Aquinas, Hume, Bentham, Kant, Nietzsche, Moore, Singer, Gilligan

Over the centuries, has the general public (and the justice systems), by and large, adopted the theories of leading contemporary ethicists? From following his Coursera class, I know Singer's views when it comes to edge cases (e.g. anencephalitic newborns) are not widely held in the US nor the US legal system. But maybe (or not) sociologists have found the gist of Singer's work widely held. For example, maybe Singer, in effect, has taken current sentiments and tidied them up into a consistent system.

So, over the centuries, have the views held by the general public and legal systems followed the trends in the academic world? What is the correlation, if any, between common beliefs and academic theories?

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    "Academic world" only exists for about a century or two, and the relations between philosophy and law are too vague and complex for statistical "trends" and "correlations". But Marxist "revolutionary ethics" was fairly popular in the early 20th century, for example. Hegel was a mega-star in his day too, especially in Germany. The influence of Locke, Rousseau, etc., on popular liberal movements is also well known.
    – Conifold
    Apr 5, 2018 at 20:03

2 Answers 2


I suggest the direction of influence is the other way round. Philosophical theories formalise and develop ideas that are already in circulation. Remember Hegel's observation that 'the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk' : philosophical theory comes afterwards, reflectively, when a development of ideas or institutions is complete and (he would add) in decline.

Plato's 'Republic', at least its political portion, was as the late Michael Oakeshott once put it, 'animated by the errors of Athenian democracy'. Any citizen could participate in politics and help determine policies and legislation without any knowledge of the relevant matters. Plato saw democracy as the politics of ignorance. If every other human inquiry or activity recognised expert knowledge - in his famous example, you wouldn't let just anyone, regardless of their lack of specialist skills, navigate a ship - why not politics, too ? Why should politics be special in not requiring knowledge of the proper ends and means of political action as a condition of participation. Think of this what you will, but the 'Republic' was rooted in its contemporary context and was a response to it.

Aristotle's 'Politics' is a theorisation of the Greek polis, which was already passing out of independent existence under the impact of Alexander the Great's conquests.

Aquinas' 'Summa' was a response to the recovery of Aristotle's writings and to the ongoing beliefs and practice of the Catholic Church - as well, of course, to movements which he opposed in theology.

Hobbes' 'Leviathan' is clearly a recipe for avoiding the kind of political and social chaos caused by the French Wars of Religion and the English Civil Wars. (They were in his rear-view mirror.)

Hume's 'atomistic' view of the nature of experience as composed of distinct impressions and ideas drew on the model of Newtonian 'corpuscular' physics.

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason asks how knowledge is possible, with the glories of Newtonian physics in the background. His emphasis on the place of reason in ethics is fully in the spirit of the Enlightenment's celebration of reason.

John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty' was a counterblast to the pressure toward conformity which he thought he saw in the England of his day.

Logical Positivism was a response to the huge, brilliant developments in science - relativity and quantum theory - and took the form of scientism, the view that scientific knowledge is the only form of deep and accurate knowledge (of all real knowledge).

I could go on. I am not suggesting, of course, that there was anything crude or mechanical in the way these philosophies emerged from their contexts. They all added independent thought of great subtlety. But their problems and the terms of their solutions were set by their times, at least as they understood them.


I think that academic theories flow from thought leaders to political leaders (i.e. people who wield military or democratic power), and to the public last of all.

Darwinism was present primitively with the work of James Hutton, who died in 1797. Lean manufacturing appeared primitively at Toyota before 1950, and Shigeo Shingo (an early lean manufacturer) was a student of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who died in 1915.

Naziism, too, was present in a primitive form with the operas of Richard Wagner, who died in 1883. Karl Marx died in 1883, and Sigmund Freud died in 1939.

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