Early Roots of the Western Moral Tradition

The Primary Question of Ethics: How Shall I Live?

The Western history of moral philosophy begins in the fourth and fifth century Greece. When the Athenians began to trade by ship, their horizons expanded and the exposure to new customs and traditions led them to question their own moral traditions. Many thought that if a different moral code worked somewhere else, then what made their own system better? Exposure to different cultures also prompted early philosophers to question the difference between nature (physis) and convention (nomos) and what it meant to be “Just” in each of these cases. Questions about morality and how to best lead the ethical life led to more questions, such as, “what constitutes the good life?”, and “what do we mean when we talk about the good life?”

In response to these questions, some philosophers posited that the good life was a matter of eudaimonia, which is commonly translated as “happiness” though it means something more along the lines of “objective human flourishing” instead of the subjective and temporary feeling we usually associate with the contemporary conception of happiness. Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and the Hellenistic Stoic and Epicurean Schools all held eudaimonistic accounts of ethics.  The Schools differed in how eudaimonia was best achieved.

Still others, those who had been strongly influenced by the influx of new ideas, thought that the good life was something different. Philosophies, like that of the Sophists and later the Skeptics, considered justice, to be a matter of convention, or following the laws, while the Stoics believed justice arose from the rational organization of nature. In spite of the differences in these philosophies one common thread running through the philosophies was the importance of reason.

The first people to theorize on the relativism of ethics were the Sophists who were traveling teachers.  They would lecture on a range of subjects for a fee. Because the Greeks were very concerned with political life and power, Sophists primarily taught rhetoric and boasted they could teach anyone how to make a weaker argument stronger in order to convince people to vote in their favor. Sophists, like Thyrasamachus from Plato’s Republic, thought the good life was achieved through power in political life and considered justice to be the advantage of the strong. Thyrasumachus and other Sophists like Glaucon thought justice should only be taken into account when convention demanded it, but when it did not, man had no reason not to act in the way that was unnatural. For them Man is naturally an egoist and pursues his own self-interests even to the detriment of others.


  • Knowledge is the key.

  • Knowledge helps us to live correctly and to live the good life

Socrates is famous for his method of incessant questioning which, has come to be known as the Socratic method. It is in this method that most of the early Platonic dialogues are conducted. Typically, Socrates begins by asking an authority of a subject, often a Sophist, what that subject really is.  For example, in the Euthyphro Socrates asks “what is piety?” Though most of the dialogues end with the characters in perplexity, or what is termed aporia, Socrates presents certain ethical standards. One of these standards is that the soul and the preservation of a pure soul is the most important thing. This idea is shown in the Crito when Socrates tells his friend Crito that, “the most important thing isn’t living, but living well” (Crito, 48b). He goes on to explain that “living well, living a fine life, and living justly are the same” (Crito, 48b). This position illustrates another important aspect of Socratic ethics: Socrates believes that no one knowingly commits wrong. To commit wrong prevents achieving eudaimonia, thus no one would knowingly do so. In this view Socrates’ ethics can be seen as the seeking of knowledge in order to live correctly and to live the happiest life.


  • Justice is harmony between the three different (reason, emotion, appetitive) parts of our souls, with reason ruling.

  • Being Just is in our own self-interest

Plato, defines the good life and how the good life is best achieved. Like Socrates, he believes there are objective ethical truths that apply to everyone. This view is in direct opposition to the moral relativism of the Sophists. One of the main tasks of The Republic, aside from defining justice in an objective way, is to show that being just benefits the just person. To fulfill these tasks Socrates, Plato’s mouthpiece throughout his dialogues, defines the just society in order to make a comparison to the just individual.

Ultimately, Plato argues that justice is a kind of harmony between the three different parts of the just society which, correspond to the individual’s parts of the soul. When a person achieves harmony between these parts Plato thinks they will naturally act justly in the conventional sense. But he also maintains that they will be acting in their own self interest because the just person is happier than the unjust person.

