The Development of Ethics

Stephen Boydstun's picture
Submitted by Stephen Boydstun on Fri, 2007-11-16 14:44

The Development of Ethics

Volume 1 – From Socrates to the Reformation

Terrence Irwin, Oxford 2007 (812 pages)


From the back cover:


The Development of Ethics is a selective historical and critical study of moral philosophy in the Socratic tradition, with special attention to Aristotelian naturalism, its formation, elaboration, criticism, and defense. It discusses the main topics of moral philosophy as they have developed historically, including: the human good, human nature, justice, friendship, and morality; the methods of moral inquiry; the virtues and their connexions; will, freedom, and responsibility; reason and emotion; relativism, subjectivism, and realism; the theological aspect of morality. This volume [the first of three] examines ancient and medieval philosophy up to the sixteenth century.”

( categories: )

Volume 3

Stephen Boydstun's picture

The Development of Ethics
Volume 3 – From Kant to Rawls
Terence Irwin, Oxford 2009 (980 pages)

From the Publisher

“A comparison between the Kantian and the Aristotelian outlook is one central theme of the third volume. The chapters on Kant compare Kant both with his rationalist and empiricist predecessors and with the Aristotelian naturalist tradition. Reactions to Kant are traced through Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Utilitarian and idealist approaches to Kantian and Aristotelian views are traced through Sidgwick, Bradley, and Green. Mill and Sidgwick provide a link between 18th-century rationalism and sentimentalism and the 20th-century debates in the metaphysics and epistemology of morality. These debates are explored in Moore, Ross, Stevenson, Hare, C.I. Lewis, Heidegger, and in some more recent meta-ethical discussion. This volume concludes with a discussion of Rawls, with special emphasis on a comparison of his position with utilitarianism, intuitionism, Kantianism, naturalism, and idealism.

“Since this book seeks to be not only descriptive and exegetical, but also philosophical, it discusses the comparative merits of different views, the difficulties that they raise, and how some of the difficulties might be resolved. It presents the leading moral philosophers of the past as participants in a rational discussion in which the contemporary reader can participate.”


New work supplementing Rand and Aristotle in this thread is here.


seddon's picture

Thanks for the reference to Irwin’s PLATO’S ETHICS, and after checking it out on Amazon, I will pass on it. I disagree with Irwin’s way of reading Plato. I have made my position on how to read Plato (debts to Jacob Klein) clear in my book on Objectivism and most recently in JARS Fall 2008 and need not rehearse my reasons here. Since I believe Plato did not have a theory of ethics, I wondered where Irwin got such a notion. He tells us on pp 3-4. Of all of Plato’s writings, he is going to deal mainly with the GORGIAS and the REPUBLIC, coupled with “extremely selective” snatches from STATESMAN, PHILEBUS and LAWS. Using such an approach, I think one can make Plato say just about anything. I could be wrong, but like Luther, (or is it Popeye) “here I stand, I can do no other.” (I hasten to add this does not make your post an EXSURGE DOMINE, nor you a Pope Leo X. Tee hee.)

BTW, one of the reason Irwin gives for his way of reading Plato is that often Aristotle will say that "Socrates said this" or "Plato said that" in a dialogue, so they can be taken as equivalent. But beware of this equation. I’m reminded of a line in POLITICS II, where, in Jowett’s translation we read, “There is another omission in the LAWS: Socrates does not tell us how the rulers differ from there subjects; . . .” (1265b18) And Rackham uses Plato name a few lines earlier. But a check of the Greek reveals neither name. All Aristotle writes in both lines is TOIS NOMOIS (the LAWS)!! To my credit, in my book I wrote in square brackets “[‘Socrates’ not in the Greek text’] I can’t believed I checked every quotation. Bottom line. Be careful when reading a translation.


