by James Corbett
February 20, 2021
There’s an old joke about a wealthy man talking to a famous actress. After asking her if she would sleep with a stranger for a million dollars she delivers an enthusiastic, “Yes!” He then inquires if she would do the same for five dollars. Offended, she fumes: “Five dollars? What kind of woman do you think I am?”
“We’ve already established that,” the man rejoins. “Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
Although this joke probably doesn’t fly in today’s PC climate, we all get the point. The woman has already admitted that her principles are negotiable for the right sum. Determining the lower bounds of that sum, then, should not be inherently offensive.
This may seem like just a crude joke, but it’s actually an insightful glimpse into the fundamental philosophical debate of our time—perhaps the fundamental philosophical debate of all time. And it helps us respond to the lockdowners, the anti-free speechers and other enemies of civilization with an answer that actually gets to the heart of the issue.
To really understand what’s going on here, we need to go back to one of the oldest pursuits known to man. No, not that pursuit! I’m talking about moral philosophy, of course, the attempt to differentiate right behaviour from wrong behaviour. Along with natural philosophy (the study of the natural world that we would today understand as “science”) and metaphysics (the study of existence, God, the mind and other abstract phenomena), moral philosophy (what we commonly refer to as “ethics”) forms one of the three main pillars of philosophy. As such, it has been one of the most discussed and debated subjects in human history.
How do we know right from wrong? How should we act in any given situation? What is the right way to live? These questions have been discussed for thousands of years, and the answers that have resulted from these debates have informed, explicitly or implicitly, almost every major social, political and religious movement in history.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle founded what is today known as “Virtue Ethics,” arguing that the ethical virtues were to be found in finding the “golden mean” between vices of excess and deficiency.