The Moral Bullseye


  • Moral preferences differ from those based on utility because they are made in advance of particular experiences and specify a systematic end prior to particular experiences that direct them all.
  • All of our preferences concern desire or duty, so attempts have been made to structure moral systems on either, but none has succeeded.
  • Desire has motivated hedonism, Epicureanism, and utilitarianism; none has worked because desires change, we often forego our own satisfactions in relations of love wherein duty often trumps desire, and equity would allow others to practice the same self-centeredness, which would result in a failure to resolve conflict.
  • Besides these failings, the systematic nature of morality requires one to act against her own inclinations, imposing a duty so as to remain consistent.
  • Duty as the fundamental directive of moral reasoning has been championed by Christianity, which sees a universal duty to altruism, and duty ethics, which sees a universal duty to reasoned equity; Christianity fails in practice and duty ethics offers no incentive to engage its duty.
  • The failure of these pure, universalist systems is caused by one or more of three factors: meeting the theoretical requirements of morality; harmonizing our duty and desire to three rings of the moral bullseye: selves, those we love, and strangers; and providing an incentive to engage and maintain the difficult task of living morally.
  • A modified virtue ethics satisfies all three requirements.
  • Virtue ethics incentivizes moral agents by legitimizing the ends of preference as universal human needs.
  • Virtue ethics also provides the means to these ends: intellectual virtue to identify goods prior to experience and moral virtue to succeed in experience.
  • It also eases the latter by emphasizing habit so that the moral agent desires to satisfy the duty of meeting her needs, thereby reconciling conflicts between duty and desire.
  • It also harmonizes duties to all three rings of the moral bullseye.
  • Duties to oneself require development of intellectual and moral virtue in satisfaction of needs.
  • One such need is the love of intimates both as a moral end and as a means to subsidiarity; giving love definitionally means assisting those we love to meet their needs.
  • A second need is the interaction with strangers in pursuit of needs that we and our intimates cannot satisfy.
  • These take the form of duty-rights and exemption-rights.
  • If relation with intimates is regulated by love, relation with strangers is necessarily regulated by justice, defined as “what is due.”
  • A vital modification of virtue ethics concerns the delivery of justice to strangers, a need that can only be arbitrated by the stranger-writ-large that is government.
  • Government is as natural as family and as necessary, though for a completely different need.
  • Government is a justice delivery system that satisfies contributive, retributive, and distributive needs.
  • Three principles necessitated by the theoretical nature of morality arbitrate relations to all three rings of the moral bullseye: equity, the principle of sufficient reason governing degree and kind, and ought-implies-can.
  • Functional natural law theory extends virtue ethics to issues of justice with strangers based upon moral responsibility grounded in the species-specific nature of preferential freedom; this responsibility grounds human dignity that justifies universal human rights regulating what is due.

Moral choosing requires one to make a present choice for a future good. In this way it is no different from the thousands of preferences we make every day (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). The two elements that separate morality from everyday preferences of utility concern when that future will occur and when that preference is made (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’”?). Many of our decisions are so rooted in present experience and so inconsequential that pragmatic choice will do in the moment. Elevator or stairs? Soup or sandwich? Context and immediate desire dictate such moments so thoroughly that we may not be aware that we are engaged in a two-step dance with our situation: first comprehending present reality and then enumerating the options it presents brefore exercising preference in the moment (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). We make so many of these kinds of choices daily that nearly everything about them is automated except whatever action they produce as their result. But examine any of these judgments of immediate utility and you will notice their double nature. First, we determine the experience’s truth: its reality and its options; then we choose the good it offers (see “The Act of Severance”). Moral choices are fundamentally different, for they are made in advance of any situation in which they may be applied, prescribing some good that we value as an end, not of this moment, but for all moments, not for this experience, but for all.

The good we seek in moral choices may be called an end of preference. If we lack a moral sense, our preferences become an infinity of choosing this thing to get that one and that one to get the next one, all of them made in the moment and all full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). Truly moral choices are made in advance of the present so as to guide the goods we subsequently choose, so we are inclined to think less of individual ones than of an aggregate. And to structure “the aggregate,” a moral goal must harmonize and order the direction of experiences it directs toward the end we have previously chosen. Another way of saying this is that moral choosing conceptualizes goods so as to rank order preference before entering the experiences where we find them. With this in mind, we can define morality as a systematic end of preference. And when we conceptualize experiences cumulatively so as to choose that moral goal, we find experiences easily sorted into various categories. For instance, we will find all of them intentioned on a spectrum spanning desire to duty. It is in theory possible to formulate a moral system based on pure preferences for either.

An ethic of total desire places my own welfare, defined in whatever way I wish to see it, at the very center of all preferences. You will not be surprised to find this thought well-explored in the history of ethics. In its most vulgar form, it was called hedonism, which identified “desire” with “immediate pleasure.” This notion defeats itself almost as soon as it is tried, for I will be faced with the question of how immediately I wish to gratify myself, with instant gratification often being deferred for “better pleasures” to be enjoyed later, but by what moral standard is “better” to be calculated if pleasure itself is the aim? If “better” always means “more,” we will soon discover “better” really means something more than “more.” It suggests that some pleasures are of a higher quality than others, are longer-lasting, or are more fulfilling in a more distant future. That understanding of “more and better” will begin us on the road to true morality. Taking that thought seriously inspired a more sophisticated “system” of pleasure-seeking called Epicureanism, which willingly traded short-term pleasures for longer-term ones and even thought avoidance of pain to be an important factor. But these complications actually invalidate an ethic of desire. Here is why.

