He seemed destined for success. He had passed the examinations that would allow him to become a mandarin and could expect both spiritual and political recognition. And yet the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming (1457–1529) resolved to remain true to himself and to defend his principles to the end. In 1506, he defended a civil servant by challenging a eunuch who had unjustly sent a police officer to jail while the officer was investigating corruption at the highest level of the administration. Wang Yangming then had to go into exile, leave his position and forego his potential privileges in order to remain true to his own morality. He was to find himself in the same position on more than one occasion, and systematically chose to act ethically rather than to make the political decision to compromise. Wang Yangming had a vision that led him to abandon the classical values of official Confucianism and always tried to remain true to himself, his values and his goals. In his study of what it is that makes a man a saint, he sought the path that would allow men to understand the principle of all things and to live sympathy with the essence of the universe. He discovered that the key to initiation was to be found in the mind – hence the need to go back to the mind and to rediscover its original purity so as to dispel the illusions of the ego and desires. Men would then be able to discover the essence of morality and reconcile themselves with their innate understanding of the existence of good and evil. If they could see through the veil of deceptive illusions, human beings could learn that the moral basis of all things lay within them. They only had to look within themselves.
Greatly influenced by Buddhism, Yangming’s Neo-Confucianism was a positive answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether morality is innate rather than acquired. In line with the great spiritual traditions and monotheistic religions, the Chinese philosopher asserted that, in the purity of the state of nature, the mind could find an inner peace based upon and congruent with a natural attraction towards good. By no means do all philosophers share that vision, and the one thing that even Rousseau’s thesis of the natural goodness of men and Hobbes’ very different claim that men are basically aggressive predators have in common is that they both claim that the birth of morality is an a posteriori product of the law or the social contract. The moral law is therefore not so much a basic a priori principle as a tool that is developed a posteriori in order to regulate how human beings behave towards one another (according to Hobbes’ theory) or their dealings with the law (according to Rousseau’s social contract). The question is of fundamental importance and the answer is no less essential. In spiritual terms, Wang Yangming turns the moral law into a principle, and stipulates that moral ensures the union, the fusion, of two dimensions in the mind. The mind is both a principle and something active, and it allows us to live in harmony and peace with the cosmos, the elements, and men. This is the principle of faith and love associated with moral injunctions found in the fundamental teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In strictly rational terms, the moral law is not a liberation, but a regulating, and therefore constraining, factor that is often useful and positive. It does not lie at the core of the mind; its place and functions lie between minds and allow the harmonization of interpersonal relations.
This is not, however, the only rationally based philosophical attitude. In his Critique of Practical Reason,Kant establishes the principle of the autonomy of morals. It certainly requires establishing consistency postulates (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul), but it also means that this principle of the moral autonomy is based solely upon its own necessity. To tell the individual consciousness that a ‘person never be used as a means except when he is at the same time treated as an end’ is to enjoin it to accept a ‘categorical imperative’ that has a universal import. The principle of morality that spirituality and religion establish in the hearts of men in the name of the meaning of the Whole and/or faith Kant establishes on rational grounds, and as a universal maxim that exists both it itself and in relations between individuals. And yet, even in the rigorous meanderings of the Critique and the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he regains mystical aspirations and states: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’2
Kant spoke of the moral law; the rationalist Spinoza, who wrote before him, referred to ethics. For Spinoza, ethics was the means that allowed man to become an active agent, and to subordinate the imperfect illusions of the imagination to the reasoned and rational controls of the human understanding. The tension between the two faculties is permanent, and ethics gives the conscience the power to transform a being into a subject. Contemporary debates about the distinction between morality and ethics are located between the two poles represented by Kant’s universal morality that commands and Spinoza’s ethics of the individual conscience that masters. The French philosopher Paul Ricœur admits that his own distinction between the two is purely conventional: he uses ‘ethics’ to describe the individual aspiration towards the good (at the level of action) – a description that follows the Aristotelean tradition – and ‘morality’ to refer to a universal norm which has, as Kant suggests, a constraining power and that is incumbent upon men. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who is also influenced by Kant, makes the same distinction by relating ethics to the material principles of the sensibility and determinants of the individual’s quest of the Good, and the moral law to formal principles that have universal implications. Habermas does, however, want to make the universality of the moral principles of rightness and justice the subject of critical study and discussion. He does not simply wish to state, like Kant, the universal basis of the categorical imperative and to stipulate the rule: ‘Act as though the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.’ A debate must be opened, and the universality of morality and of its fundamentals must be grounded in ‘what everyone can recognise as a universal norm’.
It is as though, from sixteenth-century China to age-old religious traditions, rationalism in the Age of Enlightenment and then the twentieth century, we had been going around in circles and encountering the same three questions about morality and ethics, albeit in different forms: do we all have an innate sense (that exists in our minds, as Yangming would put it) of morality that is in fact universal? Is morality a fundamental principle for actions, or is it a circumstantial instrument of interpersonal relationships (which is used to protect or control)? Is there a difference (or must we introduce one) between the individual and collective quest for the good through action (ethics) and a shared universal norm that applies to all (morality)? Questions about the origins, function and objectives of the moral law have sometimes given rise to a distinction between the Latin (morality) and the Greek (ethics), but the one constant in these endless debates is the need for rules and norms that determine goodness, justice and what is right, and which, whatever their origin, exist within all of us and regulate relations between us. Irrespective of whether the moral law is inscribed in my innermost being or whether it is born of the peregrinations of my reason, it must be impersonal. It must be depersonalized and transformed into a collective ethics the universality of which may or may not be challenged, but whose benevolent, protective and regulatory function is collectively recognized. The modern era is afraid of morality and enamoured of ethics. True, but that may be nothing more than a ‘conventional’ distinction designed to reassure us about authority, since it seems that morality is imposed while ethics is negotiated. It remains that action needs limits and society needs norms, whether relative or universal, negotiated or imposed. There can be no human societies without ethics. Ideally, ethics should apply to all: they should be everyone’s ideal, and no one’s property. Theocracies and dictatorships, for example, pervert the meaning of that ideal, whilst democracies, because of the contradictions between their stated ideals and actual practices, often (and insidiously) make ethics the exclusive property and instrument that allows some (a social class, race, gender, and so on) to wield a certain power.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, page ref? 2 Ibid., p. 169.
 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Thomas E. Hil Jr, ed. Thomas E.
Hill Jr and Arnulf Zweig, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 222.
 See Jürgen Habermas, Justification and Application: Remarks of Discourse Ethics¸ trans.Ciaran Cronin, Cambridge: Polity, 1993.