AC Grayling surveys the essential literature from Plato to Bernard Williamsby AC Grayling / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Ethics is the enquiry into how one should live. Two related questions identify its task: What is goodness? How ought one to act? It can usefully be defined as the attempt to answer the sceptic who asks: Why be moral?
As a systematic enquiry, ethics began in ancient Greece. Some of the Sophists argued that morality is a man-made convenience, and cannot therefore be binding; the rational course is to pursue one’s own interests. Plato responded in the Republic that possession of virtues such as justice and courage promotes the good life, consisting of harmony in the soul. Virtue is knowledge: if one knows the good, one cannot do wrong. Aristotle disagreed; one can “know the better but do the worse”-weakness of will is a human failing. In his Nicoma-chean Ethics he argued that happiness is the aim of life, and is achieved by acting in accordance with reason, which teaches that the middle course in any action is best.
Chief among the later Greek schools were the Epicureans and Stoics. Epicurus held that pleasure (by which he meant friendship and discussion) is the highest good. Love, wine and feasting carry the seeds of pain, he said, so must be avoided. His austere views figure in Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things. The Stoics taught indifference; what we cannot control we must accept, and what we can control-our passions and desires-we must subdue. The two great classics of Stoicism are Epictetus’s Discourses and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
Ethical thought changed character dramatically under Christianity. Belief in a divine lawgiver removes the need to enquire into the source and justification of ethical laws. But the great Christian moral philosophers-Augustine in The City of God (427 AD) and Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae (1273)-nevertheless tried to marry Greek philosophy to Christian moral teaching. Under Aristotle’s influence, Aquinas analysed human acts as those we have a reason to perform-the reason ultimately being to achieve happiness, which we do by fulfilling human purposes according to God-ordained natural laws.
Most Christian morality, however, took the form of casuistry: the painstaking interpretation of prescriptions and proscriptions-for example, when must one fast?
Is the Good good because God commands it, or does he command it because it is good? This question reveals the weakness of theological ethics. If the former, then ethics is based on arbitrary will; we have no better reason to obey it…