In order to be a systematic end to preference, a truly moral system, the pursuit has to be consistent, with every choice arbitrated by a sense of what is best for me, not from this choice but from all, not now, but throughout life. But that is impossible to do. First, my desires must change over time. Secondly, no matter how selfish I am, I will inevitably face a choice where I feel some duty to forego my pleasure to help someone I care about, but to do so would violate my ethic of self-centeredness. We all do that occasionally no matter how good our moral compass, but when we love another person, we find a duty to their welfare overriding our own, which is more than a minor affront to an ethic of desire. We find satisfactions then supplanting pleasures.  Thirdly, only a moment’s thought will reveal that a morality of selfishness will cause conflict rather than resolve it because other persons would feel entitled to the same guidance and would inevitably come into conflict with us as we chase after our own desires. And what good is a moral system that doesn’t resolve conflict? It was to meet this third objection that a third stab was taken at making desire a moral end. It produced an improved definition of “desire” by recognizing the necessity of more consistently applying reason to preference. It was called utilitarianism (see “Three Moral Systems”). Its solution to avoid conflicts of desire was to try to regulate what desires persons ought to value. For instance, I ought to value “higher pleasures” over coarser ones: democracy over anarchy, love over hate, and so on. But notice how far this notion has strayed from putting myself at the moral bullseye here. What if I enjoy conflict, hold my animosities close to my heart? This can get pretty silly when the founders of utilitarianism remind us that opera offers a higher pleasure than burlesque. What began with the thought that “pushpins are as good as poetry” so long as I enjoy pushpins ended with a highly scripted set of “oughts” that had nothing to do with individual desire. These failed efforts lead us to conclude that an ethic of desire cannot create a working moral system. My own desires cannot form a moral bullseye.

Desire’s failure was caused by more than experience. It was rather a product of the nature of moral choosing itself. If we are to be systematic, then we also have to be rational enough to choose according to our system even when we find ourselves wishing to ignore it for some reason. So any truly moral end imposes a duty to stick tight even when we may not wish to in the moment. A duty to follow our own desires doesn’t seem so desirable even in the abstract, and it obviously cannot be systematic.

So let’s give duty a spin. Instead of making my morality all about pleasure, I could make it all about duty, steering my course through life using a strict ethic of responsibility. Again, not a surprise that putting other persons at the center of my moral bullseye has also been tried. You will surely recognize one version. Christianity imposes a universal duty to self-sacrifice. In Jesus’ words, “Greater love than this no one has that he lays down his life for his friends.” But ought that duty extend beyond discomfort, to total self-sacrifice as the Christian’s duty? The duty to universal beneficence seems paramount for Christians practicing love of God and others (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). A radical altruism on others’ behalf seems the very core of Christian practice (see “What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?”). But to quote Chesterton, “The problem with Christianity is not that it hasn’t worked; it is that it hasn’t been tried.” We don’t need to search all that hard for the reason. Also, such a total duty to self-sacrifice is also inherently immoral as well as impossible. After all, though reason reminds us that we are no more important than other persons, it also reminds us that we are no less. And no one has to be told it is far easier to indulge one’s own desires than to satisfy one’s duties, particularly if there is no end to them. As a moral system, it seems Christianity fails twice. First, though we cannot consistently gratify our desires, we certainly are more prone to trying than to gratify a duty to perpetual self-sacrifice. But even for those few saintly persons who try, Christianity must fail on grounds of equity. A morality of duty must be one that treats everyone equitably, including the moral agent who engages it.

That thought may have inspired Immanuel Kant to propose duty ethics. No one can charge that it is not a moral system, for it explicitly defines a thoroughly rational and systematic end of preference and is quite clear on how one ought to engage it. As a moral bullseye, my duty is to put everyone in the center ring, myself included, and treat all choices by this simple test: what preference will most benefit everyone involved? This simple test will allow me to employ duty ethics in literally every decision I make. Kant’s system is truly moral and would work if universally employed. But that, I am afraid, is the problem. Duty ethics gives us the means and ends of a universal moral system. What it doesn’t give us is a reason to commit to it beyond duty itself.  When challenged on this point, Kant replied that while it might not make us happy, it certainly would make us worthy of happiness, which is hardly the same thing. This was such a crippling deficiency to duty ethics that Kant was forced to postulate the necessity of an afterlife where divine justice would confer the happiness that this life might deny to those who did their duty. This was a necessary indulgence in belief that was so highly speculative that it challenged the rationality of the entire system (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”). It is a literal deus ex machina that indulges speculative belief to motivate a rational system. One might as well choose reincarnation as an afterlife. It is ironic that a moral system so totally devoted to reasoned duty would find itself forced to rely on hopeful desire for its completion.

And there is another problem, one that challenges any pure ethic of duty or desire. It concerns the way we view our moral bullseye in everyday experience.

