Alfred Cyril Ewing was born in Leicester on 11 May 1899, the only child of H F Ewing, a shoe retailer, and his wife Emma. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School, Leicester, and University College, Oxford. He took a first in classics and was awarded several prizes and scholarships. In 1923 he received his doctorate, and his thesis was published as Kant's treatment of causality (1924). Ewing was also appointed a Doctor of Letters by the University of Cambridge in 1933.
Following Oxford, Ewing held temporary lectureships at the University of Michigan and at Armstrong College, Newcastle. From 1927-1931 he was assistant lecturer in philosophy at University College, Swansea. In 1931 Ewing was appointed lecturer in moral sciences at Cambridge, and promoted to a readership in 1954. He had hoped to succeed C.D. Broad as Knightsbridge professor of moral philosophy in 1953, but in the event this chair went to R.B. Braithwaite. He was also a visiting professor at various times at Princeton, Northwestern University, the University of South California, the University of Colorado, and the University of Delaware.
As a philosopher, Ewing had built an early reputation as an astute and sympathetic critic of philosophical Idealism, as demonstrated in his Idealism (1934), which has been considered one of the best treatments of the subject. Despite his criticisms of Idealism, Ewing felt little sympathy either for the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein and his followers, or for logical positivism, two schools which were to dominate British philosophy in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Against the trend, Ewing continued to find value in the ethical theories of G E Moore, and was a trenchant, if largely unregarded, critic of the new trends in academic philosophy. He criticised logical positivism in the articles 'Meaninglessness' (1937) and 'The linguistic theory of a priori propositions' (1940). Some of his papers on the subject were collected and published as Non-linguistic philosophy in 1968, which demonstrated Ewing's consistently critical view of philosophy conceived of as essentially a linguistic dispute about meaning.
It was a characteristic of Ewing's philosophical approach to develop synthetic resolutions to competing theories, and this was particularly evident in his treatment of ethics. He wrote several works on ethics including The definition of the good (1947), Second thoughts in moral philosophy (1959), as well as a popular introduction Ethics (1953), which went through many impressions. Ewing took an objectivist view of moral judgment, but tried to make common ground with those who did not. In the latter part of his life, Ewing became increasingly sympathetic to philosophical theism, expounding his views in a late work, Value and reality (1973).
As a philosopher, Ewing always stood outside the mainstream, and did not achieve the reputation, which had looked likely in his early career. By the time of his death, he was a somewhat marginal figure, but he continued to be held in high regard by sympathetic critics, who appreciated the quality of his writings. Ewing was a very prolific author, writing over a dozen books and many articles. An active figure in professional forums, he was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1941/2, the treasurer of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies from 1953, and an active member of the International Institute of Philosophy. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1941.
Ewing never married. After his retirement from Cambridge, he moved to Manchester, where he shared a house with a cousin, Marion Sargent. He died at Manchester on 14 May 1973.