This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Does society need ethics? Can we envision a society without ethics? These questions address the very important relationship between ethics and society, and are informed by more fundamental questions such as the following:

  • Is ethics inherent in human beings and therefore embedded within society (which would imply that the laws of nature are universal and eternal, and can be discovered by reason)?
  • Is ethics a human construct and therefore dependent on its creators (and by implication subject to both societal context and constant change)?
  • Is the study of ethics and its role in society important for humans?

The concept of "society" is one of the most pervasive of all, and this Module investigates different definitions of society.  One of the many dictionary definitions of society is that it is "a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests" (Merriam-Webster). Although we sometimes refer to the global society, there are many different societies that are defined in different ways (sometimes controversially) based on geographical, cultural and other boundaries. One of the most popular ways to dissect society conceptually is to make the distinction between three sectors: the public sector (government), private sector (business enterprises) and civil society (non-profit organizations).

Although the concept of ethics can also be questioned, the point of departure in this Module is to acknowledge and recap the main ethical theories without asking the meta-question: Is there such a thing as ethics?

This Module focuses mostly on the Western concepts of society and ethics, but also acknowledges the relevance of non-Western perspectives, such as Eastern, African or Latin American philosophies. Lecturers who wish to explore Eastern philosophy in more detail are referred to an introductory discussion of by James Fieser (2017). As opposed to the more secular approach of Western philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism offer alternative approaches to and explanations for the concept of society. Although it is difficult to generalize, these approaches tend to be more closely associated with religious traditions. Moreover, similarly to early Greek philosophy, they often do not clearly distinguish between personal, social and political elements. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the tradition of Chinese ethical thought as follows:

[It] is centrally concerned with questions about how one ought to live: what goes into a worthwhile life, how to weigh duties toward family versus duties toward strangers, whether human nature is predisposed to be morally good or bad, how one ought to relate to the non-human world, the extent to which one ought to become involved in reforming the larger social and political structures of one's society, and how one ought to conduct oneself when in a position of influence or power. (Wong, 2017)

As is often the case with a Western perspective, Greece is a good place to start a discussion of the concept of society (Frisby and Sayer, 1986). The Greeks did not have a separate word for society, but referred to society in combination with references to community and association ( koinonia). This word was used both within the political as well as a household context and already contains an ethical dimension since a relationship with the concept of justice is implied. Of course, the fact that only those who were not slaves were deemed qualified to discuss these matters also illustrates some interesting ethical dimensions about freedom which were not apparent at the time.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and due mostly to the influence of Christianity, the Greeks' unified concept of society was discontinued. The work of Thomas Aquinas, for example, makes a distinction between what belongs on earth ( civitas terrena) and what belongs with God ( civitas Dei), with concomitant responsibilities to obey secular as well as divine laws (Frisby and Sayer, 1986, p. 16).

All the main ethical theories can be applied to different actions within or dimensions of society. Some of the most popular and well-known normative theories are utilitarianism, where ethical decisions are made based on an assessment of the likely consequences of an action; deontology, where decisions are made based on rights and duties; ethics of care, where morality depends on care for the well-being of others; and virtue ethics, where the focus is not on assessing the action, but rather the individual involved. These theories are discussed in further detail in Module 1 and 9 of the present Module Series.

Within the secular tradition, the idea of a social contract is critical to understanding the concept of society. In essence, a social contract comprises the voluntary agreement of individuals for society to be regulated in a way that would benefit both society and individuals, based on the ethical dimensions of justice and fairness. The social contract has been defined as follows: "people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it" (Ethics Unwrapped, 2018).

A brief summary of the concept of the social contract is provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: it traces the history of the term, starting with the Greek philosophers to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls (D'Agostino, 2017). The table below provides extracts from the Stanford Encyclopedia's discussion of a few of these philosophers.

Thomas Hobbes

The 17 th  Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes is now widely regarded as one of a handful of truly great political philosophers, whose masterwork  Leviathan rivals in significance the political writings of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls. Hobbes is famous for his early and elaborate development of what has come to be known as "social contract theory", the method of justifying political principles or arrangements by appeal to the agreement that would be made among suitably situated rational, free, and equal persons. He is infamous for having used the social contract method to arrive at the astonishing conclusion that we ought to submit to the authority of an absolute-undivided and unlimited-sovereign power. (Lloyd, 2014)

