The Moral Poverty of Western Philosophy

By Charles Cottle

In the western world we are children of the Enlightenment, that period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe in which the philosophical and scientific outlook that most of us hold today was established. The view that is prevalent today, certainly in the United States, contains many contradictions and inconsistencies that are difficult, if not impossible, to defend in rational argument. Our contemporary life is rich in things and information, but poor in meaning and purpose. The sources of the latter are often religious beliefs that must be accepted as matters of faith and not on the basis of reason nor demonstrable experience. In my view the result is a culture that is disjointed and without a core of common beliefs. Lacking moral direction, we experience numerous conflicts between and among segments of the population that often translate into political bigotries. In the paragraphs that follow I do not attempt to assert a solution for these problems for the culture as a whole. I think that I know in part, however, how we arrived over the centuries at our present situation. In the essay that follows, I attempt to outline a few of the philosophical issues that dominate our mode of thought.

Facts versus Values

David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher.
David Hume, 1711 – 1776

It was, perhaps, David Hume who most clearly set the stage for the new world view. In the Treatise of Human Nature (completed in 1738 at the age of 28) he clarified the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ In the final section of the work, “On Morals,” he wrote that most philosophers after discussing a long trail of facts, that is what ‘is,’ would slide silently and without announcement into what ‘ought’ to be (Hume, Treatise, Book III, Section 1, p. 469). Hume makes his comments here with no great fanfare, but notes that this observation is of the “last consequence.”

To say that this distinction between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ was of the “last consequence” was a tremendous understatement. The distinction undermined much of moral philosophy up to that point. What Hume did was to call attention to the difference between fact and value. ‘Facts’ are statements about what is the case. For example, the sentence, “Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level,” is a fact. It is true for everyone, no matter who or where they may be. Facts have a universal quality. They are true not only everywhere, but for all time. They are true now, in the past, and in the future. According to the enormously influential philosopher of science, Karl Popper, facts also run the risk of disproof (Popper, p. 66). If I assert as a fact that the moon is made of green cheese, everyone will know that it is not. People have been to the moon several times and it definitely was not made of green cheese, hence, the disproof. On the other hand, if I assert as a fact that God loves all creatures, there is no way to confirm or deny this proposition to everyone’s satisfaction. Thus, such a claim does not run the risk of disproof and cannot be considered a fact.

‘Values’ in contrast to facts, express preferences, likes and dislikes. If I assert that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream, that is a value statement. Others may disagree and rightfully point out that my preferences, or values, are not the same as theirs. It may be a fact that I like vanilla better than chocolate, but that is not a universal preference, nor can it be considered true for all time. Thus preferences express values, not facts. 

It should be noted at this point that philosophical and political arguments over facts and values almost never revolve around trivial matters such as whether the moon is made of green cheese or whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. I have chosen these examples for explanatory reasons only. The great debates of our time involve the shape and direction of society, great moral issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the justification of war, how to eradicate poverty, and many other issues of this type. Thus, Hume’s distinction between fact and value is of the utmost importance in addressing these issues.

Returning to Hume, it was his view that values cannot be logically derived from facts, and this observation overturns much of previous moral philosophy. It is not unfair to say that this observation set the tone for the development of scientific epistemology, or the scientific theory of knowledge, from that point on. Thus, the ‘empiricism’ (the philosophical view that ultimate knowledge derives from experience) elaborated by the philosophers of the western scientific establishment makes a clear distinction between the world of fact and the world of value. Science, it is claimed, deals only with facts and not with values. This point of view carries enormous implications for the philosophical world view of the western world. 

It is important to note that facts inform us about the world, thereby ruling in or ruling out certain courses of action given to us by our values. But the facts themselves do not determine our values. Values, that is what we prefer or do not prefer, are determined by our emotions, our passions, or our instincts. Reason, it is argued, acts like a light regarding the facts of the world. Emotions, however, are not necessarily enlightened at all. Hence, we have the statement that, “Love is blind.” It is well known that actions flowing from love, a strong emotion, often fly in the face of rationality. Another way to put this is that many emotions, but not all, are ‘conative,’ that is, they lead to action. Reason, the faculty of the mind that informs us of facts, is not conative. Reason, alone, does not lead to action. But reason does have an important role in the conduct of human affairs. Thus Hume wrote, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume, Treatise, Book II, Section III, p. 415) . The emotions and passions in human nature are the springs of action, not the facts, nor reason, in and of themselves. Consequently, history is full of atrocities that defy the understanding, but seem acceptable to those who commit them.


