Modern ethics

The Renaissance marks the end of the Middle Ages, and with it new ways of thinking. In the Middle Ages we had a theocentric worldview in which God occupied the center of all philosophical reflections.

In the Modern Age, with the emergence of the humanist movement, man will occupy the center of interest, that is, theocentrism was replaced by anthropocentrism, and faith by reason.

Therefore, the main characteristics of modern ethics are:

  • Defense of the intellectual and moral autonomy of individuals;
  • Ethics founded on reason alone (without religion) in harmony with human nature;

The main representatives of modern ethics are:

  • David Hume;
  • Kant;
  • Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill;

Let us look briefly at the ethical thought of these philosophers.

David Hume

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was a critical empiricist of Cartesian rationalism who contributed greatly to the debates about human knowledge and modern ethics.

Hume wrote a work called Treatise of Human Nature, in which he elaborates his morality of sentiment.

For Hume, what determines the will are the passions and not reason; our moral actions are related to feelings of approval or disapproval and the sensations of pleasure, pain, and remorse.

Therefore, reason deals only with what can be determined true or false, making judgments of fact, while moral acts require judgments of value.


The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 18th century, proposed new ways of thinking.

For the Enlightenment, human beings should guide their entire lives by the “light of reason,” and no longer by the dominant philosophical opinions or religious traditions imposed on us.

Kant was one of the main representatives of the Enlightenment and modern ethics. His ethics will be based on the defense of the intellectual autonomy of individuals.

In his work Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant states that human reason is a legislator, that is, it is capable of creating universal moral rules, because all human beings have reason in common. All moral rules should proceed from reason, and from reason alone.

For Kant, moral rules should be followed as duties. The person who follows some ethical norm fulfills what human reason has determined to be right. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant says:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Kant calls this moral requirement a categorical imperative. It is “imperative” because the individual must necessarily obey it in any situation, since it proceeds from reason and serves to guide our actions.

There are two types of imperatives:

  • Hypothetical imperative: which orders a certain action as a means to an end, for example, pleasure, happiness, etc.
  • Categorical imperative: means an action that is necessary by itself, in this case, the action is good in itself, it does not aim at something else.

In other words, our actions must have the principle of universalization as a criterion; the individual must always ask himself if that action he took could be universalized without harming humanity in any way. If it is not universalizable, it cannot be considered morally correct.

For Kant, we must educate our will, because it can be affected by various inclinations (desires, passions, fears, etc.). To educate the will is to make it guided only by reason. In nature everything is governed by laws, nature has no freedom, only men have the ability to choose how to act, and ethics has the function of presenting philosophically the best way to act.

Kantian ethics is called “Ethical formalism” because it determines duty as the universal rule without taking into account the concrete situation or condition of each individual.

Ethical formalism also because Kant presents us with the general form that an action must have in order to be considered morally correct (categorical imperative), but he doesn’t say anything about the content, he doesn’t clarify how we should act in particular situations.

Kant rejects ancient Greek ethics and medieval Christian ethics, because they argued that human action was conditioned by the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, obedience to God, etc.

Kant sought to construct an ethics in which man should act simply out of duty, and not for divine rewards or punishments.

John Stuart Mill and Bentham

Utilitarian ethics, which was created and developed by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Stuart Mill, establishes that the good is what makes happiness possible and what keeps us away from pain and suffering.

These philosophers believed that ethics should be thought of in its social aspect, that is, the ethical notion of happiness and good is what benefits the greatest number of people.

This ethics is similar to the hedonistic principle that seeks pleasure, but in utilitarianism it adds the importance of the social.

Stuart Mill was very critical of the selfish theories very widespread by classical liberals, so he defended a liberalism of a more democratic nature. Mill was one of the advocates of the right to vote for women.

Stuart Mill was very critical of the egoistic theories widely spread by classical liberals, so he advocated a liberalism of a more democratic nature. Mill was one of the defenders of women’s right to vote.


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