Study Guide
Philosophy of Human Nature
Philosophy 305
Grand View College
Des Moines, Iowa
General Concerns
Philosophy of human nature seeks to interpret the question, “what does it mean to be
human?” The question is important because one of our most important vocations in life
is to understand ourselves. One watchword of the ancient Greeks was “know thyself.” If
we knew ourselves we could have greater freedom and happiness in life. The human is a
unique species in the universe and worthy of attention. The point of this course is to help
develop greater self-awareness.
(Socrates, the hero of Philosophy)
This is a course in interpretation. The scientific word for interpretation is hermeneutics.
It comes from the Greek god, Hermes who was the messenger god between the gods and
people. In this course we will pursue truth through classical readings. We will be
attempting to interpret human nature through the readings. Contemporary attempts to
interpret human nature are dependent on these previous thinkers. You will be “in the
know” once you are familiar with these writings. You will be able to compare and
contrast these classical views with contemporary views that you are learning in other
classes and you will see how they are dependent on the classical views. Also, you will be
able to see how popular culture has been influenced indirectly by classical views.
The assumption here is that human nature is not reducible to scientific inquiry. Why
classical readings? They help you understand that you belong to a great tradition. All
our thinking is dependent on the past. When you master the thinking of the past, you are
in a position to make intelligent judgments about contemporary society. If all you ever
do is think about the world through the lens of contemporary perspectives, you loose
sight of wisdom. Wisdom is gained only through reflection and meditation. This course
gives you the opportunity to grow in your abilities to do such reflection.
This is meaty stuff but in this course you will gain confidence that you can handle tough
readings. This will increase your skills in speaking, writing, and thinking.
This course fulfills the ethical thinking core. Human nature and ethics are intertwined.
Hopefully ethics is accountable to human nature and vice versa.
CRITERIA for Grading Class Participation
· Absent
· Present, not disruptive.
· Tries to respond when called on but does not offer much.
· Demonstrates very infrequent involvement in discussion
· Demonstrates adequate preparation: knows basic reading facts,
but does not show evidence of trying to interpret or analyze them.
· Offers straightforward information (e.g., straight from the), without
elaboration or very infrequently (perhaps once a class).
· Does not offer to contribute to discussion, but contributes to a
moderate degree when called on.
· Demonstrates sporadic involvement.
· Demonstrates good preparation: knows reading facts well, has
thought through implications of them.
· Offers interpretations and analysis of material (more than just
facts) to class.
· Contributes well to discussion in an ongoing way: responds to
other students’ points, thinks through own points, questions others
in a constructive way, offers and supports suggestions that may be
counter to the majority opinion.
· Demonstrates consistent ongoing involvement.
· Demonstrates excellent preparation: has analyzed the readings
exceptionally well, relating it to other material (e.g., other readings,
lectures, discussions, experiences, etc.).
· Offers analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of case material, e.g.,
puts together pieces of the discussion to develop new approaches
that take the class further.
· Contributes in a very significant way to ongoing discussion: keeps
analysis focused, responds very thoughtfully to other students’
comments, contributes to the cooperative argument-building,
suggests alternative ways of approaching material and helps class
analyze which approaches are appropriate, etc.
· Demonstrates ongoing very active involvement.
On-Line Materials you must get
The Internet Classics Archive/Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (Books I-III, and VIII)
Descartes, Rene—Meditations on First Philosophy
Kant—Early Modern
Rousseau’s Emile
Some Terms You Need to Know
Philosophy: love of wisdom
Epistemology: theory of knowledge
Ethics: theory of the good or the right
Aesthetics: theory of beauty
Logic: the rigor of thinking or argument
Metaphysics: the theory of what’s really real
1. Inductive: all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore, Socrates is mortal
2. Deductive: 99% of college students are under age 50, Jean is a college student,
therefore, Jean is probably under age 50.
Philosophy is concerned with questions such as “how do you know that you know,”
“what are you made up of,” and “are universals more real than particulars.” While many
of these questions seem unrelated to your everyday life, thinking about them helps you
develop intellectually and makes you more confident in dealing with life.
Different images of human nature can be found in the authors we read: Becker, paradox
between animal and angel; Rousseau, child of nature; Descartes, thinking thing; Kant,
ethical agent; Aristotle, rational animal; and Augustine, image of God.
Ethics: Basic Terms and Concepts
Would you consider the following to be matters of moral concern or only of differing
codes of etiquette?
1. In a supermarket, a housewife decides that she doesn’t want the ice cream
after all, but instead of returning the ice cream to the frozen foods cabinet,
she leaves it on another shelf where it quickly melts.
2. She brings her small children with her into the supermarket and thereafter
ignores them. They run up and down the aisles, pick items off shelves,
and tug at the customers’ clothes, while she does nothing. “She should
keep her kids under control,” says one customer. “No,” says another, “she
just has a different way of bring up her children. Who knows, her way
may be best.”
Which of these would you view as matters of moral concern? Why?
a. jaywalking
b. overparking at a meter
c. cheating at cards
d. cheating on an examination
e. beating your dog
f. eating healthful foods
g. keeping your car in good running condition
h. cutting off your engagement
i. letting your garbage accumulate, so that it smells up the neighborhood
j. doing two hours’ work for eight hours’ pay
k. following another car so closely that you case an accident
l. going to the polls to vote in a national election
The following practices are variable from one culture to another. Do you think there is a
right and wrong on these matters and why?
a. trapping birds and animals and killing them for sport
b. cremation of the dead, as opposed to burial
c. polygamy, in a nation whose male population has been decimated by war
d. polygamy, under nonemergency situations
e. using torture to extract military secrets from prisoners of war
f. mass executions without a trial
g. eating human flesh, in the belief that it will make men stronger warriors
h. killing rhinos in order to obtain their horns (in the belief that it will confer greater
i. killing people who do not belong to the “master race”
Basic Ethical Concepts
Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
Beneficence refers to the obligation to do good, not harm, to other people. It is to act in
the best interests of another person. It is difficult to decide who will determine what is
good for a person. In most instance people make their own decisions. But who decides
for the infant, the mentally incompetent, and other who are unable to make decisions?
There are no simple answers.
Nonmaleficence means to do no harm. Here the ethical mandate is that we refrain from
inflicting harm.
Autonomy refers to the right to make one’s own decisions and, conversely, to respect the
choices that others make for themselves. However, there may be limitations to autonomy.
For some individuals, autonomy may be a less central value than our values related to the
Justice refers to the obligation to be fair to all people. Questions asked here include: does
age make a difference in what we consider just? Does justice imply that the government
should provide what individuals cannot provide for themselves? What are the rights of
one person when those rights affect the rights of another?
Fidelity refers to the obligation to be faithful to the agreements and responsibilities that
one has undertaken. Questions: when responsibilities conflict, which should take priority?
In reality, which does take priority? Do circumstances alter which should have priority?
