The Moral Bullseye


  • All moral choices rely on desire or duty involving ourselves and other persons.
  • We can view morality as a systematic bullseye specifying our duties and desires to ourselves and others.
  • An ethic of total desire will have two rings with all those in the outer ring serving the desires of the egotist at the center.
  • An ethic of total duty will have the moral agent establishing a duty to all those in the second ring.
  • Neither of these ethics is possible if one uses the principle of non-contradiction as a simple test, which most impacts pragmatism and Christian ethics.
  • Non-contradiction requires a recognition of
  • It is natural for persons to favor those they love, which will require a third ring of the moral bullseye: one for self, one for loved ones, and an outer ring for strangers.
  • This bullseye faces serious problems of equity, for it establishes a tension between the principle of equity and our inclination toward tribal favoritism.
  • The three-ring moral bullseye is not fair, but it is just because we give all moral agents their due; we give our intimates more than their due.
  • Because animals evidentially lack moral agency, they cannot be considered moral agents worthy of radical respect.
  • Only virtue ethics recognizes a difference in duty and desire between strangers and those we love, and since this distinction is so deeply rooted as to be ineradicable in human nature, a complete moral system must honor it despite the protestations of utilitarianists and duty ethicists.
  • We must distinguish two categories of stranger: individuals and the stranger-writ-large that is community and government.
  • Duty and desire are emulsified in relations of love, and in a just state, would be similarly emulsified in relations based upon justice, since the moral agent benefits from both kinds of relations and also has a duty, though a differing one, to either ring of the moral bullseye.

Moral choices may rely on either desire or duty. We may desire to do our duty or may feel it a duty to fulfill our desires, but in either case, we easily differentiate the two, especially since they are so often in conflict. Desire bulldozes its way into consciousness demanding what it will. Duty is dragged to our reluctant attention. It is difficult to say whether conciliating desires or reconciling duties is more challenging to morality, but only a bit of living is sufficient to demonstrate that either alone is troublesome enough. Harmonizing both in our pursuit of the good life no matter how we choose to define or pursue it is the great challenge.  A working moral system should minimize these species of conflict as well as the friction between public and private morality, itself a common source of tension (see Belief in the Public Square”). An exemplary one would eliminate such conflicts altogether. Is such a paragon possible? I argue it is.

Morality can be defined as “a systematic system of preference that specifies the ends of choosing.” Without any prescription whatsoever, we can describe morality as a figurative archery target of concentric rings, each symbolizing categories of persons with whom we interact (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). We know who populates the center, but only a hermit could claim her moral dealings concern only herself. So we must expand our moral bullseye to all persons (and maybe to all entities or all animals) we come into contact with. The composition of that target would depend on how we treat our duties and our desires. A variety of arrangements is possible, and though it is true that most persons don’t think about it all that much, choosing what we think to be good takes most of our time and energy, so doing it well might be worth more attention than the latest celebrity gossip or scorecard. And that relies on a consistent picture of our rights and duties. The etymology of morality traces to customs, implying that its choosing is central to every moment of ordinary living. And even the most enlightened soul will find herself falling into customary modes of choosing as a consequence of exercising her natural freedom (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). So she might as well cultivate the preferential freedom to do that consistently well, however she defines it.

An ethic of desire would place oneself at the bullseye, with one outer ring containing all other persons. It would be hard to imagine that this would pose any challenge to one’s moral duty because its guiding moral principle has the egotist’s own desires superseding all duties to others. A two-ring moral target would also characterize the devout Christian who thinks her duty to self-sacrifice places all other persons’ desires above her own. In that schema, the roles would be reversed in favor of an ethic of total altruism, complete duty. Most of us live between such extremes, and so we might populate our bullseye with more rings, perhaps one for those we care deeply about and another for those we don’t, and perhaps even another ring for external associations like law and culture, though still putting ourselves at the bullseye of moral life in terms of both desire and duty. And that is the sticking point for most of us who try to find balance because one ring so often conflicts with the other in both our desires and our duties.

With so many choices, we should establish a means of discriminating among possible moral bullseyes. What makes one better than another? Let’s keep this simple, and answer that any system that is not self-contradictory or self-defeating would qualify as a good one, so our sole criterion will be the principle of non-contradiction. It is no accident that this single requirement is also the simplest rule of rationality: a truth claim cannot be both true and false at the same time. A shorthand way to say this is to say that any moral system must be rational, even if we define rationality in this most basic of terms (see The Tyranny of Rationality”). This simple requirement restricts any examination of a moral system to its own internals, so to speak, introducing no external conditions and imposing no other rule than that it be true to its own premises directing desire and duty as it chooses to define them. Even an ethic of sentiment or pure emotion must meet this most basic rule of choosing. The requirement for internal rational consistency is tautological to the meaning of system or schema, so to say we operate from any moral system implies that we also think it non-contradictory.

