Reading ancient philosophy, perhaps the biggest difference – and the one that most confuses students of philosophy – is in the focus of ancient philosophers. When Plato and Socrates discussed ethics, they did so from a fundamentally practical perspective: how one might live a more ethical life. By contrast, the aim of modern ethicists is for the most part to construct a theory of ethics: a coherent set of principles and rules by which one might classify and judge ethical decisions.
Compare the major ethical theory of the ancient Greeks, virtue ethics, with the utilitarian ethics that are ascendant today. Virtue ethics admonishes us to cultivate virtues within ourselves: to pick a model and emulate them, to introspect and see to what extent we are brave, proud, compassionate and so on. Instead, utilitarianism provides a rule – the most ethical action is the one that makes the most people satisfied – and tells us to follow it.
Students of philosophy in general far prefer utilitarianism. It’s simpler to understand, less vague, almost scientific in its exactness, and – they say – even more practical. And yet it is manifestly not more practical for somebody looking to avoid evil actions. The smallest amount of introspection ought to convince you that you naturally make ethical decisions by thinking about what a good person would do, about what is cowardly, cruel, petty, and so forth; not by weighing up both sides of some kind of Benthamite calculus.
Where utilitarianism is more practical is in the area of judging moral actions. We can’t look inside people’s heads and see their sentiments or motivations, but we can look (to an extent) at the consequences of their actions. It’s also more practical in the area of constructing a theory of what makes an action moral. Virtue ethics’ answer to that question – that a right action is right because it is made by an ethical person – is intuitively unsatisfying. Utilitarianism’s answer, while bloodless and over-simple, seems a little less like a dodge.
Where am I going with this? Virtue ethics is perfect for people focusing on their own moral practice, trying to improve the way they treat themselves and others. Utilitarianism is perfect for people looking to construct a science of ethics, classifying everybody’s actions into one coherent system. Somewhere between Plato and Peter Singer we’ve moved from the first goal to the second. Why? Partly the meteoric rise of science (I choose that metaphor deliberately) and partly Hume’s biggest and perhaps only mistake. But that’s the subject for another post.