Veracity refers to telling the truth. Questions: do you tell a lie when it would make
someone less anxious and afraid? Sissela Bok concludes that rarely is lying to the sick
and dying justified. The loss of trust in caregivers, the anxiety created by not knowing the
truth, the loss of opportunity to deal with personal and family concerns, and other adverse
consequences of not being told the truth far outweigh the perceived benefits of lying.
Ethical Theories
We will get more into these as we study the different philosophers. Here are the major
theories for now.
The basic concept is that an act is right if it is useful in bringing about a good outcome or
end. Furthermore, when issues compete they are weighed to determine which will bring
the greatest good for the greatest number. The act is preferable that produces more total
good. The action with the most positive consequences and the least negative
consequences would be the preferred action. People use this approach when they support
budget decisions to provide vaccines to thousands of children instead of an organ
replacement to one.
In this theory, the moral rightness or wrongness of human actions should be considered
independently of the consequences of the action. It is not the consequences that make an
action right or wrong but the principle of motivation on which the action is based that
determines right or wrong. If a homeowner shoots an attacking intruder, she is not guilty
of murder. A robber who shoots a store clerk is. Motive is the deciding factor in whether
the state charges a person with murder. The key factor in deotological ethics is never
using people as a means to an end but to see people as ends-in-themselves. The
fundamental humanity of people should always be respected.
Virtue Ethics
This theory of morality focuses on people’s character. The ideal of this theory is that
people should find happiness by developing their distinctive abilities or virtues. Virtue is
a mean between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean between cowardliness
and foolhardiness. Virtue is a natural trait, but it needs to be developed in light of a public
role or responsibility.
Responsibility Ethics
Responsibility ethics focuses not so much on achieving the greatest good for the greatest
number, honoring the humanity of individuals, or developing one’s own native abilities.
Instead, it is offering a publicly accountable defense of one’s actions in light of one’s
given situation. H. Richard Niebuhr offers a theistic vision of responsibility ethics. He
says, “God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions as though to
respond to God.” God, here, is not so much a legislator or judge as one who calls us to
care for our neighbor and the creation.
Questioning the Sources of Subjectivism in Ethics
Subjectivism is the view that what is right is what I feel to be right. Many people think
this way. But, is this the truth about ethics? Just because I feel something is right, does
that make it right? Or, do we need to find some kind of objectivity in ethics? In this
section we will explore why our culture tends to look at subjectivism as plausible.
First Source: the Fact/Value Split.
The F/V Split is based on an outdated model of science which views science as
dealing with wholly objective “facts” apart from any human interpretation. This position
could be termed “verificationism” because it assumes that what makes for scientific truth
is that it is verifiable. However, most philosophers of science recognize that this model of
scientific method is far too simplistic a view of what scientists actually do. For over 4
decades, most philosophers of science have recognized that scientific facts are “theoryladen.” i.e. scientific facts do not come naked into the world but are packages in
interpretations, scientific theories. The point is: scientific models remain open to dispute
in our quest for truth.
There are further problems with the split. We aim for objectivity in science, as
well we should. However, even science does not accomplish its work apart from
metaphors. When we look at light as both a wave and a particle, are we not using
metaphors to help us scientifically understand reality? When paradigms shift in science,
or to use Lakatos’ terminology, when we alter “auxiliary hypotheses” in our “research
program” in light of new evidence, is this not due to the fact that science is disputable and
that it is the ability of a theory to adequately explain a situation that silence dispute? Even
science can not scientifically demonstrate that its fundamental assumption about the
nature of the cosmos i.e. that every effect has a cause, is true beyond a shadow of a doubt
(David Hume).
The claim that science deals with objective facts that are indisputable while ethics
deals with feelings is, at least from the side of science, simplistic and downright false.
From the side of science, the fact/value split commits the sin of “objectivism” (R.
Bernstein). Perhaps ethics can be seen as dealing with theories or proposals open to
testing on the criteria of furthering the public good.
Second Source: the Values Clarification Movement.
VC got its start in 1966 with the publication of Values and Teaching by Louis
Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon. VC is an outgrowth of human potential
psychology. VC takes Carl Roger’s non-directive, nonjudgmental therapy technique and
applies it to moral education. The VC founders were so committed to therapeutic
nonjudgmentalism that they claimed that “it is entirely possible that children will choose
not to develop values. It is the teacher’s responsibility to support this choice also.” The
VC approach virtually equates values with feelings. One 8th grade teacher with a lowachieving class who used VC found that the four most popular activities were “sex,
drugs, drinking and skipping school.” The problem with VC is that it gives the teacher no
way of persuading students to do other activities. Furthermore, one can argue that VC,
despite its claim of being value-neutral, actually conditions children to think of values as
relative. Example: Values-voting.
The VC approach assumes that there is no objective truth is ethics and devises
teaching strategies that reinforce this theory. However, this assumption is far from
certain. Why should we assume that values that promote well-being for people and the
earth are as irrational as values that hurt people and the earth? Another concern is that
given the human disposition to be mimetic, is not clarification of one’s values tantamount
to simply expressing the ideals of one’s peer group? The VC approach is anti-intellectual.
At what point ought we to question our values, test our values, perhaps even reject our
values, if in fact our values hurt others? An insight for ethics is that ethics is a rhetorical
task, an attempt to persuade people by offering sound reasons for how to achieve a
common good.
Third Source: the Moral Reasoning Approach
Lawrence Kohlberg reacted against VC by seeking an approach that would incorporate
moral reasoning into student’s education. He especially favored an approach modeled
after the “Socratic” dialogues, one that would stimulate thought and discussion by raising
ethical dilemmas. For example, if I can save only my spouse or my baby from a burning
house, who do I save? Many of these dilemmas are apt to leave students disoriented: do
we want to concentrate on quandaries or on everyday morality? The “life boat” exercise
is often quite artificial. An everyday moral dilemma is “ought I to cheat on this exam?”
The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may
begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic. After being faced with
quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students
conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess (William Kilpatrick). Perhaps, the real
ethical question is not how to solve certain dilemmas, but who do I want to be like.
Fourth Source: the Cultural Relativism
William Graham Sumner and Ruth Benedict historically have been the leaders
behind this perspective. “Who is to say whether or not this culture is right?” Yet, in
dozens of societies, civil rights and free speech are only words. If a child is taught that
there are no right or wrong ways, just different ways, then a child will not be equipped to
make sense of such facts or be able to order or judge them. Arthur Schlesinger: “The
crimes of the West have produced their own antidotes. They have provoked great
movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat
racism…to advance personal liberty and human rights. It is to the Western standard that
groups and individuals in other societies appeal when they seek to redress injustices
within their own borders. It makes no sense to deprive our own children of that standard.
It could be argued that the US has a common culture that is multicultural. I worry that
this approach disempowers students. “Who is to say what is right?”-seems to be a natural
question arising from CR. The answer is that in a democracy, you are to take
responsibility for saying what is right or wrong.
