One of the most influential philosophers who has profoundly impacted modern thought is undoubtedly Aristotle.  Among his many contributions, he wrote about an approach to ethics that is different from other philosophers.  From Socrates to Mill, ethics or moral right and wrong is determined by one’s actions.  The approach is called Principle or Rule-based ethics with its most basic question being, “What should one do?”  Aristotle, on the other hand, does not think it is a matter of what one does, but rather what one is.  Hence, the question of morality is about what one should be.

“This approach to ethics, which focuses on the kind of people we should be, instead of on telling us the rules we should follow, is now generally called ‘virtue ethics’.  It is an approach that focuses on the virtues or character traits of the morally good person” (2).  To be a moral person, one must establish the appropriate character traits or virtues, such as patience and honesty.  Aristotle pays a great deal of attention to communities and their importance, since it is the place that individuals develop these character traits.  He then points out that there is something we devote our lives to seeking, and that something is the reason for living: Our ultimate end.

Our highest end is something we seek in all our actions.  It is something we seek for its own sake and for which everything else is a means.  After addressing pleasure, fame, and wealth, all of which many people spend time pursuing, “Aristotle concludes that happiness is the ultimate aim of human life” (3). Having pleasure as an ultimate end where sensual enjoyment is the fundamental purpose of life brings human beings to the level of animals, so Aristotle decided that whatever the highest end is, it must be only attainable by humans.  As for fame – to be well liked and respected by others – the end is deemed too superficial.  Fame is entirely dependent on other people so it is not something you can have within your self.  Hence, the highest end must come from within and be intrinsically good.  Similarly, wealth is also a means to something else.  In conclusion, Aristotle proclaimed that an ultimate end has two features: 1) It is something we seek for its own sake and which is never a means to something else; and 2) Only happiness is something we seek for its own sake and never as a means.  So our highest end is something that by itself makes life worth living.  And if only happiness by itself makes life worth living, then happiness is our highest end.

How then do we achieve happiness?  According to Aristotle, human beings have a “function” or purpose in life.  We will achieve happiness by fulfilling our function, achieving what we are made to do.  But what are these specific functions?  Aristotle answers that one will achieve happiness by performing one’s function well, which entails acting in accordance to reason.  He says the ability to perform one’s function well is a virtue.  Most importantly, one must know how to arrive at the mean, which is the mid point between doing too much and not doing enough, going too far and not going far enough, and so on and so forth.  So virtue is the ability to use one’s reason to hit the mean. Read More

Perhaps the most common application of utilitarian ethics is in defense of national security, where for the safety and security of the country, ordinary citizens are asked to sacrifice individual liberties.  But where do you draw the line?  How far are you willing to go?

With utilitarianism, the morality of one’s actions is determined by end results or consequences.  This approach to ethics is based on the principle that “an action is morally right if it produces a greater quantity of good or happiness than any possible action” (105).

According to John Stewart Mill, morality is objective and is determined only on the basis of this criterion: What course of action will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  One’s actions are right to the extent they product happiness (i.e., pleasure, satisfaction) and wrong to the extent they produce unhappiness (i.e., pain).  All actions originate from self-interest: people only do things because they expect some form of satisfaction from it.  Mill says whatever human beings do, they do it for the sake of pleasure, satisfaction, and ultimately, happiness.  A major objection to this idea is the notion that human beings would essentially be seeking what animals seek.  Does this theory of life put humans on the same level as animals?  Mill answers, no.  He says it is rather the objectors that put humans on the same level as animals because they assume the pleasures people seek and the pleasures animals seek are the same.  In truth, human beings do seek certain pleasures that animals do not seek.

There is a qualitative difference between the pleasures sought by humans and animals.  The higher pleasures being reading, music, and knowledge, and the lower being eating, sleeping, and sex.  Mill’s justification for claiming greater value for the higher pleasures is that when asked, people are not willing to exchange complete satisfaction of lower pleasures for the higher pleasures that only humans experience.

It is said that human beings are motivated only by self-interest and direct inclination.  All actions are said to serve the purpose of bringing us toward reaching the ultimate end, pleasure or happiness.  Mill says “happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons” (115).  In other words, what makes one’s own happiness so valuable that one believes other people should help him attain it should, in turn, make one believe in the value of other people’s happiness.  Mill demonstrates that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable.

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As discussed below, according to Plato and James Rachels, moral right and wrong is not determined by what society believes or accepts.  How do you think your moral code was formed?

VenetianIs moral right and wrong determined by what one’s society believes or accepts?

In Plato’s “Crito,” Socrates asks, “But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?” (9).  Crito was worried others would think he “valued money more than the life of a friend” (9), since it is difficult to believe anyone (even Socrates) would refuse an opportunity to escape prison and death.  Being a man “who must be guided by reason” (9), Socrates begins to explain to Crito the reason for his view that one ought to follow the “opinion of the one who has understanding” (9) instead of the opinion of the many.  He says, “if, acting under the advice of those who have no understanding, we destroy that which is improved by health and is deteriorated by disease, would life be worth living?  And that which has been destroyed is – the body?” (10).  In other words, when we are ill, we do not seek the advice of our peers, but instead we would go to a doctor, someone who knows and understands.  It is he whom we trust and in whose care we place our bodies.  Socrates further points out that if we look to the one who knows for advice on matters concerning the body – the outer shell of our being – then we should all the more do the same for the inner body – the mind, the spirit.  In “Crito,” Plato clearly presented the argument it is false to state that moral right and wrong is determined by what one’s society believes or accepts: “we must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say” (10).

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Light bulbOutside of academic life (and many years removed at that), I find it difficult sometimes to engage in deeper philosophical discussions. Seeking that intellectual stimulation, I came across some old college essays that could serve as a starting point for exploring age-old concepts around political theory, ethics, and morality.  The idea is to share these essays on this blog and connect with interested readers. Perhaps the blog could develop into a place to visit when faced with ethical or moral dilemmas.  Readers can weigh in on how they would choose to act under various circumstances.  Right or wrong, good or bad … it is not always crystal clear.  Do stay tuned.