Key thinkers on ethics

Key thinkers on ethics


Adding authority to your TOK essay and presentation

The knowledge questions in your and TOK presentation should be supported not only by your own ideas and evidence, but also by those of other people. We have therefore put together a list of key thinkers for each way of knowing and area of knowledge who will add extra authority to your TOK essay and presentation, and help you to explore the KQs connected to your title. You can see the complete list of key thinkers here.

Beautiful minds

But we’re thinking of more than just the TOK assessment: these minds are the source of some of the most incredible ideas ever put forward, and have shaped the way we view the world and our place in it. So we think they are worth getting to know in their own right, because they will genuinely help you to figure out this mysterious thing called existence.

Making use of these thinkers

We have indicated which elements of the course they are particularly useful for (remember you should be trying to link the different parts of TOK, so don’t just focus on one WOK or AOK in isolation), and we have provided a Wikipedia link for each person. However, you should see this as the point where you begin, rather than end, your exploration of these paradigm-defining figures. We’ve also identified one person for each way of knowing and area of knowledge whom we consider an ESSENTIAL THINKER, due to way they challenge assumptions or provide a particularly important idea. Each of these thinkers are accompanied by a video in which they outline their theories, and which you can quote as a source for your essay or presentation.
TNK = the nature of knowledge
SP = sense perception
HS = the human sciences
IKS = indigenous knowledge systems
NS = the natural sciences
RKS = religious knowledge systems

Achebe, Chinua (1930 – 2013)

Achebe was a Nigerian poet, novelist and academic, who was outspoken on colonialism and racism. He was a supporter of Biafran independence, but ultimately lost faith in politics due to the way in which he felt that power had corrupted those originally seeking freedom.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, language, arts, history, NS

Ariely, Dan (1967 – )

Ariely is a behavioural economist, who studies the way we make decisions, with a particular focus on moral choices. His bestselling book, Predictably Irrational investigated the phenomenon of making decisions that seem entirely illogical.
Also helps us to explore Reason, HS

Bentham, Jeremy (1748 – 1832)

Bentham was a British philosopher and reformer who tried to develop a scientific formula for the happiness created by any action we take. This became known as utilitarianism, and is the most well-known form of consequentialist moral philosophy.
Also helps us to explore TNK, NS

Black Elk (1863 – 1950)

Black Elk was a Sioux medicine man and spiritual leader. He spoke of the unity of all men, and tried to emphasize the similarity of spiritual beliefs regardless of the different religious traditions from which they came.
Also helps us to explore Faith, SP, IKS, RKS

ESSENTIAL THINKER Chomsky, Noam (1928 – )

Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and, in his role as political activist, one of the most virulent critics of interventionist US foreign policy. Chomsky’s theories on the extent to which language is innate to humans, and his ‘universal grammar’ theory, are of particular interest to TOK students.

Also helps us to explore Language, HS

Davis, Wade (1953 – )

Davis is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence, and has a vast knowledge of indigenous peoples all over the globe. His research and studies of other cultures is characterized by respect and wonder, enabling him to truly acquire different perspectives through which to view the world.
Also helps us to explore IKS

Gandhi, Mahatma (1869 – 1948)

Gandhi was a lawyer by training, but soon emerged as the key leader of Indian independence from British colonial rule and oppression. His central idea was non-violent civil disobedience, which he advocated alongside religious tolerance and pluralism.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

Grayling, AC (1949 – )

Grayling is a British philosopher and journalist who will help us to remain objective about applying the rules of ethics, especially when it comes to making judgements about criminal acts. He also has a lot to say on how we acquire knowledge.
Also helps us to explore Reason, RKS

Harris, Sam (1967 – )

Harris is a philosopher, neuroscientists, and writer who is an advocate of skepticism, and who believes that morality needs a solid foundation. This, he proposes, should be based on truths that can only be empirically proven, established by a method akin to those found in natural sciences.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, HS, RKS

