A Short History of Ethics was first published in the United States by Collier Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Company, in 1966 and then in Britain by what was then Routledge & Kegan Paul. It has since been translated into Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Slovenian, and, most recently in 1995, into Polish. The translator of the Polish edition, Professor Adam Chmielewski, invited me to write a preface for Polish readers and I gratefully used this opportunity to consider some of the respects in which the original text needs to be corrected or modified and some of the ways in which my perspectives on the history of ethics have changed. First of all I need to note that the title is misleading: this is a short history of Western ethics, not of ethics. And I now have an opportunity to take account of the pertinent criticisms on particular issues made by others, to whom I am most grateful, and at least to recognize the fact that Western moral philosophy has continued to have a history since 1966. But I have not attempted to bring the story up to date.

My own most fundamental dissatisfactions with this book derive from changes in my own philosophical and moral standpoint. I do of course still endorse a great deal of what I then asserted. But, when I now read the story that I told then, I see it as a story in need of revision, one in a succession of genuinely instructive stories about the history of moral philosophy which have been told by philosophers-for example, Hegel’s, Marx’s, and Sidgwick’s (although I am well aware that my work does not rank with theirs)-each of which could later be improved upon. And in my own later writings- especially After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, second edition, 1982), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990)-I have tried on various topics to improve upon A Short History of Ethics.

I am, however, conscious both of how much there is in the Short History with which I still agree and that it was only by first writing that book and then reflecting upon it that I learned how to do better. And since many contemporary readers may well find themselves more at home with the standpoint which was mine in 1966 rather than that which is now mine, it seems important still to invite readers to make the story told in the Short History their own starting-point for learning about and then reflecting upon the history of ethics. What I hope to do in this preface is to explain why I think this story needs nonetheless to be challenged. But, before I subject myself and the story that I then told to some radical questioning, I need to attend not to my own view of the overall narrative, but to the more important of the criticisms that have been leveled at the book by others.

Those criticisms have mostly concerned inadequacies in my treatments of particular authors, a type of criticism which I predicted and welcomed in advance in my original Preface. I too have become highly critical of such inadequacies, quite as much as other critics have been, in those areas where what I wrote plainly needs to be corrected or supplemented. Let me therefore try to supply something of what is needed by way of correction and supplement, noting however that just as it was an attempt to summarize large and complex theses and arguments all too briefly, which was a major source of defects and omissions in the original text, so what I have to say now will necessarily once again be compressed and perhaps too compressed. This is a difficulty that I shall be able to overcome only when I finally do write that as yet nonexistent book that I think of as “A Very Long History of Ethics.”

Four of the chapters where particular corrections are needed are chapter 9 on Christianity, chapter 12 on the British Eighteenth-Century Argument, chapter 14 on Kant, and chapter 18 on Modern Moral Philosophy. Let me deal with these in turn:

Chapter 9: Christianity. This chapter is the most striking example in the book of a kind of defect which I pointed out in the Preface when I wrote that “This book is inevitably the victim of the author’s overnumerous intentions.” Between 109 pages on Greek ethics and 149 pages on Western European ethics from the Renaissance to 1964 I sandwiched ten pages within which I attempted to identify the distinctive moral outlook of the Christian religion and to bridge the historical gap of 1300 years between Marcus Aurelius and Machiavelli and to give some account of the importance of medieval moral philosophy. What an absurdity! But it was not only my absurdity. This error of mine reflected a widespread, even if far from universal, practice in the then English-speaking world-which still unfortunately persists in numerous colleges and universities-of ignoring the place both of the earlier Christian eras and of the high middle ages in the history of philosophy. So, for example, in the then Oxford undergraduate curriculum there had been for a very long time a large place assigned to the study of ancient philosophy, and also to that of modern philosophy, but almost no place at all to medieval philosophy.

