Philosophy: Ethics, Social and Political

Ethics is the branch of philosophy which deals with values and the good, right and wrong action, obligations and rights, justice and ideal social and political arrangements. Social and political philosophy are often grouped under the discipline of ethics.

English Canada

In English Canadian philosophy since 1950 a strong point has been the study of values, including ethics (what, if anything, makes an action right or wrong?), social and political philosophy (what principles should be used to assess social groups and political institutions?), and philosophy of law (what standards are inherent in law, and what is their relation to moral rules?). Some of this work arises from reflection on important figures in the history of ethics, especially on the work of Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Marx. Such work has often led to original insights into major normative issues. Nevertheless, most work in this period has been more problem centered than historical. The predominant approach has been in the English "analytical" tradition, rather than in the manner of current European philosophy. The main work here can be conveniently divided into 3 areas: metaethics, theoretical ethics and politics, and applied philosophy.

French Canada

During the 1950s the subject of ethics in Québec continued to be rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition and in Roman Catholic teaching. The end of the decade marked a new era. Pluralism entered the scene as the scholastic and systematic tradition declined, and the new generation of philosophers pursued the history of thought and comparisons between various schools of philosophy and value systems.


Metaethics, the most abstract of these, received the greatest attention through the 1960s. The primary concern was with the meaning and meaningfulness of moral claims; eg, as explored in Francis Sparshott's Enquiry into Goodness and Related Concepts (1958). A further issue has been the relation between self-interest and morality, with some, such as Gauthier in Morals by Agreement (1986), arguing that self-interest grounds morality, but most, like Kai Nielsen, rejecting this claim and the view of morality implicit in it.

A major focus has been what David Braybrooke labels "the ethopolitical intersection," where the philosophy of history and the social sciences intersects social and political philosophy. Outstanding work has been done by Braybrooke, Donald Brown, Charles TAYLOR, Jonathan Bennett and Gerald Cohen in differentiating scientific and normative accounts of human behaviour; for the normative approach they have developed criteria for rational and moral action. Debate continues in metaethics on the most fundamental questions, in particular over the extent to which definitive standards can be provided to resolve moral, political and legal disputes (for example, E.J. Bond's Reason and Value, 1983).

Theory Construction

At the second level, theory construction, Canadian philosophers have been active. Much of their theorizing has been piecemeal, concentrating on testing rival theories on central aspects of the moral life, eg, interpersonal relations, emotions, punishment, rights, and legal and moral obligations. There have also been larger-scale efforts defending the main theories in contention: utilitarianism, individual rights and Marxism. These theories supply different answers to the question of whether the demands of justice are essentially negative (leave others alone) or are also positive (those in easy circumstances must help those in need). Since the mid-1970s there has been increasing polarization in political philosophy towards Marxist collectivism (eg, Kai Nielsen's Equality and Liberty, 1985) or libertarian individualism (eg, David Gauthier's Morals By Agreement, 1985); defenders of the status quo have been less vocal, perhaps having turned their attention to the third area.

Applied Philosophy

Up to the mid-1970s, most philosophers were concerned with metaethics and theory construction. They wrote principally for other philosophers and had little contact with academics in other disciplines or with the general public. But now most philosophy departments offer courses in biomedical ethics, business and professional ethics, and moral, political and legal problems. There has been increasing contact with nonphilosophers working in related areas in jointly taught courses, interdisciplinary meetings, and the establishment of institutes (such as the Westminster Institute for Ethics and Human Values in London, Ont) and societies (such as the Canadian Section for Philosophy of Law) to study leading moral issues.

Philosophers increasingly have brought their theoretical insights to bear on practical problems such as native rights, discrimination against women, moral education, nuclear energy and war. A fine example is Wayne Sumner's utilitarian Abortion and Moral Theory (1981). Philosophers have also been turning their attention to specifically Canadian problems, as evidenced in the 1979 discussions of CONFEDERATION and SOVEREIGNTY-ASSOCIATION.

The 1982 Constitution with its CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS has also received philosophical attention, both from legally minded philosophers and philosophically minded lawyers. Such attention to Canadian problems may come to differentiate Canadian work in political and legal philosophy from work done elsewhere, eg, recent debate about the nature and importance of collective or group rights, including linguistic, religious, aboriginal, etc. Two recent anthologies in theoretical and applied ethics are Stanley French's Philosophers Look at Canadian Confederation (1979) and Wesley Cragg's Contemporary Moral Issues (2nd ed, 1987).

Awareness of Canadian Philosophy

Although the emphasis on applying philosophy has grown in recent years, always implicit in specific applications are normative theories and metaethical positions. Philosophers are adept at making these implicit views explicit and providing searching criticisms of them. But this means that philosophers are inevitably led back to fundamental questions about the status and justification of moral, political, social and legal rules. Finally, while Canadian philosophers will likely make increasingly important contributions to public discussions of moral issues, it has to be said that they have not thus far become well known outside university philosophy departments. Two leading exceptions here are Charles TAYLOR and George GRANT. Both have raised issues of technological change, and both have been quite critical of the moral presuppositions of modern industrial society. Taylor has drawn his inspiration from 18th- and 19th-century European philosophers, especially Hegel. Grant has found his roots in ancient philosophy and in Christian thought. Both, but Grant in particular, have attracted significant followings beyond professional philosophical circles.