One reason we can’t embrace a strict ethic of desire is that there is an entire ring of persons we care about and often care for and beyond it another ring of persons we don’t care about very much at all. And neither duty nor desire can balance a moral response to a three-ring bullseye of self, intimates, and strangers.

Let us examine this triad as we instinctively respond to it prior to any moral conceptions. We sometimes desire to lavish those we love with extra care even when it costs us, and sometimes expend that extra care purely because we think we ought to. So we sometimes act out of duty to those we love and sometimes out of desire. It is difficult to harmonize these impulses because the intimacies of love for family and friends are so contextualized and variable, so unremitting and vital to their and our happiness. And then there are all those persons we don’t love, all those strangers that lie outside our circle of intimacy. The ring of love is populated with faces. We know these persons well and can respond to them in real time because of that intimacy with an agility and confidence we could never bring to those we do not know. Seen in terms of duty and desire, all those faceless strangers occupy a completely different circle, beyond the spheres of tribal care for self and for those we love. If I am honest, I have no natural desire to accept a moral duty to persons in my own community I don’t know and might never meet, not to mention foreigners I know I never will meet. Given the interlocking cultures that exist beyond our situational awareness, is it at all surprising that most persons simply choose for the moment in the moment those goods that they happen to value by an instinctive engagement of preferential freedom without any moral guidance (see “Cultural Consensus)? That they engage an inconstant “empathy” when they happen to notice someone in need, a sympathetic response more reliant on their attention than on others’ needs? The endless regress such haphazard choosing leads to may end in guilt or disillusion. It may confuse and confound family life. It may produce no end of material excess or want, and it will add to societal conflict. Its sole virtue is that it frees us from consistency. That is also its ruination.

If you have followed the argument thus far, you will find serious impediments to a working moral system.  One must resolve the conceptual problem of devising a morality that meets the definitional requirements of the term, a theoretical construct that is both the end of preference and is systematic, i.e. rational. And that end must be intrinsically motivating, for if we pursued it for some further purpose, then that would be the moral end we really value in much the same way that some religious believers love God to get to heaven. When we try to resolve these difficulties, we find that a purely conceptual solution will be of no use if it does not resolve three  problems. First, it must motivate our pursuit as a true end of preference. Second, it must harmonize duty and desire so as to minimize those internal conflicts we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. And third, it must resolve conflicts with all three rings of our moral bullseye: ourselves, our intimates, and strangers.

I admire virtue ethics as a solution, though with modifications that allow it to meet these three requirements. I invite your review and critique.

Virtue ethics’ ends of preference are a totum bonum, not a single goal but a basket of related goods subsumed under the umbrella of universal human needs . I will detail neither the components nor the means of deciding them here, having done this in detail in prior essays (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”). Suffice it to say that such a catalogue of needs that are transcultural, universal, timeless, and incommensurable would constitute true ends of human preference that are desired less as means to further ends than as ends in themselves, by their nature as satisfactions. I grant that this totum bonum still satisfies desires, the difference being that they are ends at the furthest range of preference we can manage rather than means to further and lesser ends. So if they are goods of utility, they are in that final category, a utility of furthest ends that is admittedly not fully categorical and disinterested, but is also not merely hypothetical. Most importantly, they are not bound by context. They are set in advance of the experiences that might allow their fulfillment. Once decided upon as the end of choosing, they bind the moral agent to fulfill them; therefore, these ends are self-satisfying enough to meet desires and demanding enough to invoke duty (see “A Utility of Furthest Ends). If achieved, these would resolve the problem of an infinite regress of utility by end-stopping the train of duty and desire with a final cause that is worthy, motivating, and rational.

How do we find these ends? Actually, they are omnipresent in all our choosing if we seek them and are known by their finality. They end-stop the endless regress of asking why we desire them. Why do we wish to be healthy? Why do we seek to develop skill, to be educated, to love someone, to be courageous? The answer always resolves to an ultimate simplicity: to live well and fully, to flourish. And not only can we see these “oughts” as desirable for our own choosing, but also as worthy of everyone’s choosing. If we see various cultural practices as diverse efforts to meet such universal needs, we will surprise ourselves as much by their variability as by their ubiquity. For instance, if we are able to visualize all world cuisines as efforts to meet our species-specific health needs, we will find a template for the kinds of cultural pursuits that meet the other needs. True needs are as wide in their means of satisfaction as the are limited in number. Though a taxonomy might differ somewhat in form, it would produce a small list of essentials that are ends to flourishing in themselves (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). Virtue ethics considers these few universal human needs as true ends worthy of a lifetime of pursuit. Further, the necessity of their pursuit itself confers a human right to their satisfaction and dignity to all persons, each of whom faces the responsibility to use preferential freedom to satisfy them (see “Needs and Rights”). It is difficult to determine which of these qualities is more important to human flourishing, but relatively easy to find the needs that are necessary to our happiness.

Identifying needs satisfies one requirement of a moral system — establishing true ends of preference we are willing to pursue — but it hardly tells us how to pursue these ends systematically. To accomplish that task, virtue ethics must resolve conflicts of duties and desires in ordinary experience.

