Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison

Ethics As The Enlightenment Of The Dark Side

Morality is about the behaviors (“mores”; from “mos” genitive, “moris”; one’s disposition, manners, customs) which have long been viewed as best to the group. Thus morality is the software which (is viewed as) enabling group survival best. The word “morality” was coined by Cicero, and duplicated the etymology of the term used by the Greeks for the same purpose: “ethics”.

Ethics is the most important field for our times, as the power (kratos) of Sapiens is reaching some sort of singularity, from creating transgender people to wrecking the climate, let alone soon making quantum computers (and thus Artificial Consciousness).

All humans come equipped with an intrinsic, default ethics: human ethology, selected by millions, tenths of millions of years, of biological evolution. It’s the divinity inside. Still, culture enables it.

Our lives are influenced by, and, to a large extent made of, how we act. However, “life” is more general than just “acts”. It’s also all what was, and is experienced, felt, all what is imagined, dreamed for, and desired. Thus, our actions are often predicted by our inclinations. Indeed, one should go back to the Ancient Greek notion that philosophy and ethics are all about how we live. More than simply how we act.

Socrates is widely viewed as the father of, all too much of philosophy. All too much, indeed, because Socrates made a huge mistake. Socrates believed that lack of goodness was just about ignorance. Well, true, ignorance can cause a lot of evil. But was Stalin just ignorant? Ignorance is not what defined Stalin. Malevolence is more like it. Malevolent enough to crush Hitler, among other feats.

Hence malevolence does not need ignorance. It often does better without it. Had he been smarter, Hitler could have killed much more people: ignorance curtailed his achievements.

Evil is its own divinity, its own fundamental cause. Socrates, who valued knowledge so much, completely ignored the Dark Side. And that ignorance was, indeed, evil.

Ignoring the Dark Side is a mistake that neither Christianism nor Islamism committed… Perhaps to excess (as they both seem to laud it: both the Bible and the Qur’an have “verses of the Sword”, which, in both religions, required to kill “unbelievers”; see Luke 19; 27, and Sura 5 verse 9).

In any case, the Dark Side is real, and not very surprising in a species which reach supremacy by eating other animals. Ethics always ignored it at its own risk. As Socrates found out when he had to die, for his naivety in ignoring the Dark Side. Of his own students!

There are more comments to be made about the essay below:

  1.  Kant’s silly metaphysics of the “moral imperative“, up in the air, yet brought to ground as obscene submission to authority, helped to bring Nazism… In view of not just the blatant evidence, but according to what the Nazis themselves pretended (Nietzsche seemed to have guessed Kantian “morality” would lead to this unfathomable disasters, hence his wild attacks against what he condemned as German herd mentality).
  2. Not only did Nazism sink nearly all pretense to ethical authority that most of German inspired philosophy could have, but it revealed ethical problems similar to the famous Melian Dialogue, but writ much larger, and even more ominous.
  3. The discovery of ethology, and in particular human ethology, (ought to have) changed the entire field of ethics. No serious philosopher can pretend otherwise. And this brings us right back to the contemplation of the Dark Side, one of the two pillars human supremacy rests on, as if Atlas on two legs.

Patrice Ayme’

How to Be a Stoic

ethicsEthics — as a branch of philosophy — means a very different thing today than it did once. And that, perhaps, is a mistake. There is an excellent article over at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by John-Stewart Gordon, discussing the topic, that is very much worth checking out. Here are the highlights.

The first, and arguably most important, thing to understand about how the Greco-Romans conceived of ethics is that they regarded it as the study of how to live a happy life, not (as in the modern sense) the study of which actions are right or wrong. Gordon mentions the example of “justice,” which the ancients saw as a character trait (a virtue), not as the idea of people having rights.

Accordingly, it is interesting to note that the words “ethics” and “morality” have revealing roots: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character…

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11 Responses to “Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison”

  1. gmax Says:

    Seems like Massimo learned a few tricks from you. He protested on Scientia Salon when you used the origins of the word ethics, to draw some conclusion s, and now he is just doing the same for depth. Still an admirer of Kant he is, though


  2. Benign Says:

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It kills empathy and stirs a blood lust beyond ethics or even reason, as it may lead to a general level of devastation that will not benefit the descendants of anyone. The big question to me is whether the 99% can stop the 1% from destroying everything. Great inequality is a prima facie social bad, as it creates this power. A society that cannot correct extreme inequality will likely self-destruct, IMHO.

    Jesus remark in Luke 19:27 is probably sarcastic and not very PC, given his life. Some commentators interpret it as saying, “You might as well kill them in front of me to spare them the judgment to come” for rejecting morality, which he displayed pretty well. (I like your neologisms “Christianism” and “Islamism” to refer to the institutions.)



    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I wished I would believe that Jesus was sarcastic. In any case, many plutocrats, in the 2,000 years which followed, acted as if he were not. And it’s not just Luke 19:27. There are similar utterances, in different contexts. The very fact of suicide (on the cross!) is violent.

      Absolute power is known to induce hormonal, and even epigenetic, changes at least in several species of fish. Why not the same in humans?. It is reasonable to suppose it’s the same in humans. The Dark Side is not just an inclination, it provides with energy and modification!


