"Brief history of ethics" by Victoria Camps

Victoria Camps

RBA books. Barcelona, 2017. (1st in 2013)

In Marbella, 20:56 on 11/8/2017. I just finished the reference book that I bought at Fnac last July 18th. It's 412 pages of an excellent work of compilation and remarks of the Philosophical thinking about morality (page 11).

According to my custom I have underlined and commented what I found most interesting and I have been noted, on the first page in white, the number of those pages of the text that I thought deserved a rereading and comment. They have turned out about 100 pages. The work is worthwhile because, with my little knowledge, I think that it collects and comments the most important things that more than 30 philosophers of our western culture have said about ethics, that is, in the sense that I use: ...the moral rules that govern human behaviour (DRAE 22ª, 2001) or that: govern the conduct of the person in any area of life (DRAE 23rd, 2014). And in another meaning: Part of the philosophy that deals of good and its values.

Naturally I read the book through the glasses of my three ideas and I will comment on what I think has more to do with them. I write easily, with my amateur language, and only enunciating the most important ideas that, in its case, I will develop another day. And now that I have the end of the story, I will try to make a preliminary summary and then reread and comment on some of the pages I have written down.

Preview summary

Chapter 20 and last, deals with applied ethics. In it the author distinguishes, with good judgment, three models or types of ethics: of duty or principles; the teleological or of the good; and the ethics of the virtues as a necessary complement. The author says on page 401: "In the combination of all these elements- the Kantian, the utilitarian and the Aristotelian- we have the framework from which applied ethics should be developed".

If this is the case, all the philosophers included in the book were right, in some way. Although they have partially succeeded. If I remember correctly the idea of Ortega on the perspectives, each one has seen a facet of the concept "ethics". Without completing it, because they have failed to see the most important aspects: the purpose or primary objective; the duty or imperative that orders it; and the virtue that contains all the virtues. I explain:

1º.- What I call my basic idea says that: like all known species, ours, Homo sapiens, has as its main purpose the very survival. This is the vital objective and necessary good for the human race to be reached, for the Man as a whole or evolutionary unit. This idea is the basis of the norms of behavior of all living beings and of the teleological ethics implicit in Man as such.

None of the philosophers cited in the book enunciates this idea although some come close. And possibly all take it for granted although they do not notice it and its consequences. The closest I have seen has been Aquinas (who does not appear in the book). In Q.94.2 of the Summa says that man has three inclinations: to endure; to reproduce; and to live in society and seek the truth and to God. But he does not develop these questions further, although he considers them basic within the natural law that governs man. His many disciples have not paid much attention to them and have even misunderstood them. I also misunderstood them in their day.

2nd. This duty or vital survival imperative is inscribed in the nature of all individuals of all known species, also in all men of all times. What, together with the broad altruism, substantiates the Ethics of duty.  Although most of the philosophers of these ethics refer to duty as obligation for the moral or spiritual part of man. Not the material that is not questioned. And they do not see or worry about their possible extinction.

The clearest case is that of Kant who, when he talks about the species, does so as universorum (All the men) and not like singulorum (the species as a). And its categorical imperative, and the progress of the species,  they refer to the moral part of man since he takes for granted, and expressly affirms, that our species is immortal. (see pages 280 to 288 of Survival. Ideas for a Universal Ethics)

3º. This basic idea is complemented by the broad altruism, or tendency to do good to others, as a more efficient and effective element to survive coexisting in society, according to the vital method adopted by our species. This altruism/human love encompasses the virtues that man has developed to improve his survival capacity, both individually and as a group. Which are usually the same as those used for other possible transcendent objectives i.e: prudence, justice, strength and temperance. Or also: industriousness, sincerity, honesty, benevolence, love of neighbor, solidarity, charity...

This idea of broad human altruism is a biological concept and as such it is very simple to understand since it is of the same nature, although broader, than the altruism developed by all social species. The philosophers of all times and the same ethologists and current "sociobiologists" still treat altruism in a fragmentary and partial way so they do not understand their apparent contradictions and effects. And they confuse and mix the subjects and the ends.

These ideas are justified by historical causation, as it corresponds to the biological hypothesis. By inducing the behavior of all known species including ours.

