The ideas of ethics and morality are as old as human consciousness. They stem from the interactions of individuals with one another and grow out of social and cultural pressures to balance individual desires with the rights other individuals possess to pursue their own needs and desires. Out of these pressures, societies formed laws (whether religious or secular) to legislate and enforce a standard of acceptable behavior on individuals which would not only consider the rights and expectations of other individuals, but also the needs and concerns of the entire society.
Eventually, social and cultural ethical concerns grew into social standards of group conduct ensuring enforced codes of conduct requiring acquiescence to societal and cultural conformity. Nietzsche would later see that kind of overwhelming control over the individual human spirit as erasing individuality by superimposing upon it what he called herd mentality. The current relationships of individuals with one another and the societies in which they live, as well as the relationships between and among societies, seem to be dominated by many slippery approaches toward what constitutes right action. Out of the environment of indisputable power which permeated western culture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Machiavelli recorded in his book, The Prince, the evolution of dominance exercised by authority. Among the evolutionary encroachments of ruling class' authority over the rest of society included the idea that ends can justify any means used to obtain those ends. Studies into the aggrandizement, application and spread of power reveal the notions that power corrupts, and the more absolutely power is held, the more absolute will be the corruption of those in power. Hence, the question of what constitutes individual and societal right action is one which needs to be investigated by every individual and each culture.
As one begins to study the development of ethics, one is drawn first to the ethical systems discussed by Plato and Aristotle. These two giants of philosophical thought are two of the first philosophers to consider and record their insights into right action yielding approaches to ethics.
Both Plato and Aristotle begin their approach to ethics out of an appreciation for arête. In the region we call Greece today and which was their homeland, the word arête was applied to excellence. However, the sense of excellence meant by arête refers to a very high ideal or level of attainment in any sphere of activity as well as with regard to an individual’s character traits.
In Plato’s “Phaedo,” included in From Plato to Derrida, 5th Ed., edited by Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann, Plato defined virtue as being achieved when the soul is in a state of well being (Eudemonia). “A man should be of good cheer about his soul if in his life he has renounced the pleasures and adornments of the body… and adorned his soul with the adornment of temperance, and justice, and courage, and freedom, and truth… (Plato 56).”
Plato conceived what is called the tripartite division of the soul (what we call mind): rational, emotive and appetitive. For the soul (or mind) to be virtuous, it must be regulated into a harmonious state. He felt such a harmonious state exists when the rational mind is ruled by wisdom, the emotions are governed by courage and the appetites are regulated by temperance (Plato 54-55). When this kind of harmonious state is reached, the individual may be said to be one who strives solely for the Knowledge of Forms, Wisdom, Truth, and the Highest Form of the Good (Plato 55). To Plato, that individual’s soul is virtuous.
Aristotle looked at virtue similarly, given he also extolled arête driven ethics. He believed all people actively seek to be good and strive for goodness. His admonition was to find it by seeking out the middle or mean virtue (arête) between two extreme vices: deficiency and excess.
Aristotle explained that souls are not substances, but are the animating force of the body. Aristotle, like Plato, arrived at three divisions for the soul. Those divisions were nutritive (found in plants, animals and humans), sensitive (found in animals and humans, but not in plants) and rational (only found in humans). The nutritive part of the soul seeks self-sustenance by acquiring the necessary nutrients. The sensitive portion of the soul possesses senses to perceive the world and interact with it. The rational part of the soul thinks and reasons (Aristotle 158-59).
All of this is similar to Plato in general terms though differs in some specific details. One can find more similarities between Plato’s appetitive soul and Aristotle’s nutritive soul, than Plato’s emotive soul and Aristotle’s sensitive soul. However, both men speak of a rational soul in very similar terms and with very similar ramifications. Aristotle delves deeper into this area.
In Book I of “Nicomachean Ethics,” also found in From Plato to Derrida, Aristotle defines virtue as happiness, but not a banal happiness in the sense of having a good time and sating one’s appetites. Aristotle’s teleology dominates his philosophy. Ends define value and meaning for him (Aristotle 163). The happiness to which Aristotle refers is arête based. He explained that it is found in the accumulation and culmination of a lifetime of deeds, actions, thoughts, aspirations and relationships (Aristotle 168-70).
