Three Moral Systems


  • To be prescriptive, moral systems must resolve the is/ought problem.
  • No empirical effort can resolve the is/ought problem, meaning science cannot prescribe morality.
  • The nature of moral judgment implies rationality and finality as essential elements of morality.
  • Additionally, a workable moral system must not be so unwieldy so as to be cumbersome nor so idealistic as to be unhelpful in context, nor can it be private but must work to resolve public conflict.
  • Only absolutist systems based upon religious authority or universalist ones based upon intersubjective reasoning meet these requirements.
  • Though absolutist systems have been historically predominant, their failure in the Reformation and after it was so catastrophic as to have eliminated them as options.
  • Coherentist positions privilege moral agency but cannot resolve conflict except through coercion.
  • Only three universalist moral systems resolve the is/ought problem: duty ethics, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.
  • Of these, duty ethics fails to provide sufficient motivation to compel a duty in defiance of self-interest while utilitarianism degenerates into pragmatism.
  • Only virtue ethics provides the end, means, motivation, and method to meet the ends of moral judgment; when affecting the third ring of the moral bullseye, it becomes functional natural law.

Moral systems must be prescriptive rather than descriptive, meaning they tell us what we should do rather than merely what we do (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?). David Hume was right in saying that we can never derive an ought from an is. No psychological, sociological, or anthropological research can direct us in moral choosing. Besides the iron curtain that divides the true from the good, the human sciences that so distorted nineteenth and twentieth century morality face an even more imposing hurdle: they are unable to diagnose individual preference, and therefore are unable to forge prescription except in the aggregate, and also unable to be called in all conscience “sciences” at all, since the core of empirical science is deterministic prediction (See “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). Though they are even now being subsumed by true sciences, we can find little reason for optimism there either. For all the progress in neurological or biological sciences, we can be confident that the requisite act of severance that allows their success in finding truth must also preclude any in finding goodness beyond immediate utility (see “The Act of Severance“). No science can guide moral judgment. Every science must be guided by it. We can appeal to no empirical justification for our moral choices.

Additionally, morality faces some definitional hurdles. First, as a system used to guide preference, it must be consistent, and therefore rational. Secondly, it differs from the two other kinds of goodness, utility and quality, by definitionally providing the ends of choosing as well as the means, though that connotation is not unanimously accepted (See “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“). I argue that its rational nature as a system must provide the answer to the question of why one should prefer one thing over another so as to avoid the infinite regress of having to ask the question again and again after hearing the system’s prescribed answer. Our choices must be backstopped by some end that is not simply the means to another ad infinitum if we wish to transcend the nihilism, materialism, and ennui that characterize ends of simple utility. So if we cannot seek that system and that end from science, the most reliable source of knowledge today, where shall we look?

It seems reasonable that any moral system must take the brute facts of our lives into consideration in forming its imperatives and that invites in all the variations of undistilled experience. In all the world, who can claim to be an expert moralist? Even with that caveat, though, we may enter the examination with open eyes for anomaly and rational inconsistency. The tension between how we actually live and how we should live is the undoing of many purported moral systems. A workable one must give full value to both.

That may be accomplished in only a limited number of ways. Since a basic function of morality is to settle conflict between individuals, it seems reasonable to seek a system that applies either the same code of conduct or the same means to decide upon conduct for everyone. That limitation reduces the options in moral choosing to two general areas. We may seek out either a universalist or an absolutist moral system. By universalist, I mean systems that appeal to our reasoning, that can be justified by logical analysis in opposition to absolutist systems that are warranted by religious belief or handed down by the authority of some representative of a deity. Both universalist and absolutist systems are based on correspondence justifications, meaning they offer moral positions rationally binding on all persons, even those who wish to reject their premises. Correspondence moral positions can be contrasted with coherentist positions that put moral force on some cultural or personal foundation that limits its jurisdiction in some way (see “What Makes It True?). Emotivism, relativism, and pragmatism are three such coherentist positions. These all rely on the virtual circle of private or cultural truths to structure the sphere of moral value (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?). The common conclusion of these systems is that David Hume’s wall between description and prescription is solid and impermeable, that the perceptual wall of interpreted experience is hostile to intersubjective interpretation and therefore confined to person or culture.

But when examined through the lens of justification, a different kind of sorting reveals itself.  Every religious authority begins with private belief of a single individual, the revelation that must use coherentist warrants for personal morality. The religionist is asked to embrace “truths of the heart” or inspiration or a conversion experience as the mode of justification for her moral commitment, yet the absolutist system she embraces, we must remember, is avowedly correspondentist in scope and origin. and this logical inconsistency violates the principle of non-contradiction that is the single truth test of coherence. While the holy one is alive, that problem is papered over by an appeal to personal authority. Disciples surrender their agency to a revelation they cannot confirm by anything other than their trust in the prophet (see “Knowledge, Trust and Belief“). This can only work while he is alive, and any postmortem appeal must be to a more institutionalized kind of authority: of dogma or holy text or other codification of divine will. The fatal weakness of this appeal is its inability to resolve challenges to its claims within its mode of warrant (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority). Now the function of a moral system is to arbitrate choice, either personal or societal. The great appeal of coherence systems is their elasticity. These systems argue two positions. First,  so long as one obeys the principle of non-contradiction, any declaration may be granted any degree of moral value by the believer. Such beliefs will not be knowledge because they cannot be justified by public warrants. At best they can be considered logically entailed, meaning suggested by what can be known publicly. More likely, the paucity of knowledge that gives rise to non-contradictory beliefs allows a multiplicity of constructions with no rational means of choosing the most likely from among them. Such beliefs, so common to religion, are at best permissible to reason because they are internally consistent. That realization implies the second: so long as individuals and polities remain consistent, their morality cannot be challenged by others equally permissible, though they