Saturday, 6 July 2013

Eudaemonia (part ii)

I was dismayed to read (see quote below) that I'm decidedly old-fashion in my thoughts on ethics and philosophy. I'm not dismayed that I'm old fashion but dismayed by the modern take on the subject of "human excellence" (virtue and such):

These reflections on virtue can provide an occasion for contrasting ancient moral theory and modern. One way to put the contrast is to say that ancient moral theory is agent-centered while modern moral theory is action-centered...

By contrast, ancient moral theory explains morality in terms that focus on the moral agent. These thinkers are interested in what constitutes, e.g., a just person. They are concerned about the state of mind and character, the set of values, the attitudes to oneself and to others, and the conception of one's own place in the common life of a community that belong to just persons simply insofar as they are just. A modern might object that this way of proceeding is backwards. (

The way I understand (or thought I understood) "agent-centered" moral theory might have something to do with the "pre-consumeristic" society I grew up in (at least the tail-end of it), which I see as a commonality between the disparate—drastically different—societies of ancient Greece and the Inuit where the narrative provides the foundation rather than prospect/status. What I mean by "prospect/status" has little to do with what we are born with but what levels of education, earning power, etc. ostensibly affords one to thrive and flourish (of which the middle-class is the standard, arbitrary and vague as it is).

The "action-centered" moral theory (says the Stanford article) is further divided into other things:

We can roughly divide modern thinkers into two groups. Those who judge the morality of an action on the basis of its known or expected consequences are consequentialist; those who judge the morality of an action on the basis of its conformity to certain kinds of laws, prohibitions, or positive commandments are deontologists. The former include, e.g., those utilitarians who say an action is moral if it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Deontologists say an action is moral if it conforms to a moral principle, e.g., the obligation to tell the truth. While these thinkers are not uninterested in the moral disposition to produce such actions, or in what disposition is required if they are to show any moral worth in the persons who do them, their focus is on actions, their consequences, and the rules or other principles to which they conform. The result of these ways of approaching morality is that moral assessment falls on actions. This focus explains, for instance, contemporary fascination with such questions of casuistry as, e.g., the conditions under which an action like abortion is morally permitted or immoral. (ibid)

As an admirer of Socrates, I'd say that moderns are decidedly "sophists" as if the moral imperative can be rationally prescribed or recommended—either because the consequences (rewards or punishments) impel one to act morally or because its the law. As someone with Christian ambitions, I know that neither consequentialism nor deontology work very well. One just needs to be honest with oneself to see why this "action-orientated" moral doesn't work:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. (Romans 8:3-4)

Whatever our notions of "sin" and religion (I have rather unkind views of religion, personally), the discourse on the "modern" vs "ancient" moral theories is pretty old, as succinctly put by Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians—and why, for that matter, the Lord chose to impart spiritual principles through the telling of parables where meaning is arrived at through reflection rather than recitation of Talmudic prescriptions. If we are to believe the Gospel, Jesus made mince-meat of the Pharisees (the Jewish version of the sophists) time and again: The "render unto Caesar" episode is just one famous example.

Talmud/Torah prodigies abound in the Jewish tradition (of which Jesus clearly was one)—there's even a word for such a person in Hebrew: ilui (

There is a word in Inuktitut for agent-centered moral theory: inuliurniq (lit. "making of a person"). It means "developing character" and captures and implies much of what I say above about agent-centered theory (even the Christian moral theory, which is really about perspective (ie, interiority or deliberate psychological development and maturation of a just and virtuous person) rather than "the law" (ie, that which seems "objective" on the surface of it but utterly vulnerable to manipulation and abuse).

Having an agent-centered take on moral theory, I tend to and naturally believe in classicism and what is called, liberal arts education, as well as the dialectic as a proven pedagogical device. I wasn't taught this; just kind of stumbled upon what I thought was very cool so I started actively seeking it out. I'm not saying I'm perfect—far from it—for I know honestly I'm just a poor, ignorant sinner, but rather than just giving up I choose to believe that human (and humanistic) potential is what is called, "made in the image of God". I love science and spiritualism almost in equal measure and see no contradiction in trying to synthesize these two pillars of human achievement, believing and inspired by this:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19: 1-4)


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