Category: ethics

Kant vs Aristotle: Virtue and the Moral Law

Kant’s critique of Aristotle is fascinating to me. He uses Aristotle’s own standard against him: to say that virtue consists in achieving excellence in the unique purpose of a human life, and that this unique purpose can be identified by isolating the unique features of the organism as opposed to other organisms, you then have the problem of explaining how it is that the unique feature of reason could be better suited to helping humans achieve excellence at attaining ‘material ends’ (aka ‘happiness’), than the much more efficient and much less costly instinct, which all other animals have as well.

This is enough for Kant to argue that reason must then have some other purpose — which for him, is accessing ‘universal absolutes’ and functioning as the standard of ‘value’ he ascribes to the “good” will. But in making this move, Kant is also implicitly conceding Aristotle’s notion of a teleological end for which man has been “formed”. He’s simply arguing that Aristotle was muddled about the particulars, and that he has managed to sort it all out for us.

But, in order to make his criticism of Aristotle, Kant needs to reduce the greek notion of eudaemonia to (apparently) nothing more than the continuous satisfaction of contingent desires. Since these desires are ‘merely subjective’, dependent on circumstance, and are governed exclusively by the ‘laws of nature’, the satisfaction of them can have no ‘moral worth’ because moral worth consists in the ‘good will’ acting on the recognition of necessary duties found in the ‘moral law’ by way of pure reason, which is independent of contingent circumstances. Thus, hypothetical imperatives cannot “be moral”.

What’s ironic about all of this, is that Kant seems to be arguing with Aristotle, from the point of view of Plato. Kant wants there to be an absolute truth about moral rules, in a mathematical sense (he even makes an analogy to geometry at one point). He is frequently making reference to the difference between the sensible and the intelligible world and with it he makes a distinction between absolute value and relative value. All of these notions are constantly present in Plato’s dialogues. Even the distinction between ‘material’ ends, and ‘ultimate’ ends is something of a dispute between Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) and Plato (The Timeaus, The Republic).

It seems to me, that the debate around free will and morality seems to always resolve itself to the same dichotomies: objective-subjective, ‘intelligible’-‘sensible’, necessary-contingent, absolute-relative, and of course descriptive-normative. Has Kant added anything new to this dispute beyond Plato and Aristotle? I’m not so sure about that. The appeal to absolutes is a seductive one. Intuitively, it seems like a moral ‘rule’ could not be valid, if it were not absolute. Because, anything less than “true for everyone, everywhere, at all times”, is simply a preference by definition. However, Kant’s hypothetical examples of the Categorical Imperative in the Groundwork are notoriously confused and in at least one case (false promises), seem to argue against the categorical itself. If Kant himself could not imagine at least one unequivocal practical example of his imperative, it’s hardly fair to expect anyone else to be able to. Kant, I suppose, would have argued that in spite of the fact that ‘normal’ folk aren’t philosophers, they still “get it, deep down”. Maybe that’s what I was doing when I mentioned the intuitive appeal of absolutes. Still, it seems a bit like “cheating”, for Kant to make appeals to common-sense, when all throughout this book, he’s arguing that a properly philosophical understanding of morality must be grounded in rigorous logical universals. I’ll have more to say about this, later…

Reason Versus the Passions – Initial thoughts on Hume’s Treatise

…When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment; nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation.In short, a passion must be accompanyed with some false judgment in order to its being unreasonable; and even then it is not the passion, properly speaking, which is unreasonable, but the judgment.

The consequences are evident. Since a passion can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, [except] when founded on a false supposition or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falsehood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me…. [Book II, Part ii, Section iii]

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: Bestsellers and famous Books (pp. 388-389). anboco. Kindle Edition.

According to Hume, reason is but a slave to the passions. We are moved to act by a process of primary impressions (e.g., pleasure and pain, or grief and joy, or attraction and aversion), giving rise to relations of ideas (memories and reflections), which then give rise to secondary impressions (pride and shame, or love and hate, etc).

Hume was probably hyperbolizing for the sake of highlighting the point (later on in life Hume apparently lamented stating it so forcefully). But the point was not simply that passions are neither ‘reasonable’ nor ‘unreasonable’, it was primarily that reason is inert; That no calculation of circumstances or train of logic is capable of moving a man, all on its own. He reasoned that there must be some process by which ‘relations of impressions and ideas’ are converted into passions (the things that actually provide us with the impulse to act). Hume often depicts reason as lying somewhere between initial impressions, and final passions, acting merely as a conduit or proximal cause (though I suppose he would have balked at the word ’cause’ here).