These conflicts do not need to be proved, only exemplified. Who hasn’t wanted to do one thing but needed to do another? Anyone who has ever put down her fork while hungry or picked up her textbook while sleepy or held her temper while angry will understand the conflict between duty and desire. We often want what we don’t need or don’t want what we do, and even if this conflict could somehow be overcome, we often see even our true needs competing for our attention, so we have to face the duty of deciding which to gratify and in what order.

Virtue ethics resolves all such issues by its own quick and dirty solution. First, intellectual virtue identifies real needs in advance of their manifestation in true moral fashion. This is challenging enough to occupy our attention as we emerge from adolescence, but the real test involves actually arbitrating and satisfying them. One quality of a true need is that it is incommensurable with others, and since they all require attention — though not concurrently — we find ourselves pressed to recognize them, arbitrate their insistence, and then satisfy them by the exercise of preferential freedom. All of this is hard. To make it easier, virtue ethics proposes a lifetime of developing moral virtue, the consistent effort to desire to satisfy the duty of meeting our own needs. The only way to accomplish this task is to habituate preferential freedom to choose well (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument). Once we know our needs, habit can lead to their consistent satisfaction. The moral end is simple: we have a duty to meet our needs, sometimes in spite of our desires. The systemic means to that end is equally simple: we have to develop the habit of desiring to meet that duty. Once committed to it, we will find our needs competing for our attention, but resolving this problem is far easier. Their incommensurability means that we can respond to them as present desire moves us to. They all require satisfaction, so if we are hungry as well as tired or thinking about  leaving school to take an apprenticeship, we have equal moral duty to either choice, so long as we remember that all will require our attention eventually, though their means of satisfaction will vary with future context.

Simultaneously with habituating the duty/desire problem, we also need to construct a moral bullseye consistent with virtue. It would help if it accords as much as is morally permissible with our natural inclinations, especially since developing moral habits of mind so affronts them as we struggle to form healthy habits.

I have a species-specific set of needs, some of which are moved by desire and some by duty. But all put me in the center of my own moral bullseye. After all, I am the moral agent applying reason to experience and arbitrating the preferences it offers. Most of my needs are my own business to discover, arbitrate, and gratify. It is this moral responsibility that confers human dignity, justifies human rights, and requires the radical respect of other persons. No one can impart skill or education without my active sanction. I can easily ruin or better my own health. I can decide who to love, and how to treat strangers. Granted, my situation in life will make some satisfactions very hard to procure, in which case I must make the most of what experience provides me. Still, most of my own needs fall to me to satisfy. And most importantly, only I can develop the moral discipline to satisfy them.

But though my agency puts me at the center of my moral concerns, I can’t do it all by myself. I need the love of my family and friends. Ask me why and I will struggle to answer, finally replying that it is just how human beings function. I need their love just as I need health. Such things are not used to achieve something else. We use all that something else to achieve them. And I want to help those I love satisfy their own needs when I can. It might even be said that the very definition of “love” is consistently seeking the good for another. We seem made for this natural tribalism. The inclination to favor those closest to us is as natural as a baby’s turning to her mother when a stranger tickles her chin. It will not be suppressed. Twenty centuries of Christian teachings on universal love, three centuries of Kantian duty, and seventy years of communist exhortation have not dissolved our preference for those we love over strangers. It occupies so much of our attention that we are tempted to see our circle of love as the only other ring of our moral bullseye that imposes a duty. These faceless millions barely touch upon my natural valuation beyond a tepid “empathy” that obliges no obvious and consistent moral duty.

This tribalism may be natural, but is it moral?  On the one hand, it is clearly immoral to weigh the value of another human being by her proximity to me. Would you trade the lives of fifty strangers for the life of your child? Tribal instinct answers “yes,” but morality must intervene to limit this degree of favoritism. Every human being has equal moral weight, equal dignity, equal agency. Everyone is entitled to the satisfaction of her needs. One possible moral response is to think this equality of kind imparts not only the positive duty to assist all strangers to satisfy their needs just as I would satisfy my own and my family’s but also the negative duty to avoid assisting those I love any more than those anonymous strangers half a world away (“Kind and Degree“). This seems the Christian’s duty and the Kantian categorical imperative. Our duty to every person’s equal human dignity must be confronted. Unless countered by a better reason, I am forced to admit that I fail in my moral duty by not treating every stranger just as I would my own family, and that it is immoral to favor my own family above any stranger. After all, a grounding rule of rationality is the principle of sufficient reason: same things ought to be treated the same and different things treated differently unless overruled by a more rationally-compelling reason. We are forced by the principle of sufficient reason to ask with Kant and his duty ethics why we are entitled to favor those we love in the second ring of the moral bullseye and and slight those we don’t love in the third. We all practice tribalism. But how can that not be a moral failure?

