This page features a selection of the best quotes on ethics. All of these quotes are real and references are given after each quote.
Here are the best quotes on ethics in no particular order:
No man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man is compelled to chose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he may have the less.
– Socrates as quoted in Plato, Protagoras, 358C, trans. W.R.M. Lamb
Virtue … is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b36
It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired. … Hence it is evident that naught can lull man’s will, save the universal good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone. … Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness.
– St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 2, 8
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
– David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 3, pt. 1, sect. 1
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
– David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 3, pt. 1, sect. 1
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgement, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good.
– Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, sect. 1
There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
– Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, sect. 2
So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.
– Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, sect 2
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.
– Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
I recognize, as the all-comprehensive, and only right and proper end of Government, the greatest happiness of the members of the community in question; the greatest happiness – of them all, without exception, in so far as possible: the greatest happiness of the greater number of them.
– Jeremy Bentham, Parliamentary Candidate’s Proposed Declaration of Principles
All the authors whose works I have consulted, with a few exceptions, write as if there must be a distinct motive for every action, and that this must be associated with some pleasure or displeasure. But man seems often to act impulsively, that is from instinct or long habit, without any consciousness of pleasure, in the same manner as does probably a bee or ant, when it blindly follows its instincts. Under circumstances of extreme peril, as during a fire, when a man endeavours to save a fellow-creature without a moment’s hesitation, he can hardly feel pleasure; and still less has he time to reflect on the dissatisfaction which he might subsequently experience if he did not make the attempt. Should he afterwards reflect over his own conduct, he would feel that there lies within him an impulsive power widely different from a search after pleasure or happiness; and this seems to be the deeply planted social instinct.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, pt. 1, ch. 4
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of [morally] well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, pt. 1, ch. 5
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
– John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 2
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. … No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.
– John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 4
The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may so say) of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other.
– Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics
What ever has value in the present world, has not it in itself, by its nature, nature is always worthless: but a value was once given to it, bestowed upon it and it was we who gave and bestowed!
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, sect. 301
What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, sect. 2
There is MASTER-MORALITY and SLAVE-MORALITY. … In the first case, when it is the rulers who determine the conception “good,” … the antithesis “good” and “bad” means practically the same as “noble” and “despicable” … The noble type of man regards HIMSELF as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: “What is injurious to me is injurious in itself,”. He knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is a CREATOR OF VALUES. … The slave has an unfavourable eye for the virtues of the powerful; he has a skepticism and distrust, a REFINEMENT of distrust of everything “good” that is there honoured—he would fain persuade himself that the very happiness there is not genuine. On the other hand, THOSE qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers are brought into prominence and flooded with light; it is here that sympathy, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility, and friendliness attain to honour; for here these are the most useful qualities, and almost the only means of supporting the burden of existence. Slave-morality is essentially the morality of utility.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, pt. 9, sect. 260
If I am asked ‘what is good? my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked ‘How is good to be defined?’ my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is all I have to say about it.
– G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, ch. 1, sect. 6
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. … Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?
– Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, ch. 3, The Experience Machine
Are things valuable because desired, or desired because valuable? … Desire is not blind. Understanding is not bloodless. Neither is the slave of the other. There is no priority.
– James Griffen, Well-Being
When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look “well-dressed” we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give the money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving. It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” – an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.
– Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence, and Morality
Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. … I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
– Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, ch. 15
If you want to learn more about ethics, check out the following pages:
The Daily Idea aims to make learning about philosophy as easy as possible by bringing together the best philosophy resources from across the internet.
- Find the best philosophy books on a wide variety of topics with this collection of over 120 philosophy reading lists.
- Find free online philosophy articles, podcasts, and videos with this organised collection of 400+ free philosophy resources.
A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.