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Theoretical Ethics

On Foundation Problems of Normative
and Educational Ethics: Some Actual Considerations Referring to Ancient Ethics

Horst Seidl
Cattedra di Etica, Rome

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ABSTRACT: The controversies in our time between teleological and deontological ethics which come down to the problem "from being to ought," referring to human being or nature, can be resolved only by an adequate conception of human nature. Taking up the ancient tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Stoa) again, we can re-examine the teleological conception of human nature as primarily instinctive and selfish, and say that human nature is constituted also by reason and that the instinctive nature is predisposed to be guided by reason or intellect. The constitutive order of the human soul, with the subordination of the instinct under the intellect, involves already some natural goodness, of which the intellect is aware (in the natural moral conscience) and for which the will strives (in a natural inclination). This is the basis for the "moral law" and for normative ethics. Thus, human nature is not selfish in itself. Although moral goodness as humankind’s perfection is an ideal, it has in us already imperfect natural beginnings, a "natural morality." In a certain sense, the moral ought of actions comes from one’s being, from the natural moral goodness of which the intellect is aware in itself, and from its good intentions.

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I. Problems of Foundation

Seen historically, the foundation problems of ethical norms and normative ethics have been treated, in modern times, in two opposite directions, the empiricist and the rationalistic way. The former is characterized as the aposterioric way, taking the criterion of morality only from the result of experience — feelings of usefulness and happiness —, in contrast to the latter as aprioric, taking the criterion from a law of reason — universal human duties — foregoing to all experience.

Kants’ ethics tried to superate the aposterioric ethics of the English empiricists, claiming, with the rationalists, a law of reason apriori, but in doing so he did not follow the way of pure rationalism. Rather he established his position as a combination of both directions, the empiricist and the rationalistic one. They form the so-called "material" and "formal" side of his ethics. The moral law of reason, the famous "categorical imperative", belongs to the formal side, whereas the objects of our actions are considered as "material", i.e. as objects of our sensitive desire or vital needs which can be given only in the field of sensible intuition. He denies with the empiricists any intellectual intuition and formulates the "paradox of method" (1) that no object or "good" can be the criterion a priori for morality, but only the categorical imperative, of which, if applied to actions, every object or good is a consequence.

Under the influence of Kant’s ethics, two main directions have developped until now, the teleological and the deontological school. The former founds the morality of actions a posteriori on their consequences — "telos" as end or success of actions — (J. Bentham, J.St. Mill, R.B. Perry, G.E. Moore (2) and others), whereas the latter founds it a priori on the ought or obligation of the actions (H. Sidgwick, H.A. Prichard, W.D. Ross and others). (3) Teleologism follows the empiricist side of Kant’s ethics, deontologism the rationalistic side. The teleologists intend the moral end as individual interest, utility or happiness, in an empiricist, utilitarian or eudemonistic way. It refers to human nature which strives after the pleasureful as useful or advantageous for the individual so that reason, looking out for the common welfare, must take this into account. On the contrary, the deontologists insist in a moral appeal to reason which obliges us to act in a certain way. They claim either for cognitive intuition of the ought (Sidgwick, Prichard, Ross) or for a non cognitive, emotional intuition (A.J. Ayer, C.L. Stevenson, P.H. Hare).

Both schools follow Kant’s ethics in combining empiricism and rationalism, putting the "material" and the "formal" side in a conflictual opposition (4) and looking out for a compromise in the practice. The same can be stated for another direction, the "argumentation philosophy" (M.C. Singer, J. Rawls and others) which searches for moral standards in rationality as such, sometimes with the endeavor to combine material issues with formal ones, or individual happiness with common obligations.

Coming from the Kantian opposition between the material and the formal moral issues, there is today also the direction of a "transcendental foundation of norms", (5) which discusses the problems on a meta-ethical level, reflecting norms from the forms in which we speak about them or value them in social contexts etc. They try to bring the moral judgments to certain "absolutely necessary conditions a priori" which precede them and see these conditions for instance in the "aprioric fact of argumentation" (K.O. Apel). However, this direction characterizes itself as "ethics of argumentation", different from ethics itself. For the rest, it aims at "ethics without metaphysics", (6) in contrast with the traditional ethics of ancient origin (Plato, Aristotle, Stoa and so on).

