©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Unethical Ethics



New Oxford Review

May 2006

The market is flooded with textbooks on ethics. Having taught this subject for many years in a secular university, I have been struck by the fact that all publications referring to a topic in which most students are interested — namely, "how to live" — give a prominent place to thinkers such as Aristippus of Cyrene, Baruch Spinoza, and Jeremy Benham (to limit myself to the best known). We are entitled to assume that when a person writes a book on ethics, his concern will be to shed light on a way of life that is wise, worthwhile, and desirable, and that can be presented as a model, as something we should all strive for in order to live a human life worthy of the name. One is therefore baffled upon discovering that a prominent place is given to thinkers whose outlook on life is centered exclusively on pleasure and the avoidance of pain: do we really need a "teacher'' to learn that pleasure is agreeable and pain is hardship?


A brief perusal of the aforementioned thinkers' "ethical" views inevitably leads to the question: Why are their works categorized as "ethics," a branch of philosophy dedicated to the study of "good" and "evil"?


Aristippus claims that good univocally means pleasure, and that the wise man will therefore pursue this "good" in the most intelligent and efficient way possible to ensure for himself the greatest degree of satisfaction. Following this line of thought, Aristippus gives his disciples four basic rules which, if faithfully followed, will give them a key to the greatest possible amount of enjoyment and the smallest amount of pain. These four rules are: 


Between two pleasures, always choose: 

1.The more intense one.

2.The longer lasting one.

3.The one easier to attain. (If in order to achieve a pleasurable experience one must undergo trials, pains, and discomforts, it would obviously detract from the pleasure obtained at such a high cost.) 

4. The one that has no unpleasant consequences. (If a pleasure inevitably leads to pain and discomfort, its enjoyment will be severely flawed.) 


How ludicrous is it to call this formula "ethics"? It becomes obvious when we realize how grotesque it would be for someone to "accuse" himself of having selected a less-than-delicious dish in a restaurant and thus of having "a bad conscience" for his choice. Pleasure is, by its very nature, subjective: what is pleasant for one person might not be pleasant for another. Likes and dislikes cannot be dis­cussed because the final word will always be: "I like it" or "I do not like it." There are people who like Coca-Cola, there are those who loathe it. Cigarettes are "good" to a smoker, but are intensely disliked by non-smokers. Some like warm weather; others prefer cold temperatures. Wine is "good" to the wine imbiber; he cannot do without it. The person's subjective taste is the deciding factor. There is no way of convincing a person that something is pleas­ant if it does not appeal to him. 


Aristippus's "ethics" is a radical subjectivism and hedonism. We are entitled to raise the question: ls the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake a valid foundation for an ethics? For when we call a behavior unethical, we con­demn it as being an unworthy way to live. Is a person's failure to appreciate a particular object because it gives him no satisfaction a ground for reproach? Does it make sense to say, "You should enjoy cigarettes"? 


According to Aristippus, to pursue pleasure is the right way to live. It should now be clear that "good" does not necessarily mean "ethical," that enjoyment of some "goods" can be unethical. Clearly, the word "ethics" is in need of clarification. 


Spinoza's main work is titled Ethics. But to the reader's surprise, much of the book is not related to the questions of good and evil. His basic thesis is that man is determined to act in a particular fashion — he tells us that everyone necessarily pursues pleasure. But, he does not raise the question of whether this pursuit is morally legitimate. He defines good as "all kinds of pleasure and whatever conduces to it, and especially what satisfies our most ardent desires." Crucial to Spinoza’s thought is his claim that, "We do not desire a thing because we think it good. On the contrary, we think it ‘good' because we desire it." His ethics is therefore radically subjectivistic and deter­ministic. In fact, Spinoza totally eliminates moral judg­ments. To act according to virtue, ’is nothing else than to act under the guidance of reason, to live and to pre­serve one's being... On the basis of seeking what is use­ful to oneself." He reiterates that "men act from a neces­sity of nature." Once we accept this deterministic position, it becomes obvious that "forgiving" someone who has hurt us is not only rational, but easy, because we understand that his action was inevitable. This is a far cry from the Christian virtue of forgiveness. Indeed, Spinoza is right in claiming that if all actions are deter­mined, there is no sense in blaming someone who has hurt us, just as there is no sense in hating a stone that has fallen on our foot and broken it. 