What is needed to repair my own errors and omissions is of two different kinds. First the account of Christianity which I then gave needs not only to be expanded, but to be radically revised. The core of that account imputes to distinctively Christian ethics an, as I then thought, unresolvable paradox, that it “tried to devise a code for society as a whole from pronouncements” originally addressed to individuals or small communities who were to separate themselves off from the rest of society in expectation of a Second Coming of Christ, which did not in fact occur (pp. 115-116). What I failed to recognize was that this paradox had already been resolved within the New Testament itself through the Pauline doctrines of the church and of the mission of the church to the world. Those doctrines successfully define a life for Christians informed both by the hope of the Second Coming and by a commitment to this-worldly activity in and through which human beings rediscover the true nature of their natural ends and of those natural virtues required to achieve those ends, as a result of coming to understand them in the light of the theological virtues identified in the New Testament. Those virtues are, on a Christian view, the qualities necessary for obedience to God’s law, that obedience which constitutes community, whether it is that obedience to God’s law apprehended by reason which constitutes natural community or that obedience to revelation which constitutes the church. (My earlier failure to recognize this was due to my having been overimpressed by biblical critics who falsely thought that they had discovered a large and incoherent eclecticism in the New Testament. What corrected my earlier view was in part a larger knowledge of that same criticism. I learned especially from the work of Heinrich Schlier.)

What Christianity therefore presented to those who encountered it was a conception of law and the virtues which stood in a problematic relationship to the various philosophical conceptions of human good and virtue encountered in the ancient world. Because I had not understood this adequately, I was unable to pose the right questions about that relationship. I noticed, for example, how New Testament conceptions differed from Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic conceptions. But I failed to enquire systematically whether or not it was possible to integrate one or more of these philosophical views with Christianity so as to present at once a more adequate moral philosophy and a philosophically defensible account of Christian moral views. Hence what I had to say about Augustine and Aquinas was misleading, because I had failed to ask the right questions. But my failure was not only about Christianity.

A second set of omissions concerns Judaic and Islamic ethics. Judaism’s ethics of divine law raised philosophical questions which anticipate and generally parallel those of Christianity, but Jewish contributions to the answering of those questions have an independent importance for the history of ethics. When in chapter 10 I discussed Spinoza as one of those who inaugurated distinctively modern ethical debate, I characterized him only as an atheist, failing to recognize that he was one heir, even if a deviant one, of the traditions of medieval Jewish moral philosophy and especially of the greatest of medieval Jewish philosophers, Moses Maimonides. There is no name whose absence from the index of A Short History of Ethics is more regretted by me now than that of Maimonides (see for a first account and a bibliography Colette Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

It was as great a mistake to have made no mention of such Islamic philosophers as ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Ghazali, and above all ibn Rushd (Averroes). And these absences were responsible for a further inadequacy in my treatment of Aquinas’ moral thought, since Aquinas’ synthesis of theology with Aristotle was deeply and importantly indebted to Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes (for a first account of Islamic philosophy see Oliver Leaman, An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Chapter 12: The British Eighteenth-Century Argument. There are two English philosophers whose views are discussed in this chapter where on central matters something more or different needs to be said. With Bishop Butler (pp. 164-166) it is in part a matter of an unjust treatment of the theological element in his thought, one stemming from the inadequacy of my treatment of Christianity in general. But also, and as importantly, I failed to emphasize Butler’s seminal importance for subsequent debate as the first philosopher to state compellingly the thesis that there are two distinct and independent sets of principles governing human conduct, on the one hand, those of reasonable self-love and, on the other, those of conscience. Henry Sidgwick in his Outlines of the History of Ethics (London: Macmillan, fifth edition, 1902) takes this recognition to be the source of a major, perhaps the major contrast between ancient Greek ethics, for which generally there is only one set of principles governing human conduct, those of reason variously conceived, and modern ethics. And certainly from the eighteenth century onwards the question of what the relationship is between the principles of reasonable self-love and the impersonal requirements of morality becomes a central one for moral philosophers.

One philosopher whom Sidgwick names as having to some degree anticipated Butler in recognizing this dualism is William Wollaston. My treatment of Wollaston (pp. 170-171) failed to distinguish sufficiently between what Wollaston actually held and Hume’s presentation of Wollaston’s views for the purpose of criticism. Wollaston did indeed assert “that the distinction between vice and virtue which reason apprehends is simply the distinction between the true and the false” (p. 170). The actions of a wrongdoer always, on his view, give expression to a judgment which is false and which thus misrepresents some reality. And Wollaston asks whether we may not say of someone who lives and acts as what he is not “that he lives a lie?” (The Religion of Nature Delineated I, iii). I followed Hume in imputing to Wollaston the view that every wrong action is a lie. It might perhaps be argued that Hume is right in judging that this does follow from what Wollaston says. But I have been persuaded by Joel Feinberg (“Wollaston and His Critics” in Rights, Justice and the Bounds of Liberty, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) that I, like Hume, had misread Wollaston. And that Wollaston’s view, as he himself stated it, may be open to criticism, but not to that particular criticism by Hume.