I was delighted that the author has used a broad and generous approach to "create" and recommend the use of a concept of applied ethics capable of including, and making useful, the partial ethics seen so far by many of the important philosophers who have tried this questions. Even if they lacked the foundations that justify this broad concept.

General remarks.

The application of my ideas makes understandable the causes of the shortcomings, doubts and differences that reflect the concepts and theories of the commented philosophers in the book. Concepts and theories that touch, coexist or collide with my ideas. By reading together all these theories I can think of several possible causes of not seeing my ideas by so many intelligent people who have searched for them for so long.

1.- The first cause that occurs to me is that they are biological hypothesis. And they have also become more visible from theories about the evolution of living beings.

I believe that philosophers have dealt little with these questions. As far as I know, Michel Ruse, who as a militant evolutionist believes that the objective of man is evolution itself, has done so. But as a philosopher it is difficult for him to think that matter has imposed an objective and a duty on living beings and on man. And as an atheist, I think he does not like the idea that there can be an external Principal. And accept, as inevitable in this case, the naturalistic fallacy that the goal is to evolve because we evolved. And because evolutionists say that to evolve is to progress although he doubts it. And he does not know what progress is either. As it happens to all philosophers and biologists since they have not found the end or goal towards which to progress.

In general philosophers seek a final goal, a spiritual good since they start from the fact that man is, basically, what he has of pure spirit. The animated body, the material life, for a philosopher almost does not count. And until recently nobody questioned the extinction of our species. At least as a predictable horizon. The physical life of Man was a fact. And I think it remains for philosophical purposes. Believers and theologians have resolved the initial and final Cause, both material and spiritual. And for that reason I think that it will cost them to think about other possibilities or variants, even if they are compatible with their beliefs or even reinforce them. 

2.- Another very important question is to consider the species as units or evolutionary systems. This idea is very recent since Darwin himself does not develop it despite the title of his most famous book. It seems that it has been from the 40s of the last century, with Mayr, Dobzhansky and Gould, when the idea of species as evolutionary subjects had taken consistency. And even now, biologists continue to "work" with individuals, since it is the individuals who manifest the genetic changes. For their part, the philosophers have worked with individual people, and when they talk about groups or collectives they do it as a sum of individuals, the kantian universorum, or as a place where they exist, act and interact: the polis, the state, humanity... without these entities or collectives are operating subjects or have their own personality for philosophical or ethical purposes.

With this they commit the error, or the shortage, of trying to know the purpose or priority objective of Man by looking at what individual men have. As if they wanted to know what the objectives and norms of an army are by the purposes and norms of its soldiers.

3.- Throughout the book and throughout the philosophical discourse on ethics there is a latent or expressed question that makes thinking difficult and produces errors of substance and communication. It's about looking for the ethical foundation from the nature of man, of what the man is, the human person. I think it's the biggest problem. As far as I know, philosophers "see" man, mainly, in three possible ways: materialistic, spiritualist and transcendent. And according to the base or belief of each one, the goals and the ethical norms of each man are different according to their natures. The problem is that we do not know scientifically what is the nature of men, of man. We can not then, at least for the moment, base the ethics on the what the man is. In our case, the basic idea is valid for any of these possible natures, since it is not based on them but on the behaviors.

4.- Almost everyone talks about partial and contingent purposes and ethics. Of individual and group ethics. Of attitudes and subjective behaviors. A well-known example is what Moore calls "naturalistic fallacy": as what everyone wants is to live, it seems that the Good, is to live. Or individual survival. Or as everyone wants to be happy, it seems that happiness is the supreme Good. Or virtue, or wisdom, or justice, or dignity, or the evolution itself, or progress. All of them good and useful, but partial goals and objectives. And are usually means to try the priority objective of life.

5.- On the contrary, for some, there can not be a Universal Ethics, a Universal Ethical Principle, because if it existed, it would be out of this world, it would be transcendent. Which is possible. Namely, it is possible that it exists and we do not know an Ultimate Purpose. But whether or not there are one or several unknown transcendent purposes, Someone, or Something, or Nobody or Nothing if Nothing exists, ordered us and orders, permanently, to try to survive. To we do not know what for. And the objective, and the mandate to try it, exist in our material and spiritual levels, which we are capable of knowing. As in any other living being. Notwithstanding the fact that, in the case of Man, there may be other superior or transcendent individual or collective purposes. That, in any case, it seems that they would require that Man survives until he reaches them. Or that he becomes another species.