I wouldn’t have made you come this far if I could not respond to this objection. There are very good reasons why my obligation to the anonymous stranger is limited. The most obvious is David Hume’s rule of ought-implies-can, which states that a prescribed behavior must be possible in order to be morally required. For example, it is kind for me to say I ought to make everyone happy, but impossible to impose as a moral duty for the very simple reason that I can’t accomplish that goal. The same is true for my theoretical responsibility to anonymous strangers and for three reasons. First, unlike myself and my intimates, I do not know what they need at any one moment in time. Of course, great need is evident in the world, and it is both endemic and acute. But I will likely never know which need to satisfy for a farmer in Pakistan or a taxi driver in Peru, or for that matter for the widower across town. I surely can find need if I look for it; it surely is there to be found. Is it my duty to seek it out and satisfy it as Christianity seems to dictate?  But the very ubiquity of need would force me to face a second problem: I could only provide momentary support for some persons and not for all. My behavior still would not satisfy the rational principle of sufficient reason, for there surely would be another needy person only a short distance from the one I assisted that I could not get to and another and another. And the stranger I just assisted will require continued satisfactions. All I would have done is move a few individuals from the ring of strangers into the ring of intimacy and then only temporarily. I could never move them all as a duty to human dignity must require.  And my attempting it would surely slight my own needs and the needs of those I love, which would yet again violate moral principles and instinctive tribalism as well. And very quickly, any such effort would deplete my resources of time, energy, and money. Consider the needs of family and friends, their unremitting yet varying arbitrations for satisfaction, the demands that love by its nature imposes. The rule of “ought-implies-can” must invalidate the duty to treat family and strangers with equal concern, despite the principle of sufficient reason reminding us that all persons are entitled to the satisfaction of their needs. If morality is to be consistent, I owe strangers’ dignity some attention, but that same morality requires it to be less than what I give to those I know and care about.

We could try, I suppose, to treat them with equal indifference, to show no special concern for our intimates so as to be equitable to all persons if we consider our primary moral duty is to equality (see “The Riddle of Equality). We could treat everyone with equal disdain. This would satisfy the principle of sufficient reason even if it denies our need for love and ignores the subsidiarity that love provides in satisfying other needs. But surely we have taken a wrong turn if we think moral behavior requires a haughty indifference to all other persons, depriving ourselves and those we love as well as the anonymous stranger of the satisfaction of real needs.

You may be framing an understandable objection to this focus on equal dignity at this point. If requiring it violates our most obvious needs, perhaps we should abandon it in the spirit of that famous allegory of the starfish saver. You know this one. A beachgoer finds the surf line littered with dying starfish, so he begins throwing them back into the water. A curious onlooker asks him what does it matter when such multitudes are thrown up onto the beach with every wave. As he tosses another starfish back into the water, he says, “It matters to this one.” As heartwarming as the story is, it needs one more line. The observer ought to ask this: “How long are you going to be doing this?” At some point and probably sooner than later, the starfish saver will leave the beach and the starfish will continue to die. The moral of the story would not be that compassion is the most desirable of moral virtues but that, desirable as it is to reinforce our humanity, it will never be enough, and seeing it as a spur to duty rather than a natural desire is sure to dim its light over time (see Empathy: A Moral Hazard”). If an appeal to kindness and sentiment is insufficient for morality, so too is a forced equity of avoidance, the thought that one can’t do everything and so ought to do nothing. So if the starfish saver shows us that a sporadic moral effort doesn’t get the job done, if an instinctive tribalism or a reasoned apathy don’t either, what is the moralist to do?

Let us return to the definitional concept of morality for an answer. Virtue ethics maintains that the totum bonum, the end to be desired, is the satisfaction of universal human needs. We can justify our self-interested pursuits because we own moral agency along with the responsibility to exercise it properly. We can also satisfy our special relationship to our intimates on the grounds that we need them and they need us to satisfy some needs. But this leads us to inspect the outer ring of the moral bullseye just as we’ve looked at the inner two rings to ask this question: Do we have any need at all for strangers, and do they have any need of us? The answer is yes, and examining the nature of that need will rescue the principle of sufficient reason as a moral guide to how we treat them.

Whatever the need is, it is fundamentally different from relations of love. When we are in need, we turn first to those who love us, trusting in a generous spirit that is implicitly mutual. Relations of love have their own rule, which is different not only in degree but even in kind from our relations with strangers. Since their roles in satisfaction of needs are so very different, we can argue that relationships with strangers differ in kind from relationships with those we love.

This difference provides sufficient reason to treat them differently. But by what standard? If relations of love dominate the inner two rings of the moral bullseye, what describes the proper relation we have to the outer ring, the ring of the anonymous stranger?

It turns out that my need of strangers is specific and limited, even formalized, in the same way that traffic laws are formalized, that all laws are formalized. I have no claim on another driver to treat me with anything beyond a strict reliance on the traffic laws. On the contrary, I rely on her following them so that we both can get to where we are going. This kind of formalized interaction not only exemplifies but conceptually captures nearly all of my relations with individual strangers. We are anonymous to each other and interchangeable in a sense. So long as we both abide by the formal rules governing our interaction, rules designed to simplify and facilitate it as useful to ends each of us is pursuing, we have done all we need to do for each other.

Moral philosophy has a name for this kind of mutual responsibility.  A claim-right is a lien placed upon another’s moral responsibility. The claim-right we impose on our intimates is a baseline ideally entangled in the ties of love. If we have to resort to fair play to have their support, we have already cut those ties, perhaps permanently. When families resort to their mutual claim-rights, their formalized duties by custom or law, they imply a failure of love, as when they work out their conflicts in family court. Feminist moralists remind us this claim-right always forms the minimal requirement of familial relationships, but it demands far less than love is willing to supply.

