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Axiology 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ethical


For many of us, a feature of our globalized and multicultural society is a growing disinterest in value systems. Talk of systemic corruption, and a barrage of news articles about the evils brought about by this or that faction, this or that ideology, have given us a skeptical outlook on values. We wonder what is good or bad amidst so many conflicting narratives. This series of Axiology 101 articles aims to stir the reader to examine the validity of value systems by providing an introduction to the branch of philosophy that seeks to map out their nature.

The series will be divided into the following chapters:

  1. Axiology 101: The Elusive Nature of Value

  2. Axiology 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ethical

  3. Axiology 101: A Doubt About Aesthetical Certitude

  4. Axiology 101: The Divine Hypothesis

  5. Axiology 101: The Metaethical Subversions

  6. Axiology 101: A Proposed Solution

The Good, the Bad and the Ethical

Madness, metaphors, and philosophy tie together Friedrich Nietzsche and his infamous prophet of doom in The Gay Science. In one of the most memorable scenes of philosophical literature, the madman holds a lantern in broad daylight and shouts in anguish, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”(p. 181)

Commonly understood as a shout of rebellious atheism in a world still heavily influenced by religiously based ethical systems, the soliloquy of the madman represents a cry of tragic loss. Nietzsche rightly identifies the rise of a new age, one that looks with suspicion at traditional value systems and replaces their spiritual or doctrinal origin with socio-political ideologies, positivist dissections of tradition, or a burgeoning relativist and laissez-faire attitude towards morality.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch

By acknowledging the death of the traditional value systems symbolized by the decline of the divine, Nietzsche asks us, most modern of people, the murderers of these traditions and systems, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” (p.181) Human life must have a value system; it must have order, justice, and meaning if we want to coexist and retain the civilisation we struggled so long to achieve.

Culture bereft of a moral foundation is smoke and mirrors, and that is the reality that tormented Nietzsche. Where then are we to find an ethical system that is solid and universal? Is this even possible? The questions have piled up and the answers vary greatly. Will we find a firm answer to the question of what is good and what is evil in religion, politics, or perhaps anthropology? Trying to find this out is ultimately the task of ethics, the branch of axiology that focuses on human behavior and activity.

The Dance of Good and Evil, by Curtis Verdun

It seems like an impossible task, especially in the age of political correctness, to suggest that there is a superior system of some sort, or a single strand of universal truth concerning right and wrong to be elucidated from diverse cultures, political inclinations, and religious beliefs. A possible answer may lie in a revision of one of the earliest ethical value systems, one devoid of modern biases, based on reason and observation alone. It would be wrong to assume that this system is without flaws, but it is a good example of a search for the roots and foundations of a value system. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle proposes that all of us can discover internally and through our own reason, what constitutes good and evil (1097b22–1098a20). We are intrinsically ethical beings, so to say. We all share in that experience of having felt nagging guilt or at least a lingering doubt after we have done something we deem bad. We also know, in most situations, that feeling of satisfaction when we have done something good. This is a human experience that precedes such overlays as cultural bias or religious beliefs.

As much as we can consider this feeling universal, we are also aware of the difficulties entailed by an ethical framework. History is filled with dark accounts of bad actions permitted by historical ethical systems and of atrocities committed by people who were convinced of their moral justification. In radical contrast to such frameworks, the Aristotelian system focuses on the self. For Aristotle, “experience in the actions of life” are the fundamental building block of moral knowledge (1094a15-20). We are not called upon to rely on a religious book of revelation or a political ideology, rather we are asked to draw on simple observation and reasoning.

Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s Fresco “The School of Athens”

Aristotle begins by examining what it means for something to be good. He states that “for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function” (1098a5-15). Hence, something achieves its good through its achievement of its purpose or function. Everything has a purpose, and, by fulfilling that purpose, it finds its ultimate goodness. So we ask ourselves, together with Aristotle, “What is the ultimate purpose of the human person? What is our guarantor of goodness?”

