The dominant ideas in moral philosophy emerged from the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement during the mid-17th to late 18th century that followed the Renaissance and preceded the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. The scientists and mathematicians of the Renaissance period were heavily influenced by the careful observations of nature perfected by the artists of the time. In the case of da Vinci (1452–1519), there seems to be little distinction between art, science, and engineering, all of which could eventually be wrapped up in the single term technology — meaning the study of technique.
It may be that the realism evident in the cultural movement of the Renaissance inspired an empiricism in science, as best exemplified by Bacon (1561–1626). However, the scientists and mathematicians of the early Enlightenment, such as Descartes (1596–1650) , Newton (1642-1727), and Leibniz (1646–1716), shifted their attention away from art and towards philosophy. They saw science as a structured approach to discovery of the immutable and generalizable laws that govern Nature, as observed in the interactions between energy and physical objects, including the orbit of planets around the sun and the behavior of light. It is this tradition of natural philosophy that gives the modern “Doctor of Philosophy” its title, despite the fact that graduates from modern Ph.D. programs in the physical and natural sciences typically never study the modern discipline of Philosophy at all.
Following the intellectual trajectory established by Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), Newton used the natural laboratory of the solar system as the empirical basis for his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he described the laws of motion that governed the orbit of the planets around the sun and (by extension) the interactions between all other ideal bodies. In the near perfect vacuum of outer space, where objects act upon one another at a distance, Newton could study without the distraction of non-idealities (like friction, or drag) that likely led Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to believe that heavier objects fall faster than light objects.
Thus, Newton established the model of modern scientific investigation adopted during the Industrial Revolution — investigation of idealized particles by a detached scientific observer, testing mathematical descriptions of observable phenomenon — and established physical science (i.e., physics) as increasingly independent from metaphysics. But the Enlightment was also a celebration of the political and intellectual freedom of the individual (“Knowledge is power” – ) as the emphasis shifted from knowledge of God to knowledge of self. Philosophers like Locke (1632-1704, England), Voltaire (1694-1798, France), Smith (1723-1790, Scotland), and Kant (1724-1804, Prussia) departed from the empirical Newtonian topics of study and established philosophy as a separate discipline, even though they were deeply influenced by Newtonian successes. In fact, the Enlightenment was an especially productive period in the establishment of new domains of study. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:
The commitment to careful observation and description of phenomena as the starting point of science, and then the success at explaining and accounting for observed phenomena through the method of induction, naturally leads to the development of new sciences for new domains in the Enlightenment. Many of the human and social sciences have their origins in the eighteenth century, in the context of the Enlightenment (e.g., history, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology, economics, even sociology), though most are only formally established as autonomous disciplines in universities later.
Thus, all the sciences of the Enlightenment were either unconsciously or consciously imitative of physics in the sense that they adopted reductionist approaches to seek generalizable principles. In moral philosophy and the social sciences (including economics), the natural locus of study was the individual as an analogue to the Newtonian particle.
One of the major philosophical crises of the Enlightenment was the nature of free will. From the Stanford Encyclopedia again:
Newton’s success early in the Enlightenment of subsuming the phenomena of nature under universal laws of motion, expressed in simple mathematical formulae, encourages the conception of nature as a very complicated machine, whose parts are material and whose motions and properties are fully accounted for by deterministic causal laws.
Philosophers such as Hume (1711-1776) who sought to “establish the basic laws that govern the elements of the human mind in its operations” (ibid) explicitly adopted Newtonian mechanics as a metaphor for explaining human behavior — a view that proved remarkably persistent.
When real, observable human behavior failed to correspond to the idealized models developed by the philosophers, psychologists, and economists of the resulting Industrial Revolution, more often than not the failure was ascribed to the humans — not the theories. These behavioral failures could be medical, psychological, cognitive, or moral, but the deviation between normative ideas of what behavior should be and descriptive accounts of real behavior were nevertheless consistently attributed to some deviance in the individual exhibiting the behavior.
In this view, a moral individual ascribes to a consistent set of ideal principles, regardless of the behavior others. According to Kant, to do less would be irrational. While there may still be room to argue about which are the correct moral principles, the Enlightenment approach to moral philosophy holds that there must be laws of moral reason that are generalizable, universally applicable, and discoverable from some foundational principles.
Nevertheless, evidence that people do not behave as rationalistic and individualistic atoms — even in an ideal sense — keeps accumulating. This series of videos either discusses or re-creates a series of experiments that are now several decades old.
The first is the Asch Conformity Experiment, which shows that individual reason is subject to distortions resulting from interaction with others in a group setting.
The next video illustrates the Bystander Effect, in which the moral actions of an individual seemingly depend on the expectations of a group, rather than a personal sense of right and wrong.
These three videos document the Milgram Experiment, in which subjects conform to the expectations of authority, despite the misgivings of their own conscience.
Lastly, the most infamous of these experiments may be the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students randomly assigned to the role of “guard” or “prisoner” adopted extreme persona that aligned with their assigned characters.
Both the Prison Experiment and more recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq call into question the usual explanation — what we might call the “Bad Apple Theory“. According to this explanation, just one or a few deviant individuals can spoil the behavior of the entire group.
While there certainly may be immoral behaviors that are stronger in some individuals than in others, Phil Zimbardo (the psychologist who ran the Prison Experiment) offers a different explanation. In his view, it is the system (or the apple “barrel”) that causes the behavior. That is, the exceptional moral character necessary under such extremely difficult conditions is tantamount to heroism.
The problem with traditional ethics education is that it is predicated on the imperfect premise that individuals can, thru reason, somehow be made immune to failures of moral character. In Zimbardo’s view, behavior in social settings results from a negotiation between individuals and the institutions in which they are embedded. As such, it may be that context — the very thing reductionist science seeks to strip away — is the most important determining factor in human behavior after all.