The Foundations of Morality, And Where Plato Went Wrong

Author’s note: Readers not familiar with my work might wish to start with this article, the summary of my next book, which explains the basics of my thoughts on human beings and social sciences.  Get yourself a snack and a drink, settle in for some deep reading on your fellow human beings, hopefully I’ll stimulate your own thinking and it will take you hours to get through these two articles.


The Foundations of Morality, and Where Plato Went Wrong

Who makes morality? Where does the concept of “morals” come from? Where does morality exist? Human beings have a very wide range of answers to these questions, ranging from those who say morality is an unalterable quality decreed by “God” or “religion,” to those who say that human beings are creatures whose every behavior is determined by physical causes beyond our control and thus there can be no valid moral judgments that one person can make of another person. The theme of this essay, however, is to reject both these formulations, and to argue how human beings – human beings like you and me! – continually create and re-create our moral values and moral judgments, each and every day, based on the thoughts and moralities that we have taken from our families and our local societies, and further based on our own thoughts, actions and on our own ignorances and omissions, as well.

Where do we begin with such a huge subject? I am willing to accept the proposition that every single human being in world history (excepting a few with severe mental health disabilities) does have a concept of morality in their lives (whether or not they can articulate this, and whether or not they can live according to their concepts). Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities. Morality certainly does not exist in the atmosphere, nor does it seem likely to exist in the vacuum of outer space or in the blazing core of the sun. Other terrestrial species such as whales or ants, if we could better understand them, may prove to have their own systems of morality, and if we can ever confirm the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms, I believe these will likely have their own systems of morality in their societies. However, in this essay we are going to limit ourselves to human systems of morality.

So if you didn’t notice, I have already plunged into the heart of the controversy over morality, by the statement I made above: “Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities.” As you probably know, there are millions and billions of people in our world who do not agree with this. They may be religious people who say that “the Bible” or “God” or “Confucius” or “the Buddha” established rules for morality, rules that “exist” whether or not you or I happen to believe in them. They may be traditional people living in a specific culture in India or Africa or Southeast Asia, who may not have one “religious” authority for their system of morality, they just “know” that “our people have always had these rules for living and have always done things this way.” Or, the people who think that morality is something that exists outside of actual historical human beings may be earnest professors in modern universities, who search diligently for some system of logic, some system of philosophical “first principles,” or perhaps some innate mental/physical structures inside our minds, that can serve as a firm and scientifically provable basis of human morality. At least one scientist has claimed general principles that, in his interpretation, mean there can be no morality.

In popular generalized philosophical terms, all these fashions of seeing a system of morality that is “larger” than individual human beings can be called a type of “Platonism,” the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the typical words and categories that human beings use. This comes from Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave” – an idea that he presented, it should be noted, specifically as an advertisement for why the type of ‘philosophical’ thought that he and his teacher Socrates engaged in with their particular associates in ancient Greece is superior to ‘ordinary’ thoughts that other ancient Greeks, or you or I, might come up with. The allegory of the cave, as Plato told it, is so specific in its fantastical set-up (with humans chained in place all their lives, while being entertained by a superior caste of freer “puppet-masters”) and the conclusion is so lame (resting simply on Plato having his character Socrates say that he, Socrates, did in fact see “deeper ideal forms” that no one else did), that I simply cannot take it very seriously as a comment on more ordinary human lives in known human history.

artist's conception of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Platos’ Allegory of the Cave – Image borrowed from class blog from St John’s University, no copyright owner found

However the basic idea Plato is trying to sell with this story of the imaginary cave is very important in the story of actual human beings: the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the words and categories and objects that we know in our ordinary lives, and that wisdom is to be found in learning to see and understand the ideal forms of concepts and objects, not in the actual concepts or objects themselves.

