But why should we bother about ancient ethics at all? What is the utility of comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the particular approaches? The general answer is that a proper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of virtue ethics and modern moral theories can be used to overcome current ethical problems and to initiate fruitful developments in ethical reasoning and decision-making. This article examines the differences and similarities between ancient ethics and modern morality by analysing and comparing their main defining features in order to show that the two ethical approaches are less distinct than one might suppose.
This part also briefly outlines the two leading modern ethical approaches, that is, Kantianism and utilitarianism , in more general terms in order to provide a sufficient background.
The second part provides a detailed table with the main defining features of the conflicting stereotypes of ancient ethics and modern morality. The fourth part deals with the idea of the moral duty in ancient ethics. There are at least two main criteria that each moral theory must fulfil: first, the criterion of justification that is, the particular moral theory should not contain any contradictions and, second, the criterion of applicability that is, the particular moral theory should solve concrete problems and offer ethical orientation.
However, many traditional moral theories are unable to meet the second criterion and simply fall short of the high demands of applied ethics to solve the complex moral problems of our times. Why is this the case?
Mathematical Thought From Ancient To Modern Times
The main point is that the traditional moral theories are not sufficiently well equipped to deal with completely new problems such as issues concerning nuclear power, gene technology, and cloning and so forth. Therefore, there is constant interest in updating and enhancing a particular moral theory in order to make it compatible with the latest demands. This is a difficult and often very complex process. But, why is this the case? Even if one acknowledges the fact that happiness means a satisfactory and well-lived life according to the ethical virtues and not only a happy moment or so, it still does not sound like morality.
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Ancient ethics is about living a good and virtuous life according to the ethical virtues, that is, to become a virtuous person, while the modern notion of morality is primarily focused on the interests of other people and the idea of deontological constraints. Historically speaking, from a different perspective, there is no evidence which term is most legitimate. When Aristotle analyses the good life in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics, he therefore focuses on the central topic of good and bad character traits that is virtues and vices.
In this original sense, ethics means an analysis about the character or character traits. The term moralis rather refers to the Greek ethos whose primary meaning is habits and customs. If the term morality refers to mores, then the term morality means the totality of all habits and customs of a given community. The term moralis became a terminus technicus in the Latin-shaped philosophy, which covers the present meaning of the term.
Morality, however, is not simply a matter of mere convention but the latter often conflicts with morality for example, an immoral convention , hence, it seems inappropriate to shorten the term in this way Steinfath At present, there are, at least, four different possibilities to distinguish between ethics and morality:. The upshot is that it is always important to ask how the terms ethics and morality are used and how one uses them for oneself.
It is certain that one makes a textual and not only a conceptual differentiation by claiming that the terms differ.
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It is impossible to give a complete depiction of the rich history of ethical reasoning and decision-making in Antiquity here, therefore the focus of this section concerns the main lines of ethical reasoning of the most important philosophical schools in the classic and Hellenistic period. This rather simplified overview is nonetheless sufficient for our purposes.
One can roughly distinguish the classic and Hellenistic periods into four different but closely connected parts. All the philosophical schools — being at odds with each other — are still united by the fact that they are deeply concerned with the most important ethical questions of how to live a good life and how to achieve happiness.
Their responses to these vital questions are, of course, diverse. The following brief depiction focuses on the basic ethical assumptions of the philosophical schools of the Cynics and Cyrenaics, the peripatetic school, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. Plato himself did not provide any systematic ethics comparable to the other main ancient schools either, even though one can certainly reconstruct — at least to some extent — his ethical viewpoint in the dialogue Politeia.
In addition, most ethical works of the classic and Hellenistic periods are lost in the dark of history; what remains is a collection of fragments, phrases, and parts of letters of various important philosophers and commentators standing in the tradition of particular schools at that time. Many rival views on ethics are mediated through the works of Plato and Aristotle, in which they criticize their opponents.
In addition, some of these rudiments and testimonials were also mediated by famous writers and politicians such as Xenophon fifth and fourth century BC and the important historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertios third century AD. Aristotle, however, is the only ancient philosopher whose two substantial and complete ethical contributions, that is, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics — leaving aside the Magna Moralia of which the authorship is unclear — have survived, even though all of his dialogues including those that are concerned with ethics and ethical issues are also lost.
The founder of the school of the Cynics, Antisthenes of Athens, taught that virtue in terms of practical wisdom is a good and also sufficient for eudaimonia , that is, happiness.
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Badness is an evil and everything else is indifferent. In accord with Socrates, Antisthenes claimed that virtue is teachable and he also accepted the doctrine of the unity of the virtues which is the general idea that if a person possesses one ethical virtue, then he or she thereby possesses all other ethical virtues as well for a recent contribution to this controversial doctrine, see Russell, The only good of human beings is that what is peculiar to them, that is, their ability to reason.
