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.

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33 thoughts on “Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison

  1. “I would argue that in this case the ancients got it right, and we may want to seriously consider going back to their approach.”

    Excellent Massimo, precisely. Interestingly, early Buddhist ethics is similar in this regard. Although it does consider appropriate actions as critical in achieving the goal, learning how to act appropriately is not itself the goal. It is instead a lesser goal that (on a traditional interpretation) gets one to a better rebirth.

    Right speech, right action, and right livelihood collectively constitute the aspect of the Eightfold Path called “sīla“, often translated “ethics”, it is perhaps more appropriately termed “morality” in your above sense, since it deals with skillful habits and customs. The other aspects of the Path deal instead with purifying intention and character through meditative insight and wisdom.

    The Buddha typically taught only sīla to laypeople, who he believed did not have the time or interest to pursue a more dedicated path to wisdom, at least (again, on a traditional interpretation) in this lifetime.

    While it is not possible to achieve wisdom without sīla, sīla itself is not wisdom, nor does its achievement constitute the whole of “how one should live”.

    Also Buddhist ethics really doesn’t deal with moral dilemmas at all, which are the stock in trade of those systems that are most interested with finding the appropriate actions in each circumstance. Instead it asks one to look at purity of motivation above all.

    In this sense I think early Buddhist ethics has much more in common with ancient Greek systems of eudaimonic ethics than with their modern counterparts.

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  2. Douglass, indeed. I think it was William Irvine (in his A Guide to the Good Life, but I could be wrong) who pointed out that it is the modern Western philosophical approach to ethics — in terms of deontology or utilitarianism — that is odd. Most philosophical thought, for most of the time, both in the East and the West, has been along the lines of the Hellenistic and Buddhist ones. For instance, Confucianism is also considered a type of virtue ethics, albeit different in details from the Greek variety, of course.

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  3. I think the difference is more a matter of emphasis than substance. Both ask the question “How should one live and Why?” but the modern puts a heavy emphasis on ‘Why’ due to the acceptance of a Christian way of life by Europe. In the ancient world the way of life of reason was what needed to be developed as opposed to polytheism.

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  4. jbonnicerenoreg, I disagree. Modern ethics is really action-centered and universalistic in scope, while ancient (and Eastern) ethics is character-centered and personalistic (i.e., focused on the individual, rather than an impersonal point of view). I think those are pretty crucial differences.

    It is, though, a good question to ask where Christian ethics lies. It does seem to have components of both systems: character and intentions are important, but then again there is a strict deontological norm. And of course Kantian deontology is an attempt to secularize the Christian variety.

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  5. “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 am not sure I understand the difference between the two. Isn’t how we live determined by how we act?

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  6. I see three fundamental divisions:

    1) character centred – what kind of person do I want to be? Virtue ethics.
    2) act centred – what is the right thing to do? Deontology, rights and justice systems.
    3) outcome centred – what is the best outcome? Utilitarianism.

    I suggest that these three divisions represent our natural growth from childhood to mature wisdom.

    In childhood we have immature concepts of self, character, rightness and goodness. We intuitively seek the most favourable outcomes for ourselves and thus we are naive utilitarians.

    As we mature we acquire the concept of ‘rightness’ and identify certain acts as right or wrong. We become deontologists.

    From maturity we grow into wisdom and acquire the concept of ‘goodness’. At this stage we ask the question, what kind of person do we wish to be? Thus we become virtue ethicists, Stoics.

    Thus individual ethical growth is along the trajectory of a) right outcome –> b) right act –> c) right character.

    It is a sad fact that many are trapped in the immature first stage of ethical growth.

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  7. The genius of ancient Greek philosophers is they so quickly arrived at the ultimate form of ethical behaviour, that is character centered or virtue ethics.

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  8. I see the difference as among the ancient philosophies and among the modern philosophies. Aristotle made ethics a part of politics and asks what is a happy life in the city. Stoics, having made virtue self sufficient, ask how does the individual lives regardless of external circumstances. Bentham asks “What is the greatest happiness for the greatest number” with Mill modifying happiness. Kant asks what is the ground for individual virtue. So this crucial difference is both ancient and modern. (Christians have a social existence but individual salvation).

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  9. I was going to comment on the similarities in tthe Latin term moralis and the Pali sīla, but Doug beat me to it.

    So I’ll add that while sīla is important in the Eightfold Path, being too attached to it is indeed a concern in Buddhism. There’s a list of ten “fetters” that one overcomes when progressing on the classical Buddhist path, and one of them is sīlabbata-parāmāsa which is most often translated rather confusingly as “clinging to rites and rituals” which makes it sound like this fetter’s sole domain is in religious practice. However, the term uses the exact same word as what is otherwise translated as “ethics”, namely sīla, and always seemed to paper over what seems to me a more accurate meaning of “clinging to morals and vows” or, less literally, “clinging to morality.”