This idea of Plato’s has animated much of the progress of Western material science: the search for ideal forms of physical matter has led scientists to elements, and molecules, and atoms and subatomic particles, and to our modern physical sciences of chemistry, biology and physics. And in the realm of studying human beings, the theory of “ideal forms” has led us to some progress in understanding as well. Anthropology is perhaps the best representative, the effort of researchers to understand the “ideal form” of the historical culture of some specific people, for example, in Samoa, or the Ibo or Yoruba peoples of West Africa, have indeed given us a basis to say that “X is a typical behavior in traditional Samoa” or that “Z is considered a highly moral and approved behavior in Yoruba culture.” In other social sciences, however, the picture is not quite so clear, in economics and political science some professors may believe that they can identify clear “ideal forms” of say, “economic satisfaction maximization” or “political party formation,” yet other professors may dispute these, and the situation may even lead to competing “schools” of economists or political scientists promoting differing and contradictory “ideal forms” of economic or political behavior.

Yet overall, I would like to argue here for the proposition that Plato’s “ideal forms” are NOT the best way to understand living, breathing human beings – whether these humans are alive now, or were alive in some past time. Plato’s “ideal forms” bring up 2 major types of errors, when we are trying to understand historical human beings (now or in the past).

First and foremost, they encourage summary judgments and stereotyping, they make it easy to de-humanize actual human beings by treating them as categories or types. This stereotyping and lazy categorization affects not only individual judgment, it affects our collective information-compiling and decision-making on a society-wide basis, as it encourages lazy speakers to make exaggerated and tendentious analyses, and it encourages and supports the mistakes that mediocre scientists may make, when they allow common prejudices to become tangled with more reasoned scientific conclusions. At its worst, this can lead to situations such as the long tradition of European thinkers concluding that African and Asian peoples and cultures are “inferior” to European versions.

The second major type of error that Plato’s concept of “ideal forms” leads both average thinkers and leading scientists towards, is to consider that the abstract concepts which human minds typically use to analyze human affairs – intangible, human-created concepts like morality, justice, intelligence or beauty – are in fact real objects, which can analyzed “logically” – even though actual human beings have hardly ever made “logic” a major component of their decision-making. This problem can be clearly seen in the current state of the academic discipline of philosophy, where respected professors can spend years and years of their own and their student’s time attempting to find a logical basis for “justice” in human affairs – or in other words, using a specific abstract thought process within individual human minds to analyze a more generalized abstract thought process that exists only within individual human minds, in the hopes of finding a scientific certainty! In my humble opinion, that’s just not going to work out well.

To begin, there is most certainly NOT an ‘ideal type’ of who you actually are – there is only the living, breathing you, with all your warts and farts and emotions and assumptions and details of your past experience, and the contradictions among moral choices in behavior you may have struggled with at times. No one else has your memories, no one else has seen what your eyes have seen. You may have within your own mind a vision of yourself as an “ideal type:” “I am a Pakistani student in a large city,” or “I am an Egyptian worker,” or “I am an unemployed American in a southern state.” You may have an “ideal type” as a goal for your personal development: “I can work to become a great soccer player,“ or “I want to become a famous actor,” or “I’d like to get married and have 5 children and live in a modern house.” When it is you yourself thinking these things, this is relatively harmless; in most cases you will not be using categories considered “negative,” “immoral” or “undesirable” for yourself, you will not be using these categories to limit yourself in unusual situations, and in the process of life’s development, you will have plenty of opportunities to re-define, re-arrange or completely start over with the categories that you use to consider your situation.

When, however, it is other people who are making quick summary judgments of you and your life and your situation, and categorizing you in various “boxes” (such as “worker,” “member of a certain political party,” “wife not employed outside the home”), you are, to some extent, necessarily being de-humanized, stereotyped, judged as a member of a group and not given respect for the inimitable individual qualities of you yourself. That’s the whole reason this outside observer is placing you in a category, so that they can consider you ONLY as a worker, ONLY as a member of a certain political party, to make it easy for themselves in their mind, in their philosophical system of analysis. If the person making these judgments to put you in a category then has an unrealistic “ideal form” of the category, that a worker does A, B and C but not D, E, and F, or that there is an Ideal form of a “Pakistani” who holds certain characteristics, then poor conclusions will almost certainly result from poor reasoning.

