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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A Morality Primer: Western Philosophy

If it is true, as Schopenhauer had it, that man has a 'metaphysical need', then could it also be said that he has a 'moralistic need'? Even if - as some philosophers claim - it is true that morality and metaphysics are 'interpretation' rather than 'text', the need still remains. Here I want to briefly look at some moral concepts as they appear in Western Philosophy from the Pre-Platonics to the moderns.

God and Morality

"Many duties imposed by law are hostile to nature."
[Antiphon] (1)

Moral theory begins with the Sophists;
"Protagoras said  that 'man is the measure of all things' ... since often a particular thing appears good [kalon] to some and opposite to others, and the criterion [metron] is what appears to each individual." (2)

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all try to answer the Sophists, but in so doing, they tend to separate God from morality. Plato's Euthyphro sets the bench-mark for this separation - a position of some enduring validity for philosophy. It does so in the form of a dilemma, which we can formulate thus: is morality good because God commands it, or does God command morality because it is good?
If the former, then moral theory is redundant and man can only slavishly obey the arbitrary divine command. This is problematic as "the gods, are not thought of as arbitrary. They have to be regarded as selecting the right things to allow and to forbid ... it is not given that they do this simply because they are powerful ... That doesn't make them good." (3)
If morality itself is good, then it is separate from God, and God is therefore largely irrelevant to it. As this latter position allows moral theory, it is the one mostly adopted by philosophers whether they believe in God or not.

1) Antiphon, an Athenian Sophist of the 5th century BC; quote from Ayer and O'Grady p. 10
2) Aristotle, Metaph. 1062b 13, in Guthrie p. 171. See my essay on Protagoras here.
3) Blackburn, p. 16

The Good Life

As morality is primarily concerned with what is right and wrong (or good and bad) in relation to the conduct and/or character of human beings, Socrates and Plato tried to set down the necessary definitions of Goodness, Justice and other 'virtues' which make for the 'good life'.

In the Republic, Plato argues that "the good life consists in the harmony of the soul, with each part of the soul - reason, spirit and appetite - performing the proper function ... the morally good life lived in accordance with the virtues is thereby shown to be the best life for human beings. This is Plato's answer to the question 'Why should I be moral?' ..." (4)

Aristotle developed this further into a character-based moral theory.
Importantly, whereas Plato thought that if a man knew what was morally good, he could not fail to do it, Aristotle thought otherwise. To him, a man - even though he know the good - could fail to do it if he were blighted by 'weak will' [akrasia] or lack of self-control; a welcome improvement on the Platonic model.

Characteristically, where Plato looked to abstract ideals, Aristotle observed human nature in order to reflect clearly on what it means to be moral, and specifically what the 'good life' entails. Such a life is a rational one lived "with excellence - or 'with virtue' - kat areten." (5)

4) Honderich p. 587
5) Graham in Mautner p. 43


In keeping with his teleological view, Aristotle asks what is the ultimate good at which such a man would aim?  And, as his logical principles will not allow an infinite regress, he assumes that this ultimate good must be an end in itself and not a means to another end ad infinitum; "and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself." (6)

The goal to which a man aims is eudaimonia, a word which is often translated as 'happiness', but is not to be confused with the 'happiness' of Utilitarian ethics, or with the subjective happiness of popular usage. The Greek word means - literally - having a 'good guardian spirit' [cf. 'demon'], and so has the sense of an objective bestowal of well-being, excellence and completion upon the well-turned-out man of action.
Being a thorough-going aristocratic thinker, Aristotle ranks men in descending order:
First and foremost is the 'god-like'; next in line is the 'virtuous'; then the 'continent', down to the 'incontinent' followed by the 'vicious' and - last and least - the 'beast-like'.
Needless to say, these lower regions below the continent will not display eudaimonia [and nor will women and servants either].

The god-like type will need to have "a complete life. For one swallow does not make a summer." (7)
This means that the good life is 'accumulative' - it is a work in progress. It is also a political life, "since man is born for citizenship." (8)

6) Nico Ethics 1097a 30, in Aristotle p. 342
7) ib. 1098a 15, p. 343
8) ib. 1097b 10

The Soul

Eudaimonia is the activity of the soul, and like Plato, Aristotle divides the soul into rational and irrational components;
"The irrational part itself divides into vegetative [which is found even in plants] and the appetitive [which is found in all animals]. The appetitive part may be in some degree rational, when the goods that it seeks are such as reason approves of. This is essential to the account of virtue, for reason alone, in Aristotle, is purely contemplative, and does not, without the help of appetite, lead to any practical activity." (9)

There are then, ethical virtues and intellectual virtues which correspond to the parts of the soul, and it is with the ethical virtues that we are concerned here in Aristotle's moral theory.

9) Russell p. 168

The Great-Souled man

The ethical virtues which Aristotle outlines are those 'dispositions' which stand-out in the man of excellence, and include courage [andreia] in battle; magnificance [megaloprepeia] - i.e., 'living like an artist'; and pride [megalopsychia]. (10)

Most remarkable to modern eyes is his description of the virtue of the proud [or 'great-souled'] man;
"Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues ...
"The proud man despises justly ...
"is open in his hate and in his love [for to conceal one's feeling, i.e., to care less for truth than for what people think, is a coward's part], and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar ...
"Nor is he given to admiration." (11)

If one were to ask innocently, after Kant, 'what if everybody did that?', then it would become immediately apparent that Aristotle's aristocratic virtues cannot be translated into a universal morality as they are intrinsically particularist and anti-egalitarian.
Instead of 'equality', he prefers 'proportion', believing that "everybody should be loved in proportion to his worth, that the inferior should love the superior more than the superior loves the inferior." (12)

10) Solomon pp. 534-5
11) Nico. Ethics 1124a-1125a. pp. 370-1
12) Russell p. 170

The Golden Mean

 It should be remembered that the aforementioned proud man is considered by Aristotle to be a 'golden mean' between two extremes [as Russell quipped, I'd hate to hear what the extreme version would be like!']. Indeed, all of the virtues are described in this way. Of course, they are not meant to be 'middling' or mediocre, but are rather meant to be pitched between excess and lack.

So pride as a virtue is a 'mean' between humility [which is a lack] and vanity [which is an excess]. However, as Aristotle's own description of the proud man shows, you cannot have an excess of the golden virtue itself. (13)

Russell points out what he sees as a flaw in the doctrine of the 'golden mean' as it applies to some of the virtues. In the case of the virtue of truthfulness, for example, this is situated between [the lack] 'mock modesty' and [the excess] 'boastfulness'.. (14)
Russell says that "this only applies to truthfulness about oneself. I do not see how truthfulness in any wider sense can be fitted into the scheme." (15)

In the 13th century Aquinas attempts to synthesise Christian morality and Aristotelian ethics but "he substitutes for Aristotelian 'happiness' ... the 'theological virtues' of faith, hope, and above all, charity." (16)

13) Solomon p. 531
14) Nico. Ethics 1108a 20. p. 353
15) Russell p. 169 [Russell's objection assumes that truth has a 'wider-sense'.]
16) Cooper p. 126


 It takes Machiavelli in the Renaissance to raise the moral problematic, just as the Sophists did in ancient Greece. In his The Prince (1513) he directly challenges these 'theological virtues', saying that, to preserve his estate, a prince must "act against faith, charity, humanity, and religion." (17)

In the Prolegomena to his Three Books on the Law of War and Peace [1625], Grotius stated that moral principles would be valid irrespective of God; he also "proposed that self-preservation is a moral principle: it is the foundational 'natural right' upon which all known moralities and codes of social behaviour must have been constructed." (18)

This influenced Hobbes who completely rejected Aristotle's view of human nature, declaring famously that man was rather at root anti-social. Human life being - in a 'state of nature' - "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (19)

17) Machiavelli p. 46. There are various alternative readings of the Prince (cf. Croce,  A. Skinner etc.)
18) Tuck in Hobbes p. 338
19) Hobbes p. 70



Morality then, was a human creation; and in order to live together without the constant threat of total annihilation, men had to make a 'social contract' agreeing to live by a moral code [enforced by might]. This doesn't change the fact, according to Hobbes, that men are essentially egoistic - indeed, morality itself is the result of self-interest as it seeks to prevent ultimate obliteration.