But that culls the choices immediately. An ethic that violates its own premises will find itself disqualified by this standard of rationality. Surely, the first to go must be one that elevates personal desire as the sine qua non of morality. A pure ethic of selfishess must prove self-contradictory for three reasons. First, no can be consistently selfish to others. It seems ironic that an ethic of total egotism must fail because we instinctively value others enough to place their desires above our own, at least occasionally. We all do that. So what informs the moral agent of when that is allowed if her ethical system indicates it should never be? Some other moral direction must intrude, and that would invalidate a pure ethic of selfishness. A stronger point of disqualification derives from the problem of ordering one’s own pursuits. An egotistical morality would provide no means to arbitrate one’s own conflicting desires. If two choices dare to apply for gratification with equal force, by what means would the egotist choose to forego one and gratify the other? That can be done as the Romantics did, by satisfying them in order of intensity, but that must teach the lesson the Romantics unwillingly learned: that short-term desires must conflict with long-term ones in ways that inevitably frustrate both. The honest egotist must face a third disqualification for her system of morality. The final tripping mechanism must be equity, the entirely rational claim that your desires are no less important to you than mine are to me, and therefore your desires must carry as much water for you as mine do for me. I want for my own yearnings to count for more than others’, though I cannot give a convincing reason why they should or why mine should prevail in social conflicts. The moral bullseye that values me above all others must be rejected on the basis that they have as much reason to pursue their desires as I do. And that violates my ethical presumptions. If I cannot simply pursue the satisfaction of my own desires, it must be because I am restrained by some duty to others not apparent to my own moral system. Its own contradictions compel us to reject a two-ring bullseye that puts one’s own desires always first.

But that same realization must also invalidate a two-ring bullseye that promiscuously places others’ desires first as well. So a consistent altruism must be as suspect as a constant egotism. For if equity demands that my desires are no more important than another’s, it necessarily follows that they are also no less so. And this objection poses its most serious objection to the traditional picture of the Christian faith as an ethic of self-sacrifice.

We see this duty everywhere in Christianity: from Jesus’ reported parables, like the Good Samaritan, to his own admonitions to his followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” What could be more baldly stated than his articulation of Christian duty: “Greater love than this no man has that he lay down his life for his friends”? Given that example, we can see what is involved in the admonition to “Love one another as I have loved you.” This injunction is summarized in the two directives of the “Great Commandment”: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

But this depiction of Christian duty is so demanding, asks for so much self-abnegation and such consistent self-denial that theologians from the beginning have sought to tone it down. Paul is inconsistent in his defense of the duty to self-sacrifice, but he admonishes the first believers to “first do no harm” to other believers. Three hundred years later, Augustine tempered the moral duty more, by telling Christians to be Christ to those whose paths they cross and to favor benevolence over beneficence, goodwill over good acts. Thomas Aquinas lowered the bar yet again, telling Christians to give to others when they can make the time, which makes the duty outlined in the Great Commandment hardly more demanding than a secular benevolence. Though Christians make much of their duty to “the dear neighbor,” the nature and extent of that duty is seldom clarified. Certainly, the demands of love are greater than a casual or occasional expression of concern for others. Knowing this and confronting the confusion attendant to the Great Commandment, it should hardly surprise us that most Christians do not model their morality on a two-ring bullseye of altruistic duty (see “What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?“). A Christian duty ethic of total altruism will fail the test of non-contradiction as surely as an egotist’s desire ethic of total selfishness. Without serious revisions or additions, the two-ring moral bullseye cannot qualify as a basis for an ethical system.

One problem both face is the special status of those we love. Regardless of the ethic we profess, we are all moved by an instinctive tribalism that values ourselves and those we love differently from strangers. We actively seek to satisfy the desires of those we love while we feel a far feebler duty to assist others. Some of us feel no duty at all. It seems our moral bullseye must have three rings: ourselves, those we love including family and friends, and strangers. Our relationships to all three rings of this bullseye will entail both desire and duty. That seems always to have been the case, and neither two thousand years of applying the Christian Great Commandment nor seventy years of the Soviet experiment have succeeded in changing that moral outlook so as to impose the same moral duties and desires to strangers as we feel toward those we love. This tribalism begins the moment the infant turns to her mother and away from the stranger who tickles her chin. Our preference for our relations is genetically hard-wired as is our suspicion of “the other.”  So we might as well face it. No moral system that ignores that natural human propensity can succeed.

