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A Resource Guide for Philosophy Students

Created by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson, MA

This page last modified:  December 5, 2012

© copyright, 1997 - present


School of Athens




*         (1)  Plato;  

*         (2)  Aristotle;  

*         (3)  Classical Hedonism (Aristippus and Epicurus);  

*         (4)  Ethical Egoism, Ethical Altruism, and Psychological Egoism;

*         (5)  David Hume and J.J. Rousseau (Sentiment);

*         (6)  Jeremy Bentham (Act Utilitarianism) and J.S. Mill (Rule Utilitarianism);  

*         (7)  Kant vs. Cultural Relativism;  

*         (8)  Nietzsche and J.P. Sartre (Existentialism)




Albert, Denise, and Peterfreund.  Great Traditions in Ethics, 6th Edition.  (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth, 1980 [1953]).


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; David Ross, Translator.  (London, UK:  Oxford University Press, 1991 [1925]). 


Jonathan Barnes, Editor; The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Two Volumes.  (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1995 [1984]). 


__________, The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle.  (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 1996 [1995]).


Michael C. Brannigan.  Ethics Across Cultures:  An Introductory Text with Readings.  (Boston, MA:  McGraw Hill, 2005).


Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie.  Ethics:  History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, 3rd Edition.  (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2006).

                                Contains:   Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” and Leading Doctrines

                                                      Jeremy Bentham, “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

                                                      John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism


Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy:  Book One.  (New York, NY:  Doubleday, 1985 [1944]). 


__________, A History of Philosophy:  Book Two.  (New York, NY:  Doubleday, 1985 [1944]). 


__________, A History of Philosophy:  Book Three.  (New York, NY:  Doubleday, 1985 [1944]). 


Epictetus.  The Handbook.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 1990 [1983]).


Johann Fichte.  The Vocation of Man.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing Company, 1987 [1800]). 


James Fieser.  Moral Philosophy through the Ages.  (Mountain View CA:  Mayfield Publishing, 2001).


David Hume.  An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals; J. B. Schneewind, Editor.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 1983).


__________, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3rd Edition; P. H. Nidditch, Editor.  (Oxford, UK:  Clarendon Press, 1995 [1902]).


W. T. Jones.  A History of Western Philosophy:  The Classical Mind, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


__________,  A History of Western Philosophy:  The Medieval Mind, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


__________,  A History of Western Philosophy:  Hobbes to Hume, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


__________,  A History of Western Philosophy:  Kant and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


__________,  A History of Western Philosophy:  The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


Immanuel Kant.  Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns, 3rd Edition; James W. Ellington, Translator.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 1993 [1981]).


Walter Kaufmann. Philosophical Classics Volume I:  Thales to Ockham, 2nd Edition.  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1968 [1961]).


E. D. Klemke.  The Meaning of Life, 2nd Edition.  (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2000).


John Locke.  Two Treatises of Government; Peter Laslett, Editor.  (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2004 [1960]).


Lucretius.  The Nature of Things; Frank O. Copley, Translator.  (New York, NY:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1977).


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.  Oration on the Dignity of Man.  (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway,  1992 [1956]).


G. E. Moore.  Principia Ethica.  (Buffalo, NY:  Prometheus Books, 1988). 


__________,  Selected Writings, Thomas Baldwin, Editor.  (London, UK:  Routledge, 1993).


Friedrich Nietzsche.  Beyond Good and Evil:  Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future; Walter Kaufmann, Translator.  (New York, NY:  Vintage Books, 1966).


__________,  On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo; Walter Kaufmann, Editor.  (New York, NY:  Vintage Books, 1989 [1967]).


__________,  The Portable Nietzsche; Walter Kaufmann, Translator.  (New York, NY:  Penguin Books, 1982 [1954]).


__________, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life; Peter Preuss, Translator.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 1986 [1980]).


Olen, Van Camp, and Barry.  Applying Ethics:  A Text with Readings, 8th Edition.  (Belmont, CA:  Thompson-Wadsworth, 2005).


Jessica Pierce.  Morality Play:  Case Studies in Ethics.  (Boston, MA:  McGraw Hill, 2005).


Louis P. Pojman.  Ethical Theory:  Classical and Contemporary Readings.  (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth, 1989).


__________,  How Should We Live?  An Introduction to Ethics.  (Belmont, CA:  Thompson-Wadsworth, 2005).


Plato.  Plato:  The Collected Works, including the Letters; Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Editors.  (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1994 [1961]).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The First and Second Discourses; Roger D. Masters, Translator.  (New York, NY:  St. Martin’s Press, 1964).


__________, Emile or On Education; Allan Bloom, Translator.  (New York, NY:  Basic Books, 1979).


Jean-Paul Sartre.  Existentialism and Human Emotions.  (New York, NY:  Citadel Press, 1990 [1957]).


Robert C. Solomon.  Introducing Philosophy:  A Text with Integrated Readings, 9th Edition.  (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2008).


Anthony Weston.  A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox.  (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2001).


(1)    Plato


Main point to some of Plato's early dialogues

The main theme that runs through the "Euthyphro," "Apology," and "Crito" is that two wrongs do not make a right.

"Euthyphro"  (11a-b)

Main issue:  Is it good because the gods love it, or is it good in and of itself, and that is why it is loved by the gods?