Fifth Source: Utilitarian and Expressive Individualism
Robert Bellah has identified the “ontological priority” of the individual in North
American culture. In our political philosophy, inherited from Locke, the individual is in a
very real sense prior to the community because a just government presupposes the
individual’s prior consent to be a part of this government. A wider ethos of individualism
also pervades American life. Bellah identifies four varieties. Two important one for our
work is (1) utilitarian: the Ben Franklin model of life that you can lift yourself up by your
own boot straps if you work hard enough and (2) expressive: the Walt Whitman myth
that nothing is ever important or as real as your individual self-expression (provided that
you do not hurt anyone else). Excessive individualism undermines the quest to achieve
the public good.
Challenging Ethical Relativism
One needs to distinguish ethical relativism (ER ) from cultural relativism (CR). CR is a
sociological observation that different cultures do different things. Ethically speaking,
this observation is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is the attempt to ground ER on the basis of CR. People do this by
means of the cultural differences argument (CDA). The argument proceeds like this:
Different cultures do different things
Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality.
This is not a valid argument. Some people or cultures might believe that the earth is flat.
This does not mean that the earth in truth is flat. Likewise in ethics, just because people
disagree over whether or not slavery is right or wrong doesn’t mean that there is no
objective truth about the rightness or wrongness of slavery.
James Rachels (Univeristy of New Mexico) approaches the issue indirectly with a
reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) argument. He fleshes out the conclusions
that would naturally be drawn if ER were true. He implies that you would not like the
consequences of these conclusions and that you would naturally seek an alternative
viewpoint to ethical relativism in ethics.
Rachels’ first point is that if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that other
cultures might be ethically inferior to your own.
Examples: perhaps your culture eats healthy foods and another culture does not. Rachels
implies that you would want to reserve the right to say that your culture promotes better
health and overall well-being than another culture.
Perhaps your culture doesn’t practice slavery because it violates human freedom and
dignity while other cultures promote slavery. Rachels implies that you would want to
reserve the right to criticize slavery in other cultures as being wrong.
Rachels’ second point is that if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that your
own culture might at times be ethically messed up and that you would want to reserve the
right to challenge your own culture.
Examples: if you say you can’t criticize your own culture, then you might have to say
that Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Junior or Oskar Schindler were wrong in criticize
their respective dominant cultures. However, Rachels implies that you might want to
side with these social reformers. If that is the case, then you would want to question ER.
Thridly, Rachels says that if ER is true, then you could not hold out for the possibility of
moral progress in your culture and he implies that you would want to reserve the right to
do this.
Example: if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that if your culture has become
more tolerant in how it treats minorities it has gotten better. Or, you would not be able to
say that if your culture permits women to vote that it is better than when it didn’t allow
women to vote. What would make it ethically better in this latter case? The fact that
democracy is more widespread among all its citizens.
While Rachels doesn’t prove objectivism in ethics beyond a shadow of a doubt, he
undermines ER by means of its shortcomings, at least from the perspective of our
considered ethical reflections. ER, for Rachels, is a discredited theory that is not able to
well serve the needs of a modern democracy.
Overcoming the Fact/Value Split
How does ethics deal with truth? We are apt to be skeptical that ethics deals with
truth at all. Consider the following two propositions:
 1+1=2
 It is wrong to keep an innocent person in prison
While the first is true, what about the second? Is its truth similar to or different from the
first? Or, is it merely a matter of opinion, sentiment, or cultural preference?
Why Think About Ethics?
Why is it important to talk about truth in ethics? Isn’t that just interfering with
other peoples’ lives?
Whether we like it or not, we live in a world in which different proposals for how
to live (ethics) is jostling for our attention and approval. The question is: to whose ethics
will we give our ultimate allegiance?
Remember, ethics deals with prescriptive claims, not descriptive propositions.
That is: ethics is telling us how to live, how we want the world to be. Other types of
propositions are telling us what the world is.
If you think that we are better off not to talk about ethics, because we can’t come
to any conclusions that we will all agree on, even then, ironically, you are making an
ethical claim. That claim is: if you want to respect other people’s opinions, don’t
interfere with their lives by talking about ethics! That too, is an ethical claim. What does
this all amount to? You are trapped into thinking ethically whether you like it or not.
Who is to Say what’s Right?
So, what are you going to do, now that you can’t escape ethics? The best thing
would be to hone in on your skills to think and talk ethically. In a democracy, that means
gaining those skills to persuade others of positions that would make the world a better
place. Remember, who is to say what’s right? In a democracy: you are to say! Does not
that sound empowering?
Remember: a democracy is trying to honor differences of opinion. It aims for a
fluid, non-hierarchical view of governance. With democracy, we are challenging
absolutism, the view that: my way is the only way that is right. Democracy is far more
humble. Its stance is: persuade me. I’m willing to change my mind.
However, democracy is also opposing relativism, which says that every way is
okay, because there is no way to tell what way is right. Relativism is wrong, because we
don’t need a position that everyone will agree to. All we need is to give the best reasons
to persuade people on open-ended questions. Relativists think that they are more
tolerant, but surprisingly they sound very similar to absolutists who try to take a hand’s
off policy about the world. This would work great if we could be isolated from one
another, but clearly that is not the case. What we need is a position that will help us
constructively deal with people quite different from us.
Democracy would favor pluralism: there are many ways that are ethically okay,
but not all ways are. How do we determine which ones are right? Persuasion, of course.
What about Science?
Let’s go back to the claim that ethics does not deal with truth because its
propositions (proposals) cannot be verified scientifically. We tend to think of facts as
proved, indisputable truths, objective statements of how the world really is. Values, in
contrast, are subjective opinions. They are preferences or tastes not conferring truth.
Hence, matters that are empirically or mathematically verifiable offer truth (or falsity)
while questions of ethics deal only with taste or subjective preference. (Back in the
1930’s this was called the Verification Principle.)
The impact of this tradition of thinking about ethics can be seen if you ponder the
question: which discipline, chemistry, ethics, or sociology, is apt to give more truth? A
majority of us would say chemistry, because it deals with scientific testing and its
formulae are governed mathematically. Sociology would come in second. It uses
mathematics as statistics. Ethics doesn’t even come into the race. It doesn’t use
mathematics at all. But, think for a moment. What is our assumption about truth here?
What’s the truth about truth? We tend to assume that truth deals with math, with
measurement. If it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t deal with truth. But, is that really
the truth about truth, or is that a reductionistic position? That is, is it possible that truth
deals with far more than what can be measured? After all, can we measure the truth that
truth is based on measurement? Clearly, we prefer certainty as a criterion of truth, and
within mathematics such certainty can be achieved. But math also raises questions: why
should math be so successful in helping us understand the world. Why and how should
math help us model (understand) matter in our minds?
