This page features short biographies of individuals who have been especially important to the development of the field of ethics. Though all of the figures here are important, it is unlikely that every possible important person has been covered. Feel free to contact us with the names of individuals you feel deserve a place on this page. -EIN
The Buddha (c. 560 – c. 480 BCE)
The Buddha’s teaching centers on the Four Noble Truths. These are that: (1) life is full of suffering, pain, and misery (dukka); (2) the origin of suffering is in desire (tanha); (3) the extinction of suffering can be brought about by the extinction of desire; and (4) the way to extinguish desire is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path consists of right understanding; right aspirations or attitudes; right speech; right conduct; right livelihood; right effort; mindfulness; and contemplation or composure.
Laozi (6th Century BCE)
An ancient Chinese philosopher and poet, as well as the founder of philosophical Taoism,
Laozi’s most famous work is the Tao Te Ching, which addresses themes ranging from the origin of the cosmos to the proper pursuit of knowledge with humility. The name “Laozi” itself means “Old Master” in Old Chinese, and Laozi is viewed as a legendary figure–indeed, even a deity–in religious Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.
Confucius (551-479 BCE)
Chinese teacher, philosopher, editor, and politician who emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity. Traditionally, many works have been credited to Confucius as either author or editor, including all of the Five Chinese Classics. Furthermore, a collection of aphorisms known as the Analects was compiled posthumously. The founder of the school known as Confucianism, Confucius advocated loyalty to family (including ancestor worship), respect for elders, and (for women) respect for husbands. Confucius believed that family provided the model for an ideal government.
Socrates (470-399 BCE) & Plato (429-347 BCE)
In the Greek philosophical tradition ethics begins with Socrates. The Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero, once wrote of Socrates that he took philosophy out of the heavens and placed it in the marketplace. In other words, he concerned himself less with science and astronomy (the main intellectual interest of his time) but with human beings and how human beings should live. In the “early” Platonic dialogues the character Socrates criticizes existing ethical norms and advances the view according to which in order for human beings to flourish or be happy (what the Greeks called eudaimonia) they should concern
themselves with virtue and the best possible state of their soul. In the “middle” dialogues Plato develops this view further by devising a theory of soul and a theory of virtues, which explained how acting virtuously leads to the best possible state of the soul. Famously, Plato bases his ethical views in the Republic on his theory of Forms, which, in the context of ethics, provides an ideal pattern in accordance with which one lives virtuously.
Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Aristotle continues the tradition of “virtue ethics” that begins with Socrates and Plato but develops it further as a science whose genus is human action and whose first-principle is happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia), and thus integrates his ethical theory in the larger context of his scientific natural philosophy. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle develops an ethical theory based on the idea that all actions aim at the chief good or happiness, which he defines as the activity of soul in accordance with the most complete virtue. Central to Aristotle’s theory is the emphasis it places on the goodness or badness of character as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of action, the account of moral virtues as intermediate states between extremes (a.k.a “the doctrine of the golden mean”), and the account of practical wisdom (phronesis) as the intellectual virtue that guides our practical reasoning in ethical situations. These three elements of Aristotle’s theory, character, virtue, and practical wisdom, as well as their systematic interrelation, were extremely influential throughout the history of moral philosophy and are at the heart of contemporary virtue ethics.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)
An ancient Greek philosopher who founded the school of thought called Epicureanism.
Epicurus articulated a form of hedonism, according to which all and only things that give rise to pleasure are good. However, Epicurus did not endorse hedonism in the popular, “spring-break” sense. Rather, a life of deep and refined pleasure involves diligent moderation and philosophical reflection. He argued that we should have no fear of death for insofar as death is annihilation, we will not exist after death and thus will not be in any state to have fear. Some 300 works have been attributed to Epicurus. The fraction of his work that survives includes On Nature (in 37 books, fragments of nine extant), the Canon, and letters to Herodotus, Pitocles, and Menoeccus.
Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE – c. 30 CE)
Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ. The title Christ comes from the Greek christos, a
translation of the Hebrew, messiah, which means “anointed one.” According to the Hebrew prophets, the Messiah would be a great king who would deliver the people from their oppressors with God’s support. The New Testament presents Jesus as a fulfillment of these prophecies, but goes beyond traditional expectations and fashions a new understanding of the role of the Christ. Jesus is portrayed as the Son of God who forgives the sin of the world through his atoning life, death, and resurrection. The Gospels claim that three days after his crucifixion, he was raised from the dead and appeared to his followers, establishing the Church among them. Christians believe that he then ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. In Islam, Jesus (Isa) is considered one of the true prophets along with Abraham and Muhammad (who is considered the primary, most important of the prophets). Many other religious traditions revere Jesus as a great moral teacher.
Epictetus (c. 55 – c. 135)
Epictetus was a Greek stoic philosopher and, at least at one time, a slave. The father of Stoicism, Epictetus taught a spirit of content resignation in the face of forces that we cannot control. Suffering occurs from trying to control these forces; happiness and peace of mind result from focusing on those aspects that we can control, namely our attitudes. His works include Discourse of Epictetus(8 books extant) (c.101 CE) and Enchiridion (a ‘handbook’ summarizing the doctrines of the Discourse) (c.135 CE).
Augustine made significant contributions in at least four areas of thought. The first, in responseto the Manicheans, was the appropriation and development of strands of Platonist thought which made possible the defense of an understanding of God as creator of the cosmos out of nothing, and, concomitantly, of evil as lack. The second, against the Donatists, and the pagans, was the elaboration of a doctrine of the church as a peaceful city opposed in its founding and purpose to the violent human city, and yet at the same time, composed of saints and sinners admixed. The third, against the Pelagians, was a defense of the primacy of divine grace over human effort, while yet not denying human freedom. And the fourth was the elaboration of an understanding of what it means to call God triune which remains largely determinative for the Christian West to this day.
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037)
Avicenna is considered by many to be the most significant philosopher in the Islamic tradition. His work in ontology (the nature of being) is notable for his distinction between essence and existence, as Avicenna held that existence is something which is added to (and above) essence. Avicenna’s metaphysics became the foundation of much later Islamic philosophy, and they influenced later Scholastic philosophers (such as Thomas Aquinas) as well. His Treatise on Love is a searching, beautiful account of love in an Aristotelian vein.
Al-Ghazali, in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, defended orthodox Islam from the Neo-Platonist elements of the falâsifa (the philosophy of the previous few centuries), ingraining Avicenna’s Aristotelian turn into the heart of Islamic philosophy. Later in his life, Al-Ghazali sought to incorporate Sufi mysticism into Sunni orthodoxy and advocated for the importance of a living an ethical life over belief in an intellectualized systematic theology.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142)
Both a proud academic and a participant in a tragic love affair, Abelard is best known for his work in logic and his formulation of nominalism, his view that only particulars exist and that universals are only present in words. Abelard argued that Christian morality should be be completely intentionalist; that is, the intention of the agent is the only factor determining an act’s moral worth. Thus, the consequences of an act are, well, inconsequential in an evaluation of its moral worth. As some objected, the implication of the view is that those who crucified Christ out of ignorance should be morally pardoned, while a man who gives to the poor with no love in his heart is morally blameworthy.
Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126-1198)
A great commentator on and defender of Aristotle, Averroes lived in present-day Spain and is considered by some to the last of the great philosophers of the golden age of Islamic philosophy. He argued that reason and philosophy are by no means opposed to Islam but that they occupy a central role in understanding the divine. Like Aristotle, he emphasizes the importance of virtue to human flourishing and happiness, and for Averroes, this consists of active knowledge of God.
Maimonides, who was born in Spain and later wrote most of his work in Egypt, is widely regarded as the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher. Synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy with the teachings of the Talmud, Maimonides held controversial views which included a rejection of a literal interpretation of the Talmud, a de-emphasis of the significance of miracles, and a preference for negative theology (making negative statements about God’s properties, e.g. “God is not ignorant” instead of “God is wise”). For Maimonides, the the perfecting of intellectual virtues is central to the aim of attaining human perfection, which is principally an intellectual perfection. While Maimonides privileges intellectual virtue as the highest human good, he holds that there is a place for moral virtue, which is grounded in the essentially rational commandments of the Talmud.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Perhaps the greatest, or one of the greatest, systematic philosophical theologians, Thomas Aquinas’ influence extended not just to Roman Catholics but to traditions well beyond his own. He drew on Aristotle, Augustine, the Bible, and other sources to defend a natural law understanding of value. The eternal law is that good should be pursued and evil shunned. Goodness among creatures consists in their fulfillment through the exercise of right reason or wisdom. As with Aristotle, the cardinal virtues (justice, temperance, courage, and prudence) are understood as proportionate desires, aims, and actions. Aquinas articulated the complementary additional goods or virtues as faith, hope, and love. As a proponent of natural law, Aquinas held that when a state or ruler promulgates a rule that is unjust, it is not worthy of being considered a law.
