Elements of an Ethics Textbook (6): Self, Society, Nature

In this final section, I have included a diversity of readings that are intended to encourage both a concentration, a synthesis, and an expansion of the view of ethics that we have developed to this point. From the utilitarian outlook, measuring morality as it did by evaluating the consequence of a given action, we proceeded to the deontological view, which places the center of evaluation not in the effect of an action, but in its cause or motive. It is necessary here to differentiate an action, whose cause is coincident with the motive of the agent who performs that action, and an event, which follows from a cause that need not be directly traced to an agent’s motive. To push someone off of a bridge is a positive ethical development, from the perspective of utility, if it benefits all of the relevant stakeholders in some way that ought to be ultimately reducible to an increase in net happiness. In other words, the action is treated like an event and evaluated according to utilitarian calculus. From the deontological perspective, by contrast, whatever the result of pushing that same person off of the bridge is morally immaterial. If the intent was to save him from a locomotive, what may outwardly appear as a transgressive act of violence may in fact have been a moral imperative. Utilitarianism consists in a posteriori evaluations of the fallout from actions; deontology consists in a priori determinations of good intent. In the transition from deontology to virtue ethics, we experienced a similar “anteriorization” and “concentration” of the locus of moral concern. Whereas deontology emphasized the motive of a given action, virtue ethics concerned the traits of character that inform and subtend given actions of a corresponding quality. For instance, only someone with a heroic streak of character would likely find him or herself in a position and an inclination to save someone from an oncoming locomotive in the first place, irrespective of what any abstract utilitarian calculus or deontological obligations might hypothetically propose in such a scenario. Thus, the locus of moral concern has migrated inwards over the course of surveying these three theoretical frameworks. This final part consists in a sort of “double-movement” in which this center of morality at once arrives at the innermost self and also expands to the outermost periphery. Given the complementarity of the concepts of “self” and “world,” this apparent antithesis is ultimately unavoidable. Just as an inside implies an outside in principle and not merely circumstantially, so it is impossible to conceptualise the self except in relation to and in juxtaposition against the world. Establishing what “the world” is understood to mean, and concomitantly, also “the self,” is itself a crucial element of the exploration to follow.

The section begins with a selection from work of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner; most notably, two chapters from seminal 1894 work, The Philosophy of Freedom. In the course of this exposition, Steiner attempts to reveal the complementary and reciprocal nature of the human self as the dynamic inflection point between knowledge and action. Steiner defends the view that consciousness of one’s reasons for acting is the sine qua non for ethical action. Until we have won through to this internal clarity, it is senseless to speak about ethical action any more than we could find moral fault with the weather for inclemency, or hold a fox ethically accountable for killing a chicken to survive. Steiner argues that a great deal of confusion has been sown in the soil of philosophy by failing to distinguish between actions that we carry out in order to accomplish a given end, and actions in which we weighed what ends are good to accomplish in the first place. Directly following these chapters from The Philosophy of Freedom is an essay that I wrote attempting a critique and exegesis of Steiner’s view. 

Next begins a roughly chronological traverse of a number of well known historical figures, beginning with Aristotle. I have included another short section from the very beginning of Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle outlines the rudiments of natural law theory. To wit, each thing has an end towards which it strives that is defined by what is good for it according to its nature. Thus, as it is good for an acorn to become an oak, so, argues Aristotle, it is good for a human being—by nature of being human—to cultivate virtue for the sake of attaining to the condition of eudaimonia or “human flourishing.” Following the selection from Nicomachean Ethics is a series of short excerpts from Cicero’s De Officiis, or “On Duties.” Cicero, with extraordinary eloquence, builds off of the foundation of Aristotle’s natural law theory while also elaborating it and synthesizing it with other views in important ways. Next is a short chapter from Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Church at Corinth, in which he offers a metaphor of corporation intended as a symbol for the relation of the self and community. This is followed by a short statement from his letter to the Romans. Next is a selection from the work of Thomas Aquinas, including an excerpt from his Summa Theologica, which many consider to be among the greatest intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages, if not in all of human history, and is perhaps the Scholastic equivalent of the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral. Aquinas’ Summa is often regarded as the locus classicus of natural law theory and represents the fruition of Aristotle’s virtue ethics with the powerful deontological impulse of the Hebraic culture. An early Christian thinker named Tertullian, meaning to challenge the importance of Hellenic philosophy to Christian doctrine, once asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Even if the New Testament had not been composed entirely in Greek, Aquinas’ work, exemplified in his great Summa, should suffice to silence Tertullian’s doubts. I have also included a short paragraph from another of Aquinas’ works, the Summa Contra Gentiles.

Thomas Hobbes, from whose seminal sixteenth century work, Leviathan, an excerpt is included next, offers a striking contrast to Aquinas’ view as elaborated in the Summae. For Hobbes, cooperation and morality are not essential elements of human nature but rather something like “epiphenomena” of human selfishness. Individuals, according to Hobbes, are so selfish that they seek to preserve their self-interest by banding together. In the “state of nature,” according to Hobbes, everyone would be engaged in a “war of each against all.” By establishing an extrinsic social contract, individuals are able to collectively sublimate this latent violence into the so-called “Leviathan,” which is Hobbes’ metaphorical epithet of the state. The latter is thereby endowed with absolute power of arbitration as a necessary evil to prevent interpersonal violence. Thus, whereas for Aquinas, society and ethics were a natural expression of intrinsic human characteristics, for Hobbes they represent artificial structures that individuals extrinsically impose on themselves for their individual benefit. 

