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.
Without any prescription whatsoever, we can describe morality as a figurative archery target of concentric rings. 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 least 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 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. The consistent intention, the summum bonum, would be the satisfaction of all others’ desires with the moral agent pushed to the fringe, a structure that would surely elevate one’s duty over her own desires. Most of us live between such extremes, and so we would 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. Of course, that is the sticking point for most of us who try to find balance because one so often conflicts with the other.
With so many choices, it seems at this point we should establish a means of discriminating desirable versus undesirable moral schemas. 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. Morally, we should not prefer a choice that would yield more bad than good, regardless of how we configure these terms relative to desire and duty. 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 of logical consistency 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 the 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 insistence or 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. But 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 duty must also challenge a bullseye that works the other way, that elevates others above oneself. Why should anyone else’s desires trump one’s own? What compels a duty to others in defiance of that same duty to oneself? Surely the same equity that disqualifies egotism must also challenge a promiscuous altruism. This position poses its most powerful objection squarely to Christianity.
Though often viewed by its adherents as a belief system derived from a set of absolutist truth claims warranted by authority and revelation, Christians are also moved by those claims to practice a system requiring a strict duty ethic (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Whether they think as Protestants do, that acts are a result of faith, or as Roman Catholics, that acts partially compose faith, Christians in general are bound to act by the dictates of the Great Commandment that forms the heart of their moral universe. It instructs them to love God and to love their neighbors as themselves. Their love of God transpires in the privacy of their own hearts and imposes its own duties dependent on denomination and private belief that are themselves difficult to discern (see “Divine Justice”). But the love of neighbor and of oneself crosses into the sphere of equity and confronts duty and desire. Taken in itself as guide to an ethical system and without regard to either the divine origin or assistance that Christians attribute to its operation, this moral duty confounds the understanding at three separate levels.
First, the Christian is exhorted to love others as she loves herself. But the Golden Rule only works if one actually knows how to love oneself. How could an egotist fulfill such a requirement? Leaving aside the manifold ways persons either overindulge or frustrate their own desires, how they want all kinds of things for themselves, we would have to question the Great Commandment’s duty to love oneself as inadequately defined without further guidance, particularly since we are also charged as part of that duty to love others in that same unspecified way. I cannot simply interrogate my own moral system and then project it to others unless by doing so I can act without contradiction. So the commandment to love oneself anticipates the problem of justice to oneself and others without resolving it.
By itself, this is not fatal, for Christians are given guidance by the example of Jesus. But Jesus did not love himself at all by even the most wholesome definitions of the term. His self-abnegation was both active and passive. His rejection of worldly pleasures includes what even the most devout Christians would consider true goods, ones they might be loath to forsake: marital love, a home, friendships among equals, modest material comforts, recreation, etc. Surely by the Golden Rule, I would have these goods delivered to myself and so value them to others. Yet in teaching Christians how to interpret the Great Commandment, Jesus exemplified a rejection of these goods. This is no small thing and it has moved Christianity ever since to seek to understand the proper relationship between the City of God and the City of Man. The quest for the Christian ideal in this pursuit has always proved contentious, not only because it seems difficult but even more because it seems unclear, as the manifold sects, religious orders, millenarian movements, and wars of religion illustrate. Does this world express God’s will or Satan’s? How much of its real goods should the Christian abjure in obeying the Great Commandment? Jesus’ self-neglect was also active, for he made it quite clear that his obedience to God was reluctantly given, personifying the ethic of sacrifice that is central to Christianity and at least putatively its core value. Jesus did not only forego the goods of life. He also actively sought his own earthly unhappiness so that others might be saved. So if the Great Commandment obliges us to love ourselves as we love others, how can Jesus be seen as an exemplar? The implicit equity of the command is always contradicted by the duty to sacrifice self to others. Christianity commands believers’ duty to both love themselves and to take up their cross and deny themselves. This seeming contradiction is frequently read so as to apply Christian ethics as the antidote to valuing their own desires above others’. Surely the corrective to one error cannot be another. Can their duty be understood to deny themselves in an imitation of Christ but in contradiction to the Great Commandment? Or is it to love themselves in some unspecified way that includes limitless self-sacrifice? Jesus makes clear both at a tender age and just before his death that his work is not a desire but instead is a duty in obedience to God’s will. So Christianity is putatively a morality of strict duty, but just what is the Christian duty? Can it be lived? Should it be? Christians are often condemned for choosing their desires over their duty. But perhaps their problem is a more basic one. Perhaps they are confused about what desires they should value and what duties to pursue.
