From Whence Does Morality Come?

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Greek PhilosophyOne issue that has been discussed at length through the ages is morality. Questions such as what is moral? Where does morality come from? And why it is important have been hotly contested for as long as man could conceive of morality.

Epictetus, a second century stoic philosopher wrote in 135 CE the following:

“The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.”
It can be broken down as follows.

  • 1.    We ought not to lie;
  • 2.    What is the origin of our obligation not to lie
  • 3.    What is the origin of this is a demonstration.

This might be used for other issues that are considered immoral in the following manner.

  • 1.    Abortion is immoral
  • 2.    Abortion is immoral because (fill in the blank)
  • 3.    Here is an example of why abortion is immoral.

Or

  • 1.    Stealing is immoral
  • 2.    Stealing is immoral because (fill in the blank)
  • 3.    Here is an example of why Stealing is immoral

Epictetus correctly asserts that most of our arguments for morality are centered on the third part of the theorem, which is through demonstration of why something should be considered immoral.  This could also be termed the justifications of why an action might be banned as immoral, or as a negative interest to society.
When sufficient evidence for the demonstration of why something is bad, immoral or otherwise undesirable to society, is not available, the debate will then default to the second part of the theorem. This may often be expressed as a debate from tradition, or that the basis for the decision is sourced from a higher authority such as God.  It may also be determined by court or legislative body that an action is deemed detrimental to society, but that should be done by demonstrations or evidences provided in the third part of the theorem.

Epicteti Enchiridion: or Book of Epictetus Morals from 1716

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About The Pluralist Advocate

The Pluralist Advocate started out this life in a conservative Military oriented community, and he later moved to that bastion of liberal activism called the San Francisco Bay Area. Having lived both ends of the political spectrum he has a unique understanding of both sides of most issues. He was also very religious growing up, serving as a studying the Christian scriptures and even spending some time as a foreign missionary. He used to think he had all the answers to life's greatest questions, but the more he looks around the world, the more he finds a wide variety of different values that work for different people. This blog is an exploration of thought and consideration from as many points of view as can be held at one time. He now holds the position that truth is found in many different disciplines. You may know the Pluralist Advocate around the web and twitter as brihartwell, or his given name of Brian Hartwell. He hates to be narrowly defined by one title, so as you read these musings you may find things you identify with, and others that you despise. That is good. Please share your reactions to the thoughts here and we will all grow together.