Virtue Ethics Contemporary Perspectives


Virtue Ethics

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Contemporary Perspectives

The Quest for Authenticity

This week we will be continuing our exploration of virtue ethics through more recent western thinking in ethics and then we will attempt to apply these ideas to modern ethical problems.

Whereas Socrates and Aristotle made explicit the connections between self and community as a basis for virtue ethics modern philosophers after the European Renaissance tended to move away from the focus on sociability towards a more recent concept called authenticity.

The European Renaissance was to some degree a reaction to the authority of the Catholic church as the dominant ethical power in Europe for the preceding 1000 years. (c. 5001500).

The result of this rebellion against church authority was not to sever ties to others, but to refocus ethical efforts on the self. In this sense, then, authenticity is the logical response to being ethical while still challenging authority.

We will be examining this authenticity through the works of five recent philosophers of a movement called existentialism.

Sren Kierkegaard

Sren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a Danish philosopher, writer and theologian.

He was brought up in a devout Lutheran household.

Lutheranism is the Northern European version of Protestantism. To vastly oversimplify Protestantism establishes a personal relationship with God.

Kierkegaards father taught him about both imagination and about guilt.

The father was financially successful, but had cursed God earlier in his life and felt as if God should punish him both for the curse and for his success.

The young Kierkegaard internalized his fathers feeling of guilt and made them his own.

Kierkegaard on Truth

One of Kierkegaards key insights (which we take for granted today) is the idea of subjective truth.

There is some debate over how extensively he understood this, and whether he was a cognitive relativist or not.

In cognitive relativism even mathematical statements such as 2+2 = 4 cannot be finally proven because the nature of proof assumes a rationality we dont necessarily possess.

Cognitive relativism makes the truth of science or law impossible because in the end everything is relative to how its understood by the individual.

This is a relatively radical position and it seems unlikely that Kierkegaard meant it this way.

Rather, Kierkegaards view is closer to an idea about the meaning of life or experience. Just as two people observing the same phenomenon will have a slightly different experience, so their conclusions and interpretation will also be somewhat different.

This is like the blind men and the elephant story.

Q: How would you explain the concept of truth to someone?

Kierkegaard on Lifes Stages

What happens is that in the process of becoming an individual we discover, through the process of narrativestelling storiesthat our personal truths and the personal truths of others are largely the same.

Thus, the subjective becomes the universal.

For Kierkegaard the ultimate truth is religious.

One must take responsibility for ones own errors and sins and transcend social pressures to ask God directly for forgiveness and improvement.

This is hard, however, because most of us are born in what he calls the aesthetic stageone where we are committed to aesthetic attractiveness in other people and in things around us. (We love surfaces, the shiny, etc.)

Some people move beyond the aesthetic stage into the ethical stage where they respond to sin by following rules and conventions. K. gives us a character of Judge Williama bourgeois (conventional) man who represents conformity to societys rules and norms as a prototype of this stage.

To take full responsibility for oneself, however, one must take a leap of faith into the unknown to reach the religious stage.

In the religious stage one achieves ethical universality because one has transcended the local differences of culture and tradition to enter a relationship with God.

As God is a transcendent idea unbound to locality, history, tradition or society but purely personal, he/she provides the only way to achieve ethical universalism.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) is one of the most radical and unconventional of modern philosophers, famous for the line God is dead.

Nietzsche has been called many bad things because of his idea of the bermensch or overmana complicated idea that without proper context makes it appear that he supports social hierarchy.

This concept of the overman was adopted by the Nazis and so Nietzsche looks bad retroactively as a racist and a supporter of genocide, but a careful examination of his works suggests a more complicated narrative.

Nietzsche was, like Kierkegaard, influenced by Lutheranism, but whereas Kierkegaard found religion Nietzsche rebelled against it.

In N.s case the Christian idea of life after death is what he rebels against.

He argues in essence that the promise of the afterlife keeps us from living in this life.

Beyond Good and Evil

For Nietzsche we have conventional definitions of moral terms, e.g. good and evil.

According to Nietzsche these definitions are repressive (that is, we repress our true nature in order to conform to our ideas of them).

In N.s view a good person can be good only so long as they accept and submit to standard conventional categories that serve the community.

So we abstain from physical pleasure and seek out the afterlife because this is what power/tradition asks of us.

