Morality Critics

THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY, B. Leiter & M. Rosen, eds., Oxford University Press, 2007

U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 114

68 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2006  

Brian Leiter

University of Chicago


What could be wrong with morality? Popular, including religious, thinking has long proceeded on the assumption that "morality" as a system of norms deserves our allegiance and that "moral conduct" should earn our praise and admiration. Modern philosophy has, on this (as other matters) not been far away from the popular consensus. Hume "discovered," happily, that "by nature" human beings were disposed to have the sentiments and dispositions constitutive of sound morality; Kant sought to vindicate the deontological moral intuitions of the ordinary German peasant; while Sidgwick found that the "unconscious" morality of the English "peasants" was utilitarian, not deontological (and locked in hopeless conflict, alas, with egoistic considerations). Most of moral philosophy of the past one hundred years - from Habermas and the adherents of "discourse ethics" (descendants of the Kantian project), to the proliferating Anglophone Kantians, to the earnest utilitarianisms of J.J.C. Smart, R.B. Brandt, Peter Singer, and others - has proceeded on the assumption that morality and a moral life are worth understanding because they are worth having and leading.

One striking feature of post-Kantian philosophy in Europe has been the emergence of morality critics, philosophers who, contra the popular consensus, dispute the value of morality and the moral life. Their views find a faint echo in the work of some Anglophone moral philosophers (Philippa Foot and Bernard Williams are the main exemplars), but, as we will see, the "Continental" criticisms of morality generally cut far deeper and more radically. Whereas the Anglophone skeptics take issue with, for example, the "demandingness" of utilitarian moral theory, or the purported "overridingness" of moral obligations as Kantians understand them, the Continental critics pitch their concerns less at the level of academic theory than at the level of social, political, and cultural life. These Continental morality critics object that morality in practice is an obstacle to human flourishing itself.

So understood, this attack on morality raises two immediate questions. First, the Continental morality critics are plainly not without ethical views of their own - namely, views, broadly, about the good life for (some or all) human beings - since it is on the basis of these views that they criticize "morality." Therefore, we need to understand the contours of the "morality" to which these critics object - for ease of reference, we will call it "morality in the pejorative sense" (MPS) - since it must be distinguished from the normative considerations that inform their critiques. We will refer to this as the "Scope Problem" about morality criticism. Second, we can usefully divide Continental critics of morality into two camps: those who see morality as a direct threat to human flourishing; and those who see morality as an indirect threat. In the first camp are those thinkers who see the individual's acceptance of morality as such as an obstacle to the individual's flourishing; in different ways, Nietzsche and Freud are these kinds of morality critics. In the second camp are those philosophers who see morality as among the "ideological" instruments that sustain socio-economic relations that are obstacles to individual flourishing. On this second account - most obviously represented by Marx and perhaps some of his descendants associated with the Frankfurt School - it is not allegiance to morality per se that thwarts individual flourishing, but rather the role such allegiance plays in sustaining certain socio-economic relations, the latter of which constitute the immediate obstacle to flourishing. We will call the former "Direct Morality Critics" and the latter "Indirect Morality Critics." (Foucault straddles both approaches, and so we will discuss him in a transitional section.)

Keywords: ethics, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Foucault

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, Morality Critics. THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY, B. Leiter & M. Rosen, eds., Oxford University Press, 2007; U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 114. Available at SSRN:

Brian Leiter (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

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Chicago, IL 60637
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