“Be fruitful and multiply.” That is God’s imperative to those creations that it made in its image. It is the sole moral imperative. In this piece I will be using the idea of being fruitful specifically, and will be using the biblical idea of fruitfulness as a synonym for Aristotle’s definition of happiness. Aristotle defines happiness as:
“Happiness (or flourishing or living well) is a complete and sufficient good. This implies (a) that it is desired for itself, (b) that it is not desired for the sake of anything else, (c) that it satisfies all desire and has no evil mixed in with it, and (d) that it is stable.” As provided by Notre Dame University Philosophy Department.
It is very important to understand what Aristotle means when he says happiness. It isn’t the personal metaphysical idea of happiness but an objective state of “flourishing,” and cannot be because of or via things that are evil. One is not happy if they are a trial lawyer for the mob, or a thief; basic arguments against individualist understanding of morality will claim that that is in fact the case. Although the argument is not accurate it is still incredibly effective. Aristotle’s view of ethics is that virtue begets morality and must be taught at a young age and developed. The more virtuous the person the more likely they are to act moral.
Nature is prescriptive. Nature applies directly to humans, even within human relationships and groups of humans. Even with thought and education and technology, nature is still prescriptive. We have to understand that bad things will happen, that we cannot prevent all of those things and that we exist within a larger natural system that acts on its own accord in response to stimuli just as we do. It is pure arrogance (Satan’s sin that caused god to cast him out from heaven) to suppose that we can create a system better than nature creates.
Any ideology that does not put primacy on the original moral imperative and the virtues that it requires is inherently amoral. The individual, or more accurately, every individual must take primacy. This not to say that individuals who hold collectivist moral ideas are themselves immoral, but their ideas are at their base immoral because they deny the sole moral imperative, which makes the use of said collectivist morality for evil not only possible but inevitable.
Aristotle’s ethics are virtue based. The virtuous individual is much more likely to be moral. Aristotle’s ethics are general purposefully, with the understanding that in this field even the best generalization are only accurate most of the time. For Aristotle’s ideas on ethics to work they must be extolled and taught to the individual from a young age. One can know what is right, but not do what is right, so in many ways teaching what is moral or not moral in a situation is basically irrelevant. If one understands the unfathomable dynamics and transient nature of reality, one would understand that no situation is completely the same. By giving individuals the virtues to both know and do what is right, you avoid the problems of simply teaching what is right. You also avoid, as a teacher, the possibility of being wrong, or simply unduly swayed in regards to the specific situation. This view of ethics and morality is the most practical and the most positive because it is from an educational perspective rather than a dictatorial perspective. Aristotle also contends in his basic moral understanding that things that are the most good are good in and of themselves:
“we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” –Nicomachean Ethics I
Aristotle’s predecessor Plato had a similar virtue based view of ethics but differed from Aristotle in that he linked it directly to his political view, therein negating the positive effects of virtue-based ethics. Plato, while he believed that virtue begets morality, thought that there must be some sort of educated scholastic elite to teach the others, and that the individuals desires must be suppressed to exist well within a collective. Although a logical assumption, there are some major issues. In nature packs and groups form to survive. If a pack leader or group leaders fail in keeping people alive, the pack reforms or disbands. An intellectual leader has no such objective criterion by which the individuals in the group can judge the leader. This system would also cause institutional morality where the success of the institution becomes of high moral value, thus causing moral decisions to be made for the sake of the institution, instead of because they were good within themselves. Plato’s mistakes are telling of the governmental tendencies that will pull moral philosophy away from virtue-based ethics in the future.
Thomas Aquinas translated Aristotle into the Christian understanding. He did so by acknowledging natural law, or the observable laws of reality, as part of the greater law of god and separating his three groups of virtues into god given and learned virtues. This will be important later when Rand is explained in relation to Aquinas. Aquinas will also be discussed in regards to charity later in this piece.
After Aquinas philosophers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Bacon pushed virtue-based ethics aside. This more individualistic and developmental kind of philosophy proved quite inconvenient to the goals of thought that became popular after the middle ages. There was a shift from an inside out understanding to an outside in or top down understanding. The popular wisdom became that it would be easier to just mold society through government, as Plato would have it, Hobbes being the most extreme example in his belief in a single monolithic totalitarian figure. Libertarian thought, or classical liberal thought, eventually brought Aristotle’s moral outlook back into fashion.
For the purposes of this paper we will now end our discussion of the history of virtue based moral thought with Ayn Rand. She is an earthshakingly divisive figure, and rightfully so. Objectivism, her stark unapologetic philosophy is an evolution of Aristotle and is strikingly similar to Aquinas despite Rand’s well-known dislike for religion in general, as an institution. As described by Rand Objectivism is strikingly simple.
