Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy


Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Hellenistic and Roman Ethics

By the middle of the Fourth Century, Alexander the Great had led post-City-State Greek armies on a conquest of the Ancient World. Yet after the deaths of Plato and Aristotle, and after the conquests of Alexander, the Greek world receded in importance while the Roman world emerged to gain domination over all the Mediterranean. During this "Hellenistic and Roman" period, Plato's Academy underwent changes in style and focus (eventually turning into a school of Skeptics). Certain philosophies of life took prominence at this time and two of them, Epicurianism and Stoicism, left lasting marks on the Western Tradition. For both schools, "ethics" focused on achieving "well-being" or "happiness" and both saw that the character of one's existence depended on a proper attitude toward the world as a whole.


Epicureanism taught that all humans by nature seek a pleasant life and that the best way to the pleasant life is through a life of moderate satisfaction.

In the realm of human desires, there are three kinds:

  • Natural (e.g, seeking food, drink, shelter, medicine, friendship and ‘happy memories’)
  • Natural but not necessary (e.g., love/eros -- as distinguished from intercourse/aphrodisia)
  • Empty (caused by society, infected by the falsity of the evaluative beliefs that ground them and bound to be self-defeating e.g., religious superstitions, love stories, conversations glorifying wealth and power)

Epicurean Ethics involves the therapeutic process of achieving ataraxia (freedom from disturbance and anxiety) in the soul and freedom from bodily pain This freedom from disturbance is achieved through argument and sayings aimed at correcting/treating the pupil’s false view of things

See excerpts from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epicureanism.

Stoicism taught that "the world is independent of our will" and consequently that a life detached from the natural events of life will be calmer and less troubled than a life bound up with false desires for worldly things.

The Stoics introduced the idea that divine logos/Reason is everywhere and that we all (men, women, slaves) partake of it. This led to the first formulation of the Brotherhood of Man. Stoics also recognized that this divine logos was the source for a ‘natural law’ that guides our understanding of self and world.

A Stoic ideal might be seen in the life of a virtuous Socrates who recognizes a responsibility to participate in the world around him (the polis and brotherhood of man) and who also recognizes that ‘the world is independent of his will.’ The consequences of this for practical living: clarification of what is important and within our reach; avoidance of false fears and empty desires. This is the way to attain the tranquility that accompanies the virtuous/happy life. (Note how Cicero states the link between virtue and happiness -- "Moral goodness is the only good: from which it follows that happiness depends on moral goodness and nothing else whatever" Discussions at Tusculum)

See excerpts from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Stoicism. See also the Ecole Initiative's section on Stoicism.

For a sustained reflection on the contributions of these philosophies, see Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994).



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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)

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