Three Approaches to Ethics

I originally worked on this essay seven years ago. I decided to re-blog it because, still timely, it represents my roots in some ways at the very beginning of SWR (along with a second essay which I will re-blog next month), and has been seen by few if any current readers… There is a legend regarding Da Vinci’s Last Supper which I quite like:

Each one of the twelve apostles embodies the perfecting and expressing of a single different one of the twelve virtues. Achieving divine initiation is said to consist of perfecting the cultivation of all twelve within one’s being or soul, harmoniously, over the course of many lifetimes. Which is exemplified by Christ.

Increasingly, voices from many quarters wonder from where our ethical principles should and actually do arise. Recent speculations from psychologists like Johnathan Haidt and Steven Pinker direct attention towards ages of incremental evolutionary adaptive changes to explain our present collective social and even moral psyches. But the hyperbolized science vs. religion cultural battle, in concert with almost daily headlines depicting some new shocking conflict between personal decision and societal norm, signals the need for a wider re-examination of the roots of our ethics.

The ‘Should’ Problem

(1) A few years back, a very conservative member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia had been pushing a bill to establish a new tradition: to have the 10 Commandments prominently displayed in both chambers of Congress, by law. During an interview, a late-night comedian exposed his posturing by asking the congressman to name these same, supposedly crucial commandments. He stammered, only able to recall a few, and even these by barest one or two word reference.

(2) An excellent recent film made in Senegal, poignantly unfolds a young village girl’s reaction to the news that her younger sister is to be married off to obtain some money for the family. The girl, one of the first in her traditional rural village to receive education, secretly walks to a remote town every day for weeks to obtain work at a small hotel while her father believes she is tending the cows in far pastures. Her plan seems to succeed, as she accumulates the amount to offset the undesired marriage, but not before the father has courted a suitor with sufficient wealth and made a deal with him. The father then consults with the village elder who is the final dispute arbiter and keeper of ‘the way things are done’ in the local (Peul) culture. The elder tells the father he cannot renege on selling his youngest daughter because he has already made an agreement. No contrary discussion is permitted or even imagined. And so the youngest sister is sold anyway.

moses 10ctall as the baobabkantjsmill

[ Charlton Heston as Moses receiving the 10 Commandments ; Older sister pondering arranged marriages — from the Senegalese film ; Kant ; J.S. Mill ] 

These two examples illustrate a real ethical chasm which opens up between an unthinking adherence to tradition and independent situational moral intuition. Conservatism vs. the hopefulness of youth has forever been a cultural/literary theme, but something further is amiss here. The issue is that externally specified rules of behavior are neither flexible nor sensitive enough to deal with complex contexts. Deontological is the term used within philosophy to denote ethical codes or systems which prescribe obligations. Such systems are scented with a strong fragrance of duty. The Old Testament’s commandments, transmitted by God via Moses, is the quintessential deontology: ten meta-laws. But there are many others; perhaps every culture and certainly every religious tradition contains it’s own version. The older the tradition, the more rigid and unworkable the deontology in everyday modern situations.

18th Century

Kant (1724-1804), a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin1, was just in time to both ride the wave of the Age of Enlightenment as well as propel it. Apart from his considerable other philosophical work, his concern in the arena of ethics was to rescue it from religious arbitrariness and ground it firmly within the principles of reason. The typical scholarly summary of Kant’s work in ethics is his Categorical Imperative (CI), often stated:

“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

This is still deontological, but more abstracted. A kind of meta-meta rule. Kant was after a formulation so generalized and rationalized, that it could, nay should, be followed regardless of context, and also one naturally in keeping with the ‘enlightened’ tenor of the times. Kant defended it quite stridently, though it went through a few minor reformulations. One can still see the seeds of rigidity within this law in it’s marked reductionist wishfulness. The quest for universality, so vital in the germination of CI, overrides any situational awareness. Individual judgement is marginalized. You can argue that the moral actor comes into play in the reasoning needed to compute whether one’s anticipated act would be suitable if universally applied (i.e. if the actor became the recipient of the deed). But this is just where the numerous known objections to CI have come from. Besides, Kant even stated that he wanted that the universality of any proposed maxim would be evident to any rational thinker. I can also see a kinship of sorts between Kant and Ayn Rand’s ethical views, so admired within contemporary libertarianism. One is maximizing self-interest, categorically; the other is maximizing universal reasoning, categorically. Categorical ethics do not work in real life.

