The contributions of moral thinkers and philosophers have led to many defining changes in history. Read here to know the teachings and thoughts of prominent world thinkers.
Philosophy is a word derived from the Greek word “Philosophia” which means love of wisdom. Philosophy answers some of the most fundamental questions about life, human existence, rationality, god, religion, etc.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy. Ethics is the study of what is right or wrong in human conduct. As ethics is the study of moral principles, ethics is also known as Moral Philosophy.
Contributions of moral thinkers and philosophers from the world
Ethical thinking or Moral thinking – be it theoretical, religious, or practical – is a vital part of human history.
Moral thinkers can be grouped into ancient thinkers and modern thinkers.
Ancient Moral Philosophers
The development of a moral character is a matter that has been argued for many years by many philosophers of ancient times. The philosophers like Aristotle, Confucius, and Plato have approached the topic in different ways. To analyze these philosophers judgementally, it is important to appraise their moral arguments and principles.
Socrates (470–399 BC) was a Greek philosopher from Athens who is said to be the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the ethical tradition of thought.
He did not author any texts and is known mainly through posthumous accounts of classical writers and his students Plato and Xenophon. These accounts are written as dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a subject in the style of question and answer; they gave rise to the Socratic dialogue literary genre. Plato’s dialogues are among the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity.
Contradictory accounts of Socrates make a reconstruction of his philosophy nearly impossible, a situation known as the Socratic problem. Socrates is known for proclaiming his total ignorance; he used to say that the only thing he was aware of was his ignorance, seeking to imply that the realization of our ignorance is the first step in philosophizing.
He was sentenced to death after being accused of impiety and corrupting the youth.
Socrates initiates his discourse with an expert on a subject by seeking a definition by asking, for example, what virtue, goodness, justice, or courage is; as his discussions prioritize definitions.
Plato’s Socrates often claims that he is aware of his lack of knowledge, especially when discussing ethical concepts such as goodness, and courage since he does not know the nature of such concepts. Socrates accepts that acknowledging one’s lack of knowledge is the first step to wisdom.
Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in a later period and also in the modern era. Socrates was studied by medieval scholars and played an important role in the thought of the Italian Renaissance, particularly within the humanist movement. Interest in Socrates continues till now, as reflected in the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Depictions of Socrates in art, literature, and popular culture have made him a widely known figure in the Western philosophical tradition.
Plato upholds the principle of the virtue-based eudemonistic conception of ethics that is human well-being (eudaimonia) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct, and the virtues are the requisite skills and dispositions needed to attain it.
Plato’s writings Apology, Crito, and Phaedo demonstrate dramatic accounts of the events leading to his mentor Socrates’ death; depict matters of concern, ethical living, and simplicity of thought and expression.
Plato conversed about philosophy as a way of life similar to how the soul is part of life. In Phaedo, Plato contended that the soul is something, rather than a sense of harmony. Phaedo also illustrates important arguments for personal immortality. It goes on to discuss in detail the soul and its rational, appetitive, and spirited features. He also talked about virtuous characteristics in individuals and related actions.
Plato wrote accounts in Republic in which he treated happiness as a state of perfection that is hard to comprehend. On the other hand, Aristotle talked about happiness as a self-sufficient state of the active individual.
Plato’s ethical thought process was subjected to modifications throughout his life hence each stage presented a different indication. In his early works, there are no indications that the search for virtue and the human good goes beyond the human realm. This changes with a growing interest in the metaphysical basis of knowledge during the middle phase, a development that leads to the positing of the ‘forms’, as the true nature of all things, leading to the Form of the Good as the inspiring principle of all goodness.
Plato’s later works do not lower the standards of knowledge as such, he acknowledges that his design of a rational cosmic order is based on conjecture and speculation, an acknowledgment that finds its continuation in his later work, the laws, which has a more pragmatic treatment of ethical standards and political institutions.
Plato’s dialogues about the philosophy of Socrates demonstrate the Socratic approach to areas of philosophy including rationalism and ethics. The Platonic Socrates lends his name to the concept of the Socratic Method, and also to Socratic irony. The Socratic method of questioning takes shape in dialogue using short questions and answers, epitomized by those Platonic texts in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine various aspects of an issue or an abstract meaning, usually relating to one of the virtues, and find themselves at an impasse, completely unable to define what they thought they understood.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was well versed in ethics, philosophy, rhetoric, and political sciences. He was one of the influential philosophers who stressed a virtuous character. He was also the pupil of Plato and was born after the death of Socrates. Aristotle was the first to note that the extent to which the dialogues portray Socrates authentically is a matter of some debate.
