Part III. Philosophical Ethics

Auction's End, Douglas Georgia, Library of Congress

Even though philosophy apparently cannot prove conclusively the existence of God, still the question of how we should lead our lives is a question of the utmost gravity. Whether I can "live well and do well" in the affairs of the world, as Aristotle suggests, or whether I have no free choices as Spinoza thought, is intrinsically related to what it is to be human.

In this section of our introductory readings, the close relation between philosophy and psychology is explored from the standpoint as to what constitutes a good life. Readings from the philosophies of Baruch Spinoza, William James, Plato, Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre suggest a number of insights into the questions of human existence—especially those concerning free will and determinism, egoism and altruism, obligation and hedonism, as well as the individual's relation to society.

We begin Part III of the readings with a thumbnail sketch of some of the main philosophic positions on the free will-determinism issue. The crux of this problem is sometimes related as the dilemma known as Hume's Fork.

This dilemma recognizes, on the one hand, if my actions are entirely subject to causal laws, then I cannot be responsible for my actions—anymore than an apple can be responsible for falling from a tree. (Notice on this view, an uncaused event would be the same thing as what is called "a miracle"i.e., an event without cause or explanation.) On the other hand, if my actions are not causally determined then my actions are uncaused and so must be random events. In that case also I could not be responsible for my actions because outcomes of random processes cannot be controlled by willing or choosing. Therefore, whether or not events are caused, I cannot be held accountable for my actions. Viewed in this manner, the heart of the philosophical problems of ethics becomes the clarification of the notion of choice.

Baruch Spinoza argues in the first reading that there is a complete unity of God with nature. The soul is part of God and, consequently, is not subject to free will. Since God is "all that there is," the world and everything in it is perfect. William James, on the other hand, argues that the free will-determinism controversy cannot be settled by metaphysical reasoning, instead, he believes, the issue must be settled pragmatically. He reasons that if you do not believe in the power of your own choices, your life will be subject to the vicissitudes of everyday events. But if you exercise the power of choice, your faith in a fact can help make that fact come true. You are far more likely to do well in life if you believe you can (or at least if you act as if you believed you could), than if you believe it's all a matter of luck or fate.

The quest for happiness is discussed in readings from Plato, Aristotle, and Jeremy Bentham. In the "Myth of the Ring of Gyges," Plato gives a powerful voice to a view he actually believes is mistaken—the belief that everyone is selfish and the only thing keeping people from doing harm to others is the fear of punishment. Aristotle presents a philosophy of individual eudaimonia based on natural motivation. Pleasure, for him, is only a side-product of activity. He believes a life of living well and doing well in the affairs of the world can be obtained by exercising that peculiar excellence of human beings: the moral excellence of practical reason (phronesis). Although intellectual excellence can be taught; for Aristotle, moral excellence is only acquired through actions resulting in the disposition to do what's right.

The last set of readings involve some considerations of ethics in society. The ethical views of Jeremy Bentham and Friedrich Nietzsche are constrasted. Bentham believes we should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons, and he develops a method whereby the "right" choices are based on a "pleasure calculus." Such a view is harshly scorned by Nietzsche as a "nay-saying attitude toward life." Nietzsche argues, that power, not the herd-morality of pleasure or happiness, is what is sought in the "master-morality" of superior human beings.

We conclude our study of ethics with Jean Paul Sartre's well-known lecture on the existential freedom of the individual. Sartre believes that you and you alone are responsible for making yourself not only what you are and but also what you will be. He believesyou are condemned to choose, for "to choose not to choose" is itself a choice.