Ethics — as a branch of philosophy — means a very different thing today than it did once. And that, perhaps, is a mistake. There is an excellent article over at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by John-Stewart Gordon, discussing the topic, that is very much worth checking out. Here are the highlights.
The first, and arguably most important, thing to understand about how the Greco-Romans conceived of ethics is that they regarded it as the study of how to live a happy life, not (as in the modern sense) the study of which actions are right or wrong. Gordon mentions the example of “justice,” which the ancients saw as a character trait (a virtue), not as the idea of people having rights.
Accordingly, it is interesting to note that the words “ethics” and “morality” have revealing roots: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character; the second one is from the Latin moralis, which has to do with habits and customs. (Moralis is how Cicero translated the Greek êthos.)
Gordon provides his readers with the following very helpful “family tree” of ancient ethical schools:
As you can see, it all began with Socrates. From his teachings with have a trio of schools: Plato’s Academy, Aristippus’ Cyrenaics, and Antishtenes’ Cynics. Aristotelianism originated from within the Academy (which Aristotle frequented), Cyrenaism led to Epicureanism, and finally Cynicism birthed Stoicism — although of course the actual relationships among all these schools are best thought of as many-to-many, rather than in terms of linear descent. Let’s take a brief look at each in turn.
Socraticism: We know what Socrates taught mostly (though not exclusively) from the early Platonic dialogues (e.g., Laches, Charades, Protagoras). This is the prototype of virtue ethical approaches, where wisdom is the Chief Good, the only thing that is always good because it is necessary to properly use everything else. We have a moral imperative to examine our life, and reason is our guide in doing so. The eudaimonic life consists in acting in the right way, and evil is the result of ignorance (i.e., nobody purposefully wants to do bad things).
Platonism (the Academy): Plato, in the later dialogues, maintained crucial aspects of Socrates’ view (the eudaimonic life is one of practicing virtue) while at the same time adding a number of metaphysical notions (i.e., recasting things in terms of his famous theory of Forms, where the Form of the Good is the transcendent principle of all goodness), and subordinating individual flourishing to societal needs, as in the Republic, where the ideal state reflects the tripartite division of the human soul, with philosophers, naturally, in charge of it — just like reason is in charge of the “spirited” and “appetitive” parts of the individual soul.
Aristotelianism (the Peripatetic school, the Lyceum): for Aristotle too the point of life was to achieve eudaimonia through the practice of the virtues (of which he identified 12). For Aristotle this is because everything in the world, including humans, have a proper function: our proper function is to use reason, and this is the way to live a eudaimonic life. However, one also needs some external goods, such as a supportive family and societal environment, some degree of education, health and wealth, and even some good looks. Which means, crucially, that being able to live a eudaimonic life is not entirely within the grasp of the agent: some luck, in the form of favorable circumstances, is also needed.
Cyrenaism: Aristippus of Cyrene was, tellingly enough, the first of Socrates’ disciples to actually take money for his services. For him the primary purpose of life was not eudaimonic happiness, but rather the moment-to-moment experience of bodily pleasures. To achieve this one needs practical virtue, but only instrumentally, in order to seek pleasure. Still, one better not think of the Cyrenaics as simply being into sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but rather as seeking what might be called enlightened hedonism. As Aristippus put it: “I possess, but I am not possessed.” Self-control was important, in order to maintain cheerfulness while making the best of every situation.
Epicureanism (the Garden): Epicurus too taught that life is about increasing one’s pleasure and (especially) reducing one’s pain (many centuries later he was a looming influence on John Stuart Mill and his revision of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, see below). But Epicurean hedonism was much more sophisticated than its Cyrenaic counterpart (despite later Christian smearing). For one thing, it included mental pleasures, which were actually considered superior to bodily ones (again, this reappears much later in Mill), and happiness is not just a moment-by-moment thing, but a lifelong process. The Epicurean way included freeing oneself from prejudice (especially of a religious nature), mastering one’s desires, living a modest life, and cultivating friendship. Crucially, however, Epicureans counseled withdrawal from social and political life (because it is much more likely to bring about pain than pleasure).
Cynicism: according to Antisthenes of Athens, the founder of the Cynic school, virtue understood as practical wisdom is not only necessary for a eudaimonic life, it is also sufficient. Which is why the Cynics famously pushed the already rather frugal Socratic lifestyle to an extreme (think of Diogenes of Sinope, who was Antisthenes’ student, and who famously lived in a ceramic jar, begged for a living, and flaunted just about any social convention).
Stoicism: Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, learned his philosophy initially from Crates, who was a Cynic and disciple of Diogenes of Sinope. As readers of this blog likely know, Stoicism struck a middle ground between Aristotelianism and Cynicism, granting to the latter that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness, but also nodding toward the former in recovering (some) interest in external goods, which are now classified into preferred and dispreferred indifferents (i.e, they are strictly speaking indifferent to one’s ability to exercise the virtues and to one’s moral worth, but they can facilitate or hamper such exercise nonetheless).
From the brief explanations given above and the diagram presented by Gordon, one can reconstruct a nice conceptual progression and ramification from the Socratic starting point: the Platonic/Aristotelian branch stuck close to Socratic eudamonicism, but the Platonists went mystical (the theory of Forms, the ideal Republic), while the Aristotelians turn pragmatic (some external goods are necessary to achieve eudaimonia). The Cyrenaic/Epicurean branch abandoned the centrality of virtue and turned toward pleasure instead, with the crucial difference mentioned above that the Cyrenaics considered only bodily moment-to-moment pleasures, while the Epicureans most valued intellectual and life-long pleasures. Finally, the Cynic/Stoic branch stuck with the Socratic primacy of virtue, in the case of the Cynics leading to an ascetic lifestyle, in that of the Stoics to the elaboration of a way to recover (and yet put into perspective) what most people would consider good externals.
What of modern ethics, then? As is well known, there are two main approaches in modern moral philosophy: Kantian-style deontology and utilitarianism.
For Kant, ethics is a question of obeying a supreme moral law under all circumstances. This is his famous categorical imperative, one version of which is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Notice that for a deontologist the locus of action, so to speak, is not the particular individual, as the moral law is universal; and morality isn’t about how to live one’s life, but rather about which actions are right and which are wrong.
Those latter two points hold also for utilitarianism, which originated with Jeremy Bentham and then J.S. Mill. Bentham’s position is often labelled radical hedonism, because it maintains that one should apply a “hedonic calculus” to all human decisions, always going for whatever increases most people’s happiness and/or decreases most people’s pain. Mill produced a more sophisticated version of the principle, distinguishing between qualitatively different pleasures, with so-called “higher pleasures” effectively trumping, or at the least being more heavily weighed than, so-called “lower pleasures.”
(As Mill famously explained it: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”)
As I mentioned above, utilitarianism is related to the Hellenistic hedonic schools, roughly speaking with Cyrenaism corresponding to Bentham-style utilitarianism and Epicureanism corresponding to Mill-style utilitarianism. Interestingly, Gordon adds that “the Kantian idea of doing the right thing because reason dictates it has its roots in Stoicism,” which means that both modern approaches, as different as they are from their Greek ancestors, nonetheless still bear significant marks of common descent.
In broad terms, then, here is how Gordon summarizes the differences between the ancient and the modern approach to ethics: “All [ancient] philosophical schools were concerned with the vital questions of how to live a good life and how to achieve happiness by pointing out what the appropriate actions were. … Modern morality is different in that its focus is on the basic question of how one should act. The ancient question of how should one live is secondary.” I would argue that in this case the ancients got it right, and we may want to seriously consider going back to their approach.
Categories: Virtue Ethics