The problem grows much more intractable when one turns from duties to self and toward duties to others. The Parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that Christians are obligated to consider everyone as “the dear neighbor.” The obligation to love all seems meant quite literally, to move Christians to love strangers as they love their own family, to treat all as family. The egotist who values self above all others cannot refrain from putting his loved one’s desires above his own at times. But Christians face a harder duty. Even as they despise their own desires, they are told that they must value all others’ desires in denial of the instinct that moves them to value parents, children, or friends. Their clear duty is not only to sacrifice their own desires in deference to strangers but also their family’s, or at a minimum to at least value strangers to the same degree. “Love your brother” is not meant literally in Christian duty unless one considers everyone as her brother. When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor,” his answer was unequivocal. Add to this clear admonition Jesus’ own example of self-denial and we find a duty of Christians to satisfy the desires of every living soul except themselves and to place the desires of strangers not only above their own but on the same level as those whom they most love. How can this be interpreted?
Let us first observe how quickly we seek interpretation for the simple reason that this duty is manifestly impossible. A few Christians have tried to live entirely for others, to seek out their desires and meet them at whatever cost to their own wellbeing. Not many. It is not coincidental that the Christian ideal is a simple two-ring bullseye with the unattached Christian giving all to all others. St. Paul’s blessing of marriage, “better to marry than to burn,” is hardly a ringing endorsement for matrimony, but the clergy abuse scandals of recent years may be. For every Mother Theresa there are millions who follow the advice of St. Augustine: to act as a balm to those we happen to come across in our own pursuits. But surely this violates both the Great Commandment and Jesus’ own example: the devout Christian must have but one pursuit: the good of others. Otherwise, she either may grant herself the ethical indulgence of deciding just when and how to value others’ desires over her own or feel perpetually guilty for every self-satisfaction. But Christianity as an ethic offers no means to know when to pursue her own desires in preference to others’, and so the Christian must appeal to another and therefore, it may be presumed, higher ethic to inform her of when to indulge desire or fulfill duty. She may easily follow Augustine’s mandate and still single-mindedly pursue her own desires in violation of the admonitions of Christian duty and Jesus’ own example simply by rationing her degree of attention (see “Empathy: A Moral Hazard”). Unsurprisingly, we find nearly all Christians have done precisely that: engaging in random acts of kindness when they feel the urge as they pursue their own desires and fulfill their own duties, presumably determined by some hypothetical ethic that honesty must compel them to admit is more directive to their pursuits than the absolute duty of the Great Commandment they profess to obey. Perhaps this level of Christian duty manages to satisfy their generous impulses without too much inconvenience, but one may very easily leave out the word “Christian” in this sentence and thus invoke simple human decency. Christianity seems an enormously difficult moral system, but its spectrum of duties from strict asceticism and monasticism to what Kierkegaard condemned as social comfort allows great latitude of behavior. Christians may think they are adhering to a demanding moral structure, but the ambiguous and unworkable demands of the Great Commandment reduce most believers to a simple pragmatism whose hypothetical and self-interested goods must be made ambiguous to consciousness.
They respond to these objections in either of two ways.
The most common is a blasé refusal to engage the issue. The fog of proper Christian duty conveniently cloaks all manners and degrees of moral comportment, and this kind of Christian would think it confining to face a greater and clearer duty. The genius of Christianity is that this person may still consider herself devout while employing some other guiding principle to her moral freedom that might be entirely incompatible with the Great Commandment in both intention and consequence. Raw capitalism comes to mind, but a hyphenated Christianity may seek direction from almost any other moral schema under the sun to resolve the apparent conflict she feels between her duties to self and to others. But even if a completely compatible ethic could give direction and force to Christian behavior and could eliminate its grosser ambiguities, those attempting some synthesis face an intractable divergence of guiding axiom (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Directing moral choice by some alternative system of justification challenges the divine authority that Christians claim to revere as a guarantor of certain truth and goodness because it must engage the reason and moral agency of the congregant so as to decide (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). It substitutes a situational and hypothetical reasoning in pursuit of utility for a certain and categorical divine command. Whether that reasoning sanctions a hedonistic pragmatism or a utility of furthest ends is irrelevant to the appeal that must be made to reasoning in circumstance, and this cannot make the appeal to certainty that trust in divine authority grants (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends“). The moral fog of a combination value system is thus magnified by the necessity for her to surrender her own judgment and its hypothetical goods in favor of a blind trust in the categorical authority of Scripture or dogma, which must disqualify any hybrid morality that engages her own agency. Given modernist and postmodernist rejection of institutional authority, and especially trust in religious authority, it is more likely that a contemporary Christianity both requires and denies her the option to engage the inherent self-interest and temptations of the desire that must be inherent in religious belief (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).