6.- The basic idea supposes a material and strong mandate. It supposes, mainly, the struggle  for individual and group existence. And it includes good and evil; life and death; peace and war between beings of the same and different species; love and hate. And it seems that they do not understand philosophically, in man, these apparent contradictions. Which are obvious and understandable in the animal world. All of them are explained with the basic idea in which they have their base and immediate foundation. We do not know scientifically if there are previous and final causes. And we have to accept this not knowing to accept what we can know. And keep trying that Man endures time: to be wiser or for whatever the reason is: The "itinerant" by Edgar Morin. The "make way" By Machado. Being "time and blood and agony" By Borges. The "let your kingdom come" Christian. The "30 birds or Simurgh" From Attar of Nishapur. The "for save me and my circumstance", Like an arrow shot by Ortega.

  1. The similarity with animals It is another problem for not seeing the basic idea. Today anyone who listens it instinctively disgusts the idea that the foundation of our norms of behavior, of our vital ethics, is the same as that of rats. And that our virtues of solidarity, justice, courage, altruism, love... are of the same functional nature that the social abilities and customs of ants, monkeys, dolphins, wolves... It costs us a lot, and reluctantly, to admit our resemblance to animals. Very especially to philosophers. And even more those who believe in men made in the image and likeness of their Creator. Although one thing does not prevent the other.

8.- There is a huge mess with the concept of freedom. That is another of the capacities common to all or almost all species. The difference is in degree. And in the case of man, this enormous capacity, recent and growing, is another virtue that has made us and makes us different. Along with self-awareness and coexistence in increasingly larger groups. And it is one of the dangers, since the man has the primary mandate to live and live as best as possible, he and his group, as a means to survive group and individually. And that freedom that has served and serves to invent, survive, dominate and kill, if exercised individually and groupally, has been, is, and can be deadly, for individuals and for groups. And now for the species itself. These biological truths have been little taken into account by philosophers, especially in group behavior, as I said. And they have been not well understood, until very recently, by biologists or a like. And not yet for everyone. I think that the basic ideas clarify the concept of freedom and allow to delimit and improve its use.

Comments to concrete ideas reviewed on the pages that are cited

Prologue.- Pages.11 and 12: Raises the main questions that the philosophers included in the book try to answer. According to the author:

What is the basis of the distinction between good and evil? What is the destiny of the person, his ends in this life, his raison d'être or the meaning of living? What is good living and what is a good life? And another fundamental concern has been coexistence. How to regulate life in common while preserving the autonomy of each individual?

Commentary: The problem of the foundation is solved if there is a Universal good or ethical purpose. And philosophers of teleological ethics have devoted themselves to search for it. Unsuccessfully.

And for the proposed partial objectives: happiness, well-being, coexistence, justice... they have not found either a common means or virtue that "compels" to try to achieve these objectives exercising good and avoiding evil. The philosophers of the ethics of duty and virtues have dedicated themselves to seeking and applying this means. And they have found many means and virtues, which is why we are here. But they have not seen the virtue that contains all of them.

If the basic idea as an objective and the broad altruism as a means, are true and true hypotheses, the foundation or Universal Ethical Principle to distinguish good and evil is clear: is good/better what, altruistically done, is good/better for the survival of our species. The "altruistically done" would not be necessary to be said, because it is implicit in the good/better of what needs to be done Since broad altruism is the most efficient and effective means for the group coexistence necessary to survive. And it contains the virtues used as partial means.

As for the rest of the questions, I think they also respond with these ideas. At least on the level of the Man we more or less know. They do not answer if there are other pure or transcendent spiritual ends. Nor to what they may be. That is a work that remains for the spiritual philosophers and theologians. Work that is facilitated with the basic ideas because they extend the knowledge of the resulting Man and the limits of the known and knowable. Although it is knowledge that seems appropriate to be updated by all philosophers in the light of these biological ideas.

