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Iliad as Primary Source for Normative Ethics

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Iliad as Primary Source for Normative Ethics
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  Using Homer’s Iliad   as Primary Source Reading for an Introduction to Normative Ethics What an Introductory Survey of Normative Ethics Should Cover If you look at a textbook on ethics, it will say there are five kinds of “normative” ethics:  1.   Divine Command Theory, 2.   Social Contract Theory, 3.   Utilitarianism, 4.   Virtue Functionalism, and 5.   Deontology. An introductory course in normative ethics would want to cover all or most of these five types. It would also need to cover Ethical Relativism as the foil against which all normative theory struggles. Ideally, an introductory course for first or second-year undergraduates would use primary sources to teach these six topics, focusing for each topic on a paradigmatic text that constitutes a “ locus classicus .”   Why It ’ s Sometimes Better to Use Less Challenging Sources There is no dearth of sources for which “ locus classicus ”  is claimed, but some are far more accessible than others. Despite the difficulty of some, selection can be relatively free in either of two cases.    First, if the class is an elective, some level of student interest and motivation can be taken for granted. Difficult sources will not automatically discourage student engagement.    Second, if the main focus of the class is on mastering the meaning of the readings, difficult sources will not automatically discourage students who are unfamiliar with the challenge of interpreting difficult texts. If the difficulty of the readings is openly acknowledged, students will not feel pressured to understand on their own. If the burden of clarification is shared collectively in unhurried class-time, the struggling student is less likely to blame herself and disengage. I see no obstacle to using difficult sources in electives and interpretation-centered seminars. Source-selection is harder when you are teaching a required course . It’s harder still when writing composition and critical reasoning are primary learning objectives. It doesn’t matter how well you design your writing and logic pedagogy. If the primary source readings are very difficult (and you don’t have time to focus on their difficulty because you are supposed to be teaching writing or critical reasoning), students will not feel that they understand what they are being asked to do. The writing and logic exercises will be aimed at something that already presents challenges before the students get to the challenges of writing composition or logical analysis. In my experience, this is fatal to successful pedagogy because students lose faith in what you are asking them to do and disengage.  Weekes, “ Iliad    as Primary Source for Normative Ethics”    –  p. 2 Designing a required core-curriculum course in philosophy that focuses on writing and critical reasoning means finding adequately accessible primary sources. I chose to make my introductory  philosophy course an introduction to normative ethics mainly because a highly-accessible primary source is available. In western philosophy, the original locus classicus  for five of the six topics of normative ethics is Homer  ’s  Iliad. By reading selections from the  Iliad  , students can learn about: 1.   Divine Command Theory, 2.   Social Contract Theory, 3.   Utilitarianism, 4.   Virtue Functionalism, and 5.   Relativism. Only “deontology” is missing from the list. But most scholars now agree that there is no developed deontology anywhere in Greek ethics. While teaching writing composition and critical reasoning, the course I have designed is therefore a successful survey of the main topics of normative ethics. But it is also an introduction to Greek ethical theory. It’s no coincidence that t he five ethical viewpoints listed above are the same ones we find developed into ethical theories by the famous philosophers of Greece’s Classical period.  Plato meant it when he said that Homer was “ the poet who educated Greece. ”  I will comment briefly on each of the five topics as it appears in the  Iliad and then on the connection with later Greek ethics. Divine Command Theory The first two books of the  Iliad   already foreground questions about authority and normativity. Arguments made by Nestor, Agamemnon, and Zeus force readers to ask: Do norms come from the fact than an authority can and does issue commands (the position of legal/ethical positivism), or does authority have to derive its legitimacy from pre-existing norms  —  norms that exist even if no one enforces them (the position of natural law theory and traditional virtue ethics)? In other words, is something right to do simply because it was commanded by those with superior power? Or should commands conform to independent standards of right and wrong? Does a commander retain legitimate authority as long as she can enforce  her commands, or only as long as her commands can be  justified   (i.e., by their conformity to those independent standards)? For the record, Homer sees a false dichotomy here and refuses to answer the question in the form in which it is raised in Books 1 and 2. Nevertheless, the problem of the relation of might   