martes, 3 de junio de 2014

A Short History of Ethics

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality — that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc. There has been a very wide range of views on the question among different civilizations and among different philosophers.

The Moral Intellectualism of Socrates

Socrates was a Greek philosopher, born in 469 BC. He was predominantly interested in Ethics and is considered the father of moral intellectualism.

Moral intellectualism can be explained as follows: only if we know what is right can we act right, only if we know what is just can we act justly. Therefore, virtue is knowledge (of what is good and bad). Knowledge is, then, sought as a means to ethical action. When people act immorally, they do not do so deliberately; they do it because they are ignorants. According to Socrates, knowledge is sufficient for being virtuous and virtue is sufficient for being happy. Self-knowledge is the sufficient condition to the good life. Our true happiness is promoted by doing what is right.

Knowledge = virtue, good

Ignorance = bad, evil, not useful

He also said that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it, as doing injustice damages our soul. Our convictions seem contrary to moral intellectualism, as we believe that someone may know something is wrong and yet do it. For moral intellectualism, perfection is a consequence of the perfection of the intellect or reason.

Aristotle’s Eudaimonia

Aristotle was born in 384 BC. He was a Greek philosopher, a polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great.

He taught that virtue has to do with the proper function of a thing. An eye is only a good eye as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. He reasoned that humans must have a specific function to humans, and this function must be an activity of the soul, in accordance with reason. Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as “happiness” or sometimes “well being”. To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character or moral/ethical virtue.

The Greek term eudaimon is composed of two parts: eu means “well” and daimon means “divinity” or “spirit”. To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favoured by a god. But Aristotle never pays attention to this etymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards eudaimon as a mere substitute for “living well”. These terms are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind, but they play an evaluative role: they give you an idea about what actions are correct.

Aristotle presents eudaimonia as the highest human end. Aristotle asserts that above the particular goods such as money and health there is another type of good that is good in itself. This higher good is the cause of whatever goodness there is in all other (particular) goods. Aristotle labels this higher good eudaimonia. He roughly equates eudaimonia with happiness, which he identifies with living or doing well. Eudaimonia is a first principle, therefore everything else we undertake we do for its sake.

Aristotle’s search for the good is a search for the highest good, and he assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.

Aristotle also establishes the doctrine of the mean to help us understand which qualities are virtues. According to this doctrine, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency. The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle is careful to add, however, that the mean is to be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual. Once we see that temperance, courage and other generally recognised characteristics are mean states, we are in a position to generalise and to identify other mean states as virtues.

Epicurean Hedonism

Epicurus of Samos, born in 341 BC, founded his school, The Garden, in Athens.

Epicurus’ philosophy is based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. What is good is what is pleasurable and what is bad is what is painful. Then, this is the basis for moral distinction between good and bad.

The good life for Epicurus is the result of the pursuit of pleasure and therefore his ethics is called hedonism (hedoné means pleasure in Greek). But he points out that we must seek pleasures which endure throughout a life-time, not momentary pleasures. Examples: intellectual pleasure, serenity of soul, health of body. He also distinguished between higher and lower pleasures:

  • Higher pleasures: pleasures of the mind -intellectual and aesthetic.
  • Lower pleasures: pleasures of the body -food, drink, and sex.

We must pursue the higher pleasures most preferably, so we can reach the tranquility of soul. Even though every pain is evil and pleasure good, Epicurean hedonism is meant to result in a calm and tranquil life, not libertinism, overindulgence or excess. Peace of mind and mental well-being is achieved through philosophy

Epicurus also put great stress on friendship because one’s own pleasure is dependent on others too.

He also believed we should not fear death. The fear of death only arises from the belief that in death there is awareness. But he argues that when a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is, and he therefore feels nothing. As Epicurus said, “death is nothing to us”. When we exist, death is not, and when death exists, we are not.  

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