INDEX

Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Religious Debate Influences Political Events


Alice C. Linsley

The religious and political events of the fourth century are extremely important in understanding subsequent church-state tensions in Europe.

Early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great sought to distance Christianity from the pagan philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and from the Gnostics. Church Fathers also distanced Christianity and Christian interpretation of the Bible from the teachings of the rabbis. They were writing at a time when the old state religion of Rome was fading as a result of the conversion of Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. After gaining control of the empire, Constantine established his capital at the site of ancient Byzantium in 330 AD. This was a time of doctrinal debates, some of which would find ecumenical resolution and state approval at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

By the 4th century, Plato’s thought began to exercise influence in the Latin Church through the writings of the neo-Platonist bishop, St. Augustine.

St. Augustine did not believe that God created everything in six consecutive 24-hour days, but he did believe that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had consequences for all of humanity. Their sin brought about the Fall of Man and the Fall can only be undone by an act of divine grace. Clearly, Augustine’s view of human nature is that something that was originally good has gone bad.  Yet this bad has no objective reality.  It is merely the absence of the Good. Augustine believed that God is present in human moral reasoning, but he did not conclude that humans can know the moral Good through fallen human reasoning, only through divine illumination.

From the 4th century there was great interest in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, although the Greek-speaking East interested Aristotle’s writings differently than the Latin-speaking West. The East saw continuity between Plato and his student Aristotle on the question of virtue, whereas the West saw discrepancies. In the East Aristotle was interpreted metaphysically, but in the West, Aristotle’s writings became the basis for early scientific approaches to knowledge (empiricism).

The tension between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism expressed itself during the Medieval Period in various propositions about the relationship of Faith and Reason. Augustine's idea was that human reason and philosophy are useful only to those who already have faith. He wrote, “Credo ut intellegiam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”). 

Anselm believed that faith is necessary to lead us to the right use of reason. He approached Christianity as a belief system that we are capable of understanding through the exercise of human reason based on faith. He wrote, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe -- that unless I believe, I should not understand.” Here we a shift from Augustine’s idea of the necessity of divine illumination to Anslem’s idea of the necessity of faith and reason. 

Aristotle believed that a man is good when he exercises reason as a political creature, seeking personal happiness in both private and public life.  For Aristotle, this is what humans exist to do. Aquinas borrowed Aristotle’s notion of the good as fulfilling our final end, but claims that humanity’s end is not rational activity, but instead the contemplation of God (the “beatific vision”).

Erasmus believed that a good teacher could instill virtue in the student because the seeds of the good are in humans by nature.  Martin Luther argued that the Fall left the human will in bondage to sin and that there is nothing that humanity can do to save itself.

In the area of politics, most medieval writers believed that citizens had a moral authority to obey the ruler because God vested authority in the ruler. This is sometimes termed "divine right of kings." This is a continuation of the archaic idea of the monarch as an earthly representative of the Deity. However, conflicts arose when a Catholic ruler tried to impose Catholicism on Lutherans or when a Lutheran ruler tried to impose Lutheranism on Catholics. When this happened, Luther denied that the State has authority to dictate matters of faith. Luther also consistently maintained that rulers were to be obeyed.

During the late Middle Ages bloody religious and territorial battles tore Europe apart and this raised questions about the ethics of war. Most thinkers believed that the only person who could legitimately declare war was the head of State, but in the feudal system petty lords went to war against each other without regard to the King’s wishes.  Theories of war became a topic of discussion among scholars, clergy and statesmen.  The just war theory was further refined and divided into related ideas. Jus ad bellum addresses what justifies going to war and jus in bello addresses what may justly be done in war.

Related reading: Luther Was Wrong About the Priesthood; Ethical Concerns of the Middle Ages; What Constitutes Just War?



Saturday, May 3, 2014

Overview of Ethics from Antiquity to Modernity



Philosophy 301: The History of Ethics

In this lesson we will review the key ethical ideas and developments that have been traced in this course. The objective is to use this review to help you integrate what you have learned in preparation for the Final Exam.


