For most of the twentieth century ethics has been relegated to the status of a hanger-on to other pursuits in philosophy. Only in the past three decades has ethics re-emerged as a significant independent subject in the discipline. J.B. Schneewind has taken this development a step further by examining the history of ethics as a distinct branch of philosophy. He argues that modern ethics responded to a separate set of concerns from the surrounding scientific revolution’s epistemological and metaphysical subjects, and while his analysis does not prove this in every case, his treatment certainly shows that ethics does have a vital role in the history of philosophy. The Invention of Autonomy offers the most comprehensive and informative review of moral philosophy in the modern era yet published. But Schneewind supplies more than just the best historical review; he also assesses theories and arguments within the context of the great political, social, religious, and moral debates of their time and shows how those debates brought us to our present conception of moral philosophy. The Invention of Autonomy is a superb example of how to do philosophical history of philosophy.
Three interrelated themes thread their way through the narrative. The first concerns the gradual replacement of an ethic of obedience with the concept of self-governance, culminating in Kant’s idea of the dignity of all autonomous rational agents. The second involves the debate between voluntarists, who hold that God imposed morality on us by an arbitrary act of will, and intellectualists, who hold that morality stems from eternal standards in God’s intellect. The third conveys the debates about human moral psychology, in particular our awareness of morality and our motivations to act, and their relation to metaphysical and epistemological claims.
These themes cut across the four main, roughly chronological groupings into which Schneewind divides his theorists. Here I can only generalize their characteristic tenets and must omit one of the best features of this book: the detailed analysis of the debates and differences even among theorists who are commonly taken to share the same views. The natural law theorists’ most influential voice is Hugo Grotius. Schneewind identifies a “Grotian problematic”—the existence of conflict stemming from self-interest amid our desire to form a society together—which is taken up by other natural lawyers and eventually by Kant [Hobbes’ theory is “Grotianism at the limit” (82)]. Most but not all natural lawyers gave no substantial role to God in ethics because disagreement about religion is one of the causes of conflict in society. Only by finding rules for behavior, backed by self-interested concerns and threats of punishment, could harmony [End Page 627] reign. The chief shortcoming of natural law theory was its inability to explain the ground of moral duty which concerned only the self.
The perfectionists—primarily rationalists—put more emphasis on conforming our-selves to what we know of our place in God’s plans for the universe. The complete human being will not only treat others in decent ways but also adopt a virtuous character which seeks the good. Our motivation to take our proper place in the universe stems not from fear of punishment but from a desire to realize our own happiness and from obligation to the God who created us. Perfectionism’s faults lie with its strong ties to religious belief.
The third set of philosophers includes mostly the eighteenth-century empiricists. They went further than the natural lawyers in seeking to divorce morality from dependence upon God by grounding it in human nature. A moral sense or sentiment generates moral normativity and indirectly motivates behavior. This dependence on human nature opens these theorists to the charge of voluntarism or worse, since there appears to be no truly objective foundation for morality.
Finally come the theorists who develop autonomy, culminating in Kant. Some writers of the German and French Enlightenment, particularly Rousseau, sought to show that morality is not an intrinsic part of the universal order as perfectionists claimed, nor beyond...