A Break with Tradition

Since the 1960s, trends in philosophy have changed immensely in Québec, as has the whole approach to philosophy. Philosophy in the 1960s echoed the QUIET REVOLUTION : Marxist and existentialist values became vehicles for changes in the content of, and general approach to, philosophical research and teaching. Some sociopolitical philosophers probed the structures and values of Québec society and conducted research on cultural issues, power structures and ideologies. Important works in this area included Fernand Dumont's Le Pouvoir dans la société canadienne-française (1966); Le Lieu de l'homme (1968); and La Vigile du Québec, octobre 1970: l'impasse? (1974). During this period an ideology research group, led by Claude Savary, was founded.

In the 1970s, publications on social and political philosophy increased in number and became more diversified. Personal essays and popular publications included the works of thinkers involved in social and political issues in Québec, such as Jacques Grand'Maison's Une société en quête d'éthique (1977), Un nouveau contrat social (1980) and the essay by Michel Morin and Claude Bertrand, Le Territoire imaginaire de la culture (1979). The more academic essays deal mainly with forms of political power; they include the works of Joseph Pestieau and, in La Confédération canadienne (1979), the reflections of a group of philosophers. Maurice Lagueux's Le Marxisme des années soixante (1982) won the Governor General's Award for nonfiction.

Québec Political Questions and Philosophy

Social and political philosophy in Québec has been fundamentally concerned with local political questions and ideas since the QUIET REVOLUTION, but has also explored more universal questions of fundamental human rights, social justice, rights of equality, cultural values, minority rights, and so on.

During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, several conferences and numerous publications have dealt with the Québec question and the possible reform of Canadian federalism. The writings of Ferdinand Dumond are particularly noteworthy-La vigile du Québec (1971), Genèse de la société québécois (1993) and Raisons communes (1995). Also significant in the field are such collective works as Le Québec et la restructuration du Canada (1991), compiled under the direction of Guy Laforest, Louis Balthazar and Vincent Lemieux; Libéralismes et nationalismes (1995), compiled under the direction of Guy Laforest, François Blais and Diane Lamoureux; and Une nation peut-elle se donner la constitution de son choix? (1995), under the direction of Michel Seymour. Collective publications on related topics were issued by philosophical journals like Carrefour, Lekton and Philosophiques.

A number of publications considered to be at the frontier of political philosophy and political thought include Charles Taylor's Reconciling the Solitudes (1992) and Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition" (1994), and Gerard Bergeron's Syndrome québécois et mal canadien (1991). Important research in the field is being done at UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL, UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA, UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À MONTRÉAL (UQAM) and UNIVERSITÉ DE MONTRÉAL.

Fundamental Issues

More universal questions of social and political philosophy are also being addressed. Among the more important topics being debated are those related to neo-liberalism and fundamental rights, social justice, equality, studies of classical authors and periods of history, Marxism, and so on. Although Marxism is not actually perceived as being of central interest to philosophers, the works of Maurice Lagueux, Le marxisme des années soixante (1982), Jean Guy Meunier, Genèse du matérialisme dans les écrits de jeunesse de Karl Marx (1981) and Serge Cantin, La philosophe et le déne du politique (1992) give an account of the research done in the field. Important work is being done on neo-liberalism, democratic theory and social justice. Jean Roy and Guy Lafrance have done much work on the theories of Rawls and on neo-liberalism. Jocelyn Couture, in Éthique sociale et justice distributive (1991), and Roger Lambert, in La justice vécue et les théories éthiques contemporaines (1994), have dealt with issues of social justice. Dominique Leydet and a research team at the University of Ottawa are doing much work on democratic theory and citizenship. This particular field of interest is shared by many working on the general theory of democracy and on the need for re-thinking democracy for contemporary societies. An example of this type of work is Philosophie politique et democratie (1996) produced by Gilles Labelle and Yvonne Thériault.

In connection with philosophy of law, interest in fundamental rights has grown. This interest can be seen in the publication of Ethics and Basic Rights (1989) by Guy Lafrance. The relationship between philosophy and law has been explored in the publication of conference proceedings such as Carrefour: philosophie et droit (1995). The conferences, organized by figures such as Josiane Ayoub, Pierre Robert and Bjarne Melkevik, are the fruits of the DIKÈ research group based at UQAM and associated with the Canadian Society for Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law.

In terms of historical research, important work is being done on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment period. Josiane Ayoub, who is currently working on "Ideology, symbolic theories, and theories of culture," has published Contre nous de la tyrannie (1990). Philip Knee has recently published Penser l'appartenance, enjeux des Lumières en France (1995) on social and political thought of the Enlightenment. Pensée Libre, a series of books devoted to Enlightenment thought, has been sponsored by the J.J. Rousseau Association.

Political philosophy remains a major interest for philosophers in French Canada. This interest is demonstrated by the numerous publications, conferences, societies and research groups dedicated to this field.


Authors contributing to this article: