Abstract 

If you trace the etiology of morals and ethics,  you'll find that ethics was the earlier and more profound or fundamental expression of the concept of behavior. The Greeks' hope was that a science of ethics could be derived using the same foundations and methods they had applied to their other successful "Sciences."  For a variety of reasons the development of ethics floundered, and ethics devolved into the "polit," hence "politics," and finally, with the rise of significant religions, morality. Morality, from the Latin, "moralitas," represents the beginning of the many societal constructs serving the basic purpose of coercing desired behaviors from the people governed by them.

This ancient "failure" of the Greeks to successfully define a "science of correct behavior" has unleashed an unending stream of essentially coercive societies, religions, governments and despots that have wrought untold misery throughout the course of history.  In a sense, the original sin of man could be claimed to have been this singular failure to learn how to live together successfully with everyone behaving themselves according to a logically  unassailable science of ethics that would guide its adherents unfailingly to "Correct Action."  

The Greeks tried hard to grapple with this, but they never got it right. 

So many of the world's ills are the result of us, as a species, tolerating behavior that is bad, naughty and generally inappropriate.  Everyone knows this, it jumps out at you from the minute some weasel grabs your parking spot in the morning to the last telemarketer who invades your otherwise peaceful evening.  We don't have a clear way to decide what's right and wrong, so we tend towards, relativism. "Whatever."

Right. Prove it.

So how do I know this?  And more importantly, can I prove it? 

Good questions.  The answer to the first is basically that a good friend who knows about this stuff told me.  The answer to the second is I dunno, let's see.

Here's the story as we know it, in the form of Socratic Dialog (with a huge tip of the cap to ctf).

The young but promising seeker after knowledge, Gomuth, waxes rhapsodic with his pal, the redoubtable, Cletuth as they walk amongst the olive trees.  In their sandals, wearing their white toga thingies.  

Cletuth: "Ethics," from Greek "ethike." Literally, things having to do with "ethos," behavior. Most Greek philosophy -- the Stoics, the Epicureans, Aristotle, etc.; was a sort of self-help oriented around "care of the self" (epimeleia heauton), psychology, maintaining a good regimen, having good habits with regard to food, sexuality, etc, living in harmony with other men, etc. Slowly, this came to include the criticism of social customs.

Gomuth impulsively interrupts the dulcet flow of the conversation to interject: The criticism of social customs, hmmm that sounds pretty judgmental.  It seems like they were on the right track before that.  What basis did the Greeks use to formulate and defend these social customs?  

Cletuth considers the question briefly, twists his graying goatee and continues:  Various approaches were tried, but the issue was never decided on its merits entirely.  Aristotle's basis for the Nichomachean Ethics was "eudaimon." Literally it means "good spirits" and it's an idiom for happiness. The idea was that there are certain things that improve your spirits, and certain things that upset your personal balance. So I guess you could put Aristotle's philosophy into the "ethics" camp rather than the "morality" camp; it may be full of generalizations, but not transcendent abstractions.

This, however, is not to mention the Platonic twisting that was applied to Aristotle's  philosophy by the Christian Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. 

Gomuth: So what we have here is a failure to elucidate!  The Greeks argued about ethics for a while, but never nailed down the issue.   Very interesting when you think of it.  Also sad in a way.  Think of how much grief we could have all been spared if only the Greeks had come up with the once and forever ethics machine that delivered a solid 100% justifiable "right" answer for the question, "what is right?"  What happened next, my dearly beloved Cletuth?

Cletuth: Well, this brings us to "morality," from the Latin "moralitas." Literally, things having to do with "mores," customs. By the Roman period this term already applied to what the Greeks were still calling "ethics." Under the influence of Christianity and of Plato (the Grecian prelude to Christianity)...

Gomuth slips in the wry foil: "Under the influence of Christianity," yikes!  Sounds like a dangerous influence, sort of an "opiate of the masses" kind of thing happening there.  Interesting that, from the beginning, the whole morality house of cards was based on some sucky unprovable faith-based metaphysics! Classic. 

Cletuth scowls a little menacingly, hoping to get through this before dinner:  This came to mean a critique of social customs based on the transcendental laws of prophecy and of reason. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his later works, made a big deal about this distinction, and promoted the Greek concept of care of the self and what he called "technologies of the self" -- the criticism of behavior and custom as different lifestyles nurturing the self in different ways -- or we could even say, nurturing different kinds of selves. Another late French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, made a very big deal of the difference with reference to the magnum opus of the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza, his "Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata," in which Spinoza only considers what is good and bad according to the nature of the individual, rather than according to any abstract moral theory. And of course, this distinction, though I don't think it's named so explicitly, forms the topic of Nietzsche's famous "On the Genealogy of Morals," as well as forming a significant portion of the conceptual bulk of "Beyond Good & Evil" and really most of his other works.

Are you getting all this, Cupcake?

Gomuth: My ears and synapses are dazzled by the light and heat.  Pray continue Jefe.  What about the religions and philosophies of the East?  Were they similarly obsessed with controlling their subjects through the imposition of a moral system?

Cletuth: Taoism yes. Confucianism, no. I'd say Confucianism has its own transcendentalist thing going on. Of course, for the Chinese it wasn't prophecy or reason. In fact, China was such a conservative culture at that time that they didn't even need to make specific reference to any source of these abstract moral requirements.

Gomuth: But Maestro, isn't it true that the rigid and pervasive rule-based society that formed the boundaries of Confucianism, in some sense typifies the model coercive system of morality that we are considering?  Perhaps it wouldn't be too wrong to suggest that Confucianism was the archetypical model specifically because it wasn't predicated on some  metaphysical authority, but simply on the premise that it was better for everyone it you kept a lid on behavior for the general good of society.

Cletuth: Point taken my son.  From that perspective, Confucianism may be the ultimate conservatism because it's not predicated on any authority other than itself -- even Kant had to predicate his philosophy on "reason."

Gomuth: At the end of the day, I suppose that it really doesn't matter much whether the local zealots actually think they are talking to God, or just some self-anointed moral authority that happens to mostly benefit them and their relatives.  The Taliban, and the Catholic Church and Mao and Marx are all a result of the Greeks not taking the time to get this right.  I mean Damn bubba, that bites!

Cletuth: Cynical my boy, but I suppose you could fairly say that this is as much the fault of Plato as it is of Abraham!

Gomuth: Ergo virtually every human who ever lived has been under the yoke of some coercive morality, and none of these moral systems has much  basis in anything except the extra-rational perception of "faith," in the case of most of the world's religions, or the arbitrary personal needs of whichever political regime has managed to grab the reigns of power in your town, state, or country.  

I don't know about you, Master but that really pisses me off.

Cletuth: Likewise Little Cricket, likewise.

 

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