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Chapter 1

A Brief History of Ethics

Jennifer Downs

In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.

Earl Warren¹

How ought one live? This question represents the foundation of centuries of debate concerning the philosophy of ethics, a subject that writers from every country across every generation have discussed, dispelled, and posited their thoughts on without yet reaching a consensus. The voices in this dialogue are cross-referential, building upon and responding to preceding theories as each philosopher takes their distinct stance on morality. The idea of good and evil has been filtered through multitudinous perspectives, allowing for questions not only on the goodness of actions but the use, rightness, morality, and justness of actions.

For the ancient Greeks, the code of moral correctness was represented by the epics. Writers like Homer sang the praises of virtuous men, holding such characters up as paradigms of virtuous action. It is evident in the Odyssey that these heroes looked to the pantheon of Greek gods as their resource for right living. Regardless of true belief in the existence of such beings, the characteristics of the various deities, as outlined in myth, informed the actions of heroes like Odysseus.

[…I] t is clear that Homer invokes the gods in order to account for the observation that a central form of human excellence must be drawn from without. A god, in Homer’s terminology, is a mood that attunes us to what matters most in a situation, allowing us to respond appropriately without thinking. ²

In this way, the Greeks had a model to inform their own behavior and by which to judge others. Since the fall of ancient Greece, other philosophers have taken an opposing stand, insisting that morality is a relative feature of the individual – that no preset code applies to all people in all circumstances.

The changes in ethical philosophy over the years reflect sociological shifts that, in responding to contemporaneous events, intellectually summarize the social understandings and reactions to socio-political changes. Despite the constant flux of thought, at a very base level, ethics strives for a cohesive society. Philosophers describe their ideal; the most functional and productive structure of society, thus laying out their best plan to achieve such an end. Whether the source of ideal cohesion rests in the individual or the community at large has yet to be determined, but the debate continues.

1. Meta-Ethics: What does Right mean?

Meta-ethics is concerned with the epistemology of ethics, posing conceptual questions to define the origins and limitations of ethical statements and challenging the use of moral predicates. Fundamentally, this is a branch of philosophy concerned with the inherent existence and man’s understanding of goodness, and addresses this concept through conceptual and epistemological questions.

The advent of meta-ethical theory is tied to increased interest in linguistic philosophy at the outset of the 20th century.³ We utilize moral predicates like good/evil and right/wrong in association with behavior to define our understanding of the ethical nature of a given action. Initially, a moral verdict like it is wrong to cheat, seems like a simple deduction, yet the parameters of wrong have not been defined, so there is no value to this statement. Meta-ethics attempts, in various ways, to provide the necessary parameters in order that a valid ethical conclusion be reached.

The most crucial debate within meta-ethics is the source and meaning of human values. For objectivists, values are innate, existing regardless of human comprehension. Because these values are inherent in the world, they are knowable, and ought to universally govern human behavior.

Alternately, relativists conclude that the values we attribute to things are defined differently, depending upon the environment of the definer, and so these values cannot be granted absolute meaning. An individual’s understanding of right and wrong is true relative to their experience. For this reason values do not have collective definitions and cannot be universally employed. From the relativists’ perspective comes the question of how to make moral judgments without a definite framework. This non-cognitivist branch of meta-ethics proposes that the application of moral predicates correlates with our application of emotional conditions. Within a certain environment, death makes us feel bad, we expand this feeling to perpetuate a moral absolute that all death is inherently bad. This emotion takes on an inscrutable moral quality so that the position capital punishment is morally bad is inscrutable by extension. Non-cognitivists propose that this type of association is the basis for all positions of morality, meaning that truth is relative to personal opinion shaped by experience: thus there is no absolute truth.

It is commonplace to assume that the questions of meta-ethics are logically prior to those of normative and applied ethics, and that there is no use proceeding with either normative or applied moral philosophy without coming to certain definite conclusions about matters of meta-ethical concern, but this assumption has also been disputed. For one may be right in regarding moral statements as cognitive and moral argument as possible without having any sort of elaborate meta-ethical theory to justify this view.

2. Normative Ethics: How Ought People to Act?

What meta-ethics defines as objectivism relates to a branch of philosophy called normative ethics. Here the universality of values is accepted and a rational justification for these values is sought. Normative ethics is concerned with paradigms of ethical behavior and operates in a prescriptive manner, establishing moral absolutes by which society should live. The maxim known as the Golden Rule is an ideal representation of normative application, as some version of this principle has been represented in most societies throughout history. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the rule teaches that one ought to do unto others as you would have them do unto you⁵ defining good behavior as the treatment one would expect for one’s self. Normative ethics can be further broken down to four theories, as follows:

Virtue ethics focuses on the moral state of the individual as the source of ethical behavior, rather than compliance to an external code of conduct. The morality of an individual comes from their internal character, which is reflected in the decisions they make, therefore the actions they choose to perform are less important than the justification for their behavior. Proponents claim that this approach:

Offers a more unified and comprehensive conception of moral life, one that extends beyond actions to comprise wants, goals, likes and dislikes, and, in general, what sort of person one is and aims to be.

Deontological ethics, having its root in the Greek deon, or duty, determines morality based on adherence to rules. Actions have intrinsic moral implications, and ought to coincide with an individual’s moral obligations, regardless of the consequences associated with such action. There are many theories regarding deontology, but they:

have in common the basic premise that the right is prior to the good and that beneficial results do not determine one’s moral duty. They emphasize fidelity to principle and the independence of rightness, which is the main focus of moral life.

In opposition to deontology is teleology, with the Greek root telos meaning goal, wherein what is right is determined by what is good. Here morality is determined by the consequences of action. C.D. Broad defined the modern understanding of teleological ethics writing that they:

hold that the rightness or wrongness of an action is always determined by its tendency to produce certain consequences which are intrinsically good or bad.

Right action can be determined as that which yields the greatest good for the greatest number. This philosophy can be seen in various permutations in the practice of utilitarianism, egoism, hedonism, intellectualism, welfarism, etc.

The final branch of normative ethics is pragmatism, which suggests that morality is in a state of constant evolution, in a similar way to scientific knowledge. Over the course of many generations, advances are made, and our understanding of what is right changes to reflect new ways of thinking.

Out of native impulses, some desires arise, leading to actions that form habits. Habits constitute the self, becoming one’s character. They lead to certain kinds of further action that may cause re-evaluation of past desires, a transformation or enlargement of them with respect to their objects, or a deepening of their meaning with broadened experience.

This theory views character as an active process which can be influenced or manipulated through experience, therefore social reforms should be implemented to provide socially significant lives.

3. Applied Ethics: How do People Implement Moral Knowledge?

The application of ethical theory in practical situations falls under the category of applied ethics. Unlike meta-ethics, where the aim is to understand the nature of moral concepts, or normative ethics which explores moral norms, the field of applied ethics pertains to the use of ethics to mediate real-life conflicts between what distinct parties view as right and wrong. It is difficult to find a situation free of ethical concerns, yet applied ethics is a relatively recent addition to the field.

The importance of applied ethics became obvious first in the medical context, where in the aftermath of World War II and the expanding interest in human rights, developments in technology gave rise to challenging ethical issues such as the use of transplant technology and the allocation of scarce resources such as kidney dialysis.¹⁰

In any instance where group or individual interests conflict, it is necessary to look to ethical theory for a resolution: business, law, government, medicine, science, religion, sports, etc. The modern interest in how to pursue what is right in such a comprehensive manner, bringing ethics and the impetus for equality into so many aspects of life, proves our desire to strive for the greater good. As Albert Einstein urged, one ought to try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.¹¹

4. Moral Psychology: What do People Think about what is Right?

Moral psychology can refer to one of two fields, the first of which is the study of the development of the moral choices of the individual over time, and the second is the overlap between psychology and ethics, where the mind bears relevance to morals.

[…M]any normative theorists have maintained that there is a close connection between pleasure, happiness, or desire-satisfaction and a person’s good, and these things are also a concern of philosophy of the mind. In addition, the rightness of actions is often held to be closely connected to the motives, beliefs, and other psychological phenomena that lie behind those actions. ¹²

The interest here lies in the thoughts of an individual, what they define as right/wrong and how they reach these conclusions.

Moral psychology has had a revival in the second half of the twentieth century. It involves work done both by empirical psychologists and philosophers and is devoted to reflection on how morals are acquired or developed, the role of emotions in moral life, how resistance to evil is inculcated, and so on. ¹³

This kind of research does not uphold any ethical theories as absolute, rather it explores they ways in which individuals and groups engage with ethical concerns.

5. Descriptive Ethics: What do People Profess is Right?

Descriptive ethics is simply the study of what people do believe or have believed about social morality and how those beliefs are implemented in action. As a discipline, it relies heavily on sociology and anthropology to relate the beliefs from variant cultural groups, from which one can extrapolate future behavior. This method can also be applied to ethical codes implemented in a professional environment. Like moral psychology, this is not a field that promotes any particular ethical belief; rather it interprets those pre-existing as they are implemented.

5.1 Old Testament (1200–100 BCE)

The earliest recorded code of ethics is found in the Tanakh and Talmud, the sacred scriptures of the Hebrews which were transcribed beginning in 1200 BCE. These writings document the history of these peoples within a moral context. Moral understanding for early Jews was inextricably combined with their belief in Yahweh. The Jewish expression of faith is founded in a complex system of social laws known as the halakah, wherein right action (morality) is a reflection of one’s obedience to God. Jewish philosophy is reflective in nature; one ought to behave in the likeness of God’s holiness or "kadosh".

As God is merciful, forgiving, just, and kind, so his people must be merciful forgiving, just, and kind. ¹⁴

This sociotheocratic belief system sees Yahweh as the moral epicenter for all mankind, pointing to the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) as a succinct form of the highest ethical code for all men.

5.2 Hinduism (100–400 BCE)

Hindu literature dates as far back as 1000 BCE, promoting ethics as a means to moksa, or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. The ultimate deity in this religion is Brahmin, the impersonal expression of absolute truth to which all men should aspire. Hinduism assigns four distinct stages to life, each with increasing moral demands. In the first stage, that of the student, sensory pleasure is given the highest significance. In the second stage this self-indulgence gives way to increased self-control as the individual shifts focus to the faculties of the householder. The third segment of life turns to the more religious focus of the wandering beggar where the individual pursues thorough religious understanding (dharma). The final stage is a continuation of this religious pursuit characterized by an even stricter practice of meditation. It is by means of this advanced meditation, where the individual is in union with the Ultimate, that universal wisdom may be known. The unity of life that this reveals insists upon a culture of non-violence. In the interrelation of all life morality is universal.

The Upanishads, the conclusion of the earliest Hindu texts, express the ultimate goal of life as unity with Brahmin which, it is written, can only be achieved through moral actions. The four stages of life reflect the ethical refinement necessary for the individual to achieve freedom.

The Bhagavad Gita is the central ethical text in Hinduism. It portrays a conversation between Lord Krsna and the warrior Arjuna. In the divine song, Krsna proposes the fundamental relativism that correctness should dictate each course of action.

5.3 Taoism (800–200 BCE)

In the 6th century BCE The Tao Te Ching or The Way and its Power emerged, establishing the basis of what would later become known as Taoism. This Chinese philosophy is attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu and promotes retreat from society as a means of attaining social and personal harmony. According to Taoists, life ought to be lived in harmony with nature, in simplicity and spontaneity. Society, though, has become increasingly complex and man’s innate goodness has been obscured by desire, subsequently society has adopted morals in an effort to cope with the vices of desire. But imposing moral rules merely exacerbates social ills and cannot get at the real root of the problem. Indeed, morality should be abandoned for

it is better for fish to live in water and be able to forget about each other than to be on a dry road and have to moisten each other with their spit.¹⁵

In short, it is more preferable to live by the virtue of Tao than by forced virtue.

At its core, Taoism espouses a necessary balance between opposites. In Western culture this is most familiarly represented by the taijitu, or yin-yang. This symbol houses two opposite components, each containing necessary aspects of one another, both propelled in tandem.

Neither aspect of the taijitu can exist without the other; so it is in nature that all things move in an eternal, interconnected rhythm. By this same principle, good and evil are interdependent; one cannot exist without the other.

5.4 Zhuangzi (c. 300 BCE)

Contemporaneously, the philosopher Zhuangzi discounted the alternative philosophies of his contemporaries in favor of Taoism, upholding the idea that all things exist in balance and therefore no idea can be promoted over another because of relative nature of experience. In his writings Zhuangzi expanded on the work of his predecessor Lao Tzu, also promoting simplicity as the means to attain Tao. His theory shifted the focus of the Tao from a dichotomy between good and evil to relativism, contending that the universe does not operate by absolutes. As for societal laws, Chuang Cho proposed that it is impossible to know what is best for someone else and so vague values should not be imposed. He maintains the relativistic philosophy of allowing individuals to determine right and wrong according to their own barometer, not dispelling a sense of morality in actions, but warning against an absolute code.

5.5 Confucianism (c. 500 BCE)

Confucius, as a member of the newly created Chinese literati, wrote in response to the many feudal states struggling to maintain existence, as an unprecedented social revolution allowed commoners to take on positions of political import. His philosophy grew from the instability of the government which he perceived as the moral degeneration of its rulers. The Analects lays out his idealized feudalism; Confucius proposed a familial aristocracy in which the king represented the father, a role model for the citizens or children. If kings upheld their role as moral leaders, laws would not be required. The chun tzu (superior people) were Confucius’s first followers, his ideal citizens, elite scholars and were taught to embody a universal good.

The concepts of jen and li are central to Confucianism. Humanity or jen is manifest in the love of others which leads to right behavior. One must not treat others in an undesirable manner. Li, on the other hand, is action in keeping with tradition or rules of conduct. According to Confucius, a government is ideally moral, holding in highest regard the interest of the people, which in turn inspires the citizens to aspire to the moral ideal.

As feudalism continued to decline, his student Mencius extended the responsibilities of the leaders to include social welfare and employment of the most qualified officials rather than those of the highest birthright. In so doing, Mencius dispelled the idea of a hereditary aristocracy in favor of an educated electorate. The greatest addition to Chinese philosophy from Mencius was the belief in the innate goodness of mankind, illustrated in the famous allegory of the well. Mencius postulates that there are four hearts compelling action: compassion, shame, ritual, and wisdom. In the instance of a child falling into a well, man would universally and spontaneously be compelled toward sympathy, an impulse unmotivated by self-interest. Evil, he continues, only exists in the lack of cultivation of these shared impulses. Thus morality is an innate component of existence which can be developed via good deeds.

The next major Confucian sage Hsun Tzu expanded on human morality, postulating that man is inherently evil, and that he only submits to good behavior as a form of social self-preservation. He rejected a dependence upon any external force of being, instead proposing individual reliance on proper conduct. Opposing Mencius, he taught that although humans are born evil (or uncivilized) it is within their power to control their animalistic impulses and desires through self-cultivating education.

5.6 Sophism (c. 400 BCE)

The foundation of Western philosophy can be traced to the Grecian empire, culminating in the Athenian philosophers of the 5th century BCE. As was true of China, a socio-political shift was the catalyst for novel ethical theory. During this time there was a shift away from disparate agrarian monarchies to a more centralized industrial democracy. Athens became the hub of commerce and intellect in the ancient world. A group of teachers known as the Sophists capitalized on this newly realized need for education by providing fee-based courses on a variety of subjects. At the core of this movement was the rejection of dependence upon traditional custom as a justification for behavior. The philosopher Protagoras epitomized the group’s attitude of relativism in his dictum the man is the measure of all things and so there can be no objective truth. Cultural customs, then, are useful only in that they represent agreed upon laws established from experience, but have no inherent truth and may be challenged. What is right and wrong is subjective, based on personal or social beliefs rather than inherent fact.

