Ethical Realism

January 4, 2009

Chapter 1: Ancient Ethics

In order to understand how exactly moral facts and values could be endorsed, it can be useful to consider how they have been justified throughout western history. Ancient philosophers in particular can be useful because they considered every possibility they could think of and we still revisit those same themes time and time again. (Do we need God to justify values? If so, how does it help do so?)

Western philosophy starting with Socrates was part of a revolt against moral antirealism. The “sophists” (lawyers, politicians, argument specialists) popularized the view that morality wasn’t real. Every culture had different ethical beliefs, so why should we believe any of them? They concluded that we shouldn’t believe any culture and that we have no choice but to find morality to be nothing more than a human invention. Socrates found antirealism to be false and tried his best to argue that we have good reason to try to find out what ethical statements are true. Socrates agreed that we shouldn’t simply trust cultural ethical beliefs, and found a new source for ethical knowledge. Argument and dialectic could help us find ethical truths.

Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoic philosophers all followed in Socrates’s footsteps by trying to argue about ethics in an attempt to find ethical knowledge.


Plato argued that ethical knowledge is possible by speculating about abstract entities (also called Forms or Ideas). These entities are more real than the world as we know it. They exist outside space and time, they do not change, and they are not made of matter or thoughts. The real world attempts to imitate these entities. The real world instances of justice are all imperfect imitations of the abstract entity of justice. All of the abstract entities combine into a superform known as “The Good.”

Plato attempted to justify his theory of abstract entities as Socrates insisted, through argument and dialectic. If the theory could explain why “objections” shouldn’t be taken seriously, then it could be seen as justified. If multiple theories are all justified in this way, then we might have a problem.

Contemporary philosophers still justify ethical arguments in just about the same way that Plato did, except they have found that there are always objections that cannot be satisfactorily met. Therefore, we tend to side with the theories that can best meet the challenges of serious objections. This is also how we justify theories of natural science (such as pysics and chemistry). The objections to these theories are unexplained observations that are often called “anomalies” in order to imply that they are not serious objections because we hope to be able to defend the theory from the objection someday.

Plato also insisted that we are guided to find the truth when we argue because we can start to “remember” the abstract entities from a time before we were born. Before we are alive and after we are alive we come into contact with the abstract entities.


Aristotle partially justified ethics through psychology. Although we have ethical goals to promote certain goods, we can only find those goods to be truly important if they are not purely instrumental. Food, for example, is only something we value because it promote some other good (such as health.) Health also is only valuable because it promotes some other good (such as longer life.) Aristotle argues that the only good that is not purely instrumental is “happiness.” He called this the most “final end,” which merely means that it is a goal that is used to justify other goals.

Aristotle has made a good point. If we want to find out what values are truly important (and part of moral reality), we have to make sure that we don’t value it only for the sake of something else. (Some goals might be valued for the sake of itself and for something else.) Happiness seems like one of the goals that doesn’t need to be valued for the sake of anything other than itself. It makes perfect sense to want to be happy just because it is a wonderful state of being.

Aristotle argues that happiness is of the primary importance and that virtue is the best way to achieve it. Virtue includes appropriate behavior involving courage, honesty, and moderation. If we find out that virtue does not lead to happiness, then Aristotle might be forced to admit that virtue isn’t very important after all.


Epicurus justified ethics through a kind of phenomenology (study of introspection). Epicurus agreed with Democritus in that he believed that all of reality is derived from atoms. If all of reality is based on atoms, then how could there be moral values? They could somehow arise from atoms, like everything else. The mind, for example, could be said to arise from the brain. Epicurus found that moral values arise from our minds. Our experience of pleasure and pain seem sufficient enough evidence that they have intrinsic importance. It could be said that the mental states of pain have the property of intrinsic badness, and the mental states of pleasure have the property of intrinsic goodness.

Remember when you were a child and you hurt someone else, then you were told, “Think about what it is like to be Charlie,” or “Think about what it would be like to be in his shoes.” This seems to imply a metaphysical claim about the intrinsic importance of pain. You know that it is bad to feel pain because it feels bad to experience it. When you hurt someone else, you have given someone else that bad experience. If something has intrinsic value, then we have a good reason to promote that value and we will hopefully be motivated to do so. This seems true about pain. Thinking about the fact that we can cause pain to others gives us reason to want to avoid doing so. It also seems to motivate us to want to avoid doing so. (You were told to think about the feelings of others to help motivate your behavior in the future.)

The main criticisms to the ethical theory of Epicurus isn’t that he was wrong that pleasure and pain have some kind of intrinsic importance, but that he had an overly simple or incomplete view of intrinsic values. Perhaps pleasure and pain have intrinsic importance, but they might still be relatively unimportant compared to something else of intrinsic importance, such as human life. Also, Epicurus’s view was very sophisticated. The view of uneducated hedonists only caring about pleasure and pain like savages is a characterization of Epicurus’s philosophy that has haunted our thinking for centuries.

Some criticisms that pleasure and pain lack intrinsic importance is actually about the fact that they aren’t “universally valuable” in all situations. Some pleasure have been criticized for being inhumane, for example, but the pleasure itself isn’t necessarily bad. Merely the consequences of the actions required for the pleasure to occur. Also, consider masochists who value pain. No one actually values pain. The masochist merely values the pleasure that can be involved with a painful experience. (A scary movie needs to be truly scary to be fully appreciated, and that is uncomfortable in some sense. But being scared can give us an adrenaline rush that gives us pleasure.)