"SOCRATES:  But suppose, dear Euthyphro, that what is pleasing to the gods is what is holy were not two separate things.  In that case if holiness were loved because it was holy, then also what is pleasing to the gods would be loved because it pleased them.  And on the other hand, if what was pleasing to them pleased them because they loved it, then also it would be holy because they loved it.  But you see now that it is just the opposite, because the two are absolutely different from each other, for the one [what is pleasing to the gods] is sort to be loved because it is loved, whereas the other [what is holy] is loved because it is a sort to be loved.  Consequently, Euthyphro, it looks as if you had not given me my answer--- as if when you were asked to tell the nature of the holy, you did not wish to explain the essence of it.  You merely tell of an attribute of it, namely, that it appertains to holiness to be loved by the gods.  What it is, as yet you have not said.  If you please, do not conceal this from me".

"Apology" (37e-38a)

Main point:  The unexamined life is not worth living.

"This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand.  If I say that this would be disobedience to God, and that is why I cannot 'mind my own business,’ you will not believe that I am serious.  If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the subjects about which you hear me talking about and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me,  Nevertheless, gentlemen, as I maintain, though it is not easy to convince you of it."

"Crito" (50b-c)

Main point:  Two wrongs do not make a right.

"Look at it this way.  Suppose that while we were preparing to run away from here-- or however one should describe it-- the laws and constitution of Athens were to confront us and ask us this question.  Now, Socrates, what are you proposing to do?  Can you deny that this act which you are contemplating you intend, so far you have the power, to destroy us, the laws, and the whole state as well?  Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?

How shall we answer, Crito, and others of the same kind?  There is much that could be said, especially by a professional advocate, to protest against the invalidation of this law which enacts that judgments once pronounced shall be binding.  Shall we say, Yes, I do intend to destroy the laws, because the state wronged me by passing faulty judgment at my trial?  Is this to be our answer, or what?"


(2)  Aristotle



Aristotle's Virtue Ethics

Eudaimonia: the activity of a being where happiness (in accordance with virtue) is the end. (Eudaimonia is happiness in ancient Greek). 1177 a 15.

Happiness is only achieved in the rational life (animals and plants cannot be happy).  1098 a 1

Happiness is an activity of the soul.  1100 a 1

"But we must add 'in a complete life'.  For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day, and too one day, or short a time, does not make a man blessed and happy."  1098 a 16

There is a distinction to be made between an activity (such as building a house) and the state (of being a house).  1152 b 10.

“Every art (techne) or applied science (episteme) and systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good; therefore the good has been defined as that which all things aim.” 1094 a [1-4].

“The highest good (...) must be something final. Thus, if there is only one final end, this will be the good we are seeking.” 1097 a [28-29]

Happiness is final (an end) and self-sufficient (an end in itself).  When you have happiness, you do not want anything else.  Pleasure is not an end (but a means) and it is not final or lasting. Pleasure is limited and not enduring.  Pleasure cannot be the highest good, but all pleasures are not bad, such as the pleasure from contemplation.  Hence, given the right person, and the right circumstance, some pleasures can be goods, when chosen by those worthy (with qualification).

"The study of pleasure and pain belongs to the province of the political philosopher; for he is the architect of the end, with a view to which we call one thing bad and another thing good without qualification.  Further, it is one of our necessary tasks to consider them;  for not only did we lay it down that moral virtue and vice are concerned with pains and pleasures, but most people say that happiness involves pleasure;  this is why the blessed man is called by a name derived from a word meaning enjoyment [makarios].

Now (1) some people think that no pleasure is a good, either in itself or incidentally, since the good and pleasure are not the same;  (2)  other think that some pleasures are good but that most are bad.  (3)  Again there is a third view, that even if all pleasures are good, yet the best thing in the world cannot be pleasure.  (1)  The reasons given for the view that pleasure is not a good at all are (a) that every pleasure is a perceptible process to a natural state, and that no process is of the same kind as its end, e.g. no process of building of the same kind as a house.  (b)  A temperate man avoids pleasures.  (c)  A man of practical wisdom pursues what is free from pain, not what is pleasant.  (d)  The pleasures are a hindrance to thought, and the more so the more one delights in them, e.g. sexual pleasure; for no one could think of anything while absorbed in this.  (e)  There is no art of pleasure; but every good is the product of some art.  (f)  Children and the brutes pursue pleasures. (2)  The reasons for the view that not all pleasures are good is that (a)  there are pleasures that are actually base and objects of reproach, and (b)  there are harmful pleasures; for some pleasant things are unhealthy.  (3)  The reason for the view that the best thing in the world is not pleasure is that pleasure is not an end but a process.

These are pretty much the things that are said.  That it does not follow from these grounds that pleasure is not a good, or even the chief good, is plain form the following considerations.  (A)  (a) First, since that which is good may be so in either of two senses (one thing good simply and another good for a particular person), natural constitutions and states of being, and therefore also the corresponding movements and processes, will be correspondingly divisible.  Of those which are thought to be bad some will be bad if taken without qualification but not bad for a particular person, but worthy of his choice, and some will not be worthy of choice even for a particular person, but only at a particular time and for a short period, though not without qualification;  while others are not even pleasures, but seem to be so, viz. all those which involve pain and whose end is curative, e.g. the process that go on in sick persons.