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  10. labnut, I like how you put it, but I still have hard time seeing how the ‘what kind of person do I wish to be?’ translates into decision making. For instance, in moral dilemmas it’s easy to distinguish the utilitarians and deontologists. The villagers are hiding from the invading nazis and they have a baby that starts crying. Now, a utilitarian would smother the baby, a deontologist would not. How does the ‘what kind of person do I wish to be?’ behave here? Are you saying that the ‘what kind of person do I wish to be?’ position may lead sometimes to utilitarian and sometimes to deontological choices because it is a fundamentally orthogonal position with respect to the utilitarian-deontological axis?

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  11. marco,

    “Isn’t how we live determined by how we act?”

    For a virtue ethicists it is our character that determines how we act. (Though of course how we act can be used from the outside, by others, to get clues about our character: that’s how one identifies wise individuals.)

    “Are you saying that the ‘what kind of person do I wish to be?’ position may lead sometimes to utilitarian and sometimes to deontological choices because it is a fundamentally orthogonal position with respect to the utilitarian-deontological axis?”

    Virtue ethics is situational. The answer to a particular moral question will likely be “it depends.” Which is both one of the characteristics that people find frustrating about virtue ethics and one of its best features according to its practitioners (because life is too complicated for standardize answers of the type given by deontologists and utilitarians).

    Basically, the virtue of practical wisdom, phronesis, consists precisely in the ability to determine the best available course of action given the circumstances. The only way to achieve phronesis is to practice it. And the way to learn it is by example — hence the emphasis that the ancient laid on the figures of wise role models, like Socrates, or Diogenes.

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  12. Marco,
    …have hard time seeing how the ‘what kind of person do I wish to be?’ translates into decision making

    Let’s make it more concrete by listing the six main virtues, after Peterson and Seligman(http://bit.ly/1VL8mHJ) : courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. It is broken down further in this study – http://bit.ly/1Li1MB2

    The question then becomes – does this situation call on me to respond with courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom or the virtues of transcendence(gratitude, hope, humour, religiousness), since these virtues represent the person I aspire to be. I don’t ask(in the main) if the act is right or wrong, I don’t ask if the consequences are desirable, instead I ask if the act is in accordance with the noblest virtues that I aspire towards. This, we think, is the right approach because 1) it is the most reliable guide to ethical behaviour, 2) it enriches society and 3) it enriches oneself.

    If I ask these question I preserve a flexible mindset that is more likely to result in the right decision. If instead I ask if the act is right or wrong I have foreclosed consideration of other possibilities and the same thing applies to consequentialism. Consideration of the virtues expands the range of options available. It is an open-ended, questing approach and not a rule-laden approach.

    Another way to look at it. There is an implicit role reversal. Instead of my asking what is the right thing to do, the situation is asking of me how I will respond to fulfill my destiny as an humane, courageous, virtuous person of integrity. In life then I am continually tested and in the test I am refined, strengthened and perfected. This is a special kind of flourishing.

    And finally it is worth noting that society does not laud deontological or utilitarian choices. Instead it lauds and celebrates great acts of virtue and courage. That tells us something important.

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  13. Marco,
    A real life example from the NY Times may make it clearer.

    A physician reported that a patient presented with poor sleeping habits, fatigue and disorientation. Tests revealed no organic problems and the physician suspected the problem was psychosomatic. He questioned the patient closely. The patient admitted there was a problem and asked the doctor to promise confidentiality. The doctor promised. He then told the doctor he had committed a crime and that he had escaped the consequences because another person had been found guilty of the crime. He was deeply troubled by this. The patient soon recovered, apparently helped by sharing his transgression. We are not told what the crime was.

    And now the physician was deeply troubled. He had signed the Hippocratic oath and moreover, had given the patient an explicit promise of confidentiality. Thus he felt doubly duty bound but on the other hand felt that justice should be done and the innocent exonerated.

    His question – what was the right thing to do?

    A deontologist would have trouble answering this question. A consequentialist would similarly have difficulty because there is no way of objectively deciding the most desirable consequences.

    A virtue ethicist would, as Massimo put it, say – it depends:
    1) am I a responsible professional who honours his commitments?
    2) am I a person of integrity who honours his promises?
    3) am I more concerned with justice?
    4) am I more concerned with empathy for victims?
    5) am I a person who feels his primary duty is to heal his patients?
    6) am I a counsellor/guide to help others towards the right choices in life?

    A virtue ethicist understands that there are conflicting choices with no neat outcomes. The choice will test his courage and his wisdom therefore he will embrace the choice and not evade it, as the real physician did. Using his wisdom he will explore the options and choose the one that most closely identifies with the virtues that define him(and his profession). Having been tested he will feel strengthened by his choice and not troubled, as the real doctor was. The knowledge that one has lived in accordance with virtue is deeply affirming. That is because we very fundamentally need to believe in our own goodness.

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  14. Do you think that contractarian schools of thought (not necessarily Hobbes exactly in his formulation, just having to do with rational contracts between people with certain needs) are compatible with virtue ethics? Should they be highlighted? I know that Epicureanism mentions it, the agreements we have to reach on which virtues and norms we should all foster in ourselves, so that none of us are stepping on each others’ ability to obtain hedonic good more than we have to. Or so they we could create better societies within which to pursue virtues and pleasure. I don’t like to have to cater to peoples’ intuitions, but I think a kind of duality between them could assuage some of the complaints about virtue ethics’ focus on the self

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  15. Reblogged this on Patrice Ayme's Thoughts and commented:

    Ethics As The Enlightenment Of The Dark Side

    Ethics is the most important field for our times, as the power (kratos) of Sapiens is reaching some sort of singularity, from creating transgender people to wrecking the climate, let alone soon making quantum computers (and thus Artificial Consciousness).