Chapter 14: Kant. In a review of A Short History of Ethics in The Journal of Philosophy (LXVI, 9, May 8, 1969) Hans Oberdiek declared that “What is worst about this book may be found in the incredibly brief chapter on Kant.” Oberdiek then lists a number of topics which it would have been desirable to discuss or to discuss at greater length and in particular accuses me of being misleading in asserting that “Kant takes the existence of an ordinary moral consciousness for granted” (p. 191).

I have a good deal of sympathy for Oberdiek’s accusations. Short accounts are likely to do least justice to the greatest and most complex philosophers and, while Kant receives more attention than any other modern philosopher except for Hobbes and Hegel, the space allocated to his ethics is less than half of that allocated to Aristotle. So what needs most to be emended or added?

Oberdiek was right in pointing out that, although Kant thinks that the ordinary moral agent, innocent of philosophy, is well able to grasp the requirements of the categorical moral imperative, the actual moral consciousness of such ordinary persons may always have become infected by error and confusion and must be evaluated by the standards of practical reason. Insofar as what I said suggested otherwise I was at fault. Even more importantly however I omitted to remark upon Kant’s identification of one of the distinguishing marks of any morality that has a claim upon the attention of rational persons.

I did of course discuss Kant’s conception of the categorical imperative as enjoining that we act only on maxims which we are able to treat as universalizable laws. But I omitted to notice his second formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always at the same time as an end and never just as a means.” What this formulation brings out is that in appealing to any authentically moral standard as providing a sufficient reason for some person to act in one way rather than another, I invite that person to evaluate the rational justification for accepting the authority of that standard for her or himself. I treat that person-whether someone else or myself-as a rational person, not as someone whom I am attempting to manipulate by some type of nonrational persuasion, some appeal to their inclinations. What Kant has captured here is a feature of rational moral discourse as such, one evident in the practice of Socrates and in all his philosophical heirs.

My doubts about Kant therefore were not and are not about his injunction to treat persons as in this sense autonomous. And I should have made this clear. My doubts were and are about Kant’s account of the type of rational justification which appeals to moral standards need to have and can have. If in fact Kant’s universalizability arguments fail, as I held and hold that they do-although I willingly grant that there is a great deal more to be said on that issue than I was able to say in chapter 14-then central Kantian concepts, such as that of duty, conceived as Kant conceived it, do not deserve the respect that Kant and Kantians have accorded to them. And any widespread belief that such concepts are in fact rationally defensible may permit them to play a part in social life that gives a false and harmful authority to certain types of claim.

Chapter 18: Modern Moral Philosophy. There is one serious mistake in my treatment of the views of R. M. Hare. I wrote that “on Hare’s view . what I hold I ought to do depends upon my choice of fundamental evaluations, and that there is no logical limit to what evaluations I may choose” (p. 262). Here I had mixed together a criticism of Hare advanced both by others and by myself and the statement of Hare’s own views and I did so in a way that resulted in a misrepresentation, for which I owe Hare an apology. It was and is Hare’s view, if I now understand it correctly, that anyone who uses the idiom of morality, and more particularly the word “ought” in its primary moral sense, is constrained in her or his judgments by the meaning of the key moral words and by logic in such a way that genuinely universalizable judgments must embody a summing of the preferences of everyone relevantly affected by the proposed course of action about which she or he is judging. The content of one’s moral judgments is therefore fully determined by the requirements of universality and prescriptivity, if these are rightly understood. And what I wrote does not convey this.

