Lecture on Aristotle & Virtue, Kant & Morals
Basics of Ancient World Cosmology:
Before getting into Aristotle and his understanding of the virtuous person, it is important to understand the world view of the ancient world. Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.
The world was thought to be like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.
One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
Plato’s student and the tutor of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy, Aristotle is one of the most famous and influential of Greek philosophers. He was primarily interested in biology and speciation, but his works on the soul (mind, self), Logic, Ethics and politics became more important than his works on the animal kingdom. He was a central influence on the origins of Christianity, Islamic thought and European thought in the middle ages. While he is sometimes called the first scientist and the first logician, his views on these subjects expanded ancient world cosmology and were not the birth of these subjects. Aristotle has been claimed by the West as a founder, but the Islamic world also considers him one of their own and he is depicted in different ways depending on who does the illustrating (see the beautiful Islamic image in the Wikipedia article that portrays him as a very dark skinned holy sage for an interesting counter to Renaissance paintings).
Aristotle’s conception of virtue and human purpose is entirely in line with ancient world cosmology. He believes that everything has a single purpose for which it is intended. It is as if the cosmos, Being itself, is a big mind that creates things for particular uses, and individual beings thrive if they are serving their purposes (ergon in the Greek, or “work”, “job”). We are reasonable to the degree that we see the purposes of things, serve our own natural purpose and use things in accord with their natural purposes. This is known as the teleological view, as the study of purpose is called teleology. Notice that teleology is very big with more traditional people today (including evangelical Christians) but modern Philosophy and Science have broken from this view and find it quite antiquated.
For Aristotle, having oneself in the proper stack and order is being in accord with one’s nature, and this means putting theory and soul/intellect on top and putting each lower element of our minds and bodies in the service of the highest part of the mind, the intellect, which corresponds to the highest good of the cosmos itself. Just as the intellect should be pursued because it is the best and highest part, the good itself should be pursued simply in itself and for no other purpose. This is similar to Kant and Moral theory, but absolutely at odds with Mill and consequentialism which believe that good is the end of things but would not say that intellect should be pursued in itself without regards to the consequences and practical ends. Aristotle does believe that the human individual will naturally flourish and be happy if they are stacked up right and in accord with the human purpose of intellectual activity, but this is secondary and the byproduct of serving ones purpose.
Similarly, in matters of politics, Aristotle believes that the city is not primarily a living arrangement but rather for producing the elite and the virtuous. Thus, the city is not for making people happy but having each individual do their natural job. Just like his teacher Plato argues in his Republic, Aristotle argues that each person must have one thing they do best and it is therefore best for them to do that thing and that one thing only. Unfortunately, both Plato and Aristotle argued that slaves and peasants are meant to serve the aristocracy and women are clearly meant to serve men (Mill will strongly criticize these views, one of the first and few outspoken critics of the subjugation of slaves and women).
Consider the example of lying. The moralist would say that lying is wrong in and of itself, like Kant argues that lying goes against our reason by categorical necessity. The consequentialist would say that lying has bad consequences and results in pain and unhappiness. The virtue theorist, however, would argue that the purpose of the mind and human being is truth in and of itself and so lying is not in accord with human nature (or rather, righteous and proper human nature).
Modern Virtue Theory
While Aristotle’s virtue ethics and teleological theory were popular in the middle ages in Europe, there was a decline during the 1700s and 1800s as science rose to prominence and questioned teleology. Kant’s laws and Mill’s consequences became the dueling positions of ethics. Recently, however, there has been a revival of virtue theory that rose along with increasing individualism and criticism of positivistic conceptions of science. If we become critical of the idea that there are simple laws that can be known, it opens a space for a return to the idea of the virtuous person beyond airtight moral laws or the complete calculation of consequences.
However, if we do not believe that things have simple and singular purposes just as we have grown critical of laws and calculation, virtue ethics has a problem: what virtues should the virtuous person have? Often these virtues are mental: intellect, wisdom, reason, and understanding. This has been neglectful of the physical body (the home of the physical brain, of course). Another issue that has come to light is the interpersonal aspect of virtue. Virtue has typically been described as personal, but the individual is naturally social (curiously Aristotle argues this when justifying his political views of the city and its proper organization). Confucius, one of the great moral geniuses of the world, has a very interpersonal view of ethics and thus we will consider his views next under the concept of balance (such as the balance of self and other).
