About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Massimo's ethical system, an introduction
First, my framework is provided by Aristotle's contrast between "eudaimonia" and "akrasia." Aristotle realized (well before modern psychology) that it is human nature to seek immediate gratification, even when we ought to know better. He used the term "akrasia" to indicate this, it literally means weakness of the will. What we should do instead is to aim at eudaimonia, often translated as "happiness," but which in fact means a satysfying (in an ethical sense), well balanced life. To me, we all struggle between these two poles, and life is -- as Aristotle suggested -- an ongoing project hopefully leading us to control our akratic behavior better and better. In this sense, I therefore subscribe to Aristotle's "virtue ethics," where one has to make reasonable decisions on a case by case basis (often steering from extreme positions), mindful of the constant threat of akrasia, and attempting to increase his eudaimonia. Virtue, then, requires practice. Occasional sliding back isn't a problem, since nobody is perfect and it is human to err (even more than once).
Second, I complement the Aristotelian view with a bit of deontology (i.e., ethics based on rules), but of course not of the "Ten Commandments" flavor. Rather, I like and try to follow Immanuel Kant's two versions of his "categorical imperative":
* "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature."
* "Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means."
Finally, at the level of society (as opposed to the individual, as in the first two instances), I subscribe to a general form of utilitarianism (see, for example, John Stuart Mill), according to which we should do things that maximize the happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia, not personal pleasure or possession of things) of the largest number of individuals. Of course, I realize the pitfalls of utilitarianism (e.g., it is impossible to quantify happiness, and one can come up with clever cases where the maximization of happiness for the majority comes at the cost of suffering for the minority), but these are in fact either trivial (no other system of ethics is required to carry out precise calculations) or balanced by my first two approaches (to attempt to maximize happiness of the many by making a few suffer would contradict Kant's imperative, and it would not make for a virtuous life).
If you think that virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism are incompatible (as some philosophers do), I can only respond that your mind is limited. I feel free to take elements of each and brew my own mix of ethical theory. Got a problem with that?