What I had intended by way of criticism however still stands. First, what Hare understands as the language of morals still seems to me only one moral idiom among several. Underlying any use of moral language which conforms to Hare’s account of the meaning of moral terms there therefore has to be a choice-characteristically an unacknowledged choice- to understand morality in one way rather than in a number of other rival ways. And this choice because it is prior to the moral reasoning which issues from it is, in this sense, arbitrary. Second, Hare himself allows that it is possible without irrationality to be an amoralist (Moral Thinking, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). But this entails that underlying all moral judgments there is a nonrational, prerational choice of morality rather than of amoralism. What at first sight therefore seemed to be a position with a strong claim to have reformulated more adequately Kant’s identification of the requirements of morality with the categorical requirements of practical reason turns out to be-quite contrary to Hare’s intentions and claims-much closer in its unintended implications to Kierkegaard’s Either-Or. I should add however that Kierkegaardians have usually been as dissatisfied with my account of Kierkegaard as Kantians have been with my account of Kant (for an excellent recent statement of their case see Edward Mooney, Selves in Discord and Resolve: Kierkegaard’s moral-religious psychology from Either-Or to Sickness unto Death, London: Routledge, 1996).

It is in the same last chapter that there emerge most strongly some of the presuppositions of a point of view which underlies the narrative structure of the whole book. Throughout the book I had stressed both how rival moral philosophies articulate the rational claims of different types of moral concept and judgment and how those different types of moral concept and judgment are themselves rooted in and give expression to different actual and possible forms of social order. And I had correspondingly denied from the outset that there is only one “language of morals” (p. 1). Some of my critics, including Hans Oberdiek in the review from which I have already quoted, supposed that this committed me to what Oberdiek described as “MacIntyre’s social-historical relativism” (op. cit., p. 268). It seemed to Oberdiek that on my account there could be no way in which the claims of any one set of moral beliefs, articulating the norms and values of one particular mode of social life, could be evaluated as rationally superior to those of another. Each would have to be judged in its own terms. And I may unintentionally have lent support to Oberdiek’s interpretation of my views by what I wrote in chapter 18 about the individual’s choice between different and incompatible moral vocabularies and moral judgments. For I may well have appeared to have ruled out the possibility of an appeal to any standards beyond those of the forms of life of particular cultures, when, for example, I wrote that it is not possible to “look to human nature as a neutral standard, asking which form of social and moral life will give to it the most adequate expression. For each form of life carries with it its own picture of human nature” (p. 268).

Nonetheless I was very far from being any sort of consistent relativist, as Peter Winch acutely noted in a critical discussion of A Short History of Ethics in which he accused me not of relativism, but, and more justly, of incoherence (“Human Nature” in Ethics and Action, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972). Winch said of me, quite rightly, that “He follows his argument for the illegitimacy of saying that any particular form constitutes the logical form of moral argument with a discussion designed to show the ‘superiority’ of the Aristotelian view of human nature and of its relation to morality” (op. cit., p. 81). Had I then simply contradicted myself?

What I had certainly been unable to do was to reconcile two positions, to each of which I was committed. The first was that which gave the appearance of relativism. Each fundamental standpoint in moral philosophy not only has its own mode of conceptualizing and understanding the moral life, which gives expression to the claims of some actual or possible type of social order, but each also has its own set of first principles, to which its adherents appeal to vindicate the claims of their own standpoint to universality and to rational superiority over its rivals. What I had failed to stress adequately was that it was indeed a claim to universality and to rational superiority-indeed a claim to possess the truth about the nature of morality-that had been advanced from the standpoint of each particular culture and each major moral philosophy. And what I had not therefore taken account of was that these philosophical attempts to present rationally justifiable universal claims to moral allegiance, claims upon human beings as such, claims about human nature as such, in the local and particular terms which each culture provides for its moral philosophers as their starting-point, had generated for each major moral philosophy its own particular difficulties and problems, difficulties and problems sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not. The subsequent history of each such moral philosophy revealed the extent to which each possessed or lacked the resources necessary to become aware of and to resolve those difficulties and problems-each by its own particular standards. And by this standard the major claimants in modern moral philosophy seemed to me then and seem to me now to fail.

