JH6 History of Moral Philosophy

The history of moral philosophy can be understood as a sustained attempt to provide a unified theory of the basis, content, and normativity of morality. That is, a theory which can answer the following questions: Is morality dependent upon human responses, or is it in some way independent of the human perspective? What actions are right/wrong, and why are they right/wrong? Why should we do what morality requires of us?

In this course we will look in detail at two historically and philosophically important attempts to answer these questions.

Firstly, we’ll look at the Sentimentalist moral philosophy of David Hume as presented in his Treatise of Human Nature and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume famously thinks that morality is dependent upon human sentiments (roughly: emotional dispositions) and that plausible sentimentalist answers can be given to questions about the content and normativity of morality.

Second, we’ll look at the Rationalist moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant as presented in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant famously thinks that morality is dependent upon practical rationality (roughly: the capacity to act for reasons) and that the content and normativity of morality can (only) be explained by reference to this feature.

Along the way we’ll consider Hume and Kant’s views and arguments concerning the origin of moral concepts, the relationship between rationality and our desires/goals, motivation and action, and free will.

In considering these texts, one task will be to make sure that you understand what Hume and Kant are saying. But equally, your job is to consider whether their arguments are any good, and to begin forming your own reasoned conclusions about the deep and important philosophical questions they are attempting to grapple with.

Course lecturers: Prof Glen Pettigrove
Semester: 2
Lecture hour & venue: see Honours timetable

Recommended texts for 2021-22:

  • Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature & An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (any edition - there are plenty of online versions available)
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (CUP 2012), trans. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann

Teaching resources for this course will be made available on the Philosophy Moodle site.

Further course information

Course Aims
This course will provide the opportunity for students to:

  • gain a detailed  knowledge  and  understanding of the moral philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.
  • develop their analytical and critical skills, by considering key arguments and positions, and formulating their own.
  • appreciate  how  moral philosophy has developed and to meaningfully engage with significant theses in its history.

Intended Learning Outcomes
By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • understand and explain what it means to provide an account of the source and content of morality 
  • critically engage with Hume’s Sentimentalism
  • critically engage with Kant’s Rationalism
  • appreciate the challenges that accompany the interpretation of historic texts