But that introduces two problems for a rational ethical system composed of the three concentric rings of self, loved ones, and strangers. First, what, if anything, is our duty to strangers? If we accept any duty at all, we face an immediate second problem: how can we reconcile our natural favoritism for those we love with an equitable duty to strangers? After all, a three-ring bullseye explicitly separates the two groups by placing them in different areas of duty and desire, which seems to imply entirely different kinds of moral responsibilities. What are they and how can the two rings be reconciled to one system of preference? These problems seem so intractable that it is unsurprising that most persons today throw up their hands and give up the pursuit of any systematic ethical system whatsoever, embracing a raw tribalism that claims no duty to strangers or perhaps something even worse: a de facto adoption of pragmatism as the arbitrator of a moral duty that orbits erratically around the twin masses of our duties and our desires.

I find pragmatism the most flaccid and hopeless moral system imaginable (see The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). It is in truth not a system of behavior at all, even less so than the utilitarianism from which it is derived (see “Three Moral Systems“). But in bowing to our native preference for those we love over strangers, pragmatism has proved more possible to practice than a simple egotism or altruism. Its recognition of that inner ring of privilege also makes it more livable than Kant’s duty ethics, an otherwise admirable ethical arrangement that unfortunately makes no distinction of duty to family and to strangers. Pragmatism operates by no rule whatsoever except the duty to act on expedience, so while it may sanction a special preference for those we love, it does not require one, nor does it require that we treat strangers equitably. Even if our inclinations moved us to these preferences, pragmatism would as eagerly accept the opposite choice should our attitude change. Speed and nimbleness are its strengths, not consistency or sense.

Upon review, this exploration of possible systematic moralities of duty and desire has so far failed. An ethic of altruism or egotism is unlivable. Pragmatism is not systematic. All that has been found thus far is that  we must respect equity and that we need at least three rings in our moral bullseye: for selves, loved ones, and strangers. Do we need a fourth? For instance, we also have moral relationships with institutional entities. We all live under a government and also have voluntary associations of all kinds. Do we need a ring for such associations? I argue we do not. As will be shown below, we will be able to include them into the ring of strangers. Our moral duties and desires will be simplified by that expedient. But we ought to notice there is a big difference between a co-worker or a distant neighbor and a total stranger. We might consider a separate moral ring for acquaintances, but again in the interest of simplicity and consistency, I suggest that we think of those persons who seem less than friend and more than stranger as moving back and forth between the rings, at some times almost a friend and at others almost a stranger. We shall return to our relations with acquaintances once we establish the moral sense of the two rings that encircle them.

Animal rights activists will protest that our moral bullseye is still not complete, for we have relationships with our pets and duties to them and to animals in the wild. That is certainly true, and to buttress their argument, we cannot deny that we also desire their presence in our lives. But I contend that these relations cannot be moral ones because animals cannot reciprocate our moral behaviors. Though we love our pets, we are always the dominant partner. We control the nature of the relationship, and in the case of our pets, we dominate it to satisfy our own desires. So therefore I must insist that our relations with animals are always relations of utility rather than of morality, so they can never be equitable as moral relationships always must be. Kant’s moral principle of radical respect applies to other persons. We have a moral duty rooted in equity to treat them always as ends in themselves, never as merely the means to our own ends. It is preferential freedom that earns such radical respect, and this has tremendous implications for the rights of persons in our moral schema (see “Needs and Rights“).

I deeply admire virtue ethics as a system of private morality (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer) and functional natural law theory as its public face (see Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). What follows is a capsule summary of the solutions these complementary moral systems propose to guide our moral preferences.

So let us settle on a three-ring bullseye of duty and desire: to self, intimates, and strangers. Let us begin with the moral agent at the center. Pragmatism, choosing on the fly, is seen as a solution less because it is good than because it is easy. We can never escape the tug of our desires and at least occasionally of our duties.  Who can examine the projected outcome of the thousands of goodness choices we make every day in undistilled experience, choices involving utility, quality, and morality (see What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”)? Who can reasonably seek consistency, avoid contradiction, and still get anything done? Nearly every moral system resorts to some shortcut, some quick-and-dirty maxim to guide behavior. To the Christian, it is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” To the duty ethicist it is the categorical imperative: choose as though the maxim of your action were a universal guide to behavior. To the utilitarian, it is the calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number. To the hedonist, the maximization of pleasure. Pragmatism is the king of quick-and-dirty. Its attraction is completely built upon the shortcut of allowing one’s instincts and intuitions to translate unique context into moral guidance in the wink of an eye and without conscious thought. Virtue ethics offers its own work-around. Cultivating habits requires attention initially. Every goodness choice is also a moral one because it either builds or erodes habits. And it is our habits that must be systematic, not our individual acts, which are sited in context.  One must think through intended consequences and act consciously at first to instill beneficial habits of choice. The goal is the development of good character that, once cultivated, moves the moral agent consistently toward meeting his needs. Though difficult initially, moral virtue offers a singular simplification in the long run, for it reconciles desire with duty. The moral agent habitually desires to do her duty, that duty focusing on a consistent acquisition of the wholesome goods that accumulate to flourishing and a corresponding avoidance of choices that frustrate it. Once instilled, good habits allow a habitually successful navigation of daily life not without rational arbitration — after all, each experience poses its unique options for consideration — but with an increasingly high level of competence far superior to undistilled experience. (see Expertise”).