P. Allen brings in the discussion the item of human freedom, (7) starting from G.E. Moore and H.P. Prichard and their statements that the moral ought of actions relies on the function of moral judgments and on intuition. Also for A.J. Ayer the moral good is not a being. He bases the judgments on a moral emotion. S.E. Toulmin instead establishes them in a rational principle according to which an action is good when it settles or avoids conflicts. R.M. Hare goes beyond this and advises that the ought should not be derived from facts, but should be put in the mode of action itself which has to be "wise and responsible" in its consequences. Allen agrees with this, but misses a criterion of objective certainty which he, then, finds in freedom: An action is good when it respects always the freedom of the others. This argument is convincing, because freedom is an indispensable condition of a morally good action. But can it establish the ought? Freedom is ambiguous and can be abused in bad actions, too.

The controversies between the teleological and the deontological directions reflect the conflictual opposition, as they see it, between the sensible, instinctive, egoistic nature of man and the ideal claims of reason towards universal human obbligations. Then, the foundation problem arises: can these obligations, duties, virtues or standards of "good" be derived from human nature, as traditional ethics tried it to do? This traditional foundation has been criticized by G.E. Moore (8) as "naturalistic fallacy" which leads to the problem already expressed by D. Hume that it is just logically impossible to pass "from ought to be", from a concept to a fact, from moral duty to human nature. According to Moore the idea of "good" enters only in the predicate, never in the subject of a moral judgement; for it is no "thing". The traditional practical syllogism is guilty of a fallacy, when it concludes from the human nature to a conduct or action as good, so that it ought to be done, founding the good in the human nature.

However, the controversies cannot be resolved within the ethics, but require as its foundation an anthropological consideration of man’s being or his nature. The concept of man’s nature as being only instinctive and egoistic, as assumed in the controversies, seems to be wrong. Therefore, a re-examination of the traditional ethics and its anthropological basis can be helpful.

II. The Relation Between Moral Good, Reason and Human Nature

1) Moral good

The deontological viewpoint is correct in that the moral good is comprehensible a priori and has a formal aspect in comparison with every material good which has to be experienced a posteriori from the consequences of the actions. However, this must not force us to reduce moral good to an idea of duty (the ought) which we find in our conscience or judgment. Indeed, we judge an action as duty, if we have recognized it as good, not vice versa: An action is not good, because we judge it as duty. We must not deduce the good from the ought, but inversly. Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics have defined rightly moral good as virtues, and these as a quality of the soul, putting their principle in the rational nature, not in the instinctive one, like the empiricists, nor in the passions or emotions, although the "ethical virtues" concern the formation of the passions. (9)

The formalism in Kant’s ethics consists in reducing the moral law to the "categorical imperative", will say to its formal conditions of rationality and universality as such, without any constitutive relation to an objective moral good. — The traditional formulation of the moral law: Do the good and avoid the bad!, expresses well this relation.

The teleologists rightly put the moral good in real ends, but wrongly reduce the term "telos" or end to the consequences of actions. On the contrary, for Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics the end concerns rather a principle which leads the actions from the beginning, being the initial intention in the mind. This corresponds to the general Aristotelian rule, according to which "that which comes last in the genetic order of something, is first in the essential or causal order". Therefore, the end in the intention of the mind is not a mere "idea" outside of the context of the concrete human life, being rather the real cause of the actions, without which they would not be realized.

Concerning the combination of empiricist and rationalistic determinations of morality which is typical for the kantian ethics and most of the postkantian positions, it seeks for a compromise between the individual selfish interests and the common welfare of men, which must cover — in the middle — the sum of the individual selfish interests. However, this solution is not satisfying; the sum of selfish interests does not yet become real moral goodness. At the basis is a concept of man’s nature as instinctive and selfish. On the contrary, according to Plato (Phileb. 23ss) and Aristotle (Eth.Nic. I), reason belongs to human nature, too. The instinctive principle is subordinated to the rational one and is in itself "undetermined", i.e. determinable or open for being guided by reason. Hence, it is not selfish in itself.

