Tag Archives: Ethics

Comparing Kant to Plato



I was asked to write a post on how a given philosopher’s views might be different to Immanuel Kant’s, specifically Kant’s ethical philosophy. As I’ve just finished a classical philosophy course, I figured it would make sense to use Plato.

First of all, this post will make a whole lot more sense if you’ve read my post on Kant’s categorical imperative first, or if you’ve studied the CI before. But the basic features of Kant’s moral philosophy are these; it’s deontological (i.e. rule based) and normative (concerned with establishing the difference between right and wrong and creating moral rules, as opposed to, for instance, practical ethics which looks at individual moral dilemmas and tries to figure out what the ethically correct response might be), values autonomy (so everyone should arrive at his conclusions by exercising their own reason, rather than simply taking his word for it), holds that people can never be used as means to an end (i.e. you can’t kill or manipulate people “for the greater good”), and holds that rationality is the key to making the right decisions in ethical situations. It is often praised for the fact that it provides people with a relatively simple decision-making procedure that they can use when an ethical decision needs to be made, and criticized for its rigidity and lack of emotion.

By contrast, Plato’s ethics are virtue-based and eudaimonistic, like that of most Ancient Greek philosophers. I’ll explain the eudaimonistic part of that briefly. Ancient Greek ethics wasn’t concerned so much with how we should act as it was with how we should live. And it was more prudential (concerned with well-being) than it was moral. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were more concerned with how people should live their lives in order to be happy than they were with figuring out what the difference between right and wrong was. They wanted to work out how to achieve eudaimonia, the optimal state of being for any human, and help their fellows achieve it as well. Fortunately, they all shared a belief that being a good person was essential for accomplishing this. They believed that eudamonia could be achieved through the cultivation of various virtues and the elimination of vices. “Virtue” in this case is slightly different in meaning to what we think when we hear the word today. It’s a somewhat inadequate translation of the Ancient Greek word arete, which really just refers to excellence (it doesn’t have the moral tinge inherent in “virtue”).

So virtue ethics was about developing a strong character, which often involved developing typically moral characteristics like bravery and compassion (though it could also involve developing, say, excellence at cobbling or wine-making). When it started to be considered as an ethical theory in the modern sense (rather than as a way of life that was meant to help you flourish as a human being), it was argued that developing good character will allow you to act well without having to think about it – a moral person does the right thing instinctively. Therefore, it’s better to focus on becoming a good person, rather than trying to think rationally about the right thing to do in any given situation.

This is one of the primary differences between Platonic and Kantian ethics. While Kant thought that the way to make the best decisions in life was to take the time to think them through rationally, Plato may well have argued that we often don’t have time to stop and think every time we have to make an important decision. A lot of the time we have to rely on our instincts, so they should be our focus – train yourself to be a good person, and you will act the right way without having to think about it first. That said, Plato (as well as most other Ancient Greek philosophers) was very fond of rationality. It’s important to remember that Kantian ethics and virtue ethics are not mutually exclusive. The Kantian practice of rationally examining moral situations can be a valuable tool in developing virtue. The real difference lies in the focus of each theory; one looks at a person’s actions, whilst the other looks at the person. A person could adopt a fairly Platonic virtue ethic and decide that it is virtuous to know the difference between right and wrong, and then use Kant’s categorical imperative to help her with this. However, Plato wasn’t quite such a fan of autonomy; his ideal state, expounded in the Republic, was one in which the ruling class decided what people should do, be it baking bread or waging war, and giving them little choice in the matter.


A short(ish) post on determinism


Da podcast!

I was just listening to a great philosophical podcast about moral responsibility (see link to the podcast above, and link to the blog featuring the podcast below), where I was introduced to the following pseudo-syllogism related to determinism:

1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are.

2nd P: If you can’t control who you are, you can’t control what you do.

3rd P: You can’t control who you are.

Conclusion: Therefore, you can’t control what you do.

I’m not sure whether this is an entirely accurate quote, because I’m too lazy to go back and check, but I do believe I’ve got the gist of it (it certainly works, at least in my head). I just wanted to put this up because I like how concisely it outlines the theory put forth by determinism. As an example, imagine a person who is brought up in a devout Christian community by Christian parents, who later on in life starts writing an anti-LGBT blog (in this example, I’m thinking of a traditional, slightly extremist Christian community – there are of course many Christians today who fully accept non-heterosexual people). Now, we might say that this person had bad moral character. But, really, a reasonable person would have to admit that the individual in question is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle not because hse (sic) is evil, but because hse’s been raised in a particular way.

So there are two things I’d like to talk about related to this. First of all; if we accept determinism (which, of course, we don’t necessarily have to do), then what conclusions can we make regarding ethics? If people aren’t really in control of what they do, then surely there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral action? For someone to be considered a moral agent, they need to have free will – the ability, in the case of ethics, to choose between right and wrong. Here’s what I think; on some level, we can say that an action is wrong even if we do accept determinism, by applying certain tests/moral theories such as utilitarianism. Just because people can’t really choose between right and wrong doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist. However, what we can’t do is judge people because of their actions.

The second thing I’d like to talk about, quite briefly, is the idea that determinism is somehow an unpleasant theory. Generally, whenever determinism pops up (as in the aforementioned podcast), the discussion immediately turns to how horrible it would be if it were true. No free will! We’d be slaves to fate, incapable of making choices, shackled to causal chains that we have no control over whatsoever. People tend to shy away from this. It’s intimidating. We don’t want it to be true. However (and this is my point), freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s a wonderful concept. On paper, it sounds terrific. But if you look at the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (who thought that we were all most definitely free), you’ll find that he was kinda fond of saying that we’re all condemned to be free. He saw freedom as something that was, in a way, unpleasant. His reason for this was, essentially, that with freedom comes responsibility. If we’re free, we have to take responsibility for every conscious action that we take. That can be pretty heavy at times, especially if we’re unsuccessful or unhappy. If life doesn’t go the way we want it to, it’s our fault. In a way, if determinism is true, we have another kind of freedom. In a deterministic world, we’re free of freedom (or responsibility, if you wish). It’s the sort of freedom an animal, plant, or mineral has. The freedom to simply be, and “go with the flow”.

The above may be interpreted in such a way as to promote anarchy. But sometimes we have to ignore “deeper” truths for the greater good of ourselves and society (in other words, it’s all fine and dandy to not believe in personal responsibility, but it’s probably best if you pretend that you do). And, of course, we can’t be sure; determinism may well be incorrect.

Also, I have to admit that I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, so I might be repeating some of the things that were said  towards the end of it. I’ll probably finish listening to it soon (it was very interesting), and if I find this to be the case, I’ll come back and edit what I’ve written here – probably.

Hse: he/she. Pronounced like “see” but with a really husky voice. The Finnish have a word for man/woman (hen), why shouldn’t we? Makes life easier.

A Brief Summary of Kant’s Categorical Imperative


Immanuel Kant’s take on ethics stands out in stark contrast to the utiliarianist views of Jeremy Bentham. His categorical imperative is a deontological ethical theory, which means it is based on the idea that there are certain objective ethical rules in the world. “Deontology” comes from the Greek word “deon” meaning duty – in other words, deontologically minded philosophers believe we have a duty to act in certain ways, in accordance with moral laws. Kant’s version is possibly the most well known, and relies heavily on his idea that all people are fundamentally capable of reasoning in the same manner and on the same level. Kantianism focuses more on intent and action in itself, as opposed to the consequentialist focus of utilitarianism. One of the primary points of Kantian ethics is, basically, that you must never treat another human being as a means to an end – this idea lies at the core of Kant’s ethical thinking.

First of all, let’s look at some of the foundational theories that Kant based his approach on. Now, Kant was pretty big on something known as autonomy (self-governance). He believed that, unless a person freely and willingly makes a choice, their action has no meaning (and certainly no moral value) – this would be an example of what Kant called heteronomy. So how did he move from this to the concept of a universal, objective moral law that no man had the right to break? Well, an idea that’s central to Kant’s moral laws or duties is that they’re based on reason. Kant thought that every man, if using reason when looking at moral dilemmas, would agree with what he called the Categorical Imperative (the CI). So, while the law is objective, Kant thought that all people could come to understand and agree with it after autonomous reflection.

So how, exactly, does the CI tell us how to act? How does it work? The decision-making procedure of the theory is actually quite straight forward, and one that many people should be able to grasp intuitively (which is exactly what Kant wanted to achieve). Kant thought that when a moral action is being considered, one should ask the following questions; what would happen if I made the maxim of this action a universal law (killing someone who’s insulted you = you must kill anyone who insults you)? Is this universalization possible? Consider the example of killing someone because they’ve insulted you. If everyone did this, we’d swiftly and surely run out of people to kill, and it would no longer be possible to follow the law. Because of this logical contradiction, Kant felt that we have a perfect duty to not kill people. However, are also imperfect duties. An example of this would be giving to charity – it is not a moral necessity that you do this, but you should be praised if you do.

