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CLASSICAL GREEK ETHICS
AN OVERVIEW

 


Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520)
The School of Athens (1511)
Detail of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)


A. CENTRAL CONCEPTS
 

aretē: functional excellence, goodness of a thing, acquired skill, power, virtue
ēthos: character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose
ergon: work, deed, proper function
eudaimonia: vital well-being, happiness, human flourishing, fulfillment
agathos:
good, noble; to agathon: the Good
dikaiosynē (or dikaiosunē): justice, morality, fairness
nomos: convention, custom, law
physis
(or phusis): nature, essential reality (as opposed to appearance), whatever exists outside humankind
psychē (or psuchē): soul, breath of life, mind, spirit, functional structure of a living thing
sōphrosynē (or sōphrosunē): moderation, temperance, balanced, healthy
telos: goal, end, aim, purpose, result, completion or fulfillment of something, final point toward which a process is directed (cf. teleology and teleological)
phronēsis: prudence, practical wisdom
polis: city-state

Instrumental good
(value): a means to an end (e.g., money, car, tool)
Intrinsic good
(value): an end in itself (e.g., happiness, pleasure, wisdom)
Self-interest: pursuit of personal advantage, benefit, or profit
Teleology: process oriented toward a final goal or purpose (e.g., moral perfection, wisdom)
Perfectionism (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle): human well-being (eudaimonia) consists in excelling at things intrinsically worth doing
Agent-based ethics: emphasizes personal character over individual actions and rules (action-based ethics)

B. BASIC QUESTIONS  
What is happiness (eudaimonia)? How does one achieve it?
What is the highest good (agathos) for human beings?
What is virtue (aretē)?
What kind of life (bios) should I live in order to be a morally virtuous person?
What should I aim at as my ultimate goal or aim?

C. KEY ASSUMPTIONS
1. Human beings naturally desire the good and well-being (eudaimonia).
2. Virtue (aretē) is a means to the end (telos) of achieving the good life and well-being.
3. Like everything in the world, humans have a distinctive function or activity (ergon) that is specific to their kind, unique to their species.
4. Well-being (eudaimonia) consists in the successful performance of one’s distinctive function.
5. Nothing or no one can successfully carry out its relevant function unless it possesses the requisite excellence or virtue (aretē).

NOTE WELL: The last three assumptions ground the typical Greek argument (Plato, Aristotle) for the connection between aretē (virtue) and eudaimonia (well-being):

D. TWO FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS BASED ON THE ABOVE ASSUMPTIONS
1. What is the distinctive, unique function (ergon) of human beings?
2. What are the virtues, or the highest virtue (aretē), that enables the maximum achievement of that function?

E. GENERAL GREEK APPROACH TO ETHICS
1. Intellectual rather than emotional
2. Philosophical rather than religious
3. Moderate rather than extreme


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