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) is among the most influential political philosophers of the modern period. In the  Two Treatises of Government, he defended the claim that men are by nature free and equal against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch. He argued that people have rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, that have a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society. Locke used the claim that men are naturally free and equal as part of the justification for understanding legitimate political government as the result of a social contract where people in the state of nature conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better ensure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property. Since governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good, governments that fail to do so can be resisted and replaced with new governments. Locke is thus also important for his defense of the right of revolution. (Tuckness, 2016)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains an important figure in the history of philosophy, both because of his contributions to political philosophy and moral psychology and because of his influence on later thinkers. Rousseau's own view of philosophy and philosophers was firmly negative, seeing philosophers as the post-hoc rationalizers of self-interest, as apologists for various forms of tyranny, and as playing a role in the alienation of the modern individual from humanity's natural impulse to compassion. The concern that dominates Rousseau's work is to find a way of preserving human freedom in a world where human beings are increasingly dependent on one another for the satisfaction of their needs. (Bertram, 2017)

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. The fundamental idea of Kant's "critical philosophy" - especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) - is human autonomy. He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. (Rohlf, 2016)

Table 1: Extracts from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls (1921 - 2002) was an American political philosopher whose most famous contribution was his theory of justice as fairness (Wenar, 2017). The work of Rawls is addressed in Exercise 3 of this Module. In the following quote he discusses one of the most critical ethical characteristics of society - the tension between the common interest and the individual's interest:

Society … is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interest. There is an identity of interest since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. (Rawls, 1971, p. 4)

Of course, philosophy does not offer the only entry point for discussions about society. In fact, an entire academic discipline - sociology - focuses on the scientific study of structures, processes and relationships within society. Sociology can be linked to the concepts of integrity and ethics in different ways. Even if the purpose of sociology is defined narrowly as an "objective" study of aspects of society, many of those aspects (e.g. class structure or societal deviance) have strong ethical dimensions. In addition, the less neutral definition of sociology would imply a normative dimension, i.e. that the purpose of sociology is to improve society through scientific study.

One of the most influential figures in the establishment of the sociological tradition is Max Weber (1864 - 1920). Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who wrote extensively about capitalism, and his work has often been juxtaposed with the work of Karl Marx (Kim, 2017). The following view on capitalism comes from his introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given. It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction. (Weber, 2001, pp. xxxi-xxxii)

Weber introduced the distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility in a famous lecture, Politics as a Vocation, which he delivered to radical students in Germany in 1918.  In the lecture, Weber describes two different world views. The ethics of conviction presents the world of good intentions, sometimes exemplified by people acting on the basis of religious beliefs. For example: a Christian does what is right and leaves the outcomes to God. But the ethics of responsibility looks beyond conviction and intention, and takes the consequences of action (or inaction) into account. According to Weber, humans should resist evil with force, otherwise they will be responsible for its getting out of hand. Although Weber's frame of reference was the Christian tradition, it could be argued that the same tension between conviction and responsibility would also apply in other religious traditions.

It is the second approach (ethics of responsibility) that implies ethical responsibilities in terms of how we understand our position in society. Discussions about ethics and society include many specialized applications of ethics: business ethics and corporate responsibility, media ethics and medical ethics, to mention a few. Questions about how to respond to fake news, social inequality, drone warfare, artificial intelligence, political refugees, religious intolerance or climate change all have substantial links to society. This Module does not address any of the applied areas in detail, but focuses on the higher level issue of the relationship between ethics and society, with specific reference to the concepts of justice, fairness and trust. Fukuyama (1996, p. 7) states that "a nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society". Some of these topics will be addressed in more detail in other Modules of the E4J Integrity and Ethics Module Series, for example religious intolerance in Module 5 (Ethics, Diversity and Pluralism) and fake news in Module 10 (Media Ethics).



  • Bertram, Christopher (2017). Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • D'Agostino, Fred and others (2017). Contemporary approaches to the Social Contract. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Ethics Unwrapped - McCombs School of Business (2018). Social contract theory.
  • Fieser, James (2017). Classical Eastern Philosophy. 1 September.
  • Frisby, David and Derek Sayer (1986). Society. Chichester: Ellis Horwood.
  • Fukuyama, Francis (1996). Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press.
  • Kim, Sung Ho (2017). Max Weber. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Lloyd, Sharon A. and Susanne Sreedhar (2014). Hobbes's moral and political philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Rohlf, Michael (2016). Immanuel Kant. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Society. Merriam-Webster.
  • Tuckness, Alex (2016). Locke's political philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Weber, Max (2001). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge Classics.
  • Wenar, Leif (2017). John Rawls. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Wong, David (2017). Chinese ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
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