19th Century

J.S. Mill (1806-1873) surveyed Kant from a more pragmatic vantage point, with the advantage of eight more decades of historical conflict as data. Mill had been able to witness the complications arising during the messy implementation of liberal democracies as well as the social injustices connected with rampant industrialization. The following describes his disagreement with CI, and perhaps also his general objection towards the notion of a universal maxim at the expense of empirical practicality.

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

Mill’s ethics shifts the focus from doing the absolute right, or purity of motive (Kant) to a strictly utilitarian consideration of outcomes. He even stipulates the proper guidelines for evaluating competing actions. Relevant consequences of deeds are human happiness or unhappiness; the happiness of all persons are to be taken into account and weighed as equal; and action A is to be judged morally superior to action B whenever it’s outcome increases the happiness of the greater number of people. This stance within the philosophy of ethics, which many others have advocated, is termed Consequentialism (CQ).

“Principle of Utility: An action is permissible if and only if the consequences of that action are at least as good as those of any other action available to the agent.”

Consequentialism attempts to address the inadequacy of CI around issues of practicality and counter-intuitiveness, but is weak in terms of building a moral center for deciding action in the heat of the moment. Instead, CQ ethical awareness arises from previous calculations of fallout. In fact CQ is characterized by a rather peculiar relationship towards time. Not only does it’s computational character tend to alienate actors from the immediacy of the social now, but Mill insists that there be no time limit when considering outcomes: all future happiness or unhappiness which are consequent must be taken into account regardless of how long it takes to manifest.

This opens up CQ to some obvious avenues of objection. For when can we ever fully grasp the implications of anything, especially fundamentally new things? Consider the inventions of automobiles, the internet, and industrialized agriculture. While their inceptions were occasioned by arguably sound calculations for human benefit, their final consequence evaluations must be tempered by things like suburban sprawl, worldwide metropolitan traffic gridlock, smog, invasive advertising and social predation inside our homes, easy identity theft, loss of privacy, increasing opportunities for centralized control and clandestine surveillance, ‘disruption’ of entire career paths and livelihoods, economic destruction of rural 3rd-world farms, genetic compromising of seeds, dependency upon processed foods, and so on. And it gets no easier within the realm of simple quotidian human affairs to judge consequences. Who has not, upon reflection, gazed back at some perceived slight or act of generosity at the hands of another only to see a complete reversal of fortune caused by it years or decades later? In the seas of circumstance, wise navigation must grant a role to seasoned intuition rather than exclusively relying upon prosaic reason.


[ Aristotle ; AI-Ethicist Eliezer Yudkowsky talking about how to ensure morality is logically instilled into robots ; Alicia Vikander as Ava, the first sentient AI in the film “Ex Machina” ; Steven Pinker solving the final mysteries on how evolution managed to embed moral psychology into brians ]

Thus, comparing deontological and consequentialist or utilitarian ethics, we have:

DEONTOLOGICAL – judges situational deeds because of inherent goodness, based upon explicit principles; stresses conceptual right/wrong, duty, and obligation; ethical rightness knowable immediately.

CONSEQUENTIALISM – judges situational deeds because of favorable/best consequences, based upon ‘happiness’; stresses maximal desirable outcome for most people; contingent; ethical correctness often unknown in the moment.

Back to Aristotle?

Two classic scenarios are usually offered to refute Kant and Mill. They are a bit strained but serve as effective shorthands for more extended philosophical arguments. CI: Nazi SS troopers are searching a house for hiding Jewish refugees and the owner/shelterer when questioned admits to their location due to his categorical Kantian adherence to the universal principle of honesty. CQ: A bystander observes five people soon to be unavoidably struck and killed by a runaway freight train unawares. But seeing also a person casually standing on a bridge over the rail track some distance before, he elects to push this onlooker off the bridge into the path of the oncoming train, thus killing him but saving the original five. CI externalizes the conception of goodness as a moral law to be upheld; CQ drowns it in an increasingly complicated whirlpool of calculations.

