History of Ethics and its Multicultural Origins (Part 1/2)

Aco Momcilovic
9 min readJan 24, 2022


Principles that formed Human Behaviour and Decisions

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik; Co-Founder and Co-Director of Global AI Ethics Institute.

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

  1. What were the precedents of today’s codes of ethics? Can we track the genesis of the norms that were established in certain periods?

It is impossible to say when it has all begun. Humans first needed to adapt to their physical environment and then, much later, they started thinking and discussing their ethical environment. It took time to systematically consider this subtle web of ideas, values, justice, virtues, and more other ‘intangible’ concepts that immensely impact how we behave in a group, on our own, how we perceive ourselves, and others, even how we create our identities: i.e., who we are. There must have been various ethical thoughts and dilemmas in ancient civilizations, but it seems that around the middle of the first millennium BC (some 2500 years ago) sophisticated systematic thought about ethics was present across Eurasia: in India, the Upanishads were written, dealing with important spiritual and philosophical ideas; Plato’s philosophy set the foundations of European Greco-Roman world. The teaching of Kongzi (whom we know in the West by his latinized name Confucius), probably most well-known for the Golden rule phrase: ‘Treat others as you would like others to treat you (with its negative variation: ‘Don’t do to others…’) also dates roughly in the same period (6/5th ct. BCE). These early forms of ethics were based on two principles: 1) reciprocity — i.e., Do to others what you wish them to do to you; and 2) universality: treat everyone this way. Many of these elements are still present in present-day religious and intellectual thoughts.

Picture 1. Golden Rule

2. Is there something we can call prehuman ethics? Are there any parallels between human and animal behavior regarding some universal rules?

I believe we all need to keep (re)considering our relationship with (nonhuman) animals. First of all, they appear in so many different forms and exhibit different patterns of behavior; some are solitary, some live in groups, even societies. Secondly, there is a range of negative emotions (fear or disgust) we humans experience just by seeing or even thinking about quite a few. Thirdly, it takes much effort to overcome intellectual and cultural biases that stand in the way of fairly assessing what are certain animals capable of and why (not). One of the problems, of course, is also the tradition by which morality has long been understood as an exclusively human feature; moreover, the one that distinguishes us from all others!

There are many species of animals that are motivated by what we call ‘moral emotions’. Their altruistic behavior, empathy, compassion, patience should be considered in the discussion of whether they should be considered moral subjects. In this sense, their lack of sophisticated cognitive capacities, should not be taken against them: those evolved in different ways, at a different pace.

Over the last several decades' scientists studied the behavior of many different species that are capable of expressing a range of emotions such as grief and empathy, not exclusively toward members of their own species. These include dogs, elephants, pigs, primates, and others. Classical antiquity (e.g. Pliny in his 9th Book of Natural History) records many stories of friendship (even desire) between boys and dolphins, and of dolphins’ love for humanity, art, and music. The same Pliny opens up his Book 8 with the account of elephants, who are “so similar to people”. He argues that elephants have intelligence, memory, morality, justice, religion, and — last but not least — love! Nonetheless, it took two millennia, as it was as late as l the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century when many questions related to the well-being of animals have been raised: the status of animal farms, issues on the animals in the research facilities, the status of companion animals, animal welfare in disasters, and so on. These issues are fundamental and will need to be addressed on a global level.

One of the first recorded activists for animal rights in the Western world was Pythagoras, widely known as a mathematician. He believed animals have the same soul as humans and openly promoted his respect for animals and his vegetarianism. To all those who ate animal meat he “as you eat your joints of lamb and beef, know that your feast was of good friends and neighbors”. This belief was quite in line with contemporary (and present-day) beliefs on the Indian subcontinent, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism, all of which have utmost respect toward animals. The same is with native Americans who consider animals their equals, or in the words of Jenny Leading Cloud (Lakota): “We Indians think of the earth and the whole universe as a never-ending circle, and in this circle, man is just another animal. The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins”. Members of many other world religions, including Christian, throughout history, practiced vegetarianism. In the Western world, the 19th century was in a way a turning point in the relationship to animals: in the first half of the century, several institutions were founded in Britain, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1824) and Vegetarian Society (1847). Moreover, for many, it was a tremendous shock when Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species (1859) argued that humans evolved from non-human animals!

Picture 2: Pythagoras and animal rights

3. What were the differences in different cultures and approaches to the norms of behavior?

Throughout history one can find the idea that morality is not absolute but relative to individuals, groups, or whole societies — this is called ethical relativism. There are in fact several different kinds of moral ‘relativism’: contextualism emphasizes the context in which some action occurs; philosophical relativism argues that judgments of what is moral depend on the position of the observer; subjectivism suggests that moral judgments inherently are non-cognitive and are just expressions of the feelings and attitudes of the persons who reflect on those issues. One of the important reasons why relativism is appealing is because for many it seems to reflect their value of tolerance for other people’s beliefs, values, or cultural traditions.

