By Van Bryan
Bertrand Russell once said that one quality that made Socrates a great philosopher was his ability to not become angered or annoyed even when his philosophical sparring partner was outright mocking him. And if we are judging good philosophers by that standard, then I am a terrible philosopher.
If you ever want to see me get slightly annoyed, discuss ethical philosophy with me and make a case for absolute ethical relativism. If you want to see me get outright angry and attempt to strangle you, justify your position with the statement “Well, that’s just my opinion”.
Such an incident actually did occur while I was studying at my university some years ago. A friend of mine put it to me that there was no truth behind the idea of Justice (with a capital “J”), there was no Wisdom (with a capital “W”), and that there was no such thing as Goodness (with a capital “G”).
When I asked him to support his position, he responded by saying “Well… that’s just what I believe.” And it was all I could do to not scream at hime for committing such a terrible sin against philosophy.
The problem with being a philosopher, you and me 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.
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.
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.
However, I digress. We are not talking about Zeus’ bowling habits or dental work or even hot dog vendors today. We are talking about the Aristotelean idea of non-relative virtues and the counter position which is referred to, by and large, as ethical relativism.
You see, my friend, the one whom I wanted to strangle, is 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 considered equal within the realm of ethical philosophy.
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 have 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 (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 (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.
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||Courage|
|2. Bodily appetites and their pleasures||Moderation|
|3. Distribution of limited resources||Justice|
|4. Attitudes and actions regarding one’s self worth||Greatness of Soul|
|5. The planning of one’s life and conduct||Practical Wisdom|
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.
For this reason, Aristotle tells us that we ought to make it possible for laws to be changed when it is agreed upon by the people that a law is no longer corresponding with the idea of Goodness. However, the laws should not be so easily changed lest our legislation fall prey to impulsive opinions and prejudices of the populace.
The ethical relativist is correct, however, on one small point. There exists many customs across many different cultures. And while they vary greatly, there is no doubting that these customs all partake of the same virtues, whether it be bravery, justice, or hospitality.
If you were to visit a friend in London, you might be greeted with a pot of tea and biscuits. However, if you were to travel to ancient Athens and sit with friends, you would fall under the ancient cultural practice of Xenia, a ritualized system of hospitality between guest and host. You might be served wine and olives. Perhaps you would even be offered a bath and receive a gift.
Even though the two customs would appear to differ greatly, and the practice of them are separated by thousands of years, there is still an idea of hospitality that is adhered to. There is the idea of well wishing, of mutual respect and friendship. In short, both customs partake of the same virtue, a virtue that is universally understood.
I never was able to convince my old friend of the existence of non-relative virtue. It is possible that he is still out there somewhere, viewing mass murder and charitable donations as being equally acceptable actions.
I have never been able to condone, or even understand, such thinking. It may seem compassionate of us to allow everybody their own opinion of virtue, of ethical soundness. However, in doing so we deny them the chance to arrive closer to true morality, to true goodness. I believe Aristotle would agree.