Once again, we can raise the question: Why does Spinoza entitle his main work Ethics? The moral question is totally bypassed: duty, obligation, conscience, guilt, oughtness, repentance, and contrition are not mentioned. 


Jeremy Bentham follows the same hedonistic tra­dition. "Nature," he tells us, "has placed us under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." "Virtuous" acts increase pleasure; “bad” acts increase pain. Bentham's "ethics" is purely hedonistic and utilitarian. He is in fact preaching immorality; every morally deca­dent society is characterized by the unconditional pur­suit of pleasure and "fun"—endorsing every single type of immoral behavior as long as the doer enjoys himself. Moreover, other persons inevitably become tools for our enjoyment. Granted, Bentham tries to mitigate this po­sition by telling us that we should seek "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." The difficulty is that when "good" means pleasure, my pleasure often conflicts with another person's pleasure. Why should I renounce my satisfaction for the sake of others? Bentham has no answer to this question. 


But are pleasure and good one and the same thing? The answer is obviously no. 


It is the merit of Dietrich von Hildebrand in his nu­merous contributions to ethics to have shed light on the ambiguity of the word "good," which is responsible for innumerable ethical abenations. If good is pleasure, what is good for you might not be good for me; thus, the ethical field is taken over by radical subjectivism. 


Taken in its most general sense, we can call good "whatever is capable of moving man's will and man's emotions." Good is then opposed to what is neutral or indifferent. But there are very different categories of im­portance. Something can be important because it gives us pleasure. This is, according to Aristippus, the only mean­ing of this word. Something can also be deemed good because it is clearly in line with our own true interest. It is good for us to be healthy, to be able to provide for our needs, to be able to develop our talents. It is also good for us to lead a moral life. Last, but not least, by good we can mean what is essentially good—not as a means to something else, but by its very nature and essence. Justice is morally good. Pe­riod. It is good for us to be just, because justice is morally good. It is not morally good because it benefits us. Bread is good for us because it is healthy, but justice is good by its very essence. 


The gist of this article is that when ethics is taught in colleges and universities, it would be wise if the pro­fessor were aware of the dreadful equivocation just re­ferred to that has poisoned innumerable textbooks on ethics. True ethics is exclusively concerned with the moral good, a good that challenges our conscience to obey its commands; a good that, if disobeyed, gives us a bad conscience, a feeling of guilt, and calls for punish­ment; a good that is supremely objective and addresses itself to all people, at all times, independently of taste or culture. We are referring to the natural law, which is to be sharply distinguished from the laws of physics (which are neutral and neither good nor evil) and legal laws (which, unfortunately, can be immoral). This "good" is also what is most beneficial for us, as has already been clearly perceived by Socrates. It is the awareness of this goodness (ultimately rooted in God) that distinguishes man from animals, who cannot be morally good or evil. Animals have no knowledge of the moral law; animals have no feeling of guilt; animals should not be punished for following their instincts. Man, and man alone, among all the creatures known to us through experience, is called upon to strive for moral perfection. And it is through moral perfection alone that he can reach what today is called true happiness. 


As obvious as it is that any true ethics cannot reduce good to pleasure, it should also be clear that man's atti­tude toward pleasure is highly morally relevant. There are legitimate pleasures, there are illegitimate ones; there are obscene pleasures, there are noble pleasures. No such dis­tinction is made by these "philosophers" we have men­tioned. But Plato clearly perceived the moral importance of our attitude toward pleasure when he wrote that one of the main aims of education is to teach a child to "achieve victory over pleasure." That the yielding to our inordinate craving for pleasure is morally devastating has been clearly formulated in the Bible: "They are corrupted, and be­come abominable in iniquities(Ps. 53:1). 


This article is a plea to make an auto-da-fé of very many textbooks on ethics propagating hedonism, sub­jectivism, utilitarianism, and situation ethics as accept­able "ethical" positions. They are bound to lead to the moral demise of any society. Let those who have ears to hear, listen to the warning. Man's right to freedom of conscience is in proper focus only if man's duty to submit to truth is grasped with it.