and right   is already set out in Books 1 and 2 of the  Iliad in its fully developed classical form,  Weekes, “ Iliad    as Primary Source for Normative Ethics”    –  p. 3 Virtue Functionalism and Utilitarianism The first two books of the  Iliad also force open questions about the relative importance of ability  and  success . Since we live in a complicated and unfair world, these two things often come apart: those who have the skills to succeed often do not succeed (like Achilles in Bk 1), and those who do succeed often lack the skills to have done so honestly by their own efforts (like Agamemnon in Bk. 1). When ability and success come apart, we have to choose which one is more important. Later books of the  Iliad explore two different approaches to deciding this question. For Odysseus, life is a war game, and winning is all that matters (Bk. 10). For Ajax, life is a publicly performed ritual, and the honorable display of your qualifications is all that matters (Bk. 7). The  Iliad draws sharp contrasts between a teleological ethics focused on maximizing success and a non-teleological ethics focused on honor  . By “focused on honor” I mean: being concerned with deserving    success due to your “virtue” or ability,  but remaining unconcerned with the realpolitik   of actually succeeding. Behaving honorably regardless of the outcome is, of course, the germ of deontology that is already present in Greek ethical thought. The  Iliad makes it clear that we do have to choose between utility and virtue, but it does not make the choice easy. The ugliness and horror that sometimes result from justifying the means by the end is on full display in Bk. 10. The absurdity that sometimes results from caring only about “how you play the game” is painfully evident in Bk. 7. At the end of the semester I have students read the mock speeches Antisthenes wrote for the characters of Odysseus and Ajax. These speeches make the philosophical issues especially pointed. Ajax claims to have an impeccably clear conscience, while accusing Odysseus of compromising his integrity for easy gain. Odysseus explicitly claims that what he does provides the greatest  benefit to the greatest number, while accusing Ajax of doing something that only satisfies himself (his private sense of pride). By approaching utilitarianism and virtue functionalism through Homer and Antisthenes, the traditional philosophical problems associated with each can be addressed in a way that is full-throttle, yet easily accessible to undergraduates with no background in philosophy. Relativism Enthusiasts for Greek virtue ethics like to source the theory in Homer’s  Iliad. They are right to do so, and that alone is enough to make the  Iliad  philosophically important. But what is also in the  Iliad is a sophisticated critique of virtue ethics. From the very first book of the  Iliad  , we are shown again and again how appeals to honor or winning are empty and lead to relativism if we do not have an objective standard for determining who deserves honor and who deserves to win. Without such a standard, disagreement over whether the contest was fair sparks irresolvable conflict. Virtue (competence, skill, performance qualifications) was supposed to be that objective standard. But, as it turns out, the appeal to virtue  Weekes, “ Iliad    as Primary Source for Normative Ethics”    –  p. 4 only pours oil on the fire. This unexpected outcome is dramatized throughout the story, as characters who are already vanquished and near death on the battlefield bicker until their last breath over whether they deserved to lose the fight . What’s going on in these scenes? Apparently the warriors think they won’t really have lost the fight i f they can just win that final debate over their qualifications . It’s no longer a question of vanquishing your opponent on the battlefield, but of discrediting his victory in verbal repartee. The problem is that whether someone is “ qualified ”  depends as much on the job description as on the candidate. To be clear: if you are “qualified” for a task, then you should be able to succeed at that task based on your own skills and abilities. And if contingent events stand in the way of your success, then you nevertheless deserved to succeed. But even the fastest runner is not   qualified if the job description called for endurance  —   just as those with the greatest endurance are not qualified if the job description called for speed.  Most   of the  Iliad is about this problem. Suppose, for example, a great wrestler is bested by the arrows of a great archer. To the wrestler, it looks unfair: “He’s a lousy wrestler. It’s not right. I would have won if only we had wrestled! ” He’s saying that because his opponent was squaring off against a wrestler his job description was “wrestler  . ” That suggests the archer’s victory , which came from using the skills of archery, was dishonorable . But to the archer  , his victory seems perfectly fair and honorable : “I won because my opponent lacked the archery skills I have.” He’s saying his opponent’s job description was “archer.”  