Places, Books

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Fred and Mindy,

I own Terence Irwin’s book Plato’s Ethics that I mentioned in an earlier post below. I learned from it, and I had Plato’s texts handy to consult along the way (and Aristotle’s texts too). I return to it now and then to refresh memory. I remember some early math professor telling the class first day how to read a math book: Set writing paper beside book, put pencil in hand. Something in the book is read, and hand with pencil is doing the bidding required for really learning. Reading secondary literature on a philosopher is kind of like that for me. The original source texts are laying on the desk too, ready for reference, challenge, or confirmation.

The exception for me was Copleston. Among my undergraduate philosophy courses was a survey of modern philosophy up to Kant. It used only excerpts from the original sources. In my senior year (physics major, philosophy minor), I took a graduate seminar on Critique of Pure Reason, which used recent secondary literature in addition to the first Critique itself (Kemp Smith in those days; I use Pluhar since it came out a few years ago).

After college, I started to grad school in philosophy and there began a course for history of ancient philosophy. It was all thrilling and, in hindsight, a very apt career choice, but I was so tired of being poor as well as being a financial burden on my generous Mom. I let it go; found work at fast-food counter; then grounds maintenance for the summer; then got on train to Chicago with $84 in pocket, landed unskilled labor job at a printing-mailing firm from ad in newspaper three days later, just in time to stop me from spending my remaining $32 for the train ticket back to Oklahoma; then worked as unskilled laborer at printing firm for seven years.

Well, one thing I had taken away from the history of ancient philosophy course was the first volume (two little books) of Copleston’s History of Philosophy. In those days, his history was in nine volumes, often in two books each, which were small paperbacks you could fit in your coat pocket. At work we would shut down everyone together for a half-hour lunch. I would carry my lunch bag to the top of a loaded pallet where I could see over the railroad tracks and to the river where a barge might go down. Copleston would take me to his place—to one of my places—for those minutes of rest. I always waited until I had finished one little book, drop by drop, before allowing myself the deliciousness of buying the next one. After the final one, I was ready for the original sources, and working with Objectivity authors on their topics tended to lead the way as to which philosopher’s works I would be purchasing.

After introducing it in this thread, I was able to examine in hands the first volume of Irwin’s history of ethics. It seemed encyclopedic and not right for me at this stage. Could be right for others at their stage.

The books by Gabriel Richardson Lear and by Richard Kraut, which I introduced earlier in this thread, are books that have been simmering impatiently on my desk in the ethics stack for some months now. One way these will help me (these, along with writings of Dorthea Frede) is in a comparison of the role of pleasure in the ethical theories of Plato, of Aristotle, and of Rand.

[Elizabeth, Jim: Lynchburg is it. All my love.]

Have they, indeed?

Ptgymatic's picture

Regarding books on books, the frequency with which I find myself asking, rather near the beginning and foundational parts, "Where do you get that take on him?" or "But what about the whole business of so-and-so (issue)?" is great enough that I find myself very often shelving with disgust and disappointment what I bought with enthusiasm, and much coin!

What lies more often than do titles of books?

Of course, that is what makes references from someone like Stephen golden, if only I can learn enough to understand how much of a recommendation he is making, versus pointing us at what seems to hold promise, or what is new on a subject, etc. (No fault of yours meant, Stephen!)

Browse through books in the book store? PLEASE! The whole non-fiction section of book stores has become smaller than that devoted to anime. Genuine philosophy doesn't get a whole sheving set even, but "Metaphysics" and religion and such take up several. It used to be a treat to wander around a book store. Now it is a culturally alienating experience.

Somebody, please, introduce me to God, a genuine know-it-all, and I'll pay dearly for her guidance in these matters.



seddon's picture

What a post! Irwin loves to write fat books. I have his book on Aristotle and enjoyed it a lot.
But is it me or are the prices for these books getting stratospheric. Two things hold me back for buying these and one is the price. The other is I prefer, as a great booker, to read the original books by the original authors. Copleston is broad enough, to say nothing of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, for me if I need to check out a particular thinker. Any if you're read my book on Rand, you know what I think of anything trying to tell me "Plato's philosophy" or "Plato's ethics." Have you read these two volumes through yourself? They are so big I think one would tend to use them as one uses an encyclopaedia. Otherwise we have the infamous "crow" problem.

