Why a course in ethics?

Used to be standard (moral philosophy)

Then the sixties . . .

Then Watergate . . .

And now, everyone has a course in Ethics. And it keeps growing:



Nothing new under the sun . . .

Natural Law, Natural Right, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Existentialism, Nihilism





Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

And as adapted by Mumford and Sons. "The Cave"


There are certain principles, laws, embedded in human nature

They are universal, timeless, inescapable

Aristotle, Plato, Cicero,  

Objective truth (this will apply to Natural Right as well, but in much more limited way) 

Head Full of Doubt The Avett Brothers (audio with lyrics)

Head Full of Doubt The Avett Brothers (live at Red Rocks)

PRINCIPLES OF NATURAL LAW (with some political implications):

1. Self-preservation

--right to self defense

--prohibition against self-destructive behavior

--“right to die”?

2. Support of family

--reflected in habitual appeals to “family values”

--practical considerations: moral development, physical, emotional, psychological health, education, safety, 

--generational “memory” (cf. “institutional memory”)

3. Support of community

--as opposed to modern trend toward isolation, alienation, “every man (and woman) for himself (herself)

--community policing

4. Obligation to “seek the truth”

--a meaningful vs. a shallow life

--may be religious, may be philosophical

--use of leisure time

Where does natural law come from?

--human nature

--religious? Not necessarily

Virtue v. Vice

the "Golden Mean"

Justice, Prudence (practical wisdom), Temperance (moderation), Fortitude (courage)

Supreme Court opinions are often a reflection of natural law v. natural right, that is, needs of community v. rights of individual, In politics, it is often social conservatism v. libertarianism

More political implications?

What is the purpose of government? 


Education and character development

For Natural Law, ethics, if first and foremost CHARACTER.


Natural Law

Natural Right




Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

John Locke (1632-1704

Concept of the “State of Nature” (to understand the present, you have to go back to the “beginning”)

Hobbes v. Locke on the state of nature: real differences or distinctions without real differences."

"Life is solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short." (Hobbes Leviathan)

Different ways of looking at this: is it a good shift in philosophy or a bad shift.

self preservation, family, community, seeking the truth

Perhaps Natural right has been beneficial politically, more ambivalent morally.

For example, the Rolling Stones have been spokesman for a certain expression of natural right


Get Off Of My Cloud

The late Whitney Houston offers a more elegant perspective:



The political implications of Natural right: political rights (the good and the bad)

Can government simply be a guarantor of political rights or must it be a leviathan?

The tension between Natural Law and Natural Right is often played out in American Jurisprudence


Jeremy Bentham
James Mill
John Stuart Mill

an "unprincipled" theory (vs. the inconvenience of principles)

the "happiness principle"

pleasure/pain ratio analysis

…but all pleasures are not equal

Questions about the dignity of human life if pleasure is our defining principle

But isn't this how we operate? Even those who practice religious belief? (pursue heaven, avoid hell)

Relevant music:

Too Much (DMB)

Two Step (DMB)

View of human nature


worried that Utilitarianism had taken us down too far

historical decline: each moral philosophy less demanding than the last

But  . . . Kant liked the simplicity of Utilitarianism, so he formulated the Categorical Imperative

Two variations

Everyday Kant: justify the exception

View of human nature



Best known book is Thus Spake Zarathustra where the protagonist announces "God is Dead"

The idea of the Overman, the next stage in the evolutionary process.

--see top of page 25 "brave, proud, and magnanimous animals" These are "free spirits" (see p. 36) (see p. 40 p. second paragraph).

--antipathy toward Christianity and Judaism; see page 33 bottom, first paragraph page 34, first paragraph p. 35. Such religions have encouraged a "herd" mentality (see bottom of page 35)

Nietzsche argues that "good" and "evil" are artificial constructs and it is time now to go "Beyond Good and Evil" and "revalue" our "values." Ideas such as good and evil will slow the evolutionary process. We also need to do away with ideas of mercy on the poor and weak. (see p. 44, last paragraph of section 12; see p. 52, first paragraph of section 16; p. 55, top paragraph; p. 56.)

We are at a time in history when we see "the last man", people of the modern age who have no ambition or courage, who are not daring, who are not willing to "go against the crowd." This is why Nietzsche didn't like democracy: it prevents people from being individuals, from thinking outside of the box. (see p. 43, second paragraph; p. 44, last paragraph of section 12.)

Where do we see nihilism in the modern world?

Nietzsche's influence has been incalculable.

His most notorious influence is on Nazism, yet his defenders argue that this is a mis-use of Nietzsche. (see p. 42, first paragraph "the blond Germanic beast", p. 43 at the top.)

In culture, especially music and cinema

public policy, especially bioengineering, some movements in public education, and also, some argue terrorism

Several authors have been very concerned about nihilism, including Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor

On the other hand, a quote from one of Ernest Hemingway's short stories expresses the modern idea of nihilism fairly well:

"Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee." ("A Clean, Well-Lighted Place")

"Human," The Killers

“Human,” The Killers



The expectations of Nihilism are high: some moral philosophers get no farther than existentialism

The French Existentialists (Camus, Sartre)

Existentialism is, in a sense, an offshoot of nihilism. It accepts the premise that there is no meaning in life (God is dead), but offers nothing more. Life has no meaning, and for that reason, life is absurd. See Jean-Paul Sarte's play No Exit.

The good news is that we are absolutely free; the bad news is that we have no one to help us live out that freedom.

For that reason existentialists argue that life is characterized by despair and anguish.

A moral life, then, is one in which an individual lives as nobly as possible; an immoral life is one in which an individual misuses his freedom and does not make the choice to live as well as possible. See for example, the novel The Plague by Albert Camus (also a movie with William Hurt).

Existentialists argue that life has no purpose, in a sense 2 plus 2 does not equal four. There are no rewards or punishments in life.

Christian existentialism (Kierkegaard)



Many existentialist themes are reflected in popular music. Aside from the substance of this music, two other comments:

1. it is beautiful music, as if it is touching something deep in the human soul

2. many songs use the meataphor of the ocean. Why?


"The Voice," The Moody Blues


"Behold the Hurricane" (The Horrible Crowes)

"Tremble for My Beloved," Collective Soul (David Letterman)

"Tremble for My Beloved," Collective Soul (video)

Lyrics for "Tremble For My Beloved"

The Hour has Begun

Your eyes have now opened

To a world where madness craves

To A World Where Hope's enslaved

Oh I'll tremble for my love always

Your windows opened wide

Your innocence takes flight

To a world where madness craves

To A World Where Hope's enslaved

Oh I'll tremble for my love always

"Starry, Starry NIght," (Don Maclean)


"On the Ocean," Guster

"Behind Blue Eyes," The Who (live)

"Behind Blue Eyes," The Who (original version)


"Dust in the Wind" (Kansas)

"Mad World" (Tears for Fears)

One Headlight" (Jakob Dylan and the Walflowers)

"Get Over It,"  The Eagles

"The Plague" (cinema, Raoul Julia and William Hurt)

© Hank Edmondson 2012