In Book One of The Republic, the characters attempt to define justice, or righteousness and morals in general. One attempt gives conventional examples of justice such as, “telling the truth and repaying debts.” Another, given by the Sophist Thrysamachus, is that “justice is to the advantage of the strong” by which he means that rulers make rules that we have to follow and that justice as we conceive it is no more than the adherence to their rules. As this is how he conceives justice he believes that we should not follow these rules and should follow, instead, what he perceives to be the natural sense of justice in the rational pursuit of our own self-interests.

Glaucon expands on Thrysamachus’ definition of justice and suggests that if they were to give a just man and an unjust man Gyges’ ring, a ring that makes the wearer invisible, both men would do the same things; “we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interests which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law.”1 This definition of justice, along with that of Thyrasumachus’ represents the differences in views of conventional and natural justice. It also raises the question of whether or not acting justly benefits the just person and acts as the catalyst which propels Plato to show how conventional and natural justice are the same and how being just is actually in our self-interest.

The rest of The Republic is dedicated to the description of the just society and the corresponding just individual. Plato thinks that the just society is one that is ruled by the Guardians, or philosopher kings. Philosophers, according to Plato, are the only ones with knowledge of the Forms, and especially knowledge of the Form of the Good. This part of the books deals more with Plato’s metaphysics than his direct treatment of the nature of justice, but it is important to note that the ability to see and recognize the Form of the Good is the requisite for becoming a Guardian. The two other classes, the Auxillary and Economic classes (yes, that includes financiers), are subservient to the Guardian class.

Justice then becomes the harmony of these classes under the rule of the Guardians. These classes correspond to reason, spirit (emotion) and the appetitive parts of the individual’s soul and justice in the individual is also a harmony between these parts ruled by reason. Thus, the just man is one that “does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other.”2

In The Republic Plato gives an outline of the ideal ‘just city’ in order to make a comparison to the ‘just individual’. The just city is split into three different classes, the Guardians, the Auxiliary and the Economic class which correspond to reason, spirit and appetitive parts of the individual soul. Just as justice in the ideal city would be a harmonious balance between all classes ruled by the guardians, Plato views justice as a harmony between the different parts of the soul ruled by reason.  The spirited part which controls emotion must assist and be guided by reason and together these two parts must inhibit the desires of the appetitive part to seek only the essential needs.

Plato has three responses to the Sophists version of justice. The first is to combine the conventional and natural opinions of justice. Plato sees them as tied together and argues that convention is rooted in human nature. Secondly, Plato dismisses Glaucon’s idea that conventional justice is against one’s own self-interest because he believes that the just person will actually be happier then the unjust. Finally, he rejects the idea that justice is only conventional justice and instead believes that there are objective ethical truths.  As these ethical truths are rooted in human nature it is therefore, possible to determine what they are.



  • The purpose of human life is eudaimonia (human flourishing, happiness).

  • To achieve eudaimonia one must be virtuous.

  • Ethics is an inexact science.


Aristotle’s main work on ethics is the book titled Nicomachean Ethics. Like the Greek thinkers before him Aristotle thinks eudaimonia, which means human flourishing or happiness, should be the main goal of life. He also thinks like Plato, Socrates and later some of the Hellenistic schools, that to achieve eudaimonia one must be virtuous, or ethical.

There are three key components to understanding Aristotle’s ethics. The first is his arguments for why eudiamonia should be sought above all else. The second is his view of the human function and the third is what is called the doctrine of the mean. The first line of the Nicomachean Ethics reads, “Every craft aims at some good.” To understand this statement it is necessary to know that Aristotle thinks in a teleological way, which means that everything has a purpose.


Aristotle argues that human life aims at happiness, and has two reasons for saying this. The first is because happiness is “unconditionally complete” which, means that happiness is always the best choice and that we choose happiness for itself and not for another goal towards which happiness will lead. Take the example of money. We will choose to have money if we can.  However, we will choose money not for the sake of money, but for the things that money can buy, thus money is not unconditionally complete.

The second reason that Aristotle identifies happiness as the end goal of human life is because it is “self-sufficient” that is, happiness is the only thing needed to make the best life and nothing else is needed.

