Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
Excerpts from Gareth Matthew's entry on Augustine in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)
Augustine (AD 354-430)
Ethics: sin, vice and virtue
For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, there existed the problem of how we can ever do what we know we ought not to be doing. This is the problem of akrasia. From this ancient perspective, perhaps the most striking thing about Augustinian ethics is its easy acceptance of akrasia. In Confessiones II, Augustine tells of stealing pears as a boy of sixteen. He spends two chapters ruminating on what might have motivated his theft. It was not the pears themselves, he says, for he had better ones at home. He concludes that it was the flavour of sinning that motivated him.
In De libero arbitrio (I. 2), Augustine admits that the question of why we do evil disturbed him greatly when he was young and moved him toward Manicheism. Once he accepted the idea of original sin, however, he found nothing paradoxical in saying of someone: 'He hates the thing itself because he knows that it is evil; and yet he does it because he is bent on doing it' (De nuptiis et concupiscentia (On Marriage and Concupiscience) I.28.31).
Augustine was an extreme intentionalist in ethics. In De sermone Domini in monte (Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount) I.12.34, he identifies three necessary and sufficient conditions for committing a sin: receiving an evil suggestion, taking pleasure in the thought of performing the act suggested and consenting to perform the act. Thus in Augustine's view, whether one commits a sin is in no way dependent on whether the contemplated action is actually carried out. Even when the action is carried out, it is the intention (understood as suggestion, pleasure and consent), rather than the action itself, or its consequences, that is sinful.
Augustine also devoted two treatises to the topic of lying. In the first of these, De mendacio (On Lying), he first suggests that a person S lies in saying p if, and only if (1) p is false, (2) S believes that p is false and (3) S says p with the intention of deceiving someone. He then considers three cases: first, that of someone with a false belief who wants to deceive another by saying something that is, unknown to them, quite true; second, the case of someone who expects to be disbelieved and so knowingly says what is false in order to instill a true belief; and third, the case of someone who, also expecting to be disbelieved, knowingly speaks the truth in order to instill a falsehood. Augustine seems not to know what to do about these problem cases. He contents himself with insisting that the conditions (1)-(3) are jointly sufficient, without taking a stand on whether each is singly necessary (De mendacio 4.5).
Ambrose had already added the Pauline virtues of faith, hope and love to the classical virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Augustine follows Ambrose in this, and he follows St Paul in assigning first importance to love; in fact, he offers an interpretation of each of the seven virtues that makes it an expression of the love of God. Thus temperance is love 'keeping itself whole and incorrupt for God'; fortitude, or courage, is love 'bearing everything readily for the sake of God', and so on (De moribus ecclesiae catholicae (On the Morals of the Catholic Church) 15.25). Virtue, he says, is nothing but the perfect love of God. In this way Augustine provides a Christian analogue to Plato's idea of the unity of the virtues.
Ethics: 'ought' and 'can'
Augustine also attacked the Pelagians for their views on the avoidance of sin, focusing on the question of 'ought' and 'can'. Two of his contemporaries, the British monk Pelagius and his disciple Coelestius, had made the principle that 'ought' implies 'can' a central tenet of their religious and ethical teaching. As already noted, Augustine was the person primarily responsible for defining their teaching, Pelagianism, as a Christian heresy. In his treatise De perfectione justicia hominis (On Man's Perfection in Righteousness), subtitled 'In opposition to those who assert that it is possible for one to become righteous by one's own strength alone', Augustine describes the chief thesis of Coelestius as the contention that if something is unavoidable, then it is not a sin; there is simply no such thing as an unavoidable sin. Augustine responds to Pelagius and his disciple by rejecting the simple disjunction that either something is not a sin or it can be avoided. 'Sin can be avoided', he writes, 'if our corrupted nature be healed by God's grace.' Thus in a way, Augustine agrees that 'ought' does imply 'can', but only with a crucial qualification. 'Ought' implies 'can with the gratuitous assistance of God', but it does not imply 'can without any outside help'.
Ethics: on killing
Although Augustine's thoughts on suicide are not particularly original, they have been extremely influential. His position became Christian orthodoxy, which in turn influenced decisively the legal thinking in predominantly Christian countries. Augustine's position is that, with certain specifiable exceptions (primarily, lawful executions and killings in battle by soldiers fighting just wars, anyone who kills a human being, whether himself or anyone else, is guilty of murder (De civitate Dei I.21), and murder is prohibited by divine commandment.
Augustine did not invent the idea that certain requirements must be satisfied if a war is to count as just. The theory of just warfare - both the conditions that must be satisfied if a war is to be entered into justly (jus ad bellum) as well as the requirements of justice in the waging of war (jus in bello) - are already well developed by Cicero in his On the Republic. Nor was Augustine the first Christian thinker to develop a theory of just warfare; Ambrose had already done so. Nevertheless, Augustine is usually considered the father of the modern theory of the just war. Such deference is appropriate in that it is in Augustine, more than in Cicero or Ambrose or anyone else in the ancient world, that later theorists have found their earliest inspiration.
Although Augustine accepts the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill', he interprets it in such a way that not everyone who brings about the death of another can be properly said to kill. Thus, he writes in De civitate Dei (I.21), 'One who owes a duty of obedience to the giver of the command does not himself kill; he is an instrument, a sword in its user's hand.' Thus an executioner may bring about the death of a convict without killing, and so may a soldier end another's life without killing, especially when war is being waged 'on the authority of God'.
In general, Augustine takes over the Roman principles of just war as set forth by Cicero and adds his own emphasis on the intention with which the acts of war are performed. This following passage is characteristic:
What is the evil in war? Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is merely cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling. The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars. (Contra Faustum manichaeum 22.74)
Beyond such insistence that war should not be fought from love of violence, revengeful cruelty or lust for power, Augustine did not work out specific principles for the just conduct of war. Still, in making it plausible to many Christians that killing in war need not fall under the divine commandment not to kill, Augustine freed others to develop principles for what might be considered the just declaration of war, as well as the just conduct of war, once it has been justly entered into.
Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge