Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy, and more specifically of practical philosophy, the object of which is to put into practice morality itself based on ethical reasoning. It is a speculative philosophy that presents itself as a place of irreducible and specifically human tension between happiness and duty, being and having to be. It must be distinguished from ethics, which is not a specifically philosophical discipline since it is also a matter of applied ethics and theology. In the classical sense of the term, moral philosophy included sociology, politics, and other ancestors of the human sciences, in contrast to natural philosophy. Morality is also defined by the obligatory character, marked by norms, obligations, prohibitions, characterized by both a requirement of universality and an effect of constraint.
Even though the term moral philosophy appears only from Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, ethical questions have been at the center of philosophy since the Presocratics.
(”Young Girl Reading” by Otto Scholderer, 1883. Maria, or the misfortune of being a woman, a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft posthumously, criticizes the discourse of “sensitivity”, a moral and aesthetic philosophy that is in vogue at the late eighteenth century.)
Fundamental problems of moral philosophy
Moral philosophy focuses on the purpose of the action and seeks to resolve the issues that may arise in deliberation and decision-making:
- What should I do ?
- What should I have done?
- Are there limits to my actions?
Philosophers divide morality into three domains whose limits are not always perfectly fixed:
- Meta-ethics: understood as the search for the origins and meaning of our moral concepts;
- Moral or normative ethics, which concerns the criteria of our behavior (habits, duties, consequences of our actions);
- Moral or applied ethics, application of the first two to specific and controversial problems (eg abortion, environment, animal rights, etc.).
Fundamental conceptions of moral philosophy
In our actions, we often take into account the consequences of our actions. These consequences can therefore be considered as possible criteria of our behavior, which makes this type of morality a normative type. For a morality of this kind, conduct is moral if the consequences of an act are rather beneficial than unfavorable. The assessment of the morality of a conduct is therefore based on what is observable, rather than on the intention which is private and difficult to apprehend.
Several types of consequentialism can be distinguished, depending on which criterion is chosen to determine what is beneficial and what is detrimental:
- altruism: the consequences of action favorable to anyone except the agent determine what is good and what is wrong;
- selfishness: the consequences of action favorable to the agent and to him alone determine what is good and what is bad;
- utilitarianism: the consequences of action favorable to all determine what is good and what is bad. Jeremy Bentham is one of the first utilitarian philosophers. He proposes on the one hand to consider the consequences of our actions, and on the other hand to measure the pleasure and the pain which results from them, hence the name of utilitarian hedonism of this doctrine.
Ethics of perfection
This morality defines the desirable good as perfection; this perfection is not subjective, but can be described objectively. For example, knowledge, success, etc. This good is conceived as the foundation of happiness, but without implying subjective satisfaction. This good often represents the optimal realization of human nature, and is therefore unequal. It defines a hierarchy of perfections to achieve, hierarchy from which the merit of individuals.
“All the actions of our soul which acquire us any perfection are virtuous, and all our contentment consists only in the inner testimony that we have to have some perfection.” (Descartes, Letter to Elizabeth)
Morals of duty base the moral character of our actions by the concept of obligation. This type of morality is conceivable regardless of any consequences that may result from our actions. For example, according to Kant, one should not lie to avoid murder, because the obligation to tell the truth is absolute and does not tolerate any particular condition.
There are several theories of duty:
- Samuel von Pufendorf distinguishes three types of duty:
- duties towards God (internal and external devotion);
- duties towards oneself (duties towards the soul: for example to develop one’s talents, and duties towards the body – not to kill oneself, not to harm oneself);
- duties towards others (absolute duties: do no harm, etc. and conditional duties: keep one’s word, etc.).
- rights theory (eg Locke), in which:
- rights are natural (for example, to live, to be free, to seek happiness);
- they are universal;
- they are the same for all;
- they are inalienable.
It must be emphasized that all rights call for a duty.
- the categorical imperative: this is the Kantian theory of morality. Kant distinguishes several types of imperatives:
- the hypothetical imperative tells us that if we want this, we must do this or that;
- the categorical imperative only tells us that we must do something, whatever we want or desire.
Theories of duty not only expose the principle(s) that make action moral, but also strive to resolve the conflicts that result from our duties themselves.
The problem of the foundation of morality
In a very general way, there are two types of conception of the foundations of morality:
- an objectivist or heteronomous conception, which asserts that moral laws do not depend on man, but:
- are natural laws (Greek philosophy in general);
- are divine commandments (Christianity, St. Thomas Aquinas);
- are laws of reason, to which every rational being (hence man) must obey (for example the “natural laws” on which men agree and establish them as “civil laws”, thus giving them force of law, at Hobbes).
- a relativistic or autonomous conception, for which the moral values have a human origin:
- because they are imposed by society or by some group;
- because it belongs to the individual as such to define them.
In the objectivist (or realistic) conception, moral values are eternal and universal, or at least absolute; we can not change them or destroy them. On the contrary, in the second conception, moral values vary from one society, one group or even one individual to another.