Bust of Aristotle
Aristotle 384 – 322 BC

The modern view of causality should also be mentioned before moving on. On causation the pre-Enlightenment view derived largely from the philosophy of Aristotle who argued there are four causes. These are the final, formal, efficient, and material causes. Each of these types of causation was integrated with the others. Causality, for Aristotle, was like a tapestry. Causes and consequences were interwoven with each other. They never stood alone. It is not my purpose here to elaborate in detail the four causes of Aristotle, but only to present a brief definition of each. The final cause is the “end” or “purpose” for which something exists. The formal cause refers to the “shape” or “form” of an object. The formal cause allows us to recognize what the object is. The efficient cause is the “primary” cause of change from the material to the formal cause. It is the sine qua non of change in the object. Without it there is no movement from beginning to end. And, the material cause is simply the material out of which something is made. For example, a table is made of wood. The material cause is important because that out which something is made will determine (or “cause”) the formal and final causes (McKeon, p. 122).

Again, it was David Hume who elaborated the contemporary view of causation that we hold today. He rejected, in large measure, the Aristotelian analysis of causation. Instead, he specified the efficient cause as the source of change in the object under analysis. There is also some validity to the idea that the material cause likewise is important in contemporary analysis. Yet Hume, and those who followed his lead, largely discarded the remaining three causes (formal, final, and material) from the Aristotelian analysis. Moreover, Hume argued that causation was not a product of the external world insomuch as it was a connection or association made in the mind between the succession of events. 

Apart from discarding three causes from the Aristotelian analysis, the contemporary view also  discarded the notion of ‘essence.’ For Aristotle and his followers essence was an underlying reality that tied causation, hence the events of the world, together. Suffice it to say here that the essence of a thing is that quality of the thing which makes it what it is, and not something else. Thus, there is a quality to tables, namely the essence of tables, that makes them what they are and not other types of furniture. From this point of view the essence of an “oak tree” would be contained in the form and material that results from the planting of the acorn that is the efficient cause of the oak tree. The final cause, the “that for the sake of which,” thus reveals the essence of the oak tree. The contemporary western view, however, discards the notion of essence in scientific analysis. Today causality rests almost entirely on the efficient cause. Readers may wish to consult Marjorie Grene’s excellent analysis here on the resulting existentialist view and the view of Aristotle at this point (Grene, pp. 248-251).

Questions of Meaning: Enlightenment Epistemology

A major consequence of adopting the modern perspective developed during and after the Enlightenment  is found in the contemporary view that facts and values are now by their very nature, that is ‘ontologically,’ divorced from each other, whereas in ancient times they were not. Importantly, facts are now considered to be contingent; that is, they might be otherwise than what they are. In biology we accept the world of fact as given to us by Darwinian evolution, or by the accidental configuration of chemicals that emerged on earth after billions of years. A different configuration of facts different from that which we have would make little difference concerning questions of meaning, as the facts themselves mean nothing outside the context of their own configuration. And yet, even these conclusions are self-contradictory insofar as the deterministic methodology of science does not allow for accidents as every fact has a specific cause. Thus, while the world of fact may not be entirely contingent, we pretend through casual ignorance, that it is.

Scholars of all types frequently ask about the meaning of the facts of the world. The obvious answer to this important question is, “There is no meaning to the facts.” How we “feel” about the facts is not at issue. Feelings exist only in the world of values, that is, what ought to be and not what is. And thus, we return to Hume’s distinction between fact and value. As long as we stick with observation and reason as our guide, we must conclude that our very existence has no meaning whatsoever, except to ourselves. This observation needs some clarification.

Portrait of René Descartes
René Descartes, 1596 – 1650

There emerged during the Enlightenment two types of epistemology, that is, two broad theories of knowledge. These were “rationalism” and “empiricism.” Rationalism can be defined as the philosophical doctrine that reason is the ultimate source and guide to knowledge. Empiricism, on the other hand, argues that experience is the ultimate source and guide to knowledge. René Descartes (1596–1650) is generally regarded as the father of rationalist thought. Other rationalists include Jean Jacques Rousseau, Leibnitz, Spinoza, and Kant. In contrast, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume are often cited as the three famous British empiricists, although John Locke is sometimes characterized as a rationalist as well. In addition to these three British philosophers, we might cite Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith as important empirical theorists. 

