The absence of Justification in Modern Ethics: Aristotle, the Stoics, Christianity and Kant.

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Jonathan Lear in his excellent work “Aristotle: the desire to understand” points out that we moderns living in our modern world do not have resort to the kind of Universal justifications that we used 300 years ago under the auspices of Religion. According to Lear neither do we approach ethical issues as the Greeks did in the Ancient World by recourse to actively (through complex deliberation procedures), seeking the reasons for our actions and activities. Lear also claims that there are fundamental disparities between the Aristotelian and Kantian ethical positions. He claims that both philosophers would have found each other’s positions fundamentally flawed.

In relation to Lear’s first point, there is agreement that we moderns are generally not attuned to any particular kind of justification. Indeed the position we find ourselves in may be more serious. Under the auspices of a science that is theoretically obsessed by observation and experiment, we are inclined to believe that there is no universal justification for ethical behaviour: there is only a kind of subjective commitment which commands only accidental agreement. This position would, of course, for the Greeks, be anathema. Witness the bitter exchanges between the ethical relativists of the time and Socrates. Ruling groups ruling in their own interests was decisively dismissed as a form of justification by Socrates in book one of the Republic. Plato combats relativism with his theory of the forms in general and the form or idea of the Good in particular. Aristotle is clear that there can only be one universal end or “justification” to strive towards in one’s active life and that is a flourishing life: a life that all who are exercising their rationality must share. The route to this life for Aristotle was via the intellectual and moral virtues which amounted to the rational agent both deliberating correctly and then doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. It is not clear that Kant would have disagreed with any of these Aristotelian points. Lear translates “eudaimonia” as happiness but it is not obvious that this is always the best translation of Aristotle’s intent: a better translation might be “the flourishing life”, in which case Kant would probably agree that this is an important end if and only if the moral agent is worthy of the flourishing life: had, that is, lived his life virtuously. Kant’s ethics, like Aristotle’s, is also intimately bound to a (political) life of freedom in a cosmopolitan world without wars: a fact that Lear does not recognize. In other words, there is much that these two philosophers, parted by a period of 2000 years, would agree upon and that is due to the fact that Kant built much of his critical theory from the same anti-materialistic and anti-dogmatic rationalist commitments we find at the foundations of Aristotle’s metaphysics. There are differences of course and these may be due to the fate of Aristotelian thinking at the hands of Christianity. Lear claims that Christianity brought with it the focus upon intention at the expense of action. One could, that is, have a good heart but not be in any position to exercise one’s goodness because of the circumstances one was born into or finds oneself in. This is a correct observation but is not a fundamental characteristic of ethical action. In Aristotelian terms, the Christian is engaging in a deliberation process with all the complexity presented in Aristotle’s theory without finding the circumstances in which to perform his virtuous deeds. He may not be doing so autonomously and both Aristotle and Kant would object to this feature of the deliberation process and condemn it for being in some sense involuntary deliberation. Kant saw the need to claim ethical deliberation be free from dogma and authoritarian indoctrination but was able to retain his faith in a religious/philosophical God that functioned in a manner very similar to Plato’s idea of the Good from the Republic and also very similar to the Aristotelian God continually contemplating the essences or forms of the world. When we contemplate in a state of faith we are also capable of contemplating essences. This is particularly the case in our contemplation of ethical “forms” where the idea of God is evoked to ensure that we feel happy about being worthy of happiness as a consequence of our virtuous intentions and actions. The idea of Freedom, for Kant, however, in many ways replaced the religious idea of God and this signaled the Enlightenment’s conviction of the importance of political society in the developing of our rational potential(an idea he shared with Plato and Aristotle). Kant’s vision of a Cosmopolitan world suggests that he was not impressed with the idea of the nation-state set forth in 1648 (The Treaty of Westphalia) and this is a major difference between Kantian and Aristotelian ethical/political theorizing. In his eyes, the nation-state may have been a necessary stage on the road of our ethical and political evolution but it was not by any means the terminus of the process. Individuals need to find themselves in political environments where they are free to organize their souls in a manner appropriate to an imagined state of affairs in which each subject/citizen exercises their judgment in approving the laws of their community as mirroring the rationality of their own thoughts about the law. This for Kant was a state of affairs one hundred thousand years in the future which would replace the authority of the commandment system of religious systems: a state of affairs in which the organization of the souls of the citizens was absolutely in accordance with the demands of rationality. The formulations of the categorical imperatives also provided us with a description and explanation of fully ethical forms of behaviour which were logically universal and could function as logical justifications of the forms of virtuous behaviour Aristotle discussed in his ethical theory. Lear regards the categorical imperative morality of Kant as being all too formal but omits to mention the second very descriptive and concrete formulation: “So act that you can treat people never merely as means but also as ends in themselves”. This is very concrete in its description of how one ought to act towards one neighbours and others, and could easily be seen to be a consequence of Aristotle’s virtue theory. Kant and Aristotle would have agreed on how to use logic to clarify many of their ethical positions, in particular, the justification of ought statements such as “We ought to keep promises” in terms of seeing the world under the aspect of “the good” which entails knowing the universality of ought statements. For Kant, the fact that many make promises which they do not keep is irrelevant to the universality of what we ought to do. For him,  as for Aristotle, there were people whose souls were not sufficiently organized to understand the kind of universality involved in ought-statements . The argument, for example, that it is acceptable to break ones promise to another because many other people have in fact broken their promises to others, would indeed be a poor argument in both the eyes of Aristotle and Kant. The higher level argument that one person breaking their promise is sufficient to compromise the universality of “We ought to keep our promises” would also be dismissed as a confusion of the universality connected to theoretical reasoning with the universality connected to practical reasoning. Both Kant and Aristotle were very clear about the distinction between intellectual virtues and moral virtues.