(b)  Further, on kind of good being activity and another being state, the processes that restore us to our natural state, are only incidentally pleasant; for that matter the activity at work in the appetites for them is the activity at work in the appetites for them is the activity of so much of our state and nature as has remained unimpaired; for there are actually pleasures that involve no pain or appetite (e.g. those of contemplation)[...]"  1152 b -1153 a

The 3 kinds of lives:

(1) Enjoyment

(2)  Political

(3)  Contemplative

The life of contemplation is the best and most happy life.

(Also see 1177 a 15 - 1179 a 1 or page 230 in your text).

"To judge from the lives the men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some ground) to identify the good or happiness with pleasure; which is the reason they love the life of (1) enjoyment.  For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life-- that just mentioned, (2) the political, and thirdly the contemplative life.  [...]  A consideration of the prominent types of lives shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of political life.  But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one's own and not easily taken from one.  Further, men seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their merit;  at least it is by men of practical wisdom what they seek to be honored, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue;  clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue is better.  And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honor, the end of political life.  But even this appears somewhat incomplete;  for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; | [...] The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking;  for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.  And so one might rather take the aforenamed objects to be ends, for they are loved for themselves. But it is evident that not even these are ends; yet many arguments have been wasted on the support of them.  Let us leave this subject then."  1095 b 8 -1096 a 13. 

Two kinds of justice defined

Distributive justice:

Person A + thing C to person B + thing D.

The problem of distributive justice is to divide the distributable honor or reward into parts which are to one another as are the merits of the persons who are to participate.  

If A (first person) : B (second person) : : C (first position) : D (second position),

then (by alternando) A : C : : B : D

and therefore (componendo) A + C : B + D : : A : B

In other words the position established answers to the relative merits of the parties.

Aristotle explains:  "As the term A, then, is to B, so will C be to D, and therefore, alternando, as A is to C, B will be to D.  Therefore the whole is in the same ratio to the whole; and this coupling the distribution effects, and, if the terms are so combined, effects justly.  The conjunction, then, of the term A with C and of B with D is what is just in distribution, and this species of the just is intermediate, and the just is proportional.  (Mathematicians call this kind of proportion geometrical; for it is in geometrical proportion that it follows that the whole is to the whole as either part is to the corresponding part.)  1131 b 12-14

Rectificatory justice

In the case of distributive justice the consideration was of man to man or an equal state of affairs, while sometimes there are situations where one is treated unjustly by another and this is a kind of inequality. Judges are used to equalize such inequalities. Aristotle explains:

"This is why, when people dispute, they take refuge in a judge; and to go to the judge is to go to justice; for the nature of the judge is to be a sort of animate justice; and they seek the judge as an intermediate, and in some states they call judges mediators, on the assumption that if they get what is intermediate, they will get what is just.  The just, then, is an intermediate, since the judge is so.  Now the judge restores equality; it is as though there were a line divided into unequal parts, and he took away that by which the greater segment exceeds the half, and added it to the smaller segment.  And when the whole has been equally divided, then they say they have 'their own' -- i.e. when they have got what is equal.  The equal is intermediate between the greater and the lesser line according to the mathematical proportion.  It is for this reason that it is called just (dikaion), because it is a division into two equal parts (dikha), just as if one were to call it dikaion; and the judge (dikastes) is one who bisects (dikhastes).  For when something is subtracted from one of two equals and added to the other, the other is in excess by these two; since if what was taken from the one had not been added to the other, the latter would have been in excess by one only.  | It therefore exceeds the intermediate by one, and the intermediate exceeds by one that from which something was taken.  By this from which has more, and what we must add to that which has less; we must add to the latter that by which the intermediate exceeds it, and subtract for the greatest that by which it exceeds the intermediate.  Let the lines AA', BB', CC' be equal to one another; form the line AA' let the segment AE have been subtracted from the line CC' let the segment CD have been added, so that the whole line DCC' exceeds the line EA' by the segment CD and the segment CF; therefore it exceeds the line BB' by the segment CD.  These names, both loss and gain, have come from voluntary exchange; for to have more than one's own is gaining, and to have less than one's original share is called losing, e.g. in buying and selling and in all other matters in which the law has left people free to make their own terms; but when they get neither more nor less but just what belongs to themselves, they say that they have their own and that they neither lose nor gain.  Therefore the just is intermediate between a sort of gain and a sort of loss, viz, those which are involuntary; it consists in having an equal amount before and after the transaction." 1132 a 25 - 1132 b 14.

                     A       E                 A'


                    B                            B'


            D     C      F                    C'



Justice is reciprocity according to Aristotle

"Some think that reciprocity is without qualification just, as the Pythagoreans said; for they defined justice without qualification as reciprocity.  Now 'reciprocity' fit neither distributive nor rectificatory justice-- yet people who want even the justice of Rhadamanthus to mean this:

Should a man suffer what he did, right justice would be done [an eye for an eye in other words]

-- for in many cases reciprocity and rectificatory justice are not in accord; e.g. (1) if an official has inflicted a wound, he should not be wounded in return, and if someone has wounded an official, he ought not to be wounded only but in punishment in addition.  Further, (2) there is a great difference between a voluntary and an involuntary act.  But in associations for exchange this sort of justice [reciprocity] does hold men together-- reciprocity in accordance with a proportion and not on the basis of precisely equal return.  For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together.  Men seek to return either evil for evil-- and if they cannot do so, they think their position mere slavery-- | or good for good--- and if they cannot do so there is no exchange that they hold together. “1132 b 14 - 1132 b 33.

Aristotle's view of justice is one of 'giving people what they are due,' or a mean between getting more or less than they are due.