Hitchens, Christopher (1949 – 2011)

Hitchens was a British-American, left wing, privately educated, militantly atheist, pro-interventionist (for war in Iraq), writer, drinker, and smoker, whose life proved that people can be many things at the same time, and should never be pigeon-holed. His (critical) views on religion are probably the most interesting to us as TOK learners, for example, his assertion that belief in an omnipotent God leads to the totalitarian subjugation of the individual.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

Hume, David (1711 – 1776)

Hume was an Edinburgh philosopher and historian, and is regarded as the most important of the British empiricists (along with Locke and Berkeley). Unlike Descartes, he thought that the only knowledge that we should trust is that which we experience directly through our senses. He also emphasised the importance of emotions in allowing us access to truth, by saying ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, reason, SP, HS

Iqbal, Muhammad (1877 – 1938)

Iqbal was born in modern day Pakistan, and combined the arts with politics. Known as the ‘Poet of the East’, he was one of the figures who inspired the Pakistan movement, helping to lead to the establishment of the state in 1947.
Also helps us to explore Faith, arts, HS, RKS

Kant, Immanuel (1724 – 1804)

Kant is arguably the most important philosopher since classical Greece, and totally modified our understanding of how we view the world. His deontological ideas argue that moral actions should only be assessed in terms of their intentions – in contrast to the consequentialists such as Bentham and Mill.
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason

Keller, Helen (1880 – 1968)

Keller was an American author, and social and political thinker. The first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, her ideas can be summed up by her famous quote: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
Also helps us to explore SP, arts

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813 – 1855)

Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, poet, theologian, and social thinker. He is interesting to us as one of the first Existentialist thinkers, and for the way in which he combined philosophy with religious faith. He once said: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, faith, reason, RKS

Levi, Primo (1919 – 1987)

Levi was an Italian chemist, writer, and concentration camp survivor. He wrote widely on the abuse of power by fascist leaders, on the nature of humanity, and tried to bridge the gap between natural sciences and the arts. Tragically, he killed himself in 1987.
Also helps us to explore Memory, arts, history, NS

Loftus, Elizabeth (1944 – )

Loftus is a world authority on memory, based in part on her landmark study in the 1970s looking at how the recall of past events can be shaped by the way in which witness are asked to describe them. She has appeared as an expert witness in hundreds of court cases to make this point.
Also helps us to explore Memory, HS

Marx, Karl (1818 – 1883)

Marx was a German economist, historian, socialist, and philosopher. He is, of course, best known for his philosophy of Marxism, which proposed that human societies develop via a social struggle between different interest groups.
Also helps us to explore History, HS, NS

Milgram, Stanley (1933 – 1984)

Milgram was an American psychologist, who designed the (in)famous Milgram experiment to investigate the extent to which we respond to authority. His conclusions on the human capacity to go along with immoral acts are deeply disturbing.
Also helps us to explore Reason, history, HS

Mill, John Stuart (1806 – 1873)

Mill was a philosopher and liberal thinker, and one of the most important figures in the campaign against slavery. He developed the utilitarian principles of Jeremy Bentham, attaching to it the term ‘greatest-happiness principle’ in order to test if utilitarianism was being employed successfully.
Also helps us to explore Emotion

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844 – 1900)

Nietzsche permeates all modern thinking, and he is credited as being one of the key figures in the challenge to a religious-based approach to morality. Being such a defining personality, it’s hard to narrow down his ideas, but one particular example is his ‘perspectivist’ ideas on truth and morality.
Also helps us to explore TNK, HS

Orwell, George (1903 – 1950)

Orwell was the author of (among many other things) Animal Farm and 1984. In many ways, he is the ‘patron saint of  TOK’, because of his huge range of ideas on so many different topics. Amongst these, were his ideas on language, and the extent to which is governs the way we think. But he also wrote on the power of the state when it comes to representing history.
Also helps us to explore Language, reason, history, HS