He ’ s thinking: since my opponent was a lousy archer, he deserved   to lose. This example shows why the debate over who deserves  to win always becomes a debate over what the right criteria are   (“the job description”) for determining the contestants’ qualifications. And it explains why the appeal to virtue never settles anything. The appeal to virtue just shifts the contest from one of deeds  to one of words . The person who wins the debate over what the right criteria are  is no doubt going to be the winner who “ takes it all, ”  but whether she deserved   to win that debate is now a question that remains unsettled. Unless there happens to be universal consensus that she deserved to win, we are back where we started. Someone has won . It’s a fact . But nothing has been settled about who deserved   to win. And no method to settle the question is possible. The rule for recognizing legitimate winners of debates is not something you can establish by winning a debate. If no consensus precedes, none can follow. This is no bagatelle. As post-modern social critics know, what looks to one side like fairly winning the debate can look to the other like a renewed act violence. Homer knew that, too. It’s depicted on page after page of the  Iliad. These are hard lessons about ethics. Studying Homer and observing Athenian life in the 5 th  century, the Sophists were the first thinkers to learn these lessons well enough to be able to formulate the  problems theoretically. Western ethical philosophers have been struggling to solve these problems ever since. Homer’s  Iliad   is still one of the best places we can go to learn what the problems are. Social Contract Theory The failure of “virtue” to provide objective criteria for ethical decision-making leaves all the  previous conflicts in the  Iliad   unresolved. These are not just conflicts between characters, but also  between their ethical viewpoints ( “ might makes right ”  vs. “ might must be legitimized by right ” ;  Weekes, “ Iliad    as Primary Source for Normative Ethics”    –  p. 5 “ success is what matters ”  vs. “ honor and virtue are what matters ” ). But Homer does more than depict ethical problems. The last two books of the  Iliad  present a solution . Homer’s solution was later developed by Protagoras and eventually became what we know as Social Contract Theory. In Homer, as in Protagoras, the contract is understood as implicit, but it is a contract nonetheless: a set of social conventions you accept in consideration of certain returns you’ll get if you do your  part in the agreement. In the extraordinarily dramatic end to the story, Achilles finally learns how much the meaningfulness of his life depends on preserving the wider communities to which he belongs (that is, on accepting and fulfilling the “contract”) . Even with your enemies you share some common interests and some group identity. There is, in other words, always some modicum of antecedent consensus. However general or vague it may be, it’s not nothing. For that reason, community- preserving compromise becomes the final form that virtue takes in the  Iliad. Compromise is a sort of higher-order virtue because it allows the many different (and incompatible) standards of first-order virtue to continue to exist side by side. The comically-exaggerated intrusion of counterfactuals in the Funeral Games episode (among other examples: a prize for someone who would have won if he hadn’t lost; a prize for someone who would have won if he had not been too old to compete; and a prize to keep someone from competing who would have won only if he weren’t a complete loser) shows that Homer knew what analytic philosophers (such as Sellars) rediscovered in the 20 th  century: that facultative words (like “virtue”) designate things with counterfactual identity conditions. “Having endurance” means you would have done better if the race had been longer. “Having speed” means you would have done  better if the race had been shorter. A world in which people have virtues and events are meaningful (that is, are able to signify) is a world that is mostly  counterfactual  —   just as we see in the Funeral Games. Being the “best charioteer,” for example, seems like a simple fact about somebody  —  a status Eumelus enjoys in the real world. But the truth turns out to be more complicated. For argument ’ s sake, let ’ s suppose Achilles is right to call Eumelus the best charioteer. Even so, that do esn’t mean that Eumelus won the race. It means Eumelus would have   come in first if he hadn’t   broken his axle. In other words, t o be the “best charioteer” is to be something counterfactual. But it’s more complicate d still. If he is  the best charioteer, does that mean he deserved   to win, even though he lost? Hard to say! “ Deserving to win ”  means he would have won if the gods hadn’t  meddled and caused him to break his axle. But, at the same time, Antilochus thinks Eumelus deserved to lose because the gods would not   have meddled if Eumelus had been more pious and  prayed before the race. The reason for the irresolvable conflicts in the first twenty-two books of the  Iliad   finally becomes clear in the conflicts of the Funeral Games, which are all couched in the language of counterfactuals. If human life is meaningful at all, then there is always already an infinite number of “ alternative realities ”  superposed on us at the same time: what would have happened if this…, if that…, and so on. When the stress between the  implications of the different (and ultimately
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