5.7 Socrates (c. 469–399 BCE)

Socrates rejected the Sophist’s argument of moral relativism, advancing the transition of Greek philosophy to one of self-awareness by which moral absolutes could be objectively identified. Unlike the Sophists, he believed that ethical verities were not only universal, but were able to be identified, learned, and improved upon within the individual. For this reason, life needed to be examined in minute detail in order to be lived well.

As with any task, there is always a method to attaining the best results. In shipbuilding, there is a proper and knowable strategy to creating an excellent ship. So in life the goal should be to attain such wisdom as will lead one to live a morally excellent life. Only in this way, through careful examination, can one flourish to one’s full potential. Desires are rationally generated by whatever is seen as most valuable. Having attained intellectual wisdom it would be impossible not to abide by it: one would not be able to commit some evil, since what is most valuable is the virtue of the soul which only engenders moral desires. Socrates proposed that evil could only be committed in error, when an individual mistakenly values the wrong things. It is more important to view the long-term effects of one’s actions rather than any short-term gain. So the importance of morality is not for the benefit of a society but for the internal well-being of the individual.

5.7.1 Euthyphro Problem

Calling into question the relevance of traditional custom, Socrates opened the door for ethical debate. If it was not sufficient for a man to base his own custom, by what parameter could he base his morality? This dilemma became the crux of Sophocles’ dialogues. For him, the unexamined life was not worth living and so it is necessary to remove the crutches of tradition to truly understand behavior. The longevity of Socrates’ philosophy lies in his thorough simplicity. On the subject of divine command, he poses two quandaries. First, if what dictates ethical action is the approval of a deity, then there must be some absolute ethic that pre-exists divine authority. By this argument, a deity does not determine what is ethical but merely goes along with some greater authority. The second option would be that a divine source determines what is ethical on an individual basis and so morality is based on the caprice of the gods. Since, for Socrates, neither option is a reasonable solution, then ethical commands cannot be sourced from some abstract authority. This inquisition is Socrates’ approach to explaining the difficulty in establishing a relationship between facts and values. Socrates identifies himself with those interlocutors who question him, conveying that he, too, lacks sufficient knowledge to provide absolute explanations of ethical quandaries.

5.8 Socrates and Plato (427–347 BCE)

There are no extant texts of Socrates. What is known of his philosophical teachings and subsequent trial and execution has been preserved in the writings of his students, most famously the early works of Plato. It is important to bear in mind that as he gained notoriety of his own Plato maintained use of the character Socrates while moving away from his predecessor’s teachings in his later works (see below).

After Socrates was tried and executed for corrupting Greek youth through his impious rejection of divine authority, his student Plato took on his teachings. After he established the Socratic method of self-examination in his early writing, Plato expanded the philosophy of Socrates to encompass why the individual is capable of obtaining the knowledge that will allow man to live justly. The soul is constantly in the act of reacquiring previous knowledge that has since been forgotten in the human form. There exist in the universe two influences. First, there are physical objects which are temporal and sensory; they are a poor basis for knowledge because they appeal to the whims of human senses. Second, there are the eternal, incorruptible Forms in the universe (i.e., ethics and mathematics); these are the ascetic and intellectual truths which require self-discipline and denial of sensory pleasure to attain. At the center of this group is the Form of Good by which all else must be measured.

In The Republic, Plato echoes the thoughts of Mencius, stating that the people ought to be a reflection of the ethics of their government. Plato, too, outlined four cardinal virtues of human nature: temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice. Operating in harmony the first three virtues ought to culminate in the final virtue. Accordingly, justice is contingent upon the agent, be it an individual or government. Plato proposed an ideal society, by which justice could be seen in a larger context and then understood by the individual. In such a society, each citizen would be trained in the task to which they are best suited and would be governed by philosopher kings, leaders who would be strictly educated in the Form of the Good to benefit the populace. In this structure, with every component functioning to the best of its ability, justice is the only logical result.