We need however to investigate further the influence of Christianity upon the development of thought from the Greeks to the time of Kant and the influence of all these factors on our “Modern world”. In order to do this, we need to trace the development of attitudes and theories immediately after the death of Aristotle and before the time that Christ’s teachings became influential. Professor Brett in his “History of Psychology” has this contribution:

“The death of Aristotle marked the end of an era. The speculative restlessness of the Greeks declined like their city-states. Their theories were welded into successive philosophies of life, just as their states were welded into successive empires. Speculation for its own sake gave way to symbolic pictures which served to reinforce ways of living. Policies for living rather than theories about life commanded the interest of philosophers. The Stoics and Epicureans were preoccupied with the attainment of individual self-sufficiency as a substitute for the much lauded self-sufficiency of the old city-states. Life had become something to be endured rather than enjoyed: the problem was how to endure it best. How could the individual fortify himself against oppression, revolution and social change? The Stoics advocated integrity of character, devotion to duty, humanity towards fellow sufferers, and the rigorous discipline of the will: the Epicureans sought an escape from the hazards of life in cutting down the possible sources of misery. ….They put forward different forms of individualism one of which reached the culmination in Kant and the other in English Utilitarians.”

This looks like an account of the collapse of a belief in any form of universal good and it is certainly true that we can detect in our modern age the influence of an Epicurean individualism unsupported by any belief in the soul or character or any belief in the will and what it ought to do in the name of duty. The Stoic view of life and its connection to the Aristotelian theory of the organization of the soul, however, retained some universal commitment to universal ideas in what we today would call the ought-system of concepts in which we will to do what we ought to do. Kant incorporated many of the ideas of the Stoics into his ethical theory but he also integrated these thoughts and ideas with the categorical and universal aspects that can be found in Aristotelian metaphysical and ethical theory. There is no substance to the claim that Kant was committed to some kind of relativistic individualism or the kind of consequentialism embraced by the Epicureans. There is much to be said, however, for the view that the individualism of the Epicureans led directly to the consequentialist Pursuit of happiness doctrine of the Utilitarians. Bentham’s “two sovereign masters of pleasure and pain” was directly criticized by Kant in much the same terms that we can find in Plato and Aristotle.

The teachings of Christ were in no sense theoretical and appealed only to the individuals relation to God and not to universal argument. He exemplified the simple practical man with only his faith and belief. Nothing was mentioned of the history of theoretical thought or the theoretical thoughts of other thinkers in Christ’s teachings. There are of course assumptions about human beings but it is a total mystery as to where they originated from or indeed exactly what they were. We know that the Jewish- Alexandrian school played some part in the choosing of these assumptions. With the advent of Christianity, however, we encounter an almost complete substitution of the spiritual for the rational. Knowledge was no longer man’s province: it belonged to an all-knowing God who inspired prophets with his messages for the human race. There was no reference to the importance of the state or community to provide man with a higher quality of life. There was a reference to a universal “brotherhood of man” but it is unclear whether if one was not a Christian one could become a part of this “universal” brotherhood. It certainly did not appear to be a cosmopolitan brotherhood. The primary commandment was “love God above all else”. There is no mention of the role of knowledge or the importance of knowledge except in relation to “Knowing God”. Much of the Greek world was dismantled by Christianity. It is therefore not surprising that the idea of God was diminished in importance in favour of the idea of Freedom in Kant’s metaphysics of morals.

The Enlightenment philosophy of Kant attempted to row the philosophical boat back to the Greek shoreline but Kant’s Philosophy too was rapidly overcome by the practical individualistic spirit and theoretical scientific spirit of the Enlightenment. Our Modern World contains the threads of Greek and Kantian thought and these were revived by the work of the later Wittgenstein, the work of Heidegger(to some extent) and the work of Arendt(also to some extent). The consequence is that ethical thought in accordance with categorical universalistic dimensions had all but disappeared in the twentieth century and it is no coincidence that this was the century of two world wars and two mass annihilations of civilian populations via the use of weapons of mass destruction. The disappearance of the idea of justification might, then, be more important, than one might suspect.

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