Even if habit harmonizes duty and desire in pursuit of the good life for the moral agent, the second problem remains. How does virtue ethics compose the other rings of the moral bullseye? How does it identify and harmonize duties to those we love, and to strangers? How can it resolve our tribalist instincts and still maintain the equity due to strangers by virtue of their human dignity?

The answer returns us to the greatest good as virtue ethics defines it and to the means to that end. Our duty is primarily to ourselves, to promote our own flourishing through the perfection of our own preferences. Now this certainly sounds egotistical, placing oneself at the center of the moral bullseye. But it makes sense to place our preferential freedom where it can act most efficiently in the flux of experience. So most of our moral duty is to ourselves: to choose in each unique context those goods that conduce to our own flourishing, a happy condition of the rationality that also directs the will to gratify it. The egotist might make the same observation. But virtue ethics also emphasizes that an inseparable part of flourishing can only be provided by those in the other two rings of the moral bullseye. We collaborate with others in pursuit of the wholesome goods that both we and they need not only to live but to live well. But here is the crucial difference: we love those in our ring of intimacy. We wish to help them actively in their own pursuit of flourishing.  In truth, the preceding sentence may be taken as the very definition of love (see Needs Anchor Morality). No wonder duty and desire are emulsified for our family and friends. We desire the best for them and also feel a duty to help them procure it. We find something similar happening in our very different relations with strangers in the outer ring, and for the same reasons. They have the same right to fulfillment that I have, the same needs as persons, and so equity demands — and practical reasoning in pursuit of my needs requires — collaboration in pursuit of common goods that can be gotten in no other way than by cooperation with them. In short, the moral basis for our relations with strangers is not love but justice, classically defined as “to each his due.” When that reasoning applies to the role of the state as stranger-writ-large, it justifies government. No social contract based on conventional associations is needed, and that means no libertarian perversion of persons’ relation with the law (see “Why Invent a Social Contract”). Functional natural law is simply an enlargement of virtue ethics as it applies to strangers’ duties in formalized settings (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). So our moral ends are both self- and other-regarding in equal measure in our dealings with our intimates and strangers (see “Toward a Public Morality“). What is common to all three circles of the bullseye is that the goal of flourishing removes the distinction between duty and desire in our moral schema. In essence, it refuses to use the knife of analysis to slice the incommensurable elements of flourishing as other moral systems see them, regarding all three rings of the moral bullseye as equally essential to a complete life. Our duty is to direct our own desires toward flourishing, but that same duty and that same flourishing requires us to cultivate love of our intimates as well as to seek some common goods with strangers. Do we categorize this view as selfish or selfless? Does it spring from duty or desire? Properly understood, virtue ethics and functional natural law theory erase such distinctions. What is still missing from this understanding at this point is a different sort of analysis that clearly delineates the extent and limits of the role of each ring of the moral bullseye.

That analysis returns us to the problem of equity toward strangers and favoritism toward those we love. Our desire to favor family and friends violates equity so obviously that both Christianity and Kantian duty ethics find it necessary to erase any distinction and have us treat all as intimates in one moral schema and as strangers in the other. In what other way can we be both equitable and just? Must duty so dominate our desire that we suppress the favoritism toward those we love to cultivate a universal equality or attempt the impossible goal of loving all strangers as we love our family?

Aristotle famously answered that question by saying, “If all men were friends, there would be no need for justice.” We recognize the impossibility of universal love, for we all know what love demands. We know the effort it takes, the intimacy it orders, the instinctive pouring out of self in romantic love, parenting, and deep friendships. It is an end in itself, which makes it inherently a moral good. But its power forces us to ask of it a question. If duty and desire energize morality, what directs the navigation of loving others? We know that this erasure duplicates our self-regard in a sense, for we feel both a duty and a desire to meet our own needs when we can. For instance, our duty to maintain our own health is richly blended with a mirroring desire to that same end and for its own sake. And we see something similar in the erasure of the duty/desire distinction in regard to those we love. That intimacy is itself a need, and like maintaining health is something we ought to desire. Furthermore, when we are unable to meet our other needs, subsidiarity provides assistance in an equally instinctive manner. Love does not measure costs but operates in trust, surrendering authority to the one we love. Nothing is rationed or calculated, measured or withheld unless a sustained and gross abuse of trust forces a reversion to treating those we love as strangers. This tells us something feminist ethicists have been trying to tell us for decades but which has been too often denied: even the love of our intimates is baselined in justice, though we ought to ask and give much more in procuring it. The vast difference between the urgings of love and of equity cannot fail to highlight how differently we treat those we love and those we do not. That difference underscores what any analysis must drive home: universal love is an impossibility, a feel-good denial of the meaning of love itself.

So we are not all friends. But though we do not love strangers, we cannot simply ignore them. For those few we consider our acquaintances, our co-workers and neighbors, we might desire to treat them pragmatically, not systematically. Sometimes we treat them as friends, sometimes as strangers, depending on our moods. But that kind of behavior is not moral and cannot be systematized into a moral schema. I have resolved this difficulty the only way I know how: by interpreting a duty to seek friendships with acquaintances as one of a very few Christian beliefs that actively affect my moral bullseye. This is a private decision that I cannot establish as a component of any public morality, and I recognize it as a weak link in my moral system not binding on others, but it does reliably direct my behavior with acquaintances. I recognize that some will see this differently and derive their own moral duties or desires toward strangers. (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?”).  This is my solution to contacts with persons I recognize but do not know.

Far more strangers are truly unknown to me. They remain in the outer ring of my moral schema. We must acknowledge that true strangers must cooperate on common goals like economic cooperation and obedience to law, but because we love family and friends and because at least some of that love is rooted in a mutual dependence for the satisfaction of needs only met by those we love, we give our intimates a generosity beyond what we give strangers. We find it demeaning even to think of rationing their deserts in dealing with friends and family, as when loved ones resolve their disputes in Family Court. Equity requires that we give each her due, but nothing forbids us from giving to those we love more than their due and even to forego any calculation of what is due in our dealings with those we love. We are wise to approach families this way, for familial life is far too intimate, its circumstances too changeable, its give-and-take too fluid, for calculations of what is due to arbitrate its variable experiences. And so it is that we make that more strenuous effort at least in part because we feel the duty to and, if we have developed good habits, also because we desire to. When we find ourselves unable to meet our own needs because of circumstance or misfortune, we instinctively turn first to those we love for assistance, and that reliance depends on a similar practical appeal to the knowledge that directs choice. Just as we know our own needs better than those we love, so too do those we love us know them far better than strangers. This explains why the principle of subsidiarity forms an indispensable support for virtue ethics. It asks loved ones to act on behalf of those unable to meet their own needs and obligates strangers and government as the aggregate of strangers-writ-large only for a small subset of common needs and for an even smaller duty when subsidiarity fails.

This set of preferences sets up a three-ring moral bullseye: self, those we love, and strangers. It regards all three as inescapable human categories founded upon our nature and our needs, our duties and our desires. Because the ring of family and friendship is small relative to the strangers in the world, we possess the means to meet the demands of love with reasonable consistency — one reason why our friends and kin are naturally self-limiting in number — but the difficulty of that effort must remind us of how impossible it would be to enlarge that privileged circle to all strangers just as our instinctive desire to extend love also reminds us of how cramped and limiting we would find to restrict such generosity to only ourselves. Our duty to strangers, including the state, is founded not upon love but upon what they are due. And that is the very definition of  justice (see Toward a Public Morality”). The entirety of our formalized relations with interchangeable strangers as individuals and as aggregated in community is to give them justice and to demand they give us the same. But this very limited, very ordered relationship holds a secret that most of us do not know. Just as the very definition of love involves our efforts to assist our intimates in the satisfaction of their needs, so too do the very definition of law and the function of justice rely on this single prescription: the equitable distribution to persons of what they are due (see “ Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer“). Equity distributes justice to the third ring of the bullseye, the ring of strangers, as a human right through the modalities that functional natural law theory describes (see “Natural and Political Rights“). To those in our inner ring, duty and desire drive us toward love as we act to fulfill needs appropriate to those who care deeply about: friends and family. At the center of the moral bullseye sits the moral agent whose reasoning examination of experience guides moral choosing that systematically harmonizes her duties and her desires to herself and others, provided she has developed the habitual character to desire what she needs.