  3. Kevin Berger Says:

    Disgression :
    (voyons voir si le lien FB passe comme ça)


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I appreciate all the links, but right now, public discussion will be limited on my side, as I have a busy weekend including an exclusive museum tour and two other inescapable invitations, including moreover shepherding my 5 year old, through it all, the most important mission in that museum…


  4. EugenR Says:

    All this ethical ideas don’t speak about the real essence of human ethics, the tribal ethos. All the experiments to neglect the faith and the beliefs behind all the ethics brought only disaster. The truth is, the myths run our life and desires, even in our modern times.
    What are all the marketing tools like, brands, Hollywood stars, false kings and princesses (like princes Diana, probably a very bad mother and wife, lets not mention her other follies), presidents and governors, fashion channel, Formula 1’s heroes and all the magazines around it that fill the airports, if not modern myths? Should we be surprised if the reality, mainly the scientific one, that is full of prediction about future, and nothing to put on the shelf of malls, real or virtual, is not a subject of public interest? They can alarm the world with warnings about global warming, that will have catastrophic consequences in the FUTURE, these people, full of modern myths will never listen to them? After all future is not our world. Who cares about the cultural and scientific wonders, created by committed individuals, who piece after piece accumulated the human knowledge, that enables the life of luxury in the modern world, most of the individuals enjoy. It is subject of interest of only very few freaks.
    Then there is the other world of faith in ancient myths, sacred texts, sacred prophets, (mentioning their name improperly can bring masses of people to deadly rage), etc. Beliefs in sacredness of physical items, some that bring luck others curse. And what about belief in power of spells, pray, the whispers, abracadabra, etc.? Adding to it the spirits of the ancients, the died loved heroes and hated enemies, the spirits and the taboos.
    To the ancient spirits believe systems we have to add the and newly recycled ones, the New Age phenomena, with the UFOs, the time travelers, the ex-terrestrial beings who visited us in their “Chariots of Gods”, built the pyramids, and left in hurry, etc.

    All this is the tribal ethos, that justifies the old traditions and modern costumes, that has nothing to do with rationality and scientifically understood reality. Yet if someone things that the majority of people are more interested in rationality than in the myths, i suggest him to compare the number of views in both kind of clips, and then judge who are the normative ones, and who are the freaks.

    In the European history few times the people of reason tried to create moral codes based on reason, and then disregarded the myths as old-fashioned, primitive, irrelevant, disappearing, until the myths, the ancient or the new ones stroke back with ferocity. The first were the Greek-Romans, who supported cultural plurality and scientific thinking. In the first century before and after Jesus crucifixion many of the leading elites were Epicureans (as it appears including father in law of Julius Caesar) and followers of Stoicism, but then they were swept away by the Christianity. Also in eighteen and nineteen century Western Europe the belief in rationality went on. It ended with WWI, that was the victory of belief in German mythology of victimized superior nation. Then this myth was upgraded by Hitler and the Nazis and on the eastern side of Europe Stalin based its political morality on “communistic” mythology. After the disastrous 80 years war of 1914-1992 years, which almost was won by the regimes guided by newly created mythology, seemed as if finally the reason won upon the myths. (Viz. the famous, but incorrect essay of Francis Fukuyama first published in haste at 1989). But this illusion was swiftly swept away at September 11, 2001, if not few years before it, when unsuccessfully Muslim fundamentalist myth believers unsuccessfully tried to crash a plane to Eiffel tower at 24 December 1994.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I do agree about the tribal ethos, Eugen, as being most important. My comment before the essay did not mention it, because it was initially sent to a philosophy site. Now philosophers identify tribalism and Nazism, and those who expose the whole thing as uncouth Nazis. This is why I am banned on so many sites. Some have even a skull and crossbones showing next to my name (the Daily Kos, a site which advocates itself as left, told me in the past I was a Nazi, or words to that effect, then banned me).

      I view such “philosophers” as little more than morons. Yet, the top philosophy sites get more than 100 “followers” than I do (although my essays are reproduced in some other places). So, at this point, I have to be psychological: I did not send my comment anchoring “ethikos” in tribalism. I was toying with doing this today, but it turns out I will be more into socializing and babysitting all day long, in and out of a most famous university…


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      A tangential remark: some say that, over two centuries the death rate, worldwide, was 1-2% from war (and ten times that in Neolithic societies: Amazon’s Yaomami, etc.). Of course Jews (nearly 100% killed in vast areas) and Germans (around 15% killed in WWII), or French (more than 20% casualties in males in WWI), would disagree. I am skeptical looking forward: in case of massive Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, I would expect billions killed. The 11 million Syrians on the roads are just a minuscule appetizer…


      • EugenR Says:

        The 11 million Syrians are the napkins for the breakfast. 7 billion people out of which about half living out of what the land gives them. Land that soon big parts of it will not be watered at all. But as I wrote it is only a prediction about the future, and of no public interest.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Saint Louis founded the modern justice system (used and abused in the USA, complete with all the French vocabulary). However, he was a racist lethal torturous half demented monster. The worst? Both facts are probably related… OK, got to really go here, before significant others devour me alive…


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