Now, it is generally a contribution to our knowledge and to our civilization for a concerned, dispassionate professor of social science to focus on a certain group of people and research those people and analyze their thoughts and actions, and I am not saying it is always prejudicial or dehumanizing for a sincere researcher to focus on certain people as being “urban Pakistani workers” or “tenant farmers in the Philippines.” I am the idealist who urges us to try to understand all the thoughts and actions of all individuals, yet I am also extremely aware of how difficult it is to reach that goal; for most scientists and researchers, some level of simplification and categorization is a basic first step in studying people and societies. The point of social science research, however, is to study actual human beings. Studying “Pakistani culture as it existed on March 1, 2012” can be a relatively objective study; trying to study or research to find “an ideal form of Pakistani society that serves as a model for all aspects of Pakistani society over time” will always depend on the subjective judgments of the researcher.

The sincere social science researcher will try to be aware of all the simplifications and difficulties involved in this process: they will know and discuss the problems of defining their categories, and how some people may be arbitrarily included or excluded from the category in the process of trying to define the category. Their research will likely explore and examine the differences among sub-categories within their major category, reflecting the incredible diversity of individuals and social situations among their target population. And they will understand that when they conclude in their scientific study that “urban Pakistani workers” show a particular behavior or tendency of opinion, there will be data to support this conclusion, and the researcher will also point out that there are a greater or lesser number of members of the subject group population who do NOT follow the behavior or tendency of the majority. And hopefully, the researcher will understand that his or her scientific study does not constrain or limit the ability of members of the subject population to be actual individuals with incredible diversity in their everyday experiences and an unlimited potential to change their thoughts and actions in the future.

Yet most of us are not dispassionate professors doing our best to undertake studies that can be considered “objective” by other observers. Even the most intelligent of us will be found thinking and saying things that reduce human beings to types and categories, and these types and categories we use do, very often, carry significant implications, intended conclusions, stereotypes and bias. To discuss a political situation and say “politicians like to do X,” this statement very likely carries a number of assumptions of who “politicians” are, why they do what they do, and why you the speaker are probably unhappy with the situation of “politicians doing X”.

In all modern countries, it is easy to find examples of news reporting that speaks of “Russians” or “Syrians” or “workers” or members of a political party, where these categories are being used as stereotypes, categories that imply a unanimity of thought and behavior and which also imply a favorable or unfavorable judgment on the persons in that category. This is the lazy thinking that makes us as individuals less intelligent, and which prevents us from improving our civilizations, and this practice of lazy thinking is unfortunately encouraged by a shallow understanding of Plato which tells us that there really is an “ideal form” of a Russian, or a Syrian, or a member of a particular party, that we can just say “Russians are this” or “Russians do that” and we will have said something true and useful.

And when this stereotyping is being done by people with no pretense whatever to objectivity, people who have long ago decided (because of their nationality or their politics) that they don’t like Russians and will repeat any bad thing said about a hypothetical “Russian,” then that’s how we get to tragic national conflicts that go on and on for generations, hurting all sorts of actual persons in all sorts of tangible situations. And thus it happens that the “Platonism” of imagining that there are “ideal types” of people who can easily be categorized and whose morals and motives can be assumed from their “types” contributes to hateful and stupid thinking among human beings.

The second type of poor thinking that Platonism contributes to is usually less immediately useful to those who are inclined to stupidity and hatred, however this sort of error is more subtle and more problematical among those who are relatively well educated and articulate. This is the error of thinking that the abstract categories which humans so readily devise inside our minds, have a real identity and significance outside of human minds. Let’s take the category of “beauty” for example – some things do make us happier when we look at them, than others. Most people would rather look at a flower, or a colorful sunset with clouds, than at a muddy ditch full of sewage and petroleum waste. (Yet there’s always a few freaks and contrarians to say otherwise). For the vast majority whose general ideas of “beauty” are generally intelligible to each other, and with the help of mass media that find it easy to fill hot air by obsessive speculation and gossip on popular ideas, it becomes to seem that there is a reality to the idea of “beauty,” that “beauty” really is something that can be captured and measured, something real – something “larger” than the human minds that individually hold the concept of “beauty.”