Against the Cyrenaics he argues that pleasure is never a good. Things such as death, illness, servitude, poverty, disgrace, and hard labour are only supposed to be bad but are not real evils. They were also against the common cultural and religious rites and practices, a main feature which they shared with the Sophists. They took Socratian frugality to extremes and tried to be as independent of material goods as possible, like Diogenes of Sinope who lived in a barrel.
Furthermore, one should abstain from bad things and seek apathy and tranquillity, which are important features the Stoics adopted from the Cynics as well. According to the Cynics, there are two groups of people: first, the wise people living a perfect and happy life — they cannot lose their virtues once they achieved this condition similar to Aristotle — and, secondly, the fools who are unhappy and make mistakes Diogenes Laertios VI, 1 and 2; Zeller ; Long Aristippus of Cyrene was well known and highly regarded among philosophers in Antiquity and was the first Socratian disciple who took money in exchange for lessons.
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Thereby, the school of the Cyrenaics stands in striking contrast to the Cynics. Aristippus claims that knowledge is valuable only insofar as it is useful in practical matters a feature that the Cyrenaics share with the Cynics ; all actions should strive for the utmost pleasure since pleasure is the highest good. There are gradual qualitative differences of the goods. Unlike Aristotle the Hedonists believed that happiness understood as a long-term state is not the overall purpose in life but the bodily pleasure of the very moment, which is the goal of life.
The past has gone by and the future is uncertain therefore only the here and now is decisive since the immediate feelings are the only guide to what is really genuinely valuable. Practical wisdom is the precondition of happiness in being instrumentally useful for achieving pleasure. Aristippus and the Cyrenaics were seeking maximum pleasure in each moment without being swamped by it. Aristotle proposed the most prominent and sophisticated version of virtue ethics in Antiquity and his teachings have become authoritative for many scholars and still remain alive in the vital contributions of neo-Aristotelians in contemporary philosophy.
Aristotle claims that happiness eudaimonia is the highest good — that is the final, perfect, and self-contained goal — to which all people strive at.
For example, if the proper function of a pair of scissors is to cutting, then the proper function of a good pair of scissors is to cutting well likewise in all other cases. Since the proper function of human beings - according to Aristotle - is to reason , the goodness of human beings depends on the good performance of the proper human function that is to reason well.
In fact, Aristotle claims that the goodness of human beings does not consist in the mere performance of the proper function but rather in their disposition. This claim is substantiated by his example of the good person and the bad person who cannot be distinguished from each other during their bedtime if one only refers to their active performance.
The only possible way to distinguish them is to refer to their different dispositions. It is a matter of debate whether there is a particular human function as proposed by Aristotle. The different approaches are dealt with in order.
The virtue of the good person EN II, 3, 4 : according to Aristotle, an action is good or right if a virtuous person would perform that action in a similar situation; an action is bad or wrong and hence prohibited if the virtuous person would never perform such an action. Three criteria must be met, according to Aristotle, in order to ensure that an action is virtuous given that the agent is in a certain condition when he performs them: i.
Practical wisdom EN VI : in some passages in book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle argues that it is our practical wisdom that makes our practical considerations good, both with regard to the good or virtuous life and with regard to our particular goals. He claims that a practically wise person has a special sensitivity or special perceptual skill with which to evaluate a situation in a morally correct or appropriate way.
Here, the emphasis lies on the practical wisdom - as the capacity of ethical reasoning and decision-making - rather than on adhering to single ethical virtues, even though Aristotle claims that it is impossible to be practically wise without having ethical virtues and vice versa. The intrinsic value of the virtues: following the standard interpretation of the role of the ethical virtues with regard to living a good life, Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics EN X, 6—9 that these virtues are somewhat less important when it comes to the overall goal, that is, happiness of living a good life.
Epicurus — educated by the Platonist Pamphilus and highly influenced by the important teachings of Democritus — developed his philosophical school of the Epicureans in controversies with the Cyrenaics and the Stoics and meeting their objections and challenges. The lively exchange of arguments concerning the vital issue of how to live a good life put Epicurus in the position to successfully articulate a refined and sophisticated version of hedonism, which was regarded as superior to the rival philosophical school of the Cyrenaics.
He claims that sensation is the only standard of measuring good and evil.
Epicurus shares the view with the Cyrenaics that all living beings strive for pleasure and try to avoid pain. But, unlike the Cyrenaic school, he argues that happiness consists of not only the very moment of bodily pleasure but lasts a whole life and also contains mental pleasure, which is — according to him — preferable to bodily pleasure. The ultimate goal in life is not to strive for positive pleasure but to seek for absence of pain.
Unlike Aristippus, Epicurus claims in support of the importance of mental states that bodily pleasure and pain is limited to the here and now, while the soul is also concerned with the pleasurable and painful states of the past and prospective pleasure and pain. Thus, sensations based on recollections, hope and fear in the context of mental states with regard to the past and future are much stronger than the bodily pleasure of the moment.