This is a portion of a dialogue I wrote for the benefit of students in my introductory ethics class. Since we have had some lively debates about ethical matters here at SO, I thought some readers might be interested. I imagined a discussion (in some sort of afterlife) between Aristotle, Locke, Mill, and Kant. Each of the characters in the dialogue are my inventions, based on my readings of the originals.They have all been updated and so, of course, much of what they have to say is completely anachronistic. Still, this is my best guess of what they WOULD say if resurrected today.
THE AFTERLIFE BROADCASTING COMPANY PRESENTS:
A CONVERSATION ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS, WITH ARISTOTLE, MR. JOHN STUART MILL, DR. JOHN LOCKE,
AND PROFESSOR IMMANUEL KANT
Moderator: Here at ABC we have the privilege of interviewing history’s leading figures without the inconvenient encumbrances of temporal and spatial boundaries. Last week we had a stimulating exchange between Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, His Highness, the Emperor Napoleon the First, Bonaparte, and his Imperial Highness Czar Alexander I. Today we are privileged to interview four gentlemen who, while not flaunting the exorbitant titles of last week’s guests, are gifted with far more important qualities—enormous intellect and a devotion to inquiring into the deepest questions.
I would like to welcome, first, Aristotle, who is often regarded as the greatest thinker of classical antiquity, a philosopher of enormous range and depth whose writings address the fields of ethics, politics, rhetoric, logic, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, astronomy, biology, literary criticism, and much more besides. Let’s welcome a truly universal thinker—Aristotle of Stagira.
Aristotle: Thanks, and a pleasure to be here.
Mod: Our next guest is Mr. John Stuart Mill, another author of wide-ranging interests, from logic to scientific method to ethics to political philosophy, and often regarded as the preeminent British philosopher of the 19th Century. Welcome, Mr. Mill.
Mill: Thank you and it is also a pleasure to be here.
Mod: Next is Dr. John Locke, physician and philosopher whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the founding document of the great tradition of British Empiricism, and whose Second Treatise of Government is a classic of political theory and strongly influenced the Founders of the United States of America. Welcome, Dr. Locke.
Locke: Allow me to say how honored I am to be a part of esteemed group.
Mod: Finally, our next guest is Professor Immanuel Kant, often regarded as the leading modern philosopher. His monumental Critique of Pure Reason is one of the most important contributions to the theory of knowledge, achieving a brilliant synthesis of both the rationalist and empiricist traditions. Similarly, his small but profound Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the most important works in the history of ethics. Welcome to the show, Professor Kant.
Kant: I am both honored and happy to be a part of this most important discussion.
Mod: Let me begin, then, by asking a simple but, I hope, provocative question: Why should we be good? That is, even if we could define the good, why is it more reasonable to be good than not? I know that each of you could easily write a volume on this, but let me ask that each of you give an initial response of one sentence. So, why be good?
Aristotle: Because that is the only way to be happy.
Kant: Because it is your duty as a rational being.
Locke: Because insofar as each individual expects his own rights to be respected, he has an equal obligation to respect and defend the rights of his equals, and all humans are equal in the rights they possess.
Mill: If the question is what is the fundamental motivation to do good, then it is nothing other than the conscientious feelings of mankind, our sense of obligation to our fellow creatures.
Mod: Aristotle, may I ask that you expand on your answer a bit. Why is being good the only way to be happy? Cannot an evil man be happy?
Aristotle: To be good is to be virtuous. It is to display, as a fixed trait of character, the tendency to act generously, bravely, moderately, justly, and so forth. Virtues, as I conceive of them, are qualities of human excellence, excellence in fulfilling the human function. What is the human function? Nature has adapted human beings to live a life of rationality in society with other human beings. All creatures flourish best when they possess and exercise the qualities of excellence that enable them to do well what they are adapted to do. Thus, a successful hunting dog is successful because it possesses the qualities of a keen sense of smell, eagerness for the chase, speed, strength, endurance, and obedience to its master. Likewise, human beings flourish when they consistently do well what nature has designed them to do, that is, to think rationally and to live in peaceful and mutually beneficial society with other humans. The intellectual virtues are the excellences whereby people learn to think rationally and the moral virtues are the excellences whereby people live successfully in society with other human beings. For instance, a person who is generous, courageous, temperate, and just will, in general, live more successfully among his fellow human beings than one who is selfish, cowardly, ill-tempered, or unjust. The former, even in difficult and humble circumstances will find fulfillment, while the latter, even if powerful and rich, will find happiness elusive.
