Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

Excerpt

A Difference between Classical and Modern Moral Philosophy

1. I begin with an apparent difference between classical and modern moral philosophy. By classical moral philosophy I mean that of ancient Greece, mainly of Athens or of the philosophers who lived there, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and members of the Epicurean and Stoic schools. By modern moral philosophy I mean that of the period from 1600 to 1800, but we should include sixteenth-century writers such as Montaigne, who were major influences later on.

When Sidgwick comes in Book I of the Methods of Ethics to the concept of good, he remarks that until then he has been discussing Tightness, which is, he says, the concept frequently used by English writers. He has treated this concept and its equivalents as implying a dictate, or an imperative, of reason. Reason is seen as prescribing certain actions unconditionally, or else with reference to some ulterior end. Yet it is possible, Sidgwick says, to see the moral ideal as attractive, as specifying an ideal good to be pursued, rather than as a dictate, or an imperative, of reason. Virtuous action, or Tightness in action, is seen not as a dictate of an imperative reason, but as something good in itself, and not merely as a means to some ulterior good.

Sidgwick thinks that such was the fundamental ethical view of the Greek schools of moral philosophy:

The chief characteristics of ancient ethical controversy as distinguished
from modern may be traced to the employment of a generic notion
"of good" instead of a specific one "such as tightness" in expressing

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