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A Short History Of Ethics Essay

1276 words - 5 pages

In chapters three and four of A Short History of Ethics, Alastair MacIntyre makes a clear distinction between two philosophical doctrines at loggerheads: the Sophists and Socrates. The Sophistic amalgam of personal success, lust and power is constantly interrogated by an interlocutor in an endless plight to reveal Sophistic ignorance, fruitless desires and the right to universal justice. MacIntyre identifies the codes of both parties, and further complements the debate with historic examples to conclude the social success (or lack thereof) and persuasion of both sides.
MacIntyre begins by outlining the general amalgam of Sophistic theory: success. The areté (virtue) of a Sophist is to be a successful citizen through conforming to the social convention of justice (14). Employing the dialogue, Theatetus, he reveals Protagoras’ doctrine as being the link between relativism to knowledge, “As things seem to an individual percipient, so they are” (15). The truth is discovered in personal perspective, and therefore it was required to adhere to public convention to achieve success. However, MacIntyre questions this take on “personal realism” because it interestingly defeats the purpose of Sophism; if all ideas are equal in comparison to the truth, then superiority of truth is undefined.
Unfortunately, social convention varies with each state. What a Sophist must heed in one state may be completely different in another. With this, MacIntyre exposes the first flaw of Sophism: an individual has not been given a guide to the social conventions of a city-state, and therefore must adapt to the criteria of each state (16). The questions of social action and living need to be defined as non-moral or pre-moral; a tool branded as the natural man. MacIntyre provides the Sophistic distinction between the conventional and natural man respectively as to the conforming of social structure or as being pre-moral. He then reasons that the Sophists believe in a non-moral conventional man; a Homeric persona who is shifted from one era of social acceptance to another (17). MacIntyre also disputes the criteria with which one can be “natural” and offers the second flaw: To be identified as selfish, unselfish, aggressive, and so on, one must be compared to the norms of the current society; or in other words, one must be described by socially established terminology (18). Therefore, what was to be pre-social/natural actually maintains some form of social likeness to allow for the comparison (or contrast).
Sophistic theology is fed only by relativism. This personal truth confuses the difference between philosophy and the actions of a hypothetical natural man. Philosophy, being the quest for the universal truth, involves the philosopher remaining outside of society, yet fully understanding and questioning the social order. However, Sophism fails to distinguish the difference between this philosophical “standing out” from the way a natural man would act. MacIntyre follows up...

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