadly understood, intuitional ethics would include some right reason theories, some types of deontology, moral sensism, and psychological approbative types of ethics. For the present chapter, we will simply understand intuitionism as the ethics that concentrates on the subjective attitude of the moral agent, rather than on the results of his action, in discussing what is morally good or bad. In the eighteenth century, what is under discussion is not always the individual action but may be the premises of moral reasoning. This is why the term “subjectivist” is used in the title of this chapter: it simply means an ethical approach that starts from something experienced within the moral person or subject. We shall see that many ethicians manage to combine intuitionism with utilitarianism; it is only as pure positions that they are mutually incompatible.

At the end of the seventeenth century, Richard Cumberland had introduced the theory, but not the name, of universal utilitarianism into English ethics. In his Latin Treatise of the Laws of Nature (1672), he had argued that it is not “possible to determine what is the best thing a man can do in each instance, unless the effects, remote as well as near, which may result in every variety of circumstances, be foreseen and compared among themselves.” This statement of the method of utilitarianism is followed by a remarkable enunciation of the principle of the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Cumberland calls this proposition the “fountain of all natural laws.”

The greatest benevolence of every rational agent towards all, constitutes the happiest state of all in general and of each in particular, as far as is in their power to procure it; and it is necessarily requisite in order to attain the happiest state, to which they can aspire; and therefore the common good of all is the supreme law.

This brand of utilitarianism (combined in Cumberland with a right reason view of moral law) was not acceptable to David Hume (1711–1776). He tended to distrust deductive reasoning in ethics and he could not see why the common good should take precedence over private interests. The complicated ethical position which Hume eventually reached is still a most important factor in the thinking of twentieth-century British ethicians. He rejected the notion that reason can command or move the human will and insisted that ethics should concentrate on certain impressions or feelings of approval or disapproval within the agent. In Hume’s thinking, “an action, or sentiment, or character, is virtuous or vicious, because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind.” He adopted, then, an ethical position which is subjectivist in the sense that we have just seen.


From Chapter XII: Franco-Latin Spiritistic Ethics

The kind of ethics to be examined in this chapter is not well known to English readers. It is a moral philosophy that has grown out of the movement which is called “la philosophie de l’esprit” in France but it is also very important in Italy and Spain and is the dominant ethical view in most parts of Latin America. The notion of esprit is not conveyed by one English term. It means spirit and mind, of course, but it also suggests that reality which is discovered in the higher functions of human consciousness and which is quite immaterial. This “spiritism” sometimes stresses the intuitional and cognitive aspects of mind; in other cases it emphasizes the volitional or affective functions. In all cases it rejects materialism.

Many of the thinkers to be considered here are known as “Christian personalists.” This term is much favored in Italy and the Spanish-speaking countries. There is a certain amount of idealism implied: what is real is best investigated through personal consciousness. The existence of a physical universe is not usually denied but bodies are regarded as less important and less real than minds. Most people who hold this kind of personalistic or spiritistic ethics have strong Christian religious commitments; many are Catholics. This does not mean that they are Thomists. Few of them have more than a nodding acquaintance with the thought of Aquinas. It is St. Augustine who is the important early source of inspiration. Descartes’s emphasis on the cogito is also an influence, as are some of the teachings of the German idealists and romantics. On the whole, British and North American ethicians have had little interest in this sort of thing. Personalism means something rather different in the context of philosophy in the United States. The closest approach in this country would be the “Christian philosophy” of Orestes Brownson (1803–1876) who, in fact, was indebted to the philosophy of two of our spiritistic ethicians, Victor Cousin and Gioberti.

The first spiritistic ethician was Father Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), something of a Cartesian but also a great student of Augustine. Histories usually treat his striking theory of knowledge and reality and neglect his ethics. Malebranche speculated that all things exist in their Ideas in God’s creative mind and we know them (bodies and finite spirits) by seeing the “ideas” which God (as universal Reason) furnishes to our thought. It would not be necessary for trees and the ocean, and so on, to exist physically: God could provide us with these objective ideas, even if these created things did not exist. However, we believe on the basis of divine revelation that the world of finite creatures is in existence—but we do not know it, except through the divinely implanted ideas. This is what we are told in Malebranche’s Search for Truth (1674) and Dialogues on Metaphysics (1688). It is a theory that adapts the Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination to the problems of Cartesian metaphysics and psychology.

However, Malebranche wrote extensively in the field of moral philosophy. An early treatise is the Christian Discussions in which One Justifies the Truth of Religion and Morality (1675). His Treatise on Morality was first published in 1683. In a revised edition of the Treatise (Lyons, 1697), he printed his Treatise on the Love of God. In these works, as in the speculative writings, we are continually told that my individual mind (esprit) is not universal but it is impressed or enlightened by divine Reason in such a manner that the objects of my understanding are common to all minds (esprits). Knowledge is “objective” in the sense of having a “validity for spirits everywhere and at all times.” This is the beginning of French spiritism, as neatly summarized by Malebranche:

The reason of man is the word, or the wisdom of God himself; for every creature is a particular being, but the reason of man is universal. If my own particular mind were my reason and my light, my mind would also be the reason of all intelligent beings. . . . The pain which I feel is a modification of my own proper substance, but truth is a possession common to all spiritual beings. . . . Thus, by means of reason, I have or may have some society with God, and all other intelligent beings; because they all possess something in common with me, to wit, reason.