A core aspect of this theory is the concept of intent. To Kant, the actual outcome (the consequences) of a particular action didn’t matter at all. It was the intent that mattered to him. Let’s look at an example. Imagine you’re a murderer walking down the street, and you see a defenseless young man in front of you. It’s dark, and there’s no one else around. You have a knife in your pocket. It would be easy for you to kill him. So, you consider. Maybe, in the end, you choose to let the man live – not because you were worried about acting immorally, but because you didn’t want to take the risk of him screaming and drawing the attention of the police (or something to that effect). In the end, you do not kill. According to Kant, you haven’t acted ethically. You’re action does not make you a better person. This is because when you acted (or, rather, chose not to act), you weren’t considering the action in terms of its morality. You didn’t make a moral choice – you merely acted out of self-preservation. However, if you were to choose not to kill the man because you suddenly realized that it was wrong to kill and didn’t want to act unethically, then you would have acted morally, and would be a better person for it.

One of the advantages of this approach to morality is that it looks more closely at the individual and his choices, rather than the actual consequences of what he does (which, after all, he has no control over). Take this example; a scientist decides that he is going to find a cure for a particular sort of cancer, and spends years trying to accomplish this. Look at his intent – it’s highly moral. But imagine that he accidentally invents some sort of super weapon instead, which eventually leads to the total destruction of entire civilizations. This is not a positive result, but it was not what he wanted to achieve. The utilitarian would say that he is a bad person nevertheless, as he has caused massive amounts of suffering. But it’s not what he wanted to do. Kant’s approach here seems preferable, and much fairer.

The main problem with the categorical imperative is its rigidity. The famous example that illustrates this is that of a crazed axe-murderer coming to your front door and asking you where your children are. You could lie – many would say you should lie – but imagine if everyone in the entire world lied all the time. If everyone lied, there would be no “telling the truth” and, thus, no real lying. As the law is logically contradictory, you have a perfect duty not to lie. You have to tell the axe-murderer the truth, so he can go and kill your children. Kant was asked about this personally, and he said that this was indeed the case. It would be immoral to lie to the man. He did, however, say that you could also choose to lock your door and call the police. Here’s another example – you’re in a room with a man who’s holding a gun to your mother’s head. You know he’ll shoot her any second. Right next to you, there’s a button. If you press the button, the man will fall through a trap door and land in a spike pit, dying instantly. Your mother will be saved. According to the categorical imperative, this would be the wrong thing to do. You can’t press the button. But if you don’t, your mother will die. It’s in situations like this that strict ethical systems with specific decision procedures tend to fall apart. Morality is simply too complex, too full of exceptions for these theories to ever fully work.

If you have any questions or would like something clarified, please post a comment and I’ll do my best 🙂

Virtue Ethics






Virtue theory, an approach to ethics originally devised by Aristotle and recently popularized by G.E.M. Anscombe (a 20th century female philosopher), is based around the idea that when ethical questions are being considered, our focus should not be on moral duty, obligation, right and wrong, or anything of this nature, but rather on people and their characteristics. We should not speak of things in terms of their being moral or immoral as, according to Anscombe at least, when we talk about things like this we are actually referring back to the concept of a law-giving God (one which is quite outdated in today’s modern society). Calling an action mean or cruel is more than sufficient to establish that it is bad – saying that it is immoral doesn’t add anything. Anscombe’s argument here is that our use of terms like “moral” and “immoral” are only in use today because we have grown accustomed to them over many years of Christianity. They are no longer fully intelligible, as we no longer believe in any sort of “divine law”(note that this does not mean we need to stop using the words altogether, but rather that we should strive to reassess their meaning). Instead, she suggested that we look at the work of Aristotle, and his ideas regarding virtues and vices. A modern ethical system, based on the thoughts of a philosopher who lived many years before Christianity rose to prominence, and one which could provide us with a fresh perspective on the question of ethics.

The underlying idea here is that there should be more of a focus on a person’s character and emotions when one is discussing ethical problems. We generally talk about what people should say or do, rather than how they should think and feel, which is arguably more important. A person acting according to the rules of some particular ethical system is not necessarily a “good person”, but someone who has cultivated positive character traits would by default be such an individual, and consequently he would act in a more ethically sound manner without needing to be instructed to do so. To the virtue theorist, character is of the essence, and should lie at the centre of any debate pertaining to morality.