With all of society talking as if “beauty” was a tangible thing, like a carburetor or a can opener, it is very easy for “beauty” the abstract concept that exists only in the minds of human beings, to become “beauty” the tangible quality that one either possesses or does not possess, a real state that exists in some identifiable place upon the world – whether that place is the minds of the beholders, or in the bone structures of the possessors of “beauty,” or somewhere else entirely – and people will then waste all sorts of time contemplating the ideal qualities that separate “beauty” from ”non-beauty,” or speculating on exactly which qualities are absolutely necessary to “beauty.” Yet all such speculation is ultimately useless, because there is no “beauty” that exists in and of itself, there is no beauty without human beings to define it and proclaim it. There is no “ideal beauty” whose discovery is going to change all our ideas of beauty, there is no “ideal beauty” that exists outside of the brains of people who believe in “ideal beauty” (and who therefore define ideal beauty and think that they know ideal beauty and pronounce some things “beautiful” and other things “ugly.”)

And it’s exactly the same situation for other abstract concepts that regularly occur in human life, which human beings continue to discover in their social and personal lives – there’s something happening, which demands a name; yet giving these concepts names – “beauty,” “justice,” “morality,” “order,” ‘democracy,” “art” — tends to obscure that it is each of us, you and I, continually creating these concepts, continually finding these concepts useful, continually borrowing past versions of these concepts and making them our own, which creates the reality of these concepts. The very process of naming these concepts tends to “Platonize” them, to make them – in our minds — into real, tangible, things that exist on their own, with “ideal” forms that we think we can usefully philosophize about at great length. Which in turn makes it more difficult for some people to see how it is that we, actual human beings in history, are actually the source of these abstract concepts.

Concepts of “morality,” like concepts of “beauty,” are a verifiable reality among human beings. Just as we do find some settings, and some faces, more felicitous to gaze upon than others, we as human beings living in societies of other human beings, do set up systems of social rules and social behaviors that we try to follow, and that we try to enforce upon our neighbors and coworkers to follow as well. And not surprisingly, we do find that these systems “work better” when nearly all members of an identifiable social system share the same systems of morality, and enforce them upon each other. There is a historical reality here that has earned a name; yet again, let’s try to be clear about where “morality” comes from.

While it can be proven that many actual people have consistently claimed that their moral systems came from “God,” the historical reality of moral systems in societies cannot be proved to have come from “God” (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything comes from God”). While an influential scientist has published a book making the case, this historical reality of morality as a system within functioning human societies cannot be proved to have come from a physically determined Universe (in which every moment of our lives is predetermined by patterns of spinning atoms, except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say “everything in the universe is predetermined”). And despite various attempts of various researchers to locate morality in some genetic or neurobiological structure, this historical reality of morality cannot be proved to have come from human genetic inheritances from our ancestors (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything in our lives comes from our human genetic inheritance from our ancestors”).

The systems of morality that are a part of the recorded history of nearly culture system on earth do seem to be caused by each and every human being, in society, over time, continually creating, re-creating, and selectively borrowing (from previous systems of morality) to build systems of rules for behavior, which are communicated to nearly all members of a society and expected to be followed by nearly all members of the group. This mental process of morality creation is more often than not carried on without being recorded by usual “historical data” and may even appear to occur in an ‘unconscious’ manner in many societies. For the vast majority of people in history, our individual experience of morality is one of being born into a society with a functioning system of morality, and being inculcated into that system as a low-status member of the system. The continuous creation and re-creation of the system of morality that I am speaking of comes with maturity, and the daily decisions of how to behave one’s self, the moment-by-moment calculations one makes of exactly how closely the rules are to be applied in this situation and this next situation, and how to react immediately to the statements and actions of others, and how to consider, over the longer term, the statements and actions of others.

This daily and lifelong process of continual creation, re-creation and re-borrowing of systems of morality incorporates at least two of the basic social science systems that human beings are continually engaged in creating: systems of morality must be part of our philosophies – our explanations of how the world works – and systems of morality must also be part of our politics – our systems of giving respect, honor and status to other human beings in our societies (which long ago institutionalized into governmental systems in more technologically advanced nations).

Systems of morality are nearly universal among human beings in history, because nearly everyone holds explanations of how the world works, and nearly everyone holds ideas of why certain people should receive respect, honor and status in society (and why other people should not receive respect, honor and status in society). And where these two sets of philosophical ideas and political ideas exist, overlapping and simultaneously, and we think we have any basis for setting rules for proper human behavior – and it always just seems to happen that we do think we have the basis to make rules — that’s where morality exists. And so to answer the question of who is making morality, that is indeed each and every human being in world history, you, me and all the rest of us.

