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Summary of central problems

of central problems


Atthe heart of Plato’s argument is the classification of goods thatpeople seek and the reasons they seek them. There are those goodssought by people for their own intrinsic value regardless of theirresultant ends. In this class are harmless pleasures. Other goods arepursued both for their intrinsic value and for the consequences thatthey lead to. Such are health and knowledge. Other goods like wealthand medicine are pursued for not for their own intrinsic value butfor the benefits that they lead to. With this classification, themajor problem of this extract is to classify justice in one of thethree categories. Is justice sought for its own sake, for thebenefits that it leads to or for both purposes? This is the majorquestion that the article seeks to address.

Theargument proceeds in a direction to show that justice belongs in thehighest of the three classes in which it should be sought for its ownsake and for the benefits it leads to. However, as it is unveiled inthe argument, this virtue is in most instances not sought by subjectsacting from a free will. Rather, it is pursued out of coercion eitherby the law or by circumstances such as a search after goodreputation. It is for this reason that moral agents end up doinginjustices as long as the masses proclaim them as justice reputable.These are the reasons that people seek to be moral or just.


Toshow the role of reason in controlling human desires is the majortask that Aristotle set to in nicomacheanethis.Human desires can go to extremes thus leading to moral agents livinga vicious life. Desires thus need to be on constant scrutiny by humanreason. For Aristotle, the good life is a life lived in accordancewith virtue. In his analysis, Aristotle points out two types ofvirtue. While the intellectual virtue derives from life timeteaching, ethical virtue arises from constant practice or habit. Fromthis we can argue that virtue can be both taught and perfected.Moreover, virtue is an activity of the soul. It emanates from reasonand as such requires the activity of an active intellect. It is forthis reason that Aristotle formulates a formula for pursuing virtue:the doctrine of the mean. According to his classification, virtue hasits perfect between two extremes (excesses and deficiencies) both ofwhich are vices. However, the mean does not have a fixed positionbetween the two extremes but keeps fluctuating. Aristotle’sdoctrine of the mean can be summarized in the figure below.

Vice golden mean Vice

Treadingaway from the golden mean in either direction is treading towardsvice in either case. Virtue fluctuates between the two extremes andas such requires constant practice to achieve excellence. For thisreason virtue is a strong disposition: habit. It demands moderation.


Spinoza’sargument can be summarized in one line: passions are and must remainthe slave of reason. Central to Spinoza’s thesis is the ultimaterole of reason in humans’ essential nature of self-preservation.Nature dictates that humans shall not seek to destroy their own beingbut rather seek to enhance it. Self-preservation is a law of nature.Moreover, it is by the very nature that humans seek virtue. Humanhappiness is attained when self-preservation is at its perfection.This implies that humans arrive at happiness only by living inaccordance with the law of nature: in accordance with virtue.

Humanfaculty of understanding being a higher faculty enhances the life ofvirtue. The good is that which is in accordance with theunderstanding. A strive to understand should, therefore be the majorgoal of those who seek a virtuous life. Spinoza argues that theultimate object of human understanding should be directed to theknowledge of God. This knowledge is therefore the supreme good: thehighest virtue. The concept of passions is not left out in Spinoza’sanalysis. Passions derive from without human nature. As it is evidentin his analysis, they oppose the power of reason: a power thatdemands self-preservation. They hinder human understanding and assuch hinder the life of virtue. Therefore, humans should not act assubjects of passions but of reason alone. This leads to an authenticlife.


Humeargues contrary to Spinoza. While Spinoza attaches a great role forreason in leading to a virtuous life, Hume has little or no place forthe role of reason. Passions, instead, become the point of departurefor Hume. Reason becomes the slave of passions. Just like Aristotleand Spinoza, Hume gives a theory of moral virtues as concerns theirorigin. Arguing that they do not derive from education or humanreason, it becomes his problem to show the faculty from which theyderive.

Humeadopts a principle of utility as the source of moral virtues. It isthis principle that he terms as usefulness. It is the utility of athing towards some perceived end that motivates human action.Pleasure and pain are the two major sentiments perceived as the ends.Human beings are attracted to pleasure and repelled from pain. Fromthe two opposing sentiments we derive virtue and vice respectively.Human beings by their nature of comprehending the two sentiments actaccordingly. These sentiments are natural and derive from experienceand observation not from reasoning. It is for this reason that Humedenies the role of reason in morality.


Contraryto Hume, Kant gives a major place for reason as the source of virtue.it seems Hume’s theory awoke Kant from a slumber. According toKant, morality derives from human reason. Central to Kant’s theoryis the concept of moral law. Moral law motivates human beings intoaction. Contrary to Hume’s utilitarianism, Kant argues that theconsequences of an action do not play a major role in moralevaluation. For him, the moral law guided by reason should be thesole determinant of human action. Actions performed in line with themoral law are actions that emanate from a good will. Such actions arenot performed for the sake of their consequences but for the sake ofduty.

Kantformulates a categorical imperative that should guide human conduct.As the concept suggests, it is a law that guides human conduct thatshould be adopted as it is. Acting in accordance with the categoricalimperative is acting from a sense of duty regardless of theconsequences of the action. According to the imperative, humansshould act so as to treat their fellow humans not as means inattaining their ends but as ends in themselves. This advocates forrespect of other human life as equal, free, and rational legislatorsof their own actions.

Moreover,a moral agent should act on a legislation that he/she should wish tobe made a universal law: a law that should apply to any otherindividual in similar circumstances. This translates to obeying themoral law. According to Kant, the moral law is a natural dispositionfor every rational being.

