3 minute read


Modern PhilosophyTwentieth Century

Offering an alternative to neo-Kantian ethics and prevalent strains of utilitarian ethics, the emergence of systematic value theory represented an important trend in German and Austrian academic philosophy during the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. The pivotal thinkers in this regard, Franz Brentano (1838–1917) and Max Scheler (1874–1928), held that ethics must be based on the investigation of objective and intrinsic values that are apprehended through the emotions. Brentano's theory of the intrinsically good and bad focused on the implications of the analogical relationship between the intellectual operations of judgment and our emotive attitudes (such as love and hate) toward intentional objects. Stressing the objectivity of values as intentional objects of feeling, Scheler investigated the a priori structures of emotive experience. Scheler devoted much of his work to the detailed phenomenological description of particular emotions such as resentment, love, and sympathy, often in opposition to Nietzsche's moral psychological claims.

Influenced by Brentano, and disavowing the Kantian and neo-Hegelian proclivities of many of his contemporaries, George Edward Moore (1873–1958) held that the fundamental object of ethics was the "good," understood as an intuitively apprehensible, simple, and indefinable property. Moore criticized theories that conceive of the good as something specifiable in terms of natural properties (such as pleasure). Moore held that such theories commit the "naturalistic fallacy," and his criticism of naturalism in ethics fed into the rise of an analytic tradition that was prevalent in Anglo-American philosophy throughout the twentieth century. Analytic ethical theorists characteristically concentrated on "metaethical" issues such as the meaning of moral terms and the justification of moral judgments. They generally kept these issues separate from the examination of substantive proposals concerning ethical values and the norms of conduct and character. Normative ethics, as distinguished from metaethics, was predominantly utilitarian until the later decades of the 1900s. This situation changed dramatically with John Rawls (1921–2002). Drawing on aspects of modern natural-law theory, but also on Kantian as well as on certain features of intuitionist ethics, Rawls's contractarian theory of justice furnished a clear alternative to the various types of utilitarian approach taken by twentieth-century thinkers. The publication of Rawls's theory of justice represents, in effect, the beginning of the international renaissance of normative ethics that has characterized moral philosophy since the 1970s.

The revival of virtue ethics has been an important factor in Anglo-American philosophy since the 1970s. Criticizing especially Kantian and utilitarian moral thought, virtue ethicists have often located the sources of their theoretical projects in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. But eighteenth-century sentimentalist thinkers have also had significant impact on recent virtue ethics. Reflecting the demand that ethics should have relevance beyond the confines of academia, the late twentieth century also witnessed the proliferation of fields in professional and applied ethics as philosophers became increasingly concerned with social and political issues such as the environment, war, medical and business practices, and questions of race and gender. Feminist ethics, which benefited from the expanded scope of practical ethical inquiry, has become a central area of contemporary research. Feminist philosophers have aimed to reconstruct traditional moral philosophy by insisting that ethics should finally take proper account of women's experience and the historically given structures of female subordination. The emancipatory impetus of North American feminist ethics has often been supported by the reception of Continental thought, especially by work stemming from the phenomenological and existentialist tradition, from broadly Marxist schools of social criticism, and from structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy.


Becker Lawrence C., and Charlotte B. Becker, eds. Encyclopedia of Ethics. 2nd ed. 3 vols. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Darwall, Stephen, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, eds. Moral Discourse and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Haakonssen, Knud. Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Keohane, Nannerl O. Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

——. Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

——, ed. Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Schneiders, Werner. Naturrecht und Liebesethik. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1971.

Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Tuck, Richard. Philosophy and Government, 1572–1651. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Jeffrey Edwards

Michael Hughes

Additional topics

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