On the Foundations and Nature of Morality

By Burns, Robert P. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

On the Foundations and Nature of Morality

Burns, Robert P., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Remarks on so vast a topic as the foundations and nature of morality must be focused by the subject with which the Symposium is concerned--namely, the relationship between law and morality. Insofar as half of "law and morality" is "morality," the Symposium topic necessarily brings the foundations and the nature of morality into play. And insofar as the nature and foundations of morality have been debated against the background of more fundamental philosophical issues, the entire history of ideas is relevant to the Symposium. Present-day lawyers addressing the relationship of law and morality should have some of the humility that knowledge of this intellectual history requires. Discussion of this history should not lead to a relativistically induced silence on these subjects, but can occasion some modesty, care, and certainly, tolerance.

This Essay does not address a discrete contemporary issue or attempt to provide a theory concerning the relationship of law and morality. Instead, it offers some historical observations and important arguments relevant to the contemporary moral debate. Specifically, this Essay includes three sets of observations about morality's foundations, and three shorter remarks about its nature.


There has been a tectonic shift in the dominant philosophical terms over the course of Western intellectual history. This shift, along with important changes in Western social identity, has rendered unavailable to contemporary thinkers many of the premises that have underlain morality for most of Western history. (1) Similarly, the Hebrew-Christian religious tradition--which constantly surrounded, supported, and for many, directly informed moral inquiry--no longer has a hold on important segments of contemporary society.

The contemporary moralist inevitably stands in a historical tradition that defines the types of arguments from which he can draw and the appeals he can make. Awareness of what precedes him should therefore aid the moralist in making the most coherent and convincing case for his understanding of the relationship between law and morality.

A. The Shift in Philosophical Terms

The dominant selection (2) of philosophical terms has changed over the centuries. Philosophers have always sought to determine what the objects of their efforts are, to discover what it is possible and fruitful to know or think. The first of this Essay's six remarks tracks the shift in thought over the centuries about the proper starting point for philosophical and ethical inquiry. This shift has important implications for those attempting to explain morality.

1. The Metaphysical and Teleological Terminology of the Pre-Moderns

Until the late modern age, great philosophers generally chose an ontological or metaphysical selection of terms. For example, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, and G.W. Leibniz all in quite different ways sought to gain knowledge of the nature of things. (3) Within the contexts of their philosophies, these thinkers sought the foundations of morality in the nature of man, his place in the cosmos, and his constitutive relationship with the divine. Acting morally meant realizing man's nature. (4) It made sense for Augustine to urge, "Become who you are," (5) because the nature of any being could be fully understood teleologically. One's true nature was understood as the actualization of a potency that exists in the nature of things.

After the beginning of the Christian era, although the metaphysical understanding continued to reign, it was inevitable that its teleologies would be understood theologically. Man was still defined primarily by reference to the nature of things, but now with specific reference to the nature of the ultimate thing: God. As Dante Alighieri put it, faithful to the Thomistic synthesis that animated his great poem, "The glory of the One who moves all things permeates the universe but glows in one part more and in another less.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

On the Foundations and Nature of Morality


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?