Virtues relate to the feelings and actions of each individual. Aristotle talked about different virtues and postulated that people get angry at certain things and adamantly hold on to their views. Conversely, Aristotle affirmed that the deficiency of this character is punitive and intolerable. Regardless of any situation, it is unsuitable to become angry when it is not worth it. If doing so, again indicates a deficient non-virtuous moral character. Aristotle also referred to any non-virtuous person by inner doubt and predicaments. Even though the person may be single-minded or inconsiderate, he or she must be able to look out for companions to pardon their actions. Aristotle argued that spiteful people are not able to believe in themselves. On the other hand, virtuous individuals, gain pleasure in their actions.
Aristotle created the naturalistic tradition through his ethical writings (like Eudemian Ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, and the Politics) which constitute the first systematic investigation into the foundations of ethics. Aristotle’s account of the virtues could be seen as one of the first inquiries in normative ethics.
Aristotle was a towering philosopher of his time in the arena of ancient Greek philosophy along with Metaphysics, mathematics, logic, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance, and theatre. He was more empirical-minded than Plato or Socrates and was famous for disapproving of Plato’s moral theory.
His ethical thoughts are still relevant and influence virtue ethics. He expanded the notion of happiness through the analysis of the soul which structures and animates the living human organisms.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher, poet, and politician who are traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages. Confucius’s teachings and philosophy underpin East Asian culture and society, remaining influential across China and East Asia to this day.
His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, the correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. His followers competed with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought era.
Although Confucianism is followed religiously by the Chinese, it is argued that its values are secular and therefore, it is less of a religion and more of secular morality.
One of the innermost teachings of Confucius is the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behaviour. His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, the ambition of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules.
Confucian ethics are the virtues of the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge.
Confucius’s political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argued that the best government is one that rules through rites and people’s natural morality, and not by using bribery and coercion.
Confucius’s teachings were later turned into an elaborate set of rules and practices by his numerous disciples and followers, who organized his teachings into the Analects.
Modern Moral Philosophers
Important modern philosophers in the ethical domain are Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant etc.
(1) Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. His masterwork Leviathan rivals in significance the political writings of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls. In addition to political philosophy, Hobbes contributed to other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, and ethics, as well as philosophy in general.
In philosophy, he defended a range of materialist, nominalist, and empiricist views against Cartesian and Aristotelian alternatives. His works The Elements of Law, the Elements of Philosophy, and Leviathan all share a structure as Hobbes begins with questions about mind and language, and works towards questions in political philosophy.
Hobbes is famous for his early and elaborate development of “social contract theory”, the method of justifying political principles or arrangements by appealing to the agreement that would be made among suitably situated rational, free, and equal persons. He used the social contract method to conclude that we ought to submit to the authority of an absolute, undivided, and unlimited sovereign power.
(2) Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought.
His literary works have had a significant influence on various fields they related to. His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are fundamental in modern political and social thought. His sentimental novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) was important to the development of pre-romanticism and romanticism in fiction. His Emile, or On Education (1762) is an educational piece on the place of the individual in society.
Rousseau’s autobiographical writings especially the posthumously published Confessions initiated the genre of modern autobiography. The unfinished Reveries of the Solitary Walker exemplified the late 18th-century and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing.
(3) Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the important enlightenment thinkers. Kant’s comprehensive works on epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him a central figure in modern Western philosophy.
Kant believed that reason is also the source of morality, and those aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant’s views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially in the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.
Kant propagated that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation, and this could be the culminating stage of world history.
His conception of the unity of consciousness has been popular among modern thinkers like John Rawls. Kant was of the view that universality is essential to any viable moral philosophy.
Kant’s works have influenced various fields of social, behavioural, and physical sciences along with mathematics and linguistics. Kant’s work on mathematics and synthetic a priori knowledge are also cited by theoretical physicist Albert Einstein as an early influence on his intellectual development. And in recent years, there has been renewed interest in Kant’s theory of mind from the point of view of formal logic and computer science.
Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from India
Indian history has an abundance of great thinkers, philosophers,s, and teachers with immense knowledge. They all contributed to shaping the rich culture and philosophy of the land.
Chanakya (375–283 BCE) was an ancient Indian polymath who was a teacher, author, strategist, philosopher, economist, jurist, and royal advisor. He is also known as Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta, who authored the ancient Indian political treatise, the Arthashastra.
Chanakya assisted the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta in his rise to power and played an important role in the establishment of the Mauryan Empire. Chanakya served as the chief advisor to both emperors Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
Chanakya is regarded as a great thinker and diplomat. He envisioned a united subcontinent based on law and order. His Arthashastra is a precise and timeless description of power and strategic aspects of statecraft.
Chanakya wanted to create a society where people are not too engrossed in the material aspects of life. He laid equal emphasis on spirituality too.
