Introduction to Virtue Ethics: Insights of the Ancient Greeks

By Raymond J. Devettere | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book is an introduction to the beginnings of virtue ethics. It takes the reader back to the Greeks—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the early Stoics—and to the moral philosophy they created in the fourth and third centuries before the common era (B.C.E.).

Reading the ancient Greek moral philosophers reminds us how much their fundamental ethical ideas differ from modern ideas. The seminal ethical notion today is that ethics is about obligations arising from moral laws or principles. Where these moral laws and principles come from, of course, is a matter of disagreement. For some, the source of moral obligation is still religious— God's law written as written in the sacred texts or inscribed in the human heart.

With the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the idea that moral obligation is grounded in God's laws and religion began losing its appeal for many. Here a philosopher named Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) represents a transitional figure. Despite being a devout Christian he nonetheless insisted that the moral law does not come from God but from ourselves. Thanks to what he called [pure practical reason,] he thought that we can set forth a categorical imperative by which we generate maxims telling us what we ought and ought not to do—our duties—and our moral obligation is to act accordingly. Today, Kant's moral theory is called a deontological theory; that is, a theory that judges some actions as ethical or unethical in themselves, regardless of the agent's intentions and the situational circumstances.

Yet, Kant retained an important part of his Christian religious tradition by insisting that two beliefs—the belief in immortality

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