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Moral Prescriptions in Ancient Culture

According to Mortimer Adler prescriptive statements may be derived from descriptive statements since although prescriptive statement may not be tested in relation to their correspondence with reality, they may be tested in relation to their conformity with the right desires of human beings (Ruggiero 70). The truth condition of prescriptive statements is thereby derived from societal consensus regarding a particular prescriptive rule. Adler refers to this as the “principle of right desire” according to which “we ought to desire what is really good for us and nothing else” (Ruggiero 70).

The aforementioned principle is based on the following premises: (1) the ‘right’ desires are self-evident to an individual, (2) the ‘right’ desires ensure the well-being of an individual, and (3) the truth condition of the ‘right’ desires are based on societal consensus. Within this context, the claim that ‘x is right’ is true is valid if and only if (1) x ensures the well being of an individual and (2) x is mutually agreed upon by the members of a community.

In order to assess the validity of Adler’s argument, what follows is the application of his main assumptions to three of ancient moral prescriptions. Two of the Romans’ ancient moral prescriptions are as follows: (1) “Death is to be chosen before slavery” and (2) “Nature and Reason command that nothing uncomely… [and] nothing lascivious be done or thought” (Ruggiero 67). The first moral prescription adheres to death over slavery.

If one is to follow Adler’s principle of right desire, one may thereby note that the aforementioned moral prescription considers death as the ‘good’ during instances wherein one may be placed in a condition of slavery. The second moral prescription, on the other hand, states that both the laws of nature and the laws of reason consider acts and thoughts of lasciviousness to be ‘bad’ for a human being. Within the context of Adler’s principle of right desire, the aforementioned moral prescriptions considers acts and thoughts of lasciviousness to be ‘wrong’ since they do not allow the individual’s attainment of well-being.

In order to assess the validity of Adler’s argument in relation to the two Roman ancient moral prescriptions mentioned above, it is important to consider the philosophical context of both moral rules. In the Republic, Cicero outlines his natural law ethics. According to the natural law ethics, “true law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature” (Cicero 69). Law here is to be understood as “the intelligence of God…directed to issuing commands and prohibitions” (Cicero 124). In other words, ‘true law’ which is the law of nature states that the law of human nature is the law of reason.

Within this context, the first Roman ancient moral prescription above may be understood as stating that since slavery hinders man from practicing his natural freedom which enables him to use of his reason, death is preferable since the condition of slavery is equivalent to the death of the natural freedom of man. The second Roman ancient moral prescription, on the other hand, may be understood as stating that acts and thoughts of lasciviousness are ‘wrong’ since such actions and thoughts contradict the natural law.

One might note that Adler’s argument seems valid in relation to the two aforementioned ancient moral prescriptions since both prescriptions are based upon an assumption of ‘what is really good for us’ which is based upon the natural law. Let us now consider another ancient moral prescription, that of the Ancient Indians. The ancient moral prescription is as follows: “Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live, let him wait for his time…let him patiently bear hard word, entirely abstaining from bodily pleasures” (Ruggiero 67).

This ancient moral prescription is based on Buddhist philosophy which requires the mendicant [one of the possible paths that may be chosen by a Brahmin] to be indifferent to everything as he concentrates his whole life and mind to Brahma (Porteous 13). Within the context of Adler’s principle of right desire, the ‘good’ here is to be equated with the achievement of the high life, the attainment of which necessitates the individual to abstain from any form of pleasure under conditions of hardship.

It is interesting to note the opposition between the first ancient Roman law mentioned above in relation to the aforementioned Indian law. The contrast is evident if one considers that whereas the former ancient moral prescription requires an individual to ensure the maintenance of his freedom [his natural state as a result of the laws of nature and the laws of reason] by choosing death over slavery; the later ancient moral prescription, on the other hand, requires the individual to experience hardships which may include allowing one’s self to experience slavery in order to attain the high life.

Given the opposition between both ancient moral prescriptions, it appears to be the case that there is no universal conception of the ‘good’ [there is no universal conception of that which will ensure the attainment of an individual’s well-being]. If such is the case, it seems that Adler’s argument is not valid.

The problem with Adler’s argument may be traced to his assumption that the ‘good’ is based upon societal consensus since different societies have different standards and hence different norms and moral rules. Within this context, one may state that the assessment of the viability of a moral prescription may only be based upon the soundness of the prescriptions within the philosophical system from which the moral prescription is derived.

Amongst the moral prescriptions mentioned above, all moral prescriptions are sound since these moral prescriptions are consistent with the philosophical systems from which they are derived. Works Cited Cicero. The Republic: And, The Laws. Trans. Niall Rudd. Oxford: Oxford U. P. , 1998. Porteous, Alexander. Forest Folklore, Mythology, and Romance. Np: READ BOOKS, 2006. Ruggiero, Vincent. Thinking Critically about Ethical Issues. Np: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

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