What about what is good for the individual? (You may see echoes of Ayn Rand and ethical relativism here)

The solution to this problem according to N. is the transvaluation of valuesa process whereby the meaning of these terms becomes individual instead of collective.

He idealizes a Classical world of values of power, strength, and so on. Again this is a response to Christianity.

Master-Slave Dialectic

N. suggests that the biblical ethics of turning the other cheek and loving your neighbor should be thrown out because they represent a form of slave morality that places the focus on obedience to authoritya master.

As a psychological phenomenon the master-slave morality grows out of the resentment that slaves have for their masters.

Nietzsche analyzes this historically, arguing that in ancient times warlords were strong loyal men who would gladly give their lives for a principle or for another person. The good warlord is proud, noble, and able to inspire fear in others.

On the other hand, the serfs are obedient and resentful, but they work in an underhanded way to undermine the authority of the warlord.

In his mind the slaves have gained the upper hand and deposed the warlords.

Slave morality and herd morality are the same thing. Movements such as socialism, Marxism and Christianity are bound in their assessment that the meek [weak] shall inherit the earth.

When everything is reduced to averages and to equality culture suffers as a result.

Q: Ns philosophy might seem offensive, but does he have a point? If high art is a form of cultural pretention and pretention is bad how do we sort what is good and what is bad? (Were back to the Ring of Gyges.)

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (18891976) focused on the concept of intellectual authenticity.

Heidegger denies the notion of a distinct self or subject that experiences the world as object.

Rather, we find ourselves existing in the world, and so in this sense we are our experiences.

What makes us unique is the fact that for all of us, our experiences are different, even if only slightly.

He was really pre-occupied with the question of Being, e.g. what does it mean to exist/be?

Human beings are called being-theres because of our feeling that we simply find ourselves alive and being in the world.

He developed an ethic of caring through the idea that whenever we engage in an activity we put some of ourselves in it, thus demonstrating our care. (Not about rationality anymore)

This location of feeling as the basis for our existence is distinct from people like Ren Descartes who famously said I think therefore I am.

Authenticity is about allowing our being-in-the-world to acquire its own meaning over and above our intellectual efforts to make it mean something specific. (a kind of Buddhist view).

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (190580) is perhaps the best known of the thinkers in the philosophical subfield of existentialism.

Existentialism puts the idea of human existence at the center of its philosophical examinations.

In this sense it has many connections with literature and art; and indeed Sartre was known as much as a writer/dramatist as a philosopher.

Because of the influence of WWII on his thinking, Sartre came to believe that there was no God.

This led him to believe that there were no objective values; there is no grand plan or logic for human existence, and the attempt at making sense of life is absurd.

No values exist outside of ourselves (a form of moral relativism).

Should we then resign ourselves to a meaningless existence? No. What we have to do is to see ourselves as the source of values.

We choose how to live, and it is this aspect of making a choice within a meaningless universe (even if that causes anguish) that creates meaning.

Authenticity is openness to the unforeseeable.

Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas (190595) was a Lithuanian-French philosopher of Jewish heritage who chose to become French.

For Levinas existence is all about the encounter with the Other. (Intentionally capitalized)

Our awareness of the Other is based on our recognition that you are both needed by and dependent upon another person/people.

For Levinas ethics precedes ontology. In other words, our first awareness is an ethical one Hey there are other people out there, and ideas about who I might be, or moral systems come later.

This is a philosophy of the face or the lookwhen I peer into the face of anotherface-to-faceI am confronted with the recognition of another beyond myself. My awareness of that leads me to name them as Other (because they are unknown and ultimately unknowable).

This is similar to the philosopher Martin Bubers idea of an I-Thou relationship.

Case Studies in Virtue

Courage: physical and moral. Is courage important in your life? Why? Are there risks in valuing courage?

What is the difference between being reckless and courageous?

What is the relationship between fear and courage?

What is a hero? Working together as a team try to come up with a definition of a hero, give an example of someone who qualifies, and then explain why this person fits the definition.

Is suicide courageous or cowardly? (If you say It depends, explain what it depends on).

Compassion: is it natural or socially created? Where does it come from?

The tale of The Good Samaritan/Kant/Schopenhauer

Rousseau talks about how civilization ruins our natural compassion.

Gratitude Eastern vs. Western approaches.

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