When strangers appeal to claim-rights on each other, they are merely doing their duty. We are instinctively aware of this truth because we wish to satisfy our own needs capably and without hindrance. The mutuality and simplicity of strangers’ claim-rights upon each other allow that to happen. Like traffic laws, formalized claim-rights open space for persons to exercise their preferential freedom in their own pursuits. Other than these very limited interactions, my relations with individual strangers consist of exemption-rights: we ask each other to get out of the way and in return exempt each other from responsibility to assist. If you are the kind of person who stops to help a stranger change a spare tire, you have my admiration, but consider for a moment the implication of having the moral duty not only to stop for every breakdown but also to provide transportation for everyone who lacks it. The point of the moral duty is to satisfy the need, so equity would require you to meet that need for all who lack it. That is clearly not the moral duty you accept when your compassion moves you to assist the random stranger. It is the starfish saver’s dilemma again. Imagine if every person in immediate need of transportation as a means to satisfy some other, more terminal need could impose a duty to assist them in satisfying it. The moral rule of ought-implies-can forbids accepting claim-rights from individual strangers by the standard of equity for the simplest of reasons: it can’t be done. Also remember that the ring of intimates is permeable. Once you invite a stranger into your inner circle, she can no longer be anonymous. She will be a friend whose needs now become of great interest to you, one reason why our friendships are limited in number.

Even such a brief review of the rings of the moral bullseye sharpens our awareness of both our preferential freedom and our moral responsibility. Our primary capability is also our primary responsibility: to exercise moral judgment over our own preferences. Because we are assisted in this endeavor by those who love us, we grant them special moral status. Also, the love of friends and family is a moral end itself, so our special concern is moved by more than utility. In contrast to our relations with strangers, nothing is formalized in relations of love; nothing relies purely upon exemption or duty, rights or desires. Everything in loving relationships is informal and responsive to mutual expression or intimation of need in response to context and personality. We all know the tribal bonds of love impart a special status, but a needs orientation explains why it must be so and why strangers are not entitled to a similar status. Because they are less vital to our needs, they remain at the horizon of our circle of concern so long as they remain anonymous. Acquaintances occupy a kind of neutral zone, and our ambivalence toward them shows it, for we are inclined sometimes to draw them into our concern and sometimes to hold them at a distance. If we act consistently either way, their status will be clarified as friends or individual strangers.

With this realization, we may think we have finished building the structure of the moral bullseye. We have not. For we have another kind of stranger to consider, one that actively assists us in satisfying real needs that we, our intimates, and individual strangers cannot. Still a stranger, yet not interchangeable with all the others, this is the stranger-writ-large that is government. Because we need civil order and a working economy and other satisfactions that accrue to meeting our needs, we turn to our fellow citizens and they to us to cooperatively satisfy true needs, not as individuals but in concert. Because it satisfies true needs, government is not some alien “they,” invented at a discrete moment in human history. Rather, it is as perennial as family, as necessary as education, and as natural as our moral freedom itself (see “Natural and Political Rights). This stranger has a special status and but a single claim-right on us that is entirely mutual.

When we look at the other rings of the moral bullseye, we find government a curious composite. On the one hand, it is the ultimate stranger. Not only are we equally anonymous before the law, we aim to be. In this sense, government is about as distant as a stranger can be and even in the ideal cannot be drawn into our circle of intimacy without depriving other citizens of what they are due. We call the effort to domesticate it by a variety of criminal charges: corruption, cronyism, malfeasance. But as disinterested and anonymous as we are meant to be in relation to government, it must be of concern to us because we need it. It is not faceless. We cannot exchange it for another, and in this sense government reflects some of the familiarity of those we know and value most. Our relations with government resemble those exchanges of exemption-rights we normally engage with individual strangers — after all, we wish to limit its interference in our own pursuits and our duties to its maintenance, yet we also exchange a single but vital claim-right on government and it on us, a mutual pledge as binding as the bonds of love and fully as complex. But if intimacy necessitates informality, the great claim-right of government is irrevocably as formal as any we can imagine, so articulated that it is literally codified, with mutual responsibilities precisely delineated by law and custom. This is clearly a fundamental difference from relations of love and operates by an entirely different principle. What is the aim of an institution both natural to every citizen and intentionally estranged from all? It can be summarized in a single word. The defining active claim-right between government and citizen is ideally arbitrated by justice. Government’s moral role is to deliver justice in just the same way as family’s role is to deliver love (see “Justice is Almost Everything”). The three-ring moral bullseye conceptualizes a rather offhand comment Aristotle made twenty-three centuries ago: “If all men were friends, there would be no need for justice.”

Classically defined as “what is due,” justice is inexplicable without reference to the moral satisfaction of universal human needs that is its entire purpose (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). Granted, the stranger-writ-large that is government has a very limited role in citizens’ lives, but literally nothing else can replace it. The peculiar origins of modern democracies have obscured this truth, leading persons mistakenly to think laws are conventional and arbitrary intrusions on a “natural” freedom that is itself an unnatural and ahistorical fiction (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”).