Do we really understand what science can and cannot do? Think of early models
of the atom beginning roughly about 100 years ago. Thompson envisioned the atom as a
positively charged region without a nucleus with electrons symmetrically embedded in a
continuous distribution of positive charge, like raisons in a pudding.
Soon after, Rutherford and Bohr hypothesized that electrons moved in orbits
about a small, dense, positively charged nucleus.
With the development of quantum theory, scientists hypothesized that electrons
orbited around the nucleus of the atom in terms of statistics. Although the probability of
finding the electron a certain distance from the nucleus can be calculated, neither theory
nor experiment can make any comment about the angular location of an electron.
Why do physicists change their minds about the atom? Undoubtedly, they get
new evidence that doesn’t fit their model. They need to adjust their model accordingly.
However, we understand the facts about electrons only as we interpret them through the
model. Remember, we cannot taste, touch, see, smell, or hear an electron! How do we
know that they are there? Inference alone! Inference means we have no direct contact,
but only indirect contact with an electron. This means that we are dealing with much
conjecture when we are dealing with electrons. We are guessing what is the case about
what we have no direct contact with on the basis of what we do have a direct contact
Facts Come With Interpretations!
“Facts” come with models or theories. Indeed, there are no facts about electrons
part from theories about the atom. These theories are not arbitrary, but neither are they
true beyond a shadow of a doubt. While no one wants to give up on atomic theory, how
will this theory look 100 years from now? 1,000 years from now?
If the concept of “facts” as coming with theories is a little hard to understand,
think about this analogy. If we were to wear rose-colored glasses, we would see the
world with a rosy hue. In physics, because we have to use models to interpret reality, we
are never seeing the world exactly as it is, but as we are interpreting it—just as if we were
wearing rose-colored glasses. This means that science does not deal with wholly
objective truths apart from interpretations. As humans we are constantly interpreting our
experience. We are hermeneuts (from hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation), if you
will. We don’t have a direct encounter with electrons but only an indirect encounter with
them by means of the model. That means, there is always a “subjective” element
whenever we aim to interpret the world, either scientifically or by whatever means.
Think of this example: if you are shown a slingshot and you are asked the facts
about it, you might respond: made of wood, Y-shaped, rubber band, etc. If you are
asked: is it a toy or a weapon, things get more problematic. What are the facts here? Is
the slingshot a toy or a weapon? In today’s world, if it were brought to a Middle School,
it would be perceived as a weapon. In an era of Davy Crocket coon-skinned caps, people
were less apt to see it as a weapon. Of course, it may be both.
Is it an observation or an interpretation that the slingshot is a toy or a weapon?
For many of us, observation is “objective” while interpretation is “subjective.” But, on
what basis do we make that decision? What views are influencing us here? Is it obvious
that this is “common sense”?
What we call facts about the slingshot above is framed through empiricist
assumptions. Facts, for empiricism, are what can be determined by the senses. But, can
all truth be reduced to the senses? For instance, a hug is a meaningful experience as a
symbolic act, indicating comfort or attachment. It is not a thing that can be measured or
sensed. The point here is that even our “facts” about the slingshot are framed through the
lens of empiricism. Our “facts” come with an interpretive framework: truth is knowable
by the senses. But, this is quite problematic: is the “truth” that truth is known by the
senses itself subject to sense experience? If not, perhaps, our assumption that observation
and interpretation are opposites because the first is objective and the second subjective is
misguided. Perhaps there is always a subjective element to “observation.” Is it a toy or
a weapon? This can’t be determined purely by observation alone. And, we cannot help
but interpret this issue because either our safety or pleasure is at stake.
Biases of the Enlightenment
We need to be cognizant of how biases of the Enlightenment and Romanticism
have influenced us. For the Enlightenment, facts are objective, reasonable, cognitive and
known through science. Values then are subjective and prejudicial. Romanticism
responds by affirming human dignity and worth as special. After all, how is human
dignity measured? If it isn’t measured, is there no truth in the affirmation of human
dignity and freedom. Hence, for Romanticism, feelings, the self, nature as sublime are all
affirmed. Both Enlightenment and Romanticism feed off of each other. They share a
view of truth as measurement, which Enlightenment sees as liberating while
Romanticism decries, because what then becomes of ideals such as freedom, dignity, and
worth which cannot be measured.
Look back on how scientists have changed their minds about the atom. Does
science do a better job proving or disproving things about the atom? It would seem that
scientists do a better job ruling things out, disproving if you will, than ruling things in.
Accordingly, we had better no longer think that science proves things, and therefore
offers truth, unlike ethics. There may be no truth to ethics, but you simply can’t pit
science against ethics as your basis for seeing ethics as non-cognitive, not giving truth
claims. In other words, the Verification Principle, mentioned above, is seriously flawed.
Ethics as Public Discourse
What’s the basis for ethics? While there might be more than one helpful answer
here, Alan Gewirth has proposed the following model to interpret ethics as a cognitive.
He notes that an agent or doer is entitled to rights to perform any action. One has
rights to necessary goods, such as rights to freedom or rights to well-being, or one can’t
accomplish anything.
To not be able to accomplish any actions would be self-contradictory for any
agent. Gewirth develops the “Principle of Generic Consistency”: act in accord with the
generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself. Why? Because your recipient is an
agent just like you.
Ethics, shall we say, deals with proposals for a good human life. It seeks a public
good. The public good is at least a debate about what constitutes the public good.
Procedure, Preference, or Judgment
Water freezes at 32 degrees centigrade
Partial birth abortion is murder
Strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate
The Koran is the word of God
Life has evolved over 3 billion years
Contemporary painting speaks
Michelangelo does a better job incorporating ancient themes than does Leonardo
You ought to be as free as possible provided you do no harm to others
People have a dignity and their rights ought to be respected
p. 5(from Orange book) what does it take for a conservative to see things from a
liberal view and vice versa? Why is that to someone’s advantage?
p. 6 If we’ve never seen an electron, how do we know it exists? If we weren’t present at
the Big Bang, how do we know it happened? If student looks bored, does that mean they
are bored? Inferences can be faulty. They aren’t proof. They are an educated guess.
p. 8 Name some disciples that belong to #1. Which of the 3 does philosophy belong?
What’s problematic about saying that you absolutely ought to be tolerant? What’s the
problem with absolutism? What’s the problem with relativism? (Do we need some kind
of common platform, framework, to get along?)
p. 12: better and worse answers in matters of judgment. And, people do have agendas.
Would you be willing to change your mind or how threatening is that to you?
p. 14 What are Multiple Viewpoints on the Iraq war, Presidential Election? What makes
for knowing that you know multiple viewpoints?
p. 17: which discipline gives more truth? Why is this egalitarian?
p. 28: why does the author want to separate ethics from social convention (custom),
religious beliefs, and law?
p. 40: how is egocentrism self-defeating?
Now you are read to complete the:
Orange Book Assignment
Take one of your beliefs that is a matter of judgment and not preference or procedural:
1. what makes it to be a matter of judgment and not procedural or preference?