Insofar as fact and value are separate from each other, the question arises, “From where do values come?” This is an important question because our values, what we perceive to be good and bad, govern our lives and how we think about what we ought to do in moral situations. The rationalists generally concluded that God or reason was the source of values for humanity. Empiricists, on the other hand, argued that human subjectivity was the source of value. David Hume, the most astute of the British empiricists, argued that the passions (emotions) were the source of value for human beings. But the passions belonged to a faculty of the mind divorced in large measure from reason. Hume upset philosophical convention when he wrote in the Treatise (as cited above) that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions . . . .” (Hume, Treatise, Book II, Section III, p. 415) . Thus, for Hume and the empiricists, the source of value is human subjectivity, not the deity, nor reason, as often cited by rationalists.

Of course, religion offers meaning and significance to the lives of believers, but religion is based on faith, not observation and reason. The contemporary scientific perspective leaves little room between itself and religion notwithstanding attempts by theologians to reconcile the two areas of human knowledge. 

Notwithstanding the largely empirical perspective of modern scientific thinking which tends to dominate our daily life, the rationalism of René Descartes has left a strong imprint on western thought as well. It was Descartes who in a move to prove his own existence wrote, “I think therefore I am.” Scholars have suggested that he should have written “I doubt” instead of “I think.” The argument he set forth was that he could doubt everything he thought about the external world and other people, but he could not doubt that it was he doing the doubting (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, pp. 86-92). In any case, this rationalist move demarcated the difference between ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ and in so doing created a series of dualisms regarded today as “Cartesian dualisms.” Among these dualisms are mind and body, subject and object. Though these are the primary dualisms, others may be derived from these.

The basic argument set forth by Descartes is that the mind and body are separate substances. The mind is spiritual and has no spatial characteristics. The body, on the other hand, is a physical substance. The problem that immediately arises is embodied in the relationship between the two, that is: how does the immaterial or spiritual mind control and interact with the physical body? Or do the mind and body interact? Answers to these questions are not simple and responses to them occupy much space in philosophical writing. For those interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend the introductory, but excellent, work by Keith Campbell, Body and Mind. This short volume is available in bookstores and from book sellers on the internet.

Descartes’ formulation of the human experience into the dualism of mind and body also goes hand in hand with several others. Perhaps the best known of these is the ‘subject-object’ dualism. Subjects, as the word suggests, have subjectivity. They have an inner world. They are the originators of action, and for human beings, it is usually asserted that they have free-will. Objects, on the other hand, are the receivers of action. They react and do not originate action on their own.  But human beings somehow claim the status of both subjects and objects. They are part of physical reality along with the rest of creation. Thus, they are subject to the laws of cause and effect just like the rest of physical objects. The problem is obvious. If human beings are subject to the laws of physics, they must give up the notion of free-will. If, on the other hand, they maintain that human beings have free-will, they contradict all the known laws of physics, and physical science is impossible.

One further dualism deserves mention here. That is the ‘individual-society’ dualism. In liberal political philosophy the individual holds a sacred place. The individual is endowed with certain rights, some of them inalienable. But what is the individual? Clearly, each person is considered an individual, but which characteristics of the person belong to the individual. This is a question that has few answers. Instead, the individual in political philosophy is treated as an immaterial quality that belongs to each person. That is, this form of individuality is a characteristic endowed by idealistic philosophy. The social scientist, however, seldom considers individuality in this way. He or she focuses on the individual as the empirical product of society. It is the society that shapes the individual. Social traits become individual traits. At this point the dualism falls apart. Where the society ends and the individual begins is undetermined and subsequent analysis becomes muddled. Apparently, any quality of the person that cannot be explained by social characteristics must belong to the individual. Often these characteristics are pathological, or accidental. 

Materialism, Idealism, and Questions of Value

In general if we divide the study of ‘ontology’ (the study of being) into ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism,’ we have a useful distinction. Materialism can be defined as the doctrine that ultimate reality consists in the material world, whereas idealism argues that ultimate reality is found in the world of ideas, that is, the non-material world. Generally, materialists are empiricists and subscribe largely to a scientific theory of knowledge. Idealists, on the other hand, are more likely to be rationalists. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. For example Bishop Berkeley,  previously noted as one of the three famous British empiricists along with Locke and Hume, was an idealist (Höffding, pp. 420-423). Nonetheless, the materialists understood knowledge to arise from the material world and questions of value to arise out of non-rational aspects, that is the emotional side, of human subjectivity. The rationalists, in contrast, saw knowledge to arise from the world of ideas in which reason was the primary adjudicator, and questions of value to arise either from reason or from divine origin.