Aristotle defines the human being as a rational animal (1102a-1102b), a definition that incorporates the class of thing that we are and the specific difference between us and other animals. The importance of this specific difference, our rational nature, is what affords us our specific purpose. As explained by Dimmock and Fisher (2017), “the function of a human being is related to our uniquely differentiating characteristic, and we achieve the good when we act in accordance with this true function” (p. 51). It follows that the good life for every human being rests in their adherence to their function. This constitutes one crucial characteristic of the Aristotelian ethical system; it is inscribed in a human being’s nature. Every part of our nature, if governed by our rationality, should lead to specific virtues. For example, our flight response, honed by adaptation and evolution, can, if governed by our reason, become courage or bravery.

Furthermore, the virtuous life governed by reason leads to a state we all seek, which Aristotle defines as eudaimonia. This term has often been translated as "happiness", but in its original Greek, it encompasses the notion of "fulfillment" and "human flourishing". Myriad self-help books and meditation apps promise a similar state of mind, in which we are happy and growing every day towards our ideal selves. Aristotle posits that this is the fruit of a virtuous life. Aristotle's entire theory is a show of great trust in our natural capacity for good. If only our history of suffering and tragedy caused by people in every generation and every place could give us the same hope. If only the virtuous life was easier to follow.

Painted by Harvey Thomas Dunn after his experiences in World War I

An alternative to Aristotle's model is one that has featured in a number of philosophical arguments - Nietzschean virtue ethics. It might seem somewhat outrageous to propose an ethical theory theorized by the author of a book entitled Beyond Good and Evil, and yet, his view stands as a fresh incentive for the living of a slightly different version of virtue ethics. The originality of Nietzsche’s virtue ethics is that it is centered on character development. For him, there is no link between virtue and reason. Virtue depends upon a more fundamental element of human action, which is the will to power. This will to power is tied to the instinctual drives of the human being, to what Nietzsche understands as the immanent nature of human beings, or the inner force that drives human actions, quite literally a power born from the will of a person. As Christine Daigle (2006) explains: “Nietzsche fiercely rejects the rationalistic account of moral agency. He struggles to rehabilitate the repressed parts of human nature, claiming that reason is but a very small part of ourselves” (p. 7).

Another difference between the Aristotelian and Nietzschean notions of virtue is that where the former sees a universal sameness of virtues, the latter envisages a particular set of virtues for each individual. The end goal of the path presented by Nietzsche is the transformation into what he calls an Übermensch, translated by some as a "superman", or one who has successfully become his own master. Each individual must attain this personal self-mastery by being their own version of an Übermensch. In metaphorical terms, everyone has their own demons to slay, their own greatness to achieve. Ultimately, if we are true to ourselves, then we will flourish.

“Behold, I bring you the Superman! The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!” —Nietzsche

This may sound like an excuse for an individual to trample over the world in order to attain personal satisfaction, but that is not the case. The will to power, as understood by Nietzsche, belongs to those who derive joy from life. It is a positive force that enables us to live and build and flourish as human beings. It shows us how we ought to live, avoiding excesses on both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, the one who fears life, who shies away from greatness, lives by slave morality imposed on him by whatever system or faction he allows to govern him. On the other hand, a distorted will to power can become crude egoism and arrogance that, instead of helping the individual to develop and grow, end up enslaving him further to his vices and baser instincts.

It is a challenge to promote a single true and narrow path of ethical correctness. It is difficult to ascertain what is good and what is evil. Nevertheless, the question should not be left unexamined. We can make our lives a fulfilled and flourishing experience for us and those around us. We are ultimately masters of our own existence, and we should take the responsibility for investigating what constitutes the best moral path to take.

  • Aristotle (2004) The Nicomachean Ethics. London. Penguin Books.

  • Daigle, C. (2006) “Nietzsche: Virtue Ethics … Virtue Politics?” Journal of Nietzsche Studies vol. 32.

  • Dimmock, M., Fisher, A. (2017) Ethics for A-Level. Cambridge. Open Books Publishers.

  • Harcourt, E. (2007) “Nietzsche and Eudaemonism." Nietzsche and Ethics. Peter Lang.

  • Hursthouse, R., Pettigrove, G. (2018) “Virtue Ethics." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Kaufmann, W. A. (1975) Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton University Press.

  • Nietzsche, F. (1982) The Gay Science. New York. Penguin Books.

  • Peterson, J. (2018) 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto, Vintage Canada.

  • Swanton, C. (2014) “Nietzsche’s Virtue Ethics." The Handbook of Virtue Ethics. Routledge.

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Emmanuel Flores

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