    All humans come equipped with an intrinsic, default ethics: human ethology, selected by millions, tenths of millions of years, of biological evolution. It’s the divinity inside. Still, culture enables it.

    Our lives are influenced by, and, to a large extent made of, how we act. However, “life” is more general than just “acts”. It’s also all was is experienced, felt, all what is imagined, dreamed for, and desired. Thus, indeed, one should go back to the Ancient Greek notion that philosophy and ethics are all about how we live.

    Socrates is widely viewed as the father of all too much of philosophy. Socrates made a huge mistake, though. Socrates believed that lack of goodness was just about ignorance. True, ignorance can cause a lot of evil.

    However, evil is its own divinity, its own fundamental cause. Socrates, who values knowledge so much, completely ignored the Dark Side. And that was, indeed, evil.

    Ignoring the Dark Side is a mistake that neither Christianism nor Islamism committed… Perhaps to excess (as they both seem to laud it: both the Bible and the Qur’an have “verses of the Sword”, which, in both religions, required to kill “unbelievers”; see Luke 19; 27, and Sura 5 verse 9).

    In any case, the Dark Side is real, and not very surprising in a species which reach supremacy by eating other animals. Ethics always ignored it at its own risk. As Socrates found out when he had to die, for his naivety in ignoring the Dark Side. Of his own students!

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  16. Another excellent post,

    I am currently reading Mark Johnson’s recent book ‘Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding From the Perspective of Cognitive Science’. Johnson draws heavily from the pragmatist tradition (Dewey in particular) updating with cognitive science findings that relate fast automatic bodily feeling and emotions with the slower reason led processes. He recognizes that much of reasoning takes the form of after the fact rationalization, but advocates for the importance of developing an imaginative deliberation facility that is never separate from the ongoing bodily feelings situated in changing environments.

    I think there is much to admire in his approach. Johnson like Dewey, see’s each problematic ethical situation as being comprised of a unique holistic quality. This would rule out deontilogical approaches since there are no universal answers to each unique situation. Ethical behavior (and or character) then depends on how well ones cultivated habits and understandings allows one to perceive the complexity of a problematic situation and too recognize the source of tension where ones understanding presents contradictions possibly due to a need to imagine unconsidered scenarios. I see a lot of overlaps with Zhuangzi, but I suppose we tend to see what we already know best.

    Massimo, I am wondering if you have an opinion why discussions of modern ethics don’t seem to include Dewey?

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  17. Massimo, important insights into the relationship between ethics as “how to live a good life” and ethics as “how one should interact with other people” are revealed if we start with the pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras, rather than Socrates as Gordon does.

    In Plato’s dialog of the same name, Protagoras argued that the universal function of morality (a universal law about how one should interact with others) is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. I expect Protagoras would agree that what is morally right and wrong in a society is defined by that function plus some agreed on goals for that cooperation.

    My point is that Protagoras’s position is not necessarily in competition with virtue ethics if what is moral (how one should interact with others) is a subset of “how to live a good life”, which is about more than how to interact with others. They can be compatible views.

    Why should we pay any attention to Protagoras? Because over the last 40 years or so a large body of evidence has accumulated that Protagoras was right. That is, the universal function of behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral norms is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Collectively, such behaviors are, of course, only descriptively moral. (But one can argue there is a universally moral, not just descriptively moral, subset of these descriptively moral behaviors if one is interested in universalities.)

    So if the science is right and Protagoras was right, where does that leave us as far as insights relevant to a way forward for ethics?

    Ethics might be, as you suggest, most usefully thought of a “how to live a good life”. But not recognizing the universal function of moral codes, a subset of how to live a good life, seems to me a serious error. Denying the universal function of moral codes as recognized by Protagoras and modern science eliminates much of the cultural utility of moral philosophy as a reference for resolving disputes about moral codes.

    As far as nomenclature goes, perhaps it would be useful to define ethics as the study of “how to live a good life” and morality, consistent with its Greek roots, as what are right and wrong interactions with other people. This might rapidly clear up a lot of confusion about subjects such as “justice” and moral obligations.

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  18. I agree with Mark Sloan.
    Yet, one can go further. Morality (as its etymology indicates, and, not by accident, it’s the same as that of “ethics”) is about what has long been viewed as best to the group. Thus morality is the software which (is viewed as) enabling group survival best.

    Other remarks:
    1. Kant’s silly metaphysics of the “moral imperative”, up in the air, yet brought to ground as obscene submission to authority, helped to bring Nazism… In view of not just the blatant evidence, but according to what the Nazis themselves pretended (Nietzsche seemed to have guessed Kantian “morality” would lead to this unfathomable disasters, hence his wild attacks against what he condemned as German herd mentality).

