The demise of modern morality

The most influential moral philosophies to emerge in modern times are Kant’s deontological ethics and consequentialism. Both moral philosophies have been greatly influential not only in the academy but in society at large. But what are they and how well do they work?


This is probably the most popular way of looking at morality in Western society. But although it has a surface plausibility to it, a consequences-only view of morality quickly leads to absurdities.

Consider the following variant on the trolley problem: a child is tied to the railway tracks. On a branch line is an expensive Ferrari. Should I pull the lever, diverting the train onto the branch line, thus saving the child? No doubt most of us would. But hang on a minute: if we refuse to pull the lever and let the child die, we could sell the Ferrari and save the lives of many children in Africa. So according to consequentialism, that’s what we should do.

Or how about this: at a hospital are three patients. One needs a heart transplant, one a lung transplant and one a liver transplant. All are life and death situations. A healthy young woman comes in for a checkup. Should we kill this woman and save the lives of the three? According to consequentialism, absolutely we should.

Let’s leave aside the contrived thought experiments for a moment, for this is not the only problem with consequentialism. For a decision of any complexity, the consequences will be difficult if not impossible to predict, thus rendering consequentialism useless in practice; arguably this is consequentialism’s biggest problem.

In my view, consequentialism is by far the worst basis for morality of the major options available. Unfortunately, it is the one most influential in wider Western society.

Kant’s Deolontological Ethics

According to Kant, the only intrinsically good thing is a good will. Other things such as money and intelligence can be used for evil and therefore are only good when used with a good will. Consequences are explicitly denied here: if you save someone’s life because you want money or fame, that is not a moral action because of your bad motive. A good will acts only out of moral duty and not out of any other motive.

To act morally is to act freely. If we act according to our animal instincts is to be a slave to those instincts; to act rationally and thus morally is to be free, even though we have a duty to act morally. So paradoxically, being free and having moral duties go together.

Kant’s morality is a law-based morality, but law requires authority. Who or what is the authority? According to Kant, each individual is autonomous and therefore a self-legislator.

But how to make moral decisions? According to the Categorical Imperative: to act only according to maxims by which you could rationally will a universal law.

Example: Promise keeping. Should I break a promise? The maxim I am following is “I should break promises if it benefits me”. But if this became a universal law, no one would be able to trust promises at all. Contracts would be impossible. No one would be able to trust anyone else, and since society needs people to work together, after a time the system would collapse. We would all live in ruins, and carry clubs to fend off bears. Therefore I have a duty to keep my promises.

The demise of modern moral philosophy

Kant’s position does have its strengths, but it has been the target of a number of criticisms. Elizabeth Anscombe called the “self-legislator” idea “absurd on its face” – a legislator without authority makes no sense, and since no law-based system of morality can survive the death of its legislator, Kant’s system crumbles.

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published the essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” which demolished both consequentialism and Kantian ethics. After this Alisdair Macintyre’s “After Virtue” precipitated a revival within academia of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

According to Macintyre, there are only two ways to ground morality. One of these is an Aristotelian conception of “the good”. The other is divine law. Since modern moral thinking has rejected both of these, it floats in midair, being not based on anything else. Therefore thinking about morality has degenerated into a shallow emotionalism; something is wrong if it feels wrong. Moral discourse has thus become shrill and incoherent.