How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues

By Roger Crisp | Go to book overview

I
Modern Moral Philosophy and the Virtues

ROGER CRISP


I. AN ANCIENT QUESTION

Should I go into business or into politics? Should I live the contemplative life, or seek after pleasure? Should I be just? These were among the questions Aristotle tried to answer over two thousand years ago in his lectures on ethics in Athens. Aristotle was working through an agenda already laid down by Socrates and Plato; in one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates asks, 'What would even a person of little intelligence be more concerned about than this: how should one live?'1

Our question, then, is an ancient one; but, on one view of the history of moral philosophy, it has in the modern era faded into the background. Our morality is heavily influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and has its roots in conceptions of divine law. This has had two results. First, the primary question has been not 'How should I live?', but 'How should I act?' Secondly, answers to the question about how to act have been put in terms of obligations. Morality is seen as a lawlike set of principles which binds us to perform or not to perform certain actions.

The two moral traditions which have come to dominate modern philosophy certainly fit this description. One tradition begins with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant ( 1724- 1804), according to whom the right action is the one performed out of respect for the moral law. The other tradition, utilitarianism, has also focused almost without exception on the act which one is required to perform by morality (the act, in this case, that will produce the greatest overall good).

This view of the legalistic turn in ethics was stated first in one of the most influential philosophy articles of the twentieth century, ElizabethAnscombe

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1
Plato, Gorgias500c2-4.

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