The deontological position insists rightly in the formal a priori valid character of the ought. However, this is indeed a property of human action and life, determined by rational intentions (as mentioned above). And as such the moral good, which ought to be done, is not "material", but formal with regard to all empirical content.

The discussions between the teleological and the deontological positions seem to involve the following dilemma: If moral good is attributed only to the consequences of actions, then it can never be normative a priori. Yet if it is normative a priori, then it cannot be attributed to something real, being rather a mere "idea" in the subject’s mind. However, with the help of the traditional ethics, we can make the following consideration: If moral good is not only in the consequences of actions, but already in the intention of reason, it shows both aspects: as intention it is a norm a priori and nevertheless also something real, being in the rational soul which is the real cause of actions.

Further, we can consider that the intention does not only include reason, but also will. "Intention" means originally the tendency of will towards a good or final end. The Stoics, following Platonic and Aristotelian thoughts, have set out the aspect of the natural inclination of will towards the good and of the natural notice of reason of the good, as presuppositions for acquiring every virtue. These natural factors include a "natural virtue" (10) or natural morality, so to speak. Man bears in his soul, from childhood, certain "principles", "beginnings", "germs" or "seeds" for virtuous action and life. (11) In other words, he has a natural disposition to morality which precedes moral actions. And reason is conscious of the natural good in itself, being thus a normative instance. In this way moral goodness which results from actions is preceded by a certain normative goodness in the natural disposition of the soul. Hence, the ought comes forth from being: an initial goodness in us which stimulates us to promote and perfect it.

2) The essential nature of man

Let us pass now to the anthropological basis of normative ethics. From Aristotle (12) we can, firstly, take up the important fact that human life is different from action, and also from the sum of all actions. Human life has the same relation to action as being has to movement. Therefore man’s life results from his ontologically constitutive causes: from body and soul as from his material cause and formal-efficient-final cause. The soul, on its turn, is constituted, according to Aristotle, by three principles: the vegetative, the sensitive and the intellectual. (13) Sensitivity and reason or intellect, with their cognitive and striving faculties, are the presupposition for the actions the subject of which is the soul.

Hence, the ethical tradition does not rely "naturalistically" on the animal nature of man, but on reason or intellect which also, and above all, constitutes human nature. The anthropological basis according to which reason is a real soul principle, rends comprehensible that in ethics the intentions of reason are a real (efficient and final) cause of actions.

The fact that reason or intellect belongs to human nature, too, has been pointed out, for the first time, by Plato in confrontation with the Sophists. (14) They introduced, in the discussion about moral good and just, the important distinction between justice by convention and justice by nature, but they declared that just by nature is the advantage of the powerful man. Plato assumed the distinction, yet disapproved the Sophist’s thesis that all what comes from intellect is conventional, not from nature. On the contrary, he clarifies that intellect belongs even to the causes of nature, both in the cosmos and in man. Thus, man’s nature is constituted not only by a body but also by an intellectual soul. We can note here that it is intellect which argues this way about itself, relying on its immediate self-consciousness and self-experience. Indeed, it is an ethical context in which these discussions develop. Similarly also Aristotle who has assumed the Platonic doctrine, teaches that intellect belongs to the very nature of man. (15)

The Stoics often identify human nature with reason. (16) By this fact, modern scholars accuse them of objectivism, which makes reason a thing and fails the subjectivity of man. However, this criticism overlooks that the Stoic identification of reason with human nature presupposes the definition of virtue as life according to reason which includes its subjectivity, being based on its self-experience.

III. The Foundation of Ethics in Anthropology, Natural Philosophy and Metaphysics

Modern scholars have raised still another problem which concerns the founding relation between ethics and anthropology, together with natural philosophy and metaphysics, because it seems to become circular, as can be seen exemplarily in the Stoics. (17) Indeed, the Stoics determine, on the one side, reason as the nature of man, but, on the other, they determine again the whole nature finally as godlike reason (from which all natural things are derived, in graduated modes). However, the two determinations are of different origin:

1) The first determination that reason has a leading function in man, is accomplished by ethics and originates from the self-experience of reason which is conscious of its leading function. (The criticism of objectivism overlooks, as mentioned above, this subjective side of Stoic ethics.)