Massimo Pigliucci, a contemporary philosopher in making an effort to live an examined life in keeping with his vocation, mentions his uncomfortable sense of oscillating opportunistically between these competing ethical systems amidst life’s vicissitudes – a kind of moral path of least resistance. His hunt for an ethics philosophy he could pursue with conviction led him to review Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and eventually embrace a system composed of aspects of what this master, the Epicurians, and also the Stoics have prescribed, namely Virtue Ethics (VE).

There is a modernist tendency to sometimes regard Aristotle as brilliant but arbitrary or speculative, constrained by his ancientness to grope in the dark. But perhaps his completely alien cultural context (in relation to ours) and language obscures a deeper sensitivity which we’ve partly lost. Pigliucci notes, impressed, how Aristotle takes human relationships and social life seriously. The foundation for his ethical questioning is “What kind of life should I live?”, and it’s perspective is from the center of the person, the human individual.

The Virtue of Virtue Ethics

Aristotle enumerated (perceived?) 12 virtues whose harmonized cultivation would lead to a well-lived life.1 He also observed and characterized twin deviations from each virtue: one can be seen as deformed by too much ego, and the other by too little. Virtue Ethicists sometimes condense these down to four cardinal virtues, considered to be of special importance, namely: Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Pragmatism. (This tabular arrangement of them is sourced from Neel Burton.)

Aristotle's 12 Virtues (source: neel burton)

– Aristotle’s Twelve Virtues –

Note that each dimension of activity can be independently balanced, by being tuned to a mean ideal behavior. Indignation, to take an example, is properly expressed in appropriate situations when it is neither too strident (Envy) or too meek (Spite). Personalities can be seen as exteriorly defined by the sum of the tendencies along all twelve dimensions of virtue. Further, human nature may be cultivated according to this model, because each virtue is seen as being improvable at any point via reflection upon experience and inner practice, a faculty one might wish to label: conscience.2

Beyond Aristotle, VE takes some refinements from further elaborations of the Stoics, an often misunderstood philosophical school. Prominent seminal stoicists in history include Zeno the Greek, and the Romans Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. The stoic aims to persistently control destructive emotions in favor of inner calm in the belief that a state of steady clarity affords the best enjoyment of life as well as the right conditions for functioning optimally. As with Aristotelian virtue, it is best experienced as a systematic practice instead of a collection of beliefs. Moreso than either CI or CQ, it directs the aspirant’s moral attentiveness into the present moment. A central point within the Stoic’s doctrine is the stress it places upon resolute moderation of emotions, passions, and actions, which aligns it very nicely with Aristotle’s thinking. ‘Moderation in all matters’. This is also reminiscent of Buddhism’s recommendation to eliminate or temper desire, wanting, because it is regarded as the root of all suffering. The quotations cited below give perhaps a better sense of the doctrine of Stoicism than a formal definition.

“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” ~Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” ~Marcus Aurelius

“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” ~Epictetus

“The stoic response to terrorism is quite simple. Just cease being terrorized.” ~Salman Rushdie


[ Marcus Aurelius ; Some say Spock’s Vulcan ethics exemplify Stoicism ; Epictetus pondering his disability ; Buddha under the enlightenment tree ]

21st Century Ethics?

Virtue Ethics places it’s trust squarely within the human being. It makes no specific recommendations for any situation; it doesn’t tell you what to do; it raises no golden law upon a pedestal. Instead it relies upon the robustness of character of the human actors in any situation to create a responsible decision in realtime. It cultivates this character through continuous active striving to assess the moral coloring of one’s inner being in interaction with any situation. It’s educational means are more like those of the musician, actor, or artist, who in seeking perfection will always be policing themselves aesthetically, transforming via practice what was problematic into second nature, into conscious habit, or into graceful performance. Unspectacular though individualized genius in the moment is the hallmark of VE. It is inherently creative and views moral capacity as a muscle.

Further, in VE the role and reality of conscience is taken seriously, almost as an organ of perception capable of making ever more refined discriminatory observations. The individual is paramount because ethical innovation in the future is dependent upon continually evolving creative perceptions of consciences, coupling progress in history very much with independent inspired acting of a timely nature. Who can argue against the necessity of this in the face of the bewildering range of sharp morality dilemmas which are currently generated in world culture?

