Confucius (551–479 BCE)Developed a belief system focused on both personal and governmental morality through qualities such as justice, sincerity, and positive relationships with others;
Advocated for the importance of strong family bonds, including respect for the elder, veneration of one’s ancestors, and marital loyalty;
Believed in the value of achieving ethical harmony through skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules, denoting that one should achieve morality through self-cultivation.
Socrates (470–399 BCE)Argued that Athenians were wrong-headed in their emphasis on families, careers, and politics at the expense of the welfare of their souls;
Is sometimes attributed the statement “I know that I know nothing,” to denote an awareness of his ignorance, and in general, the limitations of human knowledge;
Believed misdeeds were a consequence of ignorance, that those who engaged in nonvirtuous behavior did so because they didn’t know any better.
Plato (428/427?–348/347? BCE)Expressed the view, often referred to as Platonism, that those whose beliefs are limited only to perception are failing to achieve a higher level of perception, one available only to those who can see beyond the material world;
Articulated the theory of forms, the belief that the material world is an apparent and constantly changing world but that another, invisible world provides unchanging causality for all that we do see;
Lao-Tzu (also Laozi, lived between the 6th and 4th century BCE)Espoused awareness of the self through meditation;
Disputed conventional wisdom as inherently biased, and urged followers of the Tao to find natural balance between the body, senses, and desires;
Urged individuals to achieve a state of wu wei, freedom from desire, an early staple tenet of Buddhist tradition thereafter.
Aristotle (384–322 BCE)Asserted the use of logic as a method of argument and offered the basic methodological template for analytical discourse;
Espoused the understanding that knowledge is built from the study of things that happen in the world, and that some knowledge is universal — a prevailing set of ideas throughout Western Civilization thereafter;
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Dominican friar, theologian and Doctor of the Church, born in what is known today as the Lazio region of Italy. His most important contribution to Western thought is the concept of natural theology (sometimes referred to as Thomism in tribute to his influence).
Period: 1225 to
Timeline of Major Ethical Philosophies
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527)Famously asserted that while it would be best to be both loved and feared, the two rarely coincide, and thus, greater security is found in the latter;
Identified as a “humanist,” and believed it necessary to establish a new kind of state in defiance of law, tradition and particularly, the political preeminence of the Church;
Viewed ambition, competition and war as inevitable parts of human nature, even seeming to embrace all of these tendencies.
René Descartes (1596–1650)Discards belief in all things that are not absolutely certain, emphasizing the understanding of that which can be known for sure;
Is recognized as the father of analytical geometry;
Regarded as one of the leading influences in the Scientific Revolution — a period of intense discovery, revelation, and innovation that rippled through Europe between the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (roughly speaking, 15th to 18th centuries).
John Locke (1632–1704)Coined the term tabula rasa (blank slate) to denote that the human mind is born unformed, and that ideas and rules are only enforced through experience thereafter;
Established the method of introspection, focusing on one’s own emotions and behaviors in search of a better understanding of the self;
Argued that in order to be true, something must be capable of repeated testing, a view that girded his ideology with the intent of scientific rigor.
David Hume (1711–77)Articulated the “problem of induction,” suggesting we cannot rationally justify our belief in causality, that our perception only allows us to experience events that are typically conjoined, and that causality cannot be empirically asserted as the connecting force in that relationship; Assessed that human beings lack the capacity to achieve a true conception of the self, that our conception is merely a “bundle of sensations” that we connect to formulate the idea of the self
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778Suggested that Man was at his best in a primitive state — suspended between brute animalistic urges on one end of the spectrum and the decadence of civilization on the other — and therefore uncorrupted in his morals;
Suggested that the further we deviate from our “state of nature,” the closer we move to the “decay of the species,” an idea that comports with modern environmental and conservationist philosophies;
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)Defined the “Categorical imperative,” the idea that there are intrinsically good and moral ideas to which we all have a duty, and that rational individuals will inherently find reason in adhering to moral obligation;
Argued that humanity can achieve a perpetual peace through universal democracy and international cooperation;
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)Wrote on the importance of subjects such as self-reliance, experiential living, and the preeminence of the soul;
Referred to “the infinitude of the private man” as his central doctrine;
Was a mentor and friend to fellow influential transcendentalist Henry David Thoureau.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)Advocated strongly for the human right of free speech, and asserted that free discourse is necessary for social and intellectual progress;
Determined that most of history can be understood as a struggle between liberty and authority, and that limits must be placed on rulership such that it reflects society’s wishes;
Stated the need for a system of “constitutional checks” on state authority as a way of protecting political liberties.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55)Explored the idea of objective vs. subjective truths, and argued that theological assertions were inherently subjective and arbitrary because they could not be verified or invalidated by science;
Was highly critical of the entanglement between State and Church;
First described the concept of angst, defining it as a dread the comes from anxieties over choice, freedom, and ambiguous feelings.
Karl Marx (1818–1883)Advocated a view called historical materialism, arguing for the demystification of thought and idealism in favor of closer acknowledgement of the physical and material actions shaping the world;
Argued that societies develop through class struggle, and that this would ultimately lead to the dismantling of capitalism;
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)Favored perspectivism, which held that truth is not objective but is the consequence of various factors effecting individual perspective;
Articulated ethical dilemma as a tension between the master vs. slave morality; the former in which we make decisions based on the assessment of consequences, and the latter in which we make decisions based on our conception of good vs. evil;
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)Argued that conceptual confusion about language is the basis for most intellectual tension in philosophy;
Asserted that the meaning of words presupposes our understanding of that meaning, and that our particular assignment of meaning comes from the cultural and social constructs surrounding us;
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80)Believed that human beings are “condemned to be free,” that because there is no Creator who is responsible for our actions, each of us alone is responsible for everything we do;
Called for the experience of “death consciousness,” an understanding of our mortality that promotes an authentic life, one spent in search of experience rather than knowledge;
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)Held the conviction that the study of philosophy must begin through a close and ongoing study of history;
Demanded that social constructs be more closely examined for hierarchical inequalities, as well as through an analysis of the corresponding fields of knowledge supporting these unequal structures;
Believed oppressed humans are entitled to rights and they have a duty to rise up against the abuse of power to protect these rights.