Government was no more “invented” than families were, and indeed it is the formalized extension of families intent on satisfying the needs of their members. At some prehistoric point in human history, the informal governance by tribal elders underwent a shift as ties of consanguinity became strained in larger clan structures. It was both natural and challenging to find another method of exerting a claim-right beyond the ties of blood, beyond the informalities of familial relation. Tribes always had laws, of course, but the tricky part of formalizing claim-rights was to enumerate what was due to everyone in an extended clan and when large enough, among strangers. Because human needs are invariant, we are still puzzling that one out, but a big piece of the puzzle involves the requirement that government be founded not upon private affection but upon the public good ( see “Two Senses of the Common Good“).And that requires that public morality be founded upon public rather than private values (see “Toward a Public Morality“). Various means of replacing the ties of love have been tried throughout history, with some variability still in evidence in today’s world (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?). No matter the mechanism societies use to replace tribal ties, the needs to be satisfied always determine what is due from both sides. So we ask of this part of the moral bullseye what we asked of the others: who has what moral responsibility? The question is quite simple conceptually but clearly complex in application: we ask what is due. We ask specifically for claim-rights and exemption-rights between citizens and their government in moral terms.

Since human needs are species-specific requirements of a full human life and are therefore observable wherever and whenever humans have lived in polities, we can examine past and present governments to see what functions they share in common. When we do, we find three categories of “what is due,” each of which consists of the delivery of goods coupled with a claim-right on citizens, all reliant on the delivery of the satisfaction of needs. These consist of contributive, retributive, and distributive goods, and their allocation is governed by what is due for their procurement and dissemination.

Contributive goods are pooled or delegated based on universal needs that benefit all in the polity and are the simplest justification for combining the efforts of persons in a community as they seek to satisfy their needs. These goods contribute to the general weal but in return, citizens are expect to contribute to secure these specific goods and the mechanisms that government uses to deliver them. These are the functions of government in which there is greatest common purpose and generalized assent like securing civil order and providing for the common defense.

To protect its members from the abuses of their mutual exemption-rights, governments procure retributive goods that protect citizens from transgressions of all kinds that might be inflicted by other strangers. Laws serve the additional purpose of grounding the self-interested activities of citizens by some intersubjective standard, so they make an obvious claim-right on citizens’ preferences to obey them when just. In the ideal, retributive justice would give persons equal justice under the law, but historical mistakes and instinctive self-aggrandizement have scrambled our understanding of the meaning of justice and the need for law (see “Preliminary Thoughts on Civil Disobedience: Natural Rights Issues”).

Finally, some subset of citizens in a community will fail to satisfy their own needs as their fellow citizens can, perhaps from injury, infirmity, or mischance. They lack the family structure or the means that usually can be counted upon to pick them up when they fall, so they turn to the larger community. While this recourse is a natural appeal of last resort, it is also undeservedly controversial as citizens attempt to arbitrate fair distributions that simply can never be calculated with objective clarity. What is abundantly clear is that needs are impositions of duty upon preference and can be neither metered nor denied if resources are sufficient.

Citizens fortunate enough to enjoy the subsidiarity of loving relations may be tempted to an exclusive tribalism that favors the inner circle of their moral bullseye and excludes moral responsibility even to the stranger-writ-large that is government as the composited representative and moral agent in pursuit of justice for all. They ask with reason why they enjoy exemption-rights from individual strangers but owe a claim-right to some of them through government. But if they consider the purpose of their exemption-rights, they will recall that their freedom from moral responsibility to individual strangers is necessary so that they may get the goods they need. Spreading the responsibility to all citizens resolves that problem and still provides what is needed to those who cannot provide for themselves. Whether misfortune has been courted or ferociously resisted, whether systemic inequities or personal irresponsibility or simple bad luck is to be blamed, fairness is nearly always indeterminable, but need never is. Though calculations of fairness will always end in dispute, the necessity to satisfy universal human needs will not (see “Prejudice and Privilege). Though I may never drive on an interstate highway or see the inside of a courtroom, I recognize these as real social goods worthy of my support, and assisting those who lack the satisfaction of their needs is one more aspect of that same recognition.

Although not crucial to the argument, one more buttress for distributive goods ought to be mentioned. Have you noticed how many national flags fly over the wreckage of disaster scenes? Hoisting the colors reminds those who have not been affected that these victims are their countrymen. They share no ties of love, but merely living in one jurisdiction that seeks to satisfy citizens’ need for justice exerts a moral force, not on individual citizens but on all who live under the protection of that same flag. When countrymen bump into each other when far from home, they feel a real bonhomie, almost a kinship. Occasionally, that relationship will indeed draw persons into friendship. But it is necessary to point out the importance of seeking justice if it doesn’t. All the high-flown appeals to motherland or fatherland, all the paeans to the sacred symbolism of flag and country, and all the special regard we hold for military service are inchoate attempts to put citizens into a circle of love. This ought not succeed, for we ought not surrender the standard of justice that ought to guide our relations with our government. We ought not seek the surrender to authority that is so healthy for relations of love and so fatal to moral judgment and the justice that must be its civic goal. The twentieth century is a horror show of love fests for authoritarian regimes seeking to perpetuate injustice by drawing citizens into a bogus intimacy that is the counterfeit of love (see “Recent Authoritarianism“). Fathers and mothers provide love; fatherlands and motherlands provide justice. For this reason, the border between relations of love and of justice must be monitored and kept clear. Observation indicates that is not happening now.

