PAGE NUMBER                                   In pdf    in htm


Preface                                            2         2

Philosophy in general                              3         3

Epistemology                                       9         5

Metaphysics                                       14         7

Philosophical elements in general ethics          26        10

Descriptive ethics                                38        13

Particular ethical norms                          45        15

Process of ethical evaluation and decision making 56        18

Ethics and the philosophy of India                71        23

Ethics and the philosophy of China                83        26

Bibliography                                     100        31



            In Santa Cruz Spirituality, Chapter 5 Particulars, I noted that “Lastly, all forms of spirituality are to their possessors a guide to the way they should act in the world.  In other words, there is a connection between spirituality and morality.”  Many religions contain a detailed moral code which not only serves as a basis for civil law, but also permeates the thinking of a society to the extent that the citizens can hardly conceive of a morality that is not based on religion.  Nevertheless, philosophers of all ages have done just that: they have treated what they usually term Ethics, the study of how people should act and even of the rewards or punishments for their actions.  To understand philosophical ethics one must begin by knowing what philosophy is and what it has to say about human nature and about the world as a whole.  It follows that a creditable  treatment of philosophical ethics begins with  at least a summary of philosophy and of the steps leading to ethics properly understood.  The present essay undertakes to summarize philosophy sufficiently to meet this requirement.  It consists of excerpts from, actually most of, a work entitled Ethics as Philosophy, which I wrote before Santa Cruz Spirituality and copyrighted in 2004.

            The first seven chapters of this study are in the traditional manner in which Western philosophy is presented. The particular way they are organized reflects the Thomistic philosophy which I studied many years ago to earn the PhD degree in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University of the Vatican City  The issues, however, are by and large universal, and they exist also in Eastern philosophy, as will be shown in the briefer account of ethics in the philosophy of India and China in the final two chapters.



Definition of Philosophy


            The things that can be said about philosophy can be classed under three headings: its definition, its relation to similar activities, and its divisions. These headings relate to the phases of the observation of anything, that is, inspecting it, inspecting its relation to similar things (which may include results or consequences of its actions), and inspecting its components (however they may compose it).

            As a process philosophy consists of an exercise of reasoning or reflection.  It is concerned with what we think rather than with what we feel; it is intellectual and not affective or emotional.  By various processes of thinking such as analysis and synthesis, deduction and induction, philosophy develops sets of statements about the world as a whole and about the place of people in it.  The statements express systematic answers to the broad questions, what?, whence? whither? how (i.e., by what means)? why ( i.e., to what end, if any)?, about the world in general or specifically about humankind.  It is by no means clear that there are answers to all the general questions that people can pose about themselves and the world, but history shows that people cannot be prevented from asking them and attempting to answer them by themselves, that is, by thinking about them.

            These broad (also called “ultimate”) questions themselves evolve with the attempt to answer them, and can be considered as the results of our lines of inquiry as well as interrogatives.

            A term I introduced here and which calls for explanation is "world".  By "world" I refer to the whole of whatever exists.  At this point there is no concern for how it exists or even for what "existence" itself means.  Both “world” and “existence” can be talked about, but they are “givens” that cannot be defined by some referent extraneous to themselves.

            In philosophy as a process knowledge about the world is taken as the data from which the answers mentioned above are extracted.  Thus philosophy derives from pre-existing knowledge, and its value depends on the accuracy of this knowledge.  A philosophy about the physical universe, for example, that accepts as data the centrality of the earth is going to be blind to many insights that become possible through a more scientific cosmology.

            Knowledge is taken here to be an integration of data with some degree of insight into the significance, the meaning, or the workings of whatever the data are about.  Understanding is another word we shall use, and we take it to be stronger than knowledge: we have to know something well before we can understand it.

            "The pursuit of wisdom" is an apt description of philosophy if wisdom is taken to mean consummate understanding of all that is important to human life.  Wise persons, that is, have come to at least some answers to the basic questions, are secure in the answers, and are in a position to teach them to others.  As far as I know, all cultures have wise persons and honor them.  Their fellow members of the culture do not necessarily expect them to know all the answers to all questions, but they do esteem them for knowing the answers to the important questions, the ones that count.

            In addition to philosophers there are thinkers - “intellectuals” and essayists, for example - who ponder the deeper aspects of particular problems or who speculate generally but not systematically about the nature of things and their reasons. Furthermore, human cultures have pre-scientific and non-religious explanations of the world and their place in it.  None of this is philosophy unless it reaches such a degree of abstraction that it is systematic.  The product of this rigorous process is philosophy as a body of knowledge, an object of study in itself.  Of all the cultures of the world only a few have reached the stage of producing philosophy, and these, which are strung geographically along a line from the Mediterranean Sea to the Yellow Sea, have been contributing to the world’s patrimony of philosophy for about 2,500 years.  The stories, myths, and legends of all the rest contain many philosophical insights, but they are not philosophy.

            In "Identity and the Question of African Philosophy" Robert Birt reviews a number of current opinions concerning African philosophical endeavors, especially those in the past.  He makes it clear that those who require that philosophy be only that which is done by professional academic philosophers of Western culture ask too much of non-literate philosophical thinking, which certainly forms part of traditional African cultures.  Nevertheless, it is true that “one finds more literate African philosophizing in the past thirty years than in the previous thirty centuries.” (p. 103) The works which Birt is reviewing make no reference whatsover to the philosophies of India and China.   


Philosophy and Activities Related to it


            The philosophic method of inspection and reflection noted above is similar to the scientific method.  In both there is a process of searching, groping, speculating, but there are important differences between the two processes.  Basically, of course, science begins with the observation of the macrophenomena and microphenomena of the world, but philosophy starts with knowledge that has already been scientifically gained.  (It is said that induction is the reasoning method of science whereas deduction is that of philosophy, but this distinction no longer seems as clear-cut and useful as it formerly did, and is probably not a useful way to compare philosophy with science.)

            Another key difference between philosophic and scientific method has to do with hypothesis formulating and testing.  Both methods include these two phases, although philosophic hypothesis stating is apt to be more linguistically diffuse and the methods of testing differ markedly.  Along with the hypothesis science sets up a way to verify it, and each verified hypothesis constitutes a block of knowledge which, presumably, has some practical value and which leads to the construction of further hypotheses.  There is, however, no such chain in philosophic method.  Philosophic hypotheses are strictly explanations, that is to say, clarifications or interpretations of the philosophic data, and there is no way to test them aside from their own explanatory power.  (Obviously, various ones can be compared and contrasted among themselves.)  Scientists who cross over the line between verifiable to non-verifiable hypotheses have become ipso facto philosophers.

            The non-verifiable aspect of philosophical statements leads many people who are steeped in the scientific method to claim that philosophy not only makes statements which cannot be verified, but also that these statements are meaningless or devoid of content.  The philosopher replies to this that to have a meaning is not the same as to be verifiable, and in particular that the philosophers’ answers to the basic questions mentioned above are neither verifiable nor falsifiable by the scientific method.  We do find that gradually many questions which used to be answered philosophically now find scientific answers.  The philosopher welcomes this progress and uses it to direct his or her attention away from useless questions to useful ones, which stand out in sharper relief because of the improved scientific knowledge which serves as a basis for the philosophic enterprise.

            There remains one element important for a comparison of philosophy and science.  Science positively and aggressively acknowledges only one source of human knowledge, that which enters through the senses, is quantifiable, and is manipulated by logical reasoning.  According to some, philosophy builds only on knowledge gained by this source, but according to others, there is also intuitive knowledge which knows some things about the world directly, without the intermediary of the senses.  How much this kind of knowledge can be manipulated by reasoning and quantified is a further philosophic question.  Science, on its own principles, cannot know whether there is or is not such a thing as intuition.

            Philosophy also is closely related to art and religion.  Each of these three is a way of describing the world, a language, if you like, but the three diverge in their viewpoints on the world, in their symbols for representing it, and in their affective experience of it.  Philosophy is the least affective of the three, but even it often implies a way of life which is a broad affective state.  It does not use many symbols beyond language, and it communicates only with a small minority of people because of the difficulty it has in expressing itself in the way that it must. Religion, for its part, is heavy with symbolism, is highly affective, communicates in one way or the other with most of the world's population, and it considers itself a guide to experiencing that which is totally unknowable and inexpressible.  Art is symbolism.  Its many forms involve many kinds of affective response ranging from pure esthetic experience to rich passion, and it reaches all the world's population, although in extremely varied forms.  Its subjects are not only immensely varied, but they are treated in an astonishing variety of ways.

            Philosophy, religion, and art are related, and they are greatly intermingled, but the most difficult distinction to be made among them is between philosophy and religion.  At the risk of oversimplifying the distinction between the two we can pay attention to two further differences which have a bearing on the present line of thought.

            1) Religion traces itself to a foundation of religious experience, an intuition of beings, forces, or values that imposes itself on people either directly, or through the intermediary of teaching by someone who does have it.  The relationship between this intuition and the non-scientific intuition mentioned above is one of the questions of both philosophy and religion. Generally,  however, it is asserted that the intuition of religious experience is transmitted to people from powers which transcend them whereas the non-scientific intuition spoken of in regard to philosophy is thought to arise from the human mind itself.  (Religious experience as an affective phenomenon is scrutinized in the famous works, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James and The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto.  Obviously, as an affective phenomenon religious experience can be studied scientifically, whereas religious intuition as a form of knowing is not within the range of scientific study.) (The role of language, not just as a vehicle of communication concerning religious experience, but also as an integral part of it, is dealt with by Ben-Ami Scharfstein in his Ineffability.  Although religious experience is Scharfstein’s focus, he also deals with the non-religious, non-scientific intuition just mentioned.  Furthermore, he writes from the perspective of comparative religion and philosophy rather than from a mere Western background.)

            2) Religion is more serious than philosophy is.  Philosophy discourses about matters which are serious, but which are not all vital to human life.  Religion, on the contrary, is exclusively about matters which are proposed to be of great importance and concern.  As such it lends itself to shared societal forms with ethical codes.

            I developed these comparisons in a paper entitled "Microcomputers as Philosophical Tools," which I presented at the Midyear Conference of the American Society for Information Science in Bloomington, Indiana, 1984.  As I gathered ideas for the paper the comparisons seemed to come to me spontaneously, but when I went to write the paper I realized that I had read an article which proposed something similar to it.  Unable then to locate the article, I completed the ASIS presentation, claiming neither that it was nor that it was not my idea.  I did, however, show a chart which I myself had devised.  It was this:





--------------------------------- BASIC DIRECTIONS -------------------------------------

Phen-    Value of personal experience          Intrepretation of trans                    Oneness of the world

om-                                                       personal experience



            Personal experience can                 Some people succeed in                Although no single

            perceive more than utility              communicating their artistic          medium of human art

            in objects and actions: it sees         insight to others by their               can refer to the whole

ART     form, beauty, and emotional          art.  Many people thus                  world, the media taken

            value.  Such sight and                  sometimes share the same             conjointly produce the

            feeling refer to natural                   perception and feeling                   perception of a world

            and artificial wholes and                simultaneously or                                    unified in the endless

            to excerpts from wholes.               successively.                               possibilities of its

                                                                                                            own forms.


            The human mind can pose                        Philosophical reflection                 All philosophies find

            for itself questions which               leads to a number of                     elements which are

            are unrelated to everyday               people holding common               common to the whole

PHIL-    living, but which refer so              worldviews and ideals                  world and which unify

OS-       significantly to living and to          with consequent low                    it; they find aspects

SOPHY the world that man feels com-        intensity, shared                          under which the endless

            pelled to seek answers to               emotions.                                   parade of phenomena

            them, and then to regulate his                                                        are more one than many.

            actions by these answers.


            Some people have exper-               Religious experience                    All religions interpret

            ience, more or less intense,            is felt to be shared                        the world as some kind

            that there is directly                     by other persons and to                 of transcendental

RELI-    communicated to them                 be communicable by                    one, of which man

GION    transcendental meaning                 means of shared symbols.              partakes in some way.

            about the world and its

            source and about their

            own lives.



The divisions of philosophy


            "Kant himself summarized the main interest of philosophy in the four questions: What can I know?  What ought I do? What may I hope for? What is man?"  (Martin, General Metaphysics, p. 201, referring to Kant's Logik, Einleitung III).  It is common for expositions of Western philosophy to begin with questions such as Kant raises and similar ones.  By no means do the philosophers all proceed in the same order, and I will propose the questions here in an order which, I think, represents their interrelationship clearly.

            First we ask about the validity of our human knowledge, and this includes the topics of  what is truth? and how do we go about thinking accurately?  The term epistemology is used for the more speculative aspects of this philosophy of knowledge, and its techniques of application are the various forms of logic.

            Having established to our satisfaction that human knowledge is valid at least to some knowable extent, we look at the world.  First at the whole of it. That is, we ask, what can be said about everything there is and anything there could be?  The notion of a general study of being is a rather daunting one to people who are accustomed to fractionalizing knowledge into the various sciences and who see a Grand Unified Theory of Everything exclusively as a function of subatomic physics.  Nevertheless, the philosophy of being , which is also called ontology, has a secure place in the world of philosophers.

            The general study of ontology leads us in three specific directions:

                        1) is there a supreme being, and if so what can be said about such?  This is often called natural theology.

                        2)  what else can be said about the observable world: how it came to be, what can be said about anything and everything in it, and what can be said of its fate?  This can be called general philosophy of the observable world.  The terms "cosmogony" and "cosmology" (more properly "philosophical cosmogony" and "philosophical cosmology") have been used to name this branch of philosophy, but they are currently out of favor among philosophers, although scientists use them in their accounts of the observable world.  Aside from the terms used, philosophy of the world is not a prime concern of contemporary philosophers.  Still, it is not completely lacking, as can be shown by philosophical treatment of the immediate world of human experience, the environment, as we shall encounter in the section on environmental and ecological ethics under Special Questions of Ethics.

            Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Harper and Row, 1960. First published in 1929.) is a true philosophical cosmology.  Against a background of post Newtonian physics Whitehead discourses about the perennial questions of metaphysics: the one / the many, flux / stasis, actual / potential, being / becoming, eternity / time, God / world.  Although explicitly mentioning the weakness of the human mind, he proposes that syntheses of these opposites are possible within the limits of our understanding.  The flow of his thought is quite clear, although the points along the way are obscured by the esoteric terminology which he invents for the sake of explanation.  It appears me that there is little to be said about metaphysical cosmology outside of what Whitehead says in this work and that he says it (making allowance for the terminology) as well as it can be said.  While the work centers on cosmology, it reaches far into ontology and natural theology, but very little into philosophy of people and society.

                        3) What about people:  what is it to be a human being? what is human freedom? is there a special fate for humans?  This can be called  philosophy of people and society, and it has been called "philosophy of man" and even "philosophical anthropology."  In spite of the fact that the name for it is not entirely satisfactory, it exists in treatments of human freedom and in all those essays, books, lectures, and courses which, with greater or lesser employment of philosophical tradition, tell us about ourselves.

            Ontology and the specific directions within it constitute traditional speculative philosophy, i.e., speculation on "the nature of things," including humans.  Such speculation is sometimes termed "metaphysics," and it is in this sense that we shall use the word metaphysics.  We will return to this topic below under its own heading

            With a foundation in epistemology and metaphysics the philosopher can go on to consider various fields.  There are philosophies of religion, of history, of politics; there are aesthetics and ethics.  The only one of these which is of concern to us is ethics, the philosophy of human action.  This scrutiny of the appropriateness of human actions is a prominent field of human speculative endeavor in our time.  Although many efforts have been made to develop ethics without relating it to epistemology and metaphysics, traditionally it has been considered a branch of philosophy, and this is the way we will proceed.



Postulates and Reasoning


            Although some knowledge and its validity are derived from other knowledge by processes of reasoning, not all knowledge can be so justified.  Some  knowledge has to be basic.  Various philosophical explanations of which knowledge comes first have been made, and they all have in common the experience of the human observer.  Accordingly, we postulate acceptance of the observing subject who is not the whole of its observed object and who has some accurate knowledge of the same.  This way of putting it rejects only radical skepticism, which has a perennial appeal, but which deprives of value all intellectual discourse, including discourse about itself.  As Nozick points out, attempts to refute skepticism do not satisfy the skeptic; better we should learn from the skeptic how to be cautious in trusting what we think we know.  (Philosophical Explanations, chapter 3)

            A further postulate, linked to that of the observer, is that of multiple observers and of communication between them by means of language.  The mere presence of multiple objects in the world would not entail a multiplicity of observers, but the interchange of language shows that some other entities are observing as I am and that we can discourse about ourselves and about our observations

            Language is an imperfect vehicle of communication, which, by following its own rules, can make absurd statements.  Thus, "This statement is meaningless," "I never tell the truth," or even "No truthful statement can be made" are not only grammatically correct (even "All triangles are hot" is grammatically correct), but they link concepts which are related.  The strengths and weakness of language are topics of great concern in contemporary philosophical and scientific activity.  A century ago positivism, scientific reductionism and the quantification of logic led such outstanding philosophers as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and others of the School of British Analytic Philosophy to minute analyses of language, its function and its limits.  Now much of this has been tempered by the still more advanced and mature analyses of contemporary philosophers.  The core lesson of Analytic Philosophy, however, is never to be out of the minds of philosophers: use extreme caution to anchor words in reality.  In these notes I am trying to be careful in the use of language.  To some extent this simply involves the clear significations of words and the avoidance of  unverifiable statements, but in addition to this, we must recognize two age-old dangers to philosophers in their use of language, which are (1) that of mistaking metaphor for reality and (2) that of mistaking description for analysis.  As far as I can see, (1) is a particular pitfall of inchoate philosophies, such as that of the Pre-Socratics and the Pre-Confucians as well as of Hegelianism and (2) is a defect shared by such otherwise diverse philosophies as Scholasticism, Bergsonianism, and Existentialism.

            Hilary Lawson, in Closure  A Story of Everything , states that   "It is through closure that openness is divided into things." (p. 3)  Also,   "The product of closure, material, does not describe openness for there is a remainder, a residue that is not exhausted by the material.  A remainder or residue that is almost everything. For in holding that which is different as the same, or in holding one or more pieces of material - one or more things - as another, there remains that which is different....  The remainder not exhausted by material is not anything in particular, it is open, but the manner in which it is open is influenced by the material.  This remainder will be referred to as 'texture'". (pp. 11-12)

            Openness - closure - things - material - texture  are Lawson’s key, interlocking concepts.  He intends to operate within a post-kantian, post analytic philosophical context.  But by stating that closure and the associated activities apply to absolutely everything, including reflexively closure itself, he joins the ranks of those whose think that an overall description of reality is an analysis of it.  His concepts are close to the act and potency etc. of the scholastics.  Too bad, for he missed the opportunity to reason from the atemporally undifferentiated to the object-world of Western philosophy.  When I read the review of this in the Times Literary Ssupplement of March 1, 2002 I thought perhaps he was coming from the Chinese worldview, but nothing in the book as much as hints that he knows about this!

            In view of our gradually improving understanding of how our minds come to know the world, we realize that there are three historically well-known epistemological theories which can no longer be sustained:  1) naive realism, which supposes that the world exists exactly as we perceive it with our senses;  2) pure rationalism, which supposes that all being is intelligible, i.e., that no being can exist unless we are capable of understanding it, or, again, that the world of the mind is an exact representation of the world outside the mind;  3) idealism, which does not acknowledge the existence of a world outside the mind.  Presented in its extreme versions, each of these three theories has long since been discredited, but each at least represents a phase of philosophical understanding.

            The interplay between the above three positions was treated, throughout most of the history of Western philosophy, as a metaphysical question, but that was before it became necessary to distinguish epistemology from metaphysics.  For the most part, the inclusion of this matter in epistemology needs no explanation since Kant, but there are those who still maintain that the prime concern of ontology is, how does the general exist? and which is more real, the general or the particular?  The best example for modern minds of the meaningfulness of this question is its application to us humans: which is more real, the individual or society?  (Premoderns would have phrased it, which is more real, individual human beings or mankind?)   Only extremists are willing to answer that question when it is asked in these terms.

            In this framework Gottfried Martin proposes in General Metaphysics Its Problems and its Method that there are three known (although there could, he says, be more) positions on the matter, Plato's, Aristotle's, and Kant's.  The being of the general is respectively Idea, law of nature, and activity of thought (which threesome was seen by Hegel) (p. 329).  The first to ask what being means was Plato, in the Sophist (p. 36).  In the 20th century the formalism of Hilbert, the logicism of Russell, and the intuitionism of Brouwer were "intimately connected" with respectively the same philosophers (p. 328).  Each of the three positions has strengths and weaknesses; each is an incomplete approach to understanding, each leads to aporias (insoluble puzzles), none reduces to the other, and none prevails.  (An aporia of Aristotle: forms are present only in real beings - an imaginary being or limit-being {such as justice} cannot have a form, and thus is unintelligible (p. 248).  Also, the process of our receiving the forms, species intelligibilis etc,. worked out by the Scholastics, is not satisfying.)  Others he mentions in this context are Descartes, Leibnitz (at length) and Hegel, who thought, unwisely, that the difficulties in reconciling the three positions could be overcome by pushing the dialectical method (which is in each of the three to some extent) to the extreme.

            The position which states that only concrete, singular, entities are real at all is called nominalism, and it would almost seem that nominalism holds sway in modern thinking in asmuch as singular, concrete entities are the units with which science builds its theoretical structures.  Thus nominalism is not incompatible with the study of sets and classes from a logical-mathematical point of view.  Of course we can view the world as the raw data for sets and classes of our own devising, and this logico-mathematical approach works functionally, enabling scientists, engineers, logicians, and literary deconstructionists to communicate among themselves.  The existence of a set or class, however, does not explain why its elements belong to it.  The explanation lies in the common characteristics of the elements: what is it that makes them common, and the possible answers to this question throw us back to the original question of how the mind works and how it relates to external reality.  It appears to me that amidst the debris of discarded methods for answering this question there is a modern one, systems theory, which does justice both to scientific knowledge and philosophical tradition, and I will devote some space to this under Questions of Ontology: questions of the philosophy of being.

            Rationalism can be considered possible only if human thought is completely and unfailingly accurate in its interpretation of the world.  A discovery of modern linguistics, however, is that various natural languages interpret the world in markedly different ways.  In languages which do not have a continuum of time, and in those which do not separate words into two basic classes of substantives and verbs the unconsciously possessed worldview of native speakers of the language is radically different from that of the native speakers of the Indo-European languages.  Thus it is now scientifically temerarious to hold that a universally satisfying (rationalistic) analysis of the world must be made on the bases which were available to the Greek philosophers.  It would also appear that confusion would be rife if all the worldviews of all the languages were to be included in an overall rationalistic analysis.  It is just possible, it seems to me, that the meaning of Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena is simply that we all observe the noumena, but we observe them as partitioned into sets of phenomena by our languages and the thought processes involved in using them.  I propose this on the basis of the linguistic work of Benjamin Whorf.  See Language, Thought and Reality, especially the chapter entitled “Science and Linguistics,” from which the following is quoted:

            When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken.  It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental qctivity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade.  Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars.  We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.  The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds - and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.  We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreemet that holds throughout our speech community as is codified in the patterns of our language.  The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. (pp. 212-214)


            "What is truth?" is a concern of epistemology regarding all the forms of human expression.  There is scientific truth, but there are also philosophical truth, artistic truth, and religious truth.  The term "truth" itself is an abstract substantive used to describe a situation in which an expression represents accurately, although not necessarily exhaustively, some reality or some aspect of reality.  Truth always involves representation because it involves the use of a medium, and tests for truth exist for each of the kinds of expression.

            Many reflections about truth are being omitted here, but one will be mentioned: truth is a value.  "Truth is striven for in ordinary life, in fact-finding for business dealings, in social, juridical, and political matters.  It is somethng people want to know.  Likewise the sciences and philosophy want their conclusions to be true." (Joseph Owens in Wood,  The Future of Metaphysics, p. 213)   Nozick sees truth as a value which culminates a process.  We start, he explains, from "belief," conviction that something is so, and by a process of reference to correlatives and implications which he calls "tracking" we validate this belief so that it becomes "true belief." (Philosophical Explanations, chapter 3)

            The notion of value figures prominently in Ethics.  Here we are using the word not as a technical philosophical term, but as it is used in common parlance: a value is a thing or state to esteem, to strive for, to view as a goal.  Although Nozick uses the notion of value liberally, he seems to keep within the common understanding of it rather than to build a system around it.


The Limits of Human Knowledge


            It would seem self-evident that human knowledge cannot predict its own limits, i.e., on the basis of what is known we cannot know how much more there is to know.  Scientific knowledge, in particular, can predict no limit to itself as long as it can make fresh observations, because these lead to fresh reasoning.  Historically there have been stages when scientists have thought they knew all, but then they have found their neatly packaged system torn apart by new discoveries.  Furthermore, this assumes that science is staying in its own territory; there are things science does not know about but which are known to art or religion or philosophy.  Art and religion, for their part, cannot know their own limits because they involve imagination, that is, creativity, and by definition creativity does not know its own limits.

            Philosophy shares with science one kind of limitlessness: it can build indefinitely on new observations, but philosophy is in a position to judge that in some series of thought new observations will not make a difference, and that, therefore, some philosophical knowledge is definitive and some is definitively inconclusive.  The following is an example of what is meant when one asserts that some philosophical knowledge is definitively inconclusive:

            Colin McGinn has a new idea. In his book The Problem of Consciousness (1991) he concluded that the difficulty of accounting for the presence of consciousness in a world of physical objects and processes of the kind we already understand is simply too great for human minds ever to overcome.  Now in Problems in Philosophy, he extends that verdict to philosophical issues involving other aspects of the mind, such as the self, free will, meaning and knowledge.  They, too, present real problems that simply transcend our natural powers of understanding.  That is something most of us will have felt personally from time to time, but McGinn generalizes the inadequacy.  It is the human intellect as such that cannot cope.  (Review of Problems in Philosophy by Barry Stroud in Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 25, 1994, N. 4743, p. 8.  The reviewer does not think that McGinn develops his thesis well.)

            The preceding reflection has another side: how much is there about our world that we are missing?  How much is happening that our minds are unable to fathom?  This is an epistemological question which has made sense ever since Kant made us wonder what the noumena are.  It would be exceedingly presumptuous of us at the present stage of the development of human knowledge to suppose that the form of perception and reflection we possess tells us all there is to know about things.  I think there is a virtual certainty that there is more to the world than appears to our senses and the instruments we use to aid them.  To think otherwise, i.e., that we understand all things, would put us back into one or another form of the rationalism that philosophers have outgrown.



The Nature of Metaphysics


            As stated above, “metaphysics” can be identified with “ontology”, but ontology, a modern term, is properly restricted to the study of being as such or, which is functionally the same, of the whole of reality, whereas metaphysics can profitably be taken to refer to all speculative philosophy which does not center on man's knowing (epistemology) or acting (ethics).  It can be added that the terms "general metaphysics" and "ontology" are taken as synonymous by some philosophers.  (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 3, p. 356)

            A well used notion of metaphysics is “the study of the kinds of things there are and their modes of being.”  (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article on history of metaphysics)  We can, however, find generally acceptable descriptions of metaphysics which present more detail, such as "The aim of metaphysics is a comprehensive conceptual scheme in the light of which the whole of experience can be organized and become intelligible.  It is for this reason sometimes said (for example, by Whitehead) to be concerned with the most general and pervasive features of the world, and at others (for example, by Plato) to be the most synoptic of the sciences."  (Errol E. Harris in Robert P. Wood, Ed., The Future of Metaphysics, p. 200)

            To pursue Whitehead's explanation, "... in a much-quoted passage, Whitehead stated that 'Speculative philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.'  The system is to be 'coherent' in the sense that 'no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe.... The term 'logical' has its ordinary meaning, including ... consistency, or lack of contradiction, the definition of constructs in logical terms, the exemplification of general logical notions in specific instances, and the principles of inference.'  Whitehead goes on to state, however, that 'Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate ... metaphysical first principles.  Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably.  Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generalization foreign to their ordinary usages; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.'"  (R. M. Martin in Wood, The Future of Metaphysics, pp. 186-7. Refers to Whitehead's Process and Reality, pp. 4-6)

            An important notion of metaphysics which includes, however, elements which are not of common agreement is that of Kant.  "... Kant used the term 'metaphysics' to refer to all a priori speculation on questions that cannot be answered by scientific observation and experiment.  As he formulates it: metaphysics 'is the system of pure reason, that is, the science which exhibits in systematic connection the whole body (true as well as illusory) of philosophical knowledge arising out of pure reason.'  Taken in a broader sense (so as to include the critique of reason), metaphysics comprehends 'the investigations of all that can ever be known a priori as well as the exposition of that which constitutes a system of the pure philosophical modes of knowledge of this type ....'  Metaphysics is either metaphysics of nature or metaphysics of morals.  'The former contains all the principles of pure reason that are derived from mere concepts ... and employed in the theoretical knowledge of all things; the latter, the principles which in a priori fashion determine and make necessary all our actions.'  (Joseph J. Kockelmans in Wood, The Future of Metaphysics, p. 231; reference to Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, transl. by Norman Kemp Smith, New York, 1965, pp. 21-33 {esp. 30-31})

            Kant's definition is objectionable for two reasons.  One is his notion of the metaphysics of morals, which is clever and powerful, but which fails to convince the many, many thinkers who are against or at least suspicious of a universal deontology (a topic of Ethics).  The other objection to Kant's definition is its rationalism.  His postulate of a power of pure reason which operates independently of the observations which come to it can scarcely be taken seriously any more, although the broader application of what Kant saw, that our mind imposes shapes and forms on the reality it perceives has become part of the patrimony of human wisdom.

            In spite of criticism of Kant as a metaphysician, all commentators hold that he stands among the ranks of the all time greats of metaphysics.  Some pre-kantian metaphysicians are Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Plotinus, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz.  While Kant changed metaphysics, he did not kill it, and some post-kantian metaphysicians are Schopenhauer, Hegel, Bergson, and Whitehead.

            Although modern Western philosophy generally shuns metaphysics by name, numerous modern philosophers are closer to metaphysics than might appear at first sight.  Phenomenologists and existentialists, by describing the world in a way free of suppositions of duality between mind and body and between subject and object, come up with a structure of reality that fits the common definition of metaphysical description.  Thus, to our list of metaphysicians we shall add the modern phenomenologists Edmund Husserl, Nicolai Hartmann and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as the existentialists Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gabriel Marcel

            It is even possible to see something of the metaphysician in as non-metaphysical, no-hocus-pocus and no-hidden-entities American philosopher as John Dewey.  Copleston remarks, "Obviously, Dewey's philosophy is not a metaphysics if by this term we mean a study or doctrine of meta-empirical reality.  But though, as has already been noted, he denies, in one place at least, that any general theory of reality is needed or even possible, it is clear enough that he develops a world-view.  And world-views are generally classed under the heading of metaphysics.  It would be ingenuous to say that Dewey simply takes the world as he finds it.  For the plain fact is that he interprets it.  For the matter of that, in spite of all that he has to say against general theories, he does not really prohibit all attempts to determine the generic traits, as he puts it, of existence of all kinds."  (A History of Philosophy, vol VIII, p. 376)


Questions of ontology


            In explaining the term philosophy I mentioned several metaphysical questions.  Now we shall examine some of these.


Is there anything that can be said about everything

other than that it has being (exists in some way)?


            It is possible to isolate the notion of being and scrutinize it, prescinding from closely related notions like unity and multiplicity, permanence and flux.  To do this requires extreme effort to avoid aspects of being such as these, and it practically involves ignoring the whole of Western philosophy since Plato.

            A modern effort to do just this has been that of Martin Heidegger and his method of investigating Being as such.  Heidegger himself was not at all concerned to forge links between fundamental ontology and less general areas of ontology.  His method, however, seems to furnish clues to this.  While Heidegger expresses his thought preeminently in Being and Time, he explains his philosophical project in much more intelligible terms in a later slim volume entitled On Time and Being.

            If, beyond the notion of being itself, with or without a heideggerian analysis, there are statements that can be made about anything and everything, if there are completely universal predicates, they can be called transcendental attributes of being, or, simply, "transcendentals."  Highly developed by the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, the notion of transcendentals is generally disregarded in our time because it is not usually dissociated from aspects of Scholastic philosophy which have been discredited (principally, its mistaking of descriptions of the world for analyses of it), but its simplicity and universal applicability can be appreciated without the Scholastic baggage.  This is not the same as the Platonic transcendentals, the Forms of the Good, the True, etc. which are supposed to exist outside changeable beings.  In the following section we will see how there are two transcendentals, unity and relation.


How are unity and multiplicity related?


            It seems that everything is somehow one and somehow multiple.  Wherever we direct our attention there are wholes and parts, there are unities and diversities, and everywhere unity exists in multiplicity.  Diverse elements seek to unify themselves, and unities tend to dissolve into their parts.  Furthermore, we are aware of no part which is not a unity in itself, and we are aware of no unity which has no parts.  The urge to ponder these observations and to explain them has been one of the sources of philosophy in the West as it has been a source of philosophy and of religion in the East

            The question about the relationship between “the one and the many” was asked by the Pre-Socratics, and it is still being asked in Western philosophy because no one has yet found a totally satisfactory answer to it.  It is also the central question in Indian philosophy.  One might go so far as to hold with Iris Murdoch that ontology (which she calls metaphysics) is the intellectual activity of accounting for perceived unities when other ways of accounting for them - common sense, science, art, and religion - are judged to be inadequate.  (See page 1 of Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.)  In a similar vein, Nozick holds that there are two principal (and perhaps only) topics in ontology (which he also calls metaphysics): what is unity? which he calls "The Identity of the Self," and he is concerned with human self-identity, and what is being? which he calls "Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?"  (Philosophical Explanations, chapters 1 {self} and 2 {being}.)

            Much of what can be said about unity in multiplicity derives from Aristotle, who was interested in unified things and how they became such.  According to Aristotle, "Among authentic modes of unity we find first mere being-together, whether, to cite an example often repeated later, we are dealing with a mere heap, or with unities which arise from binding, glueing, or nailing things together, as for example a bundle.  Next, Aristotle considers those unities which consist in a mere coherence of material, such as the unity of a plank.  Then follows the unity resting on form, such as the unity of a marble ball. The unity of a living being represents the last in this series....  All these are forms of unity for individuals. To them must be added an entirely new mode of unity, that of the general, the unity of logos, as Aristotle rather cautiously expresses it.  This is primarily a matter of the unity which is expressed in a concept, for example the unity of the human race as the unity of the concept 'man'?" ."  (Martin, General Metaphysics, p. 109.)

            Another of Aristotle's ways of looking at unity was to consider that things, objects, have an underlying unity as "substances," and that the changeable aspects of substances are "accidents."   Expressed in terms of naive understanding, this relationship is unassailable, but expressed philosophically it has been taken to assert that there is some mysterious being lurking within real beings and that the realities we sense about real beings supposedly belong to the mysterious substrate.  Modern minds, starting most notably with John Locke, reject the notion of substance as thus presented.  While this does not seem to the writer to be fair to Aristotle, it raises the problem of description versus definition alluded to above.  In other words, substance-accident seems to be a mere description rather than an insight into being.

            More immediately useful is the division of unities into three kinds: A. PHYSICO-CHEMICAL unity, the object of science.  B. SYNERGISTIC unity, which has a scientific aspect, but also has a specific intelligible content in that synergistic entities, things which work together, are not one between themselves, but are as one to others which are outside of them.  C. INTENTIONAL unity, which is not in itself a unity of physical forces, but is the unity of entities perceiving one another or taking a positive stance toward one another.  It is debatable whether or not intentionality can be predicated of all beings, but it certainly can be predicated of all living beings, and it is a prime element of human existence.  In humans it is spread throughout a double continuum of perception and affection, of knowledge and love.  This enumeration of the kinds of unity does not separate the processes of unity from their products; it is not of statically conceived beings concerning which the question of becoming is to be asked; it points to unity itself.  Intentionality is taken here in the sense introduced by Franz Brentano.

            An observation that applies to the three kinds of unity is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Everywhere, from the atom-subatomic particle relatioship to the galaxy-star relationship, from the word-letter relationship to the discourse-word relationship, the whole looks different and acts differently from its constituents.  This is not to say that a whole cannot be explained by a complete synthesis of its parts; it means that the parts have taken on, so to speak, a new life in connection with one another.  As Nozick puts it, "The theory of value, formulated below, will give sense to the notion that a whole not only is different from the sum of its parts, but is greater than that sum -- greater in intrinsic value." (Philosophical Explanations, p. 104.)

            The modern notion of systems, expanded from science into philosophy, provides a general framework for describing and dealing with all kinds of unities and for the wholes which are not simply sums of parts.  Following Ervin Laszlo, we can state a theory of natural systems which does exactly this:  "THEORY: R = f{a,b,c,d), where a,b,c,d are independent variables having the joint function R ('natural system').  a: coactive relation of parts resulting in ordered wholeness  in the state of the system ('systemic state property');  b: function of adaptation to environmental disturbances resulting in the re-establishment  of a previous steady state in the system ('system-cybernetics I');  c: function of adaptation to enviromental disturbances resulting in the reorganization of the system's state, involving, with a high degree of probability, an overall gain in the system's negentropy and information content ('system-cybernetics II')';  d: dual functional-structural adaptation: with respect to subsystems (adaptation as a systemic whole) and suprasystems (adaptation as coacting part) ('holon property').  (Ervin Laszlo, Introduction to Systems Philosophy, pp. 35-36.)

            Laszlo goes on to explain cognitive systems, which are otherwise called operations of mind or intentional (as defined above) actions.  The same general formula applies to them as to natural systems.  (Introduction to Systems Philosophy, pp. 124-138.)

            Laszlo sees these two types of systems, which are seemingly irreducible the one to the other, as facets of the same reality.  He asserts,

            We note that the theories applying to natural and to cognitive systems are isomorphic, with the consequence that when switching from the one to the other system, wo do not necessitate changes in theory.  The content or referent of the theory changes; its form remains invariant.  We obtain a parallel series of independent variables applying to both varieties of systems.  This provides our ontology with a fundamental concept: that of the natural-cognitive (i.e., psychophysical) system.  Such systems are not 'dual' but 'biperspectival': they are single, self-consistent systems of events, observable from two points of view. When 'lived,' such a system is a system of mind-events, viz., a 'cognitive system.'  When looked at from any other viewpoint, the system is a system of physical-events, i.e., a 'natural system.'  The physical and mental sets of events in the systems are correlates; the systems within which they are found, or which they constitute, are identical.  Here identity is predicated on the ground of the invariance of the two theories: if systems of events, however different the latter may be in themselves, are isomorphically structured, so that their respective theories do not change form when passing from the one to the other, then these systems are identical qua systems.  There are no grounds on which we could differentiate between them....

            The psychophysical thesis of this framework for an ontology can be stated as follows.  Sets of irreducibly different mental and physical events constitute an identical psychophysical system, disclosed through the invariance of the respective theories.  The basic entities of systems philosophy are non-dualistic psychophysical systems, termed 'biperspectival natural-cognitive systems. (Introduction to Systems Philosophy, pp. 153-154.)

            In conclusion,"unity" is a transcendental because something does not exist unless it has some kind of internal coherence, a oneness that sets it apart from anything else, and some kind of permanence that stands up to change.  All the same, "relation" is also a transcendental if we accept our initial observation that unity and multiplicity are everywhere.  It is easy for the modern, scientific mind to accept relation as a transcendental.  Philosophers, however, who posit the existence of an absolute God can admit that relation is a transcendental only by considering being as an equivocal term, according to which the being of God is basically dissimilar to the being of the world.  In this case the relation of God to the world is basically dissimilar to all other relations.


How are change and permanence related?


            We have looked at the question of the one and the many as though it dealt with static beings, as though we could, as it were, take a photograph of all beings and investigate their relationships in the photograph.  We can do this because our Western minds tend to look at the world this way and in so doing they separate from this view of things the aspect of change.  That we do this is shown by the structure of language.  Not all language families separate nouns and verbs as decisively as Indo-European languages do, but at least all the languages which have served as matrices for philosophy speak in some way of action and of actors.

            Mentally restoring change to the photograph produces a motion picture in which some things or aspects of things which are seen in the photo taken in moment A are still there in moment B.  We have skirted the epistemological question of the validity of our perception of duration in things by pointing to the observer, who is aware of some self-identity in moments A and B.  Self-identity or any identity maintained through change is clearly a kind of oneness, a unity in the midst of diversity which allows for successive, varied relationships


To What End, if any, Does the World Exist?


            The most basic thing that can be said about this question, indeed, according to many, the only thing that can be said about it is that it is highly speculative.  It is so highly metaphysical that even to say that the question cannot be answered is a metaphysical statement.  In other words, the question does make sense, and we are drawn to ask it, and the way we answer it or fail to answer it tells something about our worldview, about who we are and about our limitations.

            The question of the end or purpose of the world, i. e., why the world exists has tended historically to be answered by religion rather than by philosophy.  In the major Western religions it is totally linked to the notion of God and it derives its answer from the knowledge religious people judge that they have about God's intentions.  Some systems of philosophy are similar to this, but others are not.  Philosophy can, for instance, talk about ultimate causes and purposes without bringing into play a divine mind which conceives of them.


What are good and evil?


            In considering this as a metaphysical question we refer to the transcultural human experience that things go right or wrong on small scales and on large scales, and to the legends and archtypes of societies far separated in time and place.  There are states of affairs which are desirable, approvable, felicitous, and there are states of affairs which are the opposite. Indeed, there is here a question of opposites, contraries, and fatal contradictories which runs through history, art, and metaphysics. We say that a thing is good or bad and we say that an action is good or bad.  We say that people and their actions are good or bad, and we also use these terms to refer to non-human events and states.  Good/bad, goodness/evil are in wide-spread human use as normative concepts which suppose a standard.

            Metaphysics cannot stay clear of the good-evil relationship.  If a philosopher tried to construct a world view in which there were no good or evil, the interpreters of this world view would say that it is a good world or a bad world whether its inventor liked them to make this judgment or not.

            Fortunately for students of metaphysics there is a limited array of possible meanings of good and evil in metaphysical systems.  Thus,

            1) good is an ideal of perfection that the world and its parts strive to attain (the Platonic view),

            2) good is what can be said about one thing that draws other things to it (the Aristotelian view),

            3) being as being is good, and evil is a lack of being (the Scholastic view),

            4) good is a force that moves things to act appropriately (a common theistic view, although also Bergsonian).

            (The fourth of these analyses allows for the possibility of its converse, which is the Manichean view, that evil is a force which moves things to act inappropriately. We shall leave aside the Manichean view because it is a useless hypothesis which is not needed for explaining the tension between good and evil.  Certainly, the Manichean view accentuates the consideration of evil, but even among non-Manicheans the topic of good is more often than not paired with that of evil in what is called the problem of evil: how does it happen that evil infects an otherwise good world?  Often this problem is seen in a theistic context (why does a good God allow evil?), but in Western philosophies such as that of Schopenhauer, and certainly in Indian philosophies the problem of evil is treated without reference to a good God.  For an example of the frequency of treatment of the problem of good and evil as opposed to the study of good I note the (1996) online library catalog of a large, secular American university, in which it is fruitless to search for "good", but 91 lines respond to the search command "good and evil".)

            The four analyses of good do not contradict one another, and they can be understood as four aspects of one general notion of good, which is that things are good in so far as they are unified, in so far as they are one. Thus a force can move others because it is unified in itself, a being can be sought by others because it has definite lineaments, and beings strive for their own perfection, a state which to them or to observers of them looks satisfying and fulfilling for them.  This is a view of good that has been maturing for many years in my mind.  In opposition to it one can assert that it is merely a tautology, that, thus understood, the term “good” has no content other than that of unity or oneness, and maybe this is so in some disembodied, intellectual scheme of things, but we humans use the term in ways which are different from the ways in which we use the term “one,” and this constitutes a distinct or special meaning, i.e., there is discourse about “good’ as well as discourse about “one.”

            Aside from the Manichean view of evil the array of opinions about it is limited.  Starting from the notion that evil is the opposite, contrary, or contradictory of good, the possibilities are that it is a lack of good, that it is a lack of good where the lack is not appropriate, or that it is repulsive.  We will exclude the first of these because it is not in accordance with normal usage of the terms to say that evil is directly the absence of good.  In other words, in normal usage of the terms we do not say that evil is the contradictory of good, that wherever good is not found, evil is.

            Looking now at good as unity, unifiedness, we can see that several things can go wrong with it.  The process of unification can be disrupted, the proper unity of an existing thing or act can be disrupted, an act can be directed at a goal that will be disruptive to the actor, or the unity of one entity (thing or act) precludes that of another

            The first three of the things that can go wrong has to do with the united being considered by itself: it impairs or destroys its perfection.  Evil is a disruption of the process or the product of unification.  It is also misdirection of action: one could describe it as action directed toward an entity which objectively speaking is repulsive to the actor, an entity that will impair or destroy the actor's unity.  Perfection is a useful descriptive term here as long as we take it in the sense of relative perfection, the degree of perfection suitable for the normal existence of the entity, and not in the sense of an unattainable absolute perfection

            The precluding of the good of one entity by that of another, the conflict between actions or things which would in themselves be good but are mutually exclusive, which cannot exist together, is a kind of evil which is hard to understand and deal with.  One entity is being harmed by another, one suffers at the expense of another, and this is a dilemma at least to the extent that the greatest good to be achieved will not be the sum of the greatest good of the parties involved.  This last dynamic of good and evil, applied to the observable world on a large scale, has been expressed by Whitehead: "The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil.  It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a 'perpetual perishing.'  Objectification involves elimination.  The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy.  The process of time veils the past below distinctive feeling.  There is a unison of becoming among things in the present.  Why should there not be novelty without loss of this direct unison of immediacy among things?  In the temporal world, it is the empirical fact that process entails loss: the past is present under an abstraction.  But there is no reason, of any ultimate metaphysical generality, why this should be the whole story.  The nature of evil is that the characters of things are mutually obstructive.  Thus the depths of life require a process of selection.  But the selection is elimination as the first step towards another temporal order seeking to minimize obstructive modes.  Selection is at once the measure of evil, and the process of its evasion.  It means the discarding the element of obstructiveness in fact.  No element in fact is ineffectual: thus the struggle with evil is a process of building up a mode of utilization by the provision of intermediate elements introducing a complex structure of harmony."   (Process and Reality, p. 517.)


What are the most general categories of being?


            Following Aristotle, the analysis of being into such categories as substance, accident, quality, and quantity was a standard part of Western philosophy until and including Kant.  This analysis is no longer fashionable, and even if a metaphysically inclined philosopher were to engage in it, it would add little to our understanding of the world.  Another division of being is into material and spiritual.  Many philosophers have held that there is a spiritual world within or in addition to the material world which we see and touch.  Modern, non-Christian Western philosophers tend to deny that there is such a division.  The main philosophical source of Western thinking about the spiritual world is, of course, Plato, but the modern notion of the dichotomy of matter and spirit, of an abyss between the two, is traced to Descartes.


Is there a supreme being?


            Often this is phrased as the question of the existence of God: do we reason to the existence of God or do we have experience of God or neither or both?  This is in theory a philosophical question, and the treatment of it is called natural theology (also, theodicy), but the major interest in it is theological, religious.  Thus under Ethics we shall note implications of the position that God exists, but we shall not dwell on them.  As a matter of fact, many conceptions of God - as being perfect good, as being an ideal of good, as being the cause of all good, as being that to which all things tend - lead to ethics systems which are scarcely different from non-religious ones.  Perhaps the theistic concept which most varies from the philosophical one is that of God as a lawgiver who can arbitrarily decree that some actions are good and some are bad.


Philosophy of People and Society


            Turning to metaphysical questions which have to do with people and society, we have first:


What is man? how does man fit into the universe?


            Perhaps the most perplexing of all philosophical questions concerns the philosopher and the philosopher's fellow humans.  The ancient perception of human littleness has, to say the least, not been displaced by scientific knowledge of the vastness of the universe.  Nevertheless, the ancient perception of the specialness of humans, who are able to search the heavens and look into the past and the future, has been accentuated by the discovery of more and more tools which help them do this.  We have been and are paradoxes to ourselves.  I propose that two principal schools of thought challenge his assertion: scientific reductionism, which holds that the human whole is no greater than the sum of its parts, and that theism which explains everything about us by holding that God made it that way.  Poets and philosophers, on the contrary, are moved by the strange and seemingly unique human condition.

            It seems to me that the place of humans in the world is best seen philosophically by considering three salient kinds of unity found in the human person.  Or, rather, the human person has a three-fold kind of unified being: organic, intentional, and social.  Organic unity is shared at least with other local life forms and is an exceedingly complex interrelated structure and synergy which is located in time and space.  Intentional  unity is the outcome of an action which connects us as conscious beings with objects and events whether or not they are locally connected with us.  Intentional unity can be either intellective or emotional or both.  Social  unity can be looked at as an extension of individual organic unity, but it is rendered even more complex by the spectrum of intentional unities which reside in it. Social unity refers to any human collectivity, from couples to families to groups to nations to the whole of humankind.

            What does it mean to be a good human being?  Metaphysically, if a certain degree of organic, intentional, and social unity are found in a person, that person satisfies the conditions for goodness.  What this “certain degree” might be and what purpose it serves to call someone “good” principally because he or she is an ideal physical specimen or is a civic minded citizen are questions that a philosopher of good may want to consider.  Certain activities of people, however, lie within the field of ethics, and it is in connection with them that we customarily speak of good people and their good actions.  We can mention here, however, that on the one hand the social unity of humans makes us terribly interdependent, but that on the other hand it enormously increases our ability to act: it multiples our synergistic power.  We see that the synergistic union involved in this is a greater good than chaotic human action, and we are involved in synergistic action in society whether we like it or not.  Thus we can assert that society is good, but in such a way that the individual as such is also good.  It seems to me that only narrowly focused extremists who hold either that society is more real than the individual or that the individual is more real than society would overlook this simple relationship.

            The peculiar richness of the human person as experienced by people themselves and as compared with non-human beings leads to investigation and speculation into what it is about humans that is different from the rest.  Human consciousness surely sets us apart from animals whether or not there is a continuum of degrees of consciousness culminating in humans.  An enormous amount of scientific and philosophical effort has been expended in studying consciousness without, it seems to me, much success, and yet it seems impossible to dispense with the notion of consciousness.  It comes up, for instance, in ethics because situations are ethical only if there is a consciousness of self present in them.

            Some philosophers and many religious people have held that human consciousness is a function of an immaterial soul.  In the hypothesis that they exist, immaterial human souls could scarcely be the sole occupants of a spiritual world, and all explanations of them include reference to at least one totally non-material being, God, and some explanations of them involve additional spiritual beings such as angels.  An extensive philosophical treatment of a supposed spiritual world would derive logically from the general categories of being.


What is the destiny of man?


            "What happens to us upon death?" is a question of both metaphysics and religion, and to some extent of art.  Metaphysical treatment of the matter has traditionally in the West been a function of the interplay of the dichotomous notions of matter and spirit, material and immaterial.  Needless to say, many philosophers, including those who explicitly reject religion, have supported this dichotomy, and have thus been able to hold that the human spirit or soul continues to exist in spite of the death of the body.  One wonders, however, how much the generality of post-classical Western philosophers would have dwelt on this if they had not had a Christian background.

            It is not necessary to suppose that there is in human persons a body-soul, material-spiritual fusion in order to hold that death is not their final destiny.  If humans act in a way which transcends time and space this may be ascribed to a type of being which possesses a correlative transcendance.  Of course human intentionality, mentioned above, does this, and on this basis there may be something about humans which exists outside time and space and which, therefore, is not affected by death. This does not imply that the human person lives on after death chronologically.  Our naive notion of time needs much correction by both science and philosophy.  Indeed, this view probably could not have arisen until modern scientific knowledge showed that time and space are quite different from what earlier science had supposed them to be.  Thus such dissimilar moderns as Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist, and Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher of science and mathematics, have contributed to an understanding of this human transcendence.  Combining this reflection with my previous observation that there is more to the world than appears to our senses, I concludes to the overwhelming rational probability that there is something about us which is not terminated by death.


What is human freedom?


            The most general and widespread notion of human freedom, that we have the power to choose between actions, has to be qualified, and more specific notions of it are controversial.  Still, the notion that we have some conscious control of our actions, some ability to determine that we will do this and not do that is too much a part of the human experience to dismiss out of hand.  To say that we are never free in our actions is to say that freedom is a total illusion, and this can be maintained for either philosophical or scientific reasons.  Scientific reductionism does away with freedom, but at the peril of undermining its own scientific method, which is to be open to the as yet unknown data that call for new explanations.  Negation of freedom for philosophical, not scientific reasons, appears rather rarely in Western philosophy:  Spinoza and the Stoics can be cited as examples, but there are no disciples of Spinoza and the Stoics among us, and their doctrine about freedom is too intimately connected to the rest of their philosophy to be considered apart from it.

            By human freedom we do not mean "freedom of will", a notion that implies the existence in the human person of a faculty or power of will.  We are not arguing against freedom of the will, but we are asserting that to speak in these terms implies a philosophical psychology which has been outgrown and which is not needed for understanding human freedom.  We could also point out that "will" is a loaded term that explains little while itself requiring a great deal of explanation.

            It is generally conceded that the feeling which humans have of freedom, of not being coerced to do this action or of not being coerced to do this action instead of that one does not constitute proof of freedom.  By now we are too aware of hidden forces and hidden motivation to be comfortable with such a line of argumentation.

            Among philosophical reasons given for human freedom, the one proposed by Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the simplest and most direct for those who adhere to an metaphysics of good, as we do in this essay (where we say that to be unified is to be good).  That is to say that if we act for the sake of the good, only pure good (which to Thomas is God) is totally irresistible; other goods, being limited, can have only limited influence over us and therefore not compel us to seek them.  In all cases, however, the good attracts us only to the extent that we know it.  Serious objections to this line of reasoning are raised by the phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur, who - quite aside from his phenomenological method, which presents itself as being opposed to ontology on principle - points out that the Thomistic position includes the contradiction that we are self-determined only if something else determines us.  To Ricoeur himself, however, this relation between self-determination and determination by others is not a contradiction, but a paradox, a paradox which is studied by his phenomenological method.  (Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary is a rich phenomenological study of human freedom detached from ontology.  Ricoeur’s treatment of the Thomistic argument is in the section entitled "Possibility of a Definition of Freedom in the Margins of Cosmology" on pages 190 to 197.)

            Whatever we think of Aquinas and Ricoeur, we can point to a simple notion of freedom, one that is sufficient for the purpose of the present essay, and to the reason for it in the observation that freedom is an attribute of some human actions because the mind sees more than one course of action and sees that no one of them is compelling: we must choose in default of other persons or factors choosing for us.  To put it concretely, Buridan's ass might die of starvation, but people, when placed in the same situation, will not.

            Going more deeply than this notion of freedom, we can point to the distillation of philosophical conceptions of human freedom which Mortimer Adler and his associates presented in The Idea of Freedom.  Elaborated and discussed over the course of 1200 pages, human freedom generically conceived is described thus: "a man is free who has in himself the ability or power to make what he does his own action and what he achieves his own property." (vol. I, p. 614 and vol II, p. 16.)  In all conceptions of freedom there is a self and an "other," (which may be within the same acting person as the self) and a power in the self which is not under the domination of the "other." (vol. I, pp. 608-616).  This common notion is analogously found in five kinds of freedom which Adler finds in the philosophers (vol. II, pp. 5-11):

            1.         Circumstantial freedom of self-realization, "a freedom which is possessed by any individual who, under favorable circumstances, is able to act as he wishes for his own good as he sees it."

            2.         Acquired freedom of self-perfection, "a freedom which is possessed only by those men who, through acquired virtue or wisdom, are able to will or live as they ought in conformity to the moral law or an ideal befitting human nature."

            3.         Natural freedom of self-determination, "a freedom which is possessed by all men, in virtue of a power inherent in human nature, whereby a man is able to change his own character by deciding for himself what he shall do or shall become."

            4.         Political liberty, "a freedom which is possessed only by citizens who, through the right of suffrage and the right of juridical appeal against the abuses of government, are able to participate in making the positive law under which they live and to alter the political institutions of their society."

            5.         Collective freedom, "a freedom which will be possessed by humanity or the human race in the future when, through the social use of the knowledge of both natural and social necesssities, men achieve the ideal mode of association that is the goal of mankind's development and are able to direct their communal life in accordance with such necessities."

            Nozick points out that many philosophers treat human freedom (which he terms "freedom of the will") in connection with punishment/sanction because, they say, we do not deserve punishment unless we are free.  (Philosophical Explanations, p. 291.)  Nozick himself, however, thinks of freedom in terms of value: to the extent that our actions are our own, are not forced on us, they have value.  Nozick asks, what are the conditions of our actions' being valuable?  (Philosophical Explanations, chapter 4.)





            As I stated in the chapter on philosophy in general, ethics concerns itself with the appropriateness of human actions.  Like all definitions of ethics or general statements about it, this notion of ethics is loaded with assumptions and hidden meanings, and is intended only to evoke in the reader's mind a vague recognition of the subject without reference to the assumptions and hidden meanings.

            Although it is not true that all philosophers are ethicists - philosophers of ethics - the great names in the history of philosophy, metaphysicians or anti-metaphysicians as they may have been, have, on the whole, been ethicists.  A roster of notable ethicists includes Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Mill, Nietzsche, Dewey, Sartre, Moore, Rawls, and Habermas.

            To proceed beyond the introductory notion of ethics, we observe that human beings sometimes or often act as wholes.  This assertion does not describe life sustaining activities such as digestion, and it does not describe biological reflexes, although either can involve virtually all of the body.  The actions under discussion are those of the whole person: the observable body and the subjectively experienced consciousness, which, taken together, we shall term the self.  In asserting this we are trying to avoid subtleties of phenomenology and other particular philosophical schools, but we are trying to do justice to common human experience.

            Of the actions which involve the whole of the human person we can at least say that they take place at a higher level of organization than the generality of observable physical actions.  They include perceptions of objects or situations that are distant or future; they include orientation toward abstractions; they include that ability to act in the absence of external determinants which we have called human freedom.  Their guiding principles have to be of a corresponding order of complexity, abstraction, and freedom.  Thus, as observable physical actions take place in an environment of physical determinants and correspond to the same,  ethical actions take place in an environment of, and correspond to, factors of complexity, abstraction, and freedom.  These factors are qualitatively different from physical determination, but they are not of a mysterious world alien to the world of fact.  Rather, they represent a sector of that world of fact, a sector in which actions do not "have to" happen, but "should" happen.  In short, the rules of human conduct, ethical rules, are to actions of the whole human person as physical laws are to physical actions, and ethical rules are both like and unlike physical laws, just as human action is like and unlike other physical action.  The implications of this for the formal study of ethics is that the disjunction between "is" and "ought" is a false and misleading one.

            Concern about the disjunction between "is" and "ought" was brought into English language philosophy by David Hume 250 years ago, when he pointed out that philosophers were not showing how one could reason from the "is," the state of affairs, to the "ought," or what should be done about it.  There have been many English speaking ethicists since Hume, and this disjunction and a frustrating lack of success in overcoming it have remained at the heart of their ethics until the present time.  Currently, however, there is a tendency to discredit the importance of the disjunction as philosophers look to other frameworks for studying the question of ethical obligation


            There are expectations about the actions of humans as whole selves; in given circumstances people are expected to act in certain ways, to do certain things.  The expectations are by no means uniform across cultures or even from one person to another, and even when the expectations are the same the reasons given for them often vary from one observer to another.  Nevertheless, there are some observable commonalities among the expectations.  Saving the consideration of these empirical expectation for a treatment of descriptive ethics,  we now proceed to examine the question of what we might expect of human actions in view of what we know humans to be, i.e., in view of a philosophical description of humans.  My basis here is what I have asserted about the philosophy of people and society under metaphysics.

            Before investigating principles of ethics either descriptively or deductively one needs to clarify the relationships between several closely related concepts.  First, the difference between ethics and morals.  Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, moral is generally used to describe the person rather than the person's actions.  A moral person is commonly said to be a good person.  Ethical, on the other hand, is generally used as an attribute of actions.  Thus a moral person performs ethical actions, and generally the actions of moral persons are ethical, although the basic morality of a person is not necessarily compromised by the performance of some unethical actions, i.e., not every action of a moral person need be ethical.  Here we are concerned with people's actions, with ethics.  Still, under the heading of virtues we shall see that ethical action can be defined in relationship to attributes of the moral person.  I propose this distinction between the terms ethics and morals as one of common usage in English and in European languages in general.  Even if other words were employed, however, the difference would remain between words which describe conduct and ones which describe status.

            Close in concept to the above distinction between ethics and morals is one of usage relating to practical fields.  Thus, people commonly speak of medical ethics or business ethics rather than medical morals or business morals.  To some extent this is due to a deliberate intent to separate the judgment of conduct in these areas from judgment about individuals.  It is more acceptable to have public debate about our ethics than it is about our morals.  This common usage reinforces the terminology which arises from the fundamental distinction mentioned above.  This is very clear in American usage regarding medical and business ethics, and it holds also in international communications in the same fields.

            Secondly there are three similar sets of attributes concerning the expectations of human actions: customary, legal, and ethical.  Customs are ways of doing things which a society approves of and which are enforced by societal pressure.  Laws are also ways of doing things acknowledged by a society, but in their case the society enforces the observance with administratively imposed sanctions, principally negative sanctions for transgressions.  Ethical expectations, ethical rules, are thought to derive their force from outside the individual (whether from society, from universal human nature, or from God) and to be sanctioned by the source of their force.  The boundaries between these three sets of expectations are not always clear, and some people identify legal and ethical expectations, but there are generally recognized differences between them, especially that ethical expectations are related to moral status, that is, to the basic goodness or badness of the individual.




            What is a good human action?  What is a bad one?  Why are some human actions good and some bad?  What is it about a human action that makes it good or bad?  What does it mean when we say that a human action is good or bad?  What measuring stick do we use to determine if a given action is good or bad?  Each of these questions is a way of putting the central issue of ethics, which is that of knowing the norms or standards of good or bad human action, the norms or standards of right and wrong.

            We could at this point immediately consider one by one the more notable ethical norms which philosophers have proposed.  To make this useful we would conclude with some judgment about which norms are better or best and why this is so.  Reasonable as this procedure would be, I wish to proceed from the more to the less general.  We shall therefore first cross the bridge from philosophy of people and society to ethics by asking, how could a human action be good or bad?

            I asserted under metaphysics that "things are good in so far as they are unified, in so far as they are one."  If we understand actions to be transitions between one state and another or, conversely, we understand things to be states between one action and another, then it follows that goodness can be said of actions which 1) proceed from a good state, 2) lead to a good state, or 3), lead from one good state to another.  Each of these three types of action is an action of unification.  Indeed, it could be said in general that a good action is a unifying action.

            It is most clear that actions which lead from one good state to another are good because unification is verified at both ends of the actions.  Actions, however, which do not arise out of a good state or condition and which nevertheless produce such are clearly producing the result by unifying something.  Furthermore, in starting out from a good state, an action carries something of unity with it.  In other words, an action that starts out from a bad state may produce a good one, and an action which ends in a bad state may have started out from a good one.  It is also true, in the concrete, that good beginnings, as well as good endings, are not necessarily pure goods.  Evil, as we have observed, is a disruption, and an acting being can disrupt itself or others.  Thus, by way of illustration, an action can proceed from some kind of strength that the actor (acting being) uses to tear itself down, or the result of an action may be good for the actor and not for others.

            Although I suppose that there could be cosmological applications of this analysis of good action, I am not sure that consideration of them would be more than idle speculation, but applications of the analysis to human actions are far from idle.  We distinguished above three kinds of human unity: organic, intentional, and social.  Good human actions will arise from or lead to one or more of these kinds of unity in human life, and they will avoid introducing evils

            In view of this it is proper to say that many and varied kinds of human actions can be analyzed as good or evil.  It suffices to think of good digestion and bad headaches.  At the head of this section, however, we saw that only some human actions are to be considered from an ethical point of view: they are the actions of the whole person, of the self.  Therefore ethics is the study of how actions of the whole self foster or disrupt in one or the other of the three ways mentioned the three kinds of human unity spoken of.  Not all the logical combinations which derive from plotting organic unity, intentional unity, and social unity against actions proceeding from good states, actions leading to good states, and actions proceeding from and leading to good states qualify as ethical, but some of them can do.  Thus,

            Actions proceeding from organic unity are not candidates for ethical goodness because they lack the conscious self.  On the contrary, actions proceeding from intentional unity involve the conscious self and some goodness which is in it.  Actions proceeding from social unity are coming from goodness consciously shared by many individuals.  Actions which lead to organic unity of the individual procure significant good for it, which it perceives.  So do, and more so, actions which lead to the individual's intentional unity, which is conscious unity of feelings and emotions.  Lastly, actions leading to social unity bring about a state of common good which is perceived by the individuals included in it.  From this analysis it appears that many types of human action are susceptible of being ethical.

            Mark Johnson, in Moral Imagination: Implication of Cognitive Science for Ethics, starts from a strong anti-rationalist position that ethics is not a body of universal rational principles, but is "... a matter of how well or how poorly we construct (i.e., live out) a narrative that solves our problem of living a meaningful and significant life." (p.180)  Life is like a story that we tell about ourselves, and his main interest is in the metaphorical language we use to tell the story.  In practice,  "We strive for unity in our lives by situating our present acts within our history and by projecting ourselves into a future that somehow partly blends together our multiple understandings, values, and purposes." (p. 164)  This is, it would seem, not too different from the present essay's analysis of ethical action.

            We have now acquired a structure for understanding the basic relationships between the variously proposed norms of ethics.  First, there are norms that refer to an action's proceeding from a good state, and these can be called antecedent norms.  Then there are norms that refer to the action's being productive of a good state, and these could be called consequent norms, but in practice they are termed consequentialist (or teleological) norms.  One of the antecedent norms, that of good intention, is called deontological.  In recent philosophical history there has been a great battle between deontologism, and consequentialism, as though one or the other is the more fundamental.  A metaphysical view such as the one I am proposing, on the contrary, gives each its due and makes clear the relationships between the two.  The narrow recent state of the question makes it difficult to fit into the discussion the remaining norms which refer to actions' proceeding from a good state.  This, it seems to me, is a loss for philosophy which can be avoided by following a procedure such as mine.

            Secondly, there are ethical actions which are from or toward the good of the individual and there are ethical actions which are from or toward the good of society.  This distinction raises questions of precedence of the individual over society or of society over the individual.  Are norms of ethics more appropriately found in the individual or in society?  Some cultures, such as that of the United States, favor ideological solutions based on the individual, while other cultures, including some continental European ones, favor basing such solutions on the society, not only as to outcomes but even as to a starting point of collective thinking.  My approach, I think, makes it possible to give due weight to both the individual and society.

            Again, there are ethical norms which refer to the person's own entity as being good and there are those which refer to the particular starting point of actions as being good.  This is a matter of the relationship between the good person and the good actions of the person, between virtue and good intention.  Virtue ethics seem to be coming back into vogue in American ethics, and it is useful to see how virtues relate to the well established ethics of good intention.

            The positive interrelations between virtue, deontological, and teleological norms have been recognized as far back as Socrates, the founder of western ethics.  Socrates extracted from earlier Greek thought about virtue the notion of virtue (arete) as the valor or strength of people, and he observed that the particular virtues acknowledged before him (especially courage, justice, and wisdom) had a common element, good, and that a person becomes good only by action which is directed at a goal, and through obeying his own inner voice (daimonion).  Socrates himself did not profess to know what the good was, but sought it and taught others to so the same.  (Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, Chapter 8, “The Call to Virtue: A Brief Chapter from Greek Ethics,” pp. 153-190.)

            In common speech we refer to ethical “feelings” or ethical “sentiments,” and we speak as though we were guided by these feelings, as though they were norms of ethical conduct.  No responsible ethicist, as far as I am aware, has maintained a totally non-cognitive position, that is, that ethical feelings are unrelated to the intentions and/or the outcomes of action.  Such a position on the part of someone would, of course, be completely unassailable.  Unfortunately, however, so would the position of another individual whose feelings were different from those of the first person.  I do not want to emphasize this exercise in logic, but I could put it this way: in the supposition that pure feelings are ethical norms, there is no room for ethical discourse, no possibility for intellectual interchange in the matter, no topic which could be called “ethics.”

            A word closely associated in common parlance with ethical norms and their application is conscience.  In the sense that conscience is our perception of the ethics of a situation, of the norms we apply to it, conscience is a helpful notion, albeit not a necessary one.  The term is extended to refer to our condition after ethical action: we say that we have a good conscience or a bad one depending on whether or not we have acted in accordance with our perception of the norms.  Having a bad conscience is also described as having a sense of guilt, although there is no corresponding description for having a good conscience.  Historically, the term conscience has had the technical meaning of the “faculty” of making ethical judgments on the one hand and of the daimonion, or imperious internal voice telling us how to act, on the other.  Currently it is used to describe our immediate ethical inclinations or feelings when these seem stronger to us than the ethical reasons for them seem, and psychologically this is a useful meaning of the term as long as it is not taken to deny that there are ethical reasons or norms




            As stated above, the good or the bad action comes from the human person as a whole.  As the possessor of the good or bad initial state of the action, or, as it is more commonly put, as the author of the action, the person is said to be responsible or accountable for the action; the action is imputable to the person.  This person is at least potentially deserving of praise or blame, possibly of reward or punishment.  These latter consequences of actions or reactions to them will be considered in the section on sanction.  Our attention in the present section is on responsibility or accountability. This introductory assertion expresses concepts which have a certain theoretical interest in any treatment of general ethics.  In our immediate context, for instance, they situate the matter of responsibility in the framework of the good/bad action analysis.  They are even more important in the application of general ethical theory to concrete applications, the human relations of which include the knowledge of how involved persons are with their ethical actions and what, if anything, will happen to them because of these actions.

            The conditions of ethical responsibility are whatever it takes for the person to enter into a good or bad action.  The background condition is clearly the ability to apprehend the action, to know or understand it as the bridge between two states.  This being the case, there is the basic condition, which is the ability or power to place the action, to do it.  In addition to this it is necessary to be able to apply ethical norms to the action.  These three conditions are sufficient in a completely deterministic theory of human action.  I, however, have taken a stand against complete determinism and have asserted that humans are free at least to the extent that they can act or not act.  This being the case, a fourth condition of ethical action is that the person, upon evaluating the action ethically, acts or does not act.

            At this point we can say either that responsibility occurs when all four conditions are satisfied or that it is lacking when they are not satisfied.  The difference between these two perspectives is a matter of the philosophy of people and society: can we hold that one or the other, the state of responsibility or of irresponsibility, is the more common among us?  We shall avoid this question by pointing to actions that are prima facie good or bad and asking to what extent the conditions of responsibility are satisfied.

            The first condition of ethical responsibility, apprehension of an action, means that the person apprehends the entirety of an action, that is, of two states and an activity which connects them.  This is not an ethical evaluation; it is an awareness of self in some relationship to a state of affairs that is yet to happen.  In common descriptive terms this means that the person knows what he or she is doing.

            The next condition, the power to act, to bring about a new state of affairs, is in itself not distinctively human.   Rather, it is characteristic of the dynamism of beings in general.  We, however, unlike other beings around us, can be aware of this power; we can reflect on it.  An exercise of power is present no matter what results from the action.  Even a change within the person, without any exterior result, is a new state, and arriving at it involves some exercise of power.  Being totally stymied, party to a total non-action, is different from this.

            Application of ethical norms, the third condition, can range from unquestioning concentration on one norm to careful reflection on many.  We have yet in this essay to compare norms and ask which are most suitable in various types of action.  Preliminarily, we may suppose that a single-norm evaluation will generally not be adequate to deal with all the facets of an ethical situation, but whether this is true or not, the acting person can be ethically responsible only to the extent that the same is aware of ethical issues.  The psychological question of the possibility of there being a totally amoral person arises here: are there people who are not aware of ethical issues?  This is different from seeing the issues and always, if this is possible, choosing the evil.

            The final condition, the decision, given all the above, to act or not to act, is the focal point of ethical responsibility.  It is the moment of human freedom in action, the moment when, seeing more than one course of action and seeing that no course is compelling, we choose in default of being forced to choose.    Without this instant of self-determination we would indeed be complex automatons going our way in this world, rather than people.  Describing this freedom in detail is a task for the philosophy of people and society, and I did that in my chapter on metaphysics.  We can nevertheless, point to a conclusion about responsibility which Mortimer Adler derives from his study of freedom in The Idea of Freedom (vol I, p. 617): "The generic meaning of responsibility would seem to have the same roots as the generic meaning of freedom.  As a man is free only in doing that which is his own action or in achieving that which is proper to himself, so a man is responsible only for the actions or achievements that are his own or proper to him. He is not answerable or accountable for that which is done by another or belongs to another; nor can such things be imputed to him.  Hence, no matter how man's freedom is conceived in detail, he will be conceived to be responsible in whatever way and to whatever extent he is conceived to be free."

            At this point there is a fork in the road of the study of ethics.  Many ethicists are interested only in understanding and applying the norms.  These are not only theoretical ethicists; their number includes practical ethicists who do not want to pass judgment on others.  Others, however, want to know how responsible people are for the good or evil that proceeds from their actions, and it seems to me that we at least need to allude to this if we want to have the whole picture of how ethics relates to the real world.  Looking ahead to real-life situations, we can readily see that the first three conditions of responsibility are susceptible to many influences.  Apprehension of an action as a whole and perception of one's ability to do it are not necessarily simple matters.  The range of ethical norms one has available to apply to a situation, whether any situation or this situation reflects many factors in a person's life.   Furthermore, as to the fourth condition, there are complications such as our ability to hold back from realizing or creating the indeterminacy that would be required for us to act freely: we may not be strong enough; we may feel that we do not have a right to it.  (Becker, The Structure of Evil.)  Thus, a judgment about responsibility in the concrete particular is daunting and not lightly to be undertaken, no matter how sure we are of our ethical principles.It is most likely tobe called for in ethics, as it is in law, is we have to deal with sanction.




            Ethical sanction is the consequence to the actor for responsibly placing an ethical action; presumably positive sanction (reward) for good actions and negative sanction (punishment) for bad ones.   The rewards and punishments of human legal and social sanction are, of course, very similar to this, but they apply to actions strictly according to their effects in society and not according to their ethical character.  Ethical sanction is mentioned less in ethical treatises than it is in moral exhortations and polemics.

            Applying the notion of ethical sanction, we can readily see that several kinds of it are said to exist:

            1. Hedonistic or eudaemonistic, bringing pleasure or happiness or their opposite to one's self by one's action.

            2. Virtue as its own reward; vice as leading to unhappiness and despair.  This is understood mainly to be peace of conscience or the remorse of a bad conscience.

            3. Perfection arising out of action.  This is perhaps no more than a fusion of the first two, but it is conceptually different from either of them, and, furthermore, the lack of perfection seems to be a weak negative sanction.


In the above, the sanction is intrinsic to the action.


            4. Utilitarian or just (that is, according to justice), bringing pleasure or happiness or their opposite to society.  This kind of sanction is intrinsic to the action if the actor benefits from it, which need not be the case.

            5. God rewards or punishes.

            6. Society rewards or punishes.  We must be careful to distinguish this from legal or social sanction.  It is more a matter of feelings of belonging (positive sanction) and of guilt (negative sanction) than of applications of law and custom.


            The final two kinds of sanction are extrinsic to the ethical action as such.


            It is clearly possible that one action, good or bad, will call forth many kinds of sanction, possibly even all of them.  It is also clear that sanction can relate to either terminus of the action or to the action as a whole.  Furthermore, it is said that acting precisely because of sanction is not ethically as good as acting because of the moral norm which implies the sanction.  (By contrast, if you act because of legal sanction you are acting as legally as you are for any other motive.)  This last consideration, however, appears to arise from perfectionism, and as such is not of general interest.  In short, ethical sanction is a complex phenomenon, and it is not reducible to one or another aspect of ethical norms.

            Further speculation can lead us to ask, what if intrinsic or at least foreseen sanction is not proportioned to the good or the evil of the action or is outright contrary to it?  This does not seem to be a particularly vexing question if the disproportion is not substantial, but if it is substantial - for instance, if one has dedicated a whole life to unselfish service of others with little pleasure or recompense from it  and, in the end, is disgraced, banished, or even executed by those who had received the benefits.  Again, what about a person who has brought about misery and death for thousands or millions of people and who lives and dies peacefully?  It is quite possible to ignore these questions in a treatment of ethics, because, it must be remembered, ethics is concerned with the suitability of  human actions.  These questions, nevertheless, are imperious, and they need to be answered  or at least considered somewhere - if not in ethics, then in philosophy of people and society.

            We could turn the questions around and look at them from another angle if we ask, “Why should sanction be qualitatively like the action (positive for positive, negative for negative), and why should it be quantitatively proportioned to the action?”  It appears to be a matter of justice and fairness.  Now, one might suppose that justice and fairness call for definitive sanction that is not left up to the vagaries of people and the whims of chance, but how would one prove this?  It seems to me that this is one of the instances in which philosophy has to question common thinking, at least the thinking common in our culture.

            In the western religious supposition that there is a personal God who is just and fair with creatures, it would be iniquitous of this God not to reward or punish people according to their deserts.  Much as people would like to think, however, that virtue is its own reward, etc., most religious people admit that God does not generally reward or punish in this life, and they hold that God does so in the afterlife.  (As a matter of fact, the lack of sanction in this life has been taken as an argument for the very existence of God.)  Since the present essay is not theological, I mention this viewpoint but I do not promote it in a study of ethics for a multicultural society.

            Another approach to definitive sanction  lies in the Karma of Indian philosophy: to pass through successive existences until one has attained the best state that one possibly can and then to have the reward for this, whether it be absorption in Brahman or the cessation of all desire.  This is neither a matter of the activity of people nor of irrational chance; it embodies the worldview of a universe which is not rational in a Western sense, but which possesses an inexorable dynamism.

            In a Western non-religious supposition definitive sanction is easily thinkable if it is the case that the good one does builds up the goodness of the person and the evil one does tears down this goodness.  If then there is an afterlife, the quality of it will presumably be affected by the amount of goodness or oneness a person had when emerging from the present life.  This might be called the ultimate triumph of intrinsic sanction.  I am not aware of anyone who proposes this view of sanction from philosophical premises.

            At least one additional possibility remains concerning the need for just and fair definitive sanction.  We have been measuring the good and evil of human actions by a limited standard:  how much benefit or harm is done to the actor or to the people immediately concerned, or even, in some cases, to large segments of society?  These are finite quantities, even if some of them are large in the human context.  If, however,  we consider the whole of the universe the good or evil that people can do is infinitesimal, and therefore there is no measurable disorder or imbalance to be rectified by sanctions introduced from outside the course of human affairs in the present life.  This is the case whether or not there is an afterlife.

            Finally, if there is no such thing as definitive sanction, either because there is no need  for it or because there is no afterlife in which to administer it, acting ethically is not doomed to ultimate frustration.  Nozick, in Philosophical Explanations introduces the question of the meaning of life and existence, especially human, by observing that living ethically seems to be pointless if it accomplishes nothing in the long run (p. 570), but he leaves the question with the thought that the search for meaning and value is valuable in itself.


Collective Ethical Action


            So far in this chapter we have clearly been examining ethics from the point of view of the action of human individuals, but there is also the matter of collective human action.  There is no question here of collective action’s being good or bad, that is, subject to evaluation by ethical norms. Of course it is - at least by consequentialist norms, which are clearly applicable to the outcomes of collective action.  One can ask, however, if there are collective intentions, collective attitudes which might be called virtues, or collective worldviews?  A descriptive ethics of collective action exists notably in political criticism, in which people of varied backgrounds (including, but in a minor way, philosophy) express their opinion of the goodness or badness of political parties, governments, and whole countries.  Abundant literature on this matter is provided by analyses of the responsibility for war and for excesses associated with war.  A prime recent example is German responsibility for World War II and the slaughter of the Jews.

            Among the many studies of German responsibility is one by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers.  In this work, The Question of German Guilt, the philosopher is being concrete rather than abstract.  There are, however, useful intellectual distinctions which belong in empirical description before they are assimilated by philosophical systematizing.  Cognizance of the four kinds of guilt he acknowledges (pp. 31-32 and following) clarifies thinking on the subject.  Criminal guilt is in the public forum of laws, moral guilt is in the internal forum of conscience, political guilt is that of a country and is imputed to all its citizens, who stand or fall with their country, and metaphysical guilt is the co-responsibility of all humans for evil caused by the human race.  Without developing these distinctions at all, Jaspers points out that, according to them, only political guilt applies to the collectivity, "But in addition there is our moral guilt.  Although this always burdens only the individual who must get along with himself, there still is a sort of collective morality contained in the ways of life and feeling, from which no individual can altogether escape and which have political significance as well....  We feel something like a co-responsibility for the acts of members of our families.  This co-responsibility cannot be objectivized.  We should reject any manner of tribal liability.  And yet, because of our consanguinity we are inclined to feel concerned whenever wrong is done by someone in the family..." (pp.78-79)

            A philosophical approach to the question about collective intentions, etc. is to ask if there is such an entity as a collective person which would perforce have collective intentions, attitudes, and worldviews.  Phenomenology seems particularly suited to this line of thinking because it makes no presuppositions about the phenomenological observer being a discrete individual: the observer may just as well be an element of a collective person.  Max Scheler has pursued this line of phenomenological description in several works, and applies it especially to ethics in Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, in which he states, "Just as the person discovers every psychic experience against the cogiven background of a stream of such experiences, and every object of outer perception against the background of and as a 'part' of a nature that is spatially and temporally endless, so also in every execution of an act is the person given to himself in self-experience as a member of a community of persons which encompasses him.  Whatever the type of this community, simultaneity and succession (of generations) are at first still undifferentiated.  From an ethical viewpoint this experience of a person's necessary membership in a social sphere appears in the coresponsibility for the total effective activity of the sphere.  With regard to the possible factualness of community, it appears in re-experiencing and coexperiencing, refeeling and cofeeling, as the basic acts of inner perception of the other.  At least the very sense of community and its possible existence is not an assumption that requires empirical establishment, because in certain classes of acts the intention toward a possible community is cogiven by essential necessity with the nature of these acts themselves.  It is, rather, an assumption that is conjoined with the sense of a person as originally and essentially as it is with that of the outer and inner worlds." (p. 519)  Again, "It is therefore in the person that the mutually related individual person and collective person become differentiated.  The idea of one is not the 'foundation' of the other. The collective or group person is not composed of individual persons in the sense that it derives its existence from such a composition; nor is the collective person a result of the merely reciprocal agency of individual persons or (subjectively and in cognition) a result of a synthesis of arbitrary additions. It is an experienced reality, and not a construction, although it is a starting point for constructions of all types." (p. 522)  Because of what Scheler calls the "principle of solidarity," which is "... the original coresponsibility of every person for the moral salvation of the whole of all realms of persons (p. xxiv), we must ask, "What of positive moral value would have occurred in the world and what of negative moral value would have been avoided if I as a representative of a place in the social structure, had comported myself differently?  But everyone must also ask, What would have occurred if I, as a spiritual individual, had grasped, willed, and realized the 'good-in-itself-for-me' ... in a superior manner? (p. 534)  In general, pages 519 to 561 of this work treat this, but Scheler's longer as well as his best known work dealing with it, in a non-ethical context, is The Nature of Sympathy.

            It is not clear to me that analyses such as Scheler’s lead to a demonstration of collective intention which can be evaluated ethically.  Furthermore, he observes that the Rousseau’s notion of the general will (The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 7, Book II, Chapters 1,3,and 6) has never won general acceptance as a workable description of a force in society. The existence of collective intention would have to be shown empirically in order to allow sufficient agreement for people to discuss its ethics.  Public intention can be shown by such processes as voting, but this is a political, not a moral process.  For these reasons I would not propose ethical norm number 14, “Common Will,” as a norm to be used in a pluralistic environment.

            Scheler’s and Jaspers’s observations, nevertheless, describe a solidarity of attitude which is analogous to individual virtue: an attitude that permeates a group (or organization or society) and is conveyed by its internal shared public media as being the attitude expected of individuals in that group.  The writer would not hesitate to speak of particular collective virtues in a group if this served to clarify the ethical analysis of the group’s action.  Thus, for example, a law, which is the expression of a political intention, can show that there is a spirit of benevolence or conscientiousness in a society or that such a spirit is lacking.

            The precise question which is most often considered here is not about collective goodness or evil, but about collective responsibility: is a group responsible for its actions? are individuals responsible for group actions? if so, in either case, to what extent?  This question should not be oversimplified; judging the responsibility of a group of three people on a sidewalk is worlds apart from judging the actions of a whole society.  Between these extremes lie communities, corporations, churches, and other kinds of groups of varying levels of complexity.  Judging the legal responsibilities of such organizations is important to their members and to those whose lives they affect, and the law does this.  It is not immediately clear how close the legal procedure is to a moral procedure of determining responsibility, but there is enough said about the so-called moral responsibility of groups that the topic needs to be brought under scrutiny.

            The responsibility of societies as a whole has been a topic of political philosophy since ancient times.  Particularly influential have been Plato's The Republic and Rousseau's The Social Contract.  For an introductory notion in the present context about these two as well as the Englishman, F.H. Bradley, see Peter French, Collective and Corporate Responsibility, pp. 94-111.

            The responsibility of business corporations and/or their members has been an area of concern of modern business ethicists, and it has led to a wealth of investigation and intellectual exchange in a practical context. For a bibliography on corporate responsibility in the business world see Velasquez, Business Ethics, pp. 18, 42, and 43.

            Following the train of thought of this essay, and summarizing the arguments both from political philosophy and business ethics, it ought to be possible to determine the presence of corporate responsibility by asking how the conditions of responsibility are verified: apprehension of an action, power to act, application of norms, decision to act or not to act.  The least examination of these, however, shows that it is more difficult to recognize these conditions in group action than it is in individual action.  The very first condition is lacking unless there is an accurate flow of information through the ranks of the corporation to the decision makers.  Furthermore, various people involved in making a decision may have competing views on the norms which apply, and the decision to act can be a complex action which includes many single decisions.  Among recent authors Patricia Werhane argues against speaking of corporate responsibility as we speak of individual responsibility in Persons, Rights, & Corporations, but Peter French proposes a way of saying that we can do this in Collective and Corporate Responsibility.

            Two useful works on collective responsibility, paarticularly relating to business, in addition to French's, are The Morality of Groups by Larry May and Collective Responsibility, edited by Larry May and Stacey Hoffman.  In his own work May, like French, takes the position that there is such a thing a corporate responsibility which is different from the total of individual responsibilities, and both authors develop lines of argumentation that are similar to the one briefly outlined above by the writer of this essay.  Both cite classical and contemporary philosophers, French more the former and May more the latter.  A key quote from May is "The thesis of this book is that the structure of social groups plays such an important role in the acts, intentions, and interests of members of groups, that social groups should be given a moral status different from that of the discrete individual persons who compose them.  Thus, the chief target of this book is the thesis that the moral standing of social groups is no different from the aggregate moral standing of individual, isolated persons.  But I am also critical of those theorists who see the social group as having a moral standing completely separate from the discrete individual persons who constitute the group.  The structure of a social group is the set of relationships that exist among the group's members.  While these relationships make for different acts, intentions, and interests than would exist outside the group, nonetheless they are relationships of individual persons." (p. 3.).  May and Hoffman's collection of articles is arranged in part like a debate between supporters and opponents of their position.  Two of the articles in it, one by Hannah Arendt, center on particular historical events, the mass murders of civilians by German forces in World War II and the less extensive, but nevertheless large scale murder of Vietnamese civilians by American forces in the U.S. Vietnamese War.


            It strikes me that the mere assigning of corporate responsibility, difficult as it may be, is of practical value only if its consequences can be correctly described.  What happens, we should ask, if a corporation is ethically responsible for its actions?  This is not like legal responsibility, in consideration of which corporations are punished if they are responsible for acting illegally and, in some sense, pehaps, rewarded if they are responsible for acting legally.  Sanction for the ethical actions of corporations consists of the good or bad opinion people, individually or collectively, have of them and the actions to which this opinion leads.  A bad opinion, for instance, can mean that a corporation's products or services are boycotted.  It can also mean that people do not want to work for the organization.  If a corporation is punished physically, that is, by fines or dismemberment, this is always, as far as I know, legal action taken by some legal power.  This description of the meaning of corporate responsibility fits neatly with the loathing we have of making ethical judgments in the business world: it is both easier and less dangerous to make legal judgments.

            Whatever can be said about group responsibility, it does not take away the individual responsibility of persons who take an active role in executing the collective ethical action.  It is true that in the reality of large scale collective action, business or political, many individuals have such insignificant roles or have such little understanding of their part in the action that they do not have individual reponsibility.  Still, this is not always the case, and there are decision makers who have to be considered responsible for the collective decisions, and there are workers who know that what they are expected to do cannot be part of an overall good ethical action.  The rationalization that the worker is ethically free to do whatever ordered by the corporation is based on the false premise that the only ethical norm the worker, called, in this instance, the loyal agent, need be concerned with is the utilitarian good of the corporation.  (Velasquez, Business Ethics, treats this in pp. 18-25 and 42-45.  Velasquez borrows the "loyal agent's argument" from Alex C. Michales, "The Loyal Agent's Argument," in Ethical Theory and Business by Tom L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie.)



            Descriptive ethics is the description of what is said to be ethical or not ethical by various human groups.  The first set of groups one thinks of in this regard is the set of human societies or cultures, the "peoples' of the world, present and past.  Cultural anthropology has paid less attention to the ethical thought and practices of peoples than it has to many other facets of societal life, but it has not been altogether lacking, and there is a body of knowledge called comparative ethics, which deals with them. Comparative ethics as a science dates back to Auguste Comte, who decided some time after his initial work of the 1830s that it could be included in social physics or sociology as a branch that was concerned with specific aspects of human behavior.  (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 9, pp. 84-85.)

            A second set of human groups to be studied in descriptive ethics consists of sectors of society with distinctive shared ethical views or shared ethical problems associated with distinctive activities.  Such groups as physicians and politicians have undergone ethical analysis of their activities since time immemorial.  In Western society health care ethics, legal ethics, and business ethics have recently come to the fore.  In our day, too, many researchers apply the methods of social science research to ascertain what these groups regard as ethical matters and how they are divided statistically in their stances on them.

            Children and adults in identifiable stages of development of ethical thinking are the third set of groups which are being studied empirically under the heading of developmental ethics.  The validity of the data and the consequent interpretation of the data in this field are not yet firmly established, but some points will be made about them below.

            Ethics in literature can be considered a subset of descriptive ethics, and I end this chapter with a few observations about ethics as found in literary works.


Comparative ethics

            French social philosophers advanced Comte's approach to ethics.  Thus, toward the end of the nineteenth century Émile Durkheim approached comparative ethics by freeing it from Comte's philosophical system and insisting that moral facts exist only in the several social contexts of humankind.  A few years into the twentieth century Lucien Lévy-Bruhl treated ethics very like Durkheim except that he was a little more philosophically inclined.  He proposed that once the descriptive data were collected some philosophical interpretation could be made of them without invoking a priori philosophical norms.  (Copleston, A History of Philosophy. vol 9, pp. 123-124 and 130-31.)

            In the first decades of the twentieth century American ethnologists, led by Franz Boas and followed by such well known names as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, engaged in  cultural anthropology with a scientific method that intentionally avoided making ethical pronouncements about the peoples they were studying, and they even tended to stay clear of the study of the ethical views of their subjects.  Nevertheless, observations which, in the spirit of Comte, could be assembled in the format of comparative ethics were not lacking, and the assembling has been accomplished by a number of authors.  The writer refers particularly to the anthropologists May Edel, Anthropology and Ethics, and Raymond Firth, Elements of Social Organization, and the philosophers Abraham Edel, Anthropology and Ethics, Alexander Macbeath, Experiments in Living, and Samuel Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture.

            Philosophers cannot expect cultural anthropologists to analyze the ethics of peoples in the terms of particular philosophical systems.  The approach of the anthropologists has to be that of examining a certain set of observable data in as unbiased a way as possible.  In a very general way it seems safe to say that rules of individual conduct with public aspects, with dimensions of right and wrong action, of good and bad people, and with attached sanctions are found everywhere.  More specifically, Fleishacker writes of "... a fairly strong, but still minimal, set of conditions for anything to count as a morality or ethical code: it must be action guiding, ideal based, overridingly important, directed toward a conceivable end, accompanied by a conception of 'personhood' that does not severely conflict with our own, and not aimed toward the degradation or destruction of any being fitting that conception of 'person.'" (The Ethics of Culture, p. 19.)

            The full complexity of the task is shown by Edel and Edel: "We know that, for any morality we wish to understand in depth, we must know not only the content of its moral rules, the virtues it approves and the kind of behavior it deplores, the goals or ideals it cherishes, but we must also map its position along many other, more purely structural, axes.  We must note whether its injunctions are imperative, or mildly advisory; what kind of terms it uses for moral appraisals; whether it stresses ideals, or models, or rules.  Do many of life's aims and goals come into the morality, or does conscious moral emphasis play only a limited cultural role?  Are its formulations abstract and generalized, or highly specific, and differentiated according to kinship or other relationships or situations?  Is it concerned primarily with individual behavior and individual responsibility, or are there conscious reflections about group goals or 'social policy?'  Are its sanctions rooted in automatic retributions, human or divine?  Is moral education verbalized and explicit?  Are there strong emotional commitments in the moral field?  Are moral decisions often necessary, and how are they mediated - through officials, or objective techniques, or reckoning of consequences in human relations?  Does public pressure play a large role?  Does it take the form of punishment, or ridicule, or compulsion or advice?  And so on and on and on."  (Anthropology and Ethics. pp. 192-93.)

            An example of a modern cultural anthropologist who examines the morals of the people he studies is Meyer Fortes, who, in one of his later works on the Tallensi of Ghana, considers the morals, the religious beliefs, and the perception of the world with a studied dispassion and abhorrence of bias.  He defines good and evil in general: "Tallensi culture is marked by the propensity to conserve and contain. The good is identified with what is conserved and contained, evil with what must be cast out of the family and the community." (p.206)  He states that good ritual is "ritual that has collective authorization" and bad ritual "is secret and antisocial and is supported by collusion not consensus." (p.7)  He remarks (p. 69) that a complete analysis of ancestor worship such as that of the Tallensi "... is a branch of religion and of moral philosophy, not to speak of its functions as a theory of causation."  A number of times he mentions moral good and evil: incest prohibition (p. 71), patri-filial relations (p. 73), the moral component of societies, i.e., "the mutual commitment to his roles of person and society focused in status and office." (p. 105), "It is morally polluting and mystically dangerous to shed any human blood upon the Earth, even when it is lawful in self-help or warfare. Killing, except for food or sacrifice, is felt to be a sin. (p. 135), envy, greed, hate, and malice are bad (p. 212), procreation of a first born is a moral duty (p. 232), good-for-nothings, thieves, and adulterers are bad (p. 275), adultery with a father's wife is bad (p. 278).  He does not take a stance on what moral good and evil are, but, rather, seems to assume that he and his readers share a notion of moral good and evil, and none of his examples call for some special ethical theory to explain why they are good or bad.

            For the purposes of the present chapter it will be sufficient to point to a few aspects of the above.  Areas of human activity in which it seems that all societies have moral norms are: nurture of children, selection of sexual partners, control of in-group aggression, rules for in-group communicating, reliability (promises and contracts), return for services rendered, and distribution of goods within the social unit.  (Edel and Edel, Anthropology and Ethics, chapters IV to VII, pp. 34-76; Firth, Elements of Social Organization, pp. 190-203; Macbeath, Experiments in Living, chapters IV through VIII, pp. 103-268, in which he compares the ethics of four peoples, showing differences as well as similarities.)

            As we look at the details of the ethical codes of various peoples we immediately see their differences.  How to raise children? how to conduct sexual union? which kinds of people ought to be killed and which kinds ought not? what is truth? what is property? are questions with astoundingly diverse answers.  (Macbeath, Experiments in Living, and Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture, are more concerned with the differences than with the similarities and give an abundance of examples.)

            In the concrete, some examples of practices which are unethical in Western culture, but which are judged to be ethical in their own cultures are the Bantu practice of killing one of twins at birth (to stop the evil forces which arise from the birth of twins), the Australian Aborigine custom of lending one's wife to a visitor (as a gesture of hospitality), and the Chucksee prescription for killing one's father "before he loses his vigour and vitality" (because of the belief "that a man will continue for ever in the state in which he is at the time of his death").  (Macbeath, Experiments in Living, pp. 169, 217, and 365-6.)

            In cases of peoples who accord an important role to black magic and sorcery, to whom the imparting of information "provides them with the means of using these powers, we have a state of affairs in which not mutual trust and confidence but mutual suspicion and fear are likely to flourish.  In such circumstances, truth-telling is not likely to be regarded as a virtue except in situations like giving evidence in court, where truth-telling is likely to result in good to others and lying in harm to them."  (Macbeath, pp. 372-73.)

            Another good example of the differences in ethical codes is the non-universality of the Lockean concept of private property.  Witness the statement of Black Hawk, the American Indian warrior who in 1832 led a rebellion against the European Americans as they appropriated traditional Indian lands:  "My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon, and cultivate, as far as is necessary for their subsistence; and so long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have the right to the soil - but if they voluntarily leave it, then any other people have a right to settle upon it.  Nothing can be sold, but such things as can be carried away."  (Black Hawk: an Autobiography, p.101.)

            The diversity of views of the individual in relation to society: to see one's self as an autonomous individual as opposed to seeing self as an element in a collectivity of persons has many implications for ethics.  Modern Western individualism versus Marxism comes to mind before we even begin to look farther afield in space and time.  The history of the Western notion of rights is also an apt illustration of such implications.

            In spite of the differences in ethics between cultures, there appear to be some valid generalizations about comparative ethics.  Indiscriminate killing, indiscriminate coitus, indiscriminate appropriation of material objects seem to be wrong everywhere.  The apparent truth of such generalizations tempts one to derive ethical rules from comparative ethics, but this endeavor is beset by many problems.  Simply accepting the generalizations as supreme ethical principles does not, it is pointed out, tell which killing is right or wrong.  Thus Macbeath writes,

            My contention is that the ambiguity of the terms used, the great variety of the ways in which the rules are construed by different peoples and of the exceptions which they admit to the rules which they recognize, show that the rules lack the definiteness and precision necessary to self-evident intuitions; and that the rightness of the rules themselves, in  those cases in which they are recognized as right, the ways in which they are construed, the exceptions to them which are regarded as justified, and the relative order of urgency which is assigned to them, are explicable by, and derive their authority from, the way of life of the people concerned.  In other words, they have not a rightness which is independent of the goodness of the state of affairs whose conditions they are.  (Macbeath, Experiments in Living, pp. 369-70.)

            Another way of looking at the problem is to ask if we can reason to universal ethical principles by heaping up similarities in the ethical practices of peoples.  This process is attractive because it appears to be scientific, and it seemingly ought to produce the laws of human conduct as an instance of the scientific induction which gives us the laws of physics and chemistry.  In addition, however, to the weakness of the principles that, as we have just seen, can be derived by this method, ethical action, as seen by those who act, while they act, has a subjective component, and no principle of ethics which ignores this component does justice to the phenomenon of ethics.  (This is alluded to by Fleischacker in The Ethics of Culture, chapter 1.)

            Still, some observations about the cultural variants of ethics lead to incontrovertible concrete statements which must have some universal validity.  Thus, although some societies approve of infanticide, it could scarcely be approvable as a practice at all times and places.  Or, "Any way of life whose general structure or scale of value does not admit of being extended to mankind as a whole, without denying the common humanity of some men and their right to be treated as persons" will have to be changed. An example is of Crow Indians, whose social structure was built around bellicosity.  (Macbeath, Experiments in Living, p. 436.)

            It appears to me that comparative ethics leads to solid generalizations.  Thus, codes of conduct everywhere serve to preserve a society and, further, to protect it from change.  They also furnish the individual with clearcut expectations of how to be the kind of individual which the society wants.  More specific rules of conduct, nearly universal ones, apply to transculturally similar situations involving the areas in which all societies seem to have moral norms as mentioned above.   The mental process by which we go from empirical codes of conduct to ethical norms is philosophical, and the philosophical value of comparative ethics is to prevent us from making foolish, chauvinistic errors.

            The bridge between comparative and philosophical ethics could be expressed in more than one way, but the words of Fleischacker show how this can be done even by one who is adamantly opposed to drawing universal ethical norms from ethical practices by either inductive or deductive methods: "Within our own culture, there are standards that we consider peculiarly appropriate for our own society and standards that we believe all people ought to share.  By looking at the universal standards we come up with and the way in which we draw the distinction between universal and local standards, we have a model for how to discern similar standards and similar distinctions in other cultures. And if we can successfully persuade the authorities and/or members of those cultures that a similar notion of universality exists within their system, we will have a successful cross-cultural judgment.  What is important here is that we never go strictly outside either our own or the other culture: rather, we seek universal principles within both cultures' traditional terms.  We thus maintain throughout the assumption that the general good cannot be expressed in a language of its own, but we also maintain, in the very process of trying to achieve agreement with the other culture, a presupposition that there must be some notion of ethical rightness transcending all specific ethical languages."  (Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture, p. 152.)


Ethics of Distinctive Particular Activities

            As mentioned above, in recent times much information has been gathered about ethical beliefs and practices in such fields as health care (including what was formerly called medical ethics), business, and the professions.  The writer will bring forth here some examples from business ethics, in which it is said that there are some absolute norms for "morality of the marketplace," such as contract keeping, prohibition of bribery (countries deny it or officially outlaw it), lying, theft, fraud ....."  (Bowie, "Business Ethics and Cultural Relativism," in Essentials of Business Ethics, by Peter Madsen and Jay M. Shafritz, p. 377ff, where Bowie also assigns a reason, "because without these the market system does not work," which need not concern us in this section.)

            An example of research into business ethics is a study of business managers who were asked "initially to discuss moral issues that have arisen in their daily work and then later analyze these discussions to discern implicit as well as explicit moral standards to which they refer as they describe these issues."  The most common moral (ethical) standards invoked by the 193 respondents were (with the percent of total cases in which the standard was invoked): 1. honesty in communications (25.9%), 2. fair treatment (30.1%), 3. special consideration (15.0%), 4. fair competition (29.5%), 5. organizational responsibility (21.2%), 6. social responsibility (5.7%), 7. respect for law (9.3%).  (Bird and Waters, "The nature of Managerial Moral Standards.")

            Another example: 420 questionnaires (30.7% response rate) from marketing executives and researchers, 62% male and 38% female, expressing on a Likert scale agreement or non-agreement with 11 brief dubiously ethical scenarios found the women less likely than the men to agree with the dubious action.  In only two were the mean ratings equal; in six the women were slightly less condoning, and in three they were notably less so (in these three instances the mean were male 2.6 - female 2.2, male 2.9 - female 2.5, male 3.7 - female 3.3.  While the authors do not theorize about the reason for the difference, they propose that as the proportion of women in these responsble positions increases, so will the level of ethical standards.  (Akaah, "Differences in Research Ethics Judgments Between Male and Female Marketing Professionals.")


Developmental Ethics

            It is obvious that children do not come into this world expressing the kind of ethical judgments which they will be expressing in later life. It is commonly observed, furthermore, that this is not merely due to the learning of language adequate for expressing ethical judgments, but it is also due to some development of the child's capacity to perceive his or her actions in a framework of right/wrong, good/evil.  Catholic theology, as an example, since the fifteenth century speaks of an "age of reason" (about seven years), at which time the child becomes able to tell right from wrong and consequently is responsible for his or her actions.

            Latent in such theology's approach to developmental ethics is the understanding that the child learns certain objective, universal principles of ethics and gains the ability to reason with them.  Simple and attractive as this understanding may be, it contains presuppositions that have in modern times been tested and found wanting.  The psychoanalytic study of the unconscious and the psychosocial study of group influences have shown that many factors beyond rational analysis of ethical principles enter into what children and adults judge to be right and wrong as well as into how they apply principles to particular cases.

            The temptation to social scientists researching developmental ethics has been to reduce ethics to a contentless coping mechanism.  Even such a classical Freudian psychoanalyst as Robert Coles, however, came to the conclusion that he could not explain the strength of character, that is to say the virtue, of some children that way.  (Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children.)

            Jean Piaget is credited with calling the attention of psychologists to phases in the evolution of ethical judgment in children.  Briefly put, Piaget writes of "... the existence of three great periods in the development of the sense of justice in the child.  One period, lasting up to the age of 7-8, during which justice is subordinated to adult authority; a period contained approximately between 8-11, and which is that of progressive equalitarianism; and finally a period which sets in towards 11-12, and during which purely equalitarian justice is tempered by considerations of equity."  (Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child," p. 314.)

            This line of investigation has been pursued in America by Lawrence Kohlberg, whose description of three levels of ethical development, each divided into two stages, is so well known that we will merely allude to it here: In level one, preconventional morality, stage one, punishment and obedience orientation, yields to stage 2, instrument and relativity orientation; in the second level, that of conventional morality, stage 3, interpersonal concordance orientation, yields to stage 4, law and order orientation; at the highest level, postconventional or autonomous morality, comes stage 5, social contract orientation, and stage 6, universal ethical principles orientation.  (This structure is laid out in Kohlberg, Moral Development and Behavior.")

            In later years Kohlberg himself came to assert that he had no empirical evidence that anyone attains stage 6 of ethical development.  He and his colleagues have, nevertheless, convincingly defended themselves from accusations of sex bias and philosophical bias.  (See Kohlberg, Levine, and Hewer, Moral Stages: A Current Formulation and a Response to Critics, passim.)  Whatever controversy there may be about his work, Kohlberg's line of investigation is clearly important and his conclusions are at least an approximation of a verifiable description of what happens to the ethical thinking of people as they grow older, and they provide us with the useful heuristic concept of arrested ethical development.


Ethics in Literature

            Some literature (read or performed or both) can be used by the ethicist to illustrate ethical situations and viewpoints.  This is particularly true for restricted ethical fields like, for instance, business ethics or medical ethics.  Other literature seems more to present an ethical world of some kind which the reader or viewer can use to meditate on ethics.  Following are some of my observations on works of the latter kind.

*          Homer, The Odyssey (read in translation).

            Epistemology: it is set in a mythical era when anything can happen.

            Philosophical anthropology: man is subject to the whims of the gods - yet, he determines his own actions and is responsible for them.

            Ethics: while misfortune is caused by the gods, evil is in people in the form of greed, self-conceit, lack of respect (servile piety), stealing, cruelty, etc. (Lying is scarcely presented as evil.) Patience, magnanimity, filial and servile piety, and kindness are good. Thus the norm of morality lies not in the consequences, which are reward and punishment, but in what can be called rectitude or right ordering of a person's actions.  This concerns ethical action in the abstract - in the concrete, ethical action takes the form of the virtues and the text could be studied at length with this in mind.

*          Goethe, Faust

            Epistemology: The illusions are of the devil. They produce permanent effects (especially those performed for the emperor). The experience with Helen is different from the illusions  it is myth rewritten, and the force behind it is the devil as myth, not as evil.

            Cosmology: Evil is powerful, but limited, and good triumphs in the end. Evil forces are blind and do not see that they will lose; good forces are confident and patient.

            Philosophy of man: Faust appears to be an Everyman, who is wise enough to see through the learned disciplines and foolish enough to hope to accomplish great things by magic. Still, he never ceases trying, and so he is saved both from the power of evil and from his own foolishness.

            Ethics: Moral evil seems to arise from misguided attempts at doing good. As such, it is reparable as long as the striving for good remains.

*          Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) (read in translation):

            Forward to philosophical consideration: This seems primarily to be the story of a person who sacrifices himself for others, becoming nothing rather than something in the process. For five years Gregor Samsa worked hard to support his family, but gained almost no love from them and certainly no respect. Furthermore, they became dependent on him and lost their strength, if not their self-respect. When he turned into a beetle or roach he showed himself for what he had become, but, although present, he could no longer act the role. No longer dependent on him, all three members of his family became able to take care of themselves and be happy together. When he completely realized that they did not want him at all and that he was an obstacle to their welfare, he died.  In current terminology an enabler, Gregor found out that the people dependent on one like him feel revulsion rather than love toward the enabler and that they are better off without him. Consistent to the end, Gregor accepted this judgment, his transformation, and his death.  This is a psychological drama, not a philosophical one.  There are, however, philosophical implications:

            Epistemology: Gregor knew that he was repulsive, but he did not grasp the tragic contradiction involved in looking like a beetle but thinking like a man.  The events are dreamlike, nightmarish.

            Philosophy of man: man's unique position among beings on earth is not secure if his allout efforts can reduce him to animal stature.  The story can be taken as an allegory, a modern myth, and seen this way it makes no difference if Gregor turned into a beetle or thought he did. Whether or not he turned into a beetle does not affect the points which the story makes.

*          Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology  performed by the Boulevard Players of Milwaukee.

            Philosophy of man: This selection of about one-third of the soliliquies with songs, mainly hymns of rural Protestant America, seems to convey most of all a sense of vital force which diffuses itself into the interrelated lives of the people who had lived in the town, runs its course, and then rests.

            Ethics: Although much is said about the morals of the townsfolk, the work neither moralizes nor judges: the vital force is not to be captured by categories of good or bad.  Each life, while small, is not senseless or meaningless.  The worth of the vital force is expressed in terms of religion, but it is not necessary to suppose that the author is maintaining that the expression of a higher order is anything but the form of expression which these people find available.



            In reviewing the list of well known ethical norms it seems easiest to begin with the ones which derive from good results.  The simple reason for this is that results are observable.  Thus, in rapid review:

            HEDONISM judges actions to be good to the extent that they procure pleasure for the individual.  This agrees roughly with our notion of leading to organic unity, although, since it involves emotion, it also includes some intentional unity.

            EUDAEMONISM judges actions to be good to the extent that they procure the individual's happiness.  This compares substantially with our notion of leading to intentional unity.  Eudaemonism is sometimes taken to be a spiritualized version of Hedonism.

             An historical note about eudaemonism.   Plato's ethics are eudaemonistic: happiness is man's highest good.  The pursuit of virtue brings happiness.  Plato seconds Socrates in holding that actions are bad out of ignorance.  (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol 1, pp 216-22.)   Note, however, that the connection between happiness as contemplation of forms and everyday action is very loose.  Iris Murdoch points out the discourse of Diotima in the Symposium: good is what all men seek, and it is related intrinsically to beauty and love.  (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 343.)


            ALTRUISM judges actions to be good if they bring about the pleasure or happiness of others.  It is based on the similarity between self and others, and it can, but does not have to, be taken in the sense of society versus the individual.

            RESPECT sees as good those actions which grant to others benefits which are due to them because of their standing in society.  Claims to respect are not based on particular actions the way personal justice is; on the other hand they may establish differences which affect the application of fairness.  A particular form of respect is respect for rights, that is, claims to respect which arise from society’s action of constituting itself politically or economically.  Rights are defined and defended by law, but aside from their legal nature they have ethical aspects.  Such ethical aspects are brought out by the notion of "Human Rights," which are taken to be claims to respect that can be made by all human citizens of the world.  It is clear that the notion of "claim to respect" can extend to trivial actions such as mere courtesy.  We can avoid a long investigation into this matter by accepting generally accepted human rights as ethically significal claims to respect.

            A comprehensive working, but not non-controversial, list of rights is that of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Articles 1 to 21, such as the rights to life, liberty, security of person, ownership of property, and freedom of opinion and expression,  came from the non-Communist bloc and are generally civil-political.  Articles 22 to 29, such as the rights to work, to rest and leisure, to food, clothing and housing, and to education  on the other hand, were proposed by the Communist bloc and are generally social-economic.  The latter set of rights seems to relate more to the goals of society than to the relationships between the people who compose it.  However this may be, some of the listed rights seem more basic than others and some are more easilty legislated than others. (The text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and these comments on it are from Maurice Cranston, What are Human Rights?)

            It is difficult to make a satisfactory list of basic human rights.  Jack Donnelly thinks that Henry Shue’s list of three -- subsistence, security, and liberty -- is the best, but that even it is questionable.  (Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. He cites Henry Shue’s Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy.)

            Greeks and Romans held the state (city, empire) to be supreme, all-powerful, having been founded and constituted on a religious basis -- no individual could question it or stand up to it.  (Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, Book 3, Chapter 17.)

            Notably early among Europeans to have a notion of civil-political rights were the English.  The Magna Charta in 1215 is the best known historical document in the English development of the notion of rights, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of that development.  (Geoffrey Hindley, The Book of Magna Carta.)

            Although pressure for social-economic rights was not a notable feature of the development of rights until the socialist movements of the nineteenth century, the American Thomas Paine, in defending the French Revolution from the criticisms of Edmund Burke, maintains that such benefits as universal education, maternity benefits, and family allowances for the poor should be considered rights.  (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Part II.)

            Another historical aspect of the development of the notion of rights in Europe: "When the Spaniards struck at the city-building empires of Mexico and Peru they saw them as weaker versions of the empires of Alexander and Augustus, problematic enough in logistic and diplomatic terms, but, because of this analogy, not a radical challenge to rethinking the nature of political societies.  Those ancient empires had been overcome.  So, now, had these.  It was the greater number of apparently more primitive peoples in central and southern America that aroused a crisis of conscience, public debate, and an element of self-scrutiny.  Missionaries' consciences were initially troubled by two questions.  The first was: do people living in a state of nature have property rights:  If they do, do we have the right to dispossess and enslave them?  The second was: do these people, who seem to live the instinctive lives of animals, have souls?  If they do, should we not convert and protect rather than exploit them?  This, the first pertinent and passionate discussion of abstract human rights, went on for a generation and more between settlers' needs for labour and priests' concern for potential converts.  It was at last resolved in the mid-century in favour of the view that the Amerindian masses were, like their better-armed and more singleminded masters, men with legal rights and souls to save."  (John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, p. 46.)

            On the one hand the extension of notions of rights beyond their European and American origins seems to be an ethical action for the welfare of the people of other cultures.  On the other hand, however, the manner in which they are extended is taken to be cultural imperialism, an imposition of distinctive Western values on peoples who have values of their own.  It seems to me that this controversy is totally avoidable if we look at rights as I have above: that is, as societal forms of respect.  It is, nevertheless, a real conflict, as is evidenced by the article “’Asian Values’ and Global Rights” by Fred Dallmayr.  My chapters on Indian and Chinese ethics also touch on this subject.

            Stephen Holmes & Cass Sunstein, The Cost of Rights, New York: Norton, 1999, although dealing strictly with legal rights, presents interesting aspects which are often overlooked:

            Limiting themselves to legal rights, which they carefully distinguish from moral rights, the authors argue against what they assert to be the current understanding of the distinction between negative and positive rights (see quote below from page 51), and they argue that all legal rights require society's financial resources to maintain, and that this is a price a society pays for securing the cooperation of its members in pursuing its common goals.

            "Personal liberty, as Americans value and experience it, presupposes social cooperation managed by government officials.  Thr private realm we rightly prize is sustained, indeed created, by public action.  Not even the most self-reliant citizen is asked to look after his or her material welfare autonomously, without any support from fellow citizens or public officials." p. 15.

            Definition of rights: "important interests that can be reliably protected by individuals or groups using the instrumentalities of government." Then the distinction between moral and legal rights. p. 16.

            A long list of rights -the authors want it to be confusing, and it contains legal relationships which are not necessarily rights at all. p. 37-39.

            The authors present a caricature of the implications of the distinction of rights into positive and negative, making it to be a polarity of rugged individualism vs welfare mentality, and they assert that this is the accepted way of thinking. p. 39-43.

            "Rights are costly because remedies are costly.  Enforcement is expensive, especially uniform and fair enforcement; and legal rights are hollow to the extent that they remain unenforced.  Formulated differently, almost every right implies a correlative duty, and duties are taken seriously only when dereliction is punished by the public power drawing on the public purse."  In the immediately preceding paragraph, however, is the assertion, "'Where there is a right, there is a remedy' is a classical legal maxim.... What it shows is that all legally enforced rights are necessarily positive rights." p. 43.

            On positive and negative rights again:  "The wholly reasonable distinction between forbearance and performance lends no credence to the opposition between immunity against government interference and entitlement to government service." p. 51  

            "Those who describe rights as absolutes make it impossible to ask an important factual question: Who decides at what level to  fund which cluster of basic rights for whom?  How fair, as well as how prudent, is our current system of allocating scarce resources among competing rights, including constitutional rights?  And who exactly is empowered to make such allocative decisions?" page 131.

            "When efforts at moral persuasion fail, rights are likely to be asserted instead.  Arguments 'against rights,' therefore, may make more sense if reinterpreted as complaints about inadequate social norms and our need to respond to their defects.  The right to be free from certain kinds of pollution ("nonsmokers' rights') and the right to be free from racial hate speech (a right vindicated by many campus speech codes) are regularly advanced when social norms falter.  And once such rights are legally recognized, the costs to the taxpayer may be high  .p. 169.

            "Conceived as a matter of public finance, legal rights emerge as politically created and collectively funded instruments designed to promote human welfare.  Because returns from equal rights protection - such as the benefit of living in a relatively just society where, for the most part, groups with different ethnic backgrounds can peaceably coexist and cooperate - are diffuse and hard to capture, initial investments in such protection must be made by the public power." p. 221.

            Rights can be situated within the broader range of ethical action as responsiveness to value.  (Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, 498-504, where responsiveness to value seems to equal respect.)

            PERSONAL JUSTICE calls an action good if the action preserves or restores equality in an exchange of benefits between individuals.  That the individuals are fundamentally on a par with each other is understood here, too.

            FAIRNESS as a common and non-technical notion declares that an action is good if it treats a plurality of individuals in the same way, or, to put it another way, the action is good if it applies the same rule to all who are affected by it.  It explicitly and emphatically derives from the similarity between individuals in a group and, by extension, to the individuals in society at large.  It is necessary, however, that there be a reason for applying fairness as an ethical norm, as there is, for instance, in game playing or in the relationships between businesses.  Another fairness situation is that of the distribution of benefits, and this is called distributive justice.

            Although the notion of distributive justice is quite simple, great problems arise in the application of it because there are often many and varied rules which could be used. Thoroughly egalitarian distributive justice is, perhaps, the easiest to use, but, being rather simplistic, it ignores the consideration that mere equal distribution may be far from equal is its effects on varied recipients.  Socialist distributive justice, on the other hand, expressed in the classical dictum, from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, implies a political philosophy which is by no means universally accepted.  The modern attempt of John Rawls to include opportunity in the rule of distribution at least indicates the multiplicity of factors that can be taken into account

            John Rawls insists on the modern role of the state as a source of entitlements (social-economic benefits), as socialism does, but it leaves intact the capitalistic potential for gain by some, while ensuring the civil rights of all.  And this is with a minimum of commitment to any political system.  Note the historical relationships: this notion was scarcely possible before World War II because not enough attention had been paid before that toward reconciling capitalism and socialism.  Rawls’s principle is stated:  1) each person has an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberties for all, 2) social and economic inequities are arranged so that they are both  a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.  The principle works in this way: if all people were equally talented they would be treated equally, but since they are not, social, political, and economic institutions are arranged to favor those who would suffer from inequality.  Illustrations are the graduated income tax, selective sales tax, divorce settlements protecting non-earners, and, specifically about oppportunity: it is promoted in favor of those who might not (or do not) have it: job opportunities, educational opportunities, opportunities to be in politics, and the like.  (A Theory of Justice, 1971.)

            UTILITARIANISM pronounces an action good if it has social effects and produces a greater sum total of pleasure or happiness than any other action under the same circumstances

            Utilitarianism was the title of John Stuart Mill’s 1863 essay which popularized this norm.  Mill wrote of the Greatest Happiness Principle, which “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.  By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain  --  by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.”  And “that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”  Mill was concerned with both the quantity and the quality of happiness.  Thus he asserted that feeding hungry people might be enough to make them happy, but if they were once fed, merely keeping them fed would not be sufficient to keep them happy.  Love, knowledge, wisdom, and the like would be needed for this.  Knowledge, says Mill, is better than fashionable clothing, peace of mind is better than a full stomach, appreciation of art is better than sex.  “It is better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  Mill saw two arguments for including others in the happiness calculation:  1) the “social feelings of mankind -- the desire to be in unity with our fellow-creatures,” and 2) all have an equal claim to happiness.  According to him social inequalities, such as the suppression of women, should disappear.  Furthermore, Utility, as he intended it, is very democratic: one person is as valuable as another.  (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism.)  Volumes have been written about Utilitarianism, but the writer of the present essay is not convinced that much substance has been added to Mill’s short work on it.

            An historical note on the development of the utilitarian point of view in American Business:  "The anti-intellectualism of businessmen, interpreted narrowly as hostility to intellectuals, is mainly a political phenomenon.  But interpreted more broadly as a suspicion of intellect itself, it is part of the extensive American devotion to practicality and direct experience which ramifies through almost every area of American life.  With some variations of details suitable to social classes and historical circumstances, the excessive practical bias so often attributed only to business is found almost everywhere in America. In itself, a certain wholesome regard for the practical needs no defense and deserves no disparagement so long as it does not aspire to exclusiveness, so long as other aspects of human experience are not denigrated and ridiculed.  Practical vigor is a virtue; what has been spiritually crippling in our history is the tendency to make a mystique of practicality."  (Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, pp. 236-237.)

            Again, "The more thoroughly business dominated American society, the less it felt the need to justify its existence by reference to values outside its own domain.  In earlier days it had looked for sanction in the claim that the vigorous pursuit of trade served God, and later that it served character and culture.  Although this argument did not disappear, it grew less conspicuous in the business rationale.  As business became the dominant motif in American life and as a vast material empire rose in the New World, business increasingly looked for legimation in a purely material and internal criterion  -- the wealth it produced.  American business, once defended on the ground that it produced a high standard of culture, was now defended mainly on the ground that it produced a high standard of living.  Few businessmen would have hesitated to say that the advancement of material prosperity, if not itself a kind of moral ideal, was at least the presupposition of all other moral ideals."  (Hofstadter, 251-252.)

            The evident importance and reasonableness of the consequential norms as a whole could deceive one into thinking that no more need be said about ethical norms in general.  We know, however, that we must also look at the initial state from which ethical actions proceed, and when we do this we find another set of ethical norms.  Again in rapid review:

            DEONTOLOGISM holds that an action must proceed from a good intention if it is to be good.  This is conceived of as pure ethical motivation as distinguished from pragmatic motivation: according to deontologism whether or not the action actually achieves something it is good at least to the extent that it starts out good.

            A question for deontologism is, “How can I be sure that my intention is good?”  No one has ever shown to the general satisfaction of ethicists that we have a special ethical sense that would assure us of this without regard to consequences.  Moreover, as the writer has already noted, ethicists do not claim that pure feeling or emotion is an adequate ethical guide, and if we have a personal  daimon, or imperious inner voice telling us what we should do, then no one else can check it for us except by external evaluation.  The most famous attempt to turn good intention into an applicable norm, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, involves a thought process rather than a direct intuition, and if anyone has improved on Kant in this regard the formula used has certainly not gained general acceptance.

            VIRTUE ETHICS holds that the action of a good person is, unless vitiated, a good one.  In other words, that a good person tends primarily to put its goodness into action.  This goodness, however, is not abstract: it has to do with the relationships which the good person has with self, others, and the world.  These relationships, the virtues, are definable, and they involve typical actions, which are recognized to be virtuous.

            The question which arises from viewing people as possessors of virtue is, "How does a good person act?"  A list of virtues with the reasons why they express goodness will answer the question.  Aristotle's classic list of moral virtues has been followed by many others.  The virtues which Aristotle treats in books three to five of  The Nicomachean Ethics are courage, temperance ("Sophrosyne"), liberality, magnificence, justifiable pride, proper ambition, restraint of anger, restraint of boastfulness, and justice, although he notes at the beginning of book six that there are still other moral virtues.

            A recent grouping of virtues which the writer finds useful in particular applications of ethics is that of James Wallace.  According to him there are three groups of virtues.  The virtues of the first group include courage, even-temperedness, patience, and something which has been called temperance or self-control.  These virtues have the function of forestalling the disruptions and interferences which desires and aversions of various kinds create for practical reasoning and its appropriate actions.  Wallace does not give these virtues a generic name, but for the sake of using them practically in ethical analysis we shall, with apology to him, give them the group appellation of self-control.  (James D. Wallace, Virtues and Vices, p. 60ff.)

            The second group of virtues Wallace calls conscientiousness, and it includes honesty, fairness, truthfulness, and being a person of one's word. Here we also find, he writes, Kant's duty.  (Wallace, p. 90ff.)

            Benevolence is Wallace's third set of virtues.  Included under it are kindness, generosity, humaneness, and compassion.  Nothing, of course, prevents one action from representing both conscientiousness and benevolence, he asserts.  (Wallace, p. 128ff.)

            Another list of virtues is, "Six moral principles may be formulated which state the ideals involved in these levels of perfection: prudence (acting for one's own highest good), loyalty (fulfilling specific obligations to other individuals or groups), benevolence (promoting the general welfare), justice (ordering society fairly and equitably), agape (acting with unselfish devotion to the needs of anyone), and universal piety (furthering the perfections of being at any level)." (Donald Walhout, The Good and the Realm of Values, p. 85.)

            Instead of elaborating a list of virtues one might propose that one certain virtue is the essential attribute of a good person.  It seems to the writer that this is risky and is liable to lead to a more subjective view than a philosopher would wish.  For instance, if one follows Agnes Heller's definition of the good person, the minimum attribute needed for being called good, "A person is good if he or she prefers to suffer wrong than to wrong others," one will probably be led also to agree with her that there is no rational proof of this, that it is a "confession of faith" grounded in the observation that good persons do exist with what she also calls a basic "honesty" that provides the way of the supererogatory goodness of the saint or the altruist or the "genius of morality."  (General Ethics, pp. 174-176.)

            The thinking behind the notion of virtue is so different from the thinking behind some other commonly used norms that is is very difficult to compare it with them. For an example of an exercise in doing this see Michael Slote's From Morality to Virtue. The book has the title that it does because for him "morality" has to do with right and wrong, which are concerns of Kantianism, Utilitarianism, and "Common Sense Ethics," whereas virtue has to do with good and bad.  Slote assumes that we know about virtue and the virtues and does not explain them.  The virtues he mentions by name are: (other-regarding) justice, kindness, probity, generosity; (self-regarding) prudence, sagacity, circumspection, equanimity, fortitude; (either) self-control, courage, practical wisdom, moderation.

            INNER LAW ETHICS contends that there are in human beings inbuilt patterns of action which should be followed.  This is sometimes expressed in terms of a human nature, with which we should act in harmony.  It is also said to be the observance of the natural law in ourselves.

            DIVINE LAW ETHICS holds that actions are good or evil to the extent that they are in conformity to a rule divinely established in us.  According to some schools of thought this coincides with inner law ethics, and according to others it does not coincide with it because God can be arbitrary in what he demands of us.

            An historical note about divine law ethics in the U.S:  one of the roots of American anti-intellectualism is the kind of religion that grew with it. Detached from the churches of Europe at first, it, except for Puritan practice, had active disdain for the history and dogma of Europe and for reasoned attempts to reconcile religious faith with human understanding.  Revivalism and fundamentalism thus became marked traits of American religion. with here and there, now and then, religious intellectuals being critical and championing universities as forums for exchange of thought.  (Hofstadter, Part II: The Religion of the Heart, pages 55-141.)

            We have so far two camps of ethical norms, and it remains to be seen how the two relate to each other.  There are, however, still other norms which are not based on either terminus of the ethical action, but which regard the whole of the action.  As will be evident, these norms are complex and greatly overlap the norms previously noted, but they are in some ways different from the rest.  Briefly:

            PERFECTIONISM judges an action to be good if enhances the being of the actor, whether this is an individual or society, whether the enhancement consists in having a good intention or in bringing about good results.  This might seem too general to be a norm, and it certainly partially coincides with several of the other norms; nevertheless it states something different from any of them.

            Some elucidation of perfectionism.   "Perfectionism generally requires each person to act so as to realize fully her essential capacities and sees the main goal of the state to be the improvement of its citizens, where this is understood to involve the development and exercise of their essential capacities and powers." (p.11) Perfectionists include Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Mill, Bradley, Green, and Hobhouse.  Objections to perfectionism include the difficulty of determining what is perfection for the individual and of reconciling perfections to produce the most perfect State (like summing happinesses).  Some reference to equality among persons needs to be built into perfectionist ethical theory.  These are the thoughts of the author, and the reviewer adds his own view that Aristotle's notion of friendship, mutually perfective love, can be extended to answer the question about general perfection because it means that self-perfection is an ethical concept, whereas, as the author says, it is not necessarily ethical.  (David O. Brink, "Pursuing perfections," Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, pp.11-12, a review of Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism, Oxford University Press, 1993.)

            A somewhat different meaning of perfectionism is presented by Edmund Pincoffs: "I will take it that moral perfectionism, in its most general form, as it bears on actions and policies, is the doctrine that the overall acceptability or unacceptability of an action or policy is to be determined by the extent to which the action or policy accords with standards of excellence."  For Pincoffs the virtues are among such standards.  (Pincoffs, Quandaries and Virtues, p. 104.)

            VALUE ETHICS is based on the relationship which people have with things through conscious interest in them.  People evaluate states, whether initial or final, according to some norm; they act upon what they perceive to be values.  Values closely resemble goods - whatever is a good is a value and vice versa - but, rather than being connected with any metaphysical system, they are connected with the psychological process (evaluation) by which people relate to a world which consists not just of facts in themselves but of facts which interest them.  The norms of ethical evaluation are practically speaking indistinguishable from the norms of ethics already presented in this essay, but they are approached through psychology rather than through ontology.  Value ethics is congenial to the modern pragmatic, non-metaphysical American mind, but the writer refers back to his contention that metaphysics cannot be avoided.  Still, as long as their respective backgrounds are kept in mind, ethicists of values and ethicists of good should have no difficulty in conversing about norms and other aspects of ethics.

            Philosophers who discourse about values tend to range them in hierarchies such as those of the Phenomenologist Max Scheler: sensible feeling, such as the occasions of agreeable and disagreeable sensations - vital feeling, such as the source of emotions - spiritual, such as knowledge, beauty, and rectitude - religious, such as the holy.  (Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, pp. 105-110.)  Similar in application is the needs hierarchy of Abraham Maslow:  physiological - safety - love & belonging - esteem & self-esteem - self-actualization.  (Maslow, Motivation and Personality.)

            A useful, extensive scheme of values is the following "outline of human values" of Donald Walhout (Donald Walhout, The Good and the Realm of Values.):

                         I. Metavalues

                            A. Protovalues

                                      1. Life itwelf

                                      2. Maturation and growth

                                      3. Mental Health

                                      4. World peace

                            B. Supravalues

                                      1. Freedom

                                      2. Creativity

                                      3. Religion

                            C. Epivalue: harmonious perfecting

                        II. Principal Values

                            A. Values of reverence, or theocentric values

                                      1. Experience of the holy

                                      2. Experience of accord

                            B. Values of appreciation, or natural values

                                      1. Psychophysical states

                                                a) Pleasure - bodily and mental

                                                b) Skill - bodily and mental

                                      2. Natural piety

                                      3. Esthetic experience

                                      4. Cosmic awe

                            C. Values of human relatedness, or moral values

                                      1. Individuality

                                      2. Family life, including sexual love

                                      3. Friendship and association

                                      4. Active citizenship

                                      5. Moral character

                            D. Values of knowledge, or intellectual values

                                      1. Knowing

                                      2. Inquiring


            Although Walhout would appeal to nuances of difference, his fundamental position is a Thomist one, that good is a transcendental and that evil is the lack of good.  He develops the thesis that values are defined as goods that are reached by conscious and free actions.  Goods outside human conscious life are values because they are consciously apprehended as such by God.  He avoids saying that this is a metaphysical concept of value.  He places himself among self-teleological eudaemonists, but he avoids saying that right action is that which brings about self-perfection: right action is virtuous action, which takes others into account.  He also has a deontological side, which paraphrases the Categorical Imperative.

            An historical note about general value theory in the U.S.:  It arose early in the 20th century as a way of expressing a general human ability to have conscious interest as opposed to making judgments of pure fact.  Of course it involves no metaphysics, and it avoids the use of terms like good and bad, although it brings in the notion of  norm.  Contemporary American philosophers are backing away from the deep dichotomy of fact versus value, and they have made some progress in studying particular kinds of values and then generalizing as opposed to the original general, deductive approach.  (Abraham Edel, "The Concept of Value and Its Travels in Twentieth-Century America,"  pp. 12-36 in Values and Value Theory in Twentieth-Century America, Murphey and Berg.)

            An historical note about John Dewey  he is not a value philosopher, but he writes about value.  Thus, "Something is a value if it is adapted 'to the needs and demands imposed by the situation'. that is to say, if it meets the demands of an objective problematic situation, in regard to its transformation or reconstruction.  A judgment of value, like a scientific hypothesis, is predictive, and it is thus empirically or experimentally verifiable.'"  I.e., value is neither a reality in itself nor purely subjective.  (Quoted in Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol VIII, p. 371.)

            An historical note about semantic problems regarding American usage of "value:"  "In a sample study of texts in the late 1950s, I found that the situation [the indeterminateness of the term 'value'] was complicated by the use of another concept alongside, that of norms.  In philosophic usage, the latter suggested the normative, the judgmental; the evaluation of one's own or another's values is a normative enterprise.  But in the usage of psychological or social science it appeared that the norms were rather the ways of acting that took shape as rules; hence the norms of a society or culture were the rules that operated in socialization of the growing child or in efforts to control the conduct of people.  Thus although the rules were normative (in the philosophical sense) the enterprise of presenting the norms of a given society or culture was avowedly descriptive.  On the other hand, 'value' was often defined, in a judgmental reference, as the criteria employed for evaluation of conduct or decision or for justifying the norms.  The concepts of norm and value thus turned out to have an inverse relation: where a scientist used 'norms' descriptively, 'value' tended to be used judgmentally for criteria of evaluation; but where 'value' was used descriptively, 'norm' tended to be used judgmentally."  (Abraham Edel, "The Concept of Value and Its Travels in Twentieth-Century America in Murray G. Murphey and Ivar Berg, Values and Value Theory in Twentieth-Century America, p. 27.)

            A note about Max Scheler: his phenomenological descriptions of the intentionality of value orientation are probably unsurpassed.  He is one with American value theorists in asserting that values, including ethical ones, are not founded on metaphysics, but his method also leads him to avoid a scientific (psychological) empirical approach to values.  Furthermore, although he expresses himself in such a way as to make it appear that we have a special sense of values or, which is the same, that values constitute a separate order of reality, this is really an effect of his phenomenological method, which blanks out the perceptions and realities which are not directly involved in the intentional relationship under consideration.  (Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values.)

            To do justice to Scheler’s value analysis one needs to know the five characteristics of “height” which serve to rank them in their hierarchy.  Then, however, to do justice to Scheler’s limitations, one needs to know the criticism of him made by Nicolai Hartmann, who adds a principle of ranking by “strength” or “weight.”  At least one other phenomenologist, Hans Reiner, has combined these principles and added others, making a total of eleven.  (Alfons Deeken, Process & Permanence in Ethics: Mac Scheler’s Moral Philosophy, New York: Paulist Press, 1974, pp. 44-61, “The Hierarchy of Values and the Laws of Value-Preference.”)

            Historical notes about modern French value philosophy: it takes several shapes: Raymond Polin was a phenomologist who rejected a metaphysical interpretation of value;  René Le Senne, in a philosophy of spirit, described value as "That which is worthy of being sought after", and this is objective, the absolute, God, being the pure and infinite value; Raymond Ruyer is similar to Le Senne, quite theistic; Jean Pucelle connects his value theory with the Judeo-Christian tradition, but bases it on being, saying that "... it is because value is a relation between Being and beings that every existence has value."  (Copleston, vol. 9, pp. 294-307.)  Camus's literature of the absurd includes values: by choosing to live "he asserts a value, that life is good or worth living or should be made worth living" (397).  "The man of the absurd... exhibits the greatness of man precisely by this combination of recognition of ultimate futility with a life of self-sacrificing love" (393).  (Copleston, vol. 9, pp. 393-397.)

            The ethics of Existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus fall under the norm of value in the present essay.  The reason is that Existentialism has no referents for good and evil except the development of the acting individual, who “creates” himself, that is to say, who produces his own essence.  The individual achieves a value, or, rather, becomes a value.  Thus, although Existentialists have their own vocabulary for describing ethical action, commentators on Existentialism can best describe it by using the vocabulary of values.

            COMMON WILL ETHICS takes society, rather than the individual, to be the starting point of ethical action.  It supposes that where there is a common will, this originates in the union of the members, which is a good state.  This union can be thought of as merely intentional or as being a more mystical oneness.


Synthesis of ethical norms

            We have named and briefly described 14 ethical norms, and this rather well covers the range of them.  There are various schemes for grouping these norms, but the one we have used brings out first of all their relation to good action.

            One can, and many do, look upon the ethical norms as competing among themselves.  Thus, if you are a Utilitarian you cannot be a Deontologist, but, even so, Utilitarians know that good intention means something and Deontologists know that a greater sum total of good has its merits.  I submit that viewing the norms from the perspective of metaphysics as I have done in my chapter on philosophical elements in general ethics does justice to all of them while it also points out their limitations.  I do not hesitate to assert that each of the norms is correct in its own way because each expresses a unifying action.  An action which verifies any of the norms is, to that extent, an ethically good action.  Clearly, an action which is not good by any of the norms is not a good action.  Conversely, an action which fails against any of the norms is, to that extent, ethically bad.  In spite of the fact that it may be a good action according to some norm, it is defective in its unifying force.  In other words, an action is ethically good if it is good according to at least one ethical norm and is not bad according to any other ethical norm.

            One consequence of this way of viewing ethical actions and norms is that is prevents one from drawing an absolute ethical line, to one side of which are good actions and to the other side of which are bad ones.  The ethical evaluation of many actions is not that simple: many aspects of them have to be considered before a defensible judgment about their ethicalness can be made.  This conclusion is by no means ethical relativism, which holds that there are no ethical norms inherent in human actions; neither, however, is it ethical absolutism, which says that there is a clear-cut right and wrong in all ethical situations.



            Once we have a firm grasp of the elements of ethics, we find ourselves at the point where we can make the leap from general principles to the judgment of ethical action in concrete, particular cases.  We do this by ascertaining which ethical norms apply, a process which can  be called moral reasoning.  We can describe the basic steps of such reasoning in the terms of Aristotelian logic, that is, as a syllogism in which the major is a statement of an ethical norm and the minor is a statement of the facts of the case.  The process, however, is not a neatly wrapped, simplistic one, because it must pay attention both to all the applicable norms and to all the relevant facts.  It is further complicated if the norms produce an ethical dilemma, in which none of the concrete alternative actions appears to be good.

            Before we can proceed we must distinguish ethical evaluation and ethical decision making.  The application of the norms is ethical evaluation, and it can take place at any time before, during, or after an action.  We can apply the norms to our own individual actions, to the individual actions of others, or to collective actions.  Sometimes closeness to the situation is best for knowing which norms apply and sometimes distance from it is best.  Ethical decision making, however, is the evaluation made before the action, the evaluation which one will use for the ethical action.  Ethical decision making is in the first person, whereas ethical evaluation can be in the first, second or third person.  An ethicist who is taken seriously will be called upon both to help in decision making and to give insight into historical analysis.  Evident though this distinction may seem elementary, it needs to be brought to the fore because it represents two rather diverse goals of the study of ethics.


Selection of appropriate norms

            To select applicable norms one can look first at useful generalities.  Thus social situations call for social norms such as utility, justice, and fairness, whereas actions which do not involve other persons can be judged according to the outcome of individual pleasure or happiness.  All consequentialist ethics have a need for quantification, and the less concrete the results are or the less immediate, the harder it is to compare them, and the less useful is the consequentialist norm.  On the other hand, as we have already noted, it is difficult to judge the good intentions of others, and it may be unclear what to expect from virtue.  Along a different line, actions the outcomes of which are of little or no importance can be ethical or not solely because of the intention of the person who acts.

            Another generality is that in the usual situation there are both antecedent and consequent aspects to an action; they are codependent; both are ethically important.  A hidden aspect of consequentialist norms is that the person who acts ethically according to them is, on the whole, intending to bring about good, and a hidden aspect of deontological and similar norms is that the good intention or virtue possessed tends to bring about good results, and these latter are not a strictly internal affair of the acting person.

            Turning our attention to the 14 specific norms (of the chapter, Particular Ethical Norms), we can see that each of the consequentialist norms, hedonism, eudaemonism, altruism, fairness, respect, and justice, refers to a specific set of people.  The task, then in applying these norms is to make sure that all the persons affected by an action are covered and none are left out.  Of all the principles of application that are being mentioned in this section, this one, simple as it is, is the most powerful and the most needed in public debate on ethics.

            Thus utilitarianism is applicable for a totality of persons, but this does not do away with individuals' claim to respect and certain persons' claim to justice, and it does not diminish the force of arguments of fairness due to the basic likeness of people.  Accepting one's self as a person among others, one's own pleasure or happiness is as important as that of others, but the altruistic contrary of this, that the pleasure or happiness of others is as important as that of one's self is also a valid norm.  We shall trim the number of consequentialist norms we use by considering healthy hedonism, which looks at the long run as well as the short, to be one norm with eudaemonism.

            Deontologism is suitable where we have reliable information about the intention of the acting person.  Thus it is most helpful when judging one's own actions.  This does not mean that we are completely incapable of judging the intention of others; it means that we must exercise extreme caution in doing so lest we ourselves run afoul of the consequentialist norm of respect as well as the deontological norm which applies to our own action of judging.  Our own act of judging according to ethical norms is, of course, an act in itself susceptible of ethical judgment.

            Virtue is neatly applicable as a norm where there is a recognizable pattern of action which has been, so to speak, preapproved as good.  It has been called a disposition to do something rather than an intention to do it.  Thus it will be more useful in typical cases than it will be in unusual ones.

            The norms of inner law or divine law relate to intention: the intention to be true to one's nature or to the will of God.  They are going to be applied by those who hold that there is a clearly defined human nature with correspondingly clearly defined appropriate ways of acting or that there are clear mandates of God about human action.  Other persons making ethical judgments will not necessarily assent to these purported laws, with the result that irresolvable conflict can ensue.  Absolute insistence on inner or divine law preempts ethical discourse with people who have any other approach to ethics, and for this reason we shall not use it in this essay. We shall look at conflict resolution in ethical judgments a little farther along, but the matter at hand already announces that such resolution is not always possible.

            Perfectionism - unlike virtue, which looks at the antecedent of the ethical action - looks at both the antecedent and the consequent.  It involves any of the norms which apply to the source of the action along with eudaemonism: the termini of the ethical action reinforce each other.  Although this is a felicitous concept, its application can be divided into its components for analysis, and we shall analyze according to the components and not need perfectionism as a norm.

            As we have already noted in the chapter on the norms, the ethics of value is operationally very similar to the ethics of good.  Since I, however, have developed my study of ethics out of a metaphysical framework of good, I will not analyze actions according to values, although in practice it would be easy for me to dialog about practical ethics judgments with those who do.  In my chapters on ethics I have no reason to be guilty of saying "value" where I mean "good," but in applied ethics outside of ethical treatises it is difficult to avoid the word "value" when "good" is meant.

            The last of the 14 norms is "common will ethics."  This refers not to individual action, but to the common action of a plurality of people.  It is not a norm to apply to individuals at all, and refers only to collective ethical action.

            To summarize, the norms I propose for use in ethical decision making are:

                        Consequential             eudaemonism









                        Virtue                          self-control




            The fundamental procedure for ethical decision making is, as was stated above, to apply to the situation all the norms which are appropriate.  If even one norm is violated the action is not good, and it is not to be done.  Pursuing the possible forms this situation can take, we can see that sometimes there is a question of which action is best among good actions.  This translates into the ethical question, is it good to perform a good action when it is possible to do better?  As far as I know, none of the consequentialist norms (including utilitarianism, which contains an external resemblance to this line of thinking) furnishes an answer to this question.  The norm of  virtue has been applied in a mode of absolute perfectionism with the outcome that the perfect person always would do the better thing, but this topic arises, not in a philosophical framework, but in a religious one, in which such a way of acting is thought to be more godlike.  We have not included absolute perfectionism as an ethical norm precisely because it is so religious, whatever philosophical merit it might have.

            Although we avoid using absolute perfectionism as a norm, we can nevertheless look approvingly at people who seem to act out of a high degree of deontologism, of faithfulness to internal law, or of virtue.  They are, as far as we know,  better  people, but for most purposes of life it is sufficient to be good enough people with our good actions.


            The following procedure is from “An Approach to Ethical Decision Making,” a World Wide Web file of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, dated November 7, 1996:

Recognize a Moral Issue

            * Is there a conflict at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, or societal level?  Is there a question that arises either at the level of thought or of feeling?

            * Does the question have a moral or ethical component? Why? (e.g., does it raise issues of rights, moral character, etc.)


Begin Your Decision Making

            * What are the relevant facts of the case?  Whose (or what) interests are at stake?

            *What alternative actions are available?  What would other persons of good judgment think of your list of alternatives?


Evaluate the Alternative Actions from Various Moral Points of View

            * Which alternative would help one develop and maintain valuable traits of character (e.g., be a person of courage or compassion)?

            * Which alternative would lead to the best overall consequences?

            * Which alternative best respects and protects the moral rights of individuals?

            * Which alternative treats all parties in a fair or just manner?

            * Which alternative best promotes the common good?

            * Which alternative would make a good general rule for people to follow in similar situations?


Make a Decision

(After taking into account the two questions below)


            *Considering these various points of view, which of your alternative actions would be the best?

            * What would other persons of good judgment think of the justification of your decision?


Consider Your Action in Retrospect

            *In retrospect, was the action - and its results for others as well as your own moral character - the best action?

            * What do other persons of good judgment think of the action and its results in retrospect?


Dilemma resolution


            The greatest single problem of ethics, the one which is the most vexing and the most challenging, is that of the ethical dilemma.  This arises when an action is seen to be unethical by at least one norm and there is no alternative which does not suffer from the same defect, but it is necessary to act or it would be unethical not to act.  The dilemma can be of the individual who sees the vitiated alternatives, or it can exist among several people who must act together but have diverse ethical judgments concerning the proposed action.

            The basic principle of ethical dilemma solving is simply that if none of the actions is good, the lesser of evils has to be chosen, that is to say that choosing the lesser of evils is a good in the circumstances because to some extent it prevents evil.  Prevention of evil is, by any norm, a good action.  If, however, it cannot be shown that any of the evils is lesser than others, then it makes no difference ethically which action is taken.  In this case we do not say that a bad action becomes a good one; we say that the acting person is not responsible for the bad action.   In the former case the acting person who did not choose the least of the evil actions would be responsible for the evil done which could have been prevented.  I do not propose this analysis as being original, but I do not know of particular sources to credit for it.  It should be noted that the reverse also applies.  That is to say, that if all alternatives involve the same evil, but one involves doing more good than another, then this fact does not change the dilemma solving analysis of the least evil, but it does include greater responsibility for good.

            In some dilemmas, therefore, it is expedient to establish continua of measurement of bad actions.  Such might be the amount of harm done to individuals by an action judged to be good according to utilitarianism.  It could also be the violation of fairness due to claims of justice or respect owed some people but not others. Again, virtue goes out first of all to certain persons, such as relatives or neighbors, and it would be worse to exclude them from one's good actions than it would be to exclude others.  Any of these comparisons can be used to provide a solution to the famous air raid shelter or lifeboat dilemma, in which someone has to be left out.

            This is not to say that it is easy to establish such continua or that, although it might not be difficult to establish them upon reflection, one is called upon to act quickly, before reflection is possible.  Even more difficult, however, than the individual's accomplishing this feat is the difficulty there is when several people must act together and do not agree ethically.  In this case rational negotiation is needed for deciding which norms apply and, more often than not, for deciding which course of action produces the least evil.  If consensus is not reached on this latter point, then the group acting cannot be held responsible for the bad which is found in its action.  This final conclusion seems counterintuitive to us, but I judge that the reason it seems so is that we expect people to be able to agree on ethical norms and we feel that there is something wrong if they do not, but the fact is that it comes under the heading of the human condition that people disagree as much as they do about fundamental and important issues.  This being said, however, rational negotiation is ethically sound and it arises from the positive side of this same human condition.

            How to approach ethical dilemmas in the great human arenas of business, human services, and politics is a matter of applied ethics. I do not judge that there is a single ethical formula for all types of action.  It appears, for instance, that in a free market society the basic norm for judging business is utilitarianism, which must be tempered by fairness, whereas in a socialist society the basic norm for judging business is fairness, which must be tempered by utilitarianism.


            In The Prince, Niccolė Machiavelli makes some striking judgments which can be interpreted as cynical and amoral.  He contends that the prince must be bad in some situations and that he can indulge in certain vices to save the state (chapter 15), that he should be miserly rather than liberal (chapter 16) and sometimes cruel rather than merciful (chapter 17), that if he cannot be both loved and feared he should choose to be feared (chapter 17), that if it is necessary to seem rather than to be merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, and religious he should do so and he must be ready to do evil if constrained to do it, and that in his actions “the end justifies the means” (chapter 18).

            These assertions, however, need to be understood against their background, which is his observation  - cynical or not - that the prince has to deal with bad people, and if he had only to deal with good people he would not have to do these things, but could do the good as he sees it (chapter 15).  Furthermore, the prince is to undertake all these bad actions for the good of the state (chapter 15).  Although we must beware of anachronisms in our understanding of Machiavelli, it does not seem inaccurate to call this a rudimentary notion of utililarianism.  He was not in a position to clarify this because the ethical norm with which he was familiar (other than the precepts of the Church) was virtue, and there was no way he could reconcile the norm we would call utility with that of virtue.  Actually, his statement that the prince is constrained to perform these bad actions (chapter 18) is as much as to say that he is not responsible for their evil, i.e., that he is absolved of  responsibility for the means because it is not within his power to change the fact that they are the means to a good end.  Thus, Machiavelli’s incitement to the prince to do these things is better understood as a case of dilemma resolution than as a conflict of norms.




            A terse statement of each ethical norm is a rule of conduct, a maxim.  As we have seen, each norm of the common Western ethical patrimony is applicable to a certain field of situations, and, within these boundaries, each is a maxim.  In the sense of Aristotelian logic each is a major premise, a principle, from which conclusions can be deduced.  This line of thinking, we have already observed, is all right as far as it goes.  Its main defect is that it cannot deal with dilemmas.  The principle I have proposed for dealing with dilemmas, however, is not of itself a norm but a means of weighing responsibility.

            Furthermore, the collection of norms of ethics does not point to a metaprinciple, a supernorm, a source ethical statement from which the norms can be deduced.  Normative statements which are so broad as to extend to all norms are so vague that they have no useful content.  Such is "Good is to be done; evil is to be avoided," which tells you nothing about how to discern good from evil.  A reading of Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 477, suggests the correlative notions that no single principle can found all ethics (possibly even no set of principles) and that deduction from ethical principles cannot solve all ethical problems.  Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge also treats this at length.

            Even the assertion  that good actions are those which unify, does not lead to the norms by way of deduction, but by way of the analysis of the components of action, by way, that is, of relationship.

            This leaves us with the possibility that some maxims might summarize, epitomize, or synthesize all or at least some of the norms.  Any such limited summaries, it is clear, would both help our minds to deal with the whole of a situation and help them grasp more aspects of it and be more aware of people who might be affected by our action.

            The foundation on which such maxims rise consists of elements which are shared by norms.  The elements which are different, such as diverse kinds of outcomes, will not help locate them, but a search for the common elements ought to do this.  It seems to me that to engage in such a search would be an interesting enterprise, and probably a fruitful one.  For the purpose of this chapter it is sufficient to treat briefly three useful general maxims.

            The first maxim is the categorical imperative.  Wrested away from Kant's own narrow methodological and psychological framework, the statement, "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" and its equivalents, speaks of the external consequences of justice, fairness, and respect as well as the internal motivation of duty, love, and pity.  To Kant the categorical imperative was more than a maxim, but from our point of view it is only a better, more generally applicable maxim than some others.  By taking Kant in this simple, obvious sense, we avoid the deontology versus consequences polemics which center on him, and which, as we have already asserted, do not correctly represent the realities of ethical action.

            Donald Walhout states a maxim which is reminiscent of the categorical imperative: "The moral standard may be expressed as follows: Act always in accordance with the requirements of prudence, loyalty, benevolence, and justice - normally in this hierarchy but allowing exceptions in priorities - and always act from agape and universal piety throughout, so that the end of maximizing perfections to the highest degree possible in the moral situation may be accomplished."  (The Good and the Realm of Values, pp. 85-86.)  The emphasis in Walhout's maxim lies on virtue, love, and perfectionism, but the virtues mentioned relate to the results of fairness and respect.  Furthermore, prudence can counsel utilitarianism.  This maxim is close to all embracing, but it is so at the expense of losing brevity and simplicity.

            The golden rule, well known in its Christian formulation, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is an ethical maxim in use since antiquity.  Ancient philosophy and folk wisdom also have various equivalent expressions of the golden rule.  (J.O. Hertzler, "On Golden Rules.")  Robert Hume showed eight variants of it from eight religious and philosophical traditions, such as "Do naught to others which, if done to thee, would cause thee pain: this is the sum of duty" (Hindu), "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others" (Confucian), "That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self"  (Zoroastrianism).  (The World's Living Religions, pp. 265-266.)

            As pointed out by commentators, the golden rule has a positive formulation, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and a negative one, "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you," but these two formulas are equivalent if they are taken not as relating to particular desires but as expressing a general moral principle that we should judge ourselves and others by the same rules, that we should not set up special rules, privileges, for ourselves at the expense of others.  Furthermore, merely taking the golden rule as an injunction to do or avoid certain actions regarding others simply because we favor or disfavor them ourselves leads to conflicts because of the diversity of desires that people can have.  Thus it has to be taken in the sense of a general ethical principle of consistency, fairness, or justice.  The reason for being concerned about this is the valuing, esteeming, or respecting of others like one's self on a basis of commonality, but this also means that we must esteem our own selves, that we must have a measure of self love as well as altruistic love (in Christian terminology, "Love your neighbor as yourself").  (A. T. Cadoux, "The Implications of the Golden Rule," Hertzler, "On Golden Rules," and Marcus Singer, "The Golden Rule.")

            Thus analyzed the golden rule expresses an understanding of the relations between self and others which enters into most - possibly all - the recognized ethical norms.  I found it useful in teaching business ethics to explain how each of the ethical norms most useful for analyzing the ethics of business situations, utility, respect, and fairness, rests on the relationships expressed by the golden rule.  This seemed to furnish the students with the conceptual link needed to see the study of the norms of business ethics as an intellectual activity and not just as a process of applying dissimilar principles one by one

            In The Golden Rule (1996), Jeffrey Wattles shows the results of a very extensive survey of the literature on the Golden Rule in English and other European languages.  He, for instance, points to similarly broad, perhaps even broader, treatises in German.  Most of the work is an historical survey, which pays due regard to Confucian, Classical Greek, and Jewish thought on the Golden Rule before it settles into detailed treatment of Christian and modern European philosophical views on it.  He takes pains to explain why the Rule, taken as a “principle” (a “maxim” in the terminology of the present chapter) has to be taken in contexts of meaning and of personal growth rather than as a metaethical principle.  He is most interested in the religious significance of the Rule (such as its relation to the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God), but this does not bias his philosophical analysis.


Examples of the ethical analysis of human activities


            Four examples will be presented here.  Two concern problems from general ethics, one treats a problem from business ethics, and the fourth deals with a complex question from health care ethics.


            The pattern of each analysis is as follows:

            Immediate source of information

            Summary of facts


            Ethical questions involved

                        Central question

                        Related questions


            Ethical analysis

                        According to consequential norms:







                        According to deontology

                        According to virtues





            In order to avoid useless verbiage, as we analyze cases we shall pass over any step of the method which is not needed and any norm which does not apply





Murder in the English language is taken to mean the unwarranted killing of another; an action which by its very nature is unethical.  Killing (another human being)  may or may not be murder.  Whichever of the two words we use as a starting point the ethical issue is the same, although in either case it can be expressed in two ways, “When is the killing of another unwarranted?” or “What warrants the killing of another?”  No end of subtlety is possible with these questions, but we will approach them in a very basic way by using our announced style of analysis.


Ethical analysis:

Eudaemonism/altruism - can the killing of a person make that person happy (whether killed by self or by another)?  Before the fact, yes;  After the fact, no (at least by the measure of observed and experienced human life)!  Furthermore, killing a person cannot make that person unhappy after the fact (once, again, by empirical observation).  Thus some acts of killing are good by these norms, although the question of whether the killing is warranted or not seems not to be touched upon by this part of the ethical analysis.


Utility - utilitarianism in its broadest, most understood form, “act” utilitarianism, readily and disconcertingly concludes that the killing of some people produces the greatest  good of the population as a whole.  In actual cases other norms contradict this exoneration of killing.


Fairness - this comes into play in the supposition that someone or some group is inevitably to be killed, that forces over which the participants judge that they have no control produce a situation in which there will be death, and the question is, whose?  Such is war, in which people assume that they are being sent to kill or be killed.  Similar is personal self-defense, in which the aggressor has set up a situation which allows him to be treated as he would treat the other person, i.e.,: to be killed.  There remains the matter of the ethics of war, but that is not the issue here.  There also remains the possibility that the individual aggressor is warranted in what he is doing, and so other norms are still needed to determine the warrantability of killing.


Respect - in our society the right to live is held to be possessed by all human beings equally.  That is to say that noone has more right to live than another, and noone has - other things being equal - authority to take away this right from another.  Moreover, a society which does not think in terms of rights can hold in the place of right that of  justice and assert that one may not take away another’s most precious possession, life, unless there is a preponderant reason for doing so.  Finally, a society which thinks neither in terms of rights nor of justice can nevertheless hold respect in a prominent position and can define the conditions under which respect is compatible with killing.  In one of these forms or another, respect is the central norm in this matter.  It is confusing, and perhaps unfortunate, that respect is not viewed the same way in all societies, but this does not mean that the idea of respect itself is relative.  Thus, the practice of exposing aged parents to the elements so that they die is perfectly compatible with a basic idea of respect, although it is not necessarily (and not usually) compatible with the more evolved ideas of respect as rights or justice.


Justice - no matter which of the notions of respect is brought into play, it is possible to assert that if a killing lacking in respect has taken place the balance of personal justice has been upset and can be restored by requiring the perpetrator to undergo a similar action.  More advanced societies restrict the right to take such action to the community.  This restriction is of itself legal rather than ethical, but the rule of law and the protection of law which it reflects are arguably good for the common welfare, and thus ethical.


Deontology - unfortunately experience teaches that many people in many times and places have killed others with a good intention that the majority of impartial observers perceive to be mistaken because these killings are bad according to other ethical norms.  Deontology is not a reliable norm in this matter.


Virtue - It seems contradictory to assert that the virtuous person, the good person, exercises goodness by killing, even if the killing is warranted.  At the most it can be said that some killings are acts of mercy or conscientiousness, but they are recognized as such not by inspection of the goodness of the actor, but by application of other ethical norms.



The essential difference between murder, unwarranted killing, and other killing lies in respect or the lack of it, although other circumstances, including the codification of respect among those involved, need to be considered in concrete cases.





For the sake of ethical analysis, to lie needs to be taken with the sense that it has in common usage.  No doctrinaire, idiosyncratic, or technical sense will do. A general and eclectic definition of lying is To lie is for a human person to express by s;eech or equivalent sign to one or more others that a certain statement of the speaker’s has the speaker’s assent whereas it does not, and this statement is made in order to deceive the other(s).  Essential to this is communication: there must be an actual or potential receiver of the message and awareness of dissonance: the speaker realizes that the statement does not state what he judges to be the case and intent of the speaker to deceive.  There are speech acts, such as story telling, in which the first two elements of the definition of lying are found, but the third is not.  We do not say that we lie when we tell a story unless we tell it expressly for the purpose of deceiving.  The same goes for flattery, although this is more closely associated with deceipt than story telling is.


Ethical analysis:

Altruism - it is conceivable that one person would deceive another in order to make the other happier.  Such an act of deception, however, has to be judged also in the light of the other ethical norms.  It could, for instance, be demeaning.


Utility - it is conceivable that a maximum of overall good could arise from a deception such as one that puts many people at ease or that makes life more bearable or that helps people acquire courage.  Such acts of deception, like those above, have to be judged also in the light of the other ethical norms.  They also could be demeaning.


Respect - deception can be demeaning, which is to say that it lacks respect, and probably this is most frequently the case.  Nevertheless, it is possible to deceive someone out of respect for that person and not necessarily to make the person happier, but, for instance, to make the person better equipped to deal with difficult situations.


Justice - in many cases of lying there is no question of justice, but if there is, then deception is unethical.  If an oath is taken, for instance, it is a matter of justice to speak accurately and not to deceive.  Even without oaths, the gravity of a situation can set up a situation in which one owes it to another to speak without deception.


Deontology - application of the consequential norms as above allows for the possibility that one is not intentionally doing evil by deceiving.  Thus deceipt is not to be branded as inherently evil by intention, athough it is sufficiently disruptive of communication that the presumption stands in favor of its being unethical.  In other words, the question is, “Why don’t you speak your mind in the normal communicative manner?”


Virtue - as might be supposed by the above analysis, benevolence can be the very mainspring of  an act of deception.  More probably, however, in the ordinary course of events, is the non-virtuous use of deception to cover up ones mistakes or to advance one’s self fraudulently.



An act of lying is presumed to be wrong, but unless it clearly violates one or more ethical norms it should be examined for its ethical possibilities.  To assert that every lie is evil is to oversimplify a complex  phenomenon of communication.




Immediate source of information:

New York Times,  “Truth or Consequences? Hardly,” by Reed Abelson, June 23, 1996.


Summary of  facts:

Some American corporations make it appear by means of legal or illegal accounting practices that they are more profitable than they are so as to please current investors and to attract new ones.  High executives of these corporations are apt to profit personally from this because of performance bonuses.  The practices narrated in the article include promising  unrecorded future discounts to customers who buy now at present prices, including as revenue sales not yet made, not deducting the value of returned goods, using  unrecorded stock warrants in place of cash payments, restructuring the corporation so as to shift large financial obligations from the time they are incurred to other times, hiding excess inventory.  Supplementary material presented in the article lists seven kinds of  accounting subterfuges: 1) recording revenue before it is earned, 2) inventing fictitious revenue, 3) bolstering income with one-time gains, 4) shifting current expenses into a future period, 5) failing to record or disclose liabilities, 6) using hidden reserves to smoothen out incomes, and 7) accelerating expenses in a special restructuring charge.



The purpose of  financial statements as treated in the article is to report to the stockholders and other investors the financial status of the corporation.  Other uses of financial statements, such as for tax and public policy purposes, are not considered.  Legality or illegality of the accounting practices is not the question in this ethical analysis except where legality and ethical goodness coincide.


Ethical questions involved:

Is it bad to issue financial statements which mix the financial representation of  accounting adjustments with that of operational gain or loss so that those for  whom  they are written are not sure of  the financial status of the corporation’s operations?  Questions secondary to this are ruled out by the clarifications stated above.  A complete treatment of the ethics of  finance and investment would have much  to say about them.


Ethical analysis:

Eudaemonism - Curiously, this is a “make people happy” scheme, although the pleasing  of stockholders and investors is done for self-centered, not altruistic reasons, and altruism can be violated by it.  Thus, although eudaemonism is in a sense present, it is not applicable as a norm.


Fairness - Although it is said in the article that all companies engage in such practices, it is not said that they all engage in comparable ways.  In fact some are notoriously more prone to these practices than are others.  Thus two corporations can have the same situation but report it differently, one clearly and the other unclearly, to the detriment of the more clearly reporting one.  And so, fairness is violated.


Respect - Concern for respect is perhaps best termed as respect for the rights of the stockholders and other investors.  The existing stockholders certainly have a right to be told with exactness the status of the corporation if they are to be told about it at all.  The right derives from the relation of the corporation to the stockholders, who are its guarantors as well as its beneficiaries.  This right is violated by the practices in question.


Justice - The consideration of justice applies here to future contracts of buying and selling which will be based on a distorted understanding of the status of the corporation.  Because of these practices such contracts will be flawed and unjust ethically  whether or not they are treated as such legally.


Virtue - What kind of people are responsible for these practices?  Evidently , except for first-time perpetrators or ingenuous businesspeople, they are people who place business relationships above human relationships.  While they may be beneficent toward some persons, they lose the guidance of conscientiousness.  Furthermore, regardless of the outcome of these practices, fiduciary trust has been placed in the corporations and those who present their financial status, and this trust is betrayed by them, another lack of conscientiousness.



The practices presented in the article are unethical, which is shown by the way they violate several diverse ethical norms.




Immediate source of information:

”In Hospital Sales, an Overlooked Side Effect,” by Tamar Lewin with Martin Gottlieb, New York Times, April 27, 1997.


Summary of facts:

Large for-profit health care corporations in the United States have been buying smaller not-for-profit hospitals .  When such a sale occurs, according to American law, the proceeds  “must be put to charitable use, to repay the public for years of tax exemptions and donations.”  It has happened that no apparent effort was made to establish a fair market price for the sale of such hospitals and there was no profit at all where there was reason to think that there should have been profit.  When there are proceeds from the sale they are placed into a new or existing charitable foundation, but in many instances the directors of the foundation are the former hospital administrators, the persons who negotiated the sale. In many of the transactions the for-profit corporation buys half interest in the hospital and takes over the administration completely.  This leads to possible conflict between the interests of the hospital and those of the foundation.  Furthermore, the type of charity undertaken by some of these foundations has nothing to do with health care, the premise under which the not-for-profit status had been secured.  No accusation has yet been made that any of these transactions has been illegal, but the federal government and several state governments have begun to pay attention to pending ones, contending that in the public interest they need to monitor them and act if warranted.



This phenomenon arises out of the tax exempt status of not-for-profit hospitals in American law, a legal matter that carries ethical responsibilities.  The article does not question the quality of health care delivered by any of the organizations involved and it does not question the system of treating health care organizations as business entities; these are matters which can be analyzed ethically, but not in the case at hand.


Ethical questions:

            1.  Is the tax law about the proceeds of the sale of not-for-profit hospitals ethically good?

            2.  Is it ethically incumbent on those who negotiate such sales to secure fair market value for them?

            3.  Is it ethical for hospital administrators who negotiate the sales to become officers in the resulting foundations?

            4.  Is it ethically necessary that the foundations established by these transactions be exclusively or at least mainly for health care?

            5.  If only a half interest in the hospital is sold how can conflict between the interests of the foundation and those of the new health care facility be avoided?

            The information given in the article is not sufficient to define the relationships between the unsold half of the hospital, the health care corporation, and the foundation, and so no ethical analysis of this question will be attempted here.



These questions lay themselves out as a sequence of ethical implications of the not-for-profit status.  Instead of a central ethical issue and related issues there are immediate implications and further ones, some of which seem to have been newly discovered.  Our procedure will be to go from the most immediate to the most mediate as the sequence of questions presents itself


Ethical analysis:

            1.  Is the tax law about the proceeds of the sale of not-for-profit hospitals ethically good?  Would it be wrong not to have such a law?


Utilitarianism - a clear instance of utility: the law works to have the maximum public good secured.  Such a law could be dispensed with only if customs or other powerful agents served the same purpose


Fairness - application of the law seems to base distribution of the benefits of the proceeds in the communities where the public good is in question, and this is fair.  If the public good elsewhere were to be served fairness would be lacking.


Justice - to whom should the proceeds go?  Because of the legal nature of the organization nobody has a claim to them.  Even the taxing authority (mainly the federal government) has by law recognized that there are no profits.  Thus commutative justice, quid pro quo justice, is not an issue here, although distributive justice, fairness, is a concern, as above.


Virtue - conscientiousness as a public virtue is present here: a government trying to observe fairness and maximize utility. 



The law is certainly good, and if it did not exist there would need to be some forceful substitute for it.


            2.  Is it ethically incumbent on those who negotiate such sales to secure fair market  value for them?  the maximum obtainable for them?


Utilitarianism - in a free market society utility is observed by obtaining fair market value.  Obtaining less than this can be considered not to be a disutility if it is negligible in the overall market.  The amounts of proceeds involved in this phenomenon, however, are far from negligible, and their utility demands that at least fair market value be secured.  There are standard procedures of bidding and selecting that must be applied to ensure this.  Obtaining the maximum for them, however, introduces extraneous factors which are not integral to overall utility.


Respect - respect as rights is not an issue here (although  justice is; see below), but respect in its basic sense of honoring others and their accomplishments is a consideration because selling for less than fair market value demeans the effort and status of those who labored to build up the facility to have the value that it did.


Justice - the individuals who negotiate the sale of such a facility are not its owners; they are agents, and the position of an agent is to act on behalf of the facility and secure for it its due.  If they sell for less than fair market price they fail in justice.  Negotiating to obtain the maximum profit in the sale, however, is not more just than obtaining the fair market price.


Virtue - acting as an able agent is a matter of conscientiousness.



The common ethics of the free market system and the added respect due the persons who labored for the facility demand that fair market value be obtained.  They do not require more than that, although obtaining more does not of itself violate any ethical norm and may demonstrate a higher degree of respect.


            3.  Is it ethical for hospital administrators who negotiate the sales to become officers in the resulting foundations?


Fairness - if there is a competition among qualified persons and the former administrators are selected by impartial  persons, fairness is secured.    Otherwise the fairness of the process is at least suspect and would have to be verified in each individual instance.


Respect - the persons who sell the hospital do not thereby gain a title to respect.  Because of their knowledge and skills, however, they may lay claim to respect either as being capable of directing the foundation or of directing the hospital itself as a unit of the health care corporation.  This would have to be examined in each instance.


Virtue - Loyalty, which has aspects of  both benevolence and conscientiousness, and which would work to the good of the foundation or the hospital, could be strong in these persons.  This would not be assumed, but should be demonstrable if present, and if it is found, it could lead also to loyalty as a feature of the selection process..



As long as fairness is observed, there is no conflict of interest in this action, and there may be characteristics of the negotiators which make them particularly suited for these positions.


            4.  Is it ethically necessary that the foundations established by these transactions be exclusively or at least mainly for health care?


Fairness - the foundation distributes funds which have their origin in savings in the delivery of health care and in related activities.  By related activities we refer to the close relationship that has often existed between not-for-profit hospitals and the social and economic needs of their clients.  These were the needs of the “whole person,” and not just medical problems.  Distribution of foundation funds for such needs is consonant with the former relationship, although secondary to it, as provision for these needs was previously secondary.


Respect - respect for persons who contributed to the non-profit hospitals as such, that is, with charitable intent, is observed by funding the same kinds of activities which were in or associated with the non-profit hospitals.



The foundations should help health care primarily, but can also help poor and otherwise needy persons.  They should not be involved in activities unrelated to the mission of the not-for-profit hospitals, although this allows some latitude with regard to particular hospitals, not all of which reached out in as many ways as they might have.





            The philosophers of India, ancient, medieval, and modern, have dealt with a broad range of  philosophical questions. Currents and schools of Indian philosophy are numerous and complex, and, of course, sweeping generalizations about Indian philosophy as a whole are no more valid than sweeping generalizations about Western or European philosophy as a whole.  Nevertheless, there is in Indian philosophy a definite worldview, an original position,  which can be distinguished from that of Western philosophy, and this shapes its subsequent development.  Both streams of thought begin to develop answers to the basic questions of philosophy by considering how to account for the problems of the One versus the Many and of Permanence versus Change.  While Plato and Aristotle brought forth forms and sense objects, substance and accidents, which gave rise to later distinctions like essence and existence, universals and particulars, noumena and phenomena, their Indian contemporaries began from the distinction between All and the manifestations of the All.  The Indian approach dealt more directly with the One and the Many, placing the problem of Permanence and Change in the background.

            Aside from its many fascinating details, the main thesis of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. is that onto a background of sun and moon cults, and hunting and agricultural mythologies there arose, embedded in written language in connection with, and providing a justification for, society and rulers, around B.C. 3200 in Sumer a conceptual explanation of the relationship between man, his world, and the source of the world.  Rather quickly the general lineaments of the explanation took several forms, deriving from the notion that all somehow proceeds from the One.  To the East (of Persia) the All was thought to remain the One, but to the West it was thought to be distinct. This was expressed in the mythologies and theologies of the principal cultures, each in its way articulating the relationships between God, Cosmos, and Man.

            Another apparent difference between the original philosophical inspiration of India compared with that of the Greeks was the religiousness of the former.  Whereas Greek philosophy was distinct from Greek religious thought, Indian philosophical thought was and is never far from its religious basis.  Properly speaking, however, since the Indians were quite able to distinguish philosophical from religious thought, it is better to say that the source of the Indian philosophical ideas was more closely linked to religion than was the source of Greek philosophical ideas.  Ever since then Westerners have had difficulty in distinguishing Indian philosophy from Indian religion, but this problem also occurred in Western philosophy, particularly from the time that the Christian worldview became generally accepted.

            Sanskrit, the language of the Indian scriptures, was a living language through the period of the composing of the earliest sacred text, the Rigveda (1200-1000 B.C.) and down to the time of its crystalization by the great grammarian Panini (4th century B.C.)  Its evolution, however, was consciously decelerated before Panini in an effort to preserve the integrity of the sacred texts.  With Panini the so called classical Sanskrit came into being and remained the language of Hindu thought. (Burrow, p. 36.)

            As an Indo-European language, Sanskrit shares its basic structure with Greek and Latin and, to a lesser extent, with the Germanic languages.  Sanskrit grammar: declensions, conjugations, gender and number; syntax: the ways that sentences are put together and related to one another are altogether familiar to the knowing user of these other languages, in spite of the fact that its alphabet is dissimilar from theirs.  From this we should not anticipate that the particular genius of this language would lead to philosophical analyses and syntheses appreciably different from those of the other languages.  Even so, one could at least wonder if differences like the following two might not have some implications for the way that classical Sanskrit describes the world:  (1) Referring to later classical Sanskrit (toward 500 A.D.): "The nominal phrase in which the meaning is expressed by the juxtaposition of subject and predicate, without any verb becomes increasingly popular.  This is particularly so in the philosophic liiterature, and since that language also favours long compounds, we may find long passages of exposition in which the only grammar consists of a few case inflections of abstract nouns." (Burrow, p. 56)  (2) "The derivation of nouns by means of krt and taddhita affixes has become a well established theory, and an interesting argument between [post Panini grammarians] Sakatayana and Gargya is reported as to whether all nouns can be derived in this way from verbal roots.  The former maintained that they could, and in spite of the cogent arguments on the other side advanced by Gargya, this was the theory that generally held the field in Sanskrit grammatical theory.  It is a fact that a larger proportion of the Sanskrit vocabulary is capable of such analysis than is the case in most languages."  (Burrow, p. 48.)

            In the present essay I quote Sanscrit words exactly as they are written - in italics or not - but without the diacritical marks which are so common in them.  Where I use a Sanscrit word outside a quote I adhere to the most common English language usage (Upanishads, for instance, not Upanisads; Shankara, not Samkara).

            The source of the Indian worldview and therefore of the philosophies which arise from it is Scripture, that is, the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.  There are other Scriptures, but they are of lesser influence.  A not too short, not too long explanation of this is in chapters 2 to 4 of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western.

            “But what is Scripture?  It is nothing but the product of the sustained thinking and mature reflection, superb inspiration and profound realization of saints and prophets.  To them, to those extraordinary minds [page break] that are wiser and purer than our own, nothing is a sealed book, and even transcendental truths are known directly through intuition or super-developed power of reasoning....  [W]ithout the help of the sages who themselves directly realized the truth, ordinary individuals can never hope to learn of God....  [E]ven in the case of ordinary men, the Indian philosophers insist on the need of manana or reflection and logical reasoning, after sravana or acquisition of philosophical truth from Scripture.  After that, there should be nididhyasana, constant meditation for direct realization of that truth, first acquired, on trust, from Scripture and then logically tested.” (Roma Chaudhuri in History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, pp. 341-2.)

            In harmony with the common sources of religion and philosophy in India, philosophy, even as it is distinguished from religion, has remained until this day a closely knit fabric of principles and practice.  As Karl Potter expresses it, “In Indian thought, as in classical and medieval Western thought, the theoretical and the practical function in close harmony -- as opposed to the Western position in contemporary times, where there are on the one hand detailed analyses of theoretical problems with no indications of their relevance to practical concerns, and on the other anxious reflections on life’s problems without any systematic attention to the investigation of the nature of things.”  (Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, p. 45.)

            Again, “In India, philosophy has always been regarded as an intellectual attempt to synthesize the sciences and as an ethical effort to realize the highest reality or attain Moksa.  Philosophy is not merely a speculation, nor is it indifferent to science and analysis. But along with its intellectual acumen and scientific analysis, it also pays equal attention to the practical aim of philosophic thinking, which is nothing short of spiritual-realization, having attained which the aspirant rises above all contradiction, thereby giving proper place to sciences, philosophy, and mysticism.”  (I. C. Sharma, Ethical Philosophies of India, p. 194.)

            Another aspect of Indian philosophy is that  “Indians are by their very nature metaphysicians; no school or system without metaphysics, or with an unsound or weak meta-] page break [ physics, can flourish long in the land of spiritualism and sages, whose very sagacity and greatness lay in unveiling the metaphysical mystery through Darsana, or direct perception of the ultimate reality.”  The author goes on to say that this accounts for the disappearance of Buddhism from India.  (Sharma, Ethical Philosophies of India, pp. 125-126.)

            To return to the worldview of the Indian scriptures and the oneness of the universe: all things are one and, especially, all humans are individually and severally one along with the rest.  We can accept this assertion in three ways, 1) religiously, as a mystery to be accepted unquestioningly, the implications of which are to be drawn out within the confines of religion, 2) intuitively, as an infinitely profound statement that can be contemplated limitlessly without intellectual elucidation, and 3) philosophically, as an intellectual content that can be analyzed in order to show the relationships between the one and the many, which we know from experience.  Of course we can accept the primary statement in all three of these ways




            The just mentioned second way of accepting oneness points to the key function of intuition in Indian epistemology.  Indians, like other philosophers, describe intuition as the direct knowledge of that which is there to be known, without an intermediate process of sensing or reasoning .  This concept of intuition plays a very large role in Indian religion, and in this context it tends to resemble mysticism as found in many religions.  Beyond this, however, it is generally characteristic of Indian philosophy, in contrast to Western philosophy, where it is encountered only here and there.

            From the above it is clear that the basic epistemological question posed in Indian philosophy is not something like, “What are the conditions whereby knowledge is assuredly true,” but is more like, “How does knowledge of the Many relate to knowledge of the One.”  Furthermore, unlike Western philosophy, which has gradually assumed the position that there is no ontology unless it is preceded by a satisfactory epistemology, Indian philosophy is satisfied that it possesses from the beginning a basic ontological position, and the role of epistemology is subsidiarily to clarify that position.


            It is nevertheless helpful to have an understanding of the Indian notion of the unknown, which is stated by D.M. Datta like this:

            Philosophy, like every other branch of knowledge, must necessarily be limited to the discussion of what falls within consciousness, immediate and mediate.  Our notion of existence is derived from what is manifest in perception, inference, imagination, etc., i.e. from the known, in the widest sense of the term.  Our notion of reality is obtained, as we say, by a further sifting of the known with the criterion of non-contradiction.  Yet it will be dogmatic to conclude that the known is all.  Our curiosity about the unknown remains and goads us to increase the bounds of knowledge.

            Some philosophers point out that there is nothing beyond knowledge and that what is called the unknown or the unknowable must [p.310] also enter the domain of knowledge in order that it may be so referred to.  The reply to such a puzzling argument would be that in order to be able to refer to the unknown it is sufficient if it is known that it is not known.  In other words we must at least distinguish between the knowledge of something as unknown from the ordinary knowledge of something as known, and widen thus the ordinary meaning of ‘knowledge’.  This wider knowledge, the consciousness of the known and the unknown, can, therefore, be regarded as the matrix out of which definite knowledge emerges.

            It is not reasonable, therefore to deny the unknown.  The unknown must be recognised as somehow marking the limit of every definite knowledge.  If we carefully attend to the emergence of positive consciousness we can realize that our ideas take definite shape out of an indefinite background.  Like a search-light our positive attention reveals things out of a surrounding gloom, that is, the unknown, about which we cannot make any assertion, except that it is beyond grasp.

            Now, if “absolute” be the name that we may like to give to the all-inclusive that covers the known and the unknown, we cannot say that it is wholly amenable to the categories of thought.  In so far as this enters the logical pale of definite and systematic thought it assumes a logical character; but even the whole of what enters definite consciousness is not logical or real, as we have previously seen.

            Philosophy tries to know reality by reasoning that obeys the laws of logic.  But it should only bear in mind the limits of human knowledge and logical thought.  The moral effect of such an attitude on philosophy would be humility that would prepare the mind for new and unexpected revelations of the absolute and remove cocksureness which more than anything else stands in the way of the attainment of truth.  As in religion so also in philosophy the self, as a knower and reasoner, has to recognise its limitations and helplessness, and ultimately surrender itself to the Absolute for sharing as much of it as the Absolute chooses to reveal.(D.M.Datta in Contemporary Indian Philosophy, p. 309-310.)




            When it comes to ontology itself, it is important for the Western student to appreciate the subtlety of the Indian philosophical explanations of the relationship between the One and the Many. There are five recognized schools of thought in the Vedanta or mainstream of Indian philosophy which accepts the Oneness of the universe from the Upanishads.  As expressed by Roma Chadhuri,

            “There are five main schools of the Vedanta, viz. Samkara’s “Kevaladvaita-vada” or strict Monism, Ramanuja’s “Visistadvaita-vada”or qualified Monism, Nimbarka’s “Dvaitadvaita-vada” or Dualism-Monism,  Madhva’s “Dvaita-vada” or Dualism, and Vallabha’s “Suddhadvaita-vada” or pure Monism.  The main question here is as to the relation between Unity and plurality, God and the world: Whether there is a relation of absolute non-difference (abheda) or absolute difference (bheda) or both (bhedabheda) between them.  Briefly, according to Samkara, Brahman alone is true, the world is false, so that the latter is absolutely non-different from the former.  According to Ramanuja,  the world is real like Brahman, and both non-different and different from it, but here the stress is more on non-difference.  According to Nimbarka, too, the world is real and both non-different and different from Brahman, but here stress is equally on both non-difference and difference.  According to Madhva, the world is absolutely different from Brahman.  According to Vallabha, the world is real and non-different from Brahman.”  (History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, p. 343.)

            From a Western point of view, the most extreme of the five Vedanta schools is that of the 8th century philosopher Shankara, who is considered the greatest philosopher of the Indian Middle Ages. His strict monism logically entails the view that the world is mithya or illusory in contrast to Brahman, the One.  Nevertheless,  “What Sankara tries to point out is that the world as the Vivarta [vivarta: an effect that is different from its cause] of Brahman is neither absolutely real because it is just a Vivarta nor is it abolutely unreal because it is not imaginary like the horns of a hare or like the son of a barren woman.  It is therefore relatively real. As compared with the imaginary entities like the horns of a hare it is real, but as compared with the Absolute Reality of Brahman it turns out to be as false as the snake apears to be false when the man under the illusion becomes conscious of the underlying reality of the rope.” (Sharma, p. 252.)

            Shankara’s notion of a monism which includes relationships cries out for explanation.   “Though Samkara said that the world was maya and was due to maya, and though some of his followers were more or less satisfied with that statement and turned their gaze towards the inner absolute Reality, most of them could not resist the urge for a conceptual construction of the world even on the basis of the concept of maya.  The latter treated maya, not as a concept of value, but as a principle of explanation and creation.  However mysterious it may be, its working must have a method, which they wanted to grasp rationally.

            Maya indeed means inexplicability.  But because it was used as a concrete term and because of its association with prakrti, which is the root cause of the world, some followers of Samkara felt that, along with the Brahman it should somehow be the explanatory principle of the causation of the world. (P.T. Raju, in History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, p. 292.)

            Although the other Vedanta schools of philosophy are not pure monisms their explanations of why the Many are and are not distinct from the One are sufficiently similar that they share the same flow of thought from ontology to ethics.  Although ours is a brief treatment of general Indian ontology, we can, however, note the thought of a modern Indian philosopher, S.K. Maitra, as representative of the heuristic value of the Vedanta position.  Maitra says about the nature of reality,  “It was the bane of contemporary Western philosophy that the real problems of philosophy were lost sight of in the controversy relating to the claims of the rival human faculties to the knowledge of truth.  The true problem of philosophy was: What was the nature of reality?  Was it existence or was it consistency or was it something else:  Bergson threw consistency to the winds, whereas, for Hegel, consistency expressed the true character of reality.  The view to which I was gravitating was that there was one dimension of reality which was hidden from the gaze of both these philosophers or at least to which they had not paid sufficient attention, which really [p. 385] contained the essence of reality.  That was the dimension of value.  This was also, I felt, the central teaching of the Upanishads, which had insisted upon calling reality satyasya satyam, the truth of truth, thereby indicating that it was not to be identified with the surface reality of existence.  So also, another explicit statement of the Upanishads, ‘naisa tarkena matirapaneya,’ ‘this knowledge cannot be obtained by reason,’ expressed clearly that it could not be identified with consistency.  What it was, was indicated in the systematised Vedanta by the word Saccidananda.  This conception of Saccidananda was perhaps the grandest achivement of our ancient culture.

            “It was a condensed formula which indicated more tersely than anything else could, the essential nature of reality.  It showed that there were three dimensions of reality, namely, Sat or the dimension of existence, Cit or the dimension of consciousness or reason, and Ananda or the dimension of bliss or value.  The whole standpoint which looked upon Reality as Saccidananda might be called the standpoint of Reality as Value.  All reality had these three dimensions.  To regard reality as only Sat or existence was to take a one-sided view of it.  So also. to look upon it as merely Cit was equally one-sided.  Again to take it as mere Ananda was to forget that it must be existent and must be brought into contact with our reason or logic”.  (Contemporary Indian Philosophy, pp. 384-5.)

            The Buddhist worldview derives from the Hindu one, but it is properly speaking neither monistic nor non-monistic, because it has freed itself totally from Upanishadic and any other kind of ontology.  Its three presuppositions are pessimism (universal suffering), positivism (nothing beyond the sphere of perception and reason; repudiation of the Vedas and rituals), and pragmatism (preference for the middle course, which is between sensual indulgence and rigorous asceticism.  (Sharma, pp. 155-8.)  Still, if one wishes to emphasize Indian philosophy rather then Hindu philosophy, Buddhism needs to be treated explicity.  Thus Pandit Tigunait in Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy.

            One final observation about general Indian ontology is that its treatment of good is much different from that of Western philosophy.  Ever since Socrates tested the idea of the good in Plato’s dialogs, the notion that there is a standard according to which all in the world is judged permeates Western thought.  India, however, did not develop its philosophy out of Socrates and Plato.  Taking inspiration from the Rig-Veda, it acknowledges a structure in reality which is compatible with its oneness: rta, the cosmic order. (Basham p. 102)   Preserving or restoring this cosmic order is the task of gods in popular Indian religion and of humans in Indian philosophy.  Actions which achieve this end are called good by Indians, and we also can properly call them that as long as we are aware of the difference between this notion of good and the Western notion of it.


Philosophy of people and society


            Passing into Indian philosophy of human beings and their society, we are struck first and foremost by the insistence on the identity of humans with the One. “Tat tvam asi,” “That thou art,” and “Atman [the human soul, spirit, or essence] is Brahman [the One]” are to be taken quite literally.  Humans’ greatest problem and obstacle is avidya, or ignorance about our true status, and our task is to dispel this ignorance so that we are free to enjoy the One in us.  Out ultimate condition is called moksa, or liberation.  The attainment of moksa is expected to be a very long process extending over many lifetimes through the rebirth of the soul in a series of other individuals until its karma or accumulated worth is great enough to entitle it to moksa.

            Not only does Indian philosophy not dissociate the practical from the theoretical, but it sets out explicitly to dispel avidya.  Therefore it is correct to say, “Human well-being is the goal of Indian philosophy, whether it is to be attained through the logical exposition of Nyaya, through the atomic analysis of the material world on the part of the Vaisesika system, through the acceptance of the evolutionary nature of the universe, ending in the emancipation of the self from the material Prakriti, through the spiritual discipline of the Yoga, through the Karma Kanda, the activistic view of the Mimamsa, or, lastly, through the saving knowledge of Brahman as advocated by the Vedanta.”  (Sharma, p. 179.)

            In the process leading from our present condition to moksa there are four values or ends of life, ideals for us:  “The four Purusarthas [purusartha: end or desire] are (1) Artha, or wealth, (2) Kama, or satisfaction of desires, (3) Dharma, or moral duty, and (4) Moksa, or spiritual perfection or liberation.”  Artha and Kama are proper in the earlier stages of one’s life, but at a certain point one must move to dharma in order eventually to qualify for moksa.  (Sharma, p. 78)

            There is one variant of Indian thought which offers earlier Moksa: Buddhism:  “The Upanisadic notion of Brahman, as transcendental existence, into which the individual soul or Atman is merged at the attainment of Moksa has simply been reasserted by the Buddha in propounding the concept of Nirvana.  What the Buddha added was that this indescribable state of Moksa was in fact experienced by him and could be experienced by each and every individual.”  (Sharma, p. 167.)

            A final question about the Indian philosophy of people and society:  if the perception that there are many distinct human individuals is really an illusion to be dispelled by higher knowledge, then how can there be a subject to whom ethical actions and their consequences can be ascribed?  This is a question to be answered not by Western phenomenology, but on Indian principles, by pointing to the subtlety of the Indian position that the world, though mithya, is real in its way.  (David Cooper poses the question, but not an answer, in World Philosophies, pp. 51-52.)




Descriptive Approach to Indian Ethics


            The sources of Indian ethics are the same scriptures that are the sources of Indian philosophy.  Furthermore the scriptures contain many explicit ethical injunctions and evaluations which can be considered concretely as they stand without analysis according to the philosophical principles which link them.  If we read the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita we see certain ethical themes over and over again. I reduce to the following rather broad categories virtually innumerable statements from the Indian scriptures and from commentaries on them:


                        Control of sensual tendencies

                        Tranquillity or contentment of mind


                        Positive attitude (compassion, gentleness, tolerance, forgiveness and the                             like) toward other human individuals

                        Respect for the property of others

            As examples of actions considered ethical in the Vedas we can cite: “Rigveda as well as Atharva Veda mention honesty, rectitude, fellow-feeling, charity, non-violence, truthfulness, modesty, agreeable speech, Brahmacarya (celibacy), religious conviction, and purity of heart as the important virues that are praiseworthy.”  (Sharma, pp. 72-3.)

            A list of “moral accomplishments” found in the epic Mahabharata is considered to be a list of kinds of truth:   “Truth has been described to be of thirteen kinds   (1) truth as equality, (2) as self-restraint, (3) as absence of jealousy, (4) as forgiveness, (5) as shamefulness, (6) as patience, (7) as tendency to non-injury, (8) as self-sacrifice, (9) as meditation, (10) as tendency to do good to others, (11) as unperturbed ability, (12) as kindness and (13) as non-injury.  Almost all the moral accomplishments, having a social bearing, have been included in the category of truth.” (Dasgupta, p. 36, citing the Udyogaparva, Ch. 37,17.)

            That portion of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita is considered to be the greatest exposition of Hindu morality.  In general the ethics proposed in it are too closely linked to the Indian ethical norms which we have yet to treat for it to present simple lists of approved actions, but one passage clearly names a number of virtues: “Intelligence, spiritual vision, victory over delusion, patient forgiveness, truth, self-harmony, peacefulness, joys and sorrows, to be and not to be, fear and freedom from fear, harmlessness and non-violence, an everquietness, saisfaction, simple austerity, generosity, honour and dishonour: these are the conditions of mortals and they all arise from me {Krishna]”.  (Bhagavad Gita, 10, 4-5.)

            Among ancient schools of Indian thought Buddhism, as is well known even among Westerners, emphasises compassion, which it proposes as the proper stance to take in view of the great suffering of the world and the circle of birth and rebirth in which humans are trapped.  Compassion has the power to break the circle and allow liberation. 

            Jainism, another ancient, but small school that is amazingly resilient, is known to call for extreme asceticism for a reason which can be expressed quite briefly:  “Strong diseases require strong remedies; even so the sufferings, disease, fear, famine, death and destruction which caused untold miseries could be stopped or prevented only by attaining Nirvana, freedom from from rebirth and transmigration.  This strong feeling made Mahavira [6th century BC, founder of Jainism]advocate an abrupt renunciation and the strictest possible ascetic life for the aspirant.” (Sharma, p.124.)

            Non-violence carried to its extreme is the signature of the most notable Indian of modern times, Mohandas K. Gandhi.  The depth of the philosophical/religious has been explained as follows:  “Usually the metaphysical aspect of non-violence is lost sight of, and people are misled to believe that Gandhi preached the pacifistic philosophy of meekness and non-resistance. If somebody slaps you on the left cheek, turn your right cheek towards him.  There is no doubt that Gandhi was influenced by Christian ethics and that he was a true living Christian in one sense.  But he was more a mystic in the practical sense and had realized through experience that non-violent behaviour, when inspired from the innermost recess of the human personality, is mightier than the mightiest weapons on the face of the earth because then it rises from the central force, the spirit of man, which is in fact the central reality and the central truth, God.  That is why he identified non-violence with truth and the truth with all-pervasive God.  If God as truth is the basis and the background of the universe and man, the only way to Godliness is the life of non-violence and love, and hence God, Life, Truth and Love are identical, and all are again the ultimate Good.”....  (Sharma, p. 327.)  “Gandhi never explained his notion of liberation or Moksa, because his aim, like that of the Buddha, was not metaphysical exposition, but practical eradication of suffering, the well-being of humanity.”  (Sharma, p.330.)

            Carvaka is an ancient school of Indian thought that went against all the others by asserting pure materialism. Recognizing only the first two purusarthas, artha and kama,  Carvaka ethics is a logically consequent hedonism.  (Sharma, p. 109.)


Ethical Norms


            Two basic norms of ethics arise from Indian philosophy of people and society.  The one is the dispelling of avidya, and so anything that facilitates seeing the truth and avoiding illusion is ethical (we shall deliberately avoid saying good lest we introduce the Western point of view that we associate with the concept of good).  The role of this norm is is so evident from almost everything written about Indian ethics that it has been supposed that it is the only Indian ethical norm.

            The very concept of  moksa, liberation, becomes explicit in the Upanishads {S} Sharma, p. 88.  The ethical content of the Upanishads consists principally of teaching about the actions which are necessary in order to prepare one for liberation, such as self-renunciation (Tapas), charity or philanthropy (Dana), right conduct )Arjavam), non-violence (Ahimsa) and adherence to truth (Satya Vacanam).  (Sharma, p. 93.)

            The school of Yoga provides techniques that lead toward seeing the truth and avoiding illusion.  Thus, “It is only when the mind is absolutely free from mental modifications and is at the Niruddha level that the complete control of body, mind, senses and the ego is attained, and the yogin experiences calmness of mind.  At the Niruddhavastha there is complete cessation of mental modifications, and the state of Samadhi aroused thereby is called Asamprajnata Samadhi, in which nothing is known or thought by the mind.  It should be remembered that the cessation of mental modifications, and the absence of any object or thought in the Asamprajnata Samadhi, is in fact indicative of its positive aspect as the highest knowledge of the self, which cancels the relative knowledge of objects and other thoughts.”  (Sharma, p. 207.)

                        “The Yoga system admits the following five Yamas or restraints;

                                    (1) Non-violence, or Ahimsa;

                                    (2) Truthfulness, or Satya;

                                    (3) Non-stealing, or Asteya;

                                    (4) Continence, or Brahmcarya and

                                    (5) Non-possession, or Aparigraha” (Sharma, p. 208)

            Shankara states something similar.  “Samkara explains that the antecedent conditions without which no one is authorized to enter upon the knowledge of Brahman, are four.  The first prerequisite for a spiritual aspirant is designated ‘Sadasad Viveka’, i.e. discrimination between the permanent and the impermanent nature of things.  The second qualification is freedom from attachment to sensual pleasures whether here in the material world or hereafter.  The third qualification is the cultivation of virtues like peace of mind, self-control, endurance, alertness and faith (Sraddha).  The fourth prerequisite of an aspirant is a strong desire, or yearning for Moksa.  This explanation of Samkara is usually overlooked by those who wrongly believe that he derides or derogates action or morality in comparison with the knowledge of Brahman.”  (Sharma, p. 256.)

            The other norm is dharma.  While it is true that dharma has a number of closely related meanings in Indian philosophy, the meaning here is, according to Arthur Basham, “Dharma, the religious and social duty of a good Hindu, is the common thread running through Hinduism.  The origins of dharma lie in the Rg-vedic concept of rta, the course of things or the cosmic order, the maintenance of which was entrusted to the god Varuna.  Derived from the sanskrit root dhr -- to bear, to support, to maintain -- the word dharma has the literal meaning of that which is established, that is, law, duty, or custom.  The concept pertained to everything that was right and proper for a member of the Aryan community,”  (Basham, p. 102.)

            It is important to recognize the ontology behind the notion of dharma.  Without it, one might well accuse Indians of a superficial ethics of caste and caste duties in every part of their lives except their conscious efforts to dispel avidya.  With it, one can understand why natural actions such as seeking well-being and pleasure (artha and kama) are ethical unless they are carried too far.

            While we need to be aware of the philosophical basis of dharma as a norm we do not have to ignore the fact that the ethics of the Vedas reflected the customs of the society which produced them.  “It is quite evident from the study of the Vedas that the early Aryans did recognize the family as a unit and did enjoin upon every member of the family to do his duty conscientiously.  The members of a family, particularly husband and wife, ought to have mutual respect and love, according to the ethics of the Vedas.  The sons and daughters in the same manner must have ]page break[ respect for parents and ought to obey their orders.  The members of the family must be polite and respectful to each other.  The wife’s status was held to be very high, and a woman was often allowed to choose her husband.  It may be mentioned, however, that polygamy was thought moral and polyandry immoral in Vedic times.”  (Sharma, p. 73-4.)

            There is a third norm of ethical conduct in Indian thought.  It derives, not from the philosophy of people and society, but directly from ontology:  “Standing on the rock of the spiritual oneness of the universe, Vedanta explains the basis of Ethics.  If we injure, hate or cheat others, we injure, hate or cheat ourselves first.  For this spiritual oneness we should love our neighbours as ourselves.  Because love means the expression of oneness.  When we begin to love others as we love our own self, we are truly ethical.  Then we do not think that we have fulfilled the highest end and aim of life by eating, drinking and begetting children like lower animals, but that the fulfilment of the purpose of life consists in loving others disinterestedly without seeking any return of love as we love our own self.  Animal nature, which is extremely selfish, must be conquered by moral nature through unselfish love for the real Self of others.”  (Swami Abhedananda in Contemporary Indian Philosophy, p. 62.)

            Another contemporary statement of this idea:  M.K. Gandhi was asked to write a statement about his religion, and in so doing he states the basis, both religious and philosophical, of his ethics:  “The bearing of this religion on social life is, or has to be, seen in one’s daily social contact.  To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life.  Realisation of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in, and identification with, this limitless ocean of life.  Hence, for me, these is no escape from social service, there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it.  Social service here must be taken to include every department of life.  In this scheme there is nothing low, nothing high.  For, all is one, though we seem to be many.”  (Contemporary Indian Philosophy, p. 21.)

            Another  modern application of this idea is that of Vivekananda (1863-1902).  “One great innovation which Vivekananda introduced into the order [of Ramakrishna] is compulsory social service which every novice had to do before becoming a monk (samnyasin); and many do it even afterwards.  Vivekananda got the idea from the Christian missions.  Service of the poor is called the worship of daridra-narayana (God as the poor), which is an application of the ancient truth that the Divine resides in every man.”  (P. T. Raju in History of Philosophy Eastern and Western, p. 529.)


            “The criteria of moral judgment [ in the Ramayana epic}appear to consist in (1) consideration for the other world, (2) regard of the elite, (3) effect on other people’s morals, and (4) one’s own conscience and self-respect.”  (Tarapada Chowdhury in History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, p. 80.)  It seems to me  that only the last of these introduces normative content that differs substantially from the three norms I have just noted, and this last one is not so much a norm as a statement about the existence of the moral subject.

            Having established the Indian norms of ethics, we can rather readily understand that the norm of relationship to liberation is the principal one of them, the one to which the others are subservient.  Yet the others are not to be slighted, and many statements about the ethical person in Indian philosophy explicitly include all three.  As a matter of fact, to Indians the primary division of ethics is not exactly according to the norms, but according to the three paths, contemplation, action, and devotion.  The last of these denotes a strong religious orientation, and the first two call for a practical mixture in the individual of the search for truth (removal of avidya) and the effort to live as a whole human being in society.  One frequently encounters the three paths in the Indian Scriptures and commentaries on them.

            Again,  “It is due to the prejudicial viewpoint of Indian ethics adopted by some, perhaps most, western scholars that Indian morality is identified with asceticism, other-worldliness, and withdrawal from social responsibilities.  It should not be forgotten that almost all the schools of Indian philosophy advocated a mean between the extremes of unlicensed indulgence in worldly pleasures and complete renunciation of social life.” (Sharma, p. 155.)

            Returning to Shankara,  we can observe that  “What Sankara has tried to make explicit is the fact that when action is performed with the knowledge of the Brahman, it brings about liberation and has absolute value.  Virtues like self-control, charity, compassion, etc., are means to the attainment of true knowledge, as accepted by Samkara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra.  He also regarded these very virtues to be helpful for Abhyudaya, or prosperity, besides being of assistance in worship and meditation.”  (Sharma 262)

            Again, “[Shankara’s] repeated statements with regard to the performance of duties on the part of each and every individual, and the emphasis he laid on adherence to Niskama Karma (action without attachment) even on the part of the man who has attained Jivanmukti [liberation of the soul in this life], and whose actions would not bind him to the world, amply prove that the highest goal of life was the sublime state of selfless service, universal love, and freedom from selfishness and narrowmindedness.  He never advocated seclusion and inactivity even for the Sanyasin or the Renunciate.  The central feature of the ethics of the Advaita Vedanta [Shankara’s school] is that advocates a cosmopolitan outlook on life, and explodes the traditional rigidity of the caste system by preferring the life of spirit to that of custom.”  (Sharma, p. 264.)

            The Mimamsa is a major school of Indian philosophy and religion which simply accepts the Vedas as its authority.  It asserts that virtue “is a conscious or semiconscious adjustment of conduct to interest.  It draws our attention to the adoption of  Artha and Kama for the advancement of the secular life of the individual as well as of society,and the adoption of Dharma for the attainment of Moksa.  The former two values have social well-being as the ideal and lead to Abhyudaya, or progress, and the latter two values, of which Moksa is the highest, aim at spiritual well-being as the ideal, culmination in Sreyasa, or eternal bliss.  The fact is that social well-being is not the highest end, but is the means to the attainment of the highest value of Moksa.”  (Sharma, 229.)

            It remains true, however, that  “For some reason or other, most of the religious leaders (acaryas), including Samkara and Ramanuja, underestimated the value of karma-marga [the path of action]. with the result that, in general, the aspirant after the Divine developed indifference to action and values of the world; and this attitude resulted in lack of interest in matters social and political.  This is considered to be one of the reasons for the political downfall of India.”  (History of Philosophy Eastern and Western, p. 530.)


            One more note about M.K. Gandhi and the political value of non-violence:

            The technique of non-violence lies in suffering --  suffering with a view to purify one’s ownself on the one hand, and to change the heart of the aggressor or the evildoer on the other.  The following six prerequisites or presuppositions, as Gandhi termed them, are essential for the votary of non-violence:

            (1)  It must be taken for granted that non-violence is the law meant for the rational beings and is thus preferable to brute force, which is the law of the jungle.

            (2)  The votary of non-violence must have a living faith in God.

            (3)  Non-violence should be taken to be the best defence of one’s self-respect and should not be used as the means to protect one’s property or wealth.

            (4)  Non-violence implies self-sacrifice and hence presumes the possession of other people’s property and countries to be an immoral act.

            (5)  The power of non-violence is available to all, irrespective [page break] of caste , creed and age, provided that one has an abiding faith in the God of love.  It should thus be accepted as the law of life.

            (6)  The law of love -- non-violence, which is the law of life, is equally pragmatic in the case of community and in the case of the whole humanity. (Sharma, pp. 332-3.)


Sanction for Ethical Action


            In view of the doctrine of karma, by which the good or evil which one does in this life return and shape one’s future life in a series of transmigrations, one realizes that sanction is an essential  part of Indian ethics even before one considers the ethical norms.  The ultimately positive face of karma is that, no matter how many lives it takes, the individual will ultimately attain liberation, and this liberation is generally thought to be positive, absorption in Brahman, rather than annihilation.  (It has appeared to some that nirvana in Buddhism is annihilation of the individual, but this is mistaken, because Buddhism simply does not state and it does not care to state anything about the characteristics of nirvana.)

            One particular application of sanction is made in the Ayurveda, which strongly insists on the connection between morality (as clean living) and health.  (Dasgupta, pp. 28-31)



The Chinese Language


            It is a revelation to someone accustomed entirely to the Indo-European languages to find how great are the qualitative differences between these languages and Chinese.  Everyone knows that written Chinese does not relate to spoken Chinese the way written English or Latin or Greek, for example, relate to spoken English, Latin, or Greek.  For philosophy, however, more significant than this difference is the Chinese way of expression.  Rather than centering on the subject and applying to it the verb and other sentence elements as the Indo-European sentence generally does, the typical Chinese sentence presents a thing word and an action word as correlated aspects of one situation or reality.  The Chinese equivalent of “to be” is in this regard one action word among many others. Furthermore, abstractions in Chinese are not constituted from formulaic suffixes added to a root, but from the juxtaposition of concrete words or word parts which become understood abstractly.  Possibly more important, one should not expect to have from ancient Chinese philosophy readymade answers to questions which had not yet occurred to it.  As an example, E. R. Hughes points out, “The grammar of  the Book of Odes [one of the classics that preceded Confucius] is structurally simple, so simple that one of the chief hindrances to its understanding has been the failure of the Scholars to transport themselves into this semi-primitive atmosphere.  Thus ku, the main word in succeeding ages for expressing sequence, is not found in this sense in the Odes.  The word for expressing connection between two sets of events, one earlier and the other later, is pi; and the contents point to a religious meaning as the original one.  Because a man did such and such, therefore to be sure (pi) the gods did so and so.  This contains a rudimentary sense of logic, but it is a long way from the logic of a man who not only says, ‘Because A happened, therefore B happened,’ but also thinks of ‘the cause,’ and then at last achieves that triumph of philosophical sophistications ‘causation’ and ‘causality.’”  (Hughes, p. xxviii). As in Western philosophy, however, concepts were gradually developed to the point where they become the bearers of philosophical investigation.

            To understand the following conclusion of Mou Bo, in his article, "The Structure of the Chinese Language and Ontological Insights: A Collective-Noun Hypothesis," note his explanations of terms:

                        p. 58, " 'Mereology' means the (mathematical) theory of the relation of parts to the whole.  Its two major versions are S. Lesniewski's formal theory of parts and N. Goodman's calculus of individuals."

                        p. 49, he explains that people, cattle, police are collective nouns, whereas water and snow are mass nouns.

                        p. 52, "A collection-whole and a mass-fusion-whole have different ontological structures: the former consists of (many) separate individuals, while the latter consists of (much) inseparable and interpenetrating stuff; and they have different part-whole structures to be discussed."


            In sum, in this essay, I have argued for a collective-noun hypothesis to the effect that (1) the denotational semantics and relevant grammatical features of Chinese nouns are like those of collective nouns;  (2) their implicit ontology is a mereological ontology of collection-of-individuals with part-whole structure and member-class structure, which does justice to the role of abstraction at the conceptual level and which can be given a consistent meta-interpretation in terms of contemporary conceptual resources; and (3) encouraged and shaped by the functions and folk semantics of Chinese nouns, the classical Chinese theorists of language take this kind of nominalist mereological ontology for granted; as a result, the classical Platonic one-many problem in the Western philosophical tradition has not been consciously posed in the Chinese philosophical tradition, and, generally speaking, classical Chinese philosophers seem less interested in debating the relevant ontological issues.  The mereological collective-noun hypothesis, I believe would provide a more reasonable interpretation of the semantics of classical nouns than Hansen's mass-noun hypothesis.... (pp. 56-57)

            At this point a note about English translations of Chinese is in order.  There are, of course, the usual problems of translation, especially that of needing to supply a  circumlocution or explanatory note where there is no exact equivalent word.  In a language as different as Chinese is from English this is a greater challenge than it is in  translating - for example - from French or German.  Another type of problem arises from the fact that different Chinese philosophers use the same words in different ways.  There are words which are fundamental to all three of the great streams of thought, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but which have diverse meanings in each.  This source of confusion is by no means peculiar to Chinese philosophers, but, taken together with the language equivalency problem, it means that we must pay careful attention to the context in order to interpret the meaning of the word in it and that we must expect to find wide divergencies among English translations.


The Chinese Worldview


            The ancient and traditional Chinese view of the structure of the universe is of an all-embracing, undivided Heaven, out of which arise, without dividing the Heaven, and not by creation, the mutually opposed principles, Yin and Yang.  By an interplay of Yin and Yang the world as we observe it is born by means of a process which was described in Chinese mythology, but which was generally considered outside the range of interest of philosophy.  Chinese philosophical investigation, in fact, veered away from the types of analyses of the data of observation which became the bases of Western philosophy.  As Fung Yu-Lan writes,

            Whether the table that I see before me is real or illusory, and whether it is only an idea in my mind or is occupying objective space, was never seriously considered by Chinese philosophers.  No such epistemological problems are to be found in Chinese philosophy (save in Buddhism, which came from India), since epistemological problems arise only when a demarcation between the subject and the object is emphasized.  And in the aesthetic continuum, there is no such demarcation.  In it the knower and the known is one whole.

            “This also explains why the language used by Chinese philosophy is suggestive but not articulate.  It is not articulate, because it does not represent concepts in any deductive reasoning.  The philosopher only tells us what he sees.  And because of this, what he tells is rich in content, though terse in words.  This is the reason why his words are suggestive rather than precise. (Fung, p. 25.)

            Furthermore this makes it clear why the classical Chinese mind never had to wonder if truth might be some kind of conformity between an inner, psychological, world and an outer world and if our senses are truthful or not and if there is another world out there which is different from the world we perceive ourselves to live in.  There were, however, a few prominent Chinese philosophers who treated logic and the processes of thinking.

            Angus Graham writes of  “the Chinese tendency... to treat things as divisions of the universe rather then the universe as the aggregate of things.” (Graham, p. 286)  He states that he is following the lead of Chad Hansen, who wrote, “The mind is not regarded as an internal picturing mechanism which represents the individual objects in the world, but as a faculty that discriminates the boundaries of the substances or stuffs referred to by names.  This ‘cutting up things’ view contrasts strongly with the traditional Platonic philosophical picture of objects which are understood as individuals or particulars which instantiate or ‘have’ properties (universals).” (Hansen, p. 30., quoted in Graham, p. 401)  Hansen arrives at his notion of the Chinese mind through considerations of the Chinese language, and although Graham does not entirely agree with these considerations, he attaches great value to this insight into the Chinese mind itself. (Graham, p. 401)  As Walter Benesch puts it, “For the Taoist in particular and in Chinese philosophy in general, the ultimate ‘given’ is orderly change in which the task of philosophy and science is to establish ‘identity in change’ and not ‘change in identity’.  Here there is an emphasis upon aspects and the complementarity of opposites.  A perspective upon distinguishing and naming are important whenever distinctions are made and names are applied.  Objects are their functions and their functions are expressed in naming.” (Benesch, p. 182)

            It certainly does not seem fruitless to speculate that the structure of the Chinese language had something to do with the lack of interest in metaphysical analysis as this was practiced in the West.  It appears, for instance, that the relation between action word and thing word stresses the unity between subjects and their actions - or between actions and their subjects - rather than their differences.  This manner of  expression renders unnatural any discourse based on such distinctions as that between substance and nature, essence and existence, and being and becoming.  Furthermore, the making of abstractions not by an abstractable generality that is found normally in abstract words, but by juxtaposing concrete words ought to give less stimulus to see the abstractions as things, whether inside the mind or outside it. 

            Although ontology, the philosophy of being, and general philosophy of the observable world were foreign to classical Chinese philosophy, and epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, was a minor concern to it, the remaining branches of philosophy, that of people and society and that of human action (ethics), were of passionate interest to it.  These two branches were scarcely separable and were, one might say, two facets of the same study.

            The traditional structure of Chinese society with its five main relationships, ruler-subject, father-son, older brother-younger brother, husband-wife, friend-friend, was understood to be the embodiment of the heavenly order on earth.  Maintenance of this order is the ontological basis of Chinese ethics.  As E. R. Hughes puts it,  “... Classical thinkers were plainly never able to get far away from the idea of Nature as transcendent.  Although they consistently rationalized the old religious concept of a T’ien (Heaven) which had a will for men, the meaning of T’ien, and even of Ti (Earth), retained the idea of a sublime order of the universe, conformity to which was man’s duty and happiness.”  (Hughes, p. xxxiii.)

            Furthermore, the Chinese held the first action or development of primal Nature to be the opposition of Yin and Yang, which passes its ontological value into the world in the process by which extremes generate extremes. The process of extremes generating extremes is seen in the natural rhythms of  life (seasons, etc.), in the vicissitudes of life (e.g., famine follows plenty and the reverse, riches follow poverty and the reverse, and in the natural consequences of human action: having too much or overdoing things will produce the reverse).  This process is in turn the ontological basis of a key general norm of ethics, which is that there is for man a golden mean of action which avoids the process. (Fung, pp. 19-20)

            Lastly, [Chinese philosophy] “is at one and the same time both extremely idealistic and extremely realistic, and very practical, though not in a superficial way.

            “This-worldliness and other-worldliness stand in contrast to each other as do realism and idealism.  The task of Chinese philosophy is to accomplish a synthesis out of these antitheses.  That does not mean that they are to be abolished.  They are still there, but they have been made into a synthetic whole.  How can this be done?  This is the problem which Chinese philosophy attempts to solve.

            “According to Chinese philosophy, the man who accomplishes this synthesis, not only in theory but also in deed, is the sage.  He is both this-worldly and other-worldly.  The spiritual achievement of the Chinese sage corresponds to the saint’s achievement in Buddhism, and in Western religion.  But the Chinese sage is not one who does not concern himself with the business of the world.  His character is described as one of ‘sageliness within and kingliness without.’  That is to say, in his inner sageliness, he accomplishes spiritual cultivation; in his kingliness without, he functions in society.  It is not necessary that the sage should be the actual head of the government in his society.”  He goes on to compare the sage to the Platonic philosopher-king.  (Fung, p. 8.)

            In writing specifically about ethics in Chinese philosophy Fung Yu-lan states:

            Every individual has his own sphere of living, which is not quite the same as that of any other indivdual.  Yet in spite of these individual differences, we can classify the various spheres of living into four general grades.  Beginning with the lowest, they are: the innocent sphere, the utilitarian sphere, the moral sphere, and the transcendent sphere.

            A man may simply do what his instinct or the custom of his society leads him to do.  Like children and primitive people, he does what he does without being self-conscious or greatly understanding what he is doing.  Thus what he does has little significance, if any, for him.  His sphere of living is what I call the innocent sphere.

            Or man may be aware of himself, and be doing everything for himself.  That does not mean that he is necessarily an immoral man.  He may do something, the consequences of which are beneficial to others, but his motivation for so doing is self-benefit.  Thus everything he does has the significance of ultility for himself.  His sphere of living is what I call the utilitarian sphere.

            Yet again a man may come to understand that a society exists, of  which he is a member.  This society constitutes a whole and he is a part of that whole.  Having this understanding, he does everything for the benefit of the society, or as the Confucianists say, he does everything ‘for the sake of righteousness, and not for the sake of personal profit.’  He is the truly moral man and what he does is moral action in the strict sense of the word,  Everything he does has a moral significance.  Hence his sphere of living is what I call the moral sphere.

            And finally, a man may come to understand that over and above society as a whole, there is a great whole which is the universe.  He is not only a member of society, but at the same time a member of the universe.  He is a citizen of the social organization, but at the same time a citizen of heaven, as Mencius says.  Having this understanding, he does everything for the benefit of the universe.  He understands the significance of what he does, and is self-conscious of the fact that he is doing what he does.  This understanding and self-consciousness constitutes for him a higher sphere of living which I call the transcendent sphere.

            Of the four spheres of living, the innocent and the utilitarian are the products of man as he is, while the moral and the transcendent are those of man as he ought to be.  The former two are gifts of nature, while the latter two are the creations of the spirit.  The innocent sphere is the lowest, the utilitarian comes next, then the moral, and finally the transcendent.  They are so because the innocent sphere requires almost no understanding and self-consciousness, whereas the utilitarian and the moral require more, and the transcendent requires most.  The moral sphere is that of moral values, and the transcendent is that of super-moral values.

            According to the tradition of Chinese philosophy, the function of philosophy is to help man achieve the two higher spheres of living, and especially the highest.  The transcendent sphere may also be called the sphere of philosophy, because it cannot be achieved unless through philosophy one gains some understanding of the universe.  But the moral sphere, too, is a product of philosophy.  Moral actions are not simply actions that accord with the moral rule, nor is moral man one who simply cultivates certain moral habits.  He must act and live with an understanding of the moral principles involved, and it is the business of philosophy to give him this understanding.  (Fung, pp. 338-9.)


The Canon of the Chinese Classics


            Unlike the classics of India, with their epics and poems and speculative commentaries, those of China are few in number, and they do not include religious epics.  Tradition has it that the few early classics that exist were collected by Confucius.  These are the “’five books’ containing ancient records with which Confucius worked, or reworked, namely, the Shu-ching {Shu-King) or Book of Historical Documents, the Shih-ching (Shih-King) or  Book of Ancient Poems, the I Ching (Yi King) or Book of Changes, the Li-chi (Li-Ki) or Book of Rites and Ancient Ceremonies (within which Genuine Living [Chung Yung] itself is embedded as Chapter XXXI), and Ch’un Ch’iu or Spring and Autumn, being the annals of the state of Lu.”  (Bahm, Heart of Confucius,  p. 15.)

            With Confucius there began to form the orthodox classical corpus of the “Four Books”: the Confucian Analects, the Ta Hsueh [Great Learning], the Chung Yung [Doctrine of the Mean], the latter two being chapters in the Li Chi (Book of Rites) and the Mencius.  It took from the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), however, to the Sung dynasty (960-1279) to solidify this corpus.

            Other than the classics and the writings of various Confucian commentators there were the primary Taoist works, the Chuang Tsu, composed around 300 BC, and the Tao Te Ching, composed  about a century later, but attributed to Lao Tsu, a - probably legendary - contemporary of Confucius.


Ethics in the various schools of Chinese philosophy


Classical Confucianism


Summary on Confucius Himself (lived 551-479 BC)


            As revealed from his teaching in its simplest form, in the Analects, he was the first to promulgate the insight that man is a knowing moral subject whose choices bring or do not bring him as an entity in the world order into harmony with this order.  He is traditional and conservative in sofar as he accepts the already fixed Chinese social hierarchy, but he introduces the notion of morality as a human participation in the world order which lies behind the social hierarchy and he introduces the notion of jen, “human-heartedness” (Fung and Hughes) or “good will” (Bahm) or “inner moral force” (Cooper), which is a stance of the individual in which he consciously takes his place in the world order.  Man is a knowing moral subject with genuine choices in a fixed world order.  Confucius does not investigate, he does not question the world order itself or man’s ability to know it.

            According to the twentieth century Chinese philosopher Chung-ying Cheng, we can discern three stages in ethics as proposed by Confucianism.  First is man’s awareness of himself as an object in the world.  Next comes his discovery of himself as a subject, and upon this follows his effort to act responsibly in the framework of the given world.  Confucius (as we have noted) is one of those who made the discovery of the ethical self, and he offers the framework, which is the perceived social order, including the role of the ancestors in it..  The author shows how these stages in Confucian ethics are religious: the first is the realization of the human condition, with all its negatives; the second is the belief in some power which enables man to transcend that human condition, an internal power in Confucianism, an external power in some other religions; the third is the appropriate putting into action of that power.  The reader is aware that norms of ethics relate to the third stage; in some religions they are furnished by the religious body, but in Confucianism they are the social order.  He points out that these three stages are a valid process only if they relate to one another in some ontological framework, and Confucianism, of course, has such a framework.  (Chung-ying Cheng, New Dimensions of Confucian and Neo-Confucian Philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, “Three Stages of the Development of Confucian Morality,”  pp. 280-293.) 

            The interplay between Confucius’s jen, which in some contexts is translated virtue, and other basic concepts of his concerning man’s role in the family and in society brings out a rich notion of virtue-based ethics.  One aspect which is missing, however, is an appeal to reason’s role in establishing a person’s attitude toward virtuous action.  In this Confucius can be contrasted with Aristotle, whose notion of virtue has many similarities with his, but is lacking in Confucius’s incorporation of human love (as of parents for children).  (Juyuan Yu, “Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle.”)


Tseng Tsu (Fifth century BC)


            Tseng Tsu, who apparently was born just about when Confucius died, had great influence in promoting the extreme emphasis which Chinese society placed on filial piety.  In spite of this, he stated ethical values as “Every day I examine myself in three ways: whether in my transacting of business for other men I have been faithful to them; whether in my intercourse with my friends I have been true in word; whether I have not passed on teachings which I have not mastered.” (From the Analects i. 4 as quoted by Hughes, p. 71.)  Similarly, according to the Ta Hsueh, which is attributed (although inaccurately, it seems) to Tseng Tsu, “What is meant by ‘keeping our purpose genuine’ is to prevent self-deception.  We should hate what is evil(1) and love what is good(2).  This is called ‘appreciating one’s own nature.’  Hence, the wise man guards his intentions even when he is alone.” The footnotes to this are “1. Lit., bad odor.” and “2. Lit., beautiful view.” (In Bahm, p. 137.)


Mo Ti (about 480 to about 380 BC) and Mohism


            The foundation and guiding rule of ethics according to Mo Ti is,  “Heaven wants men to love and be profitable to each other, and does not want men to hate and maltreat each other.”  and note that the word for love here is ai, which expresses the feeling of love. (Hughes, p. 45.)

            More thoughts of Mo Ti: he believes in the social hierarchy, that all levels must strive for the love of others, and that each level is kept in line by the one next higher.  (Hughes, pp. 47-49.)  Thus,  “If the whole of society had mutual love without discrimination, country would not attack country, clan would not throw clan into confusion: there would be no robbers: sovereigns and ministers, fathers and sons, all would be compassionate and filial.  In this state of affairs it follows that the Great Society would be well ordered....  Thus it was that our ]page[ Master Mo said that be could not but urge that men should be loved.  (Hughes, pp. 54-55.)

            The Mo Tsu Book says: “To love and benefit another is to have him follow on and love and benefit you.  To hate and injure another is to have him follow on and hate and injure you.”  (Hughes, p. 55),  and  “Assuming then that Heaven embraces all and gives food to all, how could it be said that it does not want men to love and benefit each other?” Hughes, p. 46, and  “Hence I say that Heaven is sure to give happiness to those who love and benefit other men, and is sure to bring calamities on those who hate and maltreat other men.  I maintain that the man who murders an innocent person will meet with misfortune.  What other explanation is there of the fact that when men murder each other, Heaven brings calamity on them?  This is the way in which we know that Heaven wants men to love and benefit each other and does not want them to havte and maltreat each other.”  (Hughes, p. 46)

            “As a corollary to this categorical imperative of all-embracing love, Mo Ti denounced wars of aggression, the vice to which his age, as the age before him, was so prone.  He also denounced extravagant expenditure in the conduct of mourning rites, a practice which the Confucians, both then and later, greatly encouraged.  He also set his face against the luxury in court circles, involviing as it did the unremunerative use of state funds.  His objection was particularly strong against the art of music, to him a shocking waste of time, money, and labour.  Behind all this lay a strictly utilitarian mind, which is revealed not only in its rational strength, but also in its rational limitation, namely its preoccupation with material prosperity.”  (Hughes, p. 58.)


Mencius (about 370 to about 290 BC)


            Mencius is in the mainstream of Confucianism, but he downplays the role of the rites and emphasises that of jen, which is to be extended to all men.  Thus he is considered idealistic in contrast to the more down-to-earth Confucians.  The basis for his doctrine, and it needs to be noted that he is the first Confucian to look for a specific basis of morality (besides the generic one of  Tao), is that human nature is good.  Thus: “’As for as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man is capable of becoming good,’ said Mencius.  ‘That is what I mean by good.  As for his becoming bad, that is not the fault of his native endowment.  The heart of compassion is possessed by all men alike;  likewise the heart of shame, the heart of respect, and the heart of right and wrong.  The heart of compassion pertains to benevolence, the heart of shame to dutifulness, the heart of respect to the observance of the rites, and the heart of right and wrong to wisdom.  Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites, and wisdom are not welded on to me from the outside; they are in me originally.  Only this has never dawned on me.  That is why it is said,  ‘Seek and you will find it; let go and you will lose it.’  There are cases where one man is twice, five times or countless times better than another man, but this is only because there are people who fail to make the best of their native endowment.”  (The quote is from Mencius, tr. D. C. Lau, p. 163.)

            Four germs of good action and the corresponding action according to Mencius:

                        heart of compassion                                        benevolence

                        heart of shame                                                 dutifulness

                        heart of courtesy and modesty                       observance of the rites

                        heart of right and wrong                                  wisdom          

                                                                                                            (Mencius, p. 83)

            The Eight Shoots, which Tung Chung-Shu atributes to Mencius, are

                        fidelity and truth-speaking

                        all-embracingness and love

                        honesty and generosity

                        courtesy and the passion for it.

                                    (Hughes, p. 303.  From Tung Chung-Shu, the Ch’un Ch’iu Fan Lu (String of Pearls on the Spring and Autumn Annals), Chapter 35.)


The Chung Yung

(written by followers of Confucius, about 250 BC)


            When all desires and emotions of a person are satisfied and expressed to the right degree, the person achieves a harmony within his person which results in good mental health.  Likewise, when all the desires and feelings of the various ]page break[ types of people who comprise a society are satisfied and expressed to the right degree, the society achieves harmony within itself which results in peace and order....

            A well-organized society is a harmonious unity in which people of differing talents and professions occupy their proper places, perform their proper functions, and are all equally satisfied and not in conflict with one another.  An ideal world is also a harmonious unity.  The Chung Yung says: ‘All things are nurtured together without injuring one another.  All courses are pursued without collision.  This is what makes Heaven and Earth great.’ (Ch. 30.) (Fung, pp. 173-4.)

            A description of the moral man from the Chung Yung :

            Men are obtainable on the basis of personality.  The cultivation of personality is on the basis of the Way.  The cultivation of the Way is on the basis of human-heartedness.  [page break[ To be human-hearted is to be a man, and the chief element in human-heartedness is loving one’s parents.  So it is with justice: it is to put things right, and the chief element in it is employing worthy men in public service....

            Thus it is that enlightened men must not fail to cultivate their personalities; and, having it in mind to do this, they must not fail to serve their parents; and having it in mind to do this, they must not fail to have knowledge of men; and, having it in mind to have this knowledge, they must not fail to have knowledge of Heaven.

            There are five things which concern everybody in the Great Society, as also do the three means by which these five things are accomplished.  To explain, the relationship between sovereign and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder and younger brother, and the equal intercourse between friend and friend, these five relationships concern everybody in the Great Society.  Knowledge, human-heartedness, and fortitude, these three are the means; for these qualities are the spiritual power in society as a whole. The means by which this power is made effective is unity.

            Some people know these relationships by the light of nature.  Others know them by learning about them from a teacher.  Others again know them through hard experience.  But once they all do know them, there is unity.  Some people practise these relationships with a natural ease.  Others derive worldly advantage from their practice of them.  Others again have to force themselves to practise them.  But once they all have achieved success in practising them, there is unity. (This is from section VI of the Chung Yung as presented in Hughes, pp. 37-38.)

            A list of virtues from Chapter 30 of the Chung Yung, (“Genuine Living” according to the translator):

            Only the most sagely person in the world can unite in himself the quickness, clarity, breadth, and depth of understanding needed for guiding men, the magnanimity, generosity, benevolence, and gentleness needed for getting along with others, the attentiveness, strength, stability, and tenacity needed for maintaining control, the serenity, seriousness, unwaveringness, and propriety needed for commanding respect, and the well-informedness, methodicalness, thoroughness, and penetration needed for exercising sound judgment.  (Bahm, pp. 122-123.)


Hsun Tzu (about 300 to about 240 BC)


            Hsun Tzu, a Confucian, held that human nature is evil (citing our evil inclinations), but that it becomes good in society through the exercise of li, which to him means social conduct more than ritual.  (Fung, pp. 143-7.)


Classical Taoism


            It is well known that Taoism represents what has been called the spiritual or idealistic side of the Chinese mentality.  Where Confucians refer repeatedly to “the way,” the Tao, which lies behind the world of human activity,  the Taoists are concerned entirely with the Tao.  According to chapter 12 of the Chuang Tsu:  “In the Great Beginning there was nothing, and ‘nothing’ had no name.  At the starting point of oneness [viz. the oneness of the universe] there was only oneness and no concrete form, but life might come into things.  This (stage) can be described as spiritual power (at work).  The formless then came to have divisions and, what is more, there was continuity in these.  This can be described as ‘the lot of the individual; (at work).  (With these two powers) there was an uninterrupted stream of influence at work which made individual things live and brought to pass their distinctive features.  This can be described as ‘form.’” (In Hughes, p. 202.)  As to our way of understanding things, Fung Yu Lan paraphrases the Chuang Tzu, “What is really ‘one’ can neither be discussed nor even conceived.  For as soon as it is thought of and discussed, it becomes something that exists externally to the person who is doing the thinking and speaking.  So its all-embracing unity is thus lost, it is actually not the real ‘one’ at all.”  (Fung Yu Lan, p. 114.)

            This background leads to the Taoist attitude of looking away from action in the world and not calling it as right or wrong.  The essence of this seems to be expressed in chapter 2 of the “Inner Chapters” of the Chuang Tsu, “The equality of all things,” or Ch’i Wu Lun:

             Every thing can be a “that”, every thing can be a ‘this.” One man cannot see things as another sees them.  One can only know things through knowing oneself.  Therefore it is said, “’That’ comes from ‘this,’ and ‘this’ comes from ‘that’” -- which means “that” and “this” give birth to one another.  Life arises from death and death from life.  What is inappropriate is seen by virtue of what is appropriate.  There is right because of wrong and wrong because of right.  Thus, the sage does not bother with these distinctions but seeks enlightenment from heaven.  So he sees “this,” but “this” is also “that,” and “that” is also “this.”  “That” has elements of right and wrong, and “this” has elements of  right and wrong.  Does he still distinguish between “this” and “that,” or doesn’t he?  When there is no more separation between “this” and “that,” it is called the still-point of Tao.  At the still-point in the center of the circle one can see the infinite in all things.  Right is infinite; wrong is also infinite.  Therefore it is said, “Behold the light beyond right and wrong.” (Feng, Chuang Tsu, p. 29.)

            The ultimate indifference of our knowledge proposed by Chuang Tsu is, in a way, skepticism, but whereas the Western Classical Skeptic Sextus Empiricus is satisfied with ataraxia (tranquillity) without truth, “Zhuangzi seems to look for truth and a good life in accord with it.”  (Kjellberg, .  "Skepticism, truth, and he good life: a comparison  of Zhuangzi and Sextus Empiricus.”

            As to the life of the sage, Chuang Tsu writes: “Do not seek fame.  Do not make plans.  Do not be absorbed by activities.  Do not think that you know.  Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite.  Wander where there is no path.  Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing.  Be empty, that is all.  The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror.  It grasps nothing.  It expects nothing.  It reflects but does not hold.  Therefore, the perfect man can act without effort.” (In chapter 7 of the “Inner Chapters”, Feng’s translation, p. 159.)  Thus the ideal of the Taoist is to remove himself from the need for action - to live a contemplative life, but the mainstream of Taoism did not turn away from the affairs of the world.  Where necessary Taoists were able to act in the world as others did, but in so doing they turned their minds away from the world.




Han Fei Tzu (Third century B.C.)


            Although Arthur Waley agrees with the other sources that Han Fei Tzu is the principal exponent of what is generally termed the Legalist School, he calls its thinkers “Realists” (Waley, p. 199).  Whatever the name, this school was eminently suited for adoption as the guiding light of the Ch’in dynasty in the original unification of China (221 B.C.), and for a while it predominated, but only, as it turned out, as a slight interval in the long history of the Taoist outlook and Confucian principles of action in China.  As Waley observes, “Fundamental to Realism was the rejection of private standards of right and wrong.  ‘Right’ to them meant ‘what the rulers want,’ ‘wrong’ meant what the rulers do not want.  No individual or school of thought must be allowed to set up any other standard or ideal.” (p. 200)  Nevertheless, Waley goes on to note that to the Realists this description of an ethical standard was made on the basis of expediency as the rulers saw it, but if the ruler follows the way of heaven, there is no fundamental discrepancy between this and Taoism or Confucianism as proposed by either Mo Ti or Hsun Tzu. (p. 200-206)

            Waley compares the three schools:

             “The Taoists held that the object of life should be the cultivation of inner powers; the Confucians, that it should be the pursuit of Goodness.  The Realists for the most part ignored the individual, and though there are passages that envisage an ultimate peaceful utopia, their general assumption is that the object of any society is to dominate other societies.” (p. 252.)


Post-classical Philosophers


            It would do a great injustice to Chinese philosophy to assert that it did not progress after the classical period, that is, after the first century A.D.  Nevertheless, it followed the patterns established in the classical period and did not undergo occasional revolutions the way Western philosophy did.  It appears that the prime - perhaps the only - reason for this was the adoption of the classics as the norm of education and the standard of the civil service exams in a society that perceived little need for change in all that time.  The greatest challenge from the outside was Buddhism, but as a way of thought Buddhism was close enough to Taoism to fit with the Chinese worldview and sufficiently compatible with Confucianism to leave intact the social system.


Chu Hsi (1130-1200)


            Chu Hsi is the one later philosopher who so stands out that he should not be ignored here.  He was the master commentator who gave form to the understanding of the classics until their function in society came to an end with the first republican government in 1912.  Chu Hsi sums up the basic relationships:  “’The Supreme Ultimate is simply what is highest of all, beyond which nothing can be.  It is the most high, most mystical, and most abstruse, surpassing everything.  Lest anyone should imagine that the Supreme Ultimate has bodily form, Lien-Hsi [i.e., Chou Tun-yi] has said of it: ‘The Ultimateless, and yet also the Supreme Ultimate.’ That is, it is in the realm of no things that there is to be found the highest Li.’” (Chu-tzu Ch’uan-shu, or Complete Works of the Master Chu, chuan 49., quoted in Fung, pp. 297-98)  From these statements we see that the position of the Supreme Ultimate in Chu Hsi’s system corresponds to the idea of the Good or to God in the systems of Plato and Aristotle respectively.  “There is one point in Chu Hsi’s system, however, that makes his Supreme Ultimate more mystical than Plato’s idea of the Good or Aristotle’s God.  This is the fact that, according to Chu Hsi, the Supreme Ultimate is not only the summation of the Li of the universe as a whole, but is at the same time immanent in the individual examples of each category of things.”  (Feng, p. 298.)  (Note the notion of Li: “For every kind of thing there is the Li, which makes it what it ought to be.” p. 297) 

            Chu Hsi makes a strong case for human ethics as a matter of man’s position in the universe.  Thus, “In Chu Hsi’s Confucian terms, to assume the ethical stance involves appreciating persons as person-in-context rather than as discrete rational agents.  And, to adopt such a notion would be to conceive of ethics as part and parcel of the fabric of  human life rather than as a heavy-handed theoretical imposition on ‘autonomous’ selves.  Ethics, for Chu Hsi, in theory as well as in practice delineates the lives of persons-in-context.”  (Thompson, How to Rejuvenate Ethics: Suggestions from Chu Hsi,” p. 499)  (A companion article to Thompson’s is A.S. Cua’s “Between Commitment and Realization: Wang Yang-Ming’s Vision of the Universe as a Moral Community.” Wang Yang-Ming (1472-1529), otherwise known as Wang Shou-jen, took issue with Chu Hsi on important issues of philosophy, but proposed a moral vision very similar to his.)


Tai Chen (also known as Tai Tung-Yüan) (1723-77)


            As an example of a Ch’ing Dynasty mainstream Confucian of note we have Tai Chen, who intended to restore the purity of Confucianism from the taint of Taoism and Buddhism.  The essence of Tai’s thought on morality can be taken from Fung Yu-lan as follows:

            "Man's knowledge is in its lesser aspects able to encompass the widest ranges of beauty and ugliness, and in its greater aspects the widest ranges of right and wrong.  It is because this is so that he is able not only to fulfill his own desires but, through their extension, the desires of others as well.  The highest morality consists of nothing more than insuring that the desires of all men reach fulfillment, and their feelings reach expression” (Meaning of Mencius, 3.105).

            Thus all morality is a product of knowledge. In other words, knowledge becomes equivalent to morality. It is because man possesses a knowledge denied to other creatures that he is able to comprehend Principle and moral necessity, and to conform to them in conduct.  He is able to understand that fellow beings share common feelings and desires, and therefore to place himself in the position of other men.  This is the reason why human nature is good.

            Through the utmost development of knowledge, is conduct brought into closest harmony with what is morally necessary, thus permitting the innate potentialities of the nature to be most nearly realized.  Tai writes:

            “Goodness is what is morally necessary, whereas the nature itself is something natural.  To cause it (the nature) to conform to moral necessity, thereby giving a finished perfection to its naturalness: this is what is known as developing the natural to its highest point.  In this manner the Way of Heaven, Earth, man, and creatures is given utmost expression’(ibid., p. 111

            “Hsu*n Tzu** knew that propriety and righteousness result from the teachings of the sages, but not that they also derive from the nature.  He knew that they consist in the manifestation of what is morally necessary, but not that this moral necessity represents the highest ultimate pattern of the natural, to which it gives final perfection. (ibid.,2.92).

            Moral necessity is thus the highest development of the natural.  In other words, it gives to the natural its most perfect development, which is then, says Tai, the highest excellence of the universe:

            For this reason man is the manifestation of the highest excellence of the universe, and it is only the sage who completely develops this excellence.”(Nature of Goodness, 2.13). Fung, A History, pp. 662-663 [in the present essay u*=u diaeresis, u**=u upsidedown circumflex].

            The essence of Tai’s thought on the origin of evil is that human feelings, desires, and knowledge are all subject to certain failings:

            “The failing in desire is selfishness, the sequel to which is the evil of greed.  The failing in feeling is one-sidedness, the sequel to which is the sin of perverse unreasonableness.  The failing in knowledge, is delusion, the sequel to which is the error of fallaciousness.  Freed from selfishness, the desires all correspond to love, propriety, and righteousness.  Free from one-sidedness, the feelings are inevitably mild and easy, even and altruistic.  Freed from delusion, knowledge becomes what is known as (true) intelligence and sagely wisdom” (Meaning of Mencius, 3.105).

            Thus evil arises from certain defects in the feelings, desires, and knowledge.  Among these, selfishness (ssu**) and delusion (pi) are the most notable:

            A man’s failure to make utmost use of his capacities leads to two calamities, those of selfishness and delusion....  The best way to get rid of selfishness is to strengthen altruism.  The best way to disperse delusion is to study. (Nature of Goodness, 3.22)

            The way to strengthen altruism (shu), according to Tai, is to measure other mens’ desires in terms of one’s own.  Selfishness arises when the individual concentrates solely upon his own desires, while ignoring those of other people.  As for knowledge, its relationship to the objects of knowledge is comparable to that of a light to the objects it illumines: Just as the light, if obscured, can no longer adequately illumine these objects, so knowledge, if deluded, can no longer gain correct comprehension of the objects of knowledge.  Thus, for Tai, knowledge is the equivalent of morality, and its deluding results in the rise of evil. (Fung, A History, pp. 666-667) [as above, u**=u upsidedown circumflex]  [Not to argue with Fung about knowledge being the equivalent of morality, it must be observed that the Chinese philosopher is not separating human mental activities into two distinct spheres, one of intellection and the other of volition.]


A Summation


            Archie Bahm summarizes much of Chinese thought on the ethical person:

            The Chinese ideal man is harder to locate [than the ideal man of Europe and India].  In a sense, he is a person who lacks ideals, or at least idealizes lack of ideals.  For when one is fully occupied enjoying the present, he has no need for attention to future enjoyments.  For Lao-Tsu, the ideal man has teh, the ability to follow his own nature without deviation, or without wanting to deviate (that is, without having ideals about deviating), from it.  In another sense, he has ideals, but again these are ideals about living naturally.  For Confucius, the ideal man tries to embody within himself yi, jen, li and chih.  Yi, the best way of doing things, is for each thing and person to follow his own nature without ]page[ deviating.  Since each person is by nature social, his social nature should be followed in the best way also. Jen, good will, is the willingness that yi, the best way of doing things, should prevail socially also.  Li, appropriate behavior, is the most efficient way to express one’s jen in action. Chih, wisdom, is achievement of complete willingness to embody yi, jen and li in one’s habits and attitudes.  Since such perfect achievement cannot be expected, chih, etc., remain ideals.  But, in either sense, the ideal man willingly accepts his own nature and has no desire to deviate from nature’s way. (Bahm, Comparative Philosophy, pp. 60-61.)


A Note on the Golden Rule


            The Golden Rule plays a prominent role in Chinese ethics, but it is not quite the same as the Golden Rule in Western ethics.  The following passages illustrate this:

            In the Analects we find the passage: “When Chung Kung asked the meaning of jen, the master said: ‘Do not do to others what you do not wish yourself....’’’ (XII, 2.)  Again, Confucius is reported in the Analects as saying: “The man of jen is one who, desiring to sustain himself, sustains others, and desiring to develop himself, develops others.  To be able from one’s own self to draw a parallel for the treatment of others; that may be called the way to practise jen.” (VI, 28.)

            Thus the practice of jen consists in consideration for others.  “Desiring to sustain oneself, one sustains others; desiring to develop oneself, one develops others.”  In other words: “Do to others what you wish yourself.”  This is the positive aspect of the practice, which was called by Confucius chung or “conscientiousness to others.”  And the negative aspect, which was called by Confucius shu or “altruism,” is: “Do not do to others what you do not wish yourself.”  The practice as a whole is called the principle of chung and shu, which is “the way to practice jen.” (Fung, p. 43.)

            In the Great Wisdom (Ta Hsueh) there is a passage which looks like the Golden Rule, but rather seems to be an exhortation to rulers to treat their people properly because the people will therefore treat each other properly.  (Bahm, Heart of Confucius, p. 145.)  Here, as in many passages on the subject of the proper conduct of rulers, the Chinese books of wisdom do not explain why the goodness of the ruler is so infectious.

            The way Mencius proposes the Golden Rule is:  “Mencius said, ‘All the ten thousand things are there in me.  There is no greater joy for me than to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself.  Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”  Mencius, p. 182 (Book VII, Part A, number 4.)  In its context this seems to mean that true riches do not consist of an accumulation of things, that they are interior and are to be found if we are true to ourselves.  No Chinese equivalent is given in the footnotes for “benevolence.”


Summary and Correlation with Western Ethics


            The details brought out in the section, “Ethics in the Various Schools....” so clearly state the implications for human action of the Chinese worldview that a summary is scarcely needed.  Still, certain points of summation can be made in order to make clear the correlations between Chinese and Western ethics.

            Westerners, as we have seen, point to ethical actions as those of the whole human person, who is the ethical subject, and we have seen that Confucius introduced the ethical subject into Chinese philosophy.  Confucius himself and others after him added specifications about the position of the ethical subject in the general scheme of things: the harmony of it with heaven and therefore with society, balance in the middle of extremes, and human nature either as good in itself or as perfectible in society.

            Although the English word “good” has appeared in various locations above, an explicit consideration of the Chinese word used for it is in order.  The Chinese character translated into English as “good” is  shan, the most general positive evaluative concept in Chinese.  In ethical thought shan has to do with conforming to the Way (or to one’s individual way), but it is not at all applied to the Way itself.  (Graham, p. 494)

            In view of the meaning of shan it would be inappropriate and perhaps impossible to institute a general philosophical treatment of the Chinese notion of good.  Clearly it is not to be construed as a kind of essence which can be described analytically.  On the other hand, not wanting to speak of good solely in terms of ethical norms (i.e., good is said by some to be whatever promotes the interests of society), we can fall back on the general philosophical notion of good,  "things are good in so far as they are unified, in so far as they are one," as being quite fundamental both to the Taoist oneness of the universe and to the Confucian harmony in society.  Taoism did not pursue to its limit intellectually the notion of oneness of the universe the way Indian philosophy did, and Confucianism did not look into as many aspects of human actions as Western philosophy did, but the original statement does justice to both.  Thus it does not seem to be stretching the meaning of words to contend that ethical good is a matter of human unifying action as much in the philosophy of China as it is in that of the West.

            In view of the similarities in fundamentals just mentioned, it does not seem to do violence to Chinese ethics to analyse them according to the procedure I used in analysing Western ethics.  This procedure, it is true, arose against a background of Western ethics, but it transcended the ethics of any particular philosopher.  In the present chapter we have already considered the first steps in the procedure, going from metaphysical worldview to the position of man in it and the consequent meaning of good action.  Now we can look at the norms of ethical action, starting with the broad divisions of them., i.e., the categories of antecedent/consequentialist, individual/collective, virtue/intentions, and cognitive/sentiment, and see how well they apply to Chinese ethics.        

            First, there is a very strong , even salient element of consequentialism in Chinese ethics: all variants of Confucianism are concerned with actions that have results.  The division, however, of these results into individual and social is arbitrary and useless in the Confucian way of thinking, in which the good of both is realized harmoniously or is not realized in either  As to antecedent norms, those of intentions, we have seen in our rapid survey of the Chinese philosophers, that no opposition is seen between these and consequent norms.  Moreover, in considering intentions versus virtue as norms,  the distinction appears to be meaningless to the Confucian point of view, in which jen seems to be both a principle of action and an attribute of it.  (As Angus Graham puts it, “We have suggested that for Chinese moral philosophizing the good is what the wisest spontaneously prefer.)(Graham, p. 302)  Lastly, from my readings in Chinese philosophy I infer that making a distinction between cognitive norms and norms of sentiment would have appeared to be hair splitting to Confucians, who were more interested in the unity of cognition and sentiment than in any difference between them..

            Taoist ethics, or the Taoist aspect of Chinese ethics, does not contradict Confucian ethics, but, as Fung Yu-Lan observes, transcends it by saying, do what you have to do, but do not put your heart into it.  It would not be correct to say that Taoist ethics is antecedent rather than, or opposed to, consequent ethics because it does not care about the outcome.  This last clause is correct, but Taoism is indifferent to the antecedents as well as to the results.

      As to some particular norms, that of rights does not seems to be found in classical Chinese philosophy, whereas the closely related one of respect, as distinct from respect for persons because of their position or standing, is notably present in the Confucian understanding of the Golden Rule.  Although magnanimity in the distribution of benefits is clearly expected of rulers, I do not see the Western notion of fairness in the Confucian understanding of ethical interpersonal relationships.  I do not judge that the classical Chinese mind would find value in the Western norm of utility/utilitarianism because of the Chinese view of the individual and the collective belonging to a world order which is greater than either.  All classical Chinese ethics, however, is an inner law ethics in so far as it is built on an unquestioned notion of a fixed human nature with which we should act in harmony.

            In his introduction to "Liberal Rights or/and Confucian Virtues?" Seung-hwan Lee assumes that the predominant basis for morality in Western thought is right, and his purpose is to show how Confucianism presents a corrective to that, and, conversely, that Confucian ethics need to be complemented by that same notion of right.  Thus,

            In contrast to a liberal, rights-based morality, Confucianism provides a radically different picture of morality.  Being a morality based on virtue, what Confucianism takes seriously is not rightful claims or self-assertions, but the virtues of caring and benevolence.  What Confucian morality suggests to us is not that one stand up as a person qua autonomous being, but that one become a person of excellence (chün-tzu).  Unlike the liberal priority of the right over the good, Confucianism gives priority to becoming a good person over being a right-claimer. (p. 367)

            Confucians maintain that genuine freedom can be achieved not by securing more options, but by overcoming one's lower desires while spontaneously (as well as intentionally) internalizing community norms. (p. 369)

            Through the mutual criticisms of the liberal and the traditional Confucian conceptions of freedom, what is presented before us is not a simple choice between negative liberty and positive freedom, but a complementary or mutually supportive relationship between the two senses of freedom.  A total freedom includes both maximization of options and self-realization.  A liberal person needs self-overcoming and the cultivation of his character, and a Confucian person needs the availability and protection of options in choice and action.  (p. 373)

            According to Confucianism, the field of moral problems is so large and varied that the narrow subfields picked out by the language of rights fails to include the full range of significant human experiences.  Confucian virtue-based morality, in contrast to rights-based moralities, is maximalist in the sense that nothing in human experience is void of moral significance, and the moral situation is the life of each person in its entirety.  While a rights-based morality covers only the minimum dimensions of moral actions (that is, right, permissible, and wrong), Confucian morality covers the maximum range of human actions as a field for self-cultivation.  (p. 374)

            [In conclusion:] Through the mutual criticism of liberalism and Confucianism concerning the relation between rights and virtues, what is presented before us is not a simple choice of either rights or virtues, but a harmonious coordination of rights (as basic requirements of morality) and virtues (as counsels of moral wisdom).  The minimalist nature of rights-talk and the maximalist aspiration of virtues, when integrated into one moral schema, will lead to a richer and more comprehensive appreciation of human development.  (p. 376)

            A classical Chinese response to a question raised much later by Western philosophers, the question of the distinction between “is” and “ought” or between “does” and “ought to do” is based on human action’s being a moment in the more general action of the Tao:  “Man is in spontaneous interaction with things, but responds differently according to the degree of his understanding of their similarities and contrasts, connexion or isolation. The ‘ought’ then finally detaches itself as an imperative to know how things compare and connect, in particular whether in connecting they support or conflict with each other, which is to know their patterns (li) and the Way which unites them all; to know what to do is to know what one would be moved to do in the sage’s full knowledge of how things are related in fact.  Once again then value separates from fact only as the value of wisdom itself.” (Graham, pp. 355-56)




Western philosophical sources consulted for the purposes of this study


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Indian philosophical sources consulted for the purposes of this study


            Basham, Arthur L.  The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

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Works examined for an understanding of the Sanskrit language:


            Bhandarkar, Ramkrishna Gopal.  First Book of Sanskrit.  Bombay: Gopal Narayen & Co., 27th ed., 1923.

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Chinese philosophical sources consulted for the purposes of this study


            Bahm, Archie J.  Comparative Philosophy: Western, Indian, and Chinese Philosophies Compared.  Albuquerque, New Mexico: World Books, 1977.

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            Graham, Angus C. Disputers of the Tao.  Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publ. Co., 1989.

            Hughes, E. R. Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times.  London: Dent, Everyman’s Library, 1942.

            Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

            Jiyuan Yu. “Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle.” In Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 323-347.

            Kjellberg, Paul.  "Skepticism, truth, and he good life: a comparison  of Zhuangzi and Sextus Empiricus."  Philosophy East and West, Vol 44, No. 1, Jan 1994, 111-133.

            Lau, D. C. Mencius.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books, 1970.

            Mair, Victor H. Tao Te Ching  The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way  Lao Tzu.  New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

            Mou, Bo.  "The Structure of the Chinese Language and Ontological Insights: A Collective-Noun Hypothesis," Philosophy East and West, Vol. 4, No. 1, Jan. 1999, 45-62. 

            Seung-hwan Lee.  "Liberal Rights or/and Confucian Virtues?"  Philosophy East and West, Vol. 46, No. 3,  July 1996,  367-379.

            Thompson, Kirill Ole, “How to Rejuvenate Ethics: Suggestions from Chu Hsi,” Philosophy East and West, Vol 41, No. 4, Oct. 1991, 493-513.

            Waley, Arthur. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China.  London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1939.


Works examined to gain an understanding of the Chinese language:


            Elementary Chinese.  (author not named in English). Beijing: Shan Wu Yiu Shu Kuan, Part I, 1971 and Part II, 1972

            Forrest, R. A. D. The Chinese Language.  London: Faber and Faber limited, 1948.

            Henne, Henry, Ole Bjorn Rongen, Lars Jul Hansen. A Handbook on Chinese Language Structure. Oslo and other locations: Scandinavian University Books, 1977.