Morality Explored: Which Ethical Theories Are Best?

Do you believe in morality? Philosophers Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel all have different theories on the matter.

Dec 16, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

morality explored best ethical theories


What is morality? Why does it matter? Morality occupies a very special place in the system of human values, and moral consciousness determines people’s behavior and their relationships—interpersonal, group, and social. But what is morality, really?


Ethical Theories vs. Morality: What’s the Difference?

theologial virtues painting
The Theological Virtues: Faith, Charity, Hope, Umbrian (anonymous), via The Met


Morality is a form of self-awareness. The formation of moral norms, principles, and traditions marks a transition from spontaneous forms of behavior and relationships to orderly, consciously regulated ones. The moral ideas of a person, formed over the centuries, are reflected in such categories as good, evil, justice, conscience, duty, the meaning of life, happiness, and love in the form of principles that can regulate our relationships with others.


Ethics and morality are terms that often get thrown around interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) singled out two types of virtues: the ethical and the intellectual.


Aristotle referred to such positive qualities of a person’s character as courage, moderation, generosity, etc., as the ethical virtues. He called ethics the science that studies these virtues. Ethics was described by later philosophers as the science of morality.

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The term “morality” originated in the conditions of Ancient Rome, where in the Latin language, there was a word, “mos,” meaning “temper” or “custom.” Roman philosophers, among them Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), formed the adjective “moralis” from the term “mos,” and then the term “morality”—now morality—arises from it.


While both concepts tackle questions of right and wrong behavior, their approaches differ significantly. Morality refers to a set of values or beliefs that determine what is considered “right” within a particular society, culture, or individual’s conscience. It is subjective in nature, shaped by religious teachings, cultural norms, and personal convictions.


Morality According to Kant

becker portrait immanuel kant
A portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768, via Wikimedia Commons.


Morality influences how individuals behave and form a significant part of their identity. It provides the foundation for evaluating actions and making decisions about what is morally acceptable or unacceptable. Ethics, on the other hand, involves wider philosophical reflections into moral principles and universal rules governing behavior which apply regardless of time or place. It is focused more on general outcomes than on external influences such as religion or tradition. It also encourages logical reasoning over emotional responses when making decisions.


Despite being substantially different, ethics and morality have historically intersected and influenced one another. Ethical theories stem from existing morals whilst drawing upon reason to give morality a universal basis.


Immanuel Kant’s ethics of duty is a classic example of rationalism in moral philosophy. It is closely woven into the thinker’s wider philosophical system and interacts with his doctrine of knowledge and philosophy of religion, along with much else. Kant’s goal was to comprehend the nature of man; it is not for nothing that the three main questions of the Critique of Pure Reason are: “What can I know?” “What should I do?” and “What can I hope for?” These questions can be understood as subcategories of the overarching question: “What is a human being?” Kant is trying to consider a person as a whole, so moral questions cannot be avoided.


Defining ethics as the doctrine of the laws of freedom and morality, Kant attempts to purify it of everything empirical. The philosopher is convinced that it is necessary to turn ethics into a metaphysics of morality devoid of any connection with experience.


edmund leighton duty painting
Duty, Edmund Leighton, 1883, via Wikimedia Commons


Both utilitarian motives and emotional factors—sympathy and compassion—are rejected as “existent.” Morality, according to Kant, gives us an ideal to strive for, and, of course, this is the ideal of reason. That is why Kant’s ethics are often described as a rational ethics.


For Kant, a moral act ought to be done solely out of a sense of duty. In striving for mathematical precision in the field of ethics, the philosopher gives a “formula of morality”— the categorical imperative: act only following such a maxim, guided by which, at the same time, you can wish it to become a universal law.


Kant’s ethical theory owes a debt to Aristotle. The difference between the two is that Aristotle associated moral virtue with happiness, while Kant refused this connection.


By relying on reason, Kant sought to turn us into a “moral mechanism” that works smoothly and accurately.


