The history of Western ethics stretches back to the time of the ancient Greeks when philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle laid the foundations for modern logic and cultural values. Centuries later, Christianity created a new standard of morality that shaped the face of European culture and eventually established the framework for modern American society and ethics.
The Middle Ages and Rennaisance
During the Middle Ages, the power of the Catholic church was absolute. The church was responsible for the selection of kings, the crafting of law and the spiritual welfare of Europe. Europeans lived in a climate where ethics were dictated by the church, a legacy that lived on after the Protestant Reformation. When Rene Descartes developed the modern philosophies that became the foundation for the Enlightenment, he located the source for moral law in God's will and used his famous proof, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) to create an argument for the existence of God. Descartes' writings affected later philosopher John Locke, one of the foremost English philosophers of the Enlightenment. Locke's work, which was also grounded in his religious beliefs, went on to heavily influence Thomas Jefferson, who incorporated many of Locke's ideas into documents such as the Declaration of Independence.
America was colonized by a variety of groups, many of whom fled Europe to seek religious freedom overseas. Many of these groups arrived on American shores and established communities founded on religious values whose leadership often did not tolerate dissent. Religious laws were established in many areas that eventually dominated entire states. Massachusetts enacted a law that only Christians could hold office, Delaware required officials to take an oath affirming belief in the trinity, and several states, including South Carolina, had an official state church.
A Changing Nation
As the nation grew, it became more tolerant of religious diversity, but religious values remained central to American ethics. Abolition of slavery, the Temperance Movement and women's suffrage were all issues debated by and whose outcomes were influenced by religious groups. Although the United States was not officially a religious nation (reaffirmed by the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797), American laws and moral standards were often dominated in practice by prevalent religious views. Laws and societal standards regulating personal conduct and the forbidding of acts such as adultery and indecency remained common in American society.
Although there are many modern ethical schools of thought, individual behaviors and societal standards are often still governed by ethical principles rooted in religious beliefs. Many significant political issues such as abortion are debated from a religious standpoint, and societal standards regarding ethical behaviors such as altruism and community service are often influenced by religious values. A survey conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007 shows that over 80 percent of Americans are religiously affiliated. Although the number of people who are affiliated with religion is declining, religious beliefs continue to play a large role in shaping the ethical standards of our society.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Religion and Morality
- Furman University: Roman Catholicism and the Founding of Europe: How Catholics Shaped the European Communities
- Oregon State University: Descartes' Proof for the Existence of God
- Smithsonian: America's True History of Religious Tolerance
- Pew Research: Statistics on Religion in America Report
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