2. does it tend to indicate dogmatic absolutism or relativism on your part?
3. what kind of argument can be devised to support this belief and what kind of
argument can be devised to challenge it?
4. what specific questions could you raise to assess its validity and truth?
5. are there model, contrary, related, or borderline cases that help you assess your
6. is it subject to empirical verification or not?
7. what disciplines might help you evaluate your belief better?
8. how might you be sensitive to others who disagree with you?
The Denial of Death
(Becker assumes biological evolution is true)
Name some Celebrities. Name some heroes. Name a celebrity who is a hero. Name a
hero who is a celebrity. What traits do heroes have? What traits do celebrities have?
Look over the Table of Contents. What word is repeated in each of the three main parts?
List some people who fit the bill for that word. What traits do they have that celebrities
How does he define Eros? How does his view fit into daily life?
Look up some facts about Freud. What makes Freud unique?
Look up some facts about Kierkegaard. How was he unique?
Can you think of some heroism in daily life?
What does it mean to get your feeling of worth “symbolically”? What specific symbols
can you think of by which we tell ourselves that we count? Do we all have to share the
same symbols for Becker’s thesis to work?
What is the human’s tragic destiny for Becker? Is he right or is he exaggerating, do you
How are religion, science and economics one?
Chapter Two
What’s the difference between the healthy-minded and the morbidly-minded?
How was hyper anxiety beneficial to early humans?
Does nature seem to prefer healthy-mindedness?
Look up the word s “existential” and “paradox”. What does he mean that we have a
symbolic identity? What does it mean that we have a paradoxical nature?
How is symbolism tied to freedom; how is the body tied to fate?
How is courage important for Becker?
Why is man’s body a problem to him?
What is the vital lie?
Chapter Three
What is the salvation through self-despair?
How is faith an answer for Kierkegaard?
Chapter Seven
How is eros related to life?
What are the key words and concepts for Becker? How do they all tie together? How
could you arrange them around a central concept, a concept map?
In a nutshell, what is Becker’s view of human nature? How adequate or accurate is his
What views of twentieth century America might Becker be opposing?
Key Words from Becker:
Tragic Destiny
Depth Psychology
Vital Lie
French-speaking Swiss
Perspective of Romanticism
(Versailles was the residence of the French king)
(Roussea was raised in Geneva, Switzerland)
In the first paragraph of the text, how do you think is God and nature related? How is
nature and society related?
Given that Rousseau is attacking artificial “hierarchies,” such as the king, the church, the
nobles, etc..because he wants to favor the common, working person, why would
Rousseau be so hostile to society?
Can you think of specific ways in which society stiles nature in people?
Is there some sexism in Rousseau’s perspective? Is sexism a natural or a societal,
conventional, artificial phenomenon?
Nature hardens us, for Rousseau. How is that tied to education? Education in
Rousseau’s day was based on learning Latin and Greek. It was believed that the classical
writings of the Greek and Roman worlds offered a superior pattern for thinking and life.
What would Rousseau’s response to this be?
What do you make of Rousseau’s method of taking an imaginary pupil? Why a
hypothetical approach and not real, actual observation?
Why should the teacher become a child himself, ideally? Are children closer to nature,
after a fashion, than adults?
Why is Rousseau against towns and cities? How do they corrupt human nature?
How would Rousseau help Emile overcome fear?
What does language tell us about human nature?
Book II
Is self-preservation natural for Rousseau?
Why is it important that the child not be tied down but allowed to play?
How is politeness artificial?
Why is an ethics of obedience, duty, and obligation foreign to Rousseau’s philosophy of
Many Europeans believed that the North American Native Americans were primitive and
hardly human. Rousseau, in contrast, calls them “noble savages.” In his mind, they are
almost exemplary. Why should Emile be brought up in the country?
From whence does the first notion of justice spring?
“Instead of teaching them our way, we should do better to adopt theirs” Compared to the
classical education mentioned above, how has contemporary education been influenced
by Rousseau?
How has current society been influenced by Rousseau? Rousseau is against all artificial
hierarchies. What hierarchies do we oppose in our society? How is Rousseau’s
unmasking of such hierarchies pertinent today?
What is human nature for Rousseau? What views might he be opposing?
Meditations on First Philosophy
Early Modern/Rationalist
Descartes begins the modern voice in philosophy. This move is dependent on many
factors in European history.
The Wars of Religion tore Europe apart in the early 1600s. It is not clear that
religion caused these wars. After all, protestants and Catholics often fought on
both sides, and the king of France even made an alliance with the Islamic Turks.
The wars of religion left Europe religiously divided. People off in the
neighboring kingdom, people passing through as traders, now might belong to a
different church. It grew harder to believe they were consigned eternally to hell.
New philosophical attitudes encouraged people to question inherited beliefs.
Skepticism was imported into the scientific project
Science increasingly made progress with new discoveries and experiments.
The nations of Europe were trying to centralize their power. Special privileges
and exemptions held by nobles and guilds were dismantled.
The discovery of the new world permitted a whole new hemisphere for European
conquest and exploitation.
The increasing raise of capitalism favored power derived from economic
transactions over inherited power of class.
(Wars of Religion in Europe)
Epistemological (how do you know that you know?)
Quest for indubitable certainty
Method of Systematic Doubt
Rationalism: reasons (not church authority) gets at truth, not sense experience (can’t trust
sense exp)
Truth: clear and distinct ideas
Foundationism: what’s true for everyone is where you begin (can’t trust tradition)
Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am
Self = thinking thing = soul = non-extended in space
Mind-Body Dualism: Body = extended in space, but non-thinking.
Self and Brain (intermingling of soul and body in pineal gland)
Body = Machine
*Wax example = can’t trust senses
*Solipsism: only I exist?
* Innate ideas(not tabula rasa)
The idea of God and perfection? God is perfect.
1) Nothing in my experience is perfect
2) Idea of perfect God is in my mind
3) Idea of God = to an effect in my mind
4) The cause of something must have “more reality” than the effect
5) God must be extra-mental, the cause of my idea of a perfect God is God exists
“I” exist and God exists but does my body, other minds, and world exist?
Yes, because God is not a deceiver. (pg. 53)
>NB: Ontologically, I’m grounded by God
Epistemologically, God is grounded in me.
Ontology of Beings
God = supreme being
I made mistakes because I participate in nothingness
* Problem of “Ghost in the Machine.”
Tradition of Rationalism:
* 1) Descartes = dualist = mind and body
* 2) Spinoza = monist = mental and physical are co-extensive aspects of God
* 3) Leibniz = pluralist = monads = each physical and psychic
Mind-Body Problems:
* A) Descartes (11596-1650): Interactionsim (in pineal gland)
* B) Malebranch (1638-1715): Occasionalism- on the occasion of bodily stimuli, God
creates the appropriate ideas and response in mind.
