In light of my upcoming philosophy exam, I thought it might be fun to see how well I myself understand the material by sharing it with all of your lovely minds. The content is not overly heavy or indulgent; simply the perspectives of a select few philosophers from before our time, and the ways in which they dealt with the issue of morals and ethics and their application in daily life. I hope you are able to find some level of interest in what I shall present to you, but I understand that philosophy is not everyone’s cup of tea. What I personally find to be fascinating about this field of study is how it develops the human ability to understand the world on a deeper level than one would normally perceive it, opening up a realm of possibilities and rational explanations regarding the ways of the world.
So prepare to have your mind expanded, and as I am not an expert in the field, I encourage you to clarify anything I may misinterpreted, or any crucial details I may have missed. Otherwise, enjoy ^_^
Philosophical Perspective of Ethics and Morals
Aristotle: The Ultimate End
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics placed an emphasis on the concept of “virtues” when dealing with the moral and ethical thinking of the rational being, in this case being ‘humans’. You will find that most, if not all philosophers regard humans as being uniquely rational, in that they are able to access their higher faculties and engage in activities which animals and other organisms cannot.
Aristotle defines ‘virtues’ as being “rational activity which is in accordance with rational principles“. In other words, our virtues are a sign of our rationality. Every act we do, therefore, is based on a rational decision, and in most cases it is to fulfill a specific need. When we feel hunger, we consume food because that is the rational course of action. This would not be considered an ultimate end, however; acts such as these are merely a means to an end. They are not desired for their own sake, but for the sake of something else.
Aristotle views the ultimate goal of human beings as that of happiness, that which we desire for its own sake, which makes it the ‘natural good for all men’. The only way to achieve this happiness, unfortunately, is to have at least some idea of what it is. For Aristotle, happiness is when you ‘live according to rationality by exercising our most valuable faculties’. The most prominent of those faculties, of course, is our ability to use reason. Fulfilling our physical needs is not the happiness which humans should desire, as it is just as easily attainable by animals. This does not make the fulfillment of those needs unnecessary, but they are not in and of themselves the way to obtain happiness.
Finally, the happy person is the one who can be considered a ‘good citizen’, in that they wish to do good not just for their own sake but for the sake of others. A social dimension is an integral part of becoming a virtuous person, as well as a formal education, a proper upbringing, and a basic understanding of moral philosophy. Also, even though he emphasized the importance of rationality and reason, he does not dismiss the importance of the individual’s enjoyment of their virtuous action, which is much to the dismay of David Hume.
David Hume: Humans Feeling Morality
Hume’s theory contradicts that of Aristotle in that emphasis is placed on human sentiment and sympathy as opposed to Aristotle’s reason and rationality. In short, he believed that what we felt after an action was completed dictates whether is was good or bad. Although Hume believed that reason could be helpful in deciding how we can get what it is we seek, it cannot tell us what it is we ultimately want, which is happiness. To know whether we have obtained happiness or not, we must be able to tell the difference between pleasure and pain, which requires sentimental judgement based on our experience with ‘feelings’.
These feelings can be divided into two categories:
1. Natural Feelings: Human brains are built to conclude the existence of a causality (ie. an action leads to something good or bad)
2. Artificial Feelings: People are made or conditioned to feel a certain way about something base don education or personal experience.
We may all possess the same internal values at the beginning, but our experiences and increase in knowledge may cause those values an feelings to change. However, we all have the ability to feel when something is morally right or morally wrong, which can also be referred to as internal taste/feeling. We have an inner sense of what good and bad is, and we are able to distinguish between the two by how it tastes. This is not a physical taste, of course, but that natural intuition that all humans experience when faced with a moral dilemma. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory leaned a little more towards that natural feeling when addressing human morality and trying to argue that human beings are naturally inclined to be good.