    2.Not only did Nazism sink nearly all pretense to ethical authority that most of German inspired philosophy could have, but it revealed ethical problems similar to the famous Melian Dialogue, but writ much larger, and even more ominous.

    3.The discovery of ethology, and in particular human ethology, (ought to have) changed the entire field of ethics. No serious philosopher can pretend otherwise. And this brings us right back to the contemplation of the Dark Side, one of the two pillars human supremacy seems to rest on, as if Atlas on two legs.

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  19. Mark Sloan,

    What about the problem whereby groups can adopt adopt practices that may benefit the members of the group but have consequences for outsiders? Cooperation then just leads to efficient victimizing of outsiders. How does placing placing the universal on cooperation necessitate moral outcomes unless the group is everybody? Thanks.

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  20. Seth, you are correct. The function of morality as Protagoras and modern science understand it – increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups – is consistent with slavery and xenophobia since both can increase the benefits of cooperation for in-groups. Note I described all behaviors that fulfill this function as merely descriptively moral – moral in one society but not necessarily in another society.

    So I see it as true that:

    “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are descriptively moral.”

    But obviously this does not define a coherent morality that either one of us could fully support.

    One way forward would be for a moral philosopher to argue convincingly that “the benefits of cooperation” are limited to, for instance, those that most increase happiness or eudemonia (flourishing) for everyone. We both would probably see this as an improvement, but might wonder about the argument justifying the philosopher’s claim. Why ‘ought’ we be obligated to pursue this goal rather than another one such as cooperating only for the good of the in-group?

    A second way forward would be to look for the subset of such descriptively moral behaviors that are universally moral – cross-culturally, and arguably cross-species moral. It gets a bit technical, but I argue that such a cross-species universal moral principle is:

    “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity are universally moral.”

    In more everyday language this can be expressed as:

    “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation consistent with ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and ‘don’t do to others as you would not have them do to you’ are universally moral.”

    The everyday language version is not quite right, but it much more comprehensible, and no doubt more useful, than the technical version. It also definitively 1) classifies slavery and xenophobia as immoral, 2) some favoritism to family and friends as moral (as utilitarianism may not), and 3) the immorality of telling the truth to a murderer about where his victim is (as Kantianism might require).

    A critical aspect about the “looking for what is universally moral” approach is that, being only about coherent (self-consistent) cooperation strategies, it does not rely on any argument defining duties or obligations that are somehow binding independent of our needs and preferences. The “looking for what is universally moral” approach does not rely on what I call ‘magic’ oughts.

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  21. Stabby,

    “Do you think that contractarian schools of thought (not necessarily Hobbes exactly in his formulation, just having to do with rational contracts between people with certain needs) are compatible with virtue ethics?”

    I think they are orthogonal to virtue ethics, just like any other approach to ethics that begin with the point of view from nowhere and is concerned about actions (as opposed to the individual point of view and concern with character).

    Seth,

    “I am wondering if you have an opinion why discussions of modern ethics don’t seem to include Dewey?”

    Don’t know, really. I’m not much of a pragmatist myself, but it being the only original American school of philosophy you would think that most of my colleagues would be more interested. I know Peter Godfrey-Smith, at CUNY’s Graduate Center, is. But he is a philosopher of science, not an ethicist.

    Mark,

    “Protagoras argued that the universal function of morality (a universal law about how one should interact with others) is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”

    Yes, but I reject that notion. Morality *started out* that way, as far as we can tell, but I’m with the Stoics that once we are capable of reflecting on things we can and should go beyond what our natural instincts (in this case our natural moral instincts) dictate. As Irvine puts it, we don’t have to go with our automatic evolutionary drive.

    “Collectively, such behaviors are, of course, only descriptively moral”

    That’s the science. The philosophy, however, is about prescriptivism, not just descriptivism.

    ” if the science is right and Protagoras was right, where does that leave us as far as insights relevant to a way forward for ethics?”

    Protagoras was right only in the limited sense that we evolved a moral sense in order to facilitate pro-social behavior (of course he would not have put it that way), and the science is right, again, only in a descriptive sense (*if* it is right, we really don’t have access to much of the relevant information about selective pressures in our ancestral populations, the whole thing is fairly speculative).

    “Denying the universal function of moral codes as recognized by Protagoras and modern science eliminates much of the cultural utility of moral philosophy as a reference for resolving disputes about moral codes.”

    Except that the whole Greco-Roman approach isn’t about moral codes at all.

    I think Seth’s question about the fact that natural moral instincts lend themselves to all sorts of behaviors that we would not accept today stand in the way of any simple Protagorean-evolutionary account of morality.

    “Why ‘ought’ we be obligated to pursue this goal rather than another one such as cooperating only for the good of the in-group?”

    Becker, in A New Stoicism (on which I will begin to comment shortly in a series of posts here) has a good answer: “ought” for a Stoic – or any naturalistic ethical approach – can be read as a conditional: IF I want to live a life of type x THEN I “ought” to do y. At which point, of course, one needs an account of why one would want to live a life of type x. The Stoics (and the Epicureans, and the Buddhists) have such accounts (which of course differ among schools). If you buy the Stoic account, then you are a Stoic; if you buy the Epicurean one, then you are an Epicurean. And so forth.

