Tag Archives: Morality


Emmeline Wilcox took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘moral’ as a philosophical keyword.

Growing up as a Harry Potter fanatic, I lapped up all the moral messages that littered the books. The importance of empathy, friendship, loyalty, love, and acceptance were set out as qualities that should be fostered. Finding moral lessons in stories is not unfamiliar ground when you’re a child. In fact, as children we are bombarded with moral messages. A children’s TV show, for example, will most likely take you on a journey of moral discovery. Characters make mistakes, and lessons are learned. In this way, the child can reap the moral benefits without the anguish of making mistakes. Teaching moral behaviour in children is essentially teaching a child how to live in our society, and what is expected of them. To my delight, a whole book has been dedicated to child moral development using Harry Potter as a basis. However, this use of the word ‘moral’ in terms of a lesson is just one of the ways we use the word. Exploring other definitions and usages of the word takes us deep into our history.

‘The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry. And I think it’s one of the reasons that some people don’t like the books, but I think that’s it’s a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.’ – J.K. Rowling.

The word ‘moral’ first appeared in the English language around the mid to late 14th century. It is thought that the word was first used by John Gower to translate the Latin title of St. Gregory the Great’s moral exposition on the Book of Job (Moralia, sive Expositio in Job) for use in his poem, The Lovers’ Confession (circa. 1393). The Latin word moralis (the singular of moralia) literally translated from Latin to ‘pertaining to manners’ – with mos meaning manner, custom, or law. The word ‘moral’ was subsequently used in translating many other classical works. The use of moral as an adjective can similarly be traced back to the late 14th century – first appearing in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with the term ‘moral virtue’ (circa. 1387-95). Crucially, the use of the word as both an adjective and a noun emerged around the same time: Gower used the word as a noun, and Chaucer used the word as an adjective.

St. Gregory the Great

“Forthi Gregoire in his Moral / Seith that a man in special” – Gower.


Moral: Human Behaviour

The earliest use of the word as an adjective, merely indicated human behaviour and was unchanged from its Latin meaning. It is this definition that the term ‘moral philosophy’ has sprung from. Moral philosophy and ‘ethics’ are often seen as one in the same and are frequently used interchangeably. Surprisingly, the two words actually share a common evolutionary ancestor: the Latin word moralis was coined by Cicero when translating the ancient Greek word ethikos. Moral philosophy, being concerned with the big question of how we should live our lives, is a topic that has been taken up by many philosophers over the course of history. From Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; Immanuel Kant’s The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; and G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica are just a few examples of philosophers who have explored moral philosophy and ethics. Moral philosophers have traditionally been divided into two categories: moral universalists, and moral relativists. Moral universalists believe that there is a moral code which all humans share, and it can be arrived at through rational thought. Moral relativists (and later moral sceptics) denied that these universal moral laws exist, citing that many different cultures had very different moral codes.

In the mid 20th century, the meaning of ‘moral’ which referred to behaviour, was taken up by scientists and transformed into something that could now be tested and measured. With the advent of behavioural psychology in the 1920s, psychologists began to test morals and explore moral development. Psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg came up with theories of moral development in children. In adults, the famous 1963 Milgram experiment tested the strength of someone’s ‘moral imperative against hurting others’. Milgram’s experiment is certainly a mirror of the time – the study was set up as an attempt to explain how the holocaust could ever have occurred.

“Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”

“Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”

Moral: good behaviour or having good principles 

In the mid 15th century, the word took on a positive definition – meaning virtuous, or good behaviour and beliefs. We can infer a great deal about a society or person when the term moral is used as a justification for views or behaviour. Most starkly, we can begin to deduce someone’s general political views when he or she states that something is ‘moral’. For example, in 2004(?), Tony Benn stated that ‘there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.’ Conversely, and more recently, the exact word, was used by David Cameron to justify an opposing stance. When attempting to justify his position on airstrikes in Syria, Cameron claimed that there was a ‘moral case. Even Katie Hopkins, famed for causing outrage by expressing views which oppose generally accepted morals, still likes to think she has a ‘moral compass’. Hopkins claims that her moral compass is only different as it is ‘not to do with religion […], it’s something to do with Britishness.‘.  When people talk about what they believe is moral, we can begin to make a good stab at where they are on the political spectrum. When Katie Hopkins associates her morals with nationalism, we can infer that she is a nationalist and is therefore right wing. When Tony Benn associates morality with an anti-war agenda, we can reasonably guess that he is sympathetic to the left. George Lakoff wrote the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think – ultimately illustrating how the difference in morals is the fundamental factor when it comes to differing political views.