Ethics in Antiquity (Lesson 1)

The earliest law codes date to the 3rd century B.C. and reveal a high level of sophistication (Law of Tehut). Such codes do not represent the beginning of the practice of codification, but reflect a period when that practice was already fully developed.Tehut was regarded as a divine force that subdued the chaotic waters at the beginning of Earth's creation. 

These ancient law codes express belief that citizens are morally obligated to obey the laws because the laws are divinely inspired and given through the king who is the Deity’s earthly representative.  This concept of moral obligation to obey the law continued through the 17th century, finding its European expression in the concept of “the divine right of kings”.

Bloodshed was one of the principal ethical concerns of archaic man.  Priests and shamans addressed the guilt and anxiety felt by both individuals and communities when human life was taken. Priests offered prayers and animal sacrifice to cover the offense to the Creator of the one who killed.  Shamans offered prayers and sacrifices to appease the spirits of the dead so that these spirits would not bring harm to the individual or the community. 

Ancient Afro-Asiatic peoples made a distinction between blood shed in killing (hunting, war and execution) and blood shed in giving life (monthly menstrual blood and blood in birthing). Hunting, war and execution pertained exclusively to men. To avoid confusion or mixing of the two bloods, men and women were never permitted to be in the same space when blood was shed.  This is why primitive peoples enforce specific gender roles and punish those who violate them.

While priests and shamans served a similar societal function to relieve the consequences of blood shed, it is evident that their worldviews were different. The priest is concerned about offense to the Creator while the shaman is concerned about offending the spirits (spiritism or animism).

Social and political organization among archaic peoples reflected the hierarchy of kings, tribal rulers, priests, shamans, and prophets or “oracles”.  Rulers married royal brides and often had more than one wife.  These wives were usually related by blood.  This made kinship the basis of alliances between rulers of adjoining territories.  The moral obligation to obey the ruler was based on the loyalty owed to family, clan and tribe as much as to the idea that the ruler represented the Deity.

Oracles involved study of the constellations because it was believed that “as in the heavens so on earth.” This was the origin of sidereal astronomy.  By studying the relationship of stars and their heavenly movement, the oracle established the most favorable date to hunt, to harvest, or to go to war.

Archaic peoples wanted to know their time and place relative to the heavens because they were concerned about not violating perceived boundaries.  These boundaries provide us the conceptual framework of archaic Man’s ethical considerations.


Greek Ethical Foundations (Lesson 2)

In ancient Greece, one’s place in society was fixed by gender, caste, and loyal to one’s city state.  This provided a sense of security but also make it impossible for one to better their condition in life.

A citizen’s first loyalty was to his city-state and to the god or goddess to whom the local temple was dedicated. People looked to their deity for protection of the city. Temples were the centers of daily activity, with offerings of sacrifices and libations at the altars, and people coming and going to fulfill their sacred duties.  Citizens and rulers alike sought advice from the Sibyls or oracles, many of whom were women.

While priests provided services at the temples and oracles provided guidance for decision making, these did not satisfy those who thought that the gods seemed too human and questioned the authority of the established religion.  The foremost of these great questioners was Socrates, whose method was to ask well-formed questions that placed a burden on people to think about their actions and attitudes.  Socrates thought it was important for people to be good citizens.  He was primarily an ethical teacher who taught by asking questions.

One of Socrates’ students was Plato.  Plato doubted Socrates definition of virtue as knowledge. Socrates insisted that before we can say anything about justice we must first answer the question “What is justice?”  Plato recognized that asking what justice is only leads to considering examples of justice and examples of injustice, but examples are not the same as the justice itself. Plato wondered how we are able to recognize justice when we are unable to define it.  He concluded that an unambiguous Justice must exist in the metaphysical (non-material idea) sense, and that we must once have known justice as an unchanging “Form” or we would not be able to recognize examples of it.

