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From Plato to Present: The Evolution of Ethical Foundations in Civilization

  • 07 Feb 2024

The evolution of ethical foundations in civilization has been a complex and multifaceted journey, shaped by philosophical, religious, cultural, and societal developments. From ancient times to the present, ethical frameworks have undergone significant transformations, reflecting changing perspectives on morality, justice, and human behaviour. Let's explore this evolution through key historical periods:

Ancient Greece

When we hear the word "ancient," we probably think of something old and obsolete. However, we may be shocked to learn that many of the ideas and organisations that originated in ancient Greece continue to exist today. We can owe the ancient Greeks for democracy, libraries, the current alphabet, and even biology. Here are some well-known Greek figures, ranging from philosophers to mathematicians and scientists, and how they influenced the modern world.


  • Socrates was one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. Socrates spent most of his life questioning and seeking the truth. He is renowned for establishing the Socratic Method, which is still utilised by law instructors today. Instead of lecturing students, teachers will pose a series of thought-provoking questions. These questions help students think critically and are intended to extract underlying assumptions and ideas that may impact how a student perceives a case. Socrates engaged his students in the same way. He did not leave any written record of his life or views, thus the majority of what we know about Socrates was recorded by one of his disciples, Plato.


  • Plato, born in 427 BCE., influenced Western philosophy by developing numerous of its areas, including epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. He was also a notable writer. Plato emphasised the concept of an ideal state in "The Republic," where justice is achieved through a harmonious balance of classes. Ethics, for Plato, involved the pursuit of the highest good, or the Form of the Good. Plato is also well-known for having taught Aristotle, another renowned philosopher.


  • Aristotle is still regarded as one of the best theorists in political science, psychology, and ethics. Aristotle was a prolific writer like Plato. He wrote around 200 works during his lifetime, 31 of which are still admired and studied now. Aristotle spent a lot of time reflecting on the meaning of life and how to live a moral existence. Immensely curious, he studied animals and attempted to categorise them, providing the groundwork for modern zoology. Aristotle founded contemporary psychology with his writings on the soul and its qualities. He was also asked to instruct King Philip II of Macedon's son, Alexander, who subsequently became known as Alexander "the Great."

Indian Ethics

The epic of the Mahabharata serves as the cornerstone of Hinduism, containing the concept of dharma, a conception of natural law, and the tasks required to maintain the natural order.

  • Hindus consider Sanātana Dharma, or the 'Eternal Law', to be universally binding. During the Axial Age, asceticism and becoming a hermit became more popular, often as a resistance to the dominant social systems.
  • This reaction resulted in two significant belief systems. Jainism, as formalised by the austere philosopher Mahavira, holds that enlightenment comes through a fully ethical existence that requires a complete renunciation of harming any living being, including the smallest insects and Buddhism which is based upon the teachings, life experiences of its founder Siddhartha Gautam.

Judeo-Christian Ethics

Judeo-Christian morality has had a significant impact on Western society. Many traditions, social and cultural conventions and behaviours, as well as other parts of daily life, reflect these moral concepts. The Christian moral code can have an impact on non-Christians as well.

  • In the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments provided a foundational ethical framework for Judaism and Christianity, emphasising principles such as honesty, fidelity, and respect for life.
  • Both Judaism and Christianity embraced the Golden Rule, promoting the idea of treating others as one would like to be treated.

Islamic Ethics

Islamic ethics include kindness (to people and animals), generosity, forgiveness, honesty, patience, justice, respect for parents and elders, honouring commitments, and controlling one's anger, as well as love for God and those God loves, love for his messenger (Muhammad) and believers.

  • Quranic Principles:
    • The Quran serves as a guide for Muslims, offering ethical principles on justice, compassion, and responsibility. Sharia law provides a comprehensive ethical and legal framework.
  • Social Justice:
    • Islamic ethics emphasise social justice, charity (zakat), and ethical conduct in personal and communal life.

Renaissance and Enlightenment

The Renaissance was a vigorous European cultural, artistic, political and economic "rebirth" after the middle Ages. They are generally referred to as occurring between the 14th and 17th centuries. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between mediaeval and modern civilizations. The Enlightenment was defined by an emphasis on reductionism and the scientific approach, as well as greater scepticism towards religious orthodoxy. The Enlightenment gave rise to the key ideals that modern democracies support, such as civic society, human and civil rights, and separation of powers.


  • During the 14th century, a cultural movement known as humanism gained traction in Italy. Among its many beliefs, humanism supported the idea that man was the centre of his world and that people should value human achievements in education, classical arts, literature, and science. The Renaissance marked a revival of classical learning and humanism, emphasising the intrinsic value and dignity of individuals. Ethical considerations increasingly focused on human rights and freedoms.

Enlightenment Thinkers

  • Philosophers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant contributed to the evolution of ethical thought, emphasising reason, individual rights, and universal moral principles.

20th Century and Beyond

Significant geopolitical events dominated the twentieth century, reshaping the global political and social structures. Decolonization, nationalism, globalisation have all been major themes this century. Democracy spread, and women were granted the right to vote in many countries around the world. Cultural homogenization began with advancements in the development of transportation information and communication technologies.

  • Existentialism: Existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus explored the individual's responsibility in creating meaning and values in a seemingly indifferent universe.
  • Human Rights Movement: Post-World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established a global commitment to individual rights and dignity.
  • Environmental Ethics: The latter part of the 20th century saw the emergence of environmental ethics, addressing humanity's responsibility toward the environment and future generations.

Postmodern Ethics and Pluralism:

Whereas ethical norms are based on the assumption that morality is non-ambivalent and universal, postmodern ethics contends that the condition of morality is fundamentally ambiguous and not universally applicable. Modern moral theories are more concerned with the topic of what should be done in a given situation, and ethicists rarely address the question of living a good life.

  • Postmodernism challenged grand narratives and encouraged an appreciation for diverse ethical perspectives. Cultural relativism gained prominence, acknowledging the plurality of moral values.
  • Feminist thinkers critiqued traditional ethical frameworks and emphasised issues of gender equality, intersectionality, and relational ethics.

Current Trends

The current trends reflect the dynamic nature of ethical discourse in response to contemporary challenges and advancements. Ethical frameworks continue to adapt to the complexities of the modern world, with an increasing emphasis on global interconnectedness, technological advancements, and the pursuit of justice and sustainability. Here are some key contemporary trends in the ongoing evolution of ethical frameworks:

  • Technology and Ethics
    • The 21st century grapples with ethical challenges posed by rapidly advancing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and surveillance.
  • Global Ethics
    • Increasing interconnectedness has given rise to discussions on global ethics, considering the impact of decisions on a planetary scale.
  • Environmental and Climate Ethics
    • With increasing awareness of climate change, ethical discussions focus on sustainable practices, environmental conservation, and responsible resource management.
  • Social Justice and Equity
    • Ethical frameworks are evolving to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, promoting social justice and dismantling systemic inequalities.


The evolution of ethical foundations reflects the ongoing dialogue and adaptation of moral principles to the changing dynamics of societies, cultures, and the human experience. While foundational principles endure, the application and interpretation of ethics continue to evolve in response to contemporary challenges and aspirations.


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