As a final note, consider Jain (the ancient Indian forerunner of Buddhism) anti-merit theory:
In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma can be positive (merit and blessing) or negative (demerit and sin). Thus, karma can either help you up or drag you down. For Jains, karma is ALWAYS NEGATIVE, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL. Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated. Jains are famous for their doctrine of the negativity of karma and the radical nonviolence that follows from this principle. Jains wear masks to prevent insects from flying in their mouths, sweep the ground to avoid killing insects (even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karma), influenced other Indian thought in promoting vegetarianism, and even don’t eat root vegetables as it kills (up-roots) the whole plant rather than that plucked from the plant. Thus, any accumulation of virtue or merit is distinguishing and distancing oneself from the whole. Sharing much with ancient cosmology and Aristotle, Jains would argue that the purpose of the individual is to join the whole without distinction and therefore we should work to LOSE merit and karma, not gain it. Kant, Principles and
Kant (1724-1804) was the European philosopher who argued for always following morals and laws universally. His position is opposed by Mill, who believed that morals are only in the service of getting good consequences. This is one of the biggest oppositions of perspectives in ethics. Should we create morals and laws and always stick to them, or should we do whatever results in the best consequences?
As Europe rose in the 1600s and 1700s, science had begun discovering many new truths about the world. This created an opposition between rationalists who believed that the world has absolute laws that we can know certainly by reason and empiricists who believed that we can only assume what we know and that the rules our reason finds could be wrong. One of the most famous empiricists was Hume, who argued that one can only assume that one billiard ball causes the other billiard ball to move.
Kant was "awoken from his dogmatic slumbers" by Hume. Kant wanted to balance empiricism with rationalism, but he comes down on the rationalist side. In all knowledge, including ethics, Kant believed we must use our reason to figure out the universal laws of our rational and ordered universe. Notice that Kant, as a rationalist, trusts that the world and the mind are reasonable and that there are universal laws out there for us to grasp.
The central example we will consider is the moral "Do Not Lie". Kant believed that one should never lie, and our reason can show us this with certainty. He argued that one is seeking unconditional and universal laws in ethics (as well as every area of human knowledge), which Kant also calls categorical imperatives, and so one should only act in a way that one could expect everyone to always act everywhere at any time. If everyone lied all the time, then society would collapse. Therefore, Kant argued, it is one's duty to not lie and hold to this moral and law.
Consider the "guy with the butcher knife" thought experiment. Let us say you are at home, and the doorbell rings. You answer it, and your friend runs in looking afraid. A minute later the doorbell rings again, you answer it, and a scary guy with a butcher knife asks you where your friend is. Kant would allow one to shut the door and say nothing, but Kant would argue that it is wrong to lie to the scary guy and say you don't know or that your friend took off down the street the other way. Even though we can assume that if you lie it would improve your friend's chances of living, Kant would argue that this would be wrong. We can contrast this with the position of Mill and utilitarianism, which would argue that in some circumstances the lie is the lesser of two evils and one should behave in accord with the ends of ones actions rather than stick rigidly to morals and laws.
An interesting issue here is that rationalists and positivists like Kant believe that one should anchor ethics in good beginnings while empiricists and skeptics believe one should anchor ethics in good ends. Kant believes that one must start with good intentions and principles no matter the consequences, while Mill believes that one should aim at the best consequences no matter the principles or intentions one has. As usual, both sides agree that one should have good intentions, principles and consequences, but they come down on opposite sides when arguing for what is really the essence or importance of the matter.
We will come to Mill's position in the coming weeks. Another contrary position to both Kant and Mill is Nietzsche, who we will also hear from soon. Nietzsche does not trust human reason, so he trusts neither Kant nor Mill. Nietzsche argues that people who believe they know the true morals and people who say they know what led to the best consequences for everyone are capable of deceiving themselves and thinking they know what is best for everyone.
Lecture on Mill and Utilitarianism
The last class focused on ethical concepts that focus on the beginning or cause of an action rather than the end or consequence (with the possible exception of balance, which suggests a medium of the two). Today, we focus on consequentialism and its foremost school, Utilitarianism. Thus, I had you read the first two chapters of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. In this work, Mill argues that we should always look at our actions and ask if the consequences are ethical (do good/make people happy and reduce harm/pain). He specifically mentions Kant as wrong about principle and mentions virtue ethics as well, claiming that these two conceptions ignore how we use principle and virtue for happiness and reduction of harm by taking each as a good in itself out of context.
Mill notes: if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring.
If you call it Principle of Happiness or Pleasure first, people think its decadent.
This is why people called Epicurus decadent.
Brief Tradition of Consequentialism
(included in Mill’s own text)
Epicurus (340-270 BCE)
Greek philosopher who believed that happiness was the most important thing, and all virtues, purposes and ends are subordinate to it. From him we get the word ‘Epicurean’ as in ‘Gourmet’, one who appreciates the finer more pleasant tastes of things. As Mill notes, Epicurus was attacked as a glutton in his time, but he actually had a taste for thought, civilization, and what Mill calls the ‘higher virtues’, mental pleasures in giving to others rather than physical selfish pleasures of drinking every night. Mill argues that Epicurus took the long view just as he did, so his opponents are wrong to call happy principle people “swine”.
Jeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE)
The first to come up with Utilitarianism, but Mill gave it the name.