Plato’s Theory of Forms is based upon his belief that we are born into the material world from an ideal immaterial world where our soul was acquainted with Justice, Goodness, Beauty and Love. We are able to recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love because our souls have innate knowledge of these non-material entities.  Plato believed that the good life requires philosophical reflection on the Forms. He supported censorship in society because he believed that the citizen’s preoccupation with the trivial and the earthy posed obstacles to philosophical contemplation of the Forms.  In other words, there are Plato believed that there are pursuits and behaviors that can cause us to miss the good life.

The greatest of Plato’s students was Aristotle. Aristotle rejected Plato’s definition of the good life as contemplation of the eternal Forms.  He didn’t think that Forms existed. Instead he argued that what is to be known can be discovered from the study of nature.

Aristotle did agree with Plato’s definition of virtue as knowledge, but the knowledge that mattered to Aristotle was not the knowledge of Forms, but self-knowledge of what brings one happiness or what causes one to thrive.  This is the basis for eudaimonism, an ethical approach that holds personal happiness as the highest good.

Aristotle’s ideal king is a ruler who discovers the Golden Mean in both his personal and public life.  This is consistent with Aristotle view of human nature.  He believed that Man is essentially a political creature, not a solitary creature.

Many Sophists also believed that personal happiness is the highest good. They defined the highest good as social status, wealth and power.  They weren’t concerned about philosophical contemplation of Forms, or knowledge derived from nature, unless these served to make one successful in public life.  Sophist teachers weren’t concerned with right and wrong either, but only with the appearance of right and wrong.  They realized that to be successful in public life, one must at least appear to me moral.  Here we see the foundation for the work of a later political philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli.

The Stoics believed that the world as it exists is the best of all possible worlds, created by an unknowable Deity and that the greatest virtue was to unemotional acceptance.  Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) did not accept the Cynics view that the world is fundamentally evil and that the only virtue is to find peace within oneself by rejecting worldly pursuits. Instead, he taught that everything is determined by God’s good order in the universe and that we have no power to change what happens.  Therefore whatever happens to the individual, whether good or bad, should be accepted without desire or strong emotions.  Stoicism lays the foundation for the Enlightenment Theodicy of Leibniz and Voltaire.


Ethics in the Medieval Period (Lesson 3)

Early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great sought to distance Christianity from the pagan philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and from the Gnostics.  By the 4th century, Plato’s thought began to exercise influence in the Latin Church through the writings of the neo-Platonist bishop, St. Augustine.

St. Augustine did not believe that God created everything in six consecutive 24-hour days, but he did believe that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had consequences for all of humanity. Their sin brought about the Fall of Man and the Fall can only be undone by an act of divine grace. Clearly, Augustine’s view of human nature is that something that was originally good has gone bad.  Yet this bad has no objective reality.  It is merely the absence of the Good. Augustine believed that God is present in human moral reasoning, but he did not conclude that humans can know the moral Good through fallen human reasoning, only through divine illumination.

From the 4th century there was great interest in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, although the Greek-speaking East interested Aristotle’s writings differently than the Latin-speaking West. The East saw continuity between Plato and his student Aristotle on the question of virtue, whereas the West saw discrepancies. In the East Aristotle was interpreted metaphysically, but in the West, Aristotle’s writings became the basis for early scientific approaches to knowledge (empiricism).

The tension between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism expressed itself during the Medieval Period in various propositions about the relationship of Faith and Reason. Augustine's idea was that human reason and philosophy are useful only to those who already have faith. He wrote, “Credo ut intellegiam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”). 

Anselm believed that faith is necessary to lead us to the right use of reason. He approached Christianity as a belief system that we are capable of understanding through the exercise of human reason based on faith. He wrote, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe -- that unless I believe, I should not understand.” Here we a shift from Augustine’s idea of the necessity of divine illumination to Anslem’s idea of the necessity of faith and reason. 