    “A second way forward would be to look for the subset of such descriptively moral behaviors that are universally moral – cross-culturally, and arguably cross-species moral”

    I reject that approach because I don’t think morality has to do with universality of behaviors. That’s the way to deontology or utilitarianism, not virtue ethics. (That said, the Stoics and other virtue ethicists do argue that there is something we all have in common – a human nature – that explains why their approach to living a eudaimonic life may be applicable to every human being. But it would make no sense to try to apply it to, say, a group of bonobos.)

    “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation consistent with ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and ‘don’t do to others as you would not have them do to you’ are universally moral”

    Smells a lot of Kantian categorical imperative.

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  22. Mark Sloan,
    So if the science is right and Protagoras was right,

    Moral thought has developed further since Protagoras so his teachings are mostly of historical value.
    Science can usefully describe ethical behaviour and discern patterns(psychology, sociology and anthropology) but it cannot tell us that we ought to behave for the benefit of groups. So what does “science is right” mean in this context?

    the universal function of behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral norms is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups
    The “looking for what is universally moral” approach does not rely on what I call ‘magic’ oughts.

    This is an impoverished view of ethics which can be seen when we start asking “what sort of cooperation?” and “what sort of benefit?”. Ants cooperate and lion prides cooperate, albeit in very different ways. Our species has equally diverse modes of cooperation as seen in Nazi Germany, Communist China, Apartheid South Africa and medieval monasteries. These modes of cooperation all procured benefits for the group and yet we intuitively reject some of them as wrong.

    In other words we believe there are certain preferential modes of cooperation that describe how we ‘ought’ to cooperate. And now we have smuggled in the ‘magic ought‘ that you scoff at. But how do we decide what the right ‘ought’ is? Or even, for that matter, what the right group is? How do we decide what is the most appropriate benefit? Science is silent on these matters and we have good reasons for believing that science can never answer these questions.

    As we start asking these questions we begin to understand that ethics is much more than merely acting for the group’s benefit, whatever that is. It is infused with the concepts of virtue, ought, right and good. And this turns out to be far more complex that a simple ‘for the benefit of the group’. Even Protagoras admitted the existence of virtue and debated whether it was one and whether it could be taught.

    Science has no concept of ‘virtue’, ‘ought’, ‘right’ and ‘good’. These are normative concepts that must be explored in other ways, through our literature, religion and philosophy.

    So… where does that leave us as far as insights relevant to a way forward for ethics?

    We have well developed bodies of ethical thought in our religions and in philosophy. We certainly have a good idea of what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviour(though greater clarity would be helpful). The real problem is something else and that is how to secure more reliable compliance with moral norms. Answering that question is the way forward for ethics. It is the question that defies easy answers and late modernity seems to be making it intractable.

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  23. Marco,
    “Why ‘ought’ we be obligated to pursue this goal rather than another one such as cooperating only for the good of the in-group?”

    Stoicism addresses this with the concept of cosmopolitanism. We ought to expand our circle of compassion until it encompasses the ultimate group, planet earth. Let me explain with a story.

    I am creeping over boulders, across the veld until I am downwind of a gemsbok, the prize. I stop, still my breathing and take careful aim at the distant figure. I squeeze the trigger, the rifle cracks and jumps. Fractionally later I hear that thwack of a bullet striking home. The gemsbok drops instantly. I am possessed by a moment of triumphant exultation. It feels good. Quickly I walk over to the animal and find it is still alive. Its legs twitch, its breathing is rapid, heavy and its eyes roll with terror. It is mortally wounded and suffering grievously. And now I am possessed by anguish at what I have done and must do. I must despatch the animal and quickly. I raise the rifle to fire at close range and find it very difficult to squeeze the trigger as I see those limpid brown eyes gaze at me desperately. That night in the camp, around the braai, I cannot join in the jollity as I struggle with the reality of what I have done.

    What this story illustrates is that this is a problem of circles of compassion, and not in/out-groups. We accord full moral status to those close to us inside our circles of compassion. As the distance from the centre of our circle of compassion increases we accord lower moral status and little or none to those outside our circle of compassion.

    Our circles of compassion are variable and context dependent. In my story above, physical distance placed the gemsbok outside my circle of compassion, with no moral status, thus I felt no reluctance to squeeze the trigger. But when I came up close, the sight of its eyes and suffering placed it inside my circle of compassion, giving it moral status and this dramatically altered how I felt.

    The size of our circles of compassion can be altered by the following main influences:
    1. physical distance
    2. emotional distance
    3. language/cultural distance
    4. ethnic distance
    5. nationality distance
    6. kinship distance
    7. class distance
    8. organisational distance
    9. customer distance
    10. technological distance

    Physical distance, technological distance and emotional distance place the target far outside the drone pilot’s circle of compassion, which thus has no moral status and so he finds it easy to unleash technological terror on unsuspecting victims. Organisational distance allows the manager to treat his workers in an unfeeling, uncaring way.

    These ten factors apply to us all and determine the size of our circles of compassion. The great moral achievement of the last few generations is that we have managed to expand our circles of compassion somewhat by reducing the strength of some of these ten barriers. For example, increased travel and the news media have reduced the barrier of physical distance, effectively expanding our circle of compassion.

