3.3 Ethics and Pure Reason--The Legacy of The Greek Philosophers

This section will examine the first of the three views just mentioned--that moral statements originate through a process of reason or logic. In this view, all who are trained in the application of logic must necessarily arrive at the same conclusion about ethical matters. Those in this group agree that moral principles are absolute, for logically derived principles do not change with the majority opinion from one place or time to another, as logic itself is immutable. They also tend to agree that more than one absolute exists. Consider this statement as a simplified representative position of this group:

Moral statements are absolute because they are arrived at by pure reason. They are related to self-evident virtues, each statement promoting a single virtue. There are no conflicts among these moral statements because they do not overlap.

As mentioned earlier, this was the position of certain Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle. It has also been adhered to in various forms in more modern times, a common modification being the omission of the second sentence, or even a recognition that conflicts may indeed exist between the different absolutes.

However, despite the contention that logic alone is sufficient to arrive at ethical statements, actual conclusions of this group about the number, nature, and priority of ethical principles vary widely.

Plato held that the goal of the rational person was the cultivation of personal virtue (or excellence) and happiness. In his view, such a person knows what is true by pure reason, can control the desires, and is capable of both philosophy and command. The ideal ruler in the Platonic state is its best philosopher. Some of the virtues that Plato put forward were temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Aristotle, on the other hand, emphasized those of friendship, pride, and moderation.

Today, it is easy to underestimate the importance to these teachers of human reasoning and the spoken word (logos) they used to convey that reasoning by way of argument. The logos of reasoned argument was not just a symbol or even just a conveyer of meaning; it was the very substance of knowledge itself. Logos made reasoned discourse possible; it was, therefore, the very stuff of knowledge; it was what made one truly human.

On the other hand, the interesting thing for a modern reader of Plato and Aristotle is the near total absence in these philosophies of any discussion of right and wrong in the moral sense that these words were usually used in the Christian societies that followed. These philosophers did not equate virtue with what has been termed morality in modern culture. Rather, they believed that such concepts were either self-evident or incidental to the training of the virtuous. Likewise, modern concepts of justice--such as "all are equal before the law"--would have been foreign or perhaps even immoral to Plato. To him, it was entirely correct that there be differing standards for the virtuous philosopher-governor on the one hand and for the uneducated masses on the other. Again, it would not be so much, say, truth-telling, that was at issue to Aristotle, but loyalty to one's friends. The long-term goal was the perfection of pure reason in governing the relationship between individuals and the state. Indeed, it would be accurate to say that the advancement of a person's rational life was the ultimate good in these schools.

Issues of right and wrong in ordinary life were in a different and much lesser category than the pursuit of philosophical excellence. Such matters were regarded as being common knowledge, within the reach of ordinary people, and sufficiently self-evident even to the untrained as not to be worthy of detailed rational consideration. Here is a clear separation between common morals, which anyone could understand and apply, and the ethics of virtue, to which only the deep thinker could truly aspire. Once having achieved an understanding of those ethics, they could be justifiably proud of the difference between them and the common person. Indeed such issues as friendship could arise only between good men; one could not be friends with a slave (thought of as a living tool) or a woman (not regarded as rational beings). Some taught philosophy to women as well, but this was uncommon. These principles might be summarized in this way:

Goodness refers to virtue, and rightness to action.

Another illustration of the difference between modern Western ideas and the ideas of some of the ancients can be found in Plato's concept of justice. In his view, the just person must fulfil his or her proper role in a state--that of ruler, administrator, or citizen. Each person has a natural position of control or subordination, and any perversion of this is an injustice. No one should ever seek to act outside their just station in life. To propose, therefore, that the same laws should apply to both commoner and king would be illogical, and therefore seditious.

As to the common morality, Plato's belief was that there was a moral nature with which the rational person lived in harmony, even though this might often be in contradiction to the conventions or practice of the non-rational person. In this view, morality is part of nature itself; it is not man-made or dependent upon culture or invention in any way. It is part of the natural order, as are male/female distinctions, skin colour, and the nature of fire, earth and sun.

In an ethics based on reason, moral laws are supposed to exist apart from convention, culture, or decree. They do not change with time or civilization. They simply are. The task of both the individual and the state relative to such matters is to determine the correct natural order of morality and justice and then to change convention, law, behaviour, and legal justice so as to conform to that right order. In this view, it is not only possible but also probable that the vulgar, uninformed, and irrational masses will have as a conventional morality a code that upon rational examination will prove to be immoral, because whatever common opinion may be, true (logical) knowledge cannot be wrong.

Socrates, according to Plato, held that a person who once knew what was good could not choose to do evil, and therefore the acquisition of knowledge through philosophy was sufficient to attain to all virtue. Moreover, wrongdoing in anyone's own eyes can never be a voluntary act. Thus, for example, an evil tyrant could never be happy or informed.

