Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ethics, ancient ethics, religion, etc.

Here is a piece by Lord Sacks, from the Times of 27 February. The article concludes like this:
Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if that sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution”. Things that once made sense — duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do — to many people now make no sense at all.

This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have. What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.

The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.
This seems to me to offer a peculiar view of classical ethics and the classical world generally. Is the claim really that Athens did not last very long because it did not have an appropriate (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) ethic? Hmmm. How long did Rome last? It was not 'extraordinarily' short-lived. And if we can say (pretty conservatively) that Greek and Roman antiquity lasted from, say, the 6th c. BC to the 4th c. AD then it made it through a millennium. The survival of a society or of a religion for that matter seems to me not to be entirely dictated by that society or religion's 'correctness' in terms of its ethical views. Lots of other things might well be important.

And it's pretty odd to claim that the 'Athens of Plato' (not sure what that is; the Athens of the time when Plato lived?) did not have some purchase on personal virtue, responsibility, forgiveness, and love. Humility? Perhaps not. But I'm not convinced that it is a particularly positive thing of itself anyhow. And do we really now find ourselves in a situation where we have adopted the civic ethics of Athens? I don't think so. Of course matters of political and civic value have pride of place in the media and in political discourse. But there is no reason to think on that basis that the notions of personal responsibility, inter-personal relationships, integrity, sincerity and the like have no place at all in our modern lives, just as there is no reason to think that they had no place in antiquity. Nor do I think that the notions that we have of those important ethical concerns necessarily derive from a Judaeo-Christian background.

But here is perhaps the more important point. It's not particularly helpful to look back to Plato, say, as if he stands as some kind of clear and straightforward 'non-religious' model for ethical thinking. We might well want to point out important distinctions between Judaeo-Christian religion and Platonic theology but it is clear that in many ways Plato's conception of value and of a good human life is dependent upon a rich notion of the divine. The same goes, with some further differences, for Aristotle too. (Perhaps the Epicureans might be the kind of people Lord Sacks could really get angry with. but lets leave those aside for now.) We can perhaps take eudaimonism as an interesting framework but eudaimonism as such seems to me to be compatible with religious and non-religious views, so far as I understand that contrast. So it is not a straightforward choice between 'secular' Greek ethics based on personal desires, well-being and the like and a 'religious' ethics based on duty, humility and the like.

We shouldn't treat the history of ethics in so simple a manner because it will make the important discussions about the future of our ethical lives more impoverished. (Similar thoughts occurred to me some time ago when this blog hosted an interesting debate about ID and ancient philosophy. The posts are here, here, and here.)

1 comment:

Thornton Lockwood said...

Lovely timing. Students in my history of ethics class are just reading parts of St. Ambrose's de officiis after having read the first book of Cicero's de officiis. I've directed them to your blog and will see what comments it generates.