5.9 Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Plato was succeeded by a student of his academy, Aristotle. In his work, Nicomachean Ethics, he focused on the need to exercise the knowledge of good, outlining a practical guide for individuals working to live virtuously. Unlike his predecessor, Aristotle rejected an overarching Form of Good, and instead taught that each item, practice, or individual has a distinct ultimate goodness. He believed that, generally, man knows what he ought to do in an ethical dilemma. For Aristotle, there was no value in simply knowing what choice is virtuous and choosing to act accordingly; rather the desires and the judgments of the virtuous agent ought to be in harmony so that the agent may experience real happiness. The difference between the morally weak and morally strong individual lies only in their behavior, not in their desires. Further, he taught that this kind of moral virtue is not an attainable skill but an innate balance; a postulation that undermines what he purported as necessary for happiness. But, Aristotle continued, one can become virtuous by imitating the acts of virtuous individuals for we are what we repeatedly do.

5.10 Summation of the Greeks

Socrates was the first to recognize the need to define ethical concepts and attempt to establish a universal standard. Plato found his standard in immutable, universal abstractions and goodness is measured by his ideal Form. Aristotle turned to practical application whereby happiness is achieved through right action. Social and individual good are interrelated. The latter philosophers drew conclusions about moral culpability. For Plato morally wrong decisions are made in error due to lack of knowledge. In addition to such errors, Aristotle adds the possibility of choosing to do wrong. For him happiness is well-being.

5.11 Epicurus (c. 342–270 BCE)

Epicurus expanded Socrates’ Euthyphro problem contending that if deities do exist they are free from the ethical dilemmas of man. He based his hedonistic theories in the emerging science of the atom that suggested the basis of existence resides in the weight, collision, and swerve of larger atomic compounds. What is knowable in the universe is based on our sensory experience, because there can be no corruption through such a vehicle. Visual observations represent an automatic, mechanical reaction revealing uninterrupted fact. Because our sensory experience is of the utmost importance, pleasure ought to be our ultimate goal, whether physical or mental. This goal is more easily achieved the more simply life is lived, when there are fewer opportunities for pain (evil).

5.12 Stoicism

Stoicism was another of the Hellenic philosophies stemming from the teaching of Socrates, whom followers saw as an ideal exemplar, living a life based entirely upon reason, an individual unmoved by desire. The best way to approach this lifestyle was a total withdrawal from the influences of society in an effort to develop an apathetic outlook and an indifference to pleasure or pain. Reason being the ultimate guide, they saw freedom as living in accordance with nature and having the ability to accept a set destiny as their necessary fate.

5.13 Neoplatonism (c. 204–270)

Neoplatonism formed in the fall of the Roman Empire, as a recourse to the pessimism and desperation felt by the collapsing society. Plotinus adapted Plato’s Form of Good theory with a more religious tone, adding the idea of the One, an ineffable entity from which all other forms have being. Evil, he continues, is the opposite of form, or reality, and so thus is unreality. Virtue, then, is an ascendance toward the One which can be achieved through intellectual escape and asceticism, living a life free from the bonds of material goods.

5.14 Christianity

The early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo used aspects from Hebrew philosophy, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism expressing the need to marry faith with reason. He wrote that good is the inherent state of nature, and moral choices are based on reason for the benefit of the individual or society and must be made by the soul, which is not a part of nature.

Christian ethics have been widely discussed and critiqued over the centuries, but the fundamental principles remain the same. The origin of Christian ethics is the teachings of Jesus throughout the New Testament, where he instructed his followers on God’s expectations as the ultimate authority.

In one of the most famous moral sayings of all time, he instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek to those who strike them, to repay evil with good, to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you. It is commonplace to say that Christian ethics is an ethics of love. ¹⁶

5.15 René Descartes (1596–1650)

With the profound statement cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), René Descartes marked a significant turn in ethical philosophy toward its current trajectory. He is known as The Father of Modern Philosophy. This statement provided the indubitable foundation, the absolute reality of the self he saw as necessary to pursue absolute knowledge. In the Cartesian System, philosophy is structured like a tree with its three fundamental components: metaphysics (the roots), physics (the trunk), and practical sciences (the branches).¹⁷ In this analogy, the branches produce the necessary life-supporting elements, or the practical sciences, which are distinct yet interrelated.¹⁸ Knowledge, however, requires a bottom-up approach that begins with questioning predetermined notions and establishing an inscrutable foundation.

