Utilitarianism is a consequentialist approach to ethics that attempts to objectivize worth in terms of “utility” (happiness, negation of suffering, pleasure) rather than adherence to universalizing laws (deontology) and motives (virtue-ethics). Classical utilitarianism adopts the Epicurean valuation of pleasure as a fundamental principle sought by all members of a society; pain, aside from masochist/sadist dichotomies, constitutes the opposite or undesirable. The English combined these concepts with the empiricst/Humean principles of cause & effects where the latter is considered social utility.

The two major proponents of this school of thought, Bentham and Mill, equate pleasure with happiness but differ as to how social utility is measured. Bentham quantified the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” as the determination of right/wrong; Mill qualified the determination as the “greatest aggregate happiness among sentient beings” which ranked happiness according to intellectual/moral pursuits higher than that of the physical/body. Mill justifies the assertion with the claim that one would choose the former over the latter if both are experienced; this can be be obviously attacked on the grounds of cognitive biases / variations of temperaments in later history. Intrinsic or not, the valuation implies an inequality amongst “moral goods” and subsequently the individuals who pursue them; such effects would be case-sensitive in the sense that worth is never absolute (for example, fur coat production in Siberia would be worth more than production in Egypt). Thus, codifying such a book of laws on social utility tends to intermingle many practical spheres such as economics and politics.


Liberty is a central trade-off one makes in the pursuit of personal happiness and the concern with social utility; the “tyranny of the majority” may decree a law that increases their sense of securities whilst marginalizing your freedom (for example, the negation of liberty can be realized in incarceration). The limits of such acts are bounded by the “harm principle” which circumscribes all coercion by the state on an individual to actions that would prevent harm to its other members; one’s incarceration is evaluated by your danger to the public. As for the positive definition of liberty, Mill makes three claims (freedom of speech, taste, and union). Freedom of opinion (truth, half-truths, and falsehoods) in valued in so much that their expressions are necessary in the production of effects to which their moral statuses can be continually re-evaluated. Taste or individuality appeals to the biased ranking of different pleasures which must be experienced to be apprehended. Union is encouraged for the many can obtain greater pleasure for the whole than otherwise the singleton (for example, the shift from artisan crafts to mass-industrialization produces greater material wealth, the social costs are another story). Co-operatives are encouraged as profit-sharing increases the awareness of the common goods (satisfaction from participation with the whole) that counteracts the growing alienation of industrialized labor. Taxation becomes an instrument by the state to evaluate and manipulate social good.


Post-Socratics to Antiquity

Post-Socratics to Antiquity

The period of antiquities after Aristotle to the middle ages was marked by a retreat from the material world in an age of increasing uncertainty. The decline of the Greek state following invasions by the Romans and the eventual collapse of the Western Roman empire had led to several schools of thought that signaled a beacon for withdrawal rather than for growth. Taking this analogy further, such a beacon represents a negation of what was once held in the highest esteem: Institutions were dismantled. Money, power, and fame were discarded. Austerity measures were adopted as a self-sufficient way of life. Thus, the artistic theme foretells a coming darkness (dark ages), a regression back to nature, and a clinging to a hope for a new golden age in the future.

cynics   skeptics

The cynics rejected many institutions from marriage, private property, and all luxuries that appeal to the senses; they freed themselves of possessions, professed a love for virtue, and lived with nature. The rejection of the material life (shrinking the sphere of the known) and the rejection of values such as power/fame (negation of ideals) confines life to a much smaller space. The skeptics refuted all theses (both sides can be shown to be valid and thus the issue “grey” or both sides are invalid and thus negated) and neglected to produce a positive replacement. Thus, many of the stronger (rigid) claims in both metaphysics (first principles) and ethics, were shown to be untenable.

epicureans    stoics

The Epicureans claimed that all virtues were empty unless in the pursuit of pleasure; pleasure is further differentiated into passive/active facets where the former is achieved in a state of equilibrium (balance like a web/mesh) and preferred to the latter. The practical result is the absence of pain/suffering, the abstinence of public life, and a safety in friendship. The Stoics believed in a cyclic determinism where everything that happened will repeat in after a great conflagration (reduction of elements to fire). The Platonic elements were reintroduced through the conception of a “world-soul” that connects all things through Pneuma (fire-air). The human soul, which is pure reason (rational), partakes as a citizen of the world and is obliged to uphold its virtues and organization (universal brotherhood).


Plotinus (neo-platonism) refines many of Plato’s concepts and differentiates the soul into the Holy trinity (“The One”, spirit, and soul). “The One”, as a transcendental being, is ineffable and cannot be defined with predicates but synonymous with the “Good” or “Potentiality”. The spirit is the first emanation of the “The One” and identifiable with ‘nous’ or mind; the image of the God illuminates the world of essence. The soul has two faces, one turned inwards toward the spirit. The other is turned outward to interface/manifest with the body/material. The good life is the former where the soul self-forgets as it turns inwards (towards union with the one) and merges with the spirit; both soul and spirit become simultaneously two and one.

Post-Socratics to Antiquity