Aristotle spoke of two kinds of virtue, moral and intellectual. In Book II of “Nicomachean Ethics” Aristotle explains that intellectual virtue is an arête which is acquired by applying one’s mind and full effort to one’s studies, having a good teacher, and being willing to listen to and learn from that teacher. Moral virtue, however, can only be developed by nurturing the proper habits of living, constantly practicing those habits and acting morally in all situations because of a conscious decision to do so. Those constant decisions become easier by vigilantly practicing the habits of morality and right action (Aristotle 177).
Aristotle broke the soul down into three expressions to determine where in the soul one would find virtue: emotions, capacities and characteristics. He concluded that the emotions were not virtuous by themselves, nor were an individual’s capacity to feel emotion. Virtue lay in the character of the emotion as it unfolds in a given situation. The character of the emotion is defined by the degree to which one expresses an emotion, and when combined with the intensity of the emotion and the choice of the emotional response will be a more or less appropriate expression depending on the circumstances of the situation (Aristotle 180). Moderate anger may be appropriate in one instance, whereas a violent reaction may be more appropriate in another depending on the circumstances and whether or not one’s life is in danger.
What Aristotle recommended was to find the mean between extremes (Aristotle 183-84) and a lifetime of habit forming practice for determining what constitutes right action in any given set of circumstances (Aristotle 185-86). As a general rule, Aristotle said that vices lay in the extremes of excess and deficiency, and between any two extremes of deficiency and excess a mean or arête of proper response is always present. The individual is always called upon to make a choice as to what action to take (Aristotle 182). In Book IV of "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle provided illustrative examples into ethical concerns and his insight into what constitutes the virtuous mean between the extremes of vices (the extremes being excess and deficiency). For instance, vanity is self-esteem carried to excess while pettiness results from too little self-esteem. He taught that the mean between these extremes, what he called high-mindedness, offered the path to virtue between those two vices. (Aristotle 186-89). As Aristotle explained in Book II, the pathway to living a virtuous life is found by cultivating an awareness of these principles, spending a lifetime nurturing the right response as a habitual reaction and choosing right action as a way of life because it is the correct thing to do and not for any reward or other gain (real or perceived) that might come from acting correctly (Aristotle 183-84).
It is valuable for one to consider the concerns of ethics as expressed by Plato and Aristotle with those espoused centuries later by Immanuel Kant. In his Preface to “Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals,” which appears in From Plato to Derrida, 5th Ed., edited by Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kauffmann, Kant said he felt it self-evident that there must be “… a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything which may be only empirical …” and thus an anthropology of human affairs (854). Kant sought a system of morality founded on laws, like everything else in nature. He wanted morality grounded in obligation, containing an absolute necessity that the law be followed (854). Kant stated his supreme principle of morality as the categorical imperative (868-870).
Kant believed morality is not subjective and is not open to interpretation from moment to moment based on specific circumstances existing only in that moment. Morality had to be universal, he believed. He explained that only from universal laws can one ascertain right action in any situation (866). Kant said, “The conception of an objective principle, so far as it constrains a will, is a command (of reason), and the formula of this command is called an ‘imperative’” (868). Imperatives command hypothetically or categorically (868).
A hypothetical imperative arises when one sees practical necessity in an action: it is a means to achieve something else due to individual inclinations (868). A need for money may make one seek a loan. To allow a need for money to override one’s honesty in promises concerning repaying the funds is a moral determination made out of what Kant calls a hypothetical imperative. The inclination to acquire funds creates a hypothetical imperative to obtain the loan.
A categorical imperative exists when one’s choice in any given situation is objectively necessary, without any regard to incentives or individual inclinations (868). Acting consistent with this ethic is emblematic of the “GOOD WILL” (856-7). The will reveals a person’s nature and a good will reveals a moral person. Action must be based on morality, never on an outcome of personal preference. To remove personal motivations (inclinations and desires) from moral choices yields universality for determining right action. Universality, or universal law, for choices in moral decision-making is what Kant valued as an objective morality applicable to everyone instead of different subjective moralities for each individual and in each unique moment.
Kant formulated a single categorical imperative as the moral system for determining right action. It is formulated through three principles. The imperative arises out of deontological ethics, meaning it is duty based. He explained, “… willing from duty the renunciation of all interest is the specific mark of the categorical imperative …” (878).
The first principle for formulating the categorical imperative is: one ought to act according to maxims which can at the same time be universal law (872 and 881). Every moral decision must be equally applicable to everyone. My action is only moral if the action is something that everyone could do. For me to borrow funds based on a lie (I know I will not be able to pay the money back) is not an act everyone could do because it would lead to a complete breakdown in everyone’s ability to trust as well as wreaking havoc on the economy.