For his system to be properly engaged, Descartes abandoned any dependence upon the senses, our main resource for knowledge, due to their propensity to deceive. Deduction is the only reliable path to knowledge, not perception. Through methodological skepticism, he rejected all preconceptions, in order that they may be replaced by absolute knowledge. This approach is the foundation of modern scientific practice.

5.16 Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

The theory of a social contract originated with Thomas Hobbes. This is a form of consent from the governed to live by certain prescriptions agreed upon by society at large, in expectation that order might abide. Prior to such an agreement, Hobbes stated, man exists in a state of nature where he does not operate under any ethical pretense, and, so, is engaged in a war against all (bellum ominum contra omnes), in which no one can be trusted. Under such dysphoria, society cannot prosper because its members cannot rely on another. Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short because man lives in constant fear of his neighbor.

In order to pursue their natural desires, men must come together to establish societal norms by which all agree to subsist. Such a system requires governance, not only to maintain order, but to control disorder. Despite his personal adherence to Christian authority, Hobbesian theory is not dependent upon any specific theology, since action is founded in reason, which demands peace and security, but not dogma.

Hobbes’s ethical relativism or nominalism articulated the position that there were no universal objective or absolute moral, political, or spiritual truths. ¹⁹

Rather, man relies on a sovereign to protect his interests by stipulation of right and wrong.

5.17 Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)

In Ethics, Baruch Spinoza relates reason and virtue. Virtue requires understanding, so the virtuous individual has an understanding of what is socially requisite. This impetus for co-operation expands Hobbes’s theory of interdependence as the foundation for a stable society. An individual acts virtuously because it is in his best interest, because nothing is more useful to man than man.

According to Spinoza, the concepts of good and evil are relative. Our understanding of these diametrically opposed terms comes from personal experience of what is useful or detrimental within our own experience.

5.18 John Locke (1632–1704)

Influenced by the rivalry between religious tradition and the emerging science of the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke’s seminal work, The Essay, argues for an examination of convictions. The foundation of this piece is Locke’s insistence on the essential difference between knowledge and belief.

Knowledge, as he thinks of it, is direct awareness of some fact – in his own words, perception of some agreement or disagreement among things. Belief, by contrast, consists of taking some position to be true – whether or not one is directly aware of the corresponding fact. ²⁰

It is necessary to be deductive when determining beliefs, since nothing is innate; all concepts are acquired after birth. Locke’s now famous assertion of tabula rasa, that we are born with minds like blank slates to be formed solely through experience, bolsters his position as an empiricist, yet a large portion of his writing is dedicated to defending theism.

He asserted that ethical principles ought to be attainable by all members of society through our natural aptitudes, and so Locke re-enforced the popular idea of natural law. However, simultaneously he proposed that such principles are in fact requisite behavior expected of us by God, and may be introduced through revelation.²¹ Because such divine revelations are available to all men, just as natural law, all men are responsible for upholding moral conduct, and do so through fear of repercussion.²²

5.19 David Hume (1711–1776)

An ethical empiricist like Locke, David Hume depended upon deductive reasoning and sensory perception as the only sources of knowledge; however, his stance on the possibility for any sort of divine revelation stood in stark contrast to the opinions of his contemporary. Where John Locke argued for a universal ethic applicable to and accessible by all men, Hume adamantly opposed the concept that no knowledge for which there was no antecedent sense impression could claim any validity.²³

In his focal work, A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume explores the relationship between knowledge and morality. Our understanding of virtue and vice is directly related to our empathy for one another. With pleasure or happiness being the ultimate goal, along with what we expect for ourselves, we tend to identify ourselves in others, and so interact in such a way as to produce happiness. This behavior is seen as virtuous, though in reality it is merely an innate instinct. Vice then manifests when we inflict unhappiness within the community. By this philosophy virtue is preferable in its utilitarian nature, since happiness is in the common interest of a productive society, a feature distinctive to humanity.

