Hierarchy Ethics and Enlightenment Ethics

Contact: Jan.Garrett@wku.edu

Part A Roughly Corresponds to Section IIA of the PHIL 320 Outline (Fall 2004)

This page slightly revised 18 August 2004.

A. Hierarchy Ethics
B. Enlightenment Ethics

A. Hierarchy Ethics

1. The term "hierarchy ethics" is not one you will find in most textbooks, but it does capture something essential about the dominant forms of thinking that emerged in the West (Europe, West Asia, and North Africa) prior to the Enlightenment period (1600's through 1700's). The term "hierarchy" refers to a ladder of beings from the least real to the most real, from the inferior to the superior. (Sometimes this idea is referred to as the Great Chain of Being.) In the Enlightenment period in Western Europe, shortly followed by developments in European-influenced North America, this view was gradually challenged.

2. Examples of hierarchy ethics are found as early as Socrates and Plato and they reach their pinnacle of development in the Christian theological ethics of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century A.D.

3. In the grand hierarchy of reality, God or some similarly transcendent eternal being is typically at the very top and mere inert matter at the bottom. In between we find levels containing the essentials of life (nutrition and growth), animate life (sensitivity, appetite, pleasure and pain, simple memory), emotional life, productive reason, practical reason, contemplative thinking. Between human beings, who are capable of reason and thinking, and God, there may be superior intelligences sometimes called angels.

transcendent being
angels, (lesser) gods
contemplative reason (in humans)
practical reason
productive reason (knowhow relating to making things)
sensitivity, appetites
nutrition and growth
material elements
Hierarchical ethics, as you might guess, provides a way of reasoning that seems, at least in broad outline, to be compatible with religious commitment.

There is a form of hierarchical ethics that makes human beings the top rung.

4. Beings stand in a hierarchy: stones, plants, animals, humans, angels, God.

5. The higher is naturally or metaphysically better than the lower being.

6. There is a hierarchy within humanity itself: children, adult women, and adult men.

adult men
adult women
domestic animals

7. There is a hierarchy between social classes: unskilled laborers, skilled craftsmen, master craftsmen, civic officials, the king, the emperor. There is a parallel hierarchy within the church, as in Catholicism: layperson, priest, bishop, archbishop, pope.

civic officials
master craftsman
subordinate craftsmen
unskilled workers

8. Knowledge is higher than ignorance, moral maturity higher than immaturity, reason higher than emotion and appetite, practical (moral) reason higher than productive (technical) reason.

9. The lower levels serve the higher levels, the higher levels naturally command or give shape to the lower levels.

10. The parts of the body serve the whole living body; the parts of the species serve the species as a whole; the parts of social unit serve the social unit as a whole.

11. The "serves" relationship is one of means (instrument) and end (purpose). The purpose of the part is to serve the purpose of the whole; the purpose of the lower is to serve the purpose of the higher.

12. Because the purpose of the part is to serve the whole and the higher members or powers of a whole are parts of the whole, the higher members as well as the lower members of a society or social unit have obligations to serve the whole. Thus the higher-ranked members of a society or social unit have a special obligation to develop the good character and intelligence needed to serve the whole properly. (More on the moral virtues, which collectively make up good character, below under paragraph 22.) And so the lower members normally--at least in theory--benefit from the special activities of the higher.

13. It follows from this that exploitation of the lower ranks by the more powerful sectors of society, or use of the lower ranks for excessive personal advantage of the more powerful, is contrary to the spirit of hierarchical ethics.

14. We can discover rightness by contemplating hierarchical relationships.

15. For instance, the sexual organs are for reproduction of the whole individual. They enable the individual to carry out his function, one of which is reproduction of the species.

16. For instance, the adult male serves to reproduce the species through the sexual act, but he also serves to help raise the children by working to feed the family and giving moral guidance to the children while they are maturing. Generally, his duty is to carry out this service. (This is an argument for heterosexual marriage.)

17. There is a hierarchy of activities in human life: productive activity serves or is guided by the moral life; the moral life is guided by practical reason; practical reason (used in moral and political life) serves contemplative reason (whereby we contemplate God). Practical reason sets aside time and resources for contemplative reason.

18. Inquiry serves activity, i.e., using what we come to know. Thus inquiry into what we should do serves morally wise action; inquiry into the nature of God and the higher beings serves knowing and contemplating God.

19. The happiest life is one in which human beings engage make use of their highest capacities. (Thus a life of animal pleasure is not the happiest life.)

20. In hierarchical ethics, virtues are important. They are understood as moral and intellectual habits. Human beings--especially but not only the leaders--must develop them so that they can do well at their proper function as rational beings. Without the virtue of courage, our actions will conform to our excessive fears, not what [educated] reason would recommend; without the virtue of moderation, we may give in to excessive appetites.

21. Although contemplative happiness is the best, the secondary happiness of the morally virtuous life is a worthwhile aim as well.

22. The moral virtues (habits that dispose us to act well) result from repeated action (thus from training and the moral example and guidance of our moral superiors).

For more on Virtue Ethics, see Lecture Notes on Virtue Ethics

In some (i.e., theological) versions of hierarchical ethics, whether we become virtuous is affected by grace. (God may be behind the fact, assuming it is a fact, that we have good moral examples to follow or that we are attuned to discern the right path amid what would otherwise be conflicting signals from our situation.)

