A Short History of Ethics

A couple of years ago I stuck “History of Ethics” into Amazon and it came back with a two-volume tome by Vernon J. Bourke. I bought it and read it, to the end, on the principle that, once you’ve started, you have to stick it out. It was excruciating; a laundry list of pretty much what anyone who ever opened their mouth about ethics had ever said, couched in unintelligible technical terms, with no penetration, depth, or real understanding. I learned close to nothing, and it took forever. Hence I approached this single volume by Alasdair MacIntyre (written in the 1960s, before he became one of the big stars of Moral Philosophy) with some nervousness; but what a relief.

MacIntyre’s fundamental point is that concepts must be taken and understood in the historical context in which they arose, if their full meaning is to be grasped; hence this is not just a historical but a historicizing account of its field. He starts with a brilliantly insightful exploration of how the word “good” – so central in ethics – originally (in the Homeric world) meant ‘good at doing what you do in terms of your allotted role in society’, but gradually came adrift from its moorings as society changed and loosened up, creating a terminological confusion that was what the Presocratics, the Sophists, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle themselves were, in their various ways, trying to sort out. MacIntyre is a Glaswegian, and, refreshingly, doesn’t pull his punches: he sticks it big time to Plato, refusing to accept as valid his opposition of reason and appetite, condemning his “characteristic and utterly deplorable puritanism”, and bemoaning “his willingness to impose his own certitudes upon others, with a use of profoundly unsatisfactory arguments to support his convictions” (good on him; I was always suspicious of a philosopher who could invent abstractions and promote them as somehow more real than the material world from which they were derived). He has more sympathy with down-to-earth Aristotle, champion of the balanced, practical, rational man, who posits happiness as the supreme human goal; but still lays into him as a “supercilious prig” whose ideal of the “great-souled man” is a stuck-up, self-important, condescending elitist for whom every friendship must have an ulterior motive. He concludes his tour of the ancient and medieval world with Christianity, arguing that, dependent as it was on borrowing from other traditions, it’s hard to see what it distinctively contributed to ethical thought (interestingly, MacIntyre himself became a Roman Catholic in the 1980s).

Initiating the modern world, Luther stripped away society: the only thing that matters is the individual, alone before God (a viewpoint that, it becomes clear as the book goes on, MacIntyre, committed as he is to placing people in the context of their historical and social origins, sees as egregiously corrosive, while at the same time underscoring his second main point, that the ethical is also political). He is typically pugnacious about Thomas Hobbes, elaborating a criticism of his concept of the social contract before asking: “If so, does not the whole Hobbesian case founder? It does.” Unexpectedly, he frames (and lauds) the Diggers and Levellers as true revolutionaries in the field of ethics. He makes the obscurities of Immanuel Kant plain as day (anyone who can do that has a lot going for them), adding (perhaps unfairly to Kant) a warning that the categorical imperative, being constructed as an ethical form which can be applied – “do your duty”, for example – to any pre-existing content, may have horrific implications – think Adolf Eichmann.  He sees the history of ethics as in one sense ending with Hegel, who was the last to break new ground by introducing a historical dimension to philosophy: achieving freedom is a question of overcoming the obstacles you face in your particular time and place, and circumstances alter virtues.

In the twentieth century, thinking about ethics becomes increasingly tied up in words and inadequate attempts to find universal definitions for them. The resulting disputes have brought out the point that, historically, ethical thinking has generally been the project of the spokesmen of one group or class posing their values (or trying to) as universal, whether or not they were able to impose them on their society as a whole. This realization “does not entail that the traditional moral vocabulary cannot be used. It does entail that we cannot expect to find in our society a single set of moral concepts, a shared interpretation of the vocabulary…. Each of us therefore has to choose both with whom we wish to be morally bound and by what ends, rules and virtues we wish to be guided. These two choices are inextricably linked.” Unless you are among those who think, anachronistically, that people ought to be told what’s best for them, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion to this superbly stimulating book.


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