Moral Law Theories of the Stoics, Foot, Rousseau & Nozick Video

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  • 0:00 Moral Laws
  • 0:40 The Stoics
  • 2:11 Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • 3:34 Philippa Foot
  • 4:25 Robert Nozick
  • 5:40 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 four different systems of moral law and discover their histories and how they relate to each other. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Moral Laws

Gravity keeps you from falling off of the planet. The earth revolves around the sun. Tamales taste best after being reheated. There are some rules of existence that are simply true. They are facts of nature: universal, unchanging, definite. Well, some people argue that amongst the inalienable rules of existence are those governing right and wrong. Moral laws are universal codes of ethics, and while few people can agree on exactly what these rules are, most people do agree that they exist.

The Stoics

Let's start looking for those moral laws by taking a trip back to ancient Greece. After all, the Greeks put a lot of time into debating this topic. Perfect, here we are in the school of the Stoics, philosophers dedicated to the moral theory of Stoicism. Stoicism claims that moral virtue is achieved through knowledge and reason. To the Stoics, all knowledge comes from our experiences, from the way we perceive things through our five senses. The ability of humans to translate experience into logic, to rationally gather knowledge, makes us unique and therefore defines our fundamental purpose. We exist to be rational and logical.

This means that humans must exercise control over other emotions and remain at all times calm, composed, and rational. In other words, stoic. Actually, the very term Stoicism comes from the Greek word stoa, which is a series of columns that supports a temple. The first teachers of this philosophy taught in a place with many stoa, hence the name the Stoics, but we can actually think of their moral law in this sense, too. To be rational, to be virtuous and moral, a person needs to be strong and unwavering in his or her resolve. If your morals are built on the columns of logic and ration, they will always be sturdy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Fast-forward a millennium or two, and here we are in the 18th century...and see over there? That's Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important philosophers in Europe at this time. Rousseau's philosophy centers around the guiding principle that humans are inherently good but are corrupted by society. That's his premise. Therefore, humans have a responsibility to foster a moral society that respects their natural goodness.

Even more significant in the works of Rousseau is the idea that governments have a responsibility to maintain moral society. In the 18th century, most people assumed that governments existed because monarchs had a divine right to rule over their subjects. Not according to Rousseau. Instead, he claimed that people give up certain freedoms so that governments will protect other freedoms, an idea called the social contract. This had some major implications. It meant that a government's sole duty was to the people, and that governments were supposed to be moral institutions. If you want a less corrupt society, your government must be moral. The Stoics actually taught something very similar, claiming that the state was responsible for educating the people to create a virtuous, logical society.

Philippa Foot

Let's move forward in time to the 20th century. Ancient Greek philosophers are still considered the founders of much modern thought. One great example is Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, who much like the Stoics, believed in ration and logic as the basis of human moral action. But how do we apply that in the modern world?

That's where people like Philippa Foot come in. Foot was a 20th century British philosopher who modernized Aristotelian ethics of virtue. Foot was one of the founders of virtue ethics, which claim that ethical behavior reflects moral character. Virtue ethicists do not hold that an action like lying or stealing is inherently wrong, it simply indicates a lack of virtue in a person's moral character.

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