In example a fair exchange would be something like the following:

A and B are workers in different trades, and will normally be of different degrees of 'worth'.  Their products, therefore, will also have unequal worth, i.e. (this equation provided by Ross, and is not present in the text of Aristotle)

A = nB, C (what A makes, say, in an hour) will be worth n times as much as D (what B makes in an hour).  

A fair exchange will then take place if A gets nD and B gets 1 C;

 I.e. if A gives what it takes him an hour to make, in exchange for what it takes B n hours to make. 

We are responsible for bad as well as good actions. 1113 b 1.

Claiming that we ought to act justly, implies that we can act justly, or what is commonly called "ought implies can."  1113 b 6.

To be considered just or unjust, one must act on choice (voluntary not involuntary actions).  1136 a 2.

Choice is only possible in rational animals (humans).  1111 b 3.

When one finds pleasure in doing virtuous acts, it is clear one has attained a virtuous disposition.  1104 b 4.

Virtue as the mean between the extremes

"Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us,  |  this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.  Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.  Hence in respect of what it is, i.e. the definition which states its essence, virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.  But not every action nor passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the cases of actions adultery, theft, murder [.]"  1106 b 36 - 1107 a 15.

extreme (pain)


MEAN (virtue or excellence, aręte)


extreme (pleasure)







piggishness/ self-indulgence


liberality (charity)



magnificence (live like an artist)





bad temper

good temper

 being too easy going











shame (quasi-virtue)

rectificatory justice

justice (reciprocal)

distributive justice

The mean is hard to obtain, and grasped by sense perception not reason

"That moral virtue is a mean, then, in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, and the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions has been sufficiently stated.  Hence also it is not easy task to be good.  For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not easy for everyone but for him that knows; so, too, anyone can get angry-- that is easy-- or give or spend money;  but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy;  wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. [...]  But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to be one thing, some to be another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and pain we feel.  We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.  Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially.  We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying [Iliad iii 156-160]; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray.  It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean."  1109 a 25 - 1109 b 15.  


Habit is better seen as custom, or be accustomed, and not a mere automatic response.

"For this reason also the question is asked, whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance.    Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best.  But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes a result of virtue, and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.  It will also on this view be generally shared; for all who are not maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue may win it by a certain kind of study and care.  But if it is better to be happy thus than by chance, it is reasonable that the facts should be so, since everything that depends on the action of nature is by nature as good as it can be, and similarly everything that depends on art or any rational cause, and especially if it depends on the best of all causes.  To entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.  The answer to the question we are asking is plain also from the definition of happiness; for it has been said to be a virtuous activity of the soul, of a certain kind.  Of remaining goods, some must necessarily preexist as conditions of happiness, and others are naturally co-operative and useful as instruments.  And this will be found to agree with what we said at the outset [1096 a 16]; for we stated the end of political science to be the best end, and political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, viz. good and capable of noble acts.  It is natural, then, that we call neither ox nor horse nor any other of the animals happy; for none of them is capable of sharing in such an activity." 1099 b 10 - 1099 b 32

Can a man be called happy while he lives?

"Must on one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we, as Solon says, see the end?  Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, it is also the case that a man is happy when he is dead?  Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say that happiness is an activity? [...]  Now if we must see the end and only then call a man blessed, not as being blessed but as having been so before, surely this is a paradox, that when he is happy the attribute that belongs to him is not to be truly predicated of him because we do not will to call living men happy [.] [...] For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities (these are thought to be more durable even than knowledge of the sciences), and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are blessed spend their life most readily most continuously in these; for this seems to be the reason why we do not forget them.  The attribute in question, then, will belong to the happy man, and he will be happy throughout his life; for always, or by preference to everything else, he will do and contemplate what is excellent, and he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously, if he is 'truly good' and 'foursquare beyond approach'. [...]  If activities are, as we said, what determines the character of life, no blessed man can become miserable; for he will never do the acts that are hateful and mean.  For the man who is truly good and wise, | we think bears all the chances of life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances, as a good general makes the best military use of the army at his command, and a good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the hides that are given him; and so with all other craftsmen.  And is this is the case, the happy man can never become miserable-- though he will not reach blessedness, if he meets with fortunes like those of Priam.  Nor, again, is he many-colored and changeable; for neither will he be moved from his happy state easily or by any ordinary misadventures, but only by many great ones, nor, if he had many great misadventures, will he recover his happiness in a short time, but if at all, only in a long and complete one in which he has attained many splendid successes.  Why then should we not say that he is happy when active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, nor for some chance period, but throughout a complete life? Or must we add 'and who is destined to live thus and die as befits his life'?  Certainly the future is obscure to us, while happiness, we claim, is an end and something in every way final.  If so, we shall call blessed those among living men in whom these conditions are, and are to be fulfilled-- but blessed men." 1100 a 1 - 1101 a 15


Book VIII 2-3, 5, 8

2. "The three kinds of friendship may perhaps be cleared up if we first come to know the object of love.  For not everything seems to be loved but only the lovable, and this is good, pleasant, or useful;  but it would seem to be that by which some good or pleasure is produced that it is useful, so that it is the good and pleasant that are lovable as ends. Do men love, then, the good, or what is good for them? These sometimes clash.  So too with regard to the pleasant. Now it is thought that each loves what is good for himself, and the good is without qualification lovable, and what is good for each man is lovable for him; but each man loves not what is good for him but what seems good.  This however shall make no difference; we shall just have to say that this is "that -which seems lovable". Now there are three grounds on which people love:  of the love of lifeless objects we do not use the word 'friendship', for it is not mutual love, nor is there a wishing of good to the other (for it would surely be ridiculous to wish wine well; if one wishes anything for it, it is that it may keep, so that one may have it oneself); but to a friend we ought to wish what is good for his sake.  But to those who thus wish good we ascribe only goodwill, if the wish is not reciprocated; goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship.  Or must we add 'when it is recognized'? [...]"