The conception of choice between standpoints that I presented in chapter 18 was therefore misleading, and this in two ways. First, the alternatives between which I then believed that we had to choose-the emotivist or prescriptivist or existentialist theories expressive of an individualist social order or those particular local versions of Catholic theology or of Marxist dialectics by which these had been opposed in post-1945 French debates-had all failed and continued to fail to deal adequately with their own difficulties and problems. So that none of them could in fact have been chosen as a standpoint by a rational person. And indeed my own account of choice, as Winch perceived, exhibited some of these difficulties. For I spoke of the choice of fundamental moral standards as at once prior to the adoption of any particular moral standpoint and yet as itself expressive of one particular type of moral standpoint, that of moral individualism.

Should the story then have ended merely as an account of the failure of the projects of moral philosophy? Both I and most of my contemporary critics would answer this question with an unhesitating “No,” but for two very different kinds of reason. They from their various standpoints would each claim that their own particular ongoing project in modern moral philosophy has so far vindicated itself in rational terms. And since 1966 there has been a body of highly distinguished philosophical work from a variety of differing and rival modern standpoints in moral philosophy: contractarian, utilitarian, post-Lockean, post-Kantian, prescriptivist, and emotivist. The problem from my point of view is that the adherents of every one of these standpoints find in the unresolved difficulties and unsolved problems of their opponents’ positions sufficient reason to reject those rival positions. And so do I. It is by attending to the debates between the adherents of rival positions within modern moral philosophy that we find sufficient reason for rejecting each of the positions defended in those debates.

So why are my own present conclusions not merely negative? Winch had the insight to recognize a strong, if inadequately formulated, Aristotelian allegiance coexisting uneasily in the Short History with other allegiances. I had been justifiably anxious in my discussion of Aristotle to criticize that which had tied his ethics too closely to the structures of the fourth-century Greek polis and more especially to reject his ill-founded exclusion of women, slaves, and ordinary productive working people from the possibility of the virtues of rule and self-rule and of the achievement of the human good. What I had not at that time recognized was how much had already been achieved within later Aristotelian tradition by way of purging Aristotle’s ethics of these inessential and objectionable elements and how Aristotle’s central theses and arguments are in no way harmed by their complete excision. This recognition, when I finally achieved it, was accompanied by another.

Aristotle’s ethics, in its central account of the virtues, of goods as the ends of human practices, of the human good as that end to which all other goods are ordered, and of the rules of justice required for a community of ordered practices, captures essential features not only of human practice within Greek city-states but of human practice as such. And because this is so, whenever such practices as those of the arts and sciences, of such productive and practical activities as those of farming, fishing, and architecture, of physics laboratories and string quartets and chess clubs, types of activity whose practitioners cannot but recognize the goods internal to them and the virtues and rules necessary to achieve those goods, are in a flourishing state, then Aristotelian conceptions of goods, virtues, and rules are regenerated and reembodied in practice. This is not to say that those who practice them are aware that they have become to some significant degree, in their practice, although commonly not in their theory, Aristotelians. It is to say that Aristotelianism always has possibilities of revival in new forms in different cultures.

This, even if true, would not be sufficient to vindicate the claims to rational superiority of Aristotle’s ethics against its rivals, whether ancient, medieval, or modern. How those claims are to be evaluated depends, as I have already suggested, on the answers to such questions as: Does Aristotelian ethics possess the resources to resolve the difficulties and problems internal to it? How far have its adherents been successful in making use of those resources? Is Aristotelianism superior to its major rivals in this respect? Is it able to provide explanations of why those rivals should confront the particular sets of difficulties and problems which arise for each of them? Is it able to show that the resources of those rivals for so doing are inadequate and to explain why?

These are the key tests to which contemporary protagonists of Aristotle’s ethics must subject both their own and Aristotle’s theses and arguments. Whether they can do so in such a way as to vindicate Aristotle’s ethics or not is a matter of contention. In my later books I have tried to argue that there are sufficient grounds for reasserting central Aristotelian positions. If I and those who agree with me in this conclusion are in the right, then the story told in A Short History of Ethics ought to be rewritten so as to end in a way that shows this. If those who disagree-the large majority of contemporary moral philosophers-are in the right, then the story should be rewritten so as to end in quite another way. The story in fact ends therefore by posing to the reader a set of further questions. It is up to the reader her- or himself to carry this enquiry further.

Every philosopher is indebted to her or his critics, and I more perhaps than most. Let me conclude therefore by emphasizing how very grateful I am to all the critics of the Short History, whether named or unnamed.


Duke University, 1997