Schopenhauer’s Controversial Moral Philosophy

jan steen effects intemperance painting
The Effects of Intemperance, Jan Steen, 1662, via The National Gallery


Another famous moral philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer. He was not someone who could be characterized by the Kantian ideal of moderation and tact; he was quarrelsome and pessimistic and did not marry because he was such a committed misogynist. Schopenhauer became interested in the works of Kant but disagreed with many things that Kant had to say.


Schopenhauer attacked the idea of duty. He asked Kant the following questions: Who told you that there are laws that our behavior must obey? Who told you that something must happen that never happens? What gives you the right to accept this in advance and, accordingly, immediately impose on us ethics in a legislatively imperative form?


For Schopenhauer, it is unacceptable that ethics should be concerned with what is “due” because it deals with living, acting people and not with abstract entities. Therefore, the philosopher denies the laws that exist before any study of the empirical circumstances, and is content with interpreting daily life, striving to come to an understanding of it.


Schopenhauer focuses on the moral notion of debt. Debt, according to Schopenhauer, cannot be unconditional: we initially borrow, and only after that we become debtors. Of course, for morality, such a concept of debt cannot apply. For “unpaid debt,” punishment is usually supposed.


In the Old Testament, God may well punish misconduct; here, the idea of a moral obligation is appropriate. Rewards for right behavior were present in ancient Greek thought, given the widespread belief in the fate. But since the Enlightenment, philosophers have abandoned the concept of fate to explain causality, focusing on the laws of physics rather than metaphysics.


Schopenhauer admires and supports Kant’s desire to separate morality from happiness, to break with eudaimonism in ethics, but sees the weakness of the categorical imperative. The way it presents an opportunity to become “worthy of happiness” is too encouraging, creating additional motivation. Thus, the main contradiction in Kant is exposed. It lies in the idea of the initially “pure” moral act (only out of a sense of duty!). It is tainted with an “immoral” desire to become worthy of happiness.


Hegel’s Critiques of Kant and Schopenhauer

hegel portrait
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, morality is intrinsically linked to social and historical context. His ideas differ in several ways from those of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. For Hegel, moral values are shaped by institutions, customs, and norms. His philosophy views morality as a product of the dialectical development within an ever-changing ethical consciousness.


In contrast to Kant’s individualistic stance on duty above all else—abstracted away from any context—Hegel argued that morality should be understood holistically in terms of our ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit) as a whole. This incorporates wider societal elements such as cultural practices and shared values into consideration.


Hegel also disagrees with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic perspective that humans simply try in vain to suppress desires or reduce suffering. Instead of conflicting with self-realization, he believes that harmony can be achieved by integrating individual desires with accepted principles, leading to truly ethical and fulfilling individual lives.


This comprehensive interpretation is distinct from Kant’s rigid emphasis on obligation without any points of reference and Schopenhauer’s pessimism regarding the impossibility of attaining our goals when considering humanity alone.


So, What Is Morality, and What Are Ethical Theories?

jean baptiste greuze broken eggs painting
Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Morality holds an essential place in human values, influencing our behavior and relationships. Although the terms “ethics” and “morality” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Morality is subjective—shaped by religious teachings, cultural norms, or personal convictions—while ethics involves philosophical reflections on universal rules guiding conduct.


Ethical theories draw upon existing morals for a deeper understanding of human action. Both work together to foster positive behavioral changes and social harmony. Immanuel Kant’s “ethics of duty” emphasizes rationalism and advocates moral actions be driven solely by a sense of obligation guided by the categorical imperative. Arthur Schopenhauer questions this view.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel views morality through a dialectic lens where individual desires must be integrated into accepted principles to achieve ethical lives within evolving contexts such as institutions, customs, and shared values over time.


So, based on these three great philosophers’ arguments, morality is the human belief and practice of right behavior. In general, it is a dynamic concept that evolves with changing contexts and learning from experience to foster positive behavioral changes and social harmony. Still, in any case, it involves developing a personal code to guide thought and action, incorporating universal rules governing conduct.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.