Ethics is the field that deals with good and evil and our moral duties. The two great philosophers whose writings on ethics have greatly influenced others are Confucius (Chinese) and Aristotle (Greek).
I’m writing this column because it seems that ethical standards in our society are largely being ignored. Expediency (the end justifies the means) and materialism (accumulation of wealth beyond one’s needs) are displacing the traditions on which civil society rests.
Confucius (551 — 479 BCE) was a Chinese philosopher and governmental advisor during the Zhou dynasty. He was also known as Kong Qui or Master Kong. Confucius was born in the small state of Lu in the Shandong peninsula of northeastern China.
His father died when he was 3 years old. Confucius was the only child and with his mother was very poor. He began his studies under a village tutor. At the age of 15, Confucius devoted his life to his studies. As a youth, he worked as a shepherd and a clerk.
His ideas didn’t become popular until after his death. But his ideals became the basis of Chinese culture for more than two thousand years. Confucius’ teachings are expressed in his book, “Analects,” concentrating on ethical models for family and public exchanges and setting educational standards (particularly for governmental positions).
Confucius’ Five Virtues are: Ren for benevolence, charity and humanity; Yi for honesty and uprightness; Zhi for knowledge; Xin for faithfulness and integrity; and Li for correct behavior, propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony and ancestor worship.
Confucius lived during a time of turmoil in China when feudal lords of city states fought each other. He believed that his principles would restore order and peace.
At 50, Confucius was appointed to be the administrator of his home state of Lu. But after five years of frustration, Confucius left. He traveled from state to state, advising the authorities of how best to govern. Confucius was accompanied by his loyal followers. He spent his last years compiling the classics of Chinese literature.
Confucius’ ethics are consistent with Christianity, although Confucius’ teachings are human centered, not God-centered. He occasionally mentioned “the Mandate of Heaven.” Confucius believed in a natural law or moral order .He insisted that self reflection is essential to live a good moral life.
Aristotle (384 — 322 BCE) was the son of a physician to the king of Macedonia, a region of northern Greece. After his father’s death, Aristotle moved to Athens and became a member of Plato’s academy where he studied and worked as a colleague for 20 years.
Aristotle wrote down Plato’s teachings in the form of dialogues. Aristotle thought that the soul was contained within the body. Life was a time of struggle and at death, the soul was liberated into a state of happiness. Aristotle asserted that moral virtue involves a choice of action (for its own sake).
This results in a stable equilibrium of the soul (good character). A person of good character will have the right desire, which will guide them into right action. (This is in direct contradiction to a person who acts only with the end result in mind, regardless of any harm to others.) Aristotle’s ethics can be encapsulated in the question: What makes a human life worth living?
After Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and eventually became a tutor to Alexander, the son of the Macedonian king, Phillip II. Aristotle hoped that Alexander as a leader would rule with the Ideals he was taught. After Phillip’s death, Alexander conquered most of the western world. Aristotle returned to Athens, where he set up his school, the Lyceum in 335 BCE.
After Alexander’s death, Aristotle left Athens and studied the natural world, pioneering the field of Biology. Aristotle’s ideas on Physics were adopted by many scholars and were regarded as the final word on the universe. (These ideas were based on reason and logical argument in contrast to observations and predictions.)
Aristotle moved to Colchis and died there in 322 BCE. Christian philosophers worked for centuries to align their new faith with Aristotle’s framework of thinking. Even as late as the 1900’s, Aristotle’s physics was being taught at Muslim universities.
SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: Tonight the evening moon appears half full (first quarter) with its right half in sunlight. Along the moon’s straight edge, the sun there is rising, lighting up the raised crater rims and elevations. This is prime for spotting lunar surface features with a telescope or steadily held binoculars.
Tomorrow night, the planet Jupiter is brightest and closest to the Earth. Jupiter’s distance from Earth is 399 million miles, so far that it takes 36 minutes for light to travel from Jupiter’s cloud tops to the Earth.
Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is available as a speaker on his column topics.