Now, as the name implies, this particular theory is concerned with virtues and vices. So what are these? Well, they’re character traits; the one positive, the other negative. And how do we acquire these elusive, positive character traits then? According to virtue theory, we do this through practice. A possible analogy for this would be learning how to paint. If you want to become a skilled painter capable of creating realistic portraits or landscapes, or even abstract canvases, you’ll need to practice. You’ll have to study the work of those painters who have come before you, learn about the different types of paint available to you, and spend hour upon hour hunched over sheets of paper or canvas carefully applying paint in increasingly complex patterns. You’ll have to practice using colours and shading, develop your observational skills, and all sorts of other things. For some, this may come naturally, but for the vast majority of us it would take time, energy and commitment. The same is true of acquiring virtues. To become brave, for instance, you must practice acting bravely until it becomes an integral part of your personality. Furthermore, just as painting gradually becomes more “fun” to an art student, so too should practicing a particular virtue become more pleasurable over time.

So we know that a virtue is a character trait and that it can be developed over time through practice (a stance based around the idea of a moral education). But how do we distinguish between vices and virtues?* This is a substantial problem, as people’s opinions on the matter are often subjective. There are however four so-called “cardinal virtues” that many philosophers have come to agree on over the years; fortitude (or courage), temperance (or self-discipline), prudence (or practical wisdom) and justice (which, used in this context, connotes a certain inner harmony and lack of egotism).   The strengths of virtue theory are numerous, which explains its current popularity amongst modern philosophers. The way in which it considers a person’s emotions and character rather than coldly analyzing his actions or their consequences; the concept that a virtuous person should take pleasure in acting virtuously rather than doing what he “has to do”; the emphasis placed on a learning process or “moral education”; its holistic perspective on morality, taking a person’s entire life and character into account; and its lack of a firm decision procedure in relation to ethical action, all contribute to its overall strength as a moral theory.

This last one is an interesting point, as it could easily be viewed as a weakness of the theory. It is one of the defining features of virtue theory – that it does not tell us what to do. But how can this be a strength, when it means that we’re provided with no real method for determining how we should act in a given situation? Well, the problem with having a decision procedure like those offered by utilitarianism and Kantianism is that it tends to simplify things. Moral situations come in an infinite variety, and the context of a particular situation can bring new and unexpected problems to the table. Simplification can work to some extent, but after a while it becomes a limiting factor, in that it damages the versatility of a theory.

*Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is as follows; “a habitual character trait that aims at the mean between two extremes”. Take bravery, for instance. It can be viewed as a trait lying somewhere  between cravenliness and over-confidence.

Natural Law


Natural law refers to the ethical theory that solid, indisputable moral values can be obtained through a reasoned examination of human nature. Many philosophers have argued for it over the years, a prominent figure amongst these being Thomas Aquinas (who I’ll be focusing on in this post). It is an approach taken towards the problem of subjectivism which is, naturally, quite evident in the world of ethics, and seeks to show that we can find absolute moral values (laws, in other words) on which we can base our ethical and – consequently – justice systems. It is related to deontological ethical theories like the categorical imperative in that it seeks to tell us exactly what we should and should not do, and contrasts with theories like utilitarianism, where the emphasis is on the consequences of an action rather than the action itself. In the case of Aquinas, it is viewed in the context of three other levels of law; Eternal, Divine, and human law. Natural law is a way for us to participate in the Eternal law (the law of God), which is otherwise inaccessible to us. Basically, natural law can be understood as something which we all “have in our blood”.

Thomas Aquinas, being a Christian philosopher, naturally related his version of the natural law theory to God. He said that the world has a natural order to it, with God placed at the top, and that in accordance with this natural order humans instinctively seek to avoid bad things and pursue good things. Amongst these good things he included life, reproduction (not sex, mind you; the distinction between the two is important here), education and being a part of society. He also stated that natural law comes from God, and is thus sacred and unchangeable. He said that following the natural law is a way for us to achieve union with God (which he saw as the ultimate goal of any human life, much like Buddhists with their concept of enlightenment and nirvana). Furthermore, he made a distinction between reason and revelation, the latter being something that “happens to us” and the former being something that we actively do. Reason is what we use to understand natural law, which he thought was evident in nature.

The theory sounds perfectly rational, though only to a certain extent. It is of course very true that most humans tend to pursue good things and avoid bad things. This can’t be denied. The problem lies in the fact that different people have different ideas regarding what is good and what is bad. Some people, for instance, despise learning and avoid education in all its forms, and others are opposed to the very idea of society. And what about masochists, or fakirs? These people seem to refute or at the very least damage the validity of the natural law theory. The theory’s basic premise “all men pursue good and avoid evil” is undermined by them.

