Posts Tagged ‘ ethics ’

15. Kant’s ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals’

For the critical thinker, they don’t come much more challenging than Kant, and in this excerpt from his “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals”, you will be faced with a series of challenges that test all that you learned in the Part I: Primer part of this book.

First of all, Kant uses the science of his day – foreshadowing the Darwinian idea of evolution – to ground his argument. Secondly, he attacks the then still fashionable premise of the Enlightenment – that reason is the ultimate guide to happiness – not in order to show that reason is faulty, but rather to show why man stands above nature and mere hedonism. If reason cannot guide us to happiness, Kant concludes, then it is happiness that we must reject, not reason. Aristotle, while searching for the aim of the human being, had – in short – got things the wrong way around.

Kant is a challenge not just because of his complex and often water-tight argumentation but also for his language. Written originally in German, early translations such as this retain a literary and prosaic beauty that require deliberate reading by the modern student. Kant’s texts are highly rewarding so long as each line is read diligently and given enough time to be assimilated.

Many years after Kant, the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, famously asked ‘Why should I not commit suicide?’ After all, if life has no intrinsic purpose and is nothing more than a sequence of meaningless moments whose aim is the avoidance of pain, no other question could be more pressing. Camus had apparently not read Kant carefully enough, for in this excerpt the answer is clearly given. Unlike Camus, Kant professed a belief in God, but the nub of his answer relies less on religious devotion and more on an understanding of how the faculty of reason – whatever its origin – places a demand of responsibility upon those that possess it.

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12: Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Most philosophy courses require students to tackle Aristotle at some point and for good reason: not only does his work cover almost the entire breadth of human interest, but much of what he had to say still informs modern discussions in biology, psychology, ethics, physics, politics and law, not to mention philosophy itself.

Aristotle’s method is unlike that of his predecessors and his work requires a somewhat different approach by the critical thinker. Not only did he make heavy use of observation and classification but he also took care to consider the opinions of both experts and lay people. He was, in this sense, the forerunner of both modern empirical method and academic credibility. This means that the reader must handle a wide range of differing assumptions and examples when reading his work.

Approaching ancient texts always requires some caution. Vocabulary in particular presents a unique challenge: translations from one interpreter to another can be inconsistent, and some terms can only awkwardly be forced into modern parlance.

In this excerpt from Book II of Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, we will meet Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which is not easily rendered into modern English. A virtue, in Ancient Greek, is often parsed as being ‘an excellence’, but this hardly makes the notion much clearer to the modern reader. The Greek concept of virtue is not, as is our modern English one, solely concerned with moral behaviour. Rather, referring to some thing’s virtue is understood as referring to ‘its best or highest quality’. Thus, Aristotle can make the distinction at the beginning of Chapter 1 between man’s best intellectual qualities and his best moral qualities by use of one and the same word.

The word ‘passions’ is also used with a slightly different meaning to our modern one. It is synonymous with ‘desire’ in the general sense, rather than the ‘intense desire’ of our modern word.

You will find paragraph main ideas, answers to the questions and a commentary in the answer key.


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