Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison

ethicsEthics — 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:

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.


33 thoughts on “Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison

  1. Mark Sloan

    Hi labnut,

    Yes, sometimes it does best advance the discussion to make a point by point response (with quotes!) to criticisms. But if the list of criticisms appears to be based on one or two key underlying misunderstandings or false assumptions about the other’s position, it is more efficient and practical to focus on the perceived underlying misunderstandings or assumptions. No doubt I sometimes make the wrong choice in choosing how to respond.

    Responding to each of your points in turn could require a reply longer than I have time to write and longer than I expect you would care to read, but perhaps I should attempt it once anyway.

    Also, implicit in what I have written here is an assumption of familiarity with Protagoras and Socrates’ conversation and awareness of at least the conclusions from the large body of work done in the last 40 years or so, particularly in evolutionary game theory, on the evolutionary origins and present function of our moral sense and moral codes. Those are the science based conclusions that confirm Protagoras’s claim about morality’s function.

    Labnut: “You keep claiming that morality’s function has been confirmed by science. In response I repeat my question – how has science confirmed this?”

    It is the general consensus from the last 40 years or so of work that something like “Descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies”. See for example:
    Curry, O. S. (in press). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
    Gintis, Herbert; Bowles, Samuel (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
    Nowak, Martin A. (2013). Evolution, Games, and God. Harvard University Press.

    My own approach (which is consistent with the above, but more explicitly discusses moral codes and moral universals) to showing how science confirms Protagoras’ conclusion is summarized at

    Here are some extracts:

    “Moral philosophers refer to cultural and individual moral codes as descriptively moral, meaning described as moral in one society but not necessarily considered moral in other societies. Following this convention, behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral codes will be referred to as descriptively moral.
    Collectively, these descriptively moral behaviors provide evolutionists with a wonderfully diverse, contradictory, and bizarre data set to be explained. Because of this diversity, evolutionists can be highly confident that 1) any hypothesis that explains all the data set does not do so merely by chance and 2) it is unlikely there will be multiple hypotheses that explain the data equally well. This is just the sort of data set that enables coming to scientifically robust conclusions.”

    I then go on to argue that the hypothesis that explains virtually all this data set is
    “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are descriptively moral.”

    However, game theory shows that known cooperation strategies such as kin altruism, direct reciprocity, and indirect reciprocity can be contradictory. These contradictions appear to be the primary source of the diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness of descriptively moral behavior.
    Finding the subset of descriptively moral behaviors that are internally consistent, and therefore eliminate the source of descriptively moral behavior’s diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness we have:
    “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity are universally moral.”

    Labnut: “I fail to see how universality can be used to resolve moral disputes.”

    If behaviors are universally moral then they will be put forward as universally moral by all well-informed, rational people. That provides a moral reference. A moral reference agreed to by all well informed, rational people is inherently useful for resolving moral disputes because only ill-informed or irrational people would argue against using that moral reference.

    Labnut: “You regard Protagoras as the ruling authority. But why choose him?”

    What is special about Protagoras is the pre-Socratic, pre-rule-of-law-money-economy view of morality he advocated. Remember the story form that Protagoras presented his argument in. It was the commonly known myth of why and how Zeus gave people a moral sense that enabled them to cooperate in groups. Before the emergence of rule-of-law-money-economies, moral behavior was the chief means by which cooperation in groups was maintained – just as described in the Zeus/moral sense myth. But by the time Socrates arrived on the scene, the myth was ancient and rule-of-law-money-economies were vigorously functioning in the Greek city states to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups much more efficiently than moral behavior ever could. Hence the emergence of rule-of-law-money-economies muddied the moral waters and produced a growing confusion, as on Socrates’ part, about the function of morality.

    But more importantly, I refer to Protagoras because he is the only one of the well-known ancient philosophers, the subject of Massimo’s post, who advocated an understanding of descriptive morality consistent with modern science.

    Labnut: “Which of the well informed, rational people – Protagoras, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus Christ, Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Buddha, Confucius, Pope Francis or Alisdair MacIntyre? Take your pick and then tell me why you choose that one.”

    None of them were or are well informed about modern insights into descriptively moral and universally moral behaviors from science. Protagoras simply reflected the common view, based on experience and exemplified by myth, of the function of morality (prior to the emergence of rule-of-law-money-economies) which still survived, at least among the common people, up to that point.

    Labnut: “You cannot choose a certain form of cooperation without using terms such as ‘ought’, ‘right’ or ‘good’.”

    Sure I can. I can find an internally self-consistent cooperation principle that defines a subset of descriptively moral behaviors and argue why it is universally moral. No ‘ought’, ‘right’ or ‘good’ terms required at all. Perhaps you are still thinking I, or actually the science, is mistakenly making some kind of bindingness regardless of our needs and preferences claim? That would require an ‘ought’, ‘right’ or ‘good’ based on either a premise or ultimate source of bindingness, neither of which science can provide.

    Labnut: “Ought’s are not magic, they are a real and compelling part of human intuitions.”

    “Magic oughts” refers only to oughts that are claimed to be somehow innately binding on us without regard to our needs and preferences. Of course there are many kinds of oughts that are quite real. There are emotional oughts from our intuitions, cultural oughts enforced by societies, instrumental oughts, and perhaps others. I have assumed we agree that oughts that are somehow innately (not merely socially or emotionally) binding on us without regard to our needs and preferences appear to have no reality in our universe (even though they are central to utilitarianism and Kantianism’s claims).

    Labnut: “You seem to be arguing for a form of ethics that is functional in nature. That is utilitarianism.”

    No, utilitarianism is not functional in nature. Utilitarianism only defines an ultimate goal (‘end’); it is silent concerning ‘means’ (function). Not defining moral ‘means’ is the origin of utilitarianism’s intuition contradicting moral claims.
    Incidentally, I argue that “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity” is the ‘means’ most likely to achieve utilitarianism’s ultimate goal. (It also eliminates all of utilitarianism’s intuition contradicting moral claims.) If you like utilitarianism’s ultimate goal, then you might favor a rule-utilitarianism where the rule is defined by “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity.”
    Rather than morality’s function integrated into a rule-utilitarianism though, I prefer integrating it into some form of virtue ethics, as I have advocated here, as an answer to the question “How can I live a good life?”

    Labnut: To label the carefully reasoned development of ethical philosophy as ‘mere speculation‘ shows ignorance of a large body of philosophical thought. Such a cavalier dismissal is not a rational argument.

    What you describe as the “carefully reasoned development of ethical philosophy” produced contradictory conclusions such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics based on one assumed premise or another (though the originators may have incorrectly thought they were ‘proven’). In comparison with science based conclusions about the function of descriptively moral behaviors and what behaviors are universally moral, and in view of the perspective I think we both share that moral philosophy has revealed no “fact of the matter” about what is moral, then calling them “mere speculations” seems accurate.

    But yes, it is pejorative and probably best left unsaid to avoid unnecessary offense followed by derailing of communications. Sometimes it is best to not say everything you think.


  2. labnut

    we have beaten the subject to death and comment fatigue is setting in, so it is time to let go. I have heard your argument, studied it but nevertheless stand by my argument. Since I have no competitive need to win the argument I am happy to let you have the last word. To help you understand where I am coming from, as a devout Catholic, this is what I really believe:

    16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.
    Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes -16,

    Naturally I don’t expect others to share my beliefs.


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