1. Moral philosophy: a very rough history
At the very beginning
So when did moral philosophy begin? Codes of behaviour have always existed, ever since human beings started living together to hunt, forage, grow crops and keep domestic animals. Tribal chiefs and priests insisted that individuals abstained from anti-social activities like murder and theft. These things are called ‘anti-social’ because no society can get off the ground if they are widespread. It’s impossible to keep tribes, cities or societies intact if there’s a moral free-for-all.
So, on the whole, people carried on believing what their parents believed. Everyone frowned on unorthodox views or unusual behaviour. Nothing much changed. There was no such thing as ‘modern’. You used the same tools, built the same huts and pyramids, went through the usual ‘reaching puberty’ rituals, married, had kids, taught them what you’d been taught, and so it went on for thousands of years. Technology changed – flint tools got replaced by bronze and then iron ones – but most people still distrusted ethical or political innovation. Anyone who challenged orthodox moral or religious beliefs got laughed at or severely punished. Morality, religion and politics were all interwoven into one unavoidable system. No one ever thought to ask where moral rules came from or why they had to be obeyed. They were usually just too tired or frightened.
The Greeks: thinking new thoughts
Then the ancient Greeks arrived. To begin with, they were warrior tribes who fought each other and laid siege to cities. They admired courage and military heroes, celebrated in the works of Homer such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. But then one lot of Greeks, the citizens of Athens, became more modern, more like us. Athens was unusual in that it began to be ruled by direct democracy, which meant that all adult males were voters and members of the government. Slaves did the hard work like farming, mining, metal-working, making pots and furniture, writing letters and teaching children, so Athenian citizens had lots of free time on their hands. They went to religious festivals, plays and athletic competitions, and gave dinner parties.
All of this leisure also meant that some individuals had the time and opportunity to think for themselves instead of just going along with tradition. Greek gods and goddesses were venerated and feared but often behaved quite badly, punishing human beings out of sexual jealousy, for instance. So Athenians couldn’t look to their religion for moral instruction. This meant that they started to ask strange questions about morality and other things like mathematics, science, astronomy and politics. And it’s this that makes them more like us. They asked questions about the rest of the world and the universe, as well as about their own lives.
The first really famous Athenian moral philosopher was Socrates (469–399 BC). He was poor but proud. He seems to have made a living as a stonemason and he always refused to charge for philosophical advice. He was a very charismatic character who attracted many young followers. One of them was Plato, who wrote down everything we know about him. Socrates insisted that we must always argue and debate with each other – that way we usually find that we don’t really know what we’ve been talking about! And he was a rather odd sort of ‘guru’ because he always insisted that he knew nothing himself. He thought that you should constantly examine your prejudices, beliefs, worries and anxieties. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, he said.
Socrates is right, of course. We are all driven by motives, feelings and prejudices that we rarely question. Modern Westerners like us still tend to believe that the consumption and ownership of ‘things’ will make us happier. It’s probably a wrong belief. We all have ideas that are ‘manufactured’ by others whose interests have more to do with their profit than our well-being. Our modern world is changing fast, and we have to adapt to it, get used to new gadgets, vocabulary, ideas, needs and wants – at speed. Socrates would say that we should take time out to examine our beliefs. What are the things that are really important to us?
The philosophy of ethics was begun by this snub-nosed, hen-pecked old Athenian who always insisted that we’re more ignorant than we realize – especially about behaving well.
Knowing and choosing
Unfortunately Socrates concluded that behaving morally came from knowing what is ‘good’ – which makes wickedness just a kind of ignorance. The difference between the good man and the villain is that the good one is more informed. But what’s wrong with this idea? Look at the example below.
The Kray brothers set up extensive protection rackets, which they ran with ruthless efficiency. They injured people and murdered them. They did this because they were ignorant of the moral rules forbidding extortion and violence. They were wicked because they were stupid.
This isn’t right, is it? Socrates seems to have got something badly wrong here. The Krays knew what they did was wrong, all right. They weren’t ignorant or stupid, just bad. So it looks as if being moral involves choosing to do good things as well as knowing what they are.
Freedom and choice
Being a good person in our modern world isn’t easy. We don’t live in small city states like Athens. Most of us live in a ‘liberal’ democracy.
Liberalism is a way of thinking about governments and individual citizens. It says that governments are limited in what they can do. They can pass laws to protect our freedom and property, but they can’t force us to be ‘good’ people. Citizens are ‘free’ because governments can’t interfere with our private lives.
Liberals assume that human beings are mostly selfish anyway – interested only in their own wealth and happiness. This is partly because we live in a capitalist society or ‘market’ now, where everyone is competing against everyone else. It’s like a race – we all begin equally, the brightest and most energetic do best and the stupid and lazy do worst. That’s what life is all about. So it’s fair. What do you think about that?
Liberalism and capitalism have both been very successful, especially in the developed world. We’re all wealthier now and we’re relatively free. We can choose. But liberalism has no game-plan, except for more of the same – bigger supermarkets and more ‘choice’ for everyone. Nowadays we all live private lives and have little sense of community any more. Many of us don’t even know who our immediate neighbours are. We shut the front door, have our tea and then watch TV and computer screens. We’re ‘atomized’ – individuals with no real sense of ‘belonging’ to anything other than our own immediate families.
We also expect instant access to those things we desire. We define ourselves by what we own. Advertisements create a nagging sense of inadequacy in us that we attempt, unsuccessfully, to relieve by shopping. We’ve lost any sense of belonging to anything ‘bigger’ than ourselves. Only a few of us have firm religious beliefs. We no longer dream of a better, more progressive society. All this choice and freedom only makes us feel lonelier and more isolated.
We’re uncertain nowadays about what we mean when we talk about a ‘good person’, and this is a problem, because being moral is mostly about how to live with other people. No one can sit in front of the TV being ‘good’ on their own.
The Greek philosophers thought that living with other people is what ultimately makes us truly human. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) said that anyone who lived without a community was either an ‘angel’ or a ‘beast’ – a saint or an incomplete human being.
So what have these ancient Greeks taught us? Think for yourself. Don’t just accept the ideas and opinions of others. Examine what they say and engage them in friendly argument. Socrates and Plato were both critical of their own society and government, and we should be too. So don’t passively accept what politicians tell you. One obvious thing we can do is to try to help our own small community of individuals communicate with each other. The more people you talk to, the more you can evaluate and develop your own ideas. Being a good local citizen usually also makes you a happier person and, with luck, a wiser one too.
Think for yourself. Try to find out before you judge.