23. Moral growth fits into the natural-metaphysical hierarchy in a narrow range, the human range, where we find the emotions and the various types of reason. A morally bad person is still metaphysically higher than the (nonhuman) animals and a saintly person is still metaphysically lower than the angels.

B. Enlightenment Ethics

1. Enlightenment Ethics gradually breaks with the notion of hierarchy. This is a slow process, and it is not complete today. (Perhaps we cannot abandon it completely. To do so would require us to deny that intelligent activity is better than unintelligent activity.)

2. While in some ways what is historically called the Enlightenment produced a rapid leveling, in other ways it (at least temporarily) increased certain forms of hierarchical thinking. Points a through d below concern the resistance, within Enlightenment thinking itself, to drawing the radical conclusions toward which Enlightenment thinking tends.

a. Most human beings still retain the hierarchical notion that human beings are naturally superior to nonhuman animals. (If anything the attempt to dominate nonhuman nature increases in the Enlightenment, and the idea that human beings are essentially distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom is not fundamentally challenged until Darwinism emerges in biology.)

b. The making of racial distinctions, implying a natural hierarchy between the races, with some superior and others inferior, is emphasized more during the 17th-19th century than before. This is not universally accepted and is soon challenged by the egalitarian thrust of the Enlightenment.

c. Gender hierarchies are, at least temporarily, reinforced. They too are eventually challenged.

d. In other words, the emancipation of adult white, property-owning human males was at first offset by a stress on the alleged moral differences between males and females, property owners and non-owners, whites and non-whites, humans and nonhumans.

e. But skepticism about hierarchies, a characteristic of the Enlightenment itself, soon calls into question the hierarchies originally reinforced by the Enlightenment. What this means, of course, is that new forms of order must be evolved.

3. Enlightenment ethics is based upon allegedly universal features of human beings, such as reason, the capacity for pleasure and pain, or vital interests or needs that are common to all human beings.

4. The idea that to understand anything, one must understand its place in a natural or metaphysical hierarchy is increasingly called into question. The idea that one kind of living being, or one kind of human being, or one profession, or one bodily organ is naturally the servant of something else, or that its proper function consists in just one service, is more vigorously challenged.

5. Virtue becomes a less central ethical concept. In hierarchical ethics, virtues were understood as moral and intellectual habits that human beings must develop in order to perform best their proper function as rational beings. Once thinkers call into question the idea of a human being's naturally or divinely assigned proper function, it becomes harder to understand what virtues are. Duties, rights, and justice become the key moral concepts. (Duties and rights may be defined in terms of principles of justice, rights may be defined in terms of duties.)

6. Religious conflict, on the one side, and the impressive rise of the sciences of nature, on the other, call into question the viability of an ethics with a "vertical orientation," i.e., upwards toward the divinity. For modern, urban human beings, the nature, teachings, and preferences of God are unclear and His very existence as a Person and a Moral Leader is under challenge.

7. With a turn away from theological ethics, we sometimes see an attempt to construct an ethics based on what seems most common and pervasive about human nature, which also happens to be what we share with nonhuman animals-a capacity for pleasure and pain, and our having of vital interests. This approach gives rise to utilitarianism (whose key figures are Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill).

7a. Utilitarianism is hedonistic in its conception of the good (the good is pleasure, the bad is pain or suffering) and consequentialist (insofar as it tells us that moral rightness consists in producing the greatest sum of good once the sum of evil produced is subtracted) and impartial (insofar as it pays attention to the good and evil consequences for all [human or sentient] beings affected).

8. A second approach, also brought about by the abandonment of ethics oriented above, finds the source of moral worth within. Moral worth comes to reside primarily in human beings as moral agents, as persons. Person is a key concept for Enlightenment Ethics. It replaces human nature. Human nature was understood in terms of body and soul, and soul in terms of reason, emotion, and appetites. Person is understood primarily in terms of "practical reason," the capacity for rational choice. Feelings apart from the moral attitudes they express become no more than biological facts. It is the moral attitudes, understood as reasons, that must be evaluated. (This approach is associated especially with Immanuel Kant.)

9. A sharp distinction between the good life ("the good") and justice (or "the right") becomes increasingly important. It is understood that a variety of conceptions of the good life are compatible with the right or justice. (One can form one's life as a Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or utilitarian or Kantian, i.e., differ with respect to the good, or fulfilling, or happy life, while respecting a common framework of justice.) This distinction between "the good and the right" is especially important to recent "liberal" theorists like John Rawls and libertarians like John Hospers and Robert Nozick.

10. Because of the distinction between the good and the right, there is far more talk of liberty after the Enlightenment beings than there was earlier.

11. While hierarchical ethics arose in a society in which money and therefore markets already existed, money and markets played a relatively small role; Enlightenment society coincides with the rise and expansion of the World Market in the early Modern Period (around 1600 and later). Because relationships between people become increasingly organized around contracts, the role of contractual thinking becomes central to Enlightenment Ethics. There is an increase in reflection upon the kind of freedom that is necessary for contracts between free individuals, the kinds of obligations that arise from contracts, etc. There is an attempt to understand our obligation to obey the basic rules of society in terms of a contract that we as individuals have somehow formed with the other members of society.