Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life


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2. Forms of Virtue Ethics

Some—particularly among Arab commentators—identified the separable active agent with God or with some other superhuman intelligence. Others—particularly among Latin commentators—took Aristotle to be identifying two different faculties within the human mind: an active intellect, which formed concepts, and a passive intellect, which was a storehouse of ideas and beliefs. If the second interpretation is correct, then Aristotle is here recognizing a part of the human soul that is separable from the body and immortal.

Here and elsewhere there is detectable in Aristotle, in addition to his standard biological notion of the soul, a residue of a Platonic vision according to which the intellect is a distinct entity separable from the body.

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Although the question has been disputed for centuries, it is most likely that the original home of the common books was the Eudemian Ethics ; it is also probable that Aristotle used this work for a course on ethics that he taught at the Lyceum during his mature period. The Magna moralia probably consists of notes taken by an unknown student of such a course. If life is to be worth living, he argues, it must surely be for the sake of something that is an end in itself—i.

If there is any single thing that is the highest human good, therefore, it must be desirable for its own sake, and all other goods must be desirable for the sake of it. One popular conception of the highest human good is pleasure—the pleasures of food, drink, and sex, combined with aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. Other people prefer a life of virtuous action in the political sphere. A third possible candidate for the highest human good is scientific or philosophical contemplation. This triad provides the key to his ethical inquiry.

Socrates (469-399 BCE)

Although it is impossible to abandon the English term at this stage of history, it should be borne in mind that what Aristotle means by eudaimonia is something more like well-being or flourishing than any feeling of contentment. Aristotle argues, in fact, that happiness is activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue.

Human beings must have a function, because particular types of humans e. This function must be unique to humans; thus, it cannot consist of growth and nourishment, for this is shared by plants, or the life of the senses, for this is shared by animals. It must therefore involve the peculiarly human faculty of reason.

The highest human good is the same as good human functioning, and good human functioning is the same as the good exercise of the faculty of reason—that is to say, the activity of rational soul in accordance with virtue. There are two kinds of virtue: moral and intellectual. Moral virtues are exemplified by courage, temperance, and liberality; the key intellectual virtues are wisdom, which governs ethical behaviour, and understanding, which is expressed in scientific endeavour and contemplation.

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They are not innate, like eyesight, but are acquired by practice and lost by disuse. They are abiding states, and they thus differ from momentary passions such as anger and pity. Virtues are states of character that find expression both in purpose and in action. Moral virtue is expressed in good purpose—that is to say, in prescriptions for action in accordance with a good plan of life. It is expressed also in actions that avoid both excess and defect. A temperate person, for example, will avoid eating or drinking too much, but he will also avoid eating or drinking too little.

Virtue chooses the mean, or middle ground, between excess and defect. Besides purpose and action, virtue is also concerned with feeling. One may, for example, be excessively concerned with sex or insufficiently interested in it; the temperate person will take the appropriate degree of interest and be neither lustful nor frigid.

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While all the moral virtues are means of action and passion, it is not the case that every kind of action and passion is capable of a virtuous mean. According to the Cynics, there are two groups of people: first, the wise people living a perfect and happy life — they cannot lose their virtues once they achieved this condition similar to Aristotle — and, secondly, the fools who are unhappy and make mistakes Diogenes Laertios VI, 1 and 2; Zeller ; Long Aristippus of Cyrene was well known and highly regarded among philosophers in Antiquity and was the first Socratian disciple who took money in exchange for lessons.

Thereby, the school of the Cyrenaics stands in striking contrast to the Cynics. Aristippus claims that knowledge is valuable only insofar as it is useful in practical matters a feature that the Cyrenaics share with the Cynics ; all actions should strive for the utmost pleasure since pleasure is the highest good.

There are gradual qualitative differences of the goods.

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Unlike Aristotle the Hedonists believed that happiness understood as a long-term state is not the overall purpose in life but the bodily pleasure of the very moment, which is the goal of life. The past has gone by and the future is uncertain therefore only the here and now is decisive since the immediate feelings are the only guide to what is really genuinely valuable. Practical wisdom is the precondition of happiness in being instrumentally useful for achieving pleasure.


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Aristippus and the Cyrenaics were seeking maximum pleasure in each moment without being swamped by it. Aristotle proposed the most prominent and sophisticated version of virtue ethics in Antiquity and his teachings have become authoritative for many scholars and still remain alive in the vital contributions of neo-Aristotelians in contemporary philosophy. Aristotle claims that happiness eudaimonia is the highest good — that is the final, perfect, and self-contained goal — to which all people strive at. For example, if the proper function of a pair of scissors is to cutting, then the proper function of a good pair of scissors is to cutting well likewise in all other cases.

Since the proper function of human beings - according to Aristotle - is to reason , the goodness of human beings depends on the good performance of the proper human function that is to reason well. In fact, Aristotle claims that the goodness of human beings does not consist in the mere performance of the proper function but rather in their disposition. This claim is substantiated by his example of the good person and the bad person who cannot be distinguished from each other during their bedtime if one only refers to their active performance.

The only possible way to distinguish them is to refer to their different dispositions. It is a matter of debate whether there is a particular human function as proposed by Aristotle. The different approaches are dealt with in order. The virtue of the good person EN II, 3, 4 : according to Aristotle, an action is good or right if a virtuous person would perform that action in a similar situation; an action is bad or wrong and hence prohibited if the virtuous person would never perform such an action.

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Three criteria must be met, according to Aristotle, in order to ensure that an action is virtuous given that the agent is in a certain condition when he performs them: i. Practical wisdom EN VI : in some passages in book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle argues that it is our practical wisdom that makes our practical considerations good, both with regard to the good or virtuous life and with regard to our particular goals.

He claims that a practically wise person has a special sensitivity or special perceptual skill with which to evaluate a situation in a morally correct or appropriate way. Here, the emphasis lies on the practical wisdom - as the capacity of ethical reasoning and decision-making - rather than on adhering to single ethical virtues, even though Aristotle claims that it is impossible to be practically wise without having ethical virtues and vice versa. The intrinsic value of the virtues: following the standard interpretation of the role of the ethical virtues with regard to living a good life, Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics EN X, 6—9 that these virtues are somewhat less important when it comes to the overall goal, that is, happiness of living a good life.

Epicurus — educated by the Platonist Pamphilus and highly influenced by the important teachings of Democritus — developed his philosophical school of the Epicureans in controversies with the Cyrenaics and the Stoics and meeting their objections and challenges. The lively exchange of arguments concerning the vital issue of how to live a good life put Epicurus in the position to successfully articulate a refined and sophisticated version of hedonism, which was regarded as superior to the rival philosophical school of the Cyrenaics.

He claims that sensation is the only standard of measuring good and evil. Epicurus shares the view with the Cyrenaics that all living beings strive for pleasure and try to avoid pain. But, unlike the Cyrenaic school, he argues that happiness consists of not only the very moment of bodily pleasure but lasts a whole life and also contains mental pleasure, which is — according to him — preferable to bodily pleasure.

The ultimate goal in life is not to strive for positive pleasure but to seek for absence of pain. Unlike Aristippus, Epicurus claims in support of the importance of mental states that bodily pleasure and pain is limited to the here and now, while the soul is also concerned with the pleasurable and painful states of the past and prospective pleasure and pain. Thus, sensations based on recollections, hope and fear in the context of mental states with regard to the past and future are much stronger than the bodily pleasure of the moment.

Being virtuous is a precondition of tranquillity, that is, peace and freedom from fear, which is closely connected to happiness.

Shortly after the rise of epicureanism, Zeno of Citium — the founder of stoicism — established a new school in Athens. The Stoics were influenced by teachings of the Cynics. Human beings, according to stoicism, are able to perceive the laws of nature through reason and to act accordingly. The best life is a life according to nature Zeller For example, in the case of rational beings only what is in accord with reason is valuable; only virtue, which is necessary and sufficient for happiness, is a good.

Following the Cynics, the Stoics argue that honour, property, health and life are not goods and that poverty, disgrace, illness, and death are not evils. Against the Cyrenaics and Epicureans, they hold the view that pleasure is not a good and certainly not the highest good; they agree with Aristotle that pleasure is the consequence of our actions — if they are of the right kind — but not the goal itself. Two main doctrines are of utmost importance in the teachings of stoicism, first, the significance of ataraxia and, secondly, the idea of doing what nature demands.

First, happiness is ataraxia — the freedom from passions — and a self-contained life style. Following Socrates and Plato, the Stoics believed that virtue is ethical knowledge and that non-virtuous people simply lack ethical knowledge, since virtue consists in the reasonable condition of the soul, which leads to correct views. The Cynic idea of the sharp distinction between the existence of a very few wise people and many fools, that is all non-wise people, had become less sharp in the process of time.

In addition, the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero —43 BC is the first author whose work on the notion of duty survives, De Officiis , in which he examined the notion in great detail in the first century BC 44 BC. It should be noted, however, that the stoic philosopher Panaitios of Rhodes — BC had already published an important book on the notion of duty prior to Cicero. Stoicism outlived the other philosophical schools with regard to its ethics by being an attractive position for many people and leading philosophers and politicians such as Seneca first century AD and Marcus Aurelius second century AD in Ancient Rome.

Both theories have been adopted and modified by many scholars in recent history in order to make them more compatible with the latest demands in ethical reasoning and decision-making, in particular, by meeting the objections raised by modern virtue ethics. The following briefly depicts Kantianism in its original form and the main features of utilitarianism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is the founder of deontological ethics.

His ethics, which he mainly put forth in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals , Critique of Practical Reason , and Metaphysics of Morals , is one of the most prominent and highly respected theories in modernity. The Categorical Imperative is a test for maxims which, in turn, determine whether certain acts have moral worth or not. If the maxim can be universalized, then it is valid and one must act upon it.

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A maxim cannot be universalized when it faces two severe instances: i. Morality is not based in interests such as social contract theories , emotions and intuitions, or conscience, but in reason alone. The pure practical reason is not limited to the particular nature of human reasoning but is the source and the field of universal norms, which stem from a general notion of a rational being as such see, Eisler ; Paton ; Timmermann ; Altman Historically speaking, Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism are the founders of utilitarianism, while Francis Hutcheson and William Paley could be seen as their legitimate predecessors by pointing out that utility should be seen as an important standard of evaluation in ethical reasoning and decision-making.

Bentham claims that the duration and intensity of pleasure and pain are of utmost importance and that it is even possible — according to Bentham - to measure the right action by applying a hedonistic calculus which determines the exact utility of the actions.

The action with the best hedonistic outcome should be put into practice. His position is called radical quantitative hedonism. Mill instead questions the very idea of a hedonistic calculus and argues that one must distinguish between mental and bodily pleasure by giving more weight to mental pleasures. His position is called qualitative hedonism.

Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life
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