His explication of that process and how it works is woefully naive and speculative (in addition to being incorrect in most respects). However, I think he was on the right track, and simply lacked a sophisticated enough science of human biology and psychology to render his theory into something that made better sense to a modern mind. For the most part, in the 18th century, the only tool available to him was introspection and a smattering of knowledge of human and animal anatomy. So, frankly, not only should he be excused, he ought to be lauded as a genius for (nearly) single-handedly inventing the science of psychology and the philosophical notion of moral psychology.

Still, I find myself disagreeing with Hume for the following reasons:

First, “reason” and “passion” are not separate ‘faculties’ of the mind, placed into a hierarchy with each other. Even Hume seemed to understand this (at least in part). They are functional capacities that express themselves in varying degrees in concert, under various circumstances. Reason is no more the slave of the passions, than the strings and woodwinds are the ‘slaves’ of the french horns and trumpets in an orchestra.

Second, Later on in the Treatise, he’ll introduce yet a third relation: that of moral judgment. At which point, all he’s really doing is describing Plato’s tripartite soul, in a much more complex way (Plato, of course, placed reason in the charioteer’s seat). Why philosophers traditionally have insisted on conceptions of consciousness as simple hierarchies is something I don’t quite understand, but in truth, the mind is more like an evolving ecosystem, not a top-down political structure.

Third, Hume reifies the phenomena in his model. He says that passions are derived from relations of impressions and ideas. He also says that the “self” is itself nothing more than an idea that arises from a relation of other impressions and ideas. But, he then says that pride and shame are passions, and that pride and shame have as “their object”, the self. And, for this to happen, there must be a “we” (i.e. the “self”) that receives an impression of something beautiful that “we” own. But this is to assign intentionality to mere phenomena. Hume never explains how this is possible. You can’t on the one hand, say that all the phenomena of the brain are merely the effects of causal inter-relations between impressions and ideas, and then on the other, somehow make the impressions and ideas capable of choosing objects at which to direct themselves.

The consequence of this, is that the most Hume could have reasonably said, was that he didn’t really know whether passions ‘ruled’ or reason ‘ruled’. At most, our cognitive and emotional capacities are cohabitants, and if you look at the modern scientific literature (admittedly, I am but a layman), there is little in the brain itself to distinguish them apart. Some would say the difference between the limbic system and the frontal lobes is enough to show this, but despite being separate physical structures, the actual neural activity isn’t so distinct. The limbic system, for example, in addition to being responsible for most of our emotions, is also responsible for several functions related to memory(something Hume would have counted as part of his ‘relations of ideas’ rather than as a sensation). The point is, rather than being master and slave to each other, they’re more like ‘dance partners’.

In fact, it seems to me, the core question here is exactly what role do each of the cognitive and emotive capacities of the brain play, in decision-making? Unfortunately, I’m no psychologist, and only have a layman’s familiarity with a smattering of the scientific literature on the question (which might help answer the question). But, I suppose one criticism you could levy at Hume, is that his overall theory (as its proposed here) is unfalsifiable: no matter what you decide, it’s always evidence of the passions at work. But then, it’s not like Hume had access to a rigorous methodology.

Morality in a Determined World

This essay will attempt an answer to the following question: If determinism is true, is morality an illusion? In other words, if we take the basic fact of causal necessity – the brute physical explanation that every effect has a cause – as a given, can we justify a belief in moral value and normative judgment in the narrow sense of “good” and “bad”? I will argue that there are good reasons to believe in the reality of both moral judgment and moral value in spite of causal necessity. Firstly, I will show that causal necessity does not entail what determinists insist of it. Secondly, I will argue that causal necessity leaves us no choice but to accept the responsibility of making moral choices, as members of the human community. Lastly, I will argue that the status of morality as a real phenomenon need not rest on naïve notions of ontological independence from the human mind.

The determinist insists on a universe in which all effects are perfectly determined from prior causes all the way back to the so-called “Big Bang”. He argues that we could, in principle, explain all effects in terms of their prior causes, if we only had the means to acquire enough knowledge to do so. We know from quantum physics that this is not actually true. Quantum indeterminacy shows that predictions at the sub-atomic level are a probabilistic affair, at best. Though this is not enough to claim free will (because brute randomness is just as much a causal driver as a perfectly predictable mechanical universe), it does show that the traditional view of determinism is in need of some updating. What’s more, as Peter Tse1 has argued, neural activity – one level up from the sub-atomic – is not a purely ballistic process (i.e., like billiard balls bouncing around). Rather, according to Tse, neurons behave more like a “store and forward” messaging system, in which groups of “epi-connected” neurons assemble into temporary networks, that collect and release electrochemical energy by way of criterial threshold triggers that may be pattern-specific. These criterial triggers can effect future neural states, and the arrangement of subsequent “epi-connected” networks, which makes their behavior indeterminate, but of a non-random nature. These two phenomenon (random quantum indeterminacy, and non-random neural indeterminacy) together, function as a necessary first condition for genuine choice-making activity in the brain. But none of this need be true, necessarily, to refute the main complaint of the determinist. Namely, that moral “responsibility” could not rest with the individual making the apparent choice, because the individual is not the “ultimate” cause of his behavior and because he’s not really making a choice. To begin with, there is no reason I know of, why responsibility can only rest on a causal terminus. So what if I’m not the ultimate cause of my choice? In fact, I can’t really think of any choice I’ve ever made, in which I was the originating source of the choice. By this reasoning, the Big Bang itself would become the ultimate scape goat. So, that objection seems spurious to me. On the question of whether I’m actually making a choice or not, this objection seems to beg the question it is trying to prove. Perhaps I am making an actual choice. The traditional determinist has yet to prove otherwise, and as I have shown, there is good evidence to suggest that he may be operating on obsolete information.

But Dr. Tse’s work is, at the moment, only an untested theory. So, prudence and charity suggests that taking the determinist’s position as a given might be the safer bet. If the human mind is indeed determined in a ballistic sense, just as the rest of physical matter in the universe, and the barrier to making all human activity predictable is not one of principle, but of mere technological prowess, would this mean our impulse to moral judgment is illusory, or that maintaining moral position is indulging in a fiction? When I consider what it means to be a human being, I think not. While we are animals that have evolved just like all others have, we are yet primates of a very peculiar variety. We are creatures driven by a psychology that was chiseled out of environmental pressures that determined a set of genetic traits that were necessary for the reproductive success of primates in that early environment. That process has, as Frans de Waal2 has outlined, equipped us with a highly sophisticated cognitive and emotional apparatus (whether as primary or secondary traits is somewhat irrelevant at the moment), that enabled such things as gratification deferment, long-term planning, cost/benefit calculation, and comparative judgment. These traits have enabled highly sophisticated social interactions and complex social structures in which genetic relatedness, reciprocal altruism, sympathetic resentment, emotional contagion, empathy, and a robust theory of mind, have all culminated in a “moral sense” that is both self- and other-directed. This collection of “moral sentiments” is necessarily normative, because each of us, as a specimen of the human primate species, requires a means by which we can determine our “fit” in the social order so as to budget our resource acquisition and mating opportunities. The ways in which this evaluative process expresses itself and the individual, and subsequently the group, is going to vary broadly with climatic conditions and population (and is a topic for another time), but in general, when attitudes arising from these evaluations are systematized into moral “codes”, or political philosophies, this we want to call “morality”. What this means, is that morality is not illusory, but it is also not what we typically think it is. It is a psycho-biological phenomenon that consists in a process of continuous negotiation, competition, and collaboration, that regulate the behavior of the species over time, and in response to environmental pressures. There is a further consequence: as a member of this species, I have no choice but to participate in this process. My brain is constructed to perform these evaluative judgments, and to seek commerce with (and protection within) my in- groups. The common question, “why should I be moral?”, is thus answerable by saying that you already are, necessarily. The only thing that remains is, what are you going to do about it?

It might be objected at this point, that these evaluations are purely mythical because no such qualities as “good” and “bad” can be identified in the actions of an individual in the way that angular momentum or velocity can be. Or, it may be contested that because such things as moral “value” are negotiated, they are a mere “social construct”, and therefore ought not be taken seriously. Both objections, it seems to me, come down to an unreasonably reductive insistence on a narrow conception of “existence” as nothing more than physical matter and energy. Even the most materialist of Marxist economists would be willing to acknowledge the “real” store of value present in a ten pound note. As noted above, such things as the capacity for long-term planning, gratification deferment, and cost-benefit calculation (as well as language, and a sense of reciprocity and expectation), enable the creation of real symbols of evaluative judgment – simple commodities upon which we psychologically project a certain qualitative or quantitative meaning. While it is true that different groups of people have used different commodities and have imbued those tokens with different degrees of importance and different kinds of meaning, they have all nonetheless engaged in the creation and representation of real value. If we are willing to accept this as an example of value in real form, why would we not accept the same for morality? Why would we take the collective store of moral value to be less “real”, than the collective store of economic value? Seems to me, without a principle for making such a choice, I’d only be engaging in an act of caprice, and denying my own nature in the process.

The arguments above cannot help us explain what kinds of things we need to evaluate, what means of evaluation we ought to engage in, how much importance the evaluations deserve, or even which evaluations are appropriate in any given situation. Rather, all I have tried to show, is that accepting a deterministic view of reality hardly excuses us from the fact of morality, as a human phenomenon. Far from excusing us from moral choice because mere illusion, a deterministic understanding, when coupled with the science of evolution and psychology, makes morality an inescapable inevitability for us (or, at least, a biological fact of life – even if accidental). What’s more, in trying to characterize morality as an “illusion” because of causal necessity or biological determination, we’re doing nothing less than trying to deny the responsibility with which nature itself has tasked us. For those of us who choose to take up this burden, the challenge is precisely this: to explain what it really is, and to show how we can best make use of it.


  1. Peter Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2013 
  2. Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2006 

Is it possible to act selflessly?

The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.

When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).

Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self. 

Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free. 

But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.

So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:

  1. The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
  2. The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
  3. The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
  4. Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly. 

On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.

But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’. 

The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?

Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…

That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)? 

We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad). 

Mill, Kant, Preference and Universality

If you look closely at Mill’s arguments in Utilitarianism, he seems to be making a very strong response to Kant (perhaps against the Groundwork?). Mill accepts the notion of moral duty, just as Kant does. But he insists it derives not from any form of analytic (i.e., Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori) truth. Rather, Mill insists it derives from the apparently universal desire of mankind (individually, in aggregate) to seek its own pleasure. Aware of some of the contextual implications of this principle, Mill attacks head-on the charge of Epicureanism. But what strikes me as interesting, is the fact that, though he makes frequent reference to Kant, he never directly refutes Kant’s position, and never fully explains how the pleasure principle isn’t obviously and soundly refuted already by Kant’s explication of deontology (in the Groundwork). Mill just seems to ignore the problem of subjectivity in the hypothetical imperative, as described by Kant. Perhaps Mill is assuming that the apparently universal preference for pleasure somehow renders the hypothetical imperative a moot point? (i.e., since everyone prefers pleasure, it’s pointless to bother thinking in terms like, ‘if you seek pleasure, then you should do x’).

This idea of a universal preference is an intriguing one. Mill makes frequent appeals to preference – both implicit and explicit. What if we could actually identify a preference that is indeed universal to all human beings? I’m struggling, frankly, to think of one. Even something as intuitively obvious as “life” isn’t so obvious, when you consider the willingness of soldiers to throw themselves over the trenches, or the high rate of suicide among men in the west, today. Clearly, those folk do not have a preference for living. If something like life itself can’t be ascribed as a preference to all human beings, why should pleasure?

On the other hand, biology is notoriously fuzzy at the edges. Sometimes a horse is born with 5 legs. Is it no longer a horse? Sometimes humans are born with 3 x chromosomes, instead of an xy pair. Does that mean there’s no such thing as mammalian sexes? If we can accept these sorts of vaguenesses in distinction, then perhaps a “universal preference” could also be accepted as something slightly less than universal?

Perhaps, but when we start ascribing moral significance to such a thing as a preference, the game changes a bit. Because what are we really saying, when we say we can judge a behaviour as “right” or “wrong”? When I say something is or isn’t a preference of mine, nothing follows. I just go about my business, and you, yours. But when I take a preference of mine as a standard to judge you ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I am implying a great deal more. It implies that, at the very least, I am licensed to condemn you for not sharing the preference — and at the most extreme end, that I am licensed to kill you.

But what if the standard isn’t some particular material preference (such as ice cream favors, or even living), but rather, for behavioral reciprocity? Now, if I have a preference for vanilla, and you have a preference for chocolate, but we both share (for example) a preference for not attacking people with differing preferences, then we might be able to negotiate a peaceful existence together. What’s more, we’d then be justified in self-defense against someone who didn’t share that meta-preference.

Perhaps this is what Mill was thinking when he suggested we all ought to regard each other equally, in the decisions we make? More thought must be done on this one…

Bernard Williams, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

It would be amazing if ethics courses would stop trying to put me into some kind of Antonio Banderas / Heath Ledger fantasy nightmare, and actually start teaching me how to work on real problems in the real world. Everyone talks of trying to do "applied" ethics, and trying to remove all the 'abstractions' and deal 'directly' with our moral intuitions. But these scenarios just seem to me to be driving us further and further away from that goal

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