Rousseau: Good to the Core
Rousseau did not completely shrug off Aristotle’s notion of reason, but he did indeed stress the importance of sentiment in relation to our morality. He was a firm believer in natural reason, which is a result of the conscience, since that is where our moral reasoning and feelings originate from. In essence, we are born with a natural inclination to be good, which dismisses the religious notion of humans being born evil due to ‘original sin’, and that they have to do good in order to become good. Instead, by Rousseau’s account, we are born good and it is through our life choices and experience which determines whether we shall continue to be good, or become wicked.
Rousseau believed that in our natural state, we are unable to use our reason to figure out how to act, which is evident when you look at a child; they have a limited understanding of the world, and do not yet have the level of reasoning required to base their actions on rationality alone. Through their feelings, however, they are able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Reason is not among our natural states. There are two states of being which do come naturally to us, though, which are those of Self-Love and Selfishness.
Self-Love: Securing your own needs without inflicting harm or pain upon others.
Selfishness (Vain Love): An artificially created love guided by reason.
According to Rousseau, we can never experience true joy or happiness when we put our needs before anyone else. Our feelings are evidence of that, since we feel bad when others experience pain while we experience pleasure. Rousseau believes that this kind of innate morality can also be universally applied, since it is a part of human nature. But just like every philosophical theory, another one is eventually formed which contradicts it.
Kant: Reason & Duty
Immanuel Kant created a philosophy based on the human’s innate sense of duty, our need to do what is right and good for the sake of the act itself, and not because we feel we have to. His most famous theory is known as the Categorical Imperative, which is “an action which we deem to be necessary without considering the end result“. Why should we obey the commands of the categorical imperative? Kant argued that, as human beings, we are an end in and of ourselves, a common notion associated with all rational beings.
In this sense, human beings are their own law, deciding for themselves what they should or should not do based on their own morals. This sense of duty is unconditional, and once again, it was a theory he believed could be universally applied. In other words, if you decide that something should be done, then you are essentially agreeing that anyone within the same situation should also abide by that decision. I came across an example which represents the application of this theory quite accurately:
If a pregnant woman decided that she wanted to get an abortion, for instance, then that woman would intentionally or unintentionally be saying that every pregnant woman should get an abortion. This is because the decision we make, as humans, become a universally applied moral, so it becomes morally right to get an abortion.
This is not to say that this theory is by any means ‘rational’, but this is how Kant perceived human morality.
Mills: The Greatest Happiness
John Stewart Mills was a big supporter of the greatest happiness principles, where pleasure and happiness are the ultimate end which we all should seek. Happiness comes in more than one form, though, which is why Mills makes a clear distinction between the higher pleasures and the lower pleasures. Lower pleasures, for instance, provides us with the satisfaction which comes from fulfilling our physical needs, such as eating or sexual gratification. Higher pleasures, on the other hand, require the application of our higher faculties, like creativity and reason, to fulfill the needs of our mind and spirit. We may be capable of achieving both, but what we should strive for are those higher pleasures which are unique to rational beings.
Here, Mills brings up an interesting argument: “It is better to be human dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied“. In other words, Mills is saying that although we can experience satisfaction from both levels of pleasure, striving to achieve the higher pleasures is what separates us from lesser animals, like the pig. A pig is perfectly content with just eating or rolling around in the mud. Humans, however, should work toward achieving greater heights, as we have the capacity to do so. By cultivating our higher pleasures, we are able to better ourselves as human beings. It is much more stressful, of course, and they may suffer many disappointments and ‘dissatisfaction’s’, it is much better than the degrading life of an animal.
Mills is a firm believer in the search for happiness. The human conception of happiness is on a different level than that of animal happiness, and is essential for Mills’ Utilitarian Theory. Utilitarianism is the promotion of happiness based on our actions and whether or not they will benefit human kind. Giving into our base desires does not benefit human kind, therefore it does not promote the happiness that all humans should seek.
And this concludes today’s philosophy lesson. I do hope you found it be insightful, or at least experienced a hint of fascination after getting a glimpse into the minds of those who dared to delve beneath the artificial exterior of human existence. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and as always, happy reading!