This a typical move of the moral theory called 'psychological egoism' which claims that all of man's actions - even the most altruistic - are really egoistic;
"The strategy of reinterpreting motives is persuasive ... But it is not a conclusive method of reasoning, for it cannot prove that Psychological Egoism is correct ... It does nothing to show that the egoistic motives are truer than the altruistic explanations they are intended to replace.." (20)

Apart from the general question-begging nature of the theory, it also leaves everything as it is in the world; in other words, the same actions - be they selfish or altruistic - remain. The only difference is that the egoist views them differently.

This is a basic problem with similar explanatory theories;
"Perhaps everything comes down to sex, or status, or power, or death ...
"Consider the dispiriting view that everybody always acts out of self-interest ... taken at face-value it is obviously false ... the moralist Joseph Butler (1692-1752) gives the example of a man who runs upon certain ruin in order to avenge himself of an insult." (21)

No doubt the egoist will even have an explanation for that - but this is close to casuistry.

20) Rachels p. 65
21) Blackburn p. 35

Sentiment and Good Will

The Hobbesian view provoked two main strands of rebuttal.
One is based on the concept of inherent 'moral sentiments' which holds that human nature is basically good and benevolent. The notion of morality as "sentiment ['feelings'] and the notion of sympathy ['fellow feeling'] or feeling pity for other people and taking their interests into account as well as our own" (22) is developed further in the moral philosophies of Hume and Rousseau.

The other strand takes the route of reason;
"Our reason acquaints us with moral duties which are, in some sense part of the natural order of the universe, and which are independent both of the divine will and of any social contract or political authority." (23)

Kant's moral theory is the most formidable expression of this train of thought. In contradistinction to the pure moral empiricism of Hume, Kant states that morality must be based on rationality alone, and not upon habits, feelings or 'inclinations'. Morality must be autonomous, while being universal at the same time. Only in this way can practical reason establish the fundamental principles of morality for all men in all places, in all situations and at all times. (24)

Against the Aristotelian eudaimonia he places his notion of 'good will' [der gute Wille]. This rests upon his main principle: that of duty, which often causes us to act against our own inclinations.
The good will "subjects itself to rational principles which are moral laws; and it is action in accordance with such laws that make a man good." (25)
The moral principles are a priori because they are necessary and universal;

"But what sort of law can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it, in order that this may be called good absolutely and without qualification? As I have deprived the will of every impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any law, there remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, i.e., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." (26)
This is the well-known 'categorical imperative' - 'categorical' because it is to be without exception. From this we can derive certain general prohibitions which must always be obeyed: Don't Lie! Keep Your Promises! and Never Use People! (27)

The difficulty in Kant's moral theory is already becoming obvious: it makes unreasonable demands and is therefore largely impractical and so defeats its own purpose. Life is predicated on exploitation whether consensual or not; promises often have to be broken, just as lies are sometimes told for the greater good. (28)

22) Solomon p. 539
23) Honderich p. 588
24) cf. Solomon pp. 547-9
25) Solomon p. 549
26) Kant, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, section 1, quoted in Cooper p. 177. A 'maxim' here is the subjective principle of volition.
27) cf. Solomon p. 556
28) cf. Blackburn p. 47


And this brings us to another rival moral theory which emphasises this latter concern with the 'greater good', and is therefore based on the notion of consequences rather than the hell-paved road of good intentions.

When Bentham stated that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation" he was echoing the words of Hutcheson (Concerning Moral Good and Evil 1725] - one of the opponents of Hobbes. (29) In his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation [written 1780, published 1789], Bentham formulated this as his principle of 'utility', averring that "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do." (30)

This is a radical doctrine, then as now; it is also fraught with immediate difficulties which Bentham does little to dispel. If everything comes down to 'happiness' or 'pleasure' [and these are never differentiated satisfactorily in the theory], then 'pushpin is as good as poetry' [The Rationale of Reward, Book 3, chapter 1].
As this opens the door to all kinds of sybaritic hedonism, Bentham is compelled to create a complicated 'happiness calculus' which betrays the legal bias of his idea. here actions are to be weighed up as in a court of law, with pleasure in one scale and pain in the other. The utilitarian is meant to judge the "intensity", "duration", "certainty", "uncertainty", "fecundity" and "purity" of a pleasure [or pain] and "take into an account of the number of persons whose interests who appear to be concerned and repeat the above process to respect to each." (31)

Such a process is grossly impractical, notwithstanding the dubious and oxymoronic notions of 'bad pleasures' and so forth which are inherent in the theory.