Thanks again,


Rand and Aristotle

Stephen Boydstun's picture

The main works comparing the ethics of Rand and Aristotle are at the end of Fred Miller.

Additional comparisons are these:

Yvette Michaud

Fred Seddon

Seddon / Boydstun

Note from Comment on Khawaja 2007:

“Another foundationalist approach that is not intuitionist is described by Khawaja. ‘One inspiration for this view is Aristotle’s discussion of practical truth and the practical syllogism at Nicomachean Ethics VI. The idea is that there is a sui generis brand of “practical truth” which differs from theoretical truth and thus involves a different conception of justification than operates in nonpractical (i.e., epistemic) contexts. Further, since the conclusion of a practical syllogism is an action rather than a belief, practical justification concerns itself with a different justification than operates in nonpractical contexts’ (FE 6–7).

“Khawaja does not directly assess this Aristotle-inspired approach. Among the problems that might be raised for such an approach, raised from a Randian perspective, I notice three: (i) Theoretical knowledge for we moderns is not so narrow as it was for Aristotle. For us it includes knowledge of contingent matters, of things that could be otherwise; it is not only of things that could not be otherwise. (ii) The Randian should stand ground with Socrates against Aristotle’s exaggerations of the difference between taking good actions and making a good life. . . .”

Volume 2

Stephen Boydstun's picture

The Development of Ethics

Volume 2 – From Suarez to Rousseau

Terrence Irwin, Oxford 2008 (936 pages)


From the back cover:

“The present volume begins with Suarez's interpretation of Scholastic moral philosophy, and examines seventeenth- and eighteenth- century responses to the Scholastic outlook, to see how far they constitute a distinctively different conception of moral philosophy. The treatments of natural law by Grotius, Hobbes, Cumberland, and Pufendorf are treated in some detail. Disputes about moral facts, moral judgments, and moral motivation, are traced through Cudworth, Clarke, Balguy, Hutcheson, Hume, Price, and Reid. Butler's defense of a naturalist account of morality is examined and compared with the Aristotelian and Scholastic views discussed in Volume 1. The volume ends with a survey of the persistence of voluntarism in English moral philosophy, and a brief discussion of the contrasts and connections between Rousseau and earlier views on natural law.”


Ptgymatic's picture

His comments are illuminating. His "voice" reminds me of Windleband. Makes the prospect of reading him much less a "chore." (It's one of my life's goals to be able to read Windleband without missing a beat!)

The prospect of any brief you find the time to deliver on Irwin is a sunny one.

= Mindy

Setting Out

Stephen Boydstun's picture

In his Introduction to The Development of Ethics (Vol.1), Terrence Irwin writes:

“Different people might easily write quite different books called ‘The Development of Ethics’ and make quite different and reasonable decisions about what to include, what to omit, and especially about what to treat more briefly or more fully. If I were to give this book an ampler title, on the pattern of some titles in the 17th and 18th centuries, I might have chosen something like this: The Development of Ethics, Being a Selective Historical and Critical Study of Moral Philosophy in the Socratic Tradition, with Special Attention to Aristotelian Naturalism, Its Formation, Elaboration, Criticism, and Defense.

“. . . . In speaking of moral philosophy [in that extended title], I mean that I have not tried to write a history of moral practices, or of everything that might be included under ethical thought. I have tried both to write about moral philosophy and to engage in moral philosophy through discussion of its history.

. . . .

“According to [the Socratic tradition], the moral philosopher should be responsive to the relevant phenomena, which in this case are the common beliefs and convictions about the evaluation of actions and persons. A reasonable theory will try to explain them, either by giving reasons for believing them to be true, or by explaining why they seem plausible even though they are false. . . .