3. [...] "There are therefore three kinds of friendship, equal in number to the things that are lovable; for with respect to each there is a mutual and recognizable love, and those who love each other wish well to each other in that respect in which they love one another.  Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.  So too with those who love each other for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.  Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.  And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure.  Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him. " [...]

5. [...] "The truest friendship, then, is that of the good, as we have frequently said; for that which is without qualification good or pleasant seems to be lovable and desirable, and for each person that which is good or pleasant to him; [...] And in loving a friend men love what is good for themselves; for the good man in becoming a friend becomes a good to his friend.  Each, then, both loves what is good  for himself, and makes an equal return in good will and in pleasantness, for friendship is said to be equality, and both of these are found most in the friendship of the good."

8. "Most people seem, owing to ambition, to wish to be loved rather than love; which is why most men love flattery; for the flatterer is a friend in an inferior position, or pretends to be such and to love more than he is loved; and being loved seems akin to being honored, and this is why most people aim at it.  But it seems to be not for its own sake that people choose honor, but incidentally. [...] Now since friendship depends more on loving, and it is those who love their friends that are praised, loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends, so that it is only those in whom this is found in due measure that are lasting friends, and only their friendship endures."

Friendship is reciprocity. 1159 b 25 - 1160 a 30.

When to break off friendships:

"Another question that arises is whether friendships should or should not be broken off when the other party does not remain the same. | Perhaps we may say that there is nothing strange in breaking off a friendship based on utility or pleasantness, when our friends no longer have these attributes.  For it was these attributes that we were the friends; and when these have failed it is reasonable to love no longer.  But one might complain of another if, when he is loved us for our usefulness or pleasantness, and pretended to love us for our character.  For, as we said at the outset [1162 b 23-25], most differences arise between friends when they are not friends in the spirit in which they think they are.  So when a man has deceived himself and has thought he was being loved for his character, when the other person was doing nothing of the kind, he must blame himself; but when he has been deceived by the pretences of the other person, it is just that he should complain with more justice than one does against people who counterfeit the currency, inasmuch as the wrongdoing is concerned with something more valuable.  But if one accepts another man as good, and he turns out badly and is seen to do so, must one still love him?  Surely it is impossible, since not everything can be loved, but only what is good.  [...]  But if one friend remained the same while the other became the better and far outstripped him in virtue should the latter treat the former as a friend?  Surely he cannot.  When the interval is great this becomes most plain, e.g. in the case of childish friendships;  if one remained a child in intellect while the other became a fully developed man, how could they be friends when they neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things?"  1165 a 35 - 1165 b 28

Friendship is based on true self-love. 1166 a 1 and 1168 a 30

Only the good man should be a lover of himself.   1169 a 10

In order to be happy, men need friends.  1169 b 20

But you can have too many friends; one should limit the number of friends.  

"Presumably, then, it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people.  This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of exercise of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people." 1171 a 8- 1171 at 15

The essence of friendship is living together.

"For friendship is a partnership, and as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case of consciousness of his being desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend's being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so that it is natural to aim at this."  1172 a 1

Legislation is needed if the end be obtained (transition to the Politics). 1179 a 35

(3)  Classical Hedonism (Aristippus and Epicurus)


Teleological ethics: (GK: telos = end) the theory that the consequences of a moral action determine the act's worth and correctness. One may have the best of intentions, or follow the highest moral principles, but if the result of an act is harmful, it must be judged as ethically and morally wrong.

Hedonism: (GK: hedone = pleasure) the principle that pleasure is the sole and proper aim of human action. The earliest and most extreme version of ethical hedonism was first advocated by the Cyrenaics, who claimed that the art of living consists in maximizing the enjoyment of each moment through pleasures of the senses and the intellect. Aristippus being the founder of the school was from Cyrene (c. 4th cent. BCE) In contrast, the Epicureans (Epicurus 341- 270 BCE) laid emphasis on the attainment of enduring pleasures and the avoidance of pain, stressing the role of prudence and discipline in securing the supreme good: peace of mind. Both the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans were egoistic hedonists. [Cyrenaics + physical pleasures; Epicureans – against mere physical pleasure but for pleasures of the mind]. Aristippus is to Bentham as Epicurus is to Mill.

Egoistic hedonism: the doctrine that the pursuit of one's own pleasure is the highest good and the criterion of right action. Bentham revived hedonism with his act utilitarianism in the late 18th century. But that is for the chapter on Utilitarianism.

pleasure principle: (What Bentham called the principle of utility) an action is right if and only if the action produces a greater balance of pleasure over pain, or at least as much pleasure as pain, than any other action the agent could have performed. Pleasure is the principle of right action.