Thus, the adoption of the scientific perspective during the Enlightenment moved the question of value from the existing order of things and religion to human subjectivity. Consider for a moment the implications of this shift. If value originates with God or with reason, it is valid for everyone for all time. If on the other hand, value arises from human subjectivity, then value is valid only for the subject or subjects in whom it arises. If my subjectivity differs from yours, then we have a problem, especially if we are dealing with important issues such as those involving life and death. 

During the high middle ages, a prevailing theory for the source of value was the natural law theory set forth by Thomas Aquinas who wrote that law existed at four levels: eternal law which was synonymous with the mind of God, divine law which was law given to human beings through revelation, natural law which was deduced by reason from the divine law, and positive law which was the natural law codified into statute law (Sibley, pp. 235-243). Notice that this formulation of law traced all valid positive law, that is the law of civil society, through various stages to the eternal law, or to the mind of God. The argument here from Aquinas was an idealist argument which relies on reason for its conclusion. 

In contrast to the discussion of natural law by Thomas Aquinas who asserted the validity of natural law for all, natural law theory was desacralized in the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both Hobbes and Locke largely ignored religion in their discussion of natural law. Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan relied upon reason as the determinant of natural law and regarded such law as the “counsels of prudence” (Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 79-88). Likewise, John Locke in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government did pretty much the same as Hobbes, although he extended the reach of natural law to property rights as well(Locke, pp. 307 – 326). In other words, natural law did not flow from the mind of God to human beings. Rather, human beings were viewed as capable of determining the natural law for themselves, given the situation of the times in which they found themselves.

British Empiricism and Continental Rationalism as Tributaries of Philosophical Thought

Charles Taylor

It is important to note that British empiricism and continental rationalism were but tributaries of the philosophical schools of western philosophical thought during the 17th and 18th centuries. Missing from the discussion concerning major philosophical schools of thought are German expressivism and the emergence of romanticism. Perhaps no one has written more eloquently about the scientific world view of the Enlightenment in contrast to other philosophical perspectives than Charles Taylor. The move to place value in the human subject rather than in the order of things or in religious teachings is correlative to what Taylor designates as the “self-defining subject.” Taylor writes:

. . . we can discern the development in these countries of a modern notion of the subject, which I have characterized as self-defining, and correlative to this a vision of things as devoid of intrinsic meaning, of the world as the locus of contingent correlations to be traced by observation, conforming to no a priori pattern. I have spoken above of this vision of the world as ‘disenchanted’ using Weber’s term, or as ‘desacralized’ in speaking of the religious development. Perhaps I can introduce the term of art ‘objectified’ here to cover the denial to the world of inherent meaning, that is, the denial that it is to be seen as embodied meaning. The point of using this term is to mark the fact that for the  modern view categories of meaning and purpose apply exclusively to the thought and actions of subjects, and cannot find a purchase in the world they think about and act on. To think of things in these terms is to project subjective categories, to set aside the categories is thus to ‘objectify.’ This marks a new, modern notion of objectivity correlative to the new subjectivity (Taylor, pp. 9-10).

As part of this intellectual movement to reject the world of classical antiquity it became clear that a new kind of science and scientific inquiry developed. Taylor continues: 

One of the most spectacular results of the new physics was to collapse the Aristotelian distinction between the supra- and sub-lunar to account for moving planets and falling apples in the same formula. Thus this science was mechanistic, atomistic, homogenizing, and of course saw the shape of things as contingent.

But this notion of objectivity could not be confined to external nature. Man is also an object in nature, as well as the subject of knowledge. Hence the new science breeds a type of understanding of man, mechanistic, atomistic, homogenizing and based on contingency. . . . The attempts at such a science of the radical Enlightenment . . . were founded on this notion of objectivity, and the age of the Enlightenment was evolving an anthropology which was an amalgam, not entirely consistent, of two things: the notion of self-defining subjectivity correlative to the new objectivity; and the view of man as part of nature, hence fully under the jurisdiction of this objectivity. These two aspects did not always sit well together. They reinforced each other in support of atomism, an atomistic science of nature matching a political theory whose starting point was the individual in a state of nature. But they seemed to conflict on an issue like that of determinism, for example, where the freedom of man as subject seemed compromised by the strict causal necessity under which he lay as part of nature (Taylor, p. 10).

