The First Theory of the Good Life

Reading Guide:

Reading Guide Overview: This reading focuses on two broad questions: What is the good life (the theory of the good) and what makes an action right or wrong (the theory of the right). The first 6 sections focus on the theory of the good. The remaining sections highlight theories of the right action. The quiz will be weighted towards material in the first 6 sections.

Section 1: Let us Reason Together:

1. What does it mean to say morality is ultimate?

2. What is the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive statement. Identify examples of each.

Section 2: Summum Bonum:

1. Define summum bonum. (Is it instrumentally or intrinsically valuable?)

2. Whats the difference between instrumental (or extrinsic) value and intrinsic value. Be able to identify examples of each.

Section 3: Egoistic Hedonism: The First Theory of the Good Life:

1. State the theory of egoistic hedonism: what is the summum bonum, on that view?

Section 4: Socrates Challenges the Hedonists:

1. Describe the basic steps in the higher standard argument against egoistic hedonism.

2. Describe the basic steps in the nature of the soul argument against egoistic hedonism.

3. How does Socrates reply to the objection that reason can often lead us to make bad decisions?

4. How does the concept of harmony play a role in the nature of the soul argument?

5. On Socrates view, could someone in physical misery be happy? Hint: See Socrates startling claim, as discussed towards the end of this section.

6. Summarize the Moe the mugger objection to egoistic hedonism.

Section 5: Virtue Ethics: Aristotles Theory of the Good Life:

1. Aristotle argues that everything has a defining purpose. How do we identify a creatures distinctive function?

2. What is a human beings distinctive function?

3. For Aristotle, the good for a human being is to live virtuously (the excellent life is the virtuous life). What does it mean to live virtuously? Give a general definition and then a more specific description of Aristotles idea of a moral virtue

4. How are virtues learned and acquired?

5. Is there a role for emotion, in modern virtue theory? In modern approaches, like Martha Nussbaums, what is the relationship between reason and emotion.

6. Virtue requires following reason. But why, for Aristotle, should we follow reason?

Section 6: Difficulties for Virtue Theories: Just skim this. I will not test over this.

Section 7: An Initial Theory of Right and Wrong Ethical Egoism:

1. State the ethical egoist theory of right action (What is our fundamental moral obligation?)

2. Are all ethical egoists also hedonists?

3. You should understand at least one of the common objections to ethical egoism, but I wont test you on them.

Section 8: Utilitarianism:

1. Which two philosophers are associated with Utilitarianism?

2. What is the difference between Benthams version of utilitarianism and Mills.

3. State the utilitarian rule of right action (what is our fundamental moral obligation): i.e., a particular action is morally right if an only if [what?].

Section 9. Difficulties for Utilitarianism:

1. Utilitarianism seems to have implications that are inconsistent with our views on justice. Explain the conflict. (hint: study the riotous mob example)

Section 10: Kants Theory of Universal Respect:

1. Kant proposes a single rule for determining right from wrong. He says that the rule can be formulated, or stated, in different ways. Be able to state the basic idea of the first two formulations: i.e., the universal law test and the Humanity as an end, not a means test. I WILL NOT TEST OVER THE TECHNICAL DETAILS OF THE UNIVERSAL LAW TEST; JUST FOCUS ON THE SUMMARIES OF THE UNIVERSAL LAW FORMULATION.

2. If I buy a coffee from a barista, am I treating my server as a mere means? Explain.

3. Final Formulation: Kingdom of Ends: I will not test over this.

4. Rights: Be able to define and identify examples of positive and negative rights.

Basic Distinction: The two types of rights impose different types of obligations on others. Positive impose a duty of assistance. Negative impose a duty of forbearance, or non-interference.

Example: The phrase I have a right to X is ambiguous. We should always ask the speaker whether they are claiming a negative right or a positive right. Some examples:

I have a right to education: A negative right implies that no one can interfere with your attempts to educate (laws that prohibited slaves or women from learning to read violate a negative right). A positive right implies a duty to actively assist with the right-holders education. In the U.S. citizens have a positive right to a K-12 education. Additional education is only a negative right (though that might be changing).

I have a right to life. Interpreted as a negative right, this means others cant interfere with my attempt to stay alive (i.e., no murder). Interpreted as a positive right, this means that others have an obligation to help me stay alive.