Mill: Very eloquently put, Aristotle. I would only add that the pleasures of acting virtuously and benevolently are higher quality pleasures and that those who have experienced such pleasure would not trade them for any quantity of the lower pleasures that you can get by being greedy, vindictive, or spiteful. Those, for instance, who seek their own good narrowly, and without due consideration of the happiness of others, will not find it. On the contrary, the selfish condemn themselves to unhappiness because by pursuing the lower pleasures that selfishness brings, they render themselves incapable of experiencing the pleasures of infinity greater quality that generosity and benevolence provide. Can an evil man be happy? Well, of course he can experience pleasures, but they will be pleasures accompanied by many negative feelings and will fall far short of the superior pleasures enjoyed by the good.
Locke: Allow me to add merely that all human relations, except the relation of master to slave, which is a state of continual war between the slave and his enslaver, are possible only on the basis of the mutual advantage of each party to the relation. There is no reason whatsoever that I should abandon a state of nature and contract to live in society with you unless in doing so my happiness is duly considered and the rights necessary to the maintenance of my happiness are guaranteed. Hence, if I enter into society with others to seek my own good, then necessarily I must agree to equally seek the good of every other party to that compact.
Kant: Allow me to sound a dissonant note in what sounds like a symphony of consensus. Moral demands are absolute. That is their very nature. Any demand that is merely hypothetical, and not categorical, cannot be a moral demand, that is, a duty. The Moral Law commands and it offers no qualifications in the form of “ifs” “ands” or “buts.” The demand of the Moral Law, which I expressed as my Categorical Imperative, is that every legitimate rule of conduct is universalizable, that is, if it is a legitimate rule to guide my behavior, then it must be possible for it to be the rule for everyone’s behavior. The criterion for morality is thus nothing but logical consistency, and, as such, it is established on an a priori basis. It follows that all empirical and contingent considerations, such as the happiness of individuals, or the conditions upon which society are founded, are simply irrelevant. The force of the duty to do what is good is the force of reason itself. Hence, it is binding on each rational creature considered only as a rational creature. Whether doing one’s duty makes you happy or not is irrelevant. Surely it is the case that doing one’s duty can make you unhappy; indeed, it can kill you. Goodness therefore can have no essential connection with happiness, either as the motivation to be good, or as constitutive of good, as, I think, both Aristotle and Mr. Mill would assert.
Aristotle: Certainly. First, let me be clear that I do not think that virtue is sufficient for happiness, only that it is necessary. A person who suffering from a painful and debilitating illness, or one who is in a state of dire poverty, cannot be considered happy, however virtuous he or she might be. My claim is that, given a very rough parity of circumstances, the virtuous person will always do better than the person who is unjust, intemperate, ungenerous, etc.
At a deeper level, I think that Professor Kant has pointed to one of our most profound differences. His justly famous Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals begins with the assertion that the only purely good thing is a good will. What is a good will? It is a will that desires to do the good thing simply because it is one’s duty. On Professor Kant’s view, one who does a good thing out of a sense of duty, even if his personal inclination is strongly against doing that good act, has done a better thing than one who does the good act because it gives him pleasure to do the right thing. On my view, on the contrary, a truly virtuous person is one who enjoys virtuous acts. For instance, one who reluctantly gives to charity out of a sense duty, while really wishing to keep the money and spend it self-indulgently, has not really attained virtue. On the other hand, one who finds deep personal satisfaction in acting generously has attained true magnanimity of character. Likewise, for all the other virtues. We would not call someone virtuous who does not love virtue.
Mod: So, the basic difference between the two of you is that Professor Kant holds that a good will is the only truly good thing, while you, Aristotle, hold that it is a good character?