Aristotle believed that a man is good when he exercises reason as a political creature, seeking personal happiness in both private and public life.  For Aristotle, this is what humans exist to do. Aquinas borrowed Aristotle’s notion of the good as fulfilling our final end, but claims that humanity’s end is not rational activity, but instead the contemplation of God (the “beatific vision”).

Erasmus believed that a good teacher could instill virtue in the student because the seeds of the good are in humans by nature.  Martin Luther argued that the Fall left the human will in bondage to sin and that there is nothing that humanity can do to save itself.

In the area of politics, most medieval writers believed that citizens had a moral authority to obey the ruler because God vested authority in the ruler.  Here we see a continuation of the older idea of the monarch as an earthly representative of the Deity. However, conflicts arose when a Catholic ruler tried to impose Catholicism on Lutherans or a Lutheran ruler tried to impose Lutheranism on Catholics. When this happened, Luther denied that the State has authority to dictate matters of faith.

During the late Middle Ages bloody religious and territorial battles tore Europe apart and this raised questions about the ethics of war. Most thinkers believed that the only person who could legitimately declare war was the head of State, but in the feudal system petty lords went to war against each other without regard to the King’s wishes.  Theories of war became a topic of discussion among scholars, clergy and statesmen.  The just war theory was further refined and divided into related ideas. Jus ad bellum addresses what justifies going to war and jus in bello addresses what may justly be done in war.


Renaissance Ethics (Lesson 4)

Against the backdrop of religious wars, plague, the discovery of the New World, and Muslim territorial expansion, the Medieval Period is often seen as the “Dark Ages”.  Yet it was a period of creativity, innovation, and profound thought. Medieval ethics paved the way for the Humanism of the Renaissance.

The question of Human Nature was addressed by both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Catholic position held that while humans are sinful due to the Fall of Man, the image of God with which we were originally created is not fully erased. Therefore Man has dignity derived from being made in the “image and likeness of God.”  The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did not deny that humans were created in God’s image, but they believed that that the Fall so thoroughly corrupted us that we were robbed of our original dignity. Our sinfulness is such that we no longer are free to desire communion with God. Our wills are in bondage to sin and we stand before the Creator as filthy beggars.

Luther’s view would be met by numerous challenges during the Renaissance. Humanism emphasized the dignity of Man and the possibilities of rewards in this life, rather than rewards in heaven. Renaissance humanism represents a reaction against Church authority. It shifted the focus from Creator God to human creativity and from the supernatural to the natural. During the Renaissance, human achievements and human creative potential took center stage. Humanist writer were able to spread their ideas because of the development of book printing.

Many intellectuals and artists had wealthy patrons who paid for their services and supported their work. Patronage developed in the Middle Ages but reached its peak during the Renaissance. Nobles vied with the Church for the services of artists, poets and philosophers. The desire to retain the best artists was motivated more by the concern for social status than out of religious piety. Some wealthy patrons also maintained armies, conducted war, served as diplomats, and generally challenged older authorities. This was especially evident in Italy where the German Hapsburg kings and the French Valois kings engaged in a prolonged political tug-o-war.

In the 16th century, the Consistory maintained control over all aspects of civil and religious life in Calvin’s Geneva. John Calvin and his ruling oligarchy were sometimes ruthless in the treatment of their enemies. The acceptance of torture was not unusual among rulers of that time.

The political philosopher who attempted to justify ruthless treatment of political enemies was Niccolo Machiavelli. He believed that the first responsibility of the ruler is to increase and maintain his power. In his thinking, human dignity is gained by the exercise of the will to rule. An effective ruler will appear to the public to be honorable and benevolent while privately acting as ruthlessly as necessary to squash his political opponents.  He argues that this approach will achieve the greater good by maintaining stability.

Whatever is done to one’s enemy must be swift, effective and short-lived.  In other words, when taking the life of a political opponent it should be done as painlessly as possible, secretly, and without collateral damage.

