Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 16

(Read Part 15 of the series.)

So, do any of these philosophies provide us with the answer for which we are looking? It has been a very cursory overview and obviously much has been omitted, particularly the ideas of more recent philosophers. Again I must remind the reader that I have not studied all of these philosophers and my findings are the result of reading histories, dictionaries and overviews and of research on the Internet. I have extracted only those ideas that seemed relevant.

Philosophers typically take an interest in many areas, even if they concentrate principally on one or two and they often devote much effort to supporting, or more frequently refuting, the ideas of their predecessors. If you should attempt to go into any significant detail on any aspect of what has been outlined above, you would soon find yourself reading many books and studying often complex arguments on all sides of the issue. All that I have attempted to do was to find some relevant ideas and I have to say that none of the ones that I discovered seem entirely appropriate for today’s society.

Somehow, they leave a feeling of incompleteness or even emptiness. Maybe they provide excellent guidelines for discriminating between potential course of action in a specific situation but there is no overall sense of purpose and meaning. If I want to know whether I ought to go out to the cinema or visit my ageing grandmother, there is much material to provide guidance – in fact, I could decide to stay in and read all about it for the next few weeks instead of going anywhere. But when it comes to giving me a raison d’être for my life, it seems that, unless I adopt a religious outlook and acquire faith in a heaven and hell, then I am left with little of substance.

According to the twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, we can never be sure of anything in the sense of a proven scientific fact – certainty does not exist. Newton’s laws were regarded as certain in this way and the scientific world was shaken when Einstein showed that they did not apply to the very small or very fast. And this is how it has to be. Though we cannot prove theories, we can show them to be wrong. The classic example relates to the one-time belief that all swans are white. No amount of observing swans and seeing them to be white could prove this to be true but as soon as a black swan was found the theory was immediately shown to be false.

As Kant had said, we can never apprehend reality, so the best that we can do is to find a ‘workable’ theory and run with it until some new discovery uncovers a situation in which it does not apply. Then we either modify the old theory or devise a new one. And such a pragmatic approach should be applied to all of our dealings with the world, whether in science, politics or in our own day-to-day attempts to achieve happiness. The process of improving our lot in life should be to criticise the bad points about it and devise ways of improving them, and not to aim for ideals that are only imaginary and unrealisable.

If we believe that ‘this is all that there is’, then we are reduced to thinking in terms of maximising pleasure and minimising pain, of making our life in the society in which we move as comfortable as possible. The options for any kind of meaning beyond my death seem to be limited to some sort of achievement now, that will result in others recognising my name in the future, or in passing on my genes to children who may succeed in this manner. Both of these options could provide a boost to my ego but is this what we mean by a sense of purpose? Again, it seems somewhat hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory. The evolutionary psychologist will argue that the genetic aspect is in fact the real answer. Those ways of behaving in the past are the ones that have proven to be successful – they must have been otherwise the related genes would not have been passed on. Ergo, this is what will continue to happen.

Perhaps a large part of the failure is due to the fact that the investigation is principally being carried out by the intellect. If we are looking for some sort of ‘ultimate’ purpose to our lives, this must relate both to who we ‘really’ are and the nature of reality itself, as opposed to the mediocre and largely inconsequential day-to-day mundanities. And Kant has already shown how this reality can never be known in any objective sense. Maybe the enquiry is doomed from the outset and philosophy can never provide the sort of answer for which we are looking.

Morality (part 1)
How we ‘ought’ to behave depends upon what we and others believe. We accept that some things are good and others bad but we may have difficulty deciding whether these beliefs are somehow absolute or whether they are simply a set of related ideas inculcated by our family, peers and society at large. Cynically, it often seems to be the case that what is deemed to be right depends upon who is speaking. And if we believe that we are each independent individuals with our own particular needs and ambitions, this is inevitable. The word ‘good’ simply means that I like it (a good wine) or I approve of it (a good lawyer). In this second case, we might also be using the word in the sense of someone who is proficient in their work, in which case we might have to concede that someone is a good burglar. None of these senses seems appropriate when thinking about how we should behave.