When we study the actual history of human beings, in societies not undergoing revolutionary changes of some sort, it does seem that for nearly all people, it’s a matter of adopting/borrowing the same rules of moral behavior that they learned as children, and which is shared by all their neighbors. Within traditional historical societies of the past, and the more stable societies in our modern era, very few people are actually being creative and independent in the major principles of their systems of morality. (I will submit, however, that close observation will show nearly everyone joining in the cultural creation of the small points of morality at the margins, in their minute-by-minute response to life’s diverse and challenging situations.)

In our more modern and modernizing societies, however, which are by definition experiencing significant social change, we more often find ourselves in situations of mixed or even clashing cultures, where there is not one single society-wide pattern of morality being followed, and individuals do more often find themselves in a position to choose between varying moral systems, or even to create their own moral systems. Even in these situations, however, it can often be seen how different “communities” (based on ethnic origins, or on classes and occupations, or even on voluntary affiliation) each keep their own general system of morality within their sub-group of the larger society.

Because morality exists within each person at the junction of their philosophical belief systems and their political belief systems, morality is now, has always been, and likely always will be inherently involved with politics. The whole point of a system which seeks to establish proper rules of human behavior, is to ENFORCE the proper rules on those human beings who are considered as not following the proper rules, to make those people change so that moral rules are seen to be paramount values. In all societies, the use of social power (and institutionalized power) to establish who has the “moral right” to tell others to change their behavior or face punishments is at the core of “political relationships” in that society. The human urges within us (the need to create explanations and the need to create status) that create morality are never happy just having a self-pleasing moral system within our own brains; because morality is inherently political and can never be separated from political judgments and political behavior, systems of moral behavior within a society require a judgment on who will be enforcing what morality on whom.

Thus in traditional historical societies, the morals were in most cases part of the law, and there was no debate or question of that. And any variations in enforcement, that breaking rule X is taken very seriously while breaking rule Y is taken less seriously, or that a certain group is punished less severely for violations of Z than a different group, will generally reflect the moral and political belief systems of the community. And over time, in a stable society, the existence of the discrepancies will help create philosophical explanations and political preferences that will reinforce the variations in morality.

As societies modernize and become more complex, with different ethnic and religious communities co-existing in the same space, or with differing subsets of moral systems coming into being along class or other lines, the enforcement of morality becomes even more complex and diffused: some situations are ignored by the larger society, some situations are left to unorganized social disapproval, and yet other situations may be enforced using more explicitly political actions by authorized persons. These varying systems of enforcement and control become institutionalized; individual and sub-group variations in “moral” behavior generally become more common, and more tolerated, than before, legality becomes separated from morality, moral discrepancies among class structures become more pronounced – “it’s OK for us to do this, but not for them to do it.” And in complex modern societies, when views on the morality of crucial social relationships are undergoing serious long-term forces of social change – for example, in America the transition between a legal regime of “segregation” for our Black citizens in the Southern states to a legal regime of “integration,” between about 1955 and 1975 – the controversies and problems and debates on “morality” that are generated can continue to be political issues of the first order even 40 years later.

Image of Police Using Dogs on Black Demonstrators, Birmingham Ala., May 3, 1963

American racial issues: Birmingham Alabama, May 3, 1963 – Image copyright New York Times

There is simply no fundamental agreement on the question of who in American society can enforce changes of behavior (and attitude) on other members of American society. To take two groups relatively opposed at the edges of opinion, those people today who look at America’s racial situation and see a history and culture of ‘inferior’ Black people, and those other people today who look at America and see a history and culture of White social, political and economic power holding down Blacks in America, certainly do not agree on the facts of the situation, and they certainly do not give any significant respect, honor or status to those who disagree with them; and both of these groups are relative minorities in a larger society that can be simultaneously distracted, apathetic, ignorant, confused, and holding elements of both belief systems at the same time, or holding elements of both belief systems varying according to the last person they talked to. Thus there is, and will continue to be, political conflict over the “morality” of how each camp (of strong belief holders) engages with each other and with the larger overall society; each group will tend to believe that is upholding clear moral values in their political struggles with the other camp.