Machiavelli’s ethics represents a departure from the virtue ethics of Aristotle, who wrote: “There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong.”

While the Renaissance was a time of religious intolerance, it was also a time of educational reform. The Jesuits founded schools, universities and missions around the world. Priests, nuns and lay clerics staffed schools and hospitals, but where Protestantism became the established religion, such as in northern Germany, these educational and charitable efforts were taken over by Protestants.

Protestantism greatly affected ethics during the Renaissance. Protestants developed ethical methods based on the principles of individual conscience and individual interpretation of the Bible, apart from the “Tradition” of the Church. Historically, Roman Catholicism held individual conscience in high regard as a God-given gift that can lead the individual to Virtue. However, while the Catholic Church felt under siege by spreading Protestantism and advancing Islam, this value was surrendered to the greater concern for unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teachings.

Protestants rejected the Vatican’s teaching authority and asserted as their new authorities the individual’s conscience, independent interpretation of the Bible, and reason. The understanding of Bible texts became a matter of individual interpretation and philosophical speculation.  The Protestant reformer, Melanchthon, attempted to marry Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy. The philosopher Baron Samuel Pufendorf prepared the way through his Rationalism for the Enlightenment to spread throughout Germany. Along with the French philosopher, Rene Descartes, Pufendorf concluded that the individual’s reason is the ultimate ground for deciding between good and evil, between truth and falsehood.

Protestant rationalism opened the doors to the secularization of Western Europe. Coupled with Renaissance humanism, Protestant thought prepared the way for modern ethics, based on human reason and a liberal view of human rights. Some who called themselves Protestants would eventually depart from Christianity and become Deists. These would move the question of natural law from the Christian concept of moral obligation to the laws of God to moral obligation to the natural law of individual liberty and property. Deism, combined with the Calvinist work ethic, created a new launching point for discussion of natural rights, one of which would be private property as “the good”.


Enlightenment Ethics (Lesson 5)

During the Enlightenment three developments in history converged: Renaissance Humanism, Protestant ethics of conscience and individual authority, and a Rationalist view of Nature. Together these form the basis for modern western society and modern ethics. Kant wrote, “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.” Enlightenment philosophers, scientists, medical doctors, teachers, and theologians believed that systematic rational approaches could be applied to all areas of nature and human endeavor.  Enlightenment interpretation of the Bible was subjected to the ethic of reason and moral conscience. The conscience and individual reason of the individual were elevated to the primary authority. 

The rationalist approach to Nature did not appeal to everyone during the Enlightenment. Toward the last half of the 18th century, an opposing trend developed: Romanticism. Romantics tended to celebrate Nature rather than the accomplishment of government.  They viewed Nature as mystical and unpredictable while rationalists viewed Nature as knowable, calculable, and reducible to universal principles.

Rationalists such as Thomas Hobbes debated the necessity of civilizing the brutish nature of humans by the agency of government. Hobbes’ solution to selfishness, greed and war is a social contract whereby individuals agree to surrender their right to gain at the cost of their neighbors in order to have peace and security. Hobbes’ account of humanity emphasizes our animal nature. He believed that everything we do is intended to relieve the physical pressures that we experience in daily life.

Hobbes’ view was countered by the Romanticism of Rousseau who maintained that the natural condition of humanity is good, but that our innate goodness is corrupted by the influence of civilization. Some inequalities among individuals are inevitable, such as physical strength and intelligence, but Rousseau believed that moral and political inequalities are matters of social convention.

Rousseau also argued against the idea of authority based in institutions like government or the Church. He believed maintained that humans have no need for morality because they are naturally and instinctually guided by feelings of pity and love for each other.

For Rousseau, the ideal society is one in which humans can live in harmony with Nature and with little of no government.  Hobbes’ ideal society is quite the opposite. He views government as an artificial “Leviathan” which is responsible for social order and public welfare. The state is analogous to the human body and the Head of the body is the king who makes decisions on behalf of his subjects.