Culture is an incredibly complex concept, and we can cite just one of the hundreds of proposed definitions. “Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of actions, on the other as conditioning elements of further action”. (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952). It takes hours just to analyze these constitutive elements used to explain this complex web of relationships.

Let’s talk about a very simple and very old example: gift-giving. Bringing a present to a host can be a pure sign of respect but can be also associated with bribery and maybe some other motives of the giver. Much was also written about business contracts between the Western countries and China, in which the major dispute was about the nature of the contract. In short: the Western perspective relies strictly on the content of the contract: the dates, the numbers, the responsibilities — all those are written clearly and as such should be respected. The Chinese perspective puts much more emphasis on the context of the contract and the relationship between two parties. The contract is just a reflection of the good relationship and trust, so they feel the elements of the contract could be changed along the way if they stand in the way of a mutual relationship. This, of course as in many other things, opens up a wide field of opportunities for unfair play.

4. What was the first written document that we can connect with modern Ethics? Who are dominant philosophers and thinkers that we can connect with the subject of ethics, in the Western World, and in other areas of the world?

Arguably the oldest surviving documents that can be considered as ethical textbooks of a sort, intended for boys of the ruling class, have originated in ancient Egypt and are more than 5,000 years old.

In ancient China, probably two of the most influential thinkers were almost contemporaries: Lao Zi, known also as Master Lao (or Old Master), lived in the 6th century BCE and is the first philosopher of Chinese Taoism and was much venerated by Confucians and many others, centuries later. In Tao te ching (or Daodejing) in 81 chapters, he focuses on leading life according to ‘Tao’ (‘the Path’), which is characterized by humility, spontaneity, and harmony with nature. Kongzi (Confucius) was just somewhat younger, and he made a significant mark not just on Chinese but also on transnational philosophy. Three of his four main principles — respect for people, beneficence, and justice — can be found among ethical principles that are central to the safeguarding of human subjects in biomedical and behavioral research even today.

In the Western world, the most complex documented tradition starts with ancient Greeks. Central questions of Western ethical philosophy were developed by Socrates and the Sophists, but it was Socrates who believed that humans can, by the use of reason, develop a set of principles that could reconcile the interests of an individual and the common good. He also elaborated a set of problems that stood in the way. He discussed ethical terms such as virtue (in Protagoras), justice (in Republic), courage, piety, and others. His student Plato, who preserved Socrates’ teaching in his dialogues, developed a complex construct of nature, God, and a man from which he drew his ethical principles. Plato’s student Aristotle, in pursuit of answers, dedicated most of his time to a scientific study of biology, psychology, and politics. All three agreed that justice and virtue can be defined in terms of the achievement of good. The three issues Socrates was mostly concerned about: 1) giving an account of oneself (logos); 2) principles of logical consistency between different things one does), and 3) universality of principles — are all connected and remain the root of Western Ethics.

In the Middle Ages, the knowledge of medicine in the Islamic world was on a very high level. Middle Eastern medicine preserved, systematized, and developed the medical knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, including the legacies of Hippocrates and Galen. The most influential was Ibn Sina — known in Europe as Avicenna (980–1037 AD) — who wrote more than 400 works (more than 200 existing today), among them The Canon of Medicine, essential medical reading around the world even hundreds of years after the author’s death. First ethical standards were established Ishaq ibn ‘Ali al-Ruhawi (9th century) who wrote Adab al-Tabib (Conduct of a Physician) where he deals with the issues such as the dignity of the medical profession, the eradication of corruption among physicians, the manners of visitors and others.

Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) proposed that moral behavior is in one’s self-interest because morality consists of a “social contract” in which each member of society agrees to surrender some measure of his right to pursue his self-interest in return for a similar concession from everyone else. In other words, morality is a system of reciprocal obligations born of the necessity to preserve peace and order. Most important ethical questions, regarding objectivity, knowledge, and self-interest, were addressed by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), a philosopher who arguably made the most important mark on the discipline since Plato and Aristotle.

After WWII, the focus of ethics shifted from concepts to ‘real-life’ issues such as medical interventions, armed conflicts, human interaction with (and control over) the environment, and other animals. These issues have been promoted on international (such as UN Commissions, international institute and societies, NGOs) and national levels, although the laws and ethical principles can vary across different countries.

4. Ibn Sina (Avicenna)



Aco Momcilovic

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…