The Function Argument

Once he has established that the end goal that life should aim at is happiness, Aristotle elaborates on how eudiamonia can be achieved. First, like Plato, Aristotle divides the soul. He sees it as having two main parts which are each subdivided into two more parts. First he divides the soul into a rational part and a non-rational part, the rational part includes our ability to reason on practical matters and theoretical matters, while the non-rational part contains our nutritive part of the soul which makes us grow and our appetitive part which dictates our desires and emotions. He then seeks out what the human function might be. Part of our soul shares in growth with plants and part of our soul shares in desires and sense perception with animals.  Therefore, the human function cannot come from either of these parts because this function must be something unique to humans. As these are the two parts of the soul that are non-rational Aristotle comes to the conclusion that the human function must be “some sort of life of action of [the part of the soul] that has reason.” (1098a)

The human function is thus the ability to use reason, but this is not the end of the argument. Aristotle points out that a harpist has the function of playing the harp.   To best fulfill that function she must play the harp with excellence (arête).  For Aristotle the virtue (arête) of a thing is to do the thing’s function well.  So must a human express his function well.  Aristotle concludes that the full function of a human is to use the rational part of the soul to express virtue. The rest of the book is dedicated to elaborating on the virtue and how best to express the human function.

The Doctrine of the Mean

Up to this point Plato and Aristotle are similar in thinking humans should seek eudiamonia and the way to achieve eudiamonia is by living a life of reason. However, Plato thinks that the virtues naturally arise in us and are not merely a matter of convention. Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that while we have the capacity to act virtuously, the virtues are acquired by habituation. He thinks that virtues can be acquired in much the same way that people acquire a craft, though habituation, and claims that,  “we become just by doing just actions and, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”(1103b). Once we have become habituated to a certain action, a state of character arises. But the state of character that arises can be bad or good, so it is important to do only the actions that express good reason; as this is the human function.

Aristotle maintains that any account on how to be ethical and virtuous will be inexact, but he does give us something to go by which is known as the doctrine of the mean. This is the idea that any virtue will, “be ruined by excess or deficiency” (1104a10). For example if we think of the virtue of bravery, this will be ruined by brashness, the excess of bravery, or by cowardice, the deficiency of bravery. Unfortunately, being ethical is harder than just knowing what the mean between excess and deficiency.  Being virtuous requires us to know what the mean is for us as individuals, in the right place, at the right time, and in the right measure.

Hellenistic Period

  • Cynics – the purpose of life is happiness through virtue in accordance with nature

  • Skeptics – there are no moral certainties

  • Epicureans – what is good is pleasurable; what is bad is painful.  Happiness is attained through pleasure

  • Stoics – reason is the highest authority and reason follows the laws of nature


After the death of Alexander the Great, and the subsequent decline of his Empire, four differing schools of thought emerged. The ethical views of these schools differed from earlier philosophies in that they de-emphasized an active political life and turned instead to how man should live outside of political life. The Cynics, the first of these schools, completely rejected convention and opted for a very basic and simple life, which they viewed to be more in tune with nature. In keeping with the Greek tradition the Cynics emphasize the use of reason as a means to the ethical and virtuous life so long as reason is in accord with nature rather than convention.

The Skeptics as the name suggests, are skeptical about any moral certainties. As far as they are concerned a feasible argument can be made for either side of a moral issue.  Accordingly, the moral philosophy of the Skeptics is to follow the prevailing conventions of morality.

In contrast to Skeptics’ view is the philosophy of Epicurus who founded the school of Epicureanism. Epicurus, like Socrates and Plato, thinks that man should strive towards happiness.  People should not fear death or the gods and should instead seek pleasure in this life. As pleasure is the main emphasis of life, Epicureanism is hedonistic.  However Epicurus also emphasizes the importance of avoiding pleasures that may cause harm in the future.

The philosophy of the Stoics originated in Syria, but most of the writings that are widely read today come from the Romans, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. The Stoics think reason is the highest authority and in tune with the rational laws of nature. Since nature is rational, we should accept things for how they are and not try to change them. Thus, we should rationally analyze and adjust our emotions until they are in harmony with things as they actually are.