Hobbes’ commonwealth-creating covenant is not a relationship between subjects and their monarch however. The key to the success of the covenant is the relationship among subjects. All must agree to divest themselves of their natural instinct of self-preservation and self-interest to secure an orderly government through obedience to the monarch.

For Hobbes true human freedom is the ability to carry out one's will without interference from others. The State was to help the citizen protect his property. He believed that this is possible only when citizens are subject to a common authority that helps each to secure liberty with respect to others. Rousseau’s idea of true freedom is the opposite.  He believes that humans, when left alone, will find ways to be happy and supportive of each another without the help of a social contract that involves a powerful government. Rousseau believed that concern for private property has a corrupting influence. Contrary to Hobbes, Rousseau regarded monarchy as the least beneficial form of government.

Natural Law refers to laws or principles of law derived from observation of Nature and believed to be binding upon human actions apart from or in conjunction with laws established by government. Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of natural law as humanity’s “participation” in God’s eternal law as evidenced in the orderliness of Nature. John Calvin provided a theological basis for natural law in that the will of God is the cause of things. 

Locke held that natural law is not derived from divinely ordered laws, but from an innate desire for self-preservation. Self-preservation as a natural law became the basis for Locke’s new doctrine described as “natural rights.” Building on Hobbes’ idea of the social contract, Locke made it the primary role of government to protect the rights to life, liberty, and property. Natural rights theory had a significant influence on the founders of American government, as evidenced by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Pascal also wrote on natural law, but he did not believe that this can be discovered by reason or that it is embodied in a social contract. He sees natural law as a reflection of what remains of the divine image in humanity after the Fall.

In the modern period Natural Law was seen as the necessary framework in which citizens derive their right to defend themselves and their property.  These rights were determined to the most fundamental “natural rights”, not to be taken away by the state. This established Nature as the basis of Law, not the state. If law is whatever the state decrees, then the idea of actions being lawful and unlawful would not have the emotional significance. If the state can decree whatever laws it wants, regardless of what is natural, those laws are ultimately shown to be without legitimate authority.  They are simply the state’s attempt to force citizens to act contrary to their best self-interest.

Bentham took exactly the opposite view that real rights were established by laws enacted by the state.  He proposed reforms, not on the basis of natural rights, but on the basis of his utilitarian principle of extension, that is how widely the pains and pleasures of a law will be felt across the social spectrum.
During the Enlightenment, thinkers continued to address the question of happiness as the Good. For Hobbes happiness meant being protected by the State. For Rousseau, it meant living the natural life without interference from the State. For Descartes it meant living without fear of one’s mortality. He wrote, "One of the main points of my own ethical code is to love life without fearing death.” 


Modern Ethics (Lesson 6)

In the modern period Natural Law was seen as the necessary framework in which citizens derive their right to defend themselves and their property.  These rights were determined to the most fundamental “natural rights”, not to be taken away by the state. The state exists, according to Locke, to protect the citizen’s natural rights to life, self-defense and property ownership.

Making Nature the basis of Law, instead of the state meant that laws could be observed in nature and generalized to apply to humans and human society.  Lawfulness is defined by naturalness. However, if law is whatever the state decrees, the distinction between lawful and unlawful is based on political necessity, not Nature. If the state can decree whatever laws it wants, regardless of what is natural, those laws are ultimately shown to be without legitimate authority. Such laws may in fact represent state coercion of citizens to act contrary to their best self-interest.

Bentham took exactly the opposite view. He believed that the only legitimate laws are those enacted by the state. He proposed reforms, not on the basis of natural rights, but on the basis of his utilitarian principle of extension, that is, how widely the pains and pleasures of a law will be felt across the social spectrum. Bentham’s moral philosophy reflects his view that the primary motivators in humans are pleasure and pain.