J. S. Mill attempts to rehabilitate the theory in his Utilitarianism [1862], tending to try and locate it in the line from Aristotle's [very different] 'happiness', to Epicurus, the Stoics and Christianity, claiming that Jesus Christ was a Utilitarian. (32)
Mill's main revision of the theory involves positing a qualitative distinction within the pleasure principle, making the case for higher and lower pleasure in the 'happiness calculus', saying - contra Bentham - that Shakespeare is presumably preferable to pushpin, and a dissatisfied Socrates is better than a satisfied pig! (33) But in so doing, Mill changes the nature of the theory, as well as compounding the unwieldy workload of the calculus.

29) Oxford p. 19. cf. Honderich p. 589
30) Ayer and O'Grady p. 46
31) Betham IPML quoted in Solomon p. 564
32) cf. Solomon p. 570
33) ib. p. 566

The Test of Morality

The 20th century saw a revival of the four main moral theories: the Rights-based morality [cf. Kant]; Utilitarianism; Contractarianism [cf. Hobbes] and Virtue ethics [cf. Aristotle], (34) all of which we have considered above.
While each of them has its difficulties as already noted, I believe that virtue ethics still offers the best account of morality as its difficulties are less insurmountable than the others.

My criteria for this judgment is as follows:

  1. Does the theory work in practice? Is it doable rather than merely theoretical? [cf. Schopenhauer: "what is right in theory must work in practice; if it does not, there is a mistake in the theory; something has been over-looked and not allowed for; and, consequently, what is wrong in practice is wrong in theory too." (35)

  2. Is the theory elegant and therefore not over-burdened with ad hoc clauses, complex caveats etc?

  3. Is it coherent and not self-contradictory, self-defeating and paradoxical?

I believe that Aristotle's theory is the only one that can pass each of these tests.
While all four theories have a certain elegance, Mill vitiates the elegance of Utilitarianism by introducing the inter-theoretical incongruity of quality over quantity.
Therefore, in my view, Utilitarianism fails on all three counts above.
Kantianism fails on 1 and 3, being impractical, and largely incoherent, while the Hobbesian ethic fails on 3, too, and is indifferent as regards 1, all for the reasons given earlier.

Virtue ethics works in practice because it is specific to the type of person we are, and allows us to regard our ethical selves as a life-long project.

Its lack of universalism is not a weakness as Russell thought, but a strength.
Indeed, I think that the Euthyphronian dilemma not only disqualifies God but all universalic principles from being applied to morals.
As regards 1 and 3, the theory is elegant as it devolves from the notion of eudaimonia consistently and coherently, and elucidates it in its active working-out. So, despite the valiant attempts by others to surpass it, the first great moral theory of Western Philosophy remains the best, and resurfaces in Nietzschean moral genealogy, for example.

34) See; Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously [1977]; Hare, Moral Thinking [1981]; Rawls, A Theory of Justice [1971]; Foot, Virtues and Vices [1978], respectively.
35) Schopenhauer p. 192

Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, ed. Ross, Chicago 1952
Ayer and O'Grady eds. A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, Blackwell 1994
Blackburn, S. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, OUP 2001
Cooper, ed. Ethics: The Classic Readings, Blackwell 1998
Guthrie, W. The Sophists, Cambridge 1971
Hobbes, T. Leviathan, Fishman and Johnson ed., Norton Critical Edition, 1997
Honderich, T. ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, OUP 1995
Machiavell, N. The Prince, Dover 1992
Mautner ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin 1997
Oxford, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, OUP, 1981
Rachels, J. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw-Hill 1993
Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy, Routledge 2004
Schopenhauer, A. The Essential Schopenhauer, Unwin 1962
Solomon, R. Introducing Philosophy, OUP 2005

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