Historical Approaches to Understanding Morality Video

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  • 0:02 Morality
  • 0:46 Foundations of Western…
  • 1:48 Cynicism
  • 2:41 Cyrenaics
  • 3:40 Peripatetic School
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore three of the foundational schools of Western philosophy and discover how they each define morality. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


In the modern world, there are dozens of competing systems of morality, principles of right and wrong. Actions that are right or are inherently good are moral. Those that are wrong or bad are immoral. It's pretty important to distinguish between these two. So, why do we have so many moral systems? Was it always like this? Frankly, yes. Humanity has never completely agreed on what is right and wrong, but like archaeologists digging up ancient civilizations, a look back at some of the foundations of our current theories can help us understand a little bit more about our own systems of morality.

Foundations of Western Morality

As great as it would be to look at the history of all moral systems in the world, that would take a lot more time than we have, so we're just going to focus on the origins of our current moral beliefs. So, if we want to examine some of the ancient sources of Western morality - by which I mean the moral systems of European ancestry - where do we begin? There are three main contenders. First is the Judeo-Christian religion. A great amount of modern Western thought is based in the moral codes of the Jewish law and the Christian Gospels. The second contender is ancient Rome, the powerhouse of the ancient world that established many of our modern ideas about government, society and morality. But the main contender to the claim of founding Western morality is ancient Greece, and this is where we'll be mostly focusing. The Greeks established philosophy as we think of it today, so this is a good place to begin our search.


The first of the major Greek schools of philosophy we've got is cynicism, which taught that the purpose of life is to live virtuously with nature. So, what does this mean? There are a few important ideas here. First, that virtue, or moral excellence, can be taught. It's not something you're born with, it's something you must practice and learn. Second, achieving virtue leads to a life of true happiness. Third, virtue and happiness are found by rejecting the superficial desires of humanity and focusing on the laws of nature. You need to eat. You don't need money, wealth and power. These human concerns are not virtuous because they don't comply with natural laws, so a virtuous life is one of poverty and simple joys.

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