2) The anthropological statement about reason as essential nature of man is obtained via the consideration of the whole nature in natural philosophy and metaphysics. These latter search for the causes of all things and arrive finally at an all-comprehensive final cause which they determine as divine reason - in analogy with human reason, on the basis of its self-consciousness.

3) With this knowledge from natural philosophy and metaphysics, reason returns, then, with great profit to itself and is now able to determine itself as nature of man, i.e. as essential cause. This anthropological statement contains more than the former statement of ethics which expresses only the self-experience of reason having the leading function in man. It leads to the essential order in man (cfr. Plato, Gorgias 504a: order and decency in the soul, taxis kai kosmos).

Methodologically seen, the ethical proposition: vivere secundum rationem, which is enlarged, then, to the proposition: vivere secundum naturam (rationalem), is founded on anthropology as its basis — according to which reason is man’s nature —, and this again is founded on natural philosophy and metaphysics as its basis.

IV. Normative Ethics and Education of Man

From the foregoing explanations it becomes clear that philosophical ethics, in order to be a priori normative for actions, has to refer to man’s rational nature as its basis. It relies on the essential order of man, with the subordination of body and instincts under reason. The "natural law" or a priori norm for action and life is this: to act always in such a way that this order is respected. This natural order is already the "principle" or "beginning" or disposition to good action and to acquire virtue.

Seen from a pedagogical perspective, moral progress does not start from morally neutral beginnings towards a perfect personal morality, but from "naturally moral" imperfect beginnings towards personal morality which grows gradually more and more perfect. Plato and Aristotle have paid much attention to the education of the young as well as of the adult man. (18)

Since the Stoics are aware that their high ideal of the wise man is not realized fully be any mortal, they have developed an ethical doctrine of "moral progress" which leads towards this ideal in a quite pedagogical way. Modern scholars have seen here a defect in Stoic ethics because it establishes, firstly, an unrealizable ideal and, then, correct it by the compromise of a progression doctrine. However, it seems to me that the decisive point is not whether the ideal is realized more or less perfectly, but the fact that reason recognizes the ideal and even identifies itself with it, as corresponding to its own rational nature. By this, the ideal is no "utopia" or "impossible ideal", far from life, but penetrates life and forms it. Therefore, the ethical concept of progress is no compromise, but an educational program towards moral perfection (in all virtues, up to wisdom), under the guide of reason. (19)

A parallel problem has been discussed by scholars with regard to Aristotle’s statement that the highest virtue, wisdom, which is accompanied by true felicity, "is stronger than (the force of) man". (20) It may seem that an ethical theory which ends in such a result, is mistaken from its beginning. But in truth, it reveals something in man which goes (by its proper nature) beyond man. And this is reason or intellect. (21)

As to the educational task of philosophical ethics, we have available good studies. (22) In education the guide is nature on different levels, the instinctive and rational one. In the little child, when reason has not yet awaked, the instinctive nature works with finality for the conservation of life and prepares the way for good life, firstly in "natural virtue". Later, reason enters in activity, leading the irrational nature and working out the personal virtues, up to wisdom. (23) In my view, the Stoic ideal of virtue is so high (or too high) properly because it corresponds to man’s rational nature, as Seneca observes very well, which strives to go beyond the "merely human" conditions. (24) Therefore he exhorts us: to follow nature (sequi naturam). (25)

This device has some similarity with that of J.J. Rousseau (Emile; Rêveries du promeneur solitaire): Return to nature! He confronts himself with the rationalistic education system of his epoch. He makes an appeal to a natural intuition in that which is conform to human nature. Although he speaks more often of sentimental intuition, besides illumination and intellectual intuition, concerning the sound principles of education, he does not intend it as irrational. Rather he aims at a natural rationality, so to speak, not unlike to that of the classical ethics. But he attributes it to man’s sentiments, for want of the concepts of reason or intellect in the classical sense, which includes a natural intuition (on man, life, virtue, world and God).

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(1) I. Kant, Kritik der praktischen Verunft, V 112.