The second principle for formulating the categorical imperative requires one to always act according to that universal law from one’s intention (one’s will) and to do what is right solely because it is right (876-7 and 881). It is not enough to do what is right if the reason for one’s actions is to derive a benefit (whether karma, heaven, good favor among one’s peers, friends or associates, or the accumulation of gold stars, salary increases or perks). Moral justification for acting rightly only arises from one’s intent or will; that is, when one legislates one’s actions based on the universality of their moral applicability. When one’s actions arise from the intent of a good will, the actions will not be empirical (based on experience) or subjective (individually motivated by inclination or inducement), but will arise from pure reason.
The third principle for formulating the categorical imperative is to act toward every rational being (others and oneself) so the maxim is an end – it involves its own universal validity for every rational being (878 and 881). Kant admonishes respect for all other rational beings and to treat them as ends in themselves. One should never make another a means to one’s own ends. Respecting all other rational beings preserves and embraces dignity (881). If one uses others for one’s ends, one demeans and disrespects the others and strips them of their dignity. Each person embodies their own ends. I have no more right to make you a means to my ends than you do to make me a means to your ends. To use others as a means is to reduce them to relative worth (a price, like a commodity). Respecting others as ends acknowledges their intrinsic worth (dignity).
The individual loses autonomy when used as a means to someone else’s ends. Without autonomy, one is stripped of free will. This is what Kant called the realm of ends (879). The realm of ends honors the concept that every rational being must regard itself as giving universal law through all the maxims of its will. Consequently, one judges oneself and one’s actions solely from the standpoint of universal law. All rational beings stand under the law: each should treat himself and all others as ends, never as means. The result of the realm of ends approach is the emergence of a systematic union of all rational beings through the acknowledgement of common objective moral laws.
This ideal, the realm of ends, was Kant’s most fervent hope for humanity. Out from this ideal, considerations of ends justifying the means and motives which place individual gain over consideration to and for the rights of others are purged. Only from such an approach can we avoid the slippery slopes of moral and ethical considerations which put the needs, wants or desires of an individual or some particular society over other individuals or societies. In Kant’s system, each individual is not only answerable for their actions and motives, but each also justifies their very existence through the manner in which they not only act but by acting rightly for the sake of righteousness.
Out of Kant’s approach, in the 20th century, existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre, suggested we must each be our own saint. Certainly, we are all human, and consequently, both fallible and far from perfect. However, we can aspire to be the best we can and to uphold our highest ethics.
The only way to come close to that aspiration lies in being utterly conscious in each moment. The more awake and aware one is in each moment of life, the more one will make conscious decisions based on conformity with individual conscience – not herd mentality, which can lead one astray as it did all of Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
A conscious, awake, aware and fully activated individual mind centered in the morality and ethics of a conscience rooted in the deontology of Kant’s categorical imperative is required to build a better world as well as to justify one’s own existence. This is how we learn not to blithely invade other nations with suggestions that the ends any war might try to force might justify the means used to obtain those supposed ends. Such means involve killing, destruction, maiming, despoiling and aggrandizement. There are no ends which can ever justify these kinds of means. Likewise, the idea that anyone may lie to another or cheat another, or use another in any way contrary to the other's free personal choice to obtain something of individual interest, inclination or desire also fails to yield morality. If I use you or lie to you, I strip you of your dignity at the same time as I strip myself of both dignity and honor. Once again, no end is sufficient to allow me the right to place my needs, wants or desires above anyone else's.
Besides, there are no ends. All that exists is one moment oozing into another in a long river of life. What may appear as an end today arises tomorrow as some other individual's or culture's reason to pursue some other act of personal or societal desire, perhaps even revenge. As Kant called them, all such perceived ends are no more than incentives. Incentives cause individuals and collectives of individuals to act in ways which they perceive as their own best interest without respect for ethical morality.
By avoiding incentives and personal or societal desires for specific ends or outcomes, individuals and cultures create redemption in every moment of life, thus establishing worth, value and dignity out of meaninglessness. This is the task of the future: the only way to a viable future for so large a population.
When we love instead of fear, include instead of restrict, share instead of hoard, cooperate instead of demean, and respect instead of degrade, then the world can become a place of hope. That hope is for a future of joy and peace.