What is perhaps most illuminating, is that no one wants to come across as someone who is not in possession of morals. If you say ‘you have no morals’ it is an insult – an insult which is often aimed at the youth – apparently all those moral lessons in Harry Potter wear of off by adolescence. A world full of these immoral youths is a very frightening place – so much so, that this fear of immorality has been given its own term: moral panic. This term first appeared in Galaxy Magazine in 1877, when it was stated that the financial crisis of 1873 ‘has been followed by a moral panic.’ However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s onwards that, in the western world, we really have been in a moral panic with the term dramatically increasing during this time. The increase could possibly be attributed to growing crime rates and illegal drug use – with drug use reaching its peak in 1995 when it is was reported that almost half of young people in Britain had tried an illegal drug. This is compared to 1950 when only 5% of young people were reported to have tried illegal drugs. Of course the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, nicknamed the ‘gay plague’ created an enormous amount of moral panic around sexuality and promiscuity.

Moral Panic

The moral panic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic feeds into the definition that surprised me the most during my research on the word ‘moral’. One of the definitions given to me by dictionary.com, was that ‘moral’ meant ‘Virtuous in sexual matters; chaste’. Out of the many definitions, this was the only time that a dictionary had given me a precise example of moral behaviour as its definition. What seems very illuminating was how it was in sexual matters that the dictionary was telling us how to behave. Why is being chaste seen as the pinnacle of being moral? Why had none of the behaviours that J.K. Rowling had taught me not made it to the definition? Is this definition just a hangover from a pre-1960s age? Luckily a quick search for chaste in the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed for me that a definition for chaste was ‘Morally pure, free from guilt, innocent. Obs.’ – with ‘obs.’ actually meaning obsolete (and not ‘obviously’ as I began to believe, thinking that the OED was giving me attitude through text language). The strong association of morality and sex in western culture can be traced back to the beginnings of Christianity. Even before this, chastity was encouraged as a way of increasing paternal certainty and encourage ‘male paternal investment’. Thus, we can infer that the use of the word ‘moral’ to mean ‘chastity’ was almost inevitably going to happen – dating back thousands of years.

“In Western culture, at least since its Christian formation, there has been a perduring tendency to give too much importance to the morality of sex… ‘morality’ is almost reduced to ‘sexual morality’” – Margaret Farley

‘The Moral of the Story…’

The word moral is delightfully versatile. It is used to justify, to insult, and to scaremonger. The way people use the word can reveal a person’s views about politics, or even their views about sex. It is used in Parliament, in scientific reports, and in philosophical treaties. Yet it is simultaneously used in tabloids – with even the likes of Katie Hopkins appearing to give some thought to its meaning.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, (London: Penguin Classics, 350 BC/2004)

Benedict, Leo, ‘How the British Fell Out of Love With Drugs’, The Guardian, 24/02/2011, <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/feb/24/british-drug-use-falling> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Burkart, Gina, A Parents Guide to Harry Potter, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

Cameron, David, quoted in, Andrew Sparrow, ‘Cameron sets out ‘moral case’ for airstrikes against Isis in Syria – Politics live’, The Guardian, 26/11/2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2015/nov/26/cameron-statement-syria-isis-air-strikes-not-a-sign-of-weakness-politics-live> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales, (London: Penguin Classics, 1475/2003)

Gower, John, Confessio Amantis, (Charlston: Nabu Press, c. 1399/2012) 