While Aquinas viewed human beings as essentially ordered towards a communion with the good and society amongst individuals as an outward expression of this, and while Hobbes viewed human beings as essentially selfish and society as a expedient imposition that they placed upon themselves to mitigate worse evils, the French Enlightenment and proto-Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected both of these views and believed that it was only the existence of society that made individuals appear evil. Whereas for Aquinas, “nature” referred to the harmony of each element of Creation ordered towards its proximate good, which goods were in turn ordered towards the ultimate or transcendent Good that was identical with God as the cause and architect of Creation itself, for Hobbes, “nature” referred to a state of chaos in which violence was endemic. Rousseau argued against both the Christian Platonism of Aquinas as well as the Early Modern pessimism and mechanistic materialism of Hobbes and conceived of nature as a sort of pure, pristine, Edenic paradise from which civilization had rent man as an untimely child from a womb. In this way, Rousseau prefigured many of the cultural and artistic traditions to follow and is partially credited with having inspired the modern environmentalist movement.

A selection from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) provides yet another concept of “nature” and hence of the self as well. In this important work, Darwin built upon the theory of natural selection which he had first set forth in 1859 with his epochal work On the Origin of Species and which has since become the de facto scientific outlook of contemporary society. Darwin argues that nature is the product chance mutations having been blindly selected for according to their ability to survive and propagate their kind. In this way, Darwin ushered in a theory of nature that did not appeal to anything outside of strictly physical processes to explain the origin of species and their behaviour. In spite of the protest by one of his contemporaries and collaborators on the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin, and the preponderance of the biological community to follow, viewed the descent of the Homo sapiens according to the same lines as lichens, lizards, and finches. As a consequence, “good” came to lose any referent other than survival and reproductive utility. To this day, many scientifically-minded people profess to believe this with their words even if they may appear to belie it with their lives and actions. 

One thinker who attempted to take the bull by the horns and grapple with the implications of the Darwinian theory was Friedrich Nietzsche, a selection from whose work follows that of Darwin. Nietzche, who was as much a poet, gadfly, and social critic as he was philosopher, is a thinker whose views are impossible to represent in a few short sentences. Of Nietzsche’s theses, perhaps the most pertinent to the present line of argument is his conception that ethics is “the will to power.” In this view, he echoes Plato’s Thrasymachus while establishing his argument on a much more elaborate philosophical basis than Socrates’ belligerent interlocutor in Book 1 of the Republic. Nietzsche offers an extraordinary synthesis of elements of Aristotelian virtue ethics with the contemporary scientific outlook while at the same time offering one of the most caustic rejections of Plato and Christianity that had been managed in his time or since.

The philosopher Vladimir Solovyov offers a stark contrast to Nietzsche’s inspired naturalism. For the Russian idealist and sophiologist, the world according to Darwin and other scientists is not the whole world, but only a single element of a much more comprehensive whole. As Hamlet famously quipped, “there’s more to Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” An obvious though remarkably uncommon critique of views established on the scientific outlook is that they fail to account for the nature of our actual lives experience—which is the only kind we have—as well as the majority of the contents of this experience. Is it really feasible, this line of critique would go, to think that consciousness can be reduced to unconscious physiological processes in the brain and spinal cord, and that the mind capable of understanding this is the product of random mutations selected solely on the basis for their ability to confer reproductive utility to the organism in question as per modern evolutionary theory? Why should we imagine that such a mind would be capable of grasping the truth of its own origin, especially given that any function beyond those directly suited to ensuring the survival and reproduction of its organism are strictly to be seen as accidental superfluities or “spandrel”? Is it not backwards to demand a scientific account for the reality of things that we experience directly—like “beauty,” “freedom,” and “love”—before we are willing to accept their existence rather than beginning with our experience of them and from thence attempting to provide a theoretical account? In this spirit, Solovyov offers a rational argument for the primacy of love and not “natural selection through chance mutation” as the driving impulse of evolution and of life. 

The selection from Solovyov is followed by another extraordinary Russian soul, Feodor Dostoevsky. In fact, Dosteovsky was Solovyov’s elder by several decades and actually a close friend. Indeed it is believed that Solovyov may even have inspired the characters of Alyosha and Ivan in Dosoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. In two excerpts from Dostoevsky’s extraordinary work, we encounter two antithetical views of life that, by the same token, inform radically divergent approaches to ethics. That the same author could at once leave us with among the most pithy and articulate enunciations of nihilistic atheism in the character of Dmitri and also provide one of the most inspired descriptions of saintly beatitude is a testament to Dostoevsky’s genius. Included is an excerpt that contains both a narrative of sin and the redemptive power of repentance as well as a sustained exhortation by an elder monk on the essence of Christian love as recounted by Alyosha. Next is a very short excerpt from a later chapter in which the diametrically opposite view is set forth by his eldest brother, Dmitri. 

Last of all, I have included a short paragraph by the late physicists Stephen Hawking that presents the problem of whether we can think about ethics at all if our selves are composed entirely of atoms and the latter merely obey the laws of physics in a deterministic fashion.

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