My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
- . Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- . Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- . Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- . The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Rand’s focus on the primacy of the individual is designed so that the individual’s virtue develops, and that comes from doing the inherently good things. Aristotle believed that the highest goods were pleasurable and in fact the highest good was pleasure, which Aristotle considered to be the unimpeded activity of a natural state or when something good developed in oneself is turned on by something good in the outside world. So to have pleasure an individual must develop personally first, which is why the highest moral purpose is oneself, and why the primacy of oneself does not diminish the value of others, but in fact increases the chance each person will be moral and make correct ethical decisions.
Despite Thomas Aquinas’ moral and ethical philosophy being deeply rooted in his faith, Rand’s Objectivism still operates at its base with the same principals. If you remove the virtues cited by Aquinas that he believes to be infused or coming from god, you are left with the virtues that are of prime importance in Objectivism; the prime examples being the intellectual virtues of understanding, science, wisdom, art and prudence. Understanding is seen as basically using the obvious knowledge available to you to develop self-evident truths. Science is seen as the habit of drawing conclusions from the self-evident truths that you developed. Wisdom is seen as the organization of this knowledge. The previously mentioned virtues being the speculative issues, and much like objectivism only relate to that which can be understood and perceived within the physical or real world. Art is understood as the virtue of being able to make things. Prudence is understood as the virtue of knowing how to run ones life successfully. Art and prudence are considered the practical intellectual virtues and are of foremost importance in Rand’s Objectivism. These are all virtues that are not good within themselves, but are good when used in rational self-interest.
Aquinas sees charity as the greatest virtue, and sees all the religious or infused virtues as greater than the others. This is do to Aquinas belief that leading the virtuous life is done to honor god, while Objectivism refuses to use that which is not logically perceivable in reality in the decision making process. Objectivism stops making moral directives past what it can prove philosophically, which is why it is such a simple understanding. Despite Objectivism coming from a position where a higher power was irrelevant and Aquinas’ moral philosophy coming from a perspective where morality was in service to god, the basic understanding and practice is the same.
Aristotle, Aquinas and Rand’s basic premise is the only inherently moral premise. One must be virtuous to be moral, virtue is a habit and must be practiced and developed, the individual and the health and happiness of the individual are paramount to morality. The nature of life is too complex and transient to have any system or any axiomatic understandings guide your moral decisions, you simply have to practice a virtuous life and hope those virtues will put you in a good position to make the right decisions.
The Christian ethic is “love thy neighbor as thyself.” One has to love themselves first to love another. In an economic sense, one cannot be charitable without first being successful. In the Christian tradition charity must come from love, not from an ethical dictate. It is important to remember how Aquinas defined virtue, he defined it as such “Virtue denotes a certain perfection of a power. Now a thing’s perfection is considered chiefly in regard to its end. But the end of power is act. Wherefore power is said to be perfect, according as it is determinate to its act.” The ends are specifically important, if one gives to a charity and that charity wastes the money, or fails in its goals, then it was not a virtuous decision. This is very important in regards to socialism and paying taxes. Paying taxes is not virtuous, and metrics of success within government programs are non-existent. To consider oneself virtuous for voting for higher taxes to “help” people and then paying those higher taxes, is amoral in its arrogance. The individual has to perfect his own power and is responsible for its carrying out. Socialist dogma in regards to morality reminds me specifically of a famous amoral character. “Are there no poorhouses? My taxes go to these institutions, and those who are badly off must go there.” It would seem despite all the crowing over the free market, Scrooge was a collectivist morally, and the socialist system gave him an easy way out. He has already been forced to be “moral,” but who is really amoral Scrooge or the government. Einstein would say the government: “Force always attracts men of low morality.” Scrooge never forced or coerced anyone into anything.
Because the individual and the individuals’ development is the most important aspect in the morality of each individual, any collective understanding of morality is at its heart amoral. It is not surprising that these moral understandings were discarded for the expediency of protecting grandiose understandings of a central government molding its individuals into a moral and material utopia. To Rand the utopia is simply impossible and to Aquinas it doesn’t exist in this reality, they had no reason to change what is true and objective for what is relative. Aristotle is correct, what is best is simply what is good within itself, not what is done for the sake of something else. The greatest atrocities are committed for the sake of something else, some higher good, some good that is so good it is above mere individuals. The objective reality is that utopia can only be achieved if everyone simply became happy themselves, and the only philosophies that could achieve this are those that are virtue based, whether Aristotle, Aquinas or Rand. Without the sole moral imperative there is no morality, just ideas and axioms that could be used for evil as easily as they can be used for good.