We as a species possess several notable dispositions that, over time, have given rise to morality. These include a disposition to form bonded family groups, a disposition (sympathy) to communicate and thus share feelings, a disposition – the moral sense – to feel approbation and disapprobation in response to the actions of others, and a disposition to form general rules. ²⁴

Hume’s total disregard for the Christian ethics of the time proved a turning point in the evolution of philosophy. Morality could now be seen as a wholly human endeavor: a benefit to society and something adaptable to fit a given situation rather than an eternal dogmatic proscription.

5.20 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

A peer of David Hume, Rousseau reiterated this concept of sympathy being the distinguishing feature of humanity, but was heavily influenced by his associations with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. In Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, he argues that a progressive society, founded in the advent of reason and language,²⁵ tends to individualize and lose touch with its natural origins. Believing in the innate goodness of man, Rousseau posited that society had fallen from an idealized state of innocence that gave way to unnatural corruption. Such isolation that comes at this stage of society, where distinct classes form and property is privatized, burdens man, inspiring egotism and greed:

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they. ²⁶

For Rousseau, individuals must submit their freedoms to the greater good of society and operate by acknowledging a universal sympathy. Submission to a general will outweighs the benefit of sustaining an individual will, since such a perspective bolsters the group at large and turns society from corruption.

5.21 Adam Smith (1723–1790)

Adam Smith was yet another peer of David Hume’s who did not fully adopt his philosophy of skepticism, but instead maintained faith in the principle of sympathy previously introduced. Remembered primarily for his economic theories on free trade, Smith strove to rationalize man’s greed and his empathy.

He stated his position succinctly when he wrote that it was not the benevolence or sympathy of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that put the dinner on one’s table, but rather their self-interest. One speaks to them not of one’s necessities, but of their advantage. ²⁷

So society supports egoism through mutually beneficial trade; economy is modeled on self-interest being the foundation of such trade.

5.22 Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

During the Enlightenment, Kant espoused a philosophy of pessimism that focused on the rational mind, as opposed to a deity, as the prime source of cognition and morality; however, we remain unable to transcend our own consciousness, and thus cannot access the thing-in-itself. This term is derived from the Greek noumenon, meaning an object that is known without sensory perception, as opposed to phenomenon, or that which is perceived sensorially. A universal moral accord exists as a noumenon.

According to Kant, man has autonomy over his desires, and so is able to develop a universal moral code that dictates behavior resultant from a categorical imperative. This theory posits the existence of one common morality stemming from a requisite duty. In keeping with his predecessors, Kant based his theories on the sympathetic aspect of human nature, and he arrived at his conclusion by relying on three formulae.

First, the Formula of Universal Law states that people act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.²⁸ In interactions, decisions about behavior should be made by considering if such actions ought to be universally implemented. This law requires that the agent holds everyone to his own standards of behavior, so if an individual makes a concession to prevaricate for personal gain, he must accept this as ethical behavior when he in turn is lied to.

Second, the Formula of Humanity states that one:

acts so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. ²⁸

This law requires a basic respect for humanity, for the rational mind, the source of maxims.

Third, the Formula of the Realm of Ends states that all maxims […] ought to harmonize with a possible realm of ends.²⁸ This formula unites the former two, the end here being harmony among men through adherence to universally accepted maxims. In this conclusion the autonomy of the individual is upheld while the discrete agents work toward the same end. The Realm of Ends is a goal which must be kept in mind in all interactions in the hope of achieving the ideal social structure.

5.23 Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy builds upon utilitarianism, and places hedonism at the crux of motivation. Accordingly, pleasure represents good while pain represents evil; thus he argues that actions should be based on generating the greatest pleasure (good) for society. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation presents a rubric for determining the relationship between pleasurable and painful events; Bentham sought primarily to establish a basis for proper punishments for criminal offenses. He believed the purpose of punishment was to re-establish a sense of order pursuant to happiness, and