By Chet Yarbrough
Lectures by Kreeft
Professor Kreeft, in The Modern Scholar’ lectures, offers stories of interesting philosophers and what they think they know about moral thought. Ethics: A History of Moral Thought is a whirlwind tour of how philosophers define ethics. It begins in antiquity and continues through tomorrow. What one hears in these lectures may be accepted and practiced in life tomorrow or never; if never, one is seemingly confirming belief in free choice, but not much more. As a warning to the curious, the tour is circular. The tour ends as it begins.
Wisdom is characterized by Socrates as—“I Know Something That I Know Nothing”. Kreeft recounts Socrates’ story of being told by Apollo’s Oracle that he is the wisest man on earth. Socrates does not believe what he is told. He proceeds to prove the Oracle’s error by asking questions of wise men in his day. In the process of questioning, Socrates finds no one can convincingly answer the questions he asks. Socrates concludes the Oracle is right. He is the wisest man in the world because he knows that he knows nothing. Others say they know, explain what they know; believe in what they know, but show (from Socrates’ questions) they know nothing.
Kreeft moves on from the ancients to Aquinas (1225-1274), Machiavelli (1469-1527), Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704), Rousseau (1712-1778), and Sartre (1905-1980) to reveal the truth of Socrates’ aphorism. Each of these philosophers open new doors of explanation to human ethics but each door leads to partially empty rooms. Aquinas acknowledges happiness as a goal in life but happiness is defined by union with God, the Father of divine virtue. The cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Aquinas believes, to the degree humankind follows the cardinal virtues, he/she finds happiness. The logical extension of this philosophy is that there is no chance of happiness without union with God, a God defined by its believers–a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, who?
Kreeft explains that Machiavelli removes the idea of virtue and ethics from the concept of happiness and suggests the exercise of power is the source of happiness. Machiavelli views mankind as innately evil with happiness as reward from the pragmatic use of power; power gathered by any means necessary. Machiavelli argues that being feared is more important than being loved. Might makes right in Machiavelli’s observation of the world; virtue is superfluous in the face of force. The logical extension of this philosophy is tyranny of the many by the few.
Kreeft notes that Hobbes believes, like Machiavelli, mankind is innately evil. However, Hobbes suggests societies form into communities to mitigate human’ evil through the creation of laws exercised by a great Leviathan, a powerful monster. The logical extension of Hobbes belief is big governments proscribe laws to mitigate mankind’s inherent evil. In contrast to Hobbes, Kreeft explains John Locke’s philosophy.
Locke argues that mankind is basically good and freedom-to-compete in a marketplace for goods and property will result in a balanced community of interests. The logical consequence of Locke’s philosophy is smaller government but only theoretical happiness because competition generates win/lose consequences that amplify community’ inequity.
Next, Krefft’s analysis of Rousseau opens a door to the French Revolution with the idea of “The Social Contract”. Rousseau believes in the innate goodness of man and argues for the rights of assembly and representative government to establish standards for the common good. The consequence of that belief is mobocracy in the “Great Terror” of the French Revolution.
In more modern times, the rise of Sartre’s philosophy brings ethics into the 20th century. Krefft describes Sartre’s philosophy as relativist. Sartre is an atheist. He argues that the world is indifferent to all life forms. People are free but their freedom comes with responsibility. Without God, all things are permissible but the individual bares the consequence of his/her action. Sartre believes everything is defined by relationship to an “other”. Sartre suggests human beings live in a state of oppression. (Riesman, a sociologist, wrote a book titled “The Lonely Crowd” that exemplifies Sartre’s concept of oppression) Sartre argues that one can only break that bond by recognizing the oppression and choosing independent self-actualization or authenticity. This is an existentialist philosophy that demands knowledge and understanding of oneself. Every person is his/her own god. Ethics are situation-ally determined with individual’ acceptance of responsibility; every person is an island. A logical extension of this ethical belief is that societies breed iniquity, distort truth, and leave every person on their own path to happiness. Sartre endorses the opinion of Dostoevsky’s protagonist in Brothers Karamazov that says there is no God; therefore everything is permissible, including murder of his hedonistic father.
From Krefft’s lectures, one begins to believe human beings are good and bad by nature. Aside from “Knowing One’s Self” and “Knowing that I Know Nothing”, there is no philosophy that adequately defines virtue or ethics that would predict any kind of utopian future. If happiness is the goal of life, its attainment by an individual or a society remains a mystery.
Nearing the end of Krefft’s lectures, he addresses the attempts of science to define morality and ethics. Krefft acknowledges the idea of observational analysis, dating back to Machiavelli’s views of history but the scientific movement gains momentum with David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). It seems these three users of the scientific method provide little light in their analysis of morality and ethics. Their contribution is in the use of scientific method to understand normative standards of society.
Finally, Krefft lightly covers eastern philosophy’s approach to morality and ethics. One fundamental difference between western and eastern beliefs is eastern belief in reincarnation versus western belief in a one way ride. A second fundamental difference is eastern-cultural’ belief that human beings are both good and bad while western’ culture believes humans try to be good but are seduced by evil. The gods of many eastern religions are good and bad (with the exception of the Muslim religion) while western religion shows God as only good. Krefft suggests an eastern religion may pass a dying person on the sidewalk because of feared interference with reincarnation. In contrast, a westerner passes a dying person to not be involved–or with a belief that a dying person’s problem is not a passer-by’s problem.
Krefft notes that eastern philosophy is by nature a “let be” view of life with a concerted effort to leave worldly concerns to their own destiny. Western philosophy is more proactively involved in defining and practicing, or failing to practice, morality and ethics.
By the end of Professor Krefft’s lectures a listener returns to Socrates suggestion; i.e. “Know thyself” because “The unexamined life is not worth living”. What you believe is what you believe. Krefft suggests we should always seek to understand why we believe what we believe.