Read: Chanakya neeti
Gautama Buddha was an ascetic, a religious leader, and a teacher who lived in ancient India during the 6-5th century BCE. His teachings laid the basis of Buddhist philosophy and traditions as well as Buddhism as a religion.
He is one of the most important Asian thinkers and spiritual masters of all time, and he contributed to many areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
In epistemology, Buddha seeks a middle way between the extremes of obstinacy and scepticism, emphasizing personal experience, a practical attitude, and the use of critical thinking toward all types of knowledge.
In ethics, Buddha proposes a threefold understanding of action: mental, verbal, and bodily. In metaphysics, he argues that there are no self-caused entities and that everything dependently arises from or upon something else. This allows Buddha’s teachings to provide a criticism of souls and personal identity. Such criticism forms the foundation for his views about the reality of rebirth and an ultimate liberated state called “Nirvana.”
Nirvana is a special state of mind in which all the causes and conditions responsible for rebirth and suffering have been eliminated. In philosophical anthropology, Buddha explains human identity without a permanent and substantial self.
The doctrine of non-self, however, does not imply the absolute inexistence of any type of self but is compatible with a conventional self, which is unsubstantial and impermanent.
The fundamental ethical and spiritual point behind the Buddha’s philosophy is that impermanent, conditioned, and conditional things such as wealth, social position, power, sensual pleasures, and even meditative states, cannot generate a state of ultimate happiness. To overcome the existential dissatisfaction generated by all ephemeral and contingent things, one needs to follow a comprehensive path of ethical and mental training conducive to the state of ultimate happiness called nirvana.
(3) Adi Shankaracharya
Adi Shankara was an Indian philosopher and theologian who set forth the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. Shankaracharya combined the ideologies of ancient ‘Advaita Vedanta’ and also explained the basic ideas of Upanishads. He advocated the oldest concept of Hinduism which explains the unification of the soul (atman) with the Supreme Soul (Nirguna Brahman).
Shankaracharya’s most important work is his efforts to blend the six sub-sects, known as Shanmata, which translates to ‘six religions,’ which is the worship of six supreme deities.
Shankaracharya explained the existence of one Supreme Being (Brahman) and that the six supreme deities are part of one divine power. He also founded ‘Dashanami Sampradaya,’ which talks about leading a monastic life.
While Shankaracharya was a firm believer in ancient Hinduism, he condemned the ‘Mimamsa school of Hinduism’ which was purely based on ritual practices.
Throughout his journey, Shankaracharya discussed his ideas with various other philosophers and fine-tuned his teachings from time to time. Shankaracharya founded four monasteries (mathas) that continue to spread his teachings:
- Sringeri Sharada Peetham advocates Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) and was based on Yajur Veda.
- Dwaraka Pitha advocates Tattvamasi (That is you) and was based on Sama Veda.
- Jyotirmatha Pitha advocates Ayamatama Brahma (This ataman is Brahman) and was based on Atharva Veda.
- Govardhana matha advocates Prajananam Brahma (Consciousness is Brahman) and was based on Rig Veda.
His philosophy was simple. He advocated the existence of the soul and the Supreme Soul and believed the Supreme Soul alone is real and unchanging while the soul is a changing entity and that it does not have absolute existence.
Thiruvalluvar was a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher best known as the author of the Tirukkural which is a collection of couplets on ethics, political thought, economical matter, and life. The text is considered an exceptional and cherished work of Tamil literature.
Thiruvalluvar showed that a person could lead a divine life or a life of purity and sanctity even if they are a Grihastha or householder. He showed that there was no necessity to leave the family and become a Sannyasin to lead a divine life of purity and sanctity.
Thirukkural is divided into three sections: section one deals with Aram, good ethical behaviour with conscience and honour (right conduct); section two discusses Porul, the right manner of conducting worldly affairs; and section three dwells on Kaamam, love between men and women.
Thirukkural has been translated into several languages, including a translation into Latin by Constanzo Beschi in 1730, which helped make the work known to European intellectuals.
(5) Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda was one of the most celebrated spiritual leaders of India. He was a prolific thinker, great orator, and passionate patriot. He carried on the free-thinking philosophy of his guru, Ramakrishna Paramhansa forward into a new paradigm. He followed the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy.
He worked tirelessly towards betterment of the society, in servitude to the poor and needy, dedicating his all to his country. He was responsible for the revival of Hindu spiritualism and established Hinduism as a revered religion on the world stage.
His message of universal brotherhood and self-awakening remains relevant, especially in the current backdrop of widespread political turmoil around the world. His teachings have been an inspiration to many, and his words have become goals of self-improvement, especially for the youth of the country.
His is four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, are outstanding treatises on Hindu philosophy.
