Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness (Eudaimonia). I will explain why this is erroneous.
Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary. (Let me add immediately that Greco-Roman slavery was apparently by far the worst of those suffered by the Middle Earth in the last 5,000 years; only the Muslim habit of impaling slaves who had attempted to flee compares: and look what Islam did with civilization; in other ways the Muslims did not treat their slaves as badly as the Greco-Romans; the fact both civilizations collapsed is no coincidence.)
By approving of slavery Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that the founder of virtue ethics could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute. I have, and will show, this in other essays. Let me offer just a few words here.
It was virtuous for Aristotle to enslave. Yet slavery is unnatural.
It was so unnatural that, arguably, it caused the fall of the Greco-Roman empire (by enabling Senatorial plutocracy, which undermined the Republic). A civilizational collapse is no way to survive.
The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day. So debating the nature of ethics is all very practical: it’s about why, when, how, and for whom, or what, to go to war. Look towards the Middle East for practical applications.
Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”. If one thinks about deeply, surviving as a species (or group) is the fundamental purpose of moral behavior. Ethics, or “mores” comes from “habitual character”. What’s more “habitual” than what insures the survival of the species. True, wisdom, foresight, prudence, fortitude are necessary to insure survival. But they are consequences.
Some brandish “religion” as something natural ethicists ought to respect. But there is more than 10,000 “religions” known, each of them actually a set of superstitions to enable the rule of some oligarchy (who adores the Hummingbird god of the Aztecs, nowadays?).
“Religion” means to tie (the people) together. A secular set of beliefs can do this very well, as long as it embraces the Republic of Human Rights, and, thus, survival. Indeed, human rights are best to insure long term survival of the species. They define the virtues Aristotle extolled, but could not define properly enough to insure the survival of his civilization (which was soon destroyed by Alexander, Aristotle’s student and friend).
The Republic of Human Rights is the only religion upon which all human beings can agree on, and, thus, the only one to respect, and found ethics on.
To this the editor of Scientia Salon objected (September 25) that:
“This idea that because Aristotle lived in a society that condoned slavery therefore virtue ethics is bullocks keeps rearing its ugly head, but seems to me a total non sequitur. You might as well say that we should throw out Newtonian mechanics because, after all, Newton was also interested in alchemy and the Bible.”
I was unaware that I was ambling down a well-trodden road. Thus I can only observe that the notion that virtue ethics was a personal sin of Aristotle, although admittedly ugly, is entirely natural (as a naïve, untutored, independent mind, such as mine, discovers it readily).
Slavery, as practiced in Athens’ silver mines, and, later, Roman ore mines, was the worst. It was quickly lethal. And it did not stop with treating foreigners as less than animals. Aristotle’s student, and others he was familiar with (senior Macedonian general Antipater) enslaved all of Greece, shortly thereafter.
When the mood is to enslave, it does not stop anywhere, short of the brute force of invaders (and that’s exactly what happened).
Greco-Roman slavery was particularly harsh. There were much milder forms of slavery in Babylon, a millennium earlier, and Egypt used no slavery (except for captured enemy armies).
Peter Do Smith claimed that I suffered from “presentism” by condemning slavery. I guess, in the USA, slavery is just yesterday, and condemning it, so today.
But the Germans, at the time, condemned slavery, at least to the industrial scale the Greco-Romans engaged into it. Archeology has confirmed that small German farms did not use slaves.
Resting all of society upon slavery was not cautious: as soon as the Greco-Romans ran out of conquest, they ran out of slaves, and the GDP collapsed (it peaked within a couple of decades from Augustus’ accession to permanent Princeps and censor status). Another problem was the rise of enormous slavery propelled latifundia, giant Senatorial farms which put most Romans out of employment, and fed plutocracy.
Newton’s researches in. shall we call it proto-chemistry? Or Biblical considerations, were not viewed by him, or any smart observer, as consequences of his mechanics.
Aristotle’s ethical shortcomings were not restricted to his opinion on slavery, and one can only assume that they were consequences of his general ethics. Whereas Demosthenes was a philosophical, and physical hero, ethically, Aristotle sounds like someone raised at the court of the fascist plutocrats, Philippe and Alexander of Macedonia. As, indeed, happened (his father was physician to the Macedonian crown).
There were consequences to Aristotle’s ethics. Alexander had ethical reasons to annihilate Thebes, and sell surviving women and children into slavery. It’s natural to wonder if he shared them with his teacher. Another example of even heavier import: Aristotle’s enormous influence on Rome’s first moralist, Cicero. Cicero, literally, invented the word “morality” by translating the Greek “ethics”.
Aristotle comforted important Romans, centuries later, into the comfortable mood that ethics was all about feeling virtuous.
When Consul Cicero repressed savagely the Conspiracy of Cataline, without bothering with proper judicial procedure, he felt himself to be the incarnation of the eight virtues.
Cicero’s enormous ethical breach helped demolish the democratic Republic.
At all times, tyrants have proclaimed themselves virtuous. That’s tyranny 101. Proclaiming that, from now on, virtue will dominate ethics, besides being self-evident, and thus empty, is just self-congratulatory. Self-congratulations lay at the evil end of the spectrum of the examined life.
Instead, as Demosthenes pointed out, ethics ought to rest on survival. If the aim was survival, the non-conflictual, disunited approach to Aristotle’s bankrollers (Philippe and Alexander) was suicide.
Greece recovered freedom 23 centuries later. Thanks to the European Union.