* C) Leibniz(1646-1716): Pre-established Harmony - God pro-ordains mental and
physical states to correspond like 2 clocks synchronized. Mind and matter are attributes
of 1 reality.
* D) Spinoza (1632-1677): Double-Aspect Theory-
Do some internet research and learn some facts about the time period in which Descartes
lived. Why was this a challenging time in history?
Descartes fought on both sides of the Wars of Religion. What does this tell you about
those wars? How was religion and politics related in Descartes day?
We aim for a “wall of separation between church and state” (Thomas Jefferson). Would
Becker believe this is possible?
What was Descartes by profession other than a soldier? How might that play into how he
does philosophy?
In what context does the word “meditation” come from?
In the opening paragraph of the first meditation, what important metaphors can be found?
What do they tell us about method?
Descartes founds the school of Rationalism, the view that reason alone gives truth,
as opposed to the authoritarianism of the past—truth found in scripture or church
authority—and as opposed to empiricism, the view that truth comes through experience.
Modern science is associated with empiricism.
Descartes invents and employs the method of systematic doubt. How does this still affect
us today? In a sense, are we all Cartesians, followers of Descartes?
What does the evil genius indicate about the depths of Descartes’ doubt?
What can’t Descartes doubt? In other writings, this is called the cogito ergo sum, I think
therefore I am. This is the foundation of all knowledge.
In epistemology, we have a house whose foundation is the cogito ergo sum, the next floor
is the truth that God exists, and the attic is that since God is not a deceiver, the world and
other minds exist.
In ontology (metaphysics), we have a house whose foundation is God’s existence, then
our existence, and finally the world’s and other minds’.
Descartes is looking for certainty: has he succeeded in getting it?
How does he try to undermine empiricism with the wax example? How successful is he?
Descartes affirms that humans have innate ideas, that is, that our minds come
programmed. We have no experience of a perfect circle, yet we can imagine one because
our mind is programmed to think that way.
Descartes is a Dualist: minds are thinking and non-extended in space while bodies are
extended in space but non-thinking.
What is Descartes’ view of human nature? How is his thinking still relevant today?
Parfit’s Teletransporter
Suppose that you enter a cubicle in which, when you press a button, a scanner
records the states of all the cells in your brain and body, destroying both while doing so.
This information is then transmitted at the speed of light to some other planet, where a
replicator produces a perfect organic copy of you. Since the brain of your Replica is
exactly like yours, it will seem to remember living your life up to the moment when you
pressed the button, its character will be just like yours, and it will be in every other way
psychologically continuous with you.
Is it you?
Parfit uses his teletransportations about personal identity—about what it is to be a
person. One might use a physical criterion: as long as you maintain physical continuity
(your body and/or brain continue to exist in space and time), you are the same person.
According to this view, when you enter the teletransporter you die, and the Replica is not
Or one might use a psychological criterion: as long as you maintain psychological
continuity, either by maintaining memories of your past experiences (see “Leibniz’s King
of China”) or by maintaining beliefs and desires, you are the same person. If such a
continuity depends on (is caused by) continuity of the body—in particular, the brain—
then again, when you enter the teletransporter, you die, and the Replica is not you. But if
psychological continuity can depend on something else, such as the replication of cellular
information, then you still exist—you are the Replica (or the Replica is you).
Both the physical and psychological approach (by the way, are skills such as
playing a musical instrument physical or psychological?) will have to determine how
much—how much of your body continues, how much you remember, how much you still
believe or desire—is enough for you to still be you. But it’s implausible, says Parfit, that,
for example, with 51 percent you’re still you, but with 49 percent you’re not. Perhaps,
then, instead of a certain continuing chunk of body or memory, a chain or an overlap of
body parts or memories would be sufficient.
Or, as Parfit suggests, perhaps there is no you: perhaps instead of a single unified
self (what we call a “person”), presumed by both approaches, “there are long series of
different mental states and events—thoughts, sensations, and the like—each series being
what we call one life” (20). Parfit offers the analogy of a club: “Suppose that a certain
club exists for some time, holding regular meetings. The meetings then cease. Some
years later several people form a club or another but identical club is, he says, to
misunderstand the nature of clubs. So is to ask “How do we decide which states and
events belong to a certain series, to a certain life?” to misunderstand the nature of life?
(Given that cloning involves replication, will that technology require us to revise
our concept of personal identity?)
Parfit’s Fission
My body is fatally injured, as are the brains of my two brothers. My brain is
divided, and each half is successfully transplanted into the body of one of my brothers.
Each of the resulting people believes that he is me, seems to remember living my life, has
my character, and is in every other way psychologically continuous with me. And he has
a body that is very like mine…
…What happens to me?
Describing first a case like Shoemaker’s Brownson (see “Shoemaker’s
Brownson”), Parfit suggests that “you go where your brain goes”—the resulting person is
Brown. Then, since it is actually possible to survive with only one functioning
hemisphere (consider stroke victims), Parfit reasons also that “you go where only half
your brain goes”—so if half of your brain is destroyed is destroyed and the other half
transplanted into another body, the resulting person is indeed you. But what if the other
half is not destroyed? This is the case Parfit considers here (attributing it to David
Wiggins, who modifies, in Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity (1967), Shoemaker’s
Brownson, postulating that Brown’s brain is split and the two halves housed in two
different bodies).
Parfit considers four possibilities. The first is that he does not survive. But, he
reasons, since he would survive if his whole brain had been successfully transplanted and
since people do survive with half their brain injured, this can’t be the case. The second
and third possibilities are that he survives as one or the other of the two resulting people.
But if the halves are identical, why would he survive as only one—and which one? The
fourth possibility is that he survives as both of the two resulting people. But one person
can’t be two people. (Why not? See “Parfit’s Teletransporter”—which if the original you
isn’t lost in the replication process?)
Or, Parfit suggests, perhaps he does survive the operation and “its effect is to give
me two bodies, and a divided mind” (256). IN fact, people with the connection between
the two hemispheres of their brains severed do have a divided mind, two separate spheres
of consciousness. But, Parfit says, this “solution” involves “a great distortion in our
concept of a person” (256).
Parfit then suggests that the question “Shall I be one of these two people, or the
other, or neither?” is an empty question, and he argues for giving up altogether the
language of identity. Identity is an all-or-nothing thing, but the things that are really
important to us (like psychological connectedness) are matters of degree.
The more important, and perhaps more appropriate, question, he says, is one of
survival—and he can say he survives without having to say he is one of those people.
But who is it who wants to survive? (And if “who” is not important, why do “you” want
to survive?)
Hobbes’s Ship of Theseus
[I]f…that ship of Theseus [were continually repaired by] taking out the old planks
and putting in new…and if some man had kept the old planks as they were taken out, and
by putting them afterwards together in the same order, had again made a ship of them,
[which ship would be the original one?]