William of Ockham (1287-1347)
A Franciscan, Ockham (sometimes rendered Occam) criticized much of Thomistic scholasticism. He was an early developer of nominalism, denying that universals exist outside of the human mind. In theological meta-ethics, Ockham was a proponent of theological voluntarism, famously asserting that if God commanded murder, obedience would be morally requisite. Today, Ockham’s name is remembered in his formulation of the law of parsimony, called “Ockham’s razor,” which states that one should not to multiply entities unnecessarily (i.e., one should seek the explanation that posits the fewest causes or factors).
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Luther’s conception of grace, which became the theological foundation of Protestantism, viewed salvation as a gift of God given to Christians by Christ through faith apart from works. Separating justification from sanctification, Luther attributed salvation to God alone, through the work of Christ, while still allowing for humans to live freely and responsibly, fueled by the Holy Spirit. Against papal authority, Luther located the church’s authority in Scripture alone. Against visible church hierarchy, Luther developed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the invisibility of the true church. Against the Eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation, Luther preached the “real presence” of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and the wine. Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular not only made Scripture accessible to the laity but also helped concretize a standardized version of the modern German language.
John Calvin (1509-1564)
John Calvin was a great Protestant reformer who offered a systematic theology on virtually all
aspects of the Christian faith. His thought is too rich to generalize here but briefly. He stressed divine grace in the course of personal regeneration, defended a high view of ordinary vocations (as opposed to seeing the priesthood as of greater worth than a secular ruler), and he advanced a high view of divine sovereignty and predestination (the doctrine that all events have been willed by God).
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who primarily worked in the area of political
philosophy. His most famous work, Leviathan (1651), was the first treatise to introduce the idea of the social contract. Hobbes postulated that without government, humans would be completely free in a “state of nature” where each person would have a right to everything in the world. This would lead to all-out war between individuals and cause life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Thus, individuals agree to a social contract, ceding some of their freedom to an absolutely sovereign ruler or ruling body in return for basic protections.
The Cambridge Platonists (mid-17th century)
Cambridge Platonism was a movement largely centered around Cambridge University during the English Civil Wars. They championed the good, the true, and the beautiful, a non-mechanized understanding of human nature, and tolerance. Members included Henry More (1614-1687) and Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688).
John Locke (1632-1704)
An English philosopher and physician, John Locke is considered the father of Classical Liberalism. An empiricist and social contract theorist, Locke contributed greatly to the development of both epistemology and political philosophy. Locke defined the self through the continuity of consciousness and claimed that individuals are born with minds that are “blank slates” that acquire all information and knowledge through the senses. In political theory, Locke defended a social contract understanding of government, though he rejected the picture of the state of nature put forward by Hobbes. Instead, Locke believed humans to be naturally reasonable and tolerant. In Locke’s depiction of the state of nature, individuals have the right to defend their “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Thus, Locke’s thought is generally believed to have profoundly shaped the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
An American idealist, compatibilist, and defender of virtue theory and the beauty and glory of
God. His public reputation today is largely built around his extraordinary preaching in the Calvinist tradition, especially the paradigm of fire and brimstone sermonizing in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but his broader philosophical and theological work deserves attention as well. Edwards was one of the first European-American philosophers. He was influenced by George Berkeley’s case for idealism and the Cambridge Platonist view of virtues.