    My story illustrates another principle. We need to see suffering so that we can be sensitised to it and learn to expand our circle of compassion. Greater sensitivity pierces the barriers to our circles of compassion. And thus charity should in the first place be local because that exposes us to and sensitises us to suffering. Therefore, unlike Singer, I do not think I should assuage my conscience by writing a cheque for some distant charity.

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  24. Massimo, thanks for your response.

    I agree that “we don’t have access to much of the relevant information about selective pressures in our ancestral populations”. Fortunately, my naturalistic approach does not require that information.

    “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are descriptively moral” arguably explains virtually all the diverse, contradictory, and bizarre behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present moral codes. This makes it a robust hypothesis independent of whatever the “selective pressures in our ancestral populations” were.

    I also agree that the “Greco-Roman approach isn’t about moral codes at all”; they are about how to live a good life. “How to live a good life” is what we both (as I understand you) argue “ethics” should be most usefully defined to be about. (I also argue that what is “moral’ is most usefully defined differently, as “right and wrong actions regarding interactions with other people”.)

    The insights I argue come from starting with Protagoras and ending with the science of morality are first the clarification that “right and wrong interactions with other people” is a subset of “how to live a good life”. Second, “right and wrong interactions with other people” appears to be defined in terms of cooperation strategies as a matter of scientific truth. To claim “right and wrong interactions with other people” is about anything else than cooperation strategies commits a category error. We have no more choice in the matter than we do about what chemistry ‘is’. Of course, it is still sensible to say we prefer to not accept any obligations implied by cooperation strategies – they have no ‘magical’ source of bindingness. (I agree that any naturalistic ethical approach can be read as a conditional.) What is not sensible to say is that right and wrong interactions with other people are about anything else than cooperation strategies, which would be untrue as a matter of science.

    Also, by saying you “don’t think morality has to do with universality of behaviors” you seem to be saying you disagree that “what all well-informed, rational people would put forward as universally moral” sensibly defines morality (referring to right and wrong interactions with other people). Do I have that right? This seems unusual. Gert’s definition of morality in the SEP’s “Morality” entry implies that what is universal in this sense defines what is normative.

    Yes, of course Kantianism’s moral imperative in particular smells a lot like the everyday language version of the universal moral principle. The moral imperative smells like the principle because the moral imperative is a heuristic (a usually reliable, but necessarily flawed, rule of thumb) for this moral principle. The principle did not come from Kantianism; Kantianism would have seemed ‘right’ to Kant, and hence motivate his rational justification of it, because it came from the principle (which of course Kant was unaware of except as the principle shaped his moral intuitions). Similarly, people universally identify versions of the Golden Rule as moral because these versions are heuristics for indirect reciprocity – the most powerful cooperation strategy known.

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  25. Labnut,

    Yes, moral thought has developed since Protagoras.

    Unfortunately, since Socrates rejected the grounding offered by Protagoras regarding morality’s function (which is now being confirmed as a matter of science), much of that development has been mere speculation based on one moral premise or another. The confusion created by such speculation’s sometimes contradictory premises and norms (as from versions of utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics) often makes that ‘developed’ moral philosophy less culturally useful for resolving disputes about moral codes than Protagoras’ 2500 year old understanding.

    You are misunderstanding the kind of grounding that Protagoras offered and science offers. Both say the function of morality is to increase the benefits of cooperation. Science is, of logical necessity, silent and can provide no fact of the matter regarding what our ultimate goals for moral behavior ‘ought’ to be. So the ultimate goal of moral behavior in a society must have a different source, for instance, whatever people in that society collectively agree on. But there is a fact of the matter about what kind of cooperation is normative, that is cooperation consistent with indirect reciprocity (think Golden Rule).

    Also, normativity of a scientific hypothesis cannot be based on some mysterious source of bindingness regardless of our needs and preferences (a ‘magic’ ought). No such source exists in science and I have found unconvincing the arguments they exist anywhere else. Normativity of a scientific hypothesis suitable for resolving moral disputes can be based on universality. See Bernard Gert’s definition of normative in the SEP’s “Morality” entry. If all well informed, rational people put forward the same universal moral principle regarding right and wrong interactions between people, would not you agree that would be a useful basis for resolving disputes about moral codes?

    Oh, how do you get italics to show up in your comments? That helps set off quotes nicely.

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  26. Mark,
    Oh, how do you get italics to show up in your comments? That helps set off quotes nicely.

    Precede the italicised comment with this:
    <i> – this is called an opening tag and says that the following text must be italicised.
    And follow your italicised comment with this:
    </i> – this is called a closing tag. The forward slash marks it as a closing tag. If you leave out the closing tag or forget the forward slash all the following text will be italicised, which will not be what you want.

    This is how you type in the complete italicised comment:
    <i> This is an italicised comment </i>
    And this is the result:
    This is an italicised comment

    Be exact, the system is unforgiving and any mistake creates a dog’s breakfast.