I have a right to marry. Interpreted as a negative right, this would imply that others cant prevent me from marrying. Interpreted as a positive right implies an obligation to help me to become married perhaps by providing each right-holder a spouse!



Key to Highlighted Reading

Yellow: General topics (Key passages, or topics)

Green: Argument and sequence indicators (help you to identify logical steps in an argument)

Bold: key terms (be able to define and apply)

Gray: Transition statements. (Pay attention to these to keep up with logical flow of reading)


Chapter 8

Can We Reason about Morality?

Copyright by Paul Herrick, 2020. For class use only. Not for distribution. This chapter: 34 pages of reading.


1. Come, Let Us Reason Together

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed that if a man-made law conflicts with morality, it is unjust and should be repealed because morality, not man-made law, is our highest standard of behavior. Similarly, if a businessman could increase his profits by putting false labels on his products, he should not do so, even if he can get away with it, because it would be immoral. Morality takes precedence over deceptive business practicesno matter how profitable they might be. Morality also takes precedence over unexamined self-interest. A criminal may want to snatch a purse from an old lady walking with a cane, and perhaps he needs the money and could get away with it; however, he should not do so because it would be morally wrong.[endnoteRef:1] Surely these are eminently reasonable observations. [1: Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, reprinted in James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope. Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Harper One, 1986), 289-302.]

These thoughts remind us that morality is the ultimate criterion of good and bad, right and wrong, that we ought to live by, all things considered. Morality is ultimate in the sense that the obligations it imposes on us take precedence over all nonmoral considerations, including laws passed by legislatures, the profit and loss calculations of businesses, social customs, instincts, and the irrational impulses of ego, desire, prejudice, unexamined self-interest, and cognitive bias.

One reason to agree with Dr. King, that morality is our highest standard, is that any human law, social custom, institution, business practice, desire, actioneven traits acquired through the evolutionary process–can be evaluated and judged on a moral basis, using our faculty of critical thinking.

The principles or laws of morality have a number of important properties. First, they are prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is to say, they prescribe how we ought to act, they do not describe how we do in fact act. Put another way, moral principles are not empirical generalizations about the way people actually behave, and they are not statements about the way people have behaved in the past or will behave in the future. Rather, they are norms or standards that we ought to follow, whether or not we do in fact follow them and whether or not we want to follow them. If someday it should come about that most people hate each other, that descriptive fact would not make it moral to hate. Hatred would still be morally wrong. If someday it should happen that every government in the world practices genocide, that descriptive fact would not make genocide morally rightgenocide would still be morally wrong. For (again) morality is not empirical generalizations about the way we actually behaveit is a prescriptive standard stating how we ought to behave, all things considered.

Ethics, also called moral philosophy, is the philosophical study of the nature and principles of morality. Among the questions examined in this branch of philosophy are these: What exactly are the true, or correct, principles of morality? How do we tell the difference between moral right and wrong, and moral good and bad? And, What is morality rooted in or based on?

We agree on many moral principles. For instance, reasonable people all over the world agree that genocide, kidnapping, violent unprovoked assault, sex trafficking, and slavery are morally wrong. We agree that we ought to treat ourselves and others with a certain degree of respect and care. Most of us agree on the absolute value of an individual human life. When we are at our best we agree that human relations and transactions ought to be consensual. And we agree that government should be accountable to the people. But other principles are still being debated. For example, is capital punishment morally right? Should the state equalize income and wealth? Is abortion the morally wrong taking of an innocent life? Or is it morally permissible? Should the wealthy pay more in taxes? And we are still asking the question Socrates emphasized: What is truly the best way to live, all things considered? In moral philosophy we seek rational principles that can help us make principled moral decisions in real time.

Socrates is considered the founder of moral philosophy as an academic discipline based on independent critical thinking because he was the first philosopher in recorded history to seek (and to teach others to seek) systematic answers to moral questions on the basis of reason and observation alone, thus apart from myth, sacred scripture, and unquestioned priestly or civil authority. Socrates claimed that if we will reason together calmly, rationally, honestly, and respectfully on moral issues, we will discover independent, objectively true standards of conduct that apply to all human beings alikeprescriptive moral principles we truly ought to follow. Moral philosophers agree with Socrates. In philosophical ethics, as in the wider field of philosophy, reason is our common currency.

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