Notice that Epicurus justified morality for a material world of atoms. The belief in materialism (everything is derived from matter) is precisely why many people have become moral skeptics. How can anything have real importance when everything is derived from matter? Epicurus gave a very plausible answer to this question. In fact, his answer has little relevance to whether the world is derived from matter or something else. Our experiences of pleasure and pain make it quite clear why we find them to have importance.

One might point out, “Just because you value your own pleasure and dislike your own pain, doesn’t mean that it has real importance.” In other words, many people seem to insist that anything based on mental experiences are merely “subjective” and couldn’t be part of reality. This objection seems superficial because what is in the mind is just as real as what is not in the mind. The term “subjective” is associated with delusion and personal taste and the term “objective” is associated with the “real world,” but these categories and associations might be merely biases.

Epicurus argued similarly to Aristotle that pleasure (which he equates with happiness) and a lack of pain (serenity) is best achieved through virtue. Just like Aristotle, he will be forced to abandon virtue if it is found to keep us from these goals rather than promote them.

As a final note on Epicurus, I have noticed that many atheists have a hard time justifying their view that morality is in some sense real. Even Christopher Hitchens, an adamant atheist who has mentioned Epicurus on occasion, has never used Epicurus’s philosophy to justify his moral judgments. Instead, he has admitted that he isn’t sure how to justify them.


Is God necessary for there to be real importance in the world? Many people believe this, but they probably don’t know why. Stoicism is the main group of philosophers who popularized this view.

Stoicism justifies ethical truths partially through metaphysics: They attempt to argue that the best theory of the world is that it has a divine plan created by “Divine Reason,” a pantheistic god, which gave us our instincts. Our instincts involve promoting human welfare, so that is what Divine Reason must have wanted us to do. Also, it is our duty to accept everything that happens as being part of the divine plan. Even horrific atrocities are part of the plan and are seen as necessary for some greater good. Therefore, we have no reason to ever be unhappy. As long as we accept and value reality as being part of the best possible state of affairs, we have good reason to be happy about it.

The Stoic philosophers argued that virtue (promoting the divine plan) was the only thing of worthwhile importance, so unlike Aristotle’s and Epicurus’s conclusions, no value could ever encourage us to stop promoting virtue. This is one aspect of the Stoic philosophy that I find to be particularly attractive. Aristotle’s and Epicurus’s view of virtue’s importance appears much too contingent.

There is much more to Stoic philosophy than I have presented here and they will be able to meet many of our most important criticisms. For example, some people wonder how the Stoics can be motivated to do anything if the divine plan is inevitable anyway. The Stoics will be motivated to do the right thing whenever they know what it is, and this is precisely how the divine plan created us. Whenever we believe that a goal is good, we will want to promote that goal. The more certain we are that the goal is good, the more we will be motivated to action.

Notice that the Stoics do not have to fully describe moral reality. The understanding of reality being guided by a divine plan is enough to pragmatically decide to “live in accordance with nature” (our own nature and nature as a whole). This justification is “pragmatic” because we don’t have proof that moral reality exists. Instead, we will just find that it will be most useful to agree to certain moral beliefs. In particular, the divine plan is the best plan anyone can come up with, so we have nothing better to do. It is possible for the Stoics to wonder if anything has real importance, and they might reply to this question with another pragmatic answer: We have a choice to live in accordance to the divine plan or resist it. If you resist it, you will be less happy and you will be combating whatever is important (if anything). If you promote the divine plan, then you will be happier and you will endorse whatever is important (if anything.)

If you believe in God, then Stoicism offers particularly relevant and sophisticated arguments involving our emotions, actions, and the justification for moral statements. There is no evil because God is too powerful to allow it.  God’s plan is the best plan we can hope for, so we have good reason to endorse all events. Once we truly understand and endorse this fact, we will be happy. Losing your wallet is not a reason to be unhappy because it is exactly what should happen. Also, we are given instincts to help guide us to the best action. (This is now a popular view for atheists who use evolution to justify ethics!) We are created and motivated according to God’s plan. Additionally, any view of God not involving a divine plan or the usefulness of instincts (perhaps by saying that instincts are sinful) will provide less reason to believe that God somehow helps us justify moral judgments. A religious person could endorse Epicurus’s ethics if Stoic ethics are rejected.)

I suppose many people just think, “If God exists and the 10 commandments were given by God, then the 10 commandments are true.” That could be a way to pragmatically justify ethics, but it might be possible to give non-pragmatic justifications as well. Epicurus in particular gave a justification that aligns well with common sense.



  1. […] such as my professor Richard Tieszen, defend the existence mathematical abstract entities (Platonic forms.) It might be implausible that empiricists can explain our knowledge of mathematical truths and the […]

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  2. […] Ancient Ethics (More on Epictetus) […]

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  3. […] secondary quality. If ethics is something like a primary quality, then it will be something like a Platonic form, which he finds to be […]

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  4. […] possess naturalistic definitions (186)? Ethics seems to require some dubious moral entities, like Platonic forms. Platonic forms are non-natural, but are generally believed to be implausible for that very […]

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