Milland Sidgwick

Mill’stheory can be viewed as development of Hume’s theory of sentiments.Just like Hume, Mill identifies two major sentiments thatcharacterize all sentient beings: pleasure/ happiness and pain. Humanbeings seek pleasure or happiness and avoid pain. Mill identifiespleasure with good and pain with evil. Given that humans seekpleasure, it becomes a moral duty for them to maximize it as theyseek to minimize pain. The principle of utility is, therefore,summarized as: act in order to produce the greatest good over evil.

Theabove principle thus translates to a search for a net balance of goodover evil. The greatest good for a society can only be achieved if itis spread over the greatest number of people in that society. Theprinciple as it applies to the society can be summarized as: act soas to produce the greatest good over evil to the greatest number ofpeople. A moral life is that which is lived in accord with theprinciple of utility. Acting contrary to the principle amounts toacting immorally. Happiness becomes the sole standard of morality. Amajor conviction in Mill’s utilitarianism is that society lawsshould be framed so as to promote this ultimate human end. For thisreason, his theory is termed as rule utilitarianism.

Inthe twentieth century Sidgwick adopts the utilitarian doctrinepropounded by mill that pleasure and pain are the determinant ofhuman moral sentiments. He however adds that the conditions of humanexistence that promote moral sentiments for society memberscontinually change. For this reason, the laws should be put undercontinuous revision. This would make utilitarianism up to date. Notjust incorporating commonsense laws but also laws that enhancemaximum utility.it is evident in Sidgwick’s analysis that thechoice of rules determines the extent of the good produced by theprinciple of utility. Sidgwick advocates for more systemized laws toreplace the classical utilitarianism commonsense laws.


Nietzschewrites against all conventional morality. His major problem is tore-invent and redirect the morality steering wheel. He despisespreceding moralists as having not grasped the task of moralphilosophy. He seems to propose a Copernicus revolution in the fieldof moral philosophy. In particular Nietzsche attacks utilitarianmorality fiercely by arguing that it was a senseless morality in thatit focuses so much on the survival of the community at the expense ofindividual virtues such as love. Nietzsche advocates an abolishmentof the utilitarian principle morality. In its place, he calls for aninvention of a new morality.

  1. Argument for utilitarianism

Itseems plausible to agree with the utilitarian doctrine presented byHume, Mill, and Sidgwick. They argue that morality emerge fromsentiments of pain and pleasure. Here I present an argument fromintuition (Smart and Bernard 1993). The fact that this doctrine linksmorality with pleasure and happiness is appealing to our commonsenseintuitions and beliefs. It offers an intuitive account to almost allhuman actions. Intuitively we measure the consequences of our actionsin terms of pain and pleasure and decide on the course of actionaccordingly. For example, in order to determine whether cheating inan exam is wrong, we evaluate the chances of being caught by thesupervisor and the pain of being discontinued from the institution.

  1. Argument against Kantian deontology.

Kantdoes not consider the consequences of an action as necessary inevaluating moral worth of an action. The argument presented above canbe used against Kant’s theory in that it seems unsupported byempirical evidence. The role of consequence evaluation characterizesour daily lives. Kant is too rigid in that he takes morality asabsolute. Actions are either absolutely good or absolutely badregardless of their consequences. For this reason, Kant would expectus to keep a promise or to tell the truth even though we later learnthat doing so would lead to greater harm than good. For example, hewould expect a soldier capture by his enemies to reveal the hidingpoint of his colleagues.

  1. Argument in favor of Kantian deontology

Itcould be argued against the above argument and in support of Kantiandeontology that only actions done from a sense of duty have a moralworth. Some actions lead to dangerous consequences but moral agentsare compelled by duty to pursue them. Acting other than from a senseof duty is acting from self-interests and this does not grant anaction any moral worth (Harper 1996). For example, supererogatoryputs to risk the life of the moral agent. A person who dives into ariver infested with crocodiles to save a drowning child acts from asense of duty even if his action may lead to greater pain thanpleasure. A mother who donates her heart to his ten years old sonfaces death for the sake of the son. Such actions are performed outof duty.

Tothis, a utilitarian may respond that every act is performed after anevaluation of some consequences however vague they may be perceived.Even the mother who offers her heart perceives of some greater good,for her son in future, than the short term pain that she undergoesbefore the process is complete and she dies.

Itis also intelligible to draw a conclusion similar to Aristotle’s.His doctrine of the mean and perfection of virtue is plausible.Humans are not only encouraged to practice virtue but they are alsoencouraged to form the habit of being virtuous. Almost every humansociety rewards those among its members who portray virtueexcellence. This encourages such members to aim for a higherperfection of the virtues as well as motivates other members.Regardless of the virtues encouraged in different societies, there isthe tendency to reward excellence.

Moreover,the role of reason as the foundation of morality as presented byAristotle, Spinoza, and Kant has its application in human willing.Emotions and feelings which are expressions of knowledge need to begoverned by the will (Reichmann 1985). The object of the will is thesole good. This good is perceived by human understanding andexpressed in terms of emotions and feelings. The will with the helpof reason tends towards that which is conceived as good. It is forthis reason that we talk of human actions: actions emanating from afree and rational will. A defection from the object of the will canonly be perceived as a defect in the agent’s faculty of reason.


Cottingham,John. 2009. Westernphilosophy: an anthology.Malden (MA): Blackwell.

Davies,Julian A. 2009. Aphilosophy of the human being.Lanham: University Press of America. pp.31-70

Harper,Albert W. J. 1996. Discussionand commentary on Kant`s critiques.Lewiston: E. Mellen Press. Pp.4

Reichmann,James B. 1985. Philosophyof the human person.Chicago, Ill: Loyola University Press.

Smart,John J. C., and Bernard Arthur Owen Williams. 1993. Utilitarianism:for and against.Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.pp.4-30