The gratitude we owe to the stranger-writ-large that is government is real because it is an active partner in our effort to flourish, and whether we call our response patriotism or civic duty, we need for government to exert its claim-right upon citizens. We need to insist on its strict duty to justice. We satisfy government’s claim-right on us by paying taxes, obeying laws, voting, doing jury duty, and participating in civil life. These all serve the interests of justice. Our taxes and voting in peacetime and our service in times of crisis satisfy our duty to contributive justice. Our obeying just law, civil disobedience to unjust law, and serving on juries satisfies retributive justice (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?“). Our supporting less fortunate citizens in need by taxation satisfies distributive justice. Like the starfish saver, we can do more, but as the strarfish saver must leave the beach in time to return to the circle of intimacy for “enough,” so must we as well. Altruism requires moral limits too. Because we lay a claim-right on government to satisfy these needs, it lays one upon us to support its distributive efforts.

These positive moral claim-rights that bind citizens to their government are compounded by an equally positive exemption-right. Because our duties to our government are limited and specific, they largely negate the claim-rights of individual strangers in one country on individual citizens in another. This is not meant to dispute the human rights that all persons are due. Foreigners surely deserve the same satisfaction of their needs as our countrymen do (see Where Do Rights Originate?“). But the principle of ought-implies-can intrudes on our good intentions to remind us that we cannot assist those living in other countries as easily as we can assist individual strangers in our own for a very simple reason. Our agent for arbitrating justice is our own government that lacks the jurisdiction to perform the same function for strangers elsewhere. Just as we as individuals lack the resources to deliver just distributions to strangers in our own country, so too does our government lack the resources to assist all other governments in their pursuit of justice for their own citizens. We delegate our moral duty to distributive justice to our government, but there is no reliable jurisdiction for our government to appeal to in an effort to help other governments. Our sporadic attempts to assist individual strangers is also reflected in the inconstant aid our government gives to needy countries, and it has a similar effect. The duties of love remind us that needs are unremitting, and that our capacity to assist others is limited. While this is a sobering admission, it does not argue against a generous spirit; rather that a generous spirit is simply not enough to deliver what is due. As citizens, we can champion the concept of human rights as a universal inheritance of every person and lobby our government to assist others to the degree that it is able, particularly in areas where gross violations occur because of natural or civil disaster.

Our moral bllseye is now nearly complete and systematic, but one uncertainty remains. Earlier, I noted that acquaintances occupy that uncertain space between stranger and friend, implying that we treat them with love or justice according to our impulse in the moment. But this liberality is bothersome, for it imparts no clearly moral duty as the rest of the moral bullseye does in advance of context. After some failure to prescribe a fitting approach to acquaintances — and feeling the awkwardness that arises from that uncertain relationship — I have found a belief system that adds its singular duty to strangers whom we personally encounter: to invite them into friendship. I hasten to add that this is a private conviction closed to judgment and proof, and therefore wide open to logical objection because it is not logically entailed to the universal truths that warrant the rest of this system but is introduced from another source: Christian duty. I fully appreciate that this is an openness to private conviction that marks the uncertain quality of all belief in contrast to knowledge and that it is this weakness that makes private belief too weak to support public moral truths  (seeBelief in the Public Square). I find the Christian’s obligation to seek friendship in face-to-face encounters with strangers works as a private duty to acquaintances, but I want to be clear that this acceptance plays no part in my moral knowledge. I impose it upon myself only as the most private of my moral commitments and accept that, unlike the rest of this analysis, it makes no moral claim upon you (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?”).

A complete moral system requires an end of all choosing that can be identified before particular experiences, that can be chosen capably and consistently, and that provides an incentive to do the hard work necessary to master it. Virtue ethics provides the utility of furthest ends of all choosing: to satisfy universal human needs. It also specifies the means to that end: intellectual virtue to identify these needs and moral virtue to choose them consistently. Further, the development of good habits eases the difficulties of arbitrating needs in experience.

What is further required is a systematic way for our preferential freedom to arbitrate duties and desires affecting ourselves and others. The moral bullseye establishes a three-ring preferential structure: 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, 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 it would be 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 this 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 requires that we give them justice and demand they give us the same through an exchange of duty-rights and exemption-rights that harmonize duty and desire. Just as the very definition of love involves our efforts to assist our intimates in the satisfaction of their needs, so too does the meaning of justice rely on this single prescription: the equitable distribution to persons of what they are due as their human right, limited only by principle of sufficient reason, of ought-implies-can, and of equity. As described here, it is an extension of virtue ethics based on the species-specific needs of all persons. Morality requires that these are conceptually regulated by justice. Grounded in human preferential agency as a readily observable human capacity granting all persons a dignity formalized through human rights, functional natural law establishes moral responsibility as the central duty of every moral agent (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights). To those in our inner ring, love moves us to fulfill the needs of those we 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.