(2) G.E. Moore, Principia ethica, 3 1929, distinguishes between moral good and Ought, and states, as already D. Hume has done, that from Being the Ought cannot be derived.

(3) See the good survey in R.N. Hancock, Twentieth Century Ethics, New York 1974.

(4) Kant represents this opposition in the form of an antinomy which N. Hartmann has worked out, adding further antinomies of the human life.

(5) Cfr., for example, W. Oehlmüller, Transzendentalphilosophische Normenbegründungen, Stuttgart 1978.

(6) This program has been characterized well already by G. Patzig, Ethik ohne Metaphysik (1971), and W. Schulz, Philosophie in einer veränderten Welt (1976).

(7) P. Allen, Proof of Moral Obligation in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, New York-Frankfurt / Main 1988.

(8) in his Principia ethica, London 1903.

(9) See Aristotle, Ethica Nicom. II. - J. Maritain, La philosophie morale, I: Examen historique et critique des grands systèmes, New York 1960, charaterizes the Aristotelian ethics as eudemonism. But this is contradicted by the fact that this ethics relies on virtuous life, according to the activity and the moral judgment of the right reason. According to the definition in Ethica Nicom. II 6, virtue is the right medium between extreme states (of passions) as reason determines it, "or as the righteous man would determine it".

(10) The expression of "natural virtue" runs back to Aristotle, Ethica Nicom. VI 13 (1144b 3).

(11) The aspect of the (imperfect) natural presuppositions of acquiring the (more perfect) moral conduct is worked out by Thomas Aquinas, in his doctrine about the "natural inclination" of will towards the good and the "natural notice" of intellect of the good. Cfr. my tractate: Sittengesetz und Freiheit, Bierbronnen 1992, expounding Thomas’ doctrine and dedicating a chapter on "natural morality".

(12) About the difference between action (praxis) as motion and the act of being (energeia), see Aristotle, Metaphys. IX 6, 1048b 18-36.

(13) Aristoteles, De anima II 1-2.

(14) See Plato, Gogias and Leges X. Cfr. my article: Plato’s Doctrine Concerning the Natural Right of Man in Confrontation with the Sophists, in: Antropotes 4 (1988), 202-209.

(15) See especially in Ethica Nicom. VII-VIII, the books on friendship, with the arguments that "intellect is the self of man". Cfr. also note 19, the quotation from book X.

(16) Let us make abstraction, here, from their materialistic representation of the human and divine reason as fire.

(17) The controversies about this point and, in general, about the relation of the three disciplines in the Stoics: ethics, physics, logic, are exposed in my article: Sur l’origine de l’éthique de Zénon de Cittium, in: Chypre et les origines du Stoicisme, Paris 1996, 37-47.

(18) Cfr. Plato, Respublica IX-X, and Aristotle, Politica VII-VIII.

(19) Cfr. Seneca, Ep. 71, 22: non putant fieri, quicquid facere non possunt: ex infirmitate sua de virtute ferunt sententiam.

(20) Ethica Nicom. X, 1177b 26-27.

(21) See at the place just quoted Aristotle’s explanation: there is in man "something divine" which is "the intellect". And then he adds: "It seems that everyone is (essentially) this, if this is the decisive and better (principle in him)", 1178a 2-3.

(22) José Artigas, Séneca. La filosofia como formación del hombre, Madrid 1952. Further: Ilsetraut Hadot, Seneca und die griechisch-römische Tradition der Seelenleitung, Berlin 1969.

(23) We notice here a considerable contrast to empiricist and hedonistic concepts of the instinctive nature of man, which has no finality in itself and strives only after pleasure.

(24) For the rest, Seneca’s concept of felicity is not eudemonistic, cfr. my article: The Conception of Felicity in Seneca. Critical Considerations on Eudemonism, in: Antropotes 1996, 371-377.

(25) Cfr. for instance Seneca: Ep. 89,8: Philosophy investigates the virtues by the virtues themselves. There is, on the one side, no virtue without knowledge of it, nor is there, on the other side, knowledge of virtue without virtue. Therefore, for Seneca, ethics presupposes a virtuous life.

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