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  27. All this ethical ideas don’t speak about the real essence of human ethics, the tribal ethos. All the experiments to neglect the faith and the beliefs behind all the ethics brought only disaster. The truth is, the myths run our life and desires, even in our modern times.
    What are all the marketing tools like, brands, Hollywood stars, false kings and princesses (like princes Diana, probably a very bad mother and wife, lets not mention her other follies), presidents and governors, fashion channel, Formula 1’s heroes and all the magazines around it that fill the airports, if not modern myths? Should we be surprised if the reality, mainly the scientific one, that is full of prediction about future, and nothing to put on the shelf of malls, real or virtual, is not a subject of public interest? They can alarm the world with warnings about global warming, that will have catastrophic consequences in the FUTERE, these people, full of modern myths will never listen to them? After all future is not our world. Who cares about the cultural and scientific wonders, created by committed individuals, who piece after piece accumulated the human knowledge, that enables the life of luxury in the modern world, most of the individuals enjoy. It is subject of interest of only very few freaks.
    Then there is the other world of faith in ancient myths, sacred texts, sacred prophets, (mentioning their name improperly can bring masses of people to deadly rage), etc. Beliefs in sacredness of physical items, some that bring luck others curse. And what about belief in power of spells, pray, the whispers, abracadabra, etc.? Adding to it the spirits of the ancients, the died loved heroes and hated enemies, the spirits and the taboos.
    To the ancient spirits believe systems we have to add the and newly recycled ones, the New Age phenomena, with the UFOs, the time travelers, the ex-terrestrial beings who visited us in their “Chariots of Gods”, built the pyramids, and left in hurry, etc.
    All this is the tribal ethos, that justifies the old traditions and modern costumes, that has nothing to do with rationality and scientifically understood reality. Yet if someone things that the majority of people are more interested in rationality than in the myths, i suggest him to compare the number of views in both kind of clips, and then judge who are the normative ones, and who are the freaks.
    In the European history few times the people of reason tried to create moral codes based on reason, and then disregarded the myths as old-fashioned, primitive, irrelevant, disappearing, until the myths, the ancient or the new ones stroke back with ferocity. The first were the Greek-Romans, who supported cultural plurality and scientific thinking. In the first century before and after Jesus crucifixion many of the leading elites were Epicureans (as it appears including father in law of Julius Caesar) and followers of Stoicism, but then they were swept away by the Christianity. Also in eighteen and nineteen century Western Europe the belief in rationality went on. It ended with WWI, that was the victory of belief in German mythology of victimized superior nation. Then this myth was upgraded by Hitler and the Nazis and on the eastern side of Europe Stalin based its political morality on “communistic” mythology. After the disastrous 80 years war of 1914-1992 years, which almost was won by the regimes guided by newly created mythology, seemed as if finally the reason won upon the myths. (Viz. the famous, but incorrect essay of Francis Fukuyama first published in haste at 1989). But this illusion was swiftly swept away at September 11, 2001, if not few years before it, when unsuccessfully Muslim fundamentalist myth believers unsuccessfully tried to crash a plane to Eifel tower at 24 December 1994.

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  28. Mark,

    “I argue come from starting with Protagoras and ending with the science of morality are first the clarification that “right and wrong interactions with other people” is a subset of “how to live a good life””

    But that’s hardly a Protagorian insight. Any other ancient Greek would have agreed.

    “Second, “right and wrong interactions with other people” appears to be defined in terms of cooperation strategies as a matter of scientific truth.”

    I’m not sure what that means. Science is inherently descriptive, so unless one adds values to the mix it simply cannot be that science tells us what is right or wrong. Science can tell us that IF we think X is right, THEN we ought (instrumentally) to behave in Y manner. Nothing else.

    “To claim “right and wrong interactions with other people” is about anything else than cooperation strategies commits a category error”

    I don’t think so. You seem to put too much emphasis on interaction and cooperation. Yes, they are an important part of the mix, but individual flourishing is a huge component as well. And sometimes the demands of individual flourishing conflicts with cooperation with the group (as in pretty much any authoritarian society, for instance).

    “What is not sensible to say is that right and wrong interactions with other people are about anything else than cooperation strategies, which would be untrue as a matter of science”

    I don’t think so, for the reasons just explained above.

    “you seem to be saying you disagree that “what all well-informed, rational people would put forward as universally moral” sensibly defines morality … Gert’s definition of morality in the SEP’s “Morality” entry implies that what is universal in this sense defines what is normative.”

    Right, because he likely approaches moral philosophy from either a deontological or utilitarian perspective. But, again, for a virtue ethicist the question isn’t about norms. Life is too complicated for any set of norms to cover the issue of individual flourishing within a broader social group, which is what ethics, in my mind, really is.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Massimo, thanks again for your reply.

    For the three reasons I list in the footnote below, I expect that the moral principle “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity (think Golden Rule) are moral” is the moral principle of the cultural moral code (a code only about interactions with other people) that is most likely to increase individual flourishing.

    With regard to ethics in all other areas than advocacy for such a cooperation based cultural moral code, I expect that practicing some version of virtue ethics is the choice most likely to increase individual flourishing.