Hopkins, Katie, quoted in, Hesham Mashhours, ‘‘Do You Have a Moral Compass?’ – BlewsWire Interviews Katie Hopkins’, BlewsWire,  <http://blewswire.com/do-you-have-a-moral-compass-blewswire-interviews-katie-hopkins/> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Kant, Immanuel, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 2nd edn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1785/2012)

Lakoff, George, Moral Politics: How Liberal and Conservatives Think, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Moore, G.E., Principia Ethica, (Kent: Dover Publications, 1903/2004)

Price, Michael E., ‘FromDarwin to Eternity: Why Does Morality Focus So Much On Sex?’, Psychology Today, (2013), <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwin-eternity/201307/why-does-morality-focus-so-much-sex> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Thatcher, Margaret, ‘The Moral Foundations of Society’, Speech delivered at Hillsdale College, 11/1994.

Thompson, Gavin, Hawkins, Oliver, Dar, Aliyah, Taylor, Mark, Olympic Britain: Social and Economic Change Since the 1908 and 1948 London Games, (London: House of Commons Publications, 2012)

Westacott, Emrys, ‘Moral Relativism’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-re/> [Accessed: 27/02/2016]


Sebastian Packham took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post he writes about ‘Nihilism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The dressOn February 27th, 2015, there began a worldwide debate about the colour of a dress. A picture of the dress in question had appeared on social networking sites the previous day, and divided opinion as to whether it was black and blue, or white and gold. ‘Dressgate’, as the phenomenon was dubbed, evoked distinct reactions from demographics across the globe, including among the more extreme, existential crises stemming from the apparent subjective nature of reality that the picture seemed to illustrate. If we cannot know for certain something as simple as the colour of a dress, then what can we really know about anything at all? Let alone abstract concepts such as morality, religion or the purpose of life. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that such philosophical sentiment was born from a viral picture in the same year that the once mythical hoverboard is set to become a reality, rather its roots date back over two millennia, and in the late eighteenth century formed the basis for the philosophical doctrine that would come to be termed nihilism.

From the Latin nihil, meaning nothing or ‘that which does not exist’, nihilism is the belief that all knowledge is baseless, and as such focuses on the rejection of values and constructs, including morality, religion and the inherent value of systems of government. A true nihilist would, according to Alan Pratt of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.’[1] It may come as no surprise then, that nihilism has presented a profound philosophical problem, acting as the source of plentiful debate since its inception, and that the concept is often associated with deep pessimism, used pejoratively and with negative connotations.

The thinking that underpins nihilist philosophy can be traced back to the skeptics of ancient Greece, the subjectivity with which they imbue the idea of knowledge being summed up by Demosthenes, who held that ‘what he wished to believe, that is what each man believes’.[2] Such thinking was labeled as nihilism at the end of the eighteenth century, and the word’s invention is often credited to either Jacob Obereit, F. Jenisch or Friedrich Schlegel.[3] Becoming popularized through the period’s literature, perhaps most significantly the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – one of its protagonists being a staunch nihilist, the ideology began to capture the minds of contemporaries, becoming a significant influence on the work and thought of European philosophers, writers, artists and intellectuals.

Nihilism’s focus on the rejection of the various constructs that were conducive to human culture at the time, was attractive to the European revolutionary movements that advocated rearrangement of social structures and the dismantling of existing forms of government. Such movements found a particularly strong voice in Russia as a response to the heavy handed ruling of Tsar Alexander II.[4] The nihilist ideology of the Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is evident in his article for the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842, in which he wrote ‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life –the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.[5]

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

As Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin is advocating a ‘positive nihilism’, out of which ‘there will arise naturally and spontaneously… a natural, harmonious, just order’.[6] Among supporters of the state, or upholders of the religious authority which the revolutionaries rejected, however, the understanding of nihilism was that it was a philosophy concerned purely with mindless destruction. As such, the state began to actively oppress the activity of nihilist revolutionaries,[7] and nihilism became a blanket term, carrying connotations of subversion and chaos, for anybody involved in underground political or terrorist activity.[8]  Here we can observe two distinct understandings of nihilism developing – nihilism as a radical philosophy with  revolutionary potential, and nihilism as a destructive philosophy geared towards reversing progress. Both perspectives were tackled by Friedrich Nietsche, who in his work Will to Power, described nihilism as ‘a catastrophe…that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong’.[9] Upon such a spread of nihilism, however, he remarked ‘whether [man] becomes a master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…’[10] For Nietsche then, nihilism could pave the way either to chaos or to a new moral order, and it is uncertainty as to which path nihilism leads that keeps the topic so divisive and widely debated.