A second response is truer to tradition, regarding the effort to employ the Christian ethic as an impossible but noble quest and one assisted by grace. The devotion to a deeper and obscured good in conflict with the apparent ones of this world requires some assaults on reason to enlarge the scope of reality as all the brands of gnosticism demonstrate, but the beliefs thus secured may be consistent. The problem then lies in actually employing an ethic derived from them, for the insistence on continual self-sacrifice cannot succeed, and devout Christians who aspire to the imitation of Christ—though their numbers be few—must face a lifetime of frustration so as to reap their eternal reward as they deny themselves even the most wholesome of human goods in order to devote their attention to all other persons. The saints of Catholic tradition come to mind as exemplars of this quest, the most familiar being Mother Theresa. Kiekegaard saw this dilemma most clearly, the result of which was to force the recognition that “the movements of faith must consistently be made by virtue of the absurd.” The theological historian Karen Armstrong fleshes out this koan in her magisterial The Case for God, arguing that all religious belief affronts the rational sense, and that Christianity in general elevates the demand for active commitment as a mystical kind of doxastic venture: one acts in defiance of reason in the expression of faith rather than in accord with it. In this approach faith must be an irrational leap beyond the ethical, an absolute commitment to God as totally other and to others as God’s image on earth. In this view, faith cannot stem from reason or be reconciled to it, and so faith and the duties it requires must violate it. By definition then, one should not expect this effort to be either sensible or sustainable. Pascal had it right when he declared that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” Now these reasons might conceivably be extra-rational: incapable of being rationally justified yet not also violating it. Perhaps this is what Pascal meant by the phrase, “The last act of reason is to know what it is incapable of.” But Kierkegaard and Armstrong clearly disagree with Pascal’s compatibilism, arguing that faith does not go beyond rationality but must instead oppose it by the power of will. The distinction between these two views is hugely important for the ethical life of the believer. Aquinas and Augustine and other fathers of the faith argue for the former, and the explicit position of Roman Catholic doctrine reflects that sense of a supernatural knowledge that completes natural reasoning. This is the position clearly expressed in Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical of 1998. What Armstrong, Kierkegaard, and the reformed epistemology of Protestantism argue for is something quite different: a moral stance that regards reasoning itself as hopelessly compromised either by the ontological nature of divinity or by original sin, either requiring one to seek the divine grace of revelation as infallible guide to moral behavior. This position challenges the moral agent to live always in violation of his own reason. Whatever resemblance to an ethical system it evokes involves more a commitment to renewal of an intentionality of sacrifice than a lived system of reasoning choice. Seen in this light, the rituals and pursuits of belief become an alternative to the operation of practical reason, even a corrective to it. The City of God cannot be reconciled with the City of Man. The rationalist interpretation of religious morality undertaken by Aquinas and disseminated by evidentialists since the eighteenth century is in this view a dead end. Fideism, faith in defiance of knowledge, has its corollary in moral intentionality in defiance of consequence.
Knowing this and confronting the confusion attendant to the Great Commandment, it should hardly surprise us that most Christians live a morality indistinguishable from that employed by the postmodern egotists they condemn (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). Their differences are rooted less in their behavior than in the warrant each uses. Christians appeal to faith to justify actions in violation not only of their reason but also of their instinctual preference for family and warrant it most frequently by authority or by a coherentist revelation (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”). Postmodernists utterly reject revelation, respecting an equally private instinct or some cultural value for moral guidance. Both attempts are similarly tainted. The Christian must confront the difficulty of maintaining this purest and least natural focus on an intentionality of self-sacrifice in defiance of desire. The postmodernist faces the immediacy of her desire coupled with an inability to reconcile conflict with those whose morality grows from other cultural or experiential roots, however they might define these. Furthermore, she lacks the means to settle internal conflict stemming from the multiplicity of cultures that touch her moral existence. These ethics fail to meet the demands of the principle of non-contradiction. They cannot be reasonably called ethical systems.