I remember here Mr. José Ferrater Mora who in the first paragraph of his "Applied ethics: From abortion to violence", Picks up and accepts with nuances E. O. Wilson's phrase about "the time has come to take ethics out of the hands of philosophers and biologize it" He says later that the phrase would be better if it said: "the time has come to take for a while the ethics of hands of some philosophers. "I would have liked that Professor Ferrater could read these lines and know my ideas. That they are not a philosophers or a biologists. Because E.O. Wilson has not been able to find the basic idea even though he has had it at hand, helped by his philosopher-in-chief M. Ruse. And both have counted on the help of the remarks of our eximio compatriot D. Francisco J. Ayala. Who did not see or have seen, despite his multidisciplinary knowledge and have been a favorite disciple of T. Dobzhansky: excellent biologist, who was also very close and only saw the idea partially. To expand what was said by these four experts see "Survival. Ideas for a Universal Ethics. "

P. 21 to 26. Talks about Protagoras and raises important questions. Among others:

Who is the man that Protagoras proclaims as the measure of all things? Is it the generic man -humanity- or the individual? And he answeres: Surely more the second than the first. And he leans on Hegel and his idea of consciousness. And raises the problem of the universality of values. This was also resolved by Thomas Aquinas when he spoke of the permanence of the natural law and the temporary contingency of partial ethics according to the circumstances of each environment. Although they paid little attention to him. Nor does it seem that he himself saw the practical and material transcendence of these ideas because he was, like the others, interested in other more spiritual and transcendent things.

In the Prometheus myth there is also the solution although it has not been seen either: it is in when Zeus realizes the need of the sense of coexistence. And sends it to everyone. That is to say to all, to the entire species, to humanity. And since then all men have it, we have it. Humanity has it, man and his individuals. We have a mandate to live together. And the sense for this coexistence is to get along, behave by counting on others, with alter. It is about being altruistic with the individual and group virtues best suited to the circumstances of each moment in each group. Now the group is the whole Humanity and for that reason, the basic virtue must be the implicit universal altruism, which is necessary to make explicit so that it covers the partial virtues necessary for each group and individual. Another thing is that humanity, groups and individuals, are right with the most convenient partial virtues to develop in each moment in each environment. And listen to them within their wide freedoms.

I believe that what has been said clarifies the apparent contradictions that appear when seeing humanity, groups and individuals as a subject. The mandate is to man, to the army as an entity, and it transmits it to all individual men and his groups. Those who exercise the best they can, know and want and feedback the species. As the commanders and soldiers of the army, the transmission system, in both directions, is done in the language of the gods or of Nature. Language that we still do not understand well although the experts in brains, animals and humans, and many ethologists, anthropologists, sociologists and some philosophers, are advancing in their knowledge. With many arguments between them.

Summary: The basic principles of survival by being altruistic are universal because they are duties or vital imperatives of all humanity as a singulorum: the survival as a mandate to all living beings and altruism/broad love as the main method adopted by the Homo sapiens species as a social species.

The lots of values, virtues and capabilities developed by men - some common to the whole species and others belonging to different groups in different degrees -are contingent means that different individuals and groups have used and used to try to survive at each moment. Trying to achieve with it the best coexistence and the greatest possible wellbeing because, among other advantages, good coexistence and well-being improves the ability of individuals to survive. And with it of the species.

On the other hand, all or some of these virtues help many individuals and groups to try to achieve other possible spiritual or transcendent goals.

Page 29. On teaching morals. The author says: "Neither Socrates nor Plato nor anyone else has given today the key to what the teaching of morality should be. In the 21st century we keep asking."

The problem with teaching morals was that we did not know what morals to teach. Now we know. What to do? It seems that once you know the objective to try to achieve, the method to achieve it, and the Universal Ethical Principle that sums it up, we have to process all this through thinkers and opinion leaders. Once this is achieved, it is easy spread the universal and common part, and adapt the moral values to each culture and environment, and spread them. Having today's media and information technologies is technically very simple. In total they can be a couple of generations, from 30 to 50 years. It is a matter of what the "gurus" of thinking and communicating want to do (intellectuals, churches, politicians, factual powers, opinion leaders...). Some of them will want to do it right away if they think they are interested. Or if they see that, sooner or later, these ideas will reach people, the "public opinion", the voters. That they will prefer politicians who have these ideas in their programs. And also to buyers, who will buy more products that meet these "new" ethics. And it is possible that "teaching" accelerates if a major natural or caused by some bad or ignorant men catastrophe occurs.