The same way that Russian nihilism had been a reaction to various social ills in the nineteenth century, expressions of nihilism across Britain throughout the last century can also, arguably, be correlated with periods of significant adversity or discontent. The wave of riots that swept the UK in 2011, which saw moral nihilism enacted through mass looting, arson, violence and clashes with police, are often attributed to a plethora of social ills including racism, classism and a feeling of hopelessness as a result of economic downturn and an ever growing divide between the rich and the poor.[11]

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

Let down by society, it is argued, the rioters turned to rejection of moral authority and instead turned to violence and destruction to establish their position. Similarly, it can be argued that the anti-austerity protests the previous year were triggered by those involved, feeling betrayed, rejecting the authority of government and instead seeking to impose their will through violence –[12], effectively adopting Bakunin’s model of revolutionary nihilism.

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Similar preconditions, along with the very real prospect of nuclear war have been put forward as causes for the wave of nihilism that swept the UK in the form of the punk subculture. The hedonism, crass behavior and drug abuse of those such as John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly of the Sex Pistols[13] acted as a means of rejecting moral authority and implementing a new way of living. Beverly popularized the phrase ‘no future’ (the original title for the single God Save the Queen)[14] during this period, which articulates the nihilistic tendencies of those involved with the subculture.

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

Such theories as to why nihilism has been expressed the way it has across Britain in the last century are not universal however, and with each of the aforementioned movements or incidences there has been a school of thought that places them in the broader context of moral decline. The liberalization of society, such as the prohibition of corporal punishment, it is argued, has restricted the means with which people can be disciplined, leading to a lack of respect for authority. The moral decline argument is often coupled with decline in religious belief, owing largely to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Such an argument perhaps holds most weight with the moral nihilism advocated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, in which he writes ‘do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward…?’[15] Here, Dawkins is rejecting the notion of absolute morality, and in doing so imbues morality with a new sense of meaning: if there are no moral absolutes and a subject is free to act abhorrently, the choice to act in a way they believe to be good means more than simple obedience to absolute authority.

The varying ways that nihilism has been understood and expressed can act as a means through which we can read the past and to understand the collective minds of the cultures that occupied it. An extreme philosophy, nihilism often picks up a pace in extreme times. Whether you believe it is a reaction to, or a precursor of discontent and social ills, its existence nevertheless demonstrates the extremity of emotion felt at the times it is rife. What relevance though, does the concept of nihilism hold in the present day? Can a philosophy centered around rejection really bring anything to human culture? Does nihilism represent a crisis for humanity, or can we use it as a way to remove absolutes and create our own meaning or ways of living? Is the inception and propagation of nihilism indicative of a desire for progress, or does it highlight moral decline in society? As a nihilist, I’d tell you there’s no way we can really know, but what we can be sure of is that a brief discussion of the concept’s history can help to prepare us for the next time an inanimate objects shakes the foundations of our reality.

Further Reading

Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, (New York: Columbia University press, 1995)

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, (New York: Dover, 1970)

Peter C Pozefsky, The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the cultural origins of Russian Radicalism (1860-1868), (New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003)


Books and Articles

Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009).

Databases and E-Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011





[1] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[2] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[3] Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.13.

[4] Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.15.

[5] Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009), p.289.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.163.

[8] www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14483149 [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[12] http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2036392,00.html [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[13] Michael T. Thornhill, ‘Vicious, Sid (1957–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/view/article/40644, [accessed 1/3/2015].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p.259.