Owen, Wilfred (1893 – 1918)

Owen was a First World War poet who wrote bitterly about his experiences as a soldier, attacking the ruling classes and the generals who in his opinion had no idea of what they were doing. This amounted to a revolutionary view of the world, and helped to change society utterly after the conflict ended.
Also helps us to explore Language, arts

Picasso, Pablo (1881 – 1973)

Picasso was a Spanish painter and sculptor, who completely altered the way in which we view reality. He was one of the co-founders of the Cubism artistic movement, and is regarded as one of the most important artistic thinkers ever to have lived.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, arts

Plato (428/427 – 348/347 BC)

Plato, a pupil of Socrates, was one of the most influential philosophers in history, helping to lay down the framework for the way we think. He was influenced almost as much by Socrates’ ideas as he was by his apparently unfair execution. His metaphor of the cave is of particular interest on the nature of existence.
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, HS

Popper, Karl (1902 – 1994)

Popper, an Austro-British academic, wrote on just about every subject there is. His philosophy of science is particularly relevant, and one of his central ideas is that our knowledge of reality is severely limited, and for a theory to be truly scientific, it should be possible to empirically falsify it.
Also helps us to explore TNK, NS

Richards, Sam (1960 – )

Richards is a sociologist, and teacher of race relations. He specializes in addressing and exploring difficult, controversial subjects; a process that he believes involves viewing the world through multiple perspectives, and drawing on kills of empathy.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, HS

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1712 – 1782)

Rousseau was a writer and philosopher whose thoughts on politics are amongst the most influential that have ever been developed. His idea that there should be a social contract between government and governed outlined in the publication of the same title helped to inspire the American (and later, French) revolution.
Also helps us to explore TNK, HS

Russell, Bertrand (1872 – 1970)

Russell is one of the towering figures of 20th century thought, and wrote on subjects as diverse as mathematics and the morality of nuclear weapons. His thoughts scatter the TOK course, beginning with the nature of knowledge, and the definition of truth.
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, mathematics, NS, RKS

Sassoon, Siegfried (1886 – 1967)

Sassoon was a poet who wrote scathingly of the First World War, and helped to shape the style and ability of Wilfred Owen, who eventually eclipsed his own fame. Sassoon was particularly critical of the ruling classes, and this revolutionary view helped to change people’s perspectives of human society after the war had ended.
Also helps us to explore Arts, HS

Shafak, Elif (1971 – )

Shafak is a Turkish writer whose books draw on a whole range of different themes and cultures, but for which one thing is vital: the imaginative story. She argues against pigeonholing artists and people due to race, culture, and identity, and asserts that fiction allows us to connect with others.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, arts, HS

Socrates (469 – 399 BC)

Arguably, the philosopher who started it all, at least in terms of the way we think. Socrates never wrote anything down, so this makes it hard to figure out his ideas exactly. He is best known, perhaps, for his method, which stressed the fact that we should be aware of our ignorance, and never cease asking questions. He said (we think): ‘I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.’
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, HS

Weil, Simone (1909 – 1943)

Weil was a French philosopher, political and religious thinker. She was noted for her compassion towards others, and is also remarkable for her thoughts and opinions on Christianity and other religions.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, RKS

Wilde, Oscar (1854 – 1900)

Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet and writer. The archetypal C19th wit, he also wrote widely on art, but was persecuted for his sexuality, and his anti-establishment outlook ensured his downfall.
Also helps us to explore Arts, HS

Zimbardo, Philip (1933 – )

Zimbardo is a psychologist best known for his Stanford Prison experiment of 1971, in which graduate students given power over their peers quickly began to abuse it in unexpected and brutal ways. For Zimbardo, it is generally the system that causes ‘evil’ to happen, rather than individuals.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, reason, HS

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key thinkers on ethics (3rd December 2013). Last accessed: 23rd April 2018


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