Bentham believed in max happiness, while Mill complimented this with min pain.
Bentham also believed that simple and common pleasures are just as good as sophisticated, saying the common plays are just as good as fine opera.
Mill rejected this, believing that fine society was of a higher happiness than common culture, as mental pleasure is superior to physical, as selfless pleasures (giving to others) makes one happier than selfish pleasures (receiving from others).
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE)
Born in London, Mill was influenced by Ancient Greek, French, and liberal thought.
His father wrote a history of India, and Mill was for a time involved with his father in the British East India company, the corporation that helped Britain maintain their hold over India. Mill’s family was friends with the Bentham family, from whom Mill took up his consequentialist, ‘happy principle’ thought. However, it was Mill who found the name ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text talking about how evil it was to fall into it rather than believe in the principle as good, and he added the name and developed the thinking, becoming its famous spokesman.
Mill is a central thinker in Logic, Economics and Ethics.
His liberal social thought is his most famous. He argued for equal rights for all, the end to the subjugation of women and slavery.
Mill’s text: Utilitarianism
Mill’s harm principle as the principle to end principles, putting all focus on harmful consequences. This is not simply ease or expediency in limited personal vision, but the long view over time of what makes people happy and saves them from pain.
Notice: Mill completely agrees with Kant, we need a test for principles and an overall principle to serve as this text. For Kant, this test is ‘can it always be followed?’, while for Mill the test is ‘does following the principle make people happy as a consequence?’.
Both come up with a supreme principle.
Thus, for Kant, one should never lie because the principle is most important as beginning or all good action, while for Mill, one should never lie as long as this has good consequences because this is the most important as end of all good action.
Kant says: Always follow principle, and you will likely be happy.
Mill says: Always follow happiness (self and others), and you will likely be principled.
Both also come up with a pure ‘good in itself’: Kant’s is intention (the good-in-itself beginning of an act) and Mill’s is happiness (the good-in-itself end of an act). Both say that it is impossible to argue for this good-in-itself, but it simply shows itself in us.
We can see two sides to the Utilitarian Principle, maximizing positive and minimizing negative. Bentham says: Always act to maximize happiness. Mill agrees, but says the MOST important thing is to minimize the negative (at least, this is what scholars concur in reading his writings and comparing them to Bentham’s today). Thus, we see the whole principle is ‘max happy and min pain’, but one can lean either way on it. There are times when maximum happiness can cause much pain (majority over the minority, which Mill speaks about vs. Bentham), and there are times when minimum pain hurts maximum happiness (overprotective parenting, insurance issues, have to break some eggs etc).
Mill admits that there will be continuous problems whichever way we use the principle, but we are evolving in a positive direction slowly and we should stick to the Utilitarian view even when there are problems if we truly (and he thinks we do) desire good consequences basically as human beings.
Attacks on Utilitarianism:
Mill addresses many of these directly in the text.
Interesting Paradox/Problem for Utilitarianism: the Good of the Bad as Example
Mill notes this, as do other modern writers on Utilitarianism noting as Mill does that this is a common attack against the Utilitarian principle as ethical conception/system.
COMPARE: PBS documentaries all the time on slavery and the US overcoming slavery as freedom and our view as Americans of the type of place South Africa is.
COMPARE: Prosecuting Attorney arguing that someone is a habitual criminal so latest normal behavior is prime for relapse vs. Defense Attorney pointing at the same evidence as reform and pulling one’s life together as normal from bad upbringing and environment.
Dennett uses three mile island as ex: this caused good nuclear standards to follow, so we could say as a utilitarian that the catastrophe was just as good as people simply coming up with the standards without the disaster.
Consider that we love villains who go from good to bad and heroes who go from bad to good. We can very easily see bad as good and good as bad.
The attack on Utilitarianism says that it is prone to confusing bad with good especially compared to systems of principles or rights that are given, not based on their consequences
Marx attacks Utilitarianism with a common argument today: guess who are the ones to tell you what is useful or makes us happy? Yes: the upper class, who use the lower class as labor. Obviously, it is the task master or overseer and not the worker who gets to say who is useful in their place and how happy the system is overall.
Mill in fact approves of war to advance civilization, and he approves of colonialism as improving the uncivilized. Marx and us could criticize him for this short sightedness.
HOWEVER, Mill was a champion against the enslavement of Black people and the second class status of women. He was an early champion of both, so this is mixed.
He writes, in 1850 on ‘The Negro Question’ words I love:
“It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek Philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.”
Defense against anti-environment challenge:
Many could say that ‘use’ and ‘happy’ can easily lead to how we abuse the environment.
More relevant today, Mill loved deep forests and argued that wilderness was necessary in the long view of use and happiness. We will read on wilderness for environmental week. This poses us an interesting question: when utilitarianism asks us to take the long view, how long a view can we take? If we pollute the earth and ignore it for hundreds of years, our long view can still be too short.