By the time of Immanuel Kant (the late 18th century), these traditional absolutist views were virtually unchallenged. Kant reformulated them in terms of a law of duty (not love, which is an emotion) that he called the "categorical imperative." Briefly stated, it is this:

Whatever one does, one must act in a manner that is consistent with wanting that action to become a universal law. The corollary to this is that people are to be treated as ends, not as means to an end.

Kant was so convinced of this law of duty, which he claimed to have formulated by pure reason, that he rejected any mixture of love, compassion, or the pursuit of happiness in governing actions as dangerous corruptions of the Moral Law. He regarded the categorical imperative as the triumph of pure moral reason.

However, there are several flaws to the notion that true morality can only be discovered through pure reason. The first is that the actual law discovered by Kant seems, if it stands alone, to be rather arbitrary. Why not pick some other law, such as "Do what enhances your own self interest?"

It seems apparent that Kant was trying to bring within the sphere of duty (his highest goal) a statement incorporating the Golden Rule of Jesus Christ, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Because of the potent influence of Christianity in the Europe of that era, it was important to Kant that reason seem to achieve the same ethical result as religion. At the same time, Kant believed that he was not merely modifying the Golden Rule but held that even if Christianity did not exist, pure reason would have discovered this principle unaided. Kant believed duty to transcend not only philosophy but also the results produced by the application of the senses (science). It was by serving duty in accordance with the categorical imperative that all true notions of etiquette, morality, and law would be derived.

In summary, Plato concluded that ethical duty was collectively owed to society, or the state. Aristotle stressed friendship, and Kant decreed that the primary imperative was to duty itself. For each, the well-governed state had an obligation to enforce moral laws, putting weight behind the transition from the good to the should.

There are five great difficulties with such views of ethics. The first is that if they are valid, all philosophers ought to arrive at the same conclusions about what are the highest principles of moral law, and ought to apply them to ethical conduct in at least very similar ways. That they do not suggests that one needs to seek another source of absolutes than unaided human reason.

The second is the abstractness of the concepts. Such theoretical ideas often seem to have very little practical context. It is not clear how to use such a system to make applications to specific situations in order to act morally. It is not always clear what is meant by the term "virtue" or what specific qualities ought to be included within its purview. Likewise, it is difficult to agree on what specifics do flow from the categorical imperative. This abstractness is not necessarily just a weakness, for the strength of the categorical imperative also lies in its generality, which is achieved precisely because the statement speaks not to the ethics of specific actions but to the moral process by which the ethics of any action is determined. On the other hand, such generality, along with many specifics, was already present in the Bible (and to a lesser extent in other religions) before Kant; his work refocused Biblical thinking rather than providing a radical departure from it.

The third is that actual experience also forces one to question the assumption of some absolutists that the sufficiently well-informed person cannot choose to do what is wrong. On a most practical level, this assumption mocks the aching heart of every parent who has taught a child to do right, only to have the child grow up to do evil instead. That this actually happens, and does so frequently, calls into question the Socratic assumption that adequate knowledge of good alone is sufficient for enforcing good behaviour. On a global scale, the increase in all forms of knowledge would presumably carry with it more knowledge of what is good, and this would in turn result in a more moral society. Yet, the last three centuries have seen as much war, tyrannical oppression, brutality, and other evils as have any time in human history, if not more. Indeed, although education has been more extensive in scope and application during the latter part of the twentieth century, it has become abundantly clear that knowledge and goodness demonstrably do not increase together. One could argue that it is the absence in the curriculum of the study of virtue that is at fault, but as those who control the schools cannot themselves agree on what, if any, moral principles ought to be inculcated, it appears that this avenue is a dead end.

Fourth, there is somewhat of a ring of arbitrariness to these philosophers' conclusions. It is easy to imagine coming to a different conclusion than that of Kant's, and indeed modern philosophers no longer do place the categorical imperative at the top of their list of logical conclusions about morality. Other considerations have become paramount, and other priorities have risen to the top. This would appear to be a fatal blow to the whole concept that sufficiently trained thinkers will always arrive at the same conclusions about moral philosophy.

Fifth and finally, a Christian must argue that since all aspects of humankind, including the intellect, are fallen and flawed due to sin, we do not have the ability to reason perfectly, and therefore could not come to correct conclusions about moral principles by unaided reason. In this view, the ability to reason as God would do is damaged by the fall, and therefore the process and the conclusions are bound to be wrong (at variance to God's) at least some of the time. Thus, at the end of the day, the Christian discovers at the heart of this theory a mistaken confidence in human reason and so must reject this theory of moral philosophy as fundamentally defective, and even idolatrous. It is also not enough to rescue the morality-as-pure-reason theory to say that humankind is made in the image of God and can therefore think His thoughts after Him, because this weak attempt at a recovery still ignores the fall, and so is fatally flawed.

All these considerations and others are the object of many books. They have led modern philosophers to consider a number of other positions, some of them nonabsolutist.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
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