Referred to as early as ship of Theseus, with its planks being continually replaced,
has long been a focal point for discussions about identity. Hobbes adds the possibility of
building a ship out of the old planks, asking the general question, “What is it to be the
same?” or, conversely, “What is it to be different?” He considers three possible answers.
First, one could determine identity (that is, one could identify the thing as the thing) by
the matter of the thing—a lump of wax is the same lump of wax whether it’s spherical or
cubical, and so the reconstructed ship is the original one. (What if the planks were used
to build a house—would the house be the ship?) However, according to this view,
because a person’s body (matter) changes over time, a person who is punished for a crime
committed some time ago isn’t actually the same person who committed the crime—
which suggests an injustice. (See “Parfit’s Nobelist.”) (Does it matter how quickly the
person’s body changes? How continuously? How completely?)
Second, one could determine identity by the form of the thing—even though a
person’s body has changed, it is still a singular body occupying a single place in space.
However, according to this view, the repaired ship Hobbes describes would be the
original ship—but so would the reconstructed ship. This is, Hobbes says, absurd—some
one thing can’t be in two places at the same time. (What if the ship is not repaired as the
old planks are removed, and some time elapses before it is reconstructed—where is the
ship in that meantime?)
Third, one could determine identity by the aggregate of qualities or attributes
(magnitude, motion, power, and so on) the thing has. But according to this view, nothing
would be the same as it was—neither ship would be the original one, and furthermore,
someone sitting down would become a different person as soon as she stood up.
So what is it to be the same, or different? How shall we determine identity?
Hobbes’s answer is that we pay careful attention to what exactly it is we’re inquiring
about: “It is one thing to ask concerning Socrates, whether he be the same man, and
another to ask whether he be the same body” (128). So, Hobbes concludes, “a ship,
which signifies matter so figured, will be the same as long as the matter remains the
same; but if no part of the matter be the same, then it is numerically another ship; and if
part of the matter remain and part be changed, then the ship will be partly the same, and
partly not the same” (129); furthermore, “a man will be always the same, whose actions
and thoughts proceed all from the same beginning of motion, namely, that which was in
his generation” (129). But isn’t it a body, a changing body, that provides that “same
beginning of motion”?
Perry’s Divided Self
Brown, Jones, and Smith enter the hospital for brain rejuvenations. (In a brain
rejuvenation, one’s brain is removed, its circuitry is analyzed by a fabulous machine, and
a new brain is put back in one’s skull, just like the old one in all relevant respects, but
built of healthier grey matter. After a brain rejuvenation one feels better, and may think
and remember more clearly, but the memories and beliefs are not changed in content.)
Their brains are removed and placed on the brain cart. The nurse accidentally overturns
the cart; the brains of Brown and Smith are ruined. To conceal his tragic blunder, the
nurse puts Jones’s brain through the fabulous machine three times, and delivers the
duplicates back to the operating room. Two of these are put in the skulls that formerly
belonged to Brown and Smith. Jones’s old heart has failed and, for a time, he is taken for
In a few hours, however, two individuals wake up, each claiming to be Jones,
each happy to be finally rid of his headaches, but somewhat upset at the drastic changes
that seem to have taken place in his body. We shall call these persons “Smith-Jones” and
“Brown-Jones.” The question is, who are they?
Those who claim that memory (see “Locke’s Prince and Cobbler” and “Leibniz’s
King of China”) would have to say they’re both Jones. But how can they be the same
person—they’re doing, thinking, and feeling different things.
A further problem is that we can’t say they aren’t the same person (that is, that
Smith-Jones is not Brown-Jones) and at the same time say that Smith-Jones is Jones and
Brown-Jones is Jones. That seems to defy logic: if A is X and B is X, then A has to be B,
One possible solution, suggested by Perry, is to consider the history of a person as
forming a branch; “all the person-stages thought to be of Jones plus all the post-operative
stages of Smith-Jones form a branch, and all the person-stages though to be of Jones lus
all the post-operative stages of Brown-Jones form another” (471). But wouldn’t this
mean that before the operation, when we talked to Jones, we were not talking to a single
Perhaps then, we should say that all persons (even Jones before the operation are
just person-stages. So we can say that before the operation, Smith-Jones was Jones and
Brown-Jones was Jones, and also say that after the operation, Smith-Jones is not BrownJones; that is, before the operation they were the same person, but now they’re not. But
then we couldn’t say that future events will happen to us—because they’d actually
happen to someone else, some other “person-stage.”
So Perry suggests yet another solution: persons are lifetimes, a lifetime containing
all the person-stages that are temporally related to it. Thus, each of the branches
described above is a lifetime, and so too is the entire Y-shaped structure of the trunk plus
its two branches. So “the pre-operative stages of Jones belong to three lifetimes: the Yshaped structure and each of its branches” (481). Does this solution “work”?
Taken from What If…Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy by Peg Tittle
(New York: Pearson Longman, 2005)
Immanuel Kant
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
High Enlightenment
(Kant was raised in Königsberg, East Prussia)
What can you learn about Kant on the internet? How important is he in the history of
This is a hard book to understand. Bear with it and seek to mine gold from it.
Formal and material is an important distinction in philosophy. How would you
characterize this distinction in your own words, following Kant.
Physics studies nature and ethics studies freedom. What does this say about the
relationship between nature and freedom?
A prior means prior to experience. Kant holds, like Descartes, that some truths are
innate. For example, we have no experience of space and time and yet we can’t help but
use those categories when we think.
Kant tells us that moral action must not only conform to the moral law, but that it must be
done for the sake of the moral law. What is this distinction all about?
A good will has good “without qualification.” This means that it is good in and of itself.
For instance, we might agree that courage is good, but is a courageous Nazi good?
Goodness for Kant is grounded in the will. Kant’s is a non-teleological approach. That
is, ethics is not based on outcome, like the greatest good for the greatest number or on the
development of virtues. Instead, it is based on the goodness of your motives.
If you wanted to save a drowning person’s life, but couldn’t because you were in a cast,
you are still ethical because your motive is pure.
Utilitarianism is the position that what counts ethically is not your motive but the results
of your deeds. It claims that people need to achieve the greatest good for the greatest
number. Utilitarianism comes in two forms, act and rule. Act Utilitarianism is follow
that act that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Rule Utilitarianism if
follow a rule that would produce that outcome. Where do these rules come from?
Culture, religion, oneself. The point is that you figure out whether that rule would
produce the greatest happiness. For an act utilitarian, you could cheat on your partner if
you were never caught because 2 out of 3 would be happy. However, for the rule
utilitarian, one ought never to violate the trust of a partner.
Motives are hard to analyze. You need to do a lot of inner reflection to figure them out.
Kant calls motives maxims. You say that you should act on those maxims that you could
want everyone to live by without exception. Look at the examples on p. 89-91. What is
the motive of each and how does it violate the categorical imperative.
Who legislates the moral law? Who is the ultimate judge of it? Is morality based on
religion for Kant?