“This procedure involves revision and reconstruction of the common beliefs that we begin from. . . .

. . . .

“I do not simply intend to describe a collective Socratic inquiry in its historical aspect. I also try to evaluate it, and therefore to take part in it. In this respect, I do not draw a sharp distinction between the method of a historian of moral philosophy and the method of a moral philosopher. It is more difficult to engage in a constructive conversation with an interlocutor whose starting point differs widely from one’s own than to argue with someone with whom one already has a lot in common. But if one can find common ground with interlocutors who begin from widely different presuppositions, one may have grounds for greater confidence in the conclusions reached from this common ground.” (personal example)


The Development in Irwin’s title does not refer to individual child development of moral competence nor to the development of morality in preliterate societies, though both impinge on the philosophic undertaking (e.g., last few paragraphs here and entirety here).

Mindy, it will be some time, but I will try to discuss Irwin’s view of Aristotle’s ethics vis-à-vis the views taken by other contemporary Aristotelian scholars.

Do you mean to say...

Ptgymatic's picture

{Topics: the human good, human nature, justice, friendship, and morality; the methods of moral inquiry; the virtues and their connexions; will, freedom, and responsibility; reason and emotion; relativism, subjectivism, and realism; the theological aspect of morality. And each and every one of those is discussed as to its formation, elaboration, criticism, and defense! Let's see, that makes at least sixty topics--and that's just one part of one of three volumes!} 


 ...we must read all this to understand morality? I'm exhausted just thinking about it! A comprehensive review of comparative philology would be briefer, wouldn't it? I don't suppose we could convince you to give us a digest of this good work, say extending over the next year or two (or three--it's three volumes!)

= Mindy 




Stephen Boydstun's picture




Aristotle on the Human Good, Richard Kraut (Princeton 1989)

Table of Contents

1.  Two Lives: The Philosophical and the Political

2.  Self and Others

3.  Philosophy and Other Goods

4.  The Hierarchy of Ends

5.  Inclusivism

6.  Function, Virtue, and Mean


Happy Lives and the Highest Good, Gabriel Richardson Lear (Princeton 2004)

Table of Contents

1.  Introduction

2.  The Finality Criterion

3.  The Self-Sufficiency of Happiness

4.  Acting for the Sake of an Object of Love

5.  Theoretical and Practical Reason

6.  Moral Virtue and To Kalon

7.  Courage, Temperance, and Greatness of Soul

8.  Two Happy Lives and Their Most Final Ends


Stephen Boydstun's picture




Plato's Ethics, Terence Irwin (OUP 1995)

Table of Contents

1.   Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues

2.   Socrates’ Method

3.   Socrates’ Arguments about the Virtues

4.   Socrates: From Happiness to Virtue

5.   Difficulties for Socrates

6.   The Protagoras

7.   The Argument of the Gorgias

8.   Implications of the Gorgias

9.   Socratic Method and Socratic Ethics: The Meno

10. The Theory of Forms

11. Republic I

12. Republic II: Objections to Justice

13. Republic IV: The Division of the Soul

14. Republic IV: The Virtues

15. Republic IV: Justice and Happiness

16. Republic V–VII

17. Republic VIII–IX on Justice

18. Platonic Love

19. Pleasure, Intelligence, and the Good

20. Reason and Virtue


Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life, Daniel Russell (OUP 2005)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Pleasure and the Good Life

1. Goodness and the Good Life: The Euthydemus

2. Pleasure, Virtue, and Happiness in the Gorgias

3. Pleasure as a Conditional Good in the Phaedo

4. Pleasure and Moral Psychology in Republic IV and IX

5. The Philebus I: Virtue, Value, and “Likeness to God”

6. The Philebus II: Pleasure Transformed

7. Pleasure, Value, and Moral Psychology in the Republic , Laws , and Timaeus

Epilogue: Pleasure and Happiness

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