History of moral theory and the role of moral sentiment

High School ・Philosophy ・APA


            Human beings are represented to have an inherent sense of justice and fairness. Although a group is made up of a variety of individuals with various characteristics, it is clear that social habits are commonplace. Understanding a culture leads one to doubt the path for an excellent human life, to distinguish a decent life, what makes a circumstance or action wrong or right and the root of the human need for justice. This poses questions. Certain conduct in society is forbidden by ethic laws that are enshrined in a society's conception of what is right and wrong. Morality and ethics define what is wrong and right as per the different cultures however, the real issue in understanding morality is the specific reasoning and the justification for the given ethical norms. Societies have gone through periodical phases from the ancient, medieval, modern and to the contemporary era. Various societies have undergone change due to human development; social progress, globalization and technological advancement. In the contemporary society, dilemma has been witnessed as far as ethics and morality is concerned in the adoption of science and technology in medicine, gender reassignment, biomedical enhancement and reproductive technology. Reviewing the historical development of morality and deducing the role of moral sentiments across societies is paramount towards establishing the reasoning behind the definition and justification of morality and ethical norms.

Contrast between Historical Sources of Ethics

            Scholars and philosophers including Plato, Socrates, Hippocrates, St. Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Sartre and Nietzsche among others spread over different time periods strived to define and justify morality and ethical norms in societies. It is from the comparison of the tenets marking the arguments of the various ethical and moral scholars and philosophers that one can establish the historical development of moral theories and the role of moral sentiments in societies. Meta-ethics which is a concept that seeks to examine the justification of social norms is vital in deducing the path in the historical development of moral theories. In order to distinguish the various sources of ethics, the difference between the modern and the ancient ethical thinking ought to be established. The ancient (classical) and the medieval chronological periods cover the periods before the 17th century. Modern and the contemporary ethical thinking cover the period from the 17th century onwards to the contemporary times. The difference marking the classical and the medieval moral theories and the modern and contemporary ethical theories is the concept of ‘sacred canopy.’ The ancient and medieval theories viewed the world from a religious perspective and the position of gods or God in the people’s and society’s lives was primary. The development of modern and contemporary moral theories occurred as people shifted their thinking and inclined towards the extinction of the ‘sacred canopy.’ Modern and contemporary moral theories are based on human self-sufficiency and the removal of the notion that God is the answer to human problems. Philosophers and scholars from the modern and contemporary eras saw human beings as self-sufficient and people looked upon themselves for solutions to their problems. The shift in the thinking perspective from a religious to a scientific forms the basis for modern and contemporary moral theories. The scientific development and the explanation of nature and human life based on science inform the development of moral theories in the modern and contemporary societies as opposed to religious perspectives in the ancient and medieval eras (Denise, et al., 2008).

Relevant Ethical View/Theory

            In the present society, the adoption of a moral theory should ensure relevance to the prevailing human life perspective and environmental demands. A morality theory ought to be holistic and universal in its application to ensure that a person can relate with it easily and ensure applicability across diverse cultures as the world continue globalizing. Moral sentiments by David Hume based on his ‘Theory of the Mind’ arguments prove to be my favorite ethical view theory. Hume’s moral philosophy is based on four arguments (theses). The moral theoretical reasoning ought to be based on Meta ethics which sorts to justify the definition and the reasoning behind ethical norms. In his theses, David Hume employs the ethic of vice and virtue and a broader context of meta ethics thus rendering his philosophy quite comprehensive for universal application in the contemporary society. Hume’s four theses argue that; reason is ‘slave of passions’ and that reason on its own is not a motive to the will. Secondly, moral differences are not deduced from reason. Hume’s theses goes on to state that moral distinctions emanate from disapproval or blame and feelings of approval or esteem and praise felt by individuals who perceive an action or a behavioral trait. Finally, Hume argues that while given vices and virtues are natural, some such as justice are artificial. From David Hume’s theory theses, morality can be applied universally to all people. Hume’s theory is not based on specific definitions of morality which are specific to given cultures and groups of people in most cases. On the contrary, David Hume’s theory views morality from a broader perspective thus accommodating the reasoning and definition of morality across cultures universally (Denise, et al., 2008).

Role of Moral Sentiments

            Moral sentiments shape a society’s way of doing things. Social progress, technological advancements and economic growth in communities have been a result of the moral definitions of human action. Much controversy on morality marks the application of science and technology in the medicine. The development of genetically modified organisms, gender reassignment and biomedical reassignment has brought debate on the morality of these advances. While the scientists strive to define ways of addressing real world problems and stop human suffering emanating from physical impairments, injury and illnesses, the greater society tends to question the morality of the actions in upholding human inherent dignity. Moral sentiments have been vital in defining behavior in societies and setting up boundaries in the exploration and application of science and technology. The liberalization and use of reason in most developed societies as far as morality is concerned has allowed people to explore human potential and witness growth (Denise, et al., 2008).


            While the definition of wrong or right is vital towards understanding morality, the establishment of the reasoning in defining ethics and morality is detrimental towards the application of moral sentiments. The societies are advancing and it is prudent that the prevailing factors are considered in the articulation of human behavior. Meta ethics as employed by different scholars and philosophers has enhanced the universal application of moral theories across cultures by employing a broader perspective. Controlling human behavior is ideal for the development of a sustainable society, however, the definition of behavior should employ reason to allow for creativity and innovation in human life.


Denise, T. C., Peterfreund, S. P., & White, N. P. (2008). Great traditions in ethics. Australia [u.a.: Thomson/Wadsworth. 2008

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