To review briefly Taylor’s comments above, “mechanistic, atomistic, homogenizing, and . . . the shape of things as contingent,” refers to a world in which everything happens as unthinking mechanism, where the facts of the world are mere atoms that could easily combine with others, where the level of importance of the natural structure is “homogenized,” and all facts might be other than they are with no change in meaning. Such a world is a “dead” world, devoid of meaning and value. 

An examination of Taylor’s remarks on empiricism above indicates that the empirical approach to nature and the scientific perspective that today permeates philosophy and popular views is full of contradictions and questions that cannot be easily resolved. In the end we are left with a number of dualisms, sometimes labeled Cartesian, such as mind/body, subject/object, fact/value, theory/practice, and individual/society. Not all contemporary thinkers accept these dualisms as valid. John Dewey, the great American philosopher of education, rejected them all (Beitzinger, p. 469). Yet volumes have been written about each of them in the attempt to reconcile their apparent contradictions. Here is a short list of issues. 

  • The problem of human beings as both ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ has already been mentioned above. If one is an object, how can one’s actions be considered free in a world of determinism? In this case, either freedom or scientific knowledge of human beings is impossible. 
  • The ‘mind/body’ dualism also contradicts a scientific world view in that it allows an entity, essentially spiritual in nature, to control a physical entity which is material in nature. 
  • Hume’s distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ set into motion numerous volumes written in an attempt to reconcile the two, or to confirm their separation. 
  • The ‘theory/practice’ dualism has confused both instructors and students in methodology classes for ages. 
  • And if the ‘individual/society’ dualism were seriously studied, the disciplines of psychology and sociology might be abolished, or they might be merged into one.

Notwithstanding the contradictions of the modern empirical view, one might argue that it has done wonders for scientific advancement. The current understanding of the natural world now compared to that of the beginning of the 17th century is remarkable. The summary expressed above contains nothing that contradicts progress toward current scientific achievements. Yet for those seeking moral guidance or an understanding of the individual’s place in the social world, the Enlightenment perspective offers little satisfaction unless one is willing to accept the apparent meaninglessness of existence except that determined by each person’s own subjectivity.

Concluding Thoughts

In light of the foregoing, the philosophical and common sense questions remain and no easy solutions are forthcoming. One result is that the multi-cultural variations on everyday morality are similar to cultural variations in standards in taste. For those interested, one might refer here to David Hume’s essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” to examine the causes of such variations (Hume, Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, pp. 249-250). Notwithstanding the advance of science, the world of objects that science studies is a world of dead things. They are things that have no agency within themselves and are the products of determinism. Compared to the expressivism of Herder and others (see Taylor, pp. 17-18), in which the lives of human beings are seen as works of art and capable of expressive activity and creativity, the empiricism of science treats human beings essentially as mechanistic entities.

Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821 – 1881

It can be argued that the desacralization of the world of fact stems from the idea that human subjectivity is understood to be the source of value. What is morally good or bad depends not on religious teachings nor on the edicts of reason, but rather upon the subjectivity of those making the assessment. This perspective is favorable to democratic theory because one person’s subjectivity is often considered to be worth as much as the subjectivity of another. Thus, the opinions of the masses often outweigh the opinions of experts. But in other matters of extreme urgency pushing this logic to its extremes leads to nihilism, or the view that all morality is baseless. And so in one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, decides that the moral dictum against murder is arbitrary and decides to murder the pawn broker for the good of mankind and the elimination of his own debt (Dostoevsky, p. 64). In Raskolnikov’s case, however, human psychology overcomes his own nihilistic logic and his fate is sealed. That is, the rationality of nihilism cannot overcome the movements of the human heart. 


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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. 2021. Crime and Punishment. 2021st ed. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

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Höffding, Harald. 1955. A History of Modern Philosophy, Volume I. First ed. Vol. One. Two vols. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

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Sibley, Mulford Q. 1970. Political Ideas and Ideologies: A History of Political Thought. First ed. New York: Harper and Row.

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