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Modern PhilosophyNineteenth Century

Kant's theory of autonomy and his treatments of the universal principles of rational willing were of determinative significance for the idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Yet Hegel considered the Kantian method of grounding ethics strictly in the analysis of the formal aspects of rational self-legislation to be fundamentally incomplete. According to Hegel, that method could not overcome its "empty formalism" because it was unable to take proper account of the human agent's embeddedness in historically conditioned societal settings. Hegel's work on moral philosophy reflects the concern to understand both the form and the content of modern morality in its systematic connections with, on the one side, abstract principles of property law, contractual relations, and legal wrongdoing and, on the other side, the concrete norms governing the historically given institutional structures of the bourgeois family, civil society, and the political state.

An important characteristic of nineteenth-century British ethics is the opposition between utilitarian and intuitionist theories. Intuitionists maintained that we have the rational capacity to apprehend self-evident moral principles and that we can be moved to act by virtue of our intuitive grasp of these principles. Intuitionist accounts of morality were formulated on terrain already well prepared by thinkers like Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), Joseph Butler (1692–1752), Richard Price (1723–1791), and Thomas Reid (1710–1796). William Whewell (1794–1866) may be taken as the representative figure for nineteenth-century intuitionism in Britain. John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) defended utilitarianism against its intuitionist detractors. His theory of happiness, however, rejects Bentham's purely quantitative version of hedonism. Mill emphasized the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and he argued that higher pleasures are better than the lower ones. Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) investigated egoism, intuitionism, and hedonistic utilitarianism in relation to the principles that underlie intuitive commonsense morality. While Sidgwick took a utilitarian position, he concluded that the standardly accepted antithesis between utilitarianism and intuitionism was spurious since self-evident moral principles are required in order to provide a rational foundation for utilitarian ethics.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who was to have a decisive impact above all on Continental European ethical thought during the twentieth century, devoted much of his writing to a frontal criticism of Western moral philosophy. Rejecting the universality claims of modern thinkers like Kant, Nietzsche focused on historically existing moralities and treated them naturalistically as the outcome of society's development. He was concerned to uncover the psychological underpinnings of our attributions of value and to articulate a "genealogy" of morals that supports a fundamental revaluation of values. Nietzsche regarded modern morality as the result of the creation and imposition of value by the weak, by those who have always struggled against the "master" morality of the strong and noble. Nietzsche emphasized the necessity of overcoming the roots of modern morality, hence the life-affirming will to go "beyond good and evil."

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthMoral - Modern Philosophy - Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century, Bibliography