I might be very wrong in my judgment here, so correct me if I'm wrong, that's just what I'm getting from reading and hearing the every-day talk about philosophy (news, small talks, etc).

It seems as though philosophy nowadays (namely from the 20th, maybe even the 19th century) has been mainly focused on ethics* - we see many popular philosophers from the 20th century that were talking almost exclusively on ethics, and I see it every now and then when newspapers talks about philosophy - they always seem to talk about philosophy as an ethics department, with emphasis on topics such as ethics of AI, vegetarianism and more.

Now, I'm not sure if it's just me or is it actually what's happening, that the majority** of philosophical research is being done in the ethical aspects, or that it's just what the news are getting because people don't usually take interest in other philosophical topics (although it seems that from the wide range of philosophical blogs on the internet nowadays, people are indeed interested in them)?

If I'm being more accurate, the question would be: has ethics became the most important topic in philosophy, in the eyes of the public? And moreover, because the public usually sees the major works that are being published, that would mean that the majority of the works in philosophy nowadays are on ethics, right? (or maybe it always were?)


To not make this a dull "yes or no" question, I'd like to add that I also want to know why if the answer is "yes".

[Note - wasn't sure about the tags, welcome to edit.]

*ethics- meaning ethics in every relation, be that ethics of some scientific subject, or ethics of humanities in general.

**majority- please note that by majority I definitely don't mean most important!

2 Answers 2


Impressionistically I think the public, if it turns to philosophy, turns to ethics. Why might this be so ? I can think of three reasons.

The first is that we are beset with ethical problems, moral dilemmas, hard normative questions; and philosophy is well-equipped through its long history of ethical theorising with the conceptual tools for analysing such issues. When medical experts or earth scientists or population theorists raise moral matters their views are usually reflections, serious and considered but not nuanced, of particular ethical theories - sometimes mixtures of ethical theories. This givesd philosophical ethics an edge.

The second is that what used to be considered philosophical matters have progressively been hived off to other disciplines. The philosophy of language has had to pass a wide range of matters over to theoretical linguistics.

Finally, philosophy as a purely autonomous, self-standing discipline now has shaky credentials. Epistemology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of logic, cannot be done without a first-order acquaintance with quite technical matters outside philosophy. To do the philosophy of mind without a knowledge of neuroscience, evolutionary biology including evolutionary psychology, computer models of the mind is no longer realistic. The result, virtually unavoidable, has been that the relevant areas of philosophy have themselves become technical and not easily accessible to the public.

My own view is that philosophy should now be largely linked to multi-disciplinary work. Philosophers do have skills of argument and conceptual analysis which they can contribute but these skills need a knowledge-base in other disciplines which philosophers, most philosophers, do not have.

However, I think I detect a minor counter-revolution in philosophy's favour but it involves a shift in the meaning of 'philosophy'. On the site I see a number of questions that I wouldn't count as philosophical. Rather, I would classify them as questions about mathematics and quantum mechanics - questions within those disciplines. But I move with the times. It seems that when a puzzle arises that doesn't get explained or explored in the textbooks, probably for perfectly good reasons, the puzzle is seen as philosophical and a question finds its way on to the site.

I welcome this development. The boundaries of philosophy are inherently fuzzy; philosophy readily shades off into other disciplines and other disciplines into it.

  • Do you consider that "the public, if it turns to philosophy, turns to ethics" is a somewhat new perception of philosophy, or was it always the way the public viewed philosophy? Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 14:57
  • I think there was more interest in political philosophy, particularly from Victorian times till the 1940s. Probably the philosophy of religion drew more attention than it does now : when people follow up on the endless question of God's existence, it tends to be to scientists or the dedicatedly religious that they go. Aesthetics or the philosophy of art had its popular followers but if there's a popular mood about art it probably is that it's all just a matter of preference that can't be argued about.. Epistemology and metaphysics, unless simplified, have never been exactly popular.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 15:54
  • Free will remains a matter of some popular interest but that issue is owned now by neuroscience and psychology at least as much as by philosophy.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 15:56
  • I actually recall reading that for example the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence is a good example of the public's interest in philosophical (namely, philosophy of nature) questions in the earlier Modernity days. It seems as though it has changed, probably mainly because of the fact that most of those topics, as you've said, have transformed into scientific questions. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 16:01
  • @Yechiam Weiss. Your comment triggered a thought, now inserted at the end of my answer.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 16:27

Has ethics became the most important topic in philosophy?

Ethics is an important topic in philosophy. Often one divides philosophy into the following branches

  • Metaphysics
  • Epistemology
  • Ethics
  • Political philosophy
  • Aesthetics

IMO, it is open to discussion whether epistemology, political philosophy or ethics is the most important branch in the present time. Epistemology because it is the basis for all kind of intellectual orientation and explanation. Political philosophy because it addresses topics with consequences about the legitimation of different political constitutions. Ethics because it discusses general rules for human conduct and the different ways of justification.

Is there any need to decide the question?

  • The question stands more in the public perception rather than in the academic department. Obviously I don't think there's really "most important" subject in philosophy, but I see that the work that's being done over the last century, or more precisely the work that the public appreciates, is mainly in the realm of ethics. Only those who are really interested in specific topics are interested in other branches. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 8:18
  • Could you please change your title into a question and emphasize also in the text, that your questions asks for the public perception. In its present form, your text contains two questions: 1) speaks about "the majority of philosophical research" 2) speaks about "the most important topic in philosophy".
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 8:44

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