Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There are a few advantages we have going for us when we study moral philosophy. The first is that moral philosophy (also known as ethical philosophy) is immediately applicable to our lives. The second is that many of the suppositions seem to be rather easy to confirm.
For instance, Aristotle tells us that everything has a “final cause.” That is, there is some definitive end or goal towards which a being strives
. Most people, I think it’s safe to say, take this sort of view when it comes to action. When we see someone driving or walking somewhere, we tend to assume that they have some end or purpose in mind, whether it’s taking care of their health or heading to the grocery store.
When we apply this teleological narrative to life itself, the following question inevitably arises:
What’s the purpose of my life?
Ethical egoists answer this question rather plainly: the final goal of a human life is to possess whatever we may desire. The manner in which we should attain this is through an exertion of will, with no regard for others.
The Romans in Their Decadence, Thomas Coutre, (Museo de Orsay, 1847)
In other words, ethical egoism tells us to take what we want, whenever we want it.
Boom! Lesson over.
You now possess all the wisdom you will ever need in order to live a productive, happy life. However, just in case you are not entirely convinced, we will explore ethical egoism just a bit further.
“Other creatures show, as do human communities and nations, that right has been determined as follows: the superior person shall dominate the inferior person and have more than him… These people act, surely, in conformity with the natural essence of right and, yes, I’d even go so far as to say that they act in conformity with natural law, even though they presumably contravene our man-made laws.” ~ Callicles (in the Gorgias)
A tondo of an allegory of justice (1508) by Raphael in the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Apostolic Signatura) of the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
While societal laws may differ from polis to polis, sometimes dramatically, natural justice remains something of an ethical default. Unlike the conventional ideas of justice that are supported by other philosophers like Socrates, natural justice favors the bold and the strong. It gives no consideration for the weak or the inferior and marginalizes those who do not possess the skills or the fortitude to succeed or even survive.
Natural justice tells us that we ought to take whatever we want, so long as we have the ability and the strength of will to take it. Once we have exerted our will and soared to lofty heights, we will live happily and fulfilled
“[I]f a person has the means to live a life of sensual, self-indulgent freedom, there’s no better or happier state of existence.” ~ Callicles (in the Gorgias)
There is some simplicity to this thought, and in turn, there is a bit of appeal as well. Could it be that the good life consists of getting what you want no matter the opinion of others? It seems plausible, but there are a few problems that arise.
Jean-Baptiste Regnault: Socrates dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)
Objections to Ethical Egoism
Within the course of Plato’s dialogue, Socrates proposes a hypothetical man whose sole ambition in life is to constantly scratch himself in public and who does so regardless of the opinion of others. If we are to follow Callicles’ general idea of ethical egoism, then it can be said that this man, by virtue of constantly scratching himself, is living the best life and should be admired.
Callicles is insulted by such a proposition. When the sophist spoke of men fulfilling their desires, he was obviously referring to great emperors and conquerors, the warriors and generals of legend. Although the scratching man does fit the outline for Callicles’ philosophy of getting whatever you want, Callicles seems to find the man not worthy of admiration and dismisses the entire argument.
However, to answer in such a way is to make an important concession. It would seem that achieving your desires is not the only criterion for a meaningful life. The sophist’s view of ethical egoism begins to deflate when scrutinized by the father of Western Philosophy.
This is rather important for our purposes of examining the question, “how should I live?” If we were to imagine a drunkard whose sole ambition in life was to get drunk and lie about the city gutters, could we say that this man is living well when compared to a prosperous king? The drunkard does not have all that the king has, but should that matter if he doesn’t want it?
Alexander and Diogenes by Caspar de Crayer. Diogenes once asked Alexander the Great to stand out his light.
An interesting idea, but ultimately, we must concede that ethical egoism does not really support the notion of “getting whatever you want” as an answer to the question “how should I live my life?” Instead, what is really suggested by Callicles and ethical egoists is that we should get whatever we want, so long as what we want is admirable and good.
Socrates: “Polus and I decided, as you may remember, that the good in some form or other should be the reason for doing anything. Do you agree? Do you think, as Polus and I do, that all activity aims at the good, and that the good should not be a means towards anything else, but should be the goal of every action? Are you going to support us and make it three?”
Socrates: “It follows that the good in some form should be the goal of pleasant activities (as much as of any other kind of activity), rather than pleasure being the goal of good activities.”
Callicles: “That’s right.”
Therefore, getting whatever you want is not a satisfactory answer to our troubling questions concerning a life well-lived. The value of a life, it seems, is determined by the types of things attained within that life.
The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This is no small task, but it is necessary. It is a struggle, but it is one worth waging.
As Socrates put it at the end of the Gorgias,
“So I’ll ignore the public honors which attract most people, follow the path of truth, and try to be as moral a person as I can during my lifetime and after my death as well… I appeal to you to take up this way of life, to engage in this struggle which, in my opinion, is as worthwhile a struggle as you’ll find here in this world.”