He was a truly modern thinker who understood the importance of moving forward with the world yet to be rooted in his traditions. He was influenced by western philosophy for individual development and progress. He realized three things are necessary to make every man great, every nation great, namely conviction of the powers of goodness; absence of jealousy and suspicion; and helping all who are trying to be and do good.
He believed in having faith in self along with faith in the divine: “The tidal wave of Western Civilisation is now rushing over the length and breadth of the country. It won’t do now simply to sit in meditation on mountain tops without realizing in the least its usefulness. Now is wanted intense Karma yoga, with unbounded courage and indomitable strength in the heart. Then only will the people of the country be roused.”
(6) Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore was a great poet, author, educationist, and Nobel laureate. He was a true believer in Vedanta philosophy and believed in Brahman, the manifestation of the entire universe. Such a philosophy led him to have implicit faith in the Brotherhood of Man and Fatherhood of God and the need for universal religion.
Tagore was an individualist and believed in giving the right type of freedom to the individual. Every individual is unique and differs in potential. Every individual, according to Tagore, has a right to give direction to his life in his way. He believed in the fundamental unity of man and nature.
Tagore believed that man should live for the Ultimate Truth which liberates us from the cycle of birth and death and makes us one with the Creator. Tagore said, “Let us find our God, let us live for the Ultimate Truth which emancipates us from the bondage of the dust and gives us the wealth, not of things but inner light, not of power but love”.
Tagore believed that every individual should try to attain spiritual perfection. This will lead to better social order, human brotherhood, and finally an international brotherhood. “Experience of the spiritual world, religion as the right-centre of life’s activities, and the unity of thought and truth” was the essence of Tagore’s great philosophy.
Tagore was a humanist and naturalist and was close to humanity and nature. He was an ardent believer in peace and unity.
(7) Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhian philosophy is the religious and social ideas adopted and developed by Gandhi, during his period in South Africa from 1893 to 1914, and later of course in India. These ideas have been further developed by later “Gandhians”, like Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. In the west, some of the works of Martin Luther King Jr. also propagate the philosophy.
The philosophy exists on several planes for understanding the universe as an organic whole – the spiritual or religious, moral, political, economic, social, individual, and collective. The spiritual or religious element, and God, is at its core. Human nature is regarded as fundamentally virtuous and all individuals are believed to be capable of high moral development and reform.
The twin principles of Gandhi’s thought are truth and nonviolence or Satya and ahimsa. Gandhi believed that truth is the relative of truthfulness in word and deed and the Ultimate Reality. This ultimate truth is God and morality. The moral laws and codes are the basis of truth and morality.
Ahimsa is not mere peacefulness or the absence of overt violence but denotes active love for everything in this world according to Gandhi. It is the polar opposite of violence, or “Himsa”, in every sense.
He has said “As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion overriding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side”
Hence Gandhian philosophy stems from the truth and non-violence and teaches that one should acknowledge and accept the truth that people are different at all levels (“truth”). Also, one should never resort to violence to settle inherent differences between human beings at any level: from between two people to two nations to two races or two religions (“non-violence”).
There are seven social sins according to Gandhi:
- Politics without Principles
- Wealth Without Work
- Pleasure Without Conscience
- Knowledge Without Character
- Commerce Without Morality
- Science Without Humanity
- Worship Without Sacrifice
Humans are social animals and seek a cause-effect relationship that motivates them to question the society where they live which can be achieved through philosophy. Philosophy can be applied to the physical world existing around us and also applied to intangible objects and imaginary like a god, cosmology.
Ancient Greece and India were the cradles of ethical thinkers and philosophers whose thoughts and teachings laid the base for a great many discoveries and changes in the world.
Ethics is multi-dimensional and applicable in all fields in today’s modern world. Since ancient times, teachings about the human interface have ethics, values, and attitude intertwined with each other.
For civil services, ethical thinking, aptitude, values and the right attitude are very necessary. Hence it is important to have a good theoretical understanding of the concepts for practical application.
There are many more contributions of thinkers and philosophers from India and the world that have influenced the shaping of the world we see today, like:
John Rawls in his theory of social justice attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice. Rawls derives two principles of Justice: the liberty principle and the difference principle. In his concept of the liberty principle, Rawls explains that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. In his concept of the difference principle, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged.
Similarly, there have been great rulers who have built and ended empires based on their ideologies. Napoleon Bonaparte had said, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.” Hitler had great ambition but was blinded by vengeance and power leading to the doom of their country. On the other hand, the great Mauryan ruler Ashoka built an empire based on welfare, compassion, and truthfulness.”
Teachers and parents also play an important role in building the character of a nation through their younger generation. One of modern India’s great scientist, teacher, and ex-president of the country Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam had said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother, and the teacher.”