During the Enlightenment, thinkers continued to address the question of happiness as the Good. For Hobbes happiness meant being protected by the State. For Rousseau, it meant living the natural life without interference from the State. For Descartes it meant loving life without fear of death. He wrote, "One of the main points of my own ethical code is to love life without fearing death.” 

For Nietzsche, the “will to power” was the secret of life and the destiny of humanity. As far as he was concerned, history tells the story of two classes of people: masters and slaves.  Masters are the heroic figures because they establish their own moral guidelines.  Masters are above the law that binds slaves, and autonomous of the moral conventions of society. Happiness for Nietzsche results when one places oneself beyond good and evil (immoralism).

Kierkegaard held that true fulfillment is found only when the individual surrenders individuality by losing oneself in God. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard recognizes a moral authority greater than that of social norms, but he rejects Nietzsche’s “will to power” as the highest moral duty. Instead, Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to God as the Creator. While Nietzsche urges going beyond good and evil, Kierkegaard argues that the distinction between good and evil is dependent on God in whom each is bound to fulfill his or her spiritual destiny.


Post-Modern Ethics (Lesson 7)

 Post-Modernism is characterized by skepticism toward all truth claims.  Post-modernist writers and thinkers tend to view traditional morals and values as relative to one’s culture and place in society.  This does not mean that all post-modernists reject the possibility of absolute truth. The French Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida, enjoyed making fun of the traditional values found in stories and religious texts. Yet Derrida himself admitted that there was something at “the center” of Reality, even though the ontological center is called different names by different people at different times and places.

Idealism insists that our notions of good and evil, as well as everything that we see or sense in the material world, are mental concepts with no objective existence.  The existence of things depends on their being perceived in the mind.  Idealism draws off Plato’s idea of Forms.

Nietzsche’s immoralism fed Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich. The theme that the supreme leader is above the morals of ordinary men runs throughout Hitler's public utterances.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said language is incapable of perfect communication. All language only approximates the object being described or discussed. By this reasoning, statements about good, evil and beauty don’t represent simple propositions, so a statement such as “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify using logic and math.

Logical Positivists, drawing off Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, are only concerned about “atomic” facts that represent things that can be verified and studied using strict logic and mathematical analysis.  Most Logical Positivists are atheists or agnostics.

Martin Heidegger believed that the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s mortality.  Death is the first fact of life and must be faced to live a life of integrity.  He insisted that life involves a dread of death and that authentic being is possible only when we face death honestly.

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the 20th century's most remarkable philosophers. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein and upon his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. She translated Wittgenstein's unpublished writings, preparing them for publication after his death and she wrote An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

She also responded to Heidegger's “extinction” which causes us anxiety. She suggests that this negation of existence has a binary opposite – the affirmation of existence – and this potentially relieves anxiety. The logic of her argument is that when we feel the anxiety of injustice (which is negating) we should perform justice. Justice then is not a state of affairs, but a practical virtue of a good person. It is perhaps the derived virtue of being made in the image of a Good God.

Anscombe believed that consequentialism (Utilitarianism) and Christianity are incompatible. Her considered the Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil to be meaningless in post-Christian western societies.  She urged moving ethical discussion forward by using the concepts of “justice” and “injustice” instead.

John B. Rawls thought experiment is designed to establish a social contract or constitution based on ignorance of one’s position or status in that society. He hoped to minimize wealth differences by using the difference principle.

Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” sees rational self-interest as the single moral obligation.  By this measure self-sacrifice for others is irrational. She believed that rational selfishness is a virtue. Rand’s rational selfishness differs from Aristotle’s eudaimonism because Aristotle believed that, as political creatures, humans must consider the happiness of others to be happy.  Rand’s attitude toward politics was one of indifference. Her ideal government is one which allows citizens to live as they choose with the barest minimum of interference.


Related reading: Review for Final Exam- Part I; Ethics of the Post-Modern Era; Modern Trends in Ethical Thought; Ancient Wisdom, Science and Technology