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Aristotle The Ethics of Virtue

The basic worldview issue divides ethical theories into two broad camps:  The first is those that propose that our reality, our world has something to it beyond the purely material, something called frequently “spiritual” or by a fancier term, “transcendental”.  The second view is that of the collection of ethical theories that propose that our world is only material.  To some extent, this includes the view of science.  But that needs clarification because there are those in science who suggest something beyond observation and there is certainly the use of mathematics.  More about that when we come to it. 

Ethical theories proposing a dimension beyond the material

The Classical world of Plato and Aristotle

The writings of Plato and Aristotle suggest in different ways a world that has its meaning in something beyond just our material experience. 

Plato through Socrates  — the importance of reflection and thought in life.  There are general ideas and principles that rise above the physical world.  The worldview is not just physical…prime example mathematics. 

Aristotle The Ethics of Virtue. .  Nichomachean Ethics  class presentation. 

His own public life and scientific life.  Wrote the constitution of Athens.  Practicing biologist. 

Happiness as the goal in life; the nature of virtue — human strength of character in right choices — the public nature of Ethics. 

See the Review Document below on the Greeks for the complete presentation. 

The Role of Religion

First, it is important to distinguish between “spirituality” and religious believe and organized religion.  They are three separate and distinct things.  Secondly, it is important to point out what is the philosophical problem here:  what is the relation of belief and reason.  This is an old discussion.  It formed the center of a whole controversy in western culture since the Middle Ages (12th century onward).  In this course we can only touch on the question very briefly. 

Yet we also have to take notice of the family that a great many of our concerns about the behavior of people throughout the world involve religion.  Or at least the organized religious structure and elements of religious belief. 

Again our question here is what is the role of belief?  what is the relation of reasoning and rational investigation with regard to belief, and what is thke influence of belief in making ethical judgements. 

The Social Thinking in the American Heritage: Royce and Dewey

The quartet: Peirce, James, Royce, Dewey

Peirce and American Pragmatism:

The dichotemies in the mind of the west: matter vs spirit; individual vs community; thought versus action  The abandoning of dualism; the joining of thought and action;  thought and material reality: every thing we experience has some thought way at the back of it. 

Peirce’s way of thinking:

Peirce’s pragmatic method of inquiry can be summarized in three principles:

1. Perceive accurately what is going on; what is important is not what we think we know, but what we are willing to learn

2. Knowledge and understanding are best acquired in a mutually reinforcing communication with others that might be called a “community of inquiry”

3. The best way of seeking “the truth we do not yet know” is what Peirce termed “abduction”

It should be no stretch to see that this is really the scientific method.  Royce continues this in two items: his notion that thought is always purposive, a plan of action; and his insistence that the most profound reality for us is social from the time of birth.  Dewey extends this to how we should educate for a democracy.  (Jefferson said similar things by the way). 

The American Heritage Philosophy: Royce and Dewey’s social philosophy  A General introduction to the philosophy in America. 

The Role of Science, it’s knowledge, its attitudes towards an ethic

Perhaps the central question in this whole section is what might be stated as “What is the role of science? “

The whole discussion of the English thinkers Hume, Bentham, Smith is based on an attempt to be scientific about an ethic. 

Contemporary thinkers puzzle over the contribution which science might make to an ethic (See Harris video)

Science provides a way of orderly thinking about and analysis of the material world.  Peirce discussed in the previous part of this checklist breaks down how this thinking proceeds. 

Science also provides a set of attitudes towards the material world. 

Science is the basis and energy behind the technology in which we live. 

Some History: The “Scientific Revolution” of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries

Our modern world is shaped by the scientific work of the last 300 to 400 years.  We are in fact largely molded in our minds by our science.  It is first of all shaped by a way of thinking, one might even say a discipline of thinking. 

Review: Charles Peirce

Peirce’s pragmatic method of inquiry can be summarized in three principles:

1. Perceive accurately what is going on; what is important is not what we think we know, but what we are willing to learn

2. Knowledge and understanding are best acquired in a mutually reinforcing communication with others that might be called a “community of inquiry”

3. The best way of seeking “the truth we do not yet know” is what Peirce termed “abduction”

The Contemporary Puzzle: Does science have a contribution to make to an ethic?

Video: Harris on the contribution of science to ethics

A critique of the history of science and ethics

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedlisky in their book Science and the Goodgive a good history of the thinkers we consider, particularly Hume, Bentham and Smith.  If you are interested this is an excellent good to read for its presentation of these thinkers.  BUT they conclude that it has largely been a failure on the part of these thinkers.  Ok theoretically, but both Smith and Bentham are foundational thinkers to our economics (and thus our financial world) and really have been quite successful in shaping our culture in the USA. 

Ethical Theories based on a view that the material world is the only certainty we have

The material world and what we can perceive is the only reliable knowledge we can have.  Science is the most reliable kind of knowledge because it has an exact method for ascertaining as much truth from the material world as can hope to get. 

Four thinkers here, all in the 18th century: \

Immanuel Kant — the foundational thinker, we’ve seen him in the “groundwork” question

The English school: David Hume (the first attempt at a scientific pyschology), Jeremy Bentham (a calculus so to speak of the pleasure-pain principle), Adam Smith, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. 

The thought of the English school lands in the “colonies ” (USA) through the English thinker John Locke whom many of our “founding fathers”, notably Jefferson had read. 

Ethical good is what produces the greatest hapiness for the greatest number of people

Here we have what might be called the “English school”, people like David Hume, Jeremy Bentham.  There point is that we have to honest about what we really can know.  So called spiritual values are our own creation, have nothing really but our own opinions as foundation, arise out of such things as religious belief and therefore provide no general values for the good of the human race. 

What we want is the greatest good for the greatest number.  It is then just a question of determining what is that greatest good. 

David Hume. Inquiry into Human Understanding, an early attempt at a kind of scientific psychology; morals based on observation of human value reactions to things. 

Bentham: more precise he felt than Human and to an extent more able to be calculated.  Human well being can be assessed in the social sphere and acts measure as to what produces the best consequences.  An ethic of social consequences as a result.  Not Devine and not religious. 

Ethical good is simply a matter of choice; it is almost an aesthetic production

Because there are not “spiritual” values beyond our physical experience and values are simply opinions or “feelings, ” ethical good is highly individual, simply a matter of opinion.  This is a position often proposed as what a truly democratic society should be based on.  No one has the right to tell someone else how to live their life.  “To each his own” (Chagqu’un a son gout!) 

Three thinkers stand out in recent times here:  Nietsche in the late 1800’s and post WWII Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Bauvoir. 

Nietsche is famous for his , “God is dead” statement but there is a whole philosophical analysis behind that statement that emphasizes the artistic and aesthetic task of creating a life; Sartre was the champion of freedom, even in difficult circumstances. 

Relativism as an ethical stratgy

If there are no “transcendental”, non-material values except what we know and each person can thus have there own “ethic” so to speak a strategy familiar to us all is relativism — the point of view that you have your point of view (your own or culturally) and I have mine and neither of us can condemn the other’s point of view as wrong. 

This is, as we say, more of stategy than a theory. 

Individual relativism

The individual point of view on what is good or bad may come from the personal search. 

Cultural relativism

The ethical point of view is the result of family, religious belief or upbringing, societal values.  Again non-judgemental toleration here becomes a strategy. 

A distinction that should be made in both variations on relativism is the distinction between point of view and behavior or action in the light of the point of view.  I may hold a point of view but recognize that you do as well and that while I may think mine is correct, I do not harm you for your point of view or try to impose mine.  Again, this is a social strategy more than a theory. 

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