Virtuous acting becomes very much about locating a proper balance among several dimensions of inward development (soul life). It is in the choosing and prioritizing of these inwardly-directed efforts that human freedom has the potential to express and experience itself. It emerges as an empirical reality rather than a theoretical abstraction, the existence of which being subject to brittle dispute. At the same time, from the other direction, the social reality, a general climate of fraternity can arise due to an increasingly commonplace understanding and practice of ‘goodness’, accompanied by it’s vital counterpart tolerance, which honors and enjoys the idiosyncratic choices made in freedom by the other.

That is one possible direction. But if VE suggests a future of inner freedom and graceful cooperation during the mutual navigation of the many present and coming crises we’ve prefigured for ourselves, then the heavily computational and deontologically imposed ‘morality’ of the avid AI advocates represents it’s inhuman and anti-humane counter-image. Freedom is less than an afterthought for the AI agenda. It’s a foregone conclusion in this sphere that human effort is completely hopeless and even detrimental to our future prospects, our only hope being the surrender of complex judgement to probabilistic sentient software (if feverish AI developers could only birth it before time runs out). There is often a nihilistic glee that mankind’s fate is a side issue anyway since superior intelligent machines would simply be the next evolutionary logical step, and their natural supplanting of us for their own agendas would constitute the next in an endlessly wonderful stream of survival-of-the-fittest pinnacles. With transhumanist AI we can see the absurd culmination, albeit a dreaming fantasy, of the reductionist ethical tendency first glimpsed in Kant and made more plain in Mill’s CQ. For what was at first a subtle redirecting of self-awareness (conscience) to a lesser role in favor of calculation now morphs into an utter abdicating of responsibility — morality conceived as data. Behind the staunch AI enthusiast’s desperate wish to become an algorithm lies a complete disinterest in or resignation concerning true self-development. Character becomes eclipsed by consumption of factual knowledge. Wisdom disappears.


This piece was originally triggered by watching a recent video conversation between two academics (Massimo Pigliucci and Daniel Kaufmann) at, which is recommended for a deeper orientation. Their podcasts are worth looking into in general; teachers at heart who make the philosophy material accessible while both retaining some distance from conformity to the dominant current paradigms.3 An inspirational resource for making a deeper, contemporary expedition into ‘virtue ethics’ is Robert Sardello’s book: “The Power of Soul: Living the Twelve Virtues”.

1) It may interest some to know that Benjamin Franklin was an avid Virtue Ethicist. Likely initially influenced by Aristotle, he went on to develop a collection of thirteen virtues, based upon personal observation and reflection. They were enumerated, according to his autobiography, by the ambitious age of 20. Franklin remained faithful to the effort of improving his character by practicing these ideals his entire adult life. He never once imagined nearing a successful endpoint, but rather considered the ongoing monitoring of the gap between his ideal and practice to be a lifelong source of education.

2) In 2010 the philosophers David Chalmers and David Bourget published a study which surveyed philosophy faculty members and PhD students of 199 North American universities in an effort to disclose the ‘pulse’ of contemporary Western philosophy regarding numerous dimensions of academic dispute within the field. Although the study was admittedly focused upon so-called analytic philosophy departments, the results were still quite interesting. It revealed an unexpected shift towards openness to VE within the field of ethics as follows: Other 32%, Deontology 26%, Consequentialism 24%, Virtue Ethics 18%. Follow this link to read about the methodology and view the results.

3) Pigliucci and Kaufman revisited their discussion about ethics more recently (December 2016), within a broader context of characterizing the differences in approach between ancient and modern (enlightenment) philosophy. Pigliucci in particular points to an unfortunate narrowing down of the concept about what ethics actually consists of, either as a consequence of or concomitantly with the rationalistic turn towards formulating of rules. Kaufman offers a counter argument rooted within the heterogeneous quality of modern social life, contending that the radical blending of numerous backgrounds and cultural roots (globalization) makes it problematical to agree upon an idea of a given situational virtue. I’m not persuaded by Kaufman’s objection, but it is certainly one worthy of deep consideration. I think this topic is one I’d like to expand upon in a future essay.

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    1. Thanks very much for reading, Harold. Yes, it is interesting stuff, the way Western thinking has unfolded, and where it has led. Pretty much it matters every single day.


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