Does "is" imply "ought"? Just because one can do an action does it imply that one ought to do that action? Assuming that a factual claim is also a value claim is the difficulty. G.E. Moore (1873-1958) in Principia Ethica (1903) first called this confusion the naturalistic fallacy. You cannot derive an "ought" (value judgment) merely from an "is" (factual judgment).

naturalistic fallacy: The mistake (which is not universally agreed always is a mistake) of deducing conclusions about what ought to be from premises that state only what is the case; or the other way about. Moore was first to name the fallacy, but now everyone refers to a much better and characteristically ironic statement in Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature:

"In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning [...] when of a sudden I am supriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observ'd and explain'd: and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."

(III(i) 1). The insistence that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy is called Hume's Law.

Those who deny that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy are also inclined to construe Hume as not really describing it as such in this passage. Others suppose him to be claiming that all actual utterances already are unambiguously and unconfused-ly divided into either the is category or the ought category. Yet, surely, a large part of Hume's point here, as in the parallel case of Hume's fork, is to insist not that this fundamental distinction always is and has been made (although people needed to be told to notice this fact and to appreciate its significance) but that it always can and should be made, and that the making of it is the first step to further understanding.

The label naturalistic fallacy is appropriate, because they usually center upon some idea of what is natural. For example, a certain kind of conduct is natural to most of us, because that is something to which most of us are naturally inclined, therefore, it must be at least licit if not positively obligatory.

Classical Atomism

The persistent problem that had disturbed the atomists prior to Epicurus was how did the atoms join together to create the things our senses apprehend? Starting with the question, "How do we get our knowledge?" Epicurus concludes that we get our knowledge through sense experience, and consequently this is the only source of truth. Sense experience gives us direct evidence and we are required to accept it as true.

Epicurus thought that although our senses seem to give us false knowledge, that in actuality this is really not the fault of sense experience: the data they transmit is accurate, but it is the mind that has misinterpreted the information supplied to it by the senses. Our senses perceive a material world. Second our senses tell us that there is movement, so there must be empty space for this movement to occur.

Granted that this is the nature of being, that of two mutually exclusive opposites matter and void: how are we to describe matter itself? The direct evidence of our senses shows us an infinite variety of matter, but it also demonstrates that these things are corruptible and will one day cease to be. Therefore, the atomists concluded that atoms were necessary, because the matter of sense experience was corruptible and would have long ago crumbled into nothing. Here the materialist departs from that which is obtainable through sense experience and resorts to theory to solve the difficulty of corruptible things. (Sounds like metaphysical postulation to me.) There must be something which has no end, and these are atoms and void which are eternal and have no beginning and no end. (Or in other words, I'd call it Necessary Being- but the materialist would not think this was the case).

But back to our original question: How do atoms join together to create the things our senses apprehend? The problem was to determine a mechanism by which the first atoms came together to build all things. The problem was to determine how it was possible for the atoms to come close enough together, so that inherent cohesive forces might attract and build stable, although not permanent, compounds. Democritus had taught that the direction of the atom was downward, but if this were the case, the rainfall of atoms would be in parallel paths, and how would the atoms ever meet to make compounds?

Epicurus' solution to this problem is his one great stroke of genius. Epicurus predicted that at times the atom, for no assignable reason, swerves off its downward path, and strikes its neighbor. In doing so, the atoms have started a chain reaction, which will created an atomic whirlwind. The atoms own weight and the impulses of other atoms (after it strikes them) cause a great deal of motion, which produces a mass confusion. It is in this whirlwind, that by chance, compounds are formed by chance encounters of atoms. Epicurus derived the doctrine of free will from this doctrine of the swerve of the atom, saying in effect that the power of the atom to make a deliberate choice of action which was inherent in the atom itself, and this free will accounts for the atoms ability to swerve from its natural downward path.

Lucretius, a Roman poet, did not really deviate far from his Greek masters. But Lucretius does take a greater interest in space, and Epicurus was more interested in ethic than with physical systems. In his The Nature of Things, Lucretius refrains over and over that sensation is the only source of truth. But after the time of Lucretius, mechanism was little heard of during the Middle Ages.

(4)   Ethical Egoism, Ethical Altruism, and Psychological Egoism

Ethical egoism: (GK: ego = I) The view that (a) each person aims to promote his or her own well-being and interests; (b) the summum bonum of life should be to produce the most satisfactions (pleasures, goals, desires, needs) possible for oneself; and (c) one's own success and happiness should be the primary and ultimate worth and from this principle all other values stem. Hobbes referred to ethical egoism as enlightened self-interest.

Ethical altruism: (LT: alter= another, other) (1) the promotion of the good of others. (2) A selfless and benevolent love for human kind and dedication toward achieving the well-being of people and society.

Psychological egoism: (1) the thesis that all individuals do in fact seek their own interests at all times. There is no purely unselfish act. (2) The theory that all human actions are consciously or unconsciously motivated by a desire for one's own well-being and satisfactions; it only appears that one acts for the benefit of others.

Critiques of Ethical Egoism and Psychological Egoism:

(1) Is it true that whenever anyone acts, his or her real motivation is a desire for his or her own pleasure? Come up with one counter example and the argument has been proven false. But the psychological egoist places him or herself beyond empirical proof or disproof. (Psychological egoism)

(2) The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake can be counterproductive. An ethical egoist may not be happy and this is seen as an empirical refute of the position. (Ethical egoism)

(3) Acts may not be performed merely because of the pleasure they produce, but because there is a motivation (other than one's own pleasure) to do the right act. (Critique for both)

(5) David Hume and J.J. Rousseau (Sentiment)


David Hume

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

Part I

"There has been a controversy started of late, much better worth examination, concerning the general foundations of MORALS; whether they be derived from REASON, or from SENTIMENT; whether we attain knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense; whether, like all sound judgment of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species."

Hume is in favor of using immediate impressions, or what is called sentiment, in the determination of proper moral conduct.

I do not agree that Hume is in favor of reason being the slave of the passions.

"The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty; and, by proper representations of the deformity of vice and beauty of virtue, beget correspondent habits, and engage us to avoid the one, and embrace the other.  Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favor of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to view:  Render men totally indifferent to these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.

These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect, they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions."

Oh, but in those other cases where it is not clear, or in which reason and sentiment do not concur (agree), then of course, Hume would want us to go on immediate impressions (sentiment, or feelings).

"It is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole of the species.  For what else can have an influence of this nature?"

Hume urges us to rely upon experience, and to reject every system of ethics that is not founded upon fact and observation.


J. J. Rousseau in his Emile, echoes Hume's sentiment.  "Men speak of the voice of remorse, the secret punishment of hidden crimes, by which such are often brought to light.  Alas!  Who does not know its unwelcome voice?"

Our conscience is what guides us, using empirical fact and observation as its guide.  Rousseau also appeals to sentiment in his political philosophy.  The reason for leaving the state of nature is based on sentiment, and the acceptance of the general will over individual interests is also based on conscience and sentiment (again echoing Hume).


Criticisms of sentiment:

Whose feelings matter?  Whose sentiments count?  When reasonable individuals disagree, then whose sentiment is more important?  Using subjective impressions, feelings, and sentiments as the basis of duty makes it difficult to adjudicate between different feelings.  

How do we know that our conscience is correct?

(6)  Jeremy Bentham (Act Utilitarianism) and J.S. Mill (Rule Utilitarianism)



Utilitarianism: the moral worth of an act is judged according to the goodness or badness of its consequences. This is a form of consequentialism.

Act Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832), an English philosopher, had an ethical theory that he called the principle of utility which states: that an action is right if and only if the action produces a greater balance of pleasure as pain, or at least as much pleasure as pain, for the community*, more than any alternative action the agent could have performed. There are not any natural moral rights; all rights and duties are determined by using the principle of utility. This process is called hedonistic calculus (hedons and delors). This is a form of hedonism, because the ethical principle is pleasure. *The community is the most number of people (the majority). *The community is the most number of people (the majority)

Bentham focus is upon quantity of pleasure, while Mill is interested in the quality of pleasure (happiness).


Rule Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873), an English philosopher, modified Bentham's theory because some, including Mill, found difficulty placing the emphasis of what is the right thing to do upon pleasure. Rule utilitarianism states: that an action is right is and only if the action conforms to that set of moral rules whose adoption would produce a greater balance of happiness, or at least as much happiness as pain, for the community*, than the adoption of any alternative set of rules.  *The community is the most number of people (the majority).



Jeremy Bentham:  On the Legislation of Morals

J.S. Mill:  Utilitarianism

Critiques of Utilitarianism:

(1) It is a wrong assumption to claim that an act is morally right just because it leads to the most people's satisfaction. Slavery illustrates that distributive justice can fail; the maximization of the most people's happiness is not enough. (Rule utilitarianism)

(2) The principle of utility allows you to continue the status quo- even when the status quo is bad. The justice due to each of us is more important than the pleasure of the most people. Act utilitarianism does not take justice into consideration.

(3) Rule utilitarianism does not help the individual to decide between two very good rules regarding the same action. Rule utilitarianism will not show you which rule is always the best choice.

(4) Act utilitarianism can be used to justify the killing of the innocent. If the most people find pleasure in blow torching a baby, this horrific act would be considered morally correct. The consequences of the action must appeal to the most people, but this will not ensure that the most people will find pleasure in what is morally good.

(5) The consequences of acts are not always certain. (Critique for both)

(6) Utilitarianism commits the naturalistic fallacy. Being a naturalistic ethic, finding the basis of action in what individuals naturally desire, it is an obvious target for people who distinguish an ought from an is.

(7)  Kant vs. Cultural Relativism

Kant's categorical imperative as an example of deontological ethics

Deontological ethics: take duty as the basis of morality. The rightness or wrongness of action is determined, at least partly, with reference to formal rules of conduct, rather than the consequences or results of the action.

Kant said that all imperatives are either categorical or hypothetical. Kant never claimed to discover the categorical imperative. It is a working criterion supposedly employed by any rational agent as a guide for making his or her own judgments but without his or her being necessarily able to formulate it or make it explicit. Kant has five different formulations of this moral law in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).

Categorical imperative: is the necessary and absolute moral law believed to be the ultimate rational foundation for all moral conduct. "So act that you can will the maxim (principle) of your action to be a universal law binding upon the will of every other rational person." Categorical imperatives are absolutely binding.

Whatever you claim to be good or right should be good or right for everyone. One must obey the categorical imperative without regard to the consequences of the action. It is one's duty to follow the categorical imperative. Categorical means obligatory.

(1) The first formulation of the categorical imperative in the Grounding is: that one should act only on that maxim that can be at the same time willed to become universal law [of nature].