However, Aquinas does have a response to this objection. He introduces the idea of “real gods” and “apparent gods”. Apparent gods, then, are false gods or, if you wish, “goods” that people come to believe in. The fact that these other-minded people exist does not weaken the natural law theory – they are merely examples of humans who have been misled in some way. The problem with this counter argument is of course the simple fact that there is no way we can establish with any real certainty which people follow real gods and which follow apparent gods. Perhaps the anarchists or the fakirs have it right, and Aquinas had it wrong.

Finally, Aquinas is very firm regarding what makes an act ethically sound according to the natural law theory. He claimed that it is not enough for an action to follow the principle of the law (to promote good in avoidance of bad, in other words), but that a person’s intent was also important. He stated that there were two basic parts to an act; the internal part and the external part. The internal part is the reasoning and intent behind an action, and the external part is the action itself. So, according to Aquinas, both of these are important, thus contrasting his ideas with those of, for instance, the utilitarianists who, as said, thought that one should focus entirely on consequences and didn’t really care what a person’s intent was.

This concludes my brief examination of natural law theory. There is more to be said specifically about Aquinas’ version, and much more to be said of the other versions out there. Still, this should give you a concise and fairly deep understanding of his theory.

The Greater Good; an Essay on Utilitarianism


This essay – or post if you wish – is intended as a concise exploration of utilitarianism, one of many ethical movements within the world of moral philosophy. An understanding of this topic could prove useful to IB philosophy students taking ethics as one of their chosen options. I am focusing here on the nature of utilitarianism and am not considering its weaknesses. These will be looked at in a separate post.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory generally considered to have been founded by Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century English philosopher and social reformer. It is centred around the concept of happiness, and seeks to promote it. The idea here is that all people seek happiness, and that it is the ultimate goal of all human beings to be happy. Therefore, according to classical utilitarianism, when a person wishes to act in an ethically sound manner he or she should strive to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness for the greatest possible amount of people. This is known as the greatest happiness principle. Another, similar idea is that a person should always strive, if incapable of producing happiness, to reduce unhappiness. As the theory is wholly focused on the outcome of a person’s actions, it is classed as a “consequentialist” theory, i.e. a theory that concerns itself with consequences and not actions in themselves.

Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial. – The New Oxford American Dictionary

Utilitarianism can be seen as a highly mathematical theorem, looking at the total units of happiness that a particular action gives rise to. For instance, you might have a choice between taking your sick neighbour’s dog for a walk or going out for drinks with a few of your colleagues. Imagine that the neighbour is desperate to find someone to exercise his canine companion, while your friends are fully capable of enjoying themselves without you. Taking the dog for a walk might add 10 units of happiness to the world’s total stock, whereas going out for drinks would only add a total of 6. Certainly, the latter would make a greater quantity of people happy (the former only benefiting one person), but it is the quantity of the happiness produced that is of interest to utilitarians. It is also important to note the impartiality of utilitarianism in this example; your personal relationships are of no importance – it does not matter how close you are to your colleagues, the right thing to do would still be to take the dog for a walk.

But let us look more closely at Bentham’s utilitarianism. To understand his approach more fully, it is vital that one come to an appreciation of exactly what he meant by “happiness”. His ideas here are, really, quite simple. Bentham thought that we should look at happiness as being  based on pleasure. Naturally, it follows from this that he also felt that we should treat unhappiness as something consisting of pain. This view on happiness has led his particular brand of utilitarianism to be seen as a hedonistic theory. Furthermore, Bentham did not distinguish between different forms of pleasure. To him, anything that gave rise to happiness – be it drugs or reading – was fundamentally good.

Other philosophers have striven to develop Bentham’s theories further. One of the more notable of these is John Stuart Mill, who sought to distinguish between what he termed “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill disagreed with Bentham’s all-inclusive view on pleasure, feeling that there was a fundamental difference between the varying forms of pleasure available to people, and that some had a finer quality than others. It was Mill who put forth the notion that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

Mill’s idea was fairly straightforward, namely that while there are many simple, sensual pleasures in life, such as eating or drinking, there are also certain pleasures which are of a more cerebral nature, such as listening to classical music or reading poetry. According to Mill, these latter pleasures are of a greater quality, and should therefore be considered more important. He posited that someone who has experienced both forms of pleasure would naturally feel inclined to choose the higher pleasures. For instance, a man who is familiar with both tasty food and good poetry would view the latter as something more valuable than the former.

This is a fairly straightforward exploration of the most common forms of utilitarianism. The most important thing to remember about these theories is that they are consequantialist and, above all else, that they are concerned with the greater good. Utilitarians don’t care about your personal agenda or whether your actions happen to hurt some people. As long as the eventual results of your actions lead to more pleasure than pain, you’re in the clear.