    If my above expectations turn out to be true, and increasing one’s individual flourishing is one’s ultimate goal, then it seems to me one ‘ought’ (instrumental) to 1) advocate for such a cooperation based cultural moral code and 2) in all other areas of ethics (except for this advocacy) practice some version of virtue ethics. Note this division leaves opens the possibility of advocating for a cultural moral code that, acting as a virtue ethicist, one would not necessarily always comply with.

    This mixing and matching of systems for different ethical domains seems to me intellectually coherent because both of the above systems are only instrumentally justifiable. So if you desire individual flourishing then you ‘ought’ (instrumental) to advocate A (cooperation morality from both ancient and modern sources) for cultural moral codes and practice B (virtue ethics from mostly ancient sources) as your personal ethics.

    Perhaps what I am suggesting is not really radical at all. Virtue ethics is a personal ethics. But even a virtue ethicist can be interested in cultural moral codes. Perhaps all I am suggesting is that when a virtue ethicist advocates for elements of his culture’s enforced cultural moral code (enforced by at least social disapproval and shunning) he should consider cooperation based moral codes.

    If there were any points you made that I have not adequately responded to, please let me know.

    Footnote: So why is “Cooperation strategies consistent with indirect reciprocity (think Golden Rule) are moral” the moral principle of the cultural moral code most likely to increase individual flourishing?
    1) This definition is harmonious with our moral intuitions and thus has a degree of inherent motivation to act morally in ways that increase flourishing of ourselves and others at the same time. It is harmonious with our moral intuitions because this universal function of morality shaped important aspects of the biology underlying our present moral sense.
    2) Acting consistently with the definition may be essential to our emotional experience of durable happiness, an important aspect of flourishing, that appears to be an evolutionary adaptation triggered by cooperation with family and friends even when material benefits are minimal or even negative.
    3) This definition provides a mind independent (objective) definition of a normative morality. Its science based ‘objectivity’ is only of the specific kind in which there is a mind independent function of morality. (There are no objective bindingness or ‘good’ or ultimate goal claims.) Its normativity is only based on its universality as per Gert’s definition. If it really is the moral principle that would be put forward by all well informed, rational persons, it has an innate power to resolve disputes about moral norms even though it has no innate bindingness regardless of our needs and preferences.

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  30. Mark,
    morality’s function (which is now being confirmed as a matter of science)

    I cannot agree with that statement. How has it been confirmed by science?

    much of that development has been mere speculation based on one moral premise or another

    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.

    You are misunderstanding the kind of grounding that Protagoras offered and science offers. Both say the function of morality is to increase the benefits of cooperation.

    We have moved on a great deal since Protagoras(2000 years of ethical thought!). You regard Protagoras as the ruling authority. But why choose him? Why not Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus Christ, Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Buddha, Confucius, Pope Francis or Alisdair MacIntyre? Why privilege him over all other sources of moral thought? Or have you chosen him simply because he confirms your outlook? That would be confirmation bias. To dismiss the large body of moral thought developed subsequent to Protagoras as ‘mere speculation‘ is simply not a rational argument.

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

    Normativity of a scientific hypothesis suitable for resolving moral disputes can be based on universality.

    I fail to see how universality can be used to resolve moral disputes. I also completely fail to see how science can resolve moral disputes. You have made strong claims but failed to give any kind of justification for them.

    Also, normativity of a scientific hypothesis cannot be based on some mysterious source of bindingness regardless of our needs and preferences (a ‘magic’ ought).

    Of course. I see no reason why you make that statement since neither Massimo nor I oppose it. I also see no purpose in your continuing to label oughts as ‘magic’. Ought’s are not magic, they are a real and compelling part of human intuitions.

    If all well informed, rational people put forward the same universal moral principle regarding right and wrong interactions between people

    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. You have to advance a better reason than labelling all the others as mere speculation.

    You advocated cooperation as being the fundamental basis of morality. In rebuttal I pointed out that many kinds of cooperation are possible, benign, beneficent, malign, maleficent and morally neutral. Which form of cooperation do you choose and why? The very moment you choose a certain form of cooperation you are importing an ‘ought’ and you have trapped yourself.

    You cannot choose a certain form of cooperation without using terms such as ‘ought’, ‘right’ or ‘good’. In other words the choice of a certain form of cooperation is normative and that brings you right back into ethical philosophy. You can’t appeal to science to help you since science cannot make normative judgements.

    You seem to be arguing for a form of ethics that is functional in nature. That is utilitarianism. It takes several forms and has a well developed body of thought. It is also subject to devastating criticisms.

    would not you agree that would be a useful basis for resolving disputes about moral codes?

    Virtue ethics is our best available way of doing this. As I argued in my first comment:
    individual ethical growth is along the trajectory of a) right outcome –> b) right act –> c) right character

    To help you engage with your opponent’s arguments I suggest you make a practice of quoting their actual words and replying to them. In law it is a binding principle that failing to answer an opponent’s argument is to accept it as valid and the court will rule accordingly.

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  31. 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 http://moralitysrandomwalk.com/2015/08/13/moral-universals-from-an-evolutionists-perspective-3/

    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.

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  32. Mark,
    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, http://bit.ly/WyDi4S

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

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