Kant seeks that we all be autonomous—we create the moral law for ourselves. But we
don’t just make it up willy-nilly. Instead, we govern our lives on the basis of how all
people ought to live. Heteronomy is following rules that others make up for us. If we
follow the 10 Commandments just because God tells us to do that, then we aren’t being
ethical. Even God would have to follow a rule because it’s rational.
If all people followed the categorical imperative, we would have an ideal community, a
kingdom of ends, where peoples’ dignity and respect were honored for their own sake.
Kant’s theory is called deontology, meaning, from the Greek, a duty-based approach to
ethics. It is to be contrasted to teleological or outcome based ethics. One form of
teleology is character ethics which we will see in Aristotle. Character ethics teaches that
the important ethical obligation is to fulfill your potential.
The most important teleological approach to ethics in modern times is Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism was started by Jeremy Bentham and was expanded by John Stuart Mill.
Bentham taught act utilitarianism, that we should follow that action if it produces more
well being than alternative actions. Utilitarians like to quantify pleasure so that they can
presume how much overall pleasure or at least as little pain will be produced from any
(John Stuart Mill)
Act utilitarianism is problematic for many. It could lead to injustice—if killing off
certain people would produce the greatest happiness, then why not do that? (Example of
cycloptic baby)
Or, think of this example: a doctor with 4 patients who need 4 different internal organs.
A needs a liver, B and C both need kidneys, and D needs a heart. If they don’t get them
within 12 hours, all 4 will die. If they get them, there’s a high probability that they each
can live an additional 15-20 years and resume a near-normal life. No organs are available
for transplantation. However, you’ve discovered that Ralph, in the hospital for a medical
check-up, has an incurable disease that will kill him within 3 months. He has a healthy
liver, 2 healthy kidneys, and a healthy heart; most important, his organs are compatible
with all 4 patients. You could kill Ralph in secret by a painless, lethal injection, and no
one would ever know. You could say he had died of the disease you discovered, and you
could then distribute his organs to the 4 patients, saving their lives. On the other hand,
you could let Ralph walk out of the hospital to live another 3 months, letting your 4
patients die. What should you do according to AU?
This leads many, such as Mill, to rule utilitarianism, the theology that those categories of
actins are right that would produce the most well being if followed by everyone. The
bottom line, in distinction to Kant, is producing overall happiness.
384-322 BCE
Nicomachean Ethics
Classical Greek
(Aristotle lived in Athens for a time)
Aristotle gives us a very different view of ethics than Kant. His is a teleological
approach. This means that ethics is not to be discerned on the basis of duty but on the
basis of outcome. Ethics is tied to human nature in that for Aristotle, we are rational,
social animals. To do ethics is, for Aristotle, to exercise your virtue, your arête. The
classical Greek virtues were courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice. All these virtues
we exercised not only to fulfill human excellence, but to uphold the community or polis
(where we get the word ‘political’).
The excellence of the human is to exercise these character traits of excellence. One
fulfills one’s potential as a human in so doing. Ethics is not primary about solving
problems but about developing one’s potential. When we do this we have happiness or
Aristotle is hard to read because all that we have of his writings are lecture notes. He was
able to write very beautifully and artistic, but all these writings have been lost.
What are the three types of life for Aristotle? Which does he prefer? One of the Greek
philosophers said that life is like going to the Olympics. Some go to perform. Others go
to sell souvenirs. The best (the philosophers) go to watch.
Aristotle believes that we need to order our lives according to the common good of the
city. How viable is the notion of a common good today? What common goods can you
think of that our society supports? What undermines the notion of a common good today.
Aristotle did not think of the soul as a ghost. For Aristotle it is the principle that animates
the body. For Aristotle, actions lead to habits, which lead to character. Character
exercises our potential and helps us develop our humanity.
Virtue is a mean between two extremes. For instance, courage is the mean between
cowardliness and rashness. Both Cowardliness and rashness fail to exercise human
potential and do not help the state.
Look on p. 65. What does Aristotle make of pride? Look on p. 194. What is the best
kind of happiness?
Aristotle was a teacher of Alexander the Great
Concepts from Aristotle
Virtues: courage, temperance, wisdom, justice
Develop your potential
Further the common good of the earthly city
Defend the city
Teleological approach
Take pride in your ability to develop yourself
Actions shape Habits which shape character
Politics is the key to understanding our role in the wider community
Rational ?
How valuable are the classical Greek virtues of courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice
for today? How are virtues different from values? How does our current economic
system shape how we think about ethics? How does the fact that we live in a world
community make a difference in terms of virtue ethics?
The Four Classic Cardinal Virtues
North African
Late Antiquity/Medieval
Augustine lived during a time when the European world was collapsing. The Roman
Empire was being overrun by the “barbarians.” It is these invasions that would
eventually produce the Europe that we see today.
(Augustine spent much of his career in Milan)
Augustine provides a Christian perspective on human nature. His views are deeply
indebted to Plato, however. Plato felt that life is a copy of the true, the beautiful, and the
good. Good actions, for example, mimic goodness itself. Finally, goodness itself is God.
All people conform to God in one way or anther. When we exercise power, we are akin
to God because God is power itself. However, only when we exercise power in love of
God do we mimic God as we should, since God’s power is always counterpoised with his
Events in Augustine’s Life
Importance of mother (is she an icon of God for him?)
Cicero’s Hortensius (love of philosophy)
Friend’s death
Stealing the pears
Manichees/Faustus (as disappointing)
Ghost-writing for the emperor
The arranged marriage
The beggar as happier
His lost book
His mother’s death
Augustine’s and Monica’s common vision
Prior to his conversion, Augustine belonged to the sect of the Manicheans. The
Manicheans believed that there were two gods, a good god and a wicked god. The good
god creates spirit and the wicked god creates matter. Our bodies belong to matter while
our spirits belong to truth. How would this view not square with the Christian view of
What is confession in the Catholic faith? Does humanity exist for itself, according to
God is not a being, but being itself. Augustine says to God that “you are ever active, yet
always at rest.” How does this paradox make sense in light of the supposition that God is
being itself?
In Platonic thinking there is a gulf between eternity and time. Eternity is composed of
changelessness while time has things that change. The point of life is to make the
temporal correspond to the eternal, as much as possible.
Book II
Augustine struggled over what evil was. What does he learn about evil on the basis of his
stealing the pears?
Book III
How was the study of Cicero valuable to him?
Why was Monica his mother pushy with respect to religion? How wise was the bishop?
Book IV
How does Augustine define humanity, p. 84?
Book VI
What does Augustine learn about depression?
How would you describe Augustine’s conversion?
Concluding Matters
You might wish to evaluate yourself in light of our study. How have you changed given
the reading and thinking that you have done? How do you look at the world differently?
What changes would you like to see in the world? What changes would you like to see in

Becker Study Guide - Grand View University