Pages 35 to 52. Plato. The Just State. I have underlined enough, but little to reread. Plato's ideas are good but he does not discover the priority goal even when it is latent in his Republic. His search for virtues and the method to be exercised through education and good government, especially justice, is the means to keep the State alive and happy, which, for him, was the world to be saved. The ideal state was his vital collective. What for us would be the whole Humanity today.

The two basic ideas are in Plato if we adapt the concepts to its circumstances: their objective is the survival and happiness of the group they felt they were a member of, their State, which today would be equivalent to our Humanity. And the strategy to try it was, like the one followed by our social species, good coexistence. For which, among other virtues, justice is prioritized, which is equivalent to broad altruism: that each one does what he has to do and fulfills the function that corresponds to him, which benefits the collective and maintains coexistence. Plato does not see that these two concepts: the duty to survive and altruism as a means, are already inscribed in all men. And, like all other philosophers up to now, he wants to base ethical norms on reason. Hans Jonas, the beloved philosopher, preacher of a world ethics, based his preaching on the responsibility of man. It is not necessary to appeal to reason or responsibility, or to the possible gods, to justify these mandates: we, the species and its individuals, have them implicit in their nature, since we began our existence. It is necessary to use reason and appeal to the responsibility, and to whom it is necessary, to see, assume and obey these mandates. As it is more convenient in each case. And always with altruism/love as the main ingredient.

Pages 53 to 78. Aristotle, The good life. Here I have underlined half of the text and marked eight pages to reread and comment. But I'm going to try to be brief because I'm extending a lot and Aristotle is very well known in the field. Summary:

For me Aristotle is the one who has contributed the most to the fact that later philosophers have not seen the basic idea. He seems to start well because by following Plato he equals the good of man with the good of the city or the State. But as it seems to him very ideal, will seek the good of Man in every man. And he says, with success, that Good is what everyone tends to. And it does not arise, nor occurs him, the risk of the disappearance of Man -of all men- starts, like Kant later, from the perennial existence of living men. And he asks what is the good to which all of them, as universorum,tend to. Gets it right again, twice, by saying that the Good of man, desired by all of them, is Happiness and that the virtuous is happy.

Still not discovering what Happiness that we all tend to is, or what the Virtue to try to get it is. But he has marked the path of seeking the foundation of ethics in individuals, who are, for him and for almost all philosophers, the ethical subjects. Those who know, or must know with their reason, what is good and bad. And exercise good and evil and foresee and judge their actions and consequences. Instead of wondering what it is that men-individuals want, he should have asked himself what is the good that Man as a species tends to, like all species of living beings. With his great influence and although he was more a biologist than Plato, he did not know how to see the species as subject. And he consecrated the anthropomorphism and individualism that philosophers and theologians followed. And many anthropologists, biologists and others. Until today.

Pages 79 to the last one 406. Of these 327 pages I have booked-marked more than 80 that I leave for another occasion to comment in detail. I will try it when I have more time because doing it after reading them through the glasses of my ideas is very interesting. And at the same time sad and funny. Sad to appreciate the many doubts and anxieties that reflect the writing by those who have searched, uselessly, the ethical foundation at different levels. And fun because, in my case, I can resolve all the doubts and anxieties that refer to Man as a living being, member of the Homo sapiens species.

I strongly recommend my hypothetical readers, and readers, to put on the glasses of my ideas and read or reread with them the excellent work of the hard-working and erudite Dr. Camps. And they will end up believing that my ideas are true and true. And that its assumption, dissemination and application are absolutely necessary and urgent. For philosophy, for science and for the survival and well-being of our discourteous humanity. I add that everything you do to help in these tasks will make you happier because you will be exercising altruism/love. Now you know that you have it implicit, as human and social living beings, at the base of your consciousness. They are not commanded by popes, nor humanists, nor philosophers. We command it ourselves.

And with no modesty, I believe that if these ideas are true, they are the most important truths discovered in the last 2000 years. And if they are accepted, assumed and well exercised, they will be useful to men until he transforms into something else or is extinguished.

Marbella, the 10.18 of 21.8.2017