Now in the early years of the 21st Century, in the modern urban centers of Europe, the Americas and Asia, there seem to exist relatively independent youth cultures that appear almost-completely liberated from traditional systems of morality, and even offering their participants the opportunity to make up one’s own set of moral values, choosing from an almost infinite list of possible rules, and from the principles and reasoning behind those rules. Hopefully, these urban populations will be able to evolve peacefully and cooperatively as they face the challenges that the coming years may throw at us. In my opinion, such groups need to be actively working to establish norms and channels of peaceful conflict resolution, to avoid collapses into selfishness when resources necessary for modern urban life may suddenly become limited; the fundamentally political nature of morality, and morality’s inherent need to apply to the majority of society, will not allow tomorrow’s citizens to “all just get along” just because they have the latest tech devices, and cool profiles on the latest social media.

Whether humanity continues to develop new wrinkles and new subsets of morality systems in use among ever-more-finely distinguished social communities, or whether older, traditional systems of morality make a comeback among large populations in leading nations, the coming very-likely challenges in the economic, environmental and ecological areas of human life in the 21st Century appear to have the potential to test each and every one of us quite severely, forcing us to make very difficult choices: how do I behave in this (unimaginable future) crisis to ensure maximum survival for my own self and those I care for? I personally am NOT looking forward to such future days in human society. (I am as susceptible to selfishness, fear, panic, ignorance and confusion as anyone else, I am not at all confident of maintaining my own moral standards, or of finding satisfactory conclusions to situations in such crises.)

So to summarize what I would most like you to take away as a conclusion to this exercise, no matter how murky the origins and foundations of human systems of morality may appear, I do believe that a close examination of human history will show that human systems of morality are created by individual human beings, and that they are constantly being refined and modified by the actual thoughts and actions of living human beings, interacting in their communities and societies.

Although Plato’s vision of finding scientific truth through the search for “ideal forms” may be useful in the physical sciences, I strongly believe that in the study of human beings it is necessary to focus on the actual thoughts and actions of individual human beings in history to make progress towards scientific understanding. There are not “ideal forms” of individual human beings – we are all capable of both growth and learning, and of regression and refusal to consider new ideas. Although it is possible to engage in a scientific study of the structures and systems of a particular community or culture in a particular place at a particular time, communities and cultures (and their systems of morality) are constantly being modified and adjusted by their members; there are no “ideal forms” for communities and cultures which are always in a process of “evolution” (whether you believe they are moving towards “better” or “worse,” cultures are seldom standing still).

Furthermore, there are no “ideal forms” of the concepts that people make up to categorize their realities, concepts like “beauty,” “art,” “justice,” or “morality.” People made these concepts up; there is no place or time these concepts exist as physical objects that can be isolated and studied; there are no ideal forms of such human-created concepts, and there never can be.

As far as I can tell from my investigations, the human need to create moral systems making rules of proper behavior for members of a community arises from the combination of two of our strongest mental urges: our drive to create “explanations” (of all the fundamentals of our human existence), and our drive to create systems of status, rank and honor within our communities (which, in many nations, long ago became institutionalized into governments and the area of behavior we call “politics.”) Since systems of morality are necessarily about enforcing standards of behavior within society, questions of morality will always and everywhere be “political” in nature: people will be establishing, with their every thought and action in their community, understandings of what behaviors create (or destroy) status, what behaviors are proper to various “ranks” that communities may establish, and what behaviors will be rewarded with social honors and governmental offices and powers. Moral questions will always involve political questions, and political questions will always involve moral questions.

The easiest way out of this, assuming that we can continue to survive as members of advanced civilizations in a diverse and changing modern society, is to see that we can separate our own personal moral standards for how we would PREFER people to behave, from legal/governmental policy standards appropriate for social behavior in a diverse society, and that the two do not have to match for us all to achieve a greater level of happiness. Yet whether our children find a future of new technological wonderlands, or a future of terrible ecological breakdowns (or some mixture of both at once), the whole conundrum of why we think and behave as we do, will continue to be an important part of having a human life – so let’s get used to it, and do what we can to make it better for our children, as humanity faces its continued survival on earth in the 21st Century of the european calendar.

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