Whether justified by God or man, most persons act out of an instinctive tribalism that moves them to value themselves and those they love differently from strangers. They actively seek to satisfy the desires of those they love while they feel a far feebler duty to assist others, or perhaps they feel no duty at all. We might consider their moral bullseye to have three rings: themselves, those they love including family and friends, and strangers. Their relationships 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 Communist 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 is instinctive and 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. How can equity of desire and duty apply, first to one’s relationships to strangers, and secondly to the favoritism we so strongly feel for family, friends, and tribe? If I sit at the bullseye of my moral world, what is my duty to those other rings that surround me and how does that duty harmonize with my own desires? Viewed in this light, it seems unsurprising that most persons today throw up their hands and give up the pursuit of any systematic ethical system whatsoever. That surrender must lead to a de facto adoption of pragmatism as the arbitrating ethical choice when all other attempted systematic options fail or prove incomplete.
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 moral behavior at all, even less so than the utilitarianism from which it is derived. But in bowing to our native preference for those we love over strangers, pragmatism has proved more comprehensive than a simple egotism and its polar opposite, Christian ethics. Its recognition of that inner ring of privilege also places it above 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 duty whatsoever except the duty to act on expedience, so while it may sanction a special preference for those we love, it does not require it, nor does it require that we treat strangers with equity or justice. Even if our inclinations moved us to these preferences, pragmatism would as eagerly accept the opposite choice should our inclinations or situation change. Speed and nimbleness are its strengths, not consistency or sense.
Since pragmatism fails so miserably to order our short-term and long-term choices in a non-contradictory way, and since duty ethics and Christianity fail to order them in regard to our natural preference for those we love over strangers, and since equity seems both a desideratum and an impossibility in moral choosing, what should the moral seeker do? “Go with your gut” is less morality than survival mechanism. But employing it must remind us that survival is far from happiness.
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”). These begin with a frank appraisal of how life is really lived, revealing two painfully obvious problems that any contemporary moral system must resolve.
The first is the welter of choices we face in contemporary life. Pragmatism appeals to us as a solution less because it is good than because it is easy. 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 profit/loss. 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 experience 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 habit that must be systematic. 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. At that point, duty and desire become one. 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”).
The second problem remains though. How does virtue ethics compose the moral bullseye? How does it identify and harmonize duties: to ourselves, to those we love, and to strangers? How can it resolve our tribalist instincts and still maintain the equity necessary to avoid injustice to strangers?
In recognizing the central role of a rational examination of experience, virtue ethics employs axioms of commitment that are attractive to the modernist. Our duty is primarily to ourselves, to promote our own flourishing, through the operation of our own reasoning. Now this certainly sounds egotistical, placing oneself at the center of the moral bullseye. But as a practical matter, it makes sense to place natural freedom where it can act most efficiently in determining truth as a means of choosing the good as the moral agent defines it. So most of our moral duty is to ourselves: to choose in the welter of experience those desires that conduce to our own flourishing. We owe our first duty to ourselves, a happy condition of the rationality that also directs the will to pursue it. The egotist might make the same observation. But virtue ethics also emphasizes that a requisite part of that flourishing requires living in communities with loved ones and strangers, collaborating with them in pursuit of the wholesome goods that both we and they need not only to live but to live well. Recognizing the necessity of collaboration and the commonality of needs compels me to also recognize my reliance on others for my own happiness or at least a part of it and their reliance on me (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). 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. When that reasoning applies to the role of the state as stranger-writ-large, it justifies government, which is simply an enlargement of virtue ethics as it applies to strangers’ duties to practice justice (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). So in regard to strangers, virtue ethics is both self and other-regarding in equal measure. In essence, it refuses to use the knife of analysis to slice the incommensurable elements of flourishing as other moral systems see them. Our duty is to direct our own desires toward flourishing, but that same duty and that same flourishing requires us to share some common goods with strangers in custom and law. Is this selfish or selfless? Is it duty or desire? Properly understood, virtue ethics and natural law theory erase such distinctions.
That may well be, but the preference we show family and friends must be an anomaly in that pursuit of equity. How can morality allow that and still claim to be both equitable and just? Aristotle answered that question by saying, “If all men were friends, there would be no need for justice.” We may acknowledge that strangers are due our collaboration for 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 them a generosity beyond justice. We find it almost demeaning to resort to justice in dealing with them, as when loved ones resolve their disputes in Family Court. Recent feminist criticism has reminded us that justice must be families’ minimum goal rather than their maximum as it is with strangers. Love willingly gives more, or at least we think it should. 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 part of that calculation of justice. 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 justice to arbitrate its undistilled experiences. Love replaces justice in intimate circumstances. 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 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 not in justice but in love, 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.
Virtue ethics employs three concentric rings of self, family and friends, and strangers. Our duty to strangers, including the state, is founded upon justice (see “Toward a Public Morality”). Equity distributes justice as a human right through the modalities that functional natural law theory describes. 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.