One day, the subway watchman asked me what philosophy is. This type of question tends to embarrass everyone, including philosophers. Fortunately, I have an answer ready to satisfy the uninitiated: philosophy is the rational study of things that science does not study. I say this because both philosophy and science are means of rationally seeking the truth, but they are different ways of doing so. The definition I use necessarily follows from this. If it’s rational, but not science, it’s philosophy. The watchman was satisfied. Then I gave examples of things that philosophy studies but science does not: metaphysics, logic, epistemology, theory of knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, art and politics. Of course I didn’t use these names (I said “God”, “good and evil”, “pleasure and pain”, among others). And this text is about one of these objects of philosophy: ethics.
Ethics is the part of philosophy concerned with right individual action. But “right” is relative, so we need to define what makes a “right” attitude. Historically, ethics was interested in the pursuit of happiness (this is the case of philosophers of the Hellenistic period, such as Epicurus and Seneca), so right action was the one that led to happiness. But since Kant, ethics has been concerned with fair action. So, although there was a period in the history of philosophy when right action was that which led to a happy life, ethics today considers right action to be that which is “just.” Unfortunately, this is another ambiguous term: Aristotelian justice is not Kantian justice. It will depend on the point of view… And it is about these two ethics that I intend to write about today: the ethics of virtues (Aristotle) and the ethics of duty (Kant).
For Aristotle, there are two types of virtue: those that must be pursued in the maximum degree and those that must be sought through moderation. Among those to be pursued to the greatest degree are wisdom, science, and practical knowledge. We cannot speak of “excess wisdom”, although we can speak of lack of wisdom (ignorance). However, the moral virtues work in a different way…
Moral virtues must be pursued through moderation. Excess and lack of a certain disposition ruin virtue. This will become clearer if we use examples. Let’s start with the willingness to face danger. If you are unwilling to face danger, you are a coward. The coward runs away from the risks he has to take. However, if you look for unnecessary risks and dangers, you are being reckless. A daredevil takes unnecessary risks, which is a silly way of action. If you face the risks you need to take, without looking for unnecessary risks, you are brave, because courage is the moderate position between cowardice and temerity. Talking about our times, we can say that both the coward and the daredevil have different reasons for not getting vaccinated: the coward is irrationally afraid of the vaccine, while the daredevil thinks he doesn’t need it and that getting a vaccine is a waste of time. The daredevil may even reject the use of a mask.
Another example is liberality. You are liberal when you spend without getting into debt and give your surplus to those who need it more than you do. Excessive willingness to spend is called lavishness and is a vice: you spend until you run into debt or give money to others when you need that money more than those who receive the money you give. The unwillingness to spend is called avarice, characterized by reluctance to spend even when necessary and by the retention of surplus even if someone else need it more than you do.
Yet another example is humility. Aristotle recognizes that there is no name for many vices and the excessive willingness to resist arrogance has no name, but it is characterized by refusing the rewards and praise you deserve. It’s a kind of an injustice committed to oneself. Now, the arrogance, the lack of such disposition, is characterized by an excessive feeling of self-worth, making you feel like you deserve more than you really do. Humility is being aware of your importance, without giving yourself more or less than you deserve.
But suppose you want to acquire a virtue or get rid of a vice… How do you do this? Fortunately, both virtues and vices are habits. What makes virtue and vice is the habit of acting in a certain way. So, to acquire a virtue or give up a vice, you must practice. Practice the moderation of your natural dispositions and you will acquire moral virtue, if that is what you want. However, if you get used to acting without moderation, you will acquire moral vices. When acquired, the vice is difficult to break, precisely because it has become a habit. Virtue, too, once you attain it, is difficult to corrupt. It’s like learning a new skill, like drawing or music.
The categorical imperative.
On Aristotle’s ethics of virtues, what we have already said is enough. Let us now enter the subject of Kant’s ethics of duty. He began his reflection on ethics after realizing that the morals of different peoples are very different from each other. He wondered if there wasn’t some moral principle that we could all agree on. His idea was not to create a single law that would be valid everywhere and at all times, but just a principle that could be accepted by everyone (or a large majority), which would already be of great help in mutual understanding.
Kant then elaborates what he called the categorical imperative. It is “imperative” because it is an order and it is “categorical” because it accepts no exceptions. It is summed up in the phrase “act in such a way that your action may become a law of nature.” In other words: act as if everyone else is going to imitate you. When you are faced with a moral dilemma, evaluate each option according to the criteria: which of these options would make the world fairer if everyone chose it? If you conclude that option X is the option that would make the world fairer if it were chosen by everyone, you can’t just make that choice, you must: every human being has a commitment to their peers. So, if something passes the assessment of the categorical imperative, it is your moral duty to act that way, no exceptions. Hence the name “ethics of duty”. For Kant, this moral principle can be adopted by everyone. In fact, it should be.
It is important to note that although the Kantian idea of the categorical imperative is not applied by most people today, the idea of minimal moral principles has not been abandoned. Its most recent incarnation is the Declaration of Human Rights, which lists minimum rights inherent to the human person.
The 100% rational ethics problem.
The problem that Kant did not see and that David Hume did see is that our emotions and feelings have a very strong bearing on our moral judgments. For this reason, trying to elaborate a totally rational moral principle is naive. When making concrete choices, emotion counts for a lot. It can be very difficult for a human being to “do the right thing” when the choice must be made (although reason plays a preparatory role for such a choice before it is required). With this, Hume proposes that emotion cannot be excluded from ethical reflection, having as much weight or even more weight than reason at the moment of concrete choice.
Our law is not agnostic to this. For this reason, there are softer penalties for crimes committed under certain conditions of emotional stress. Most people agree that a murderer is more worth forgiving if he kills out of fear of losing his life or to defend his child. Also more worthy of forgiveness is the thief who steals out of necessity rather than to attain luxury. So the idea that emotions impair our moral reflection is so true that our laws reflect such fact.
As Hume has rightly observed, emotion weighs heavily when making a concrete choice. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to do what’s right. Emotion overshadows reason and it would be naive to think that this is not the case. Even a person who seems incorruptible, faced with the temptations of wealth or sexual pleasure, may end up doing something that they later regret. Even if a person has the virtue of resisting such temptations, giving in to such impulses over and over again will soon produce a vice, if we give credence to what Aristotle has said. However, Aristotle also says that it is easier to sympathize with the person who has done something wrong due to a lack of willpower (knowing it is wrong and not wanting to do it, but unable to resist), although it is more difficult, even unwanted, to sympathize with the person who does something wrong willingly and without regrets. Considering this will lead us to enact better laws.
If virtue is a habit, it would not be a bad thing to train ourselves to obtain it through practice. This is particularly true of intellectual virtues such as wisdom, which are pursued by approaching to the highest degree rather than moderation. Let us therefore seek as much knowledge as possible. Furthermore, being a habit, virtue can also be taught and such data cannot be ignored by the educational system. Virtue must be taught and grow by practice. However, some virtues are easier for some and harder for others. Mutual help should be used for moral improvement, paying attention to the limits of each one.
It is necessary to understand that vice is something harmful. If it’s not harmful, it’s unlikely to be a vice. The insistence on virtue should not be used as a pretext for exaggerated attitudes, especially on the part of legislators. When you are wondering if something you are doing is vicious, it would be interesting to think about whether it is harming you or others. If not, maybe it’s not something to worry about. From the moment you start doing harm to yourself or others, you have entered the realm of vice and the repeated practice of the act will form the habit of acting viciously.
Some moral questions can be answered by observing the moral behavior of other cultures. Perhaps we would deal better with our moral problems by seeing how other peoples solve the same problems. Nevertheless, even if we do not embrace the ideas of other cultures, it is important to respect them as well, rather than condemn their moral choices based on those of our society. Every people is different and it’s better that way.