The nine kinds of ethical life
Which one are you after, and why?
Ethics, nowadays, is about the (moral) principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of a certain activity. For instance, I can ask myself whether I should adopt the moral principles of vegetarianism and abstain from eating meat and other animal products. Or we could have a discussion about medical ethics, meaning the principles that ought to inform the activities characteristic of the medical profession.
But the ancient Greco-Romans meant something far more encompassing by the terms ethics or morality (which they used as synonyms, ethics referring to the Greek root, morality to the Latin one). To think about ethics meant nothing less than to think about how to live one’s life. All aspects of it. This, of course, includes an understanding of right (or wrong) conduct, as in the modern usage, but it also encompasses our priorities, our values, how we should spend our time, pursuing what activities, and what sort of duties we have toward others as well as ourselves.
There is no question in my mind that the Greco-Roman view of ethics is far better than the modern one, which means that moral philosophy began to go wrong about the time of Kant, and hasn’t yet corrected itself. The exception is a small but increasingly influential group of contemporary philosophers (including Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Larry Becker) who have started to push back against the mainstream and have attempted to articulate a modern version of what is called virtue ethics. (Virtue ethics, incidentally, is not just a western thing. Confucianism, for instance, is an example of it among the eastern traditions.)
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