Aristotle: Actually, I think we have very different views on what motivates people to do the right thing. As I see it, reason per se motivates nothing. In addition to recognizing the right action, there must be a motivation for doing it, and that motivation must be a feeling—desire. One whose character has been properly molded will desire the desirable rather than some unnatural and destructive pleasure. Only one who loves virtue and finds deep satisfaction in acting virtuously can be depended upon to consistently display virtue.
Kant: I, on the other hand, hold that the only way to be a rational agent, that is, one whose choices are genuinely rational and free, is to achieve autonomy, that is, to become a lawgiver for oneself. If I command myself to do my duty, simply because I perceive it to be my duty–and not because of any feeling or personal advantage—I have attained complete rationality and freedom. To be motivated in any other way is to be, to that extent, less rational and less free. If I do good because of an emotional motivation, even the love of doing good, then the good is not truly mine since I am being carried along on a tide of emotion.
Mill: Allow me to interject here. If I understand correctly, what divides the two of you seems to be a question of psychology. It appears to be an empirical issue about what motivates human beings. If that is the issue, I will side with Aristotle. Indeed, I hold that there is no mark of desirability other than observing what people actually desire. There is no test of visibility other than what people actually see; likewise, when we say that something is desirable, the only test is to see whether people actually do desire it.
Aristotle: Hmmm. I have to disagree with you on that Mr. Mill. I think it is all too plain that people, perhaps even the great majority, often desire the objectively undesirable. I think that there have to be objective criteria for what is desirable and it cannot reduce to what people in fact desire. Before getting too deeply into that point, though, allow me to clarify the difference between myself and Professor Kant. As I noted earlier, Professor Kant begins Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals with words to the effect that the only purely good thing is a good will. While I certainly agree that a good will is one that desires the final good for its own sake (and subsidiary goods because their telos is the final good) I see such desire as an inclination of the whole person, not simply the inclination of a particular power of volition. This is why I cannot regard someone who does the good without any sense of deep emotional satisfaction, but only out of an abstract recognition of duty, as a truly good person. Such a person does the good—like a soldier who marches when he is ordered—but his heart is not really in it. Yet this is the type of person for whom Professor Kant offers the highest praise, namely, one who does his duty simply because it is his duty, even though his feelings are against it. Ask yourself, though: Would you rather have someone perform a service for you gladly and with pleasure, or coldly, and maybe even resentfully, out of a sense of duty?
Kant: If I understand you correctly, Aristotle, do you not say that, for instance, a generous person is one who loves generous acts and a courageous person is one who loves courageous acts?
Aristotle: That is indeed my view.
Kant: Surely, though, you will admit that such virtue can often serve bad ends. A person who is generous in giving time or money to a bad cause, or who is courageous in fighting for wicked ends (like the Waffen SS troops that fought so bravely for the Nazis), is behaving virtuously, but that behavior is promoting bad ends. Indeed, all of those external goods and traits of character or intellect that we normally call “good” can be bad if they are possessed by a bad person. A poor, stupid, weak-willed bad person can do some damage, but a rich, highly intelligent, and resolute bad person can do much, much more evil. Therefore, the only thing that is truly, purely, and always good is a good will.
Aristotle: Surely, though, you will admit that people often follow evil with the purest of intentions. That is, with the best will in the world, people will often commit themselves to movements or causes that are thoroughly evil because they mistakenly think that these causes are good. For instance in the 1930’s, many intellectuals in Western democracies supported communism with the best of intentions. For instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, later head of the Manhattan Project and at the time a famous professor of physics at Berkeley, though he never joined the Communist Party, did support it and made considerable contributions of time and money. At the time the world was in the throes of the Great Depression, and untold millions were suffering. Capitalism seemed to have failed, and communism seemed to be the wave of the future, with the promise of a better life for all. These fantasies were soon deflated, at least for those willing to face the truth. The point, though, is that if people can will something that is actually evil but with the best and purest of intentions (and they can), then a good will can serve evil just as much as the virtues of generosity or courage can. If you insist that a truly good will can will only truly good ends, and that there must be something wrong with a will that wills things actually evil, then, likewise, I can insist that true virtue serves only truly good ends and that there is something lacking in “virtue” that serves bad ends.