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
The Greeks tried hard to grapple with this, but they never got it
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
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
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
This, however, is not to mention the Platonic twisting that was applied to
Aristotle's philosophy by the Christian Scholastic philosophers of the Middle
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.
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
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.