Statements about how we ought to act do not seem to express any factual information and, if you think about them, it is not really clear what exactly they are saying. If you say that it is dangerous to drink and drive, I can understand that you are suggesting that I might have an accident and injure myself or someone else. But if you say that it is wrong, what exactly is it that you are claiming and can you additionally say that the statement is true? The ‘Emotive’ theory of ethics claims that such statements merely express the feelings of the person making them. Similarly, to say that something is ‘good’ is a personal opinion and is not saying anything in any way objectively verifiable. It is even quite possible that what you consider to be good (going to a party, for example), I would think to be absolutely awful!

Another way in which the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are used is in respect of how well they perform the function for which we intend to use them. Thus one person might think a ‘good’ car is one that has a convertible roof and goes from 0 – 60 mph in 5 seconds whereas another might insist that it does 50 mpg and will hold a family of six and all their luggage. A ‘good’ dog might be one that is faithful and a deterrent to burglars or one that is succulent and feeds the whole family, depending upon which country you live in. If we are unsure of the intended function, the use of these terms might not seem appropriate. If someone points to a stone and says that it is a ‘good’ stone, we might wonder what on earth they are talking about until we realise that they are looking for something to skim across the surface of a lake. But this is obviously not the context in which Plato was using the word in his quest for the Form of the Good. If we are suggesting that we, as human beings, ought to be good, we are unlikely to have any specific function in mind.

Nor does it seem reasonable to accept some sort of majority opinion, though the Sophists, for example, believed that morality was relative to the society and time and not an absolute thing at all. People can be ill-informed about a subject and also attitudes change over time. At the time of the Sophists, slavery was perfectly acceptable and would not even have been considered to be a moral issue. But it does seem that there should be some sort of objectivity involved. It does not seem right that a thing be deemed good simply because you approve of it or consider it to be desirable. In fact, the British philosopher G. E. Moore at the beginning of the twentieth Century claimed that it was not possible to define terms such as ‘good’ at all. We can talk about how it is related to other concepts but not pin it down in any absolute sense.

Many theories have been constructed over the past two and a half thousand years (of recorded Western philosophy) to attempt to  make sense of all of this and provide us with a reasoned description of how we ought to behave. Unfortunately there is no book of certain rules on the subject and people will disagree about who should be regarded as an expert on the matter. The following is just a sprinkling of some of those ideas. If you want to investigate the subject in detail, prepare yourself for an awful lot of reading!

The attempts to formulate some sort of philosophy relating to how we ‘ought’ to act may in fact have begun, in the West at least, with the Sophists in Greece around the fifth century BC. These philosophers did not hold any specific set of beliefs but were very well informed on a wide range of subjects and able to talk knowledgeably about them. The term has come to be used to refer to someone who is able to use arguments cleverly and often fallaciously to convince others of a particular point of view. Thus it was thought at the time that such people would be able to make a case for either of two opposite courses of action being the right thing to do, making it impossible to agree any single set of moral standards. The idea that this might actually be true must have stimulated later philosophers to set about trying to analyse the situation and try to formulate some acceptable guidelines. And such attempts have continued ever since!

Some people think that, in some way, there effectively are rules that define how we ought to behave and that we can discover what these rules are. This study is called Normative Ethics and, once the rules have been established we can use Applied Ethics to relate them to our various fields of action such as doctors with their patients or politicians in a government and so on. If we don’t believe that there can be any laws as such, so that we are not actually under obligation to act in any one way rather than another, we can still attempt to set standards and ask questions about the applicability of these to various activities. This would be the study of Meta-ethics.

(Go to Part 17)

The words ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are often used interchangeably. The former is perhaps better used to refer to a specific theory or set of principles defining things such as good and evil and ideal patterns of human behaviour. ‘Morals’ more appropriately refer to nominally accepted, practical rules defining whether we ought to do A or B in a particular life situation.