Published May 30, 2023
BY EMMA BROWN
In the year and a half since I began this column, I have spent a considerable amount of time contemplating morality, both what it is and how to act in accordance with it. Like most everyone else, I want to be a good person, but the trouble is: There is an abundance of conflicting viewpoints on how to be moral and no decisive solution to my questions. So how is anyone supposed to know what “the right thing to do” actually is?
Aristotle claimed that virtue is far from theoretical, more closely related to a person’s character and actions than their deliberation of right and wrong. In the philosopher’s eyes, ethical actions speak louder than words. To become a virtuous person, one must exist at the “golden mean,” which is the perfect average of acting too much or not enough.
That can sound confusing. How is someone supposed to be virtuous if there are no direct instructions to achieving it? To Aristotle, people become ethical over a period of time, during which they must practice virtuosity diligently, like someone might practice a sport or an instrument. A truly moral person does not need a map to becoming virtuous because they are already operating at the golden mean.
Aristotle claimed that because the function of human life–the reason that people long to stay alive–is to live well, then it stands to reason that everyone ought to act in the best interest of humanity itself and be virtuous.
Unlike Aristotle, to notable Stoic philosopher Benedict Spinoza the path to becoming an ethical person was clear: People must live in harmony with their rational nature. The Stoics believed that the ideal life is characterized by tranquility and peace, which is interrupted by emotion and passion. As such, these philosophers sought to eliminate it entirely from their lives in the pursuit of the good life.
Spinoza believed that the foundation of virtue is the desire for self-preservation, and people ought to act virtuously, if only for their own sake. But our existence can only be preserved through the pursuit of reason, and that reasoning will cause us to seek to benefit ourselves. The Dutch philosopher believed that so long as a person is guided by reason, they will be virtuous because they will be doing what is best for human nature.
Like the Stoics, Immanuel Kant believed that emotion can only convolute our reasoning. Kant theorized that morality is objective, that there is a clear right and wrong in every situation. This is due to categorical imperatives, or universal moral duties that should guide people’s actions. Categorical imperatives don’t instruct people to act ethically in order to avoid punishment or gain praise but rather to do what is right simply because it is right. Those imperatives are built upon maxims, or universal justifications for actions. Universal maxims beg the simple question: “What if everyone acted the same way?”
In Kant’s eyes, being ethical means doing the right thing, no matter the confounding circumstances or consequences.
Utilitarianism takes a far less rigid approach to morality, placing happiness on a pedestal above reason or duty, unlike many other ethical philosophies. The school of thought, founded by philosopher Jeremy Benthem, dictates that moral action is whatever results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. In other words, virtue is relative. Any action can be justified if it results in enough pleasure.
Imagine a terrorist has been captured by officials and is being interrogated about how to diffuse a bomb that has been placed in an apartment building that houses 500 people. The officials will not be able to neutralize the threat without the terrorist’s information, but the terrorist refuses to give them any information. Traditional methods aren’t working. But if the officials use what would typically be regarded as unethical interrogation methods, the detainee will give them the information necessary to save 500 lives. So should the officials hurt one person to save 500? To a utilitarian, absolutely.
Utilitarians believe that the good of the group is more important than anything else, and as such, a truly virtuous person is someone who always considers the will of others and acts in the best interest of the community.
At the end of the day, everyone has a different idea of what morality is, which means that each person takes a different route to becoming a good person, hoping to reach the same destination. The road that we take to virtue is less important than our intention. As long as someone is deliberating ethics, taking the time to consider right and wrong, they are on the right track.
Ultimately, the critical factor to becoming a good person is philosophizing. Keep doing it.