(2) The second formulation of the categorical imperative in the Grounding is: that one should always act in such a way that humanity either in oneself or in others is always treated as an end itself and never merely as a means. If a person is treated as nothing more than a means, then (s)he is treated as nothing more than a thing without purposes of his or her own rather than a self-determining agent.

Really (1) and (2) are equivalent. According to the formula of universal law, any violation of the formula of the end in itself must be wrong; i.e. when someone is treated as a mere means, his purposes are regarded as not counting; when the maxim of such treatment is universalized, the agent of such treatment must be willing to be so treated in turn. But here is a contradiction, for no one wants his purposes to count for nothing. The two formulations simply imply one another, and therefore must be equivalent.

Hypothetical imperative: command one to do X only if you wanted Y. This conditional statement is not absolutely binding. Hypothetical means 'optional', or contingent.



PERFECT DUTIES (not to harm)

IMPERFECT DUTIES (not to benefit)


Suicide is ALWAYS wrong

Perfect your talents (never be lazy)


Lying is ALWAYS wrong

ALWAYS be benevolent to others

Critiques of Kantian ethics:

(1) Can reason alone be trusted to discover the right and the good? Can moral law be found a priori?

(2) What happens when two moral laws conflict? It would be impossible to know how to act in that situation.

(3) Some rules may have exceptions, but the absolutist would claim that you should always follow the rule no matter what the consequences may be.

(4) Is there moral law? Some believe in a subjective or relative ethic.


Actions are right because of some objectively existing quality in them, which when experienced, makes them desirable. Therefore these values or laws are grounded in a reality outside humanity. These laws are universally binding for all and are eternally true. These laws can be discovered through the use of reason. Because of the emphasis upon following the eternally true laws, objective ethics are deontological in nature. Objectivism is the opposite of relativism, or a subjective ethic.

Examples of objective ethics:

(1) Kant's categorical imperative

(2) The philosophy behind the ethic of the Constitution is objective. Jefferson stated the basis of the objective ethic in his Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." This is not a right to do anything, but only those rights which have been established by our Creator.

We saw that this passage was lifted directly from Locke's Second Treatise of Government, but Locke said "... life, liberty and property."

(3) Plato's theory of Ideal Forms is another example of an objective ethic. The true absolute reality is in the realm of perfect, independently existing, unchanging, timeless, Ideal Forms. The Good can be known through the light of reason. (Republic BK 4).

Subjective ethics: The theory that ethical judgments such as “good” mean "I approve" of certain actions. Moral values are based on feelings, thoughts, and desires which have no objective reference in the world.

Examples: (1) cultural relativism   (2) relativism

(8)  Nietzsche and J.P. Sartre (Existentialism)

Friedrich Nietzsche


* "Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life"

"Consider the herd grazing before you.  These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again and so from their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy or bored.  It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored or in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal.  Man may well ask the animal:  why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only look at me?  The animal does want and answer and say:  because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say-- but then it already forgot the answer and remained silent:  so that man could only wonder.

But he also wondered about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past:  however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him.  It is astonishing:  the moment, here in a wink, gone in a wink, nothing before and nothing after, returns nevertheless as a spectre to disturb the calm of a later moment.[...]  there is a degree of insomnia, of rumination of historical sense which injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people or a culture."

* "Joyful Wisdom"

The herd-instinct

Morals are determined by a valuation in terms of community, society, or state, or in other words, a herd mentality.  "Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual. [...] The slave-morality is essential in the morality of utility.  Here is the seat of origin of the famous antithesis "good" and "evil":  -- power and dangerousness are assumed to reside in the evil, a certain dreadfulness, subtlety, and strength, which do not admit of being despised.  According to slave-morality, therefore, "evil" man arouses fear; according to master-morality it is precisely the "good" man who arouses fear and seeks to arouse it, while the bad man is regarded as the despicable being.  [...] [Philosophers]  determine first the Whither and the Why of mankind, and thereby set aside the previous labor of all the philosophical workers and all subjugators of the past -- they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was, becomes for them thereby a means, an instrument, and a hammer. Their "knowing" is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is -- Will to Power."

We must not submit to the slave (herd) morality, and find our own.  We must be masters of our own reality, and our own values.

 * Beyond Good and Evil

He is not concerned with freedom of the will, but only strong or weak wills (section 21).

* Genealogy of Morals

"What is nihilism today if it is not that? -- We are weary of man. (First essay, section 12).

He wants a transvaluation of values.  Do we fault the bird of prey for being a bird of prey?  

"There is no being behind doing, effecting, becoming, "the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed -- the deed is everything."  (First essay section 13).


John Paul Sartre


"Existentialism is a Humanism" by Sartre (You should also, if you are interested in Sartre, read his play "No Exit" and "The Other" in Being and Nothingness)

We can no longer trust nature, or our sentiments to determine what is morally correct.  Existentialists maintain that existence precedes essence, hence we must make ourselves.  We cannot blame our genes, our environment, our parents, our community, our government, human nature.  Man starts as nothing, and returns to nothing.

"If a man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing.  He will not be anything until latter, and then he will be what he makes of himself.  Thus there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it.  Man simply is.  Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing -- as he wills to be after that leap towards existence.  Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.  That is the first principle of existentialism."

Sartre intends the phrase man makes himself to be understood in both the individual and the collective sense.

The making of man is in the choosing.

Morality is not natural, or sentiment. There is no categorical imperative, or right or wrong.  But this does not mean that our choices are arbitrary.  We value that which we act upon.