David Hume (1711-1776)
A key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume was philosopher, a historian, and an
economist. Hume famously said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” He believed that moral sentiments are intrinsically motivating, providing a motive for action without reason. Reason, therefore, is simply a tool for working toward the accomplishment of whatever motivates the passions.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
A philosopher, writer, and composer from Geneva, Rousseau was greatly influential to the French Revolution and the development of many modern fields, including political science, sociology, and educational theory. He was a social contract theorist and argued that by leaving the state of nature and joining with one another in civil society, individuals could preserve their lives while also retaining their freedom, since submission to the general will protects an individual from being controlled by the will of others while also ensuring that individuals obey laws by giving them a stake in their adoption and implementation.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
English author, philosopher, and women’s rights champion. Wollstonecraft is best known for
her 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which established her as one of the earliest feminist philosophers. Wollstonecraft argued that women are not naturally inferior to their male counterparts; rather, they only appear so due to a lack of education. Two years earlier, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she railed against England’s constitutional monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church of England in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which defended them.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1788) defended a new moral theory whereby an inwardly manifested moral law (or Categorical Imperative) gives rise to confidence in our existence as free agents. The Categorical Imperative requires that our maxims be universalizable and that they are directed always toward respecting persons, treating them as ends. To explain how morally good choices can be rational in the face of our apparently unjust world, one must adopt practical faith in a future life wherein a just God insures that happiness and virtue will be in concord. While he recognized that this practical argument cannot yield theoretically valid conclusions, Kant thought it effectively grounds practical conviction: whoever tries to be good, while believing moral action is rational, acts as if such a God actually exists.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
Bentham was one of the greatest proponents of utilitarianism in modern philosophy. He sought to use utilitarian values in reforming society, including his famous “Panopticon,” a prison design (a central tower with multiple levels of cells surrounding it) that gave prisoners the feeling of being constantly watched, leading to the development of self-policing behavior.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Mill was a British empiricist, utilitarian, and defender of a liberal political theory that gave primary value to human liberty. He defended a modest theism that was far more limited than traditional Christianity. He thought an afterlife was possible, but he did not think God was both all powerful and all good.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
German philologist, philosopher, social critic, poet, and composer. Nietzsche challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional moral values. Nietzsche advocated individual and cultural enhancement through affirmation of life, creativity, power, and belief in the reality of the world as it appears. Nietzsche believed that any doctrine, tradition, or policy that drains one’s human capacities and energies ought to be openly and honestly questioned, regardless of how ingrained in society it has become. Nietzsche’s most famous works are Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).
John Dewey (1859-1952)
John Dewey was an American Pragmatist opposed to the Platonic tradition of seeking values in
forms of stable essences. Dewey instead sought to locate values in experience. He is considered one of the most important democratic philosophers, and a major voice of progressive education.
Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1863-1948)
A political reformer and a religious thinker who used collective nonviolent action in order to free India from British colonial rule. Gandhi believed that humans should not use violence because of their limited knowledge, and instead he encouraged his followers to practice discipline and love of adversaries in their revolution based on non-cooperation. He called this approach satyagraha (Sanskrit: satya, “truth,” and agraha, “force”), which means holding fast to the truth. His method was ahimsa, non-violence, based on an ancient Indian concept prohibiting violence, which Gandhi expanded to include not belittling or coercing others. He believed that means and ends are necessarily related. The moral principles of truth and nonviolence guide all “true” religions, according to Gandhi, who held that God is truth. A life-long practicing Hindu, he was also influenced by other religions, such as Christianity, Jainism, and Islam. Gandhi thought that the status of untouchables in the caste system was the greatest problem of Hinduism. Overall, Gandhi demonstrated his beliefs through practice and encouraged others to do the same, for religion at its best was concerned with human community and faith was inextricably tied to social ethics.
Martin Buber (1878-1965)
Buber stressed the primacy of personal over against impersonal relations, which he formulated in terms of “I-You” or “I-Thou” relations rather than “I-it.” The relation to God is a high form of the “I-Thou” relation. In 1925, he translated the Hebrew Bible into German, in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Niebuhr deeply rooted his realism in Augustinian thought. He took human sin with great seriousness, particularly the sin of pride manifested in the use of political power. He perpetuallyaimed a critical eye at too lofty characterizations of human morality in the personal and social realms. Yet, he was an activist by nature, criticizing both his brother H. Richard Niebuhr as well as Swiss theologian Karl Barth (with whom he was often grouped under the category of neo-orthodoxy) for their hesitance to engage in political activism. For Niebuhr, love had to bear fruit in justice. In the cold war world, he believed the United States should take a leading role but do so with the humble and self-critical awareness of the inevitable temptations to overreach by the powerful.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Early existentialist and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir’s exposure and condemnation of sexism in her book The Second Sex (1947) powerful. Her novels explore themes of authentic and inauthentic living.
Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)
Berlin was a famous humanist who distinguished between positive and negative freedom.
Freedom to versus freedom from acting upon a predicate. One has positive freedom when one has the ability and opportunity to speak. One has negative freedom when one is not restrained by, for example, chains or prison. Negative freedom can occur without positive freedom, but positive freedom requires at least some minimal negative freedom. Berlin also held that communication between persons would not be possible unless persons held common values.
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Camus was a philosopher, novelist, and essayist, who defended an atheistic existentialism to the effect that we live in an absurd world without objective values, and must decide for ourselves how to live. Camus compared the modern man to Sisyphus, the mythological character condemned to an eternity of pushing a stone up a hill only to see it roll down again. The comparison points out the repetitive routine modern men and women are faced with, and their refusal to stop a moment to ask, “why?” Camus’ most influential works include The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956).
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)
A French Jewish phenomenologist, Levinas is essentially concerned with experience of ethics and our encounter with “the
other.” His attempt to develop a “first philosophy” de-emphasizes the systematic metaphysics of traditional philosophical theorizing, instead privileging the revelatory experience of our face-to-face encounter with other human beings. When we encounter “the other,” we recognize the freedom and transcendence of “the other’s” nature. It is out of this initial encounter, and not from abstracted theoretical reflection, in which our ethical duties to ‘the other” is grounded and finds its primacy.
Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001)
Anscombe was a British philosopher who wrote on philosophy of mind, action theory, logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. Studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein and became a prominent authority on his works. Perhaps best known for her 1957 book Intention, in which she argues that the concept of intention is central to our understanding of humans as rational agents. Anscombe also coined the term “consequentialism”, introducing it to the field of analytic moral philosophy in a 1958 article titled “Modern Moral Philosophy.”
Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
American political philosopher who was a prominent member of the Harvard faculty in the late 20th century. Nozick was a colleague of John Rawls at Harvard and his most influential book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), offers a libertarian response to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Nozick argues from a Kantian perspective that the only governmental arrangement that would not violate individual rights is a minimal state that protects individuals from force, theft, and fraud, while also enforcing contracts between consenting individuals.
John Rawls (1921-2002)
American philosopher widely regarded for his work in ethics and political philosophy. Rawls’ most famous work is A Theory of Justice (1971), a work that the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy regards as “one of the primary texts in political philosophy.” Rawls proposed a social contract theory in which individuals construct their ideal society from behind a “veil of ignorance” that shrouds their age, race, gender, etc. Rawls argues that if this occurred, the resulting society would only allow inequality to the extent that it benefits the poorest individuals.
Bernard Williams (1929-2003)
English moral philosopher famous for his efforts to reorient the study of ethics to encompass and synthesize human understandings of history, culture, politics, and psychology. Williams was especially influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, and he employed his understanding of how the Greeks viewed ethics in critiques of both Kantianism and utilitarianism, the two leading ethical theories of his time. Two of Williams’ most influential works are Moral Luck (1981) and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
Derrida was a French advocate of the semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, an attempt to expose the oppositions, hierarchies, and paradoxes on which particular modern understandings are founded. Near the end of his life, Derrida contributed a philosophical reflection on the notion of gift-giving.
Philippa Foot (1920-2010)
A British philosopher best known for her work on moral philosophy. One of the leading proponents of modern virtue ethics, which derived from Aristotle’s ethics. Her work was largely concerned with demonstrating that virtue ethics could be adapted to fit in the contemporary world, competing with deontology and consequentialism. Foot famously criticized consequentialism in her 1967 essay “Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect”, introducing the famous “trolley problem” to the field of moral philosophy.
Peter Singer (1946- )
Australian moral philosopher currently splitting time between Princeton University and the University of Melbourne. Singer specializes in applied ethics; his most famous work, Animal Liberation (1975), has become a highly influential volume in the field of animal rights. Though he didn’t invent the term, Singer popularized the idea of “speciesism”, which highlights the human tendency to value human lives more than those of other animals.
Martha Nussbaum (1947- )
Martha Nussbaum is an American philosopher who teaches in the Philosophy Department and Law School at the University of Chicago. Her interests range from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, to ethics and political philosophy, to feminism. Nussbaum, along with Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, developed the “capability approach” to human rights, which outlines a list of ten capabilities (or realistic, accessible opportunities) that individuals in a democratic society should have.