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The Table Video

Keith Ward

Historical Connections Between Metaphysics and Ethics

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward discusses how a metaphysical rejection of teleology and objective purposes in human nature led to a mechanistic empiricist ethic like utilitarianism.


There’ve always been materialists in the world, even long before scientists. And there’ve always been idealists in the world, people who think and know that purpose and value are part of the constituency of the physical universe. And it’s the same in ethics, there’ve been people think ethics, morality is basically founded on human decisions about how you can live together with other people. But you decide that and you set it up.

And people who believe there’s sort of a objective, moral law, whether God or whatever else it might be, that you to ought to adhere to. So, that’s I suppose the difference between objective ethics, there it is, it’s true you ought not to kill babies, whatever you think. And subject of ethics, know people have the sentiment that they want to kill babies and that’s how it grows up. When, Aristotelian approaches to the world. Putting purposes in the world basically, were overthrown by the birth of modern science. That had an effect also in the world of ethics. It took away the notion of objective purpose.

So you could no longer ask what is the purpose of human life? Or what is a good life? As though there some objective standard of a good life. You had to make it up yourself. And then you had the question of well, how could you make it up? Utilitarians were people who thought well the obvious thing is pleasure and pain. You try to do what brings pleasure and avoid what brings pain.

And so that was very much bound up with a chain, with the rise of science really. At the same time, Utilitarians of course, was an Empiricist morality that is, it was very much bound up with thinking, my pleasure, my pain. This is something I feel. Pleasure and pain don’t exist out there, so it’s very much to do with human experiences.

So, Utilitarianism is bound up first, with the rejection of Aristotelian purpose and view of nature and secondly, with the rise of Empiricism, a concentration on human experience and that’s the basis of reality. It’s not bound up with materialism. It’s expanding on that early and persistent, but taken in a non-theistic direction. I mean, I think certainly Utilitarianism is a way of trying to get a mechanical model of ethics.

I mean Bentham even had a calculous to calculate how much pleasure there was in reading poetry, and how much pleasure there was in having a hot bath. And you can’t get more mechanical then that. Yeah, it was a mechanistic sort of philosophy. It’s developed a lot since then, but that was Bentham’s original idea. [slow tranquil music]