NEW YORK- The sun has been shining the past few days. Spring seems to finally have sprung.
Your editor spends his mornings walking the two avenues west to Madison Square Park to take in the morning air. The dog trots happily along as we pass the historic flatiron building. The statue of Chester A. Arthur looks on as the city begins to hum with anticipation of the day to come.
View from my morning stroll
There’s something about morning strolls that makes your editor nostalgic. Today we have been reminiscing.
Asking the important questions
As a younger man (not that I’m particularly ripened nowadays) your editor would happily argue anytime with anybody who could stand to listen.
What’s the meaing of happiness?
What is the appropriate role of government within the life of the indidivual?
Does the liquor store close at 11 or 12?
You know, the important stuff.
Very often, the classical thinkers provided the intellectual scaffolding for whatever position I decided to take. So willing was I to take up arms in defense of classically minded ideals, that I was capable of turning happy hour into a symposium on the epistemological basis of knowledge. Tailgate could become a forum on the Stoic beliefs of a happy life.
To answer your question- yea, I’m pretty fun at parties.
At the time, I lived with a roommate who would probably identify as an “ethical relativist”. That is to say he held the belief that there was no objective standard for virtue. There is no Justice (with a capital “J”). There is no Goodness (with a capital “G”)
I felt obliged to take the opposite position. And it goes something like this…
You are not entitled to your opinion
The problem with being a philosopher, you and I are philosophers by the way, is that we are not entitled to our opinions. We are only entitled to what we can argue for. And we must, no matter how difficult it may be, acknowledge when a position has become indefensible and abandon the belief altogether.
Oh sure, you can have your own opinion about what type of ice cream flavor is best or which New York bar has the best happy hour drinks (It’s Barbounia on 20th and Park). However, when it comes to discovering answers to rather important questions, like how to live the best life in our case, not all opinions are created equal.
That might be difficult for some of us to swallow, but there it is. Some beliefs are better than others.
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Zeus must be bowling...
Martha Nussbaum uses the example of thunder in her paper “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach”
. When examining thunder, we might wonder what it is that exactly causes it. One man might come forward and say that thunder is the result of the rapid expansion of air that occurs when lighting strikes.
Another man might come forward and say that Zeus and his friends are up on Mount Olympus doing some bowling.
Jupiter and Thetis, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Now, while both explanations could account for observable phenomenon of thunder, one of them certainly seems more plausible. The second explanation, as cool as it sounds, is ultimately indefensible and must be discarded.
Another example is that if I were to have a toothache, I would probably go see a dentist. I would not, however, go to my favorite hot dog vendor and ask if he was interested in giving complex dental work a shot. You know, give it the old college try.
"That might be difficult for some of us to swallow, but there it is. Some beliefs are better than others."
However, I digress. I don’t want to talk about Zeus’ bowling habits or dental work or even hot dog vendors today.
Today we should look at the Aristotelean idea of non-relative virtues and the counter position, which is referred to, by and large, as ethical relativism.
Virtue can be objective
You see, my old college roommate was what you might call an absolute ethical relativist. He holds the belief, despite my objections, that anybody’s idea of virtue is just as good as the next one. This means that the Aristotelean subject of non-relative virtues, the idea that there is an objective standard for good human behavior, is absolute nonsense.
It is worth noting that very few people are absolute ethical relativists. Many people are what we might call “cultural relativists”. This simply means that they believe every society holds different ideas of virtuous actions, and each of these ideas should be taken into consideration given the cultural context.
And this is where we often get into a bit of trouble. Ethical philosophers are often considered insensitive if they criticize a society’s practices, historical or otherwise. They are labeled as being ethnocentric, or culturally insensitive and, as a result, many people would prefer not to discuss the topic at all.
However, we must remember that even Aristotle, in his Politics, criticized his own culture and made notice of the ethical progress that the Greeks had undertaken over the centuries.
| ||The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric. For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs that are extremely stupid. -Aristotle ( The Politics)
And so we must not be afraid to recognize that ethical progress exists and that we as rational beings ought to, in Aristotle’s words,
| ||…not seek the way of our ancestors, but the way of the Good. -Aristotle ( The Politics)
If we are to make a defense for non-relative virtue, as well as the broader Aristotelian ethical philosophy, against the more contemporary ideas of ethical relativism, we must find a way to establish a universality between all cultures when it comes to the subject of virtuous behavior and a good life. This is a task that Aristotle is more than willing to undertake.
Can philosophers judge the ethical plausibility of cultural traditions that are not their own?
It is within The Nicomachean Ethics
that Aristotle lays out very plainly the various realms of human life that ALL people will inevitably have to deal with. Within these spheres we are given a choice, to act virtuously or basely. Aristotle lists the corresponding virtues that ought to be followed.
|1. Fear of danger, especially death
|2. Bodily appetites and their pleasures
|3. Distribution of limited resources
|4. Attitudes and actions regarding one's self worth
||Greatness of Soul
|5. The planning of one's life and conduct
Finding our way forward
It is undeniable that every society, historical or otherwise, has had to deal with these various spheres of life and others. Every human being has or will have to face the prospect of death. Every person has an attitude towards the consumption of food and the experience of bodily pleasures. And it is undoubtedly true that every society has had to confront the reality of limited resources and respond accordingly.
| ||The point is that everyone makes some choices and acts somehow or other in these spheres: if not properly, then improperly. -Martha Nussbaum (Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach) || |
Undoubtedly, people will disagree on exactly which actions within these various spheres makes a person virtuous or base. However, the Aristotelian has scored a small victory here. For if the relativist is arguing between which actions are best within these spheres, then they are no longer arguing for the nonexistence of objective virtue.
Instead, we are grappling for a proper definition.
Just as we have progressed in the realm of scientific understanding, Aristotle tells us that we have similarly progressed in our understanding of ethical perfection. There was once a time in Greece when women were bought and sold as cattle. Aristotle points to this as a custom that was clearly stupid and base.
And so just as we prefer the heliocentric model of the solar system rather than believing that the earth is still flat as a means of conceptualizing the structure of the cosmos, so to must we recognize that the buying and selling of women is not a plausible action to arrive at human flourishing and ethical perfection.
From this we see that cultural traditions are not all viable options; that is to say that not all societal customs are equally plausible within the realm of ethical philosophy. Instead, we must recognize them as competing answers to the same question, the question of virtue.
And so we can conclude two things. The first is that not all behaviors within the spheres of life are equal, some are better than others. The second is that there most certainly is an absolute virtue that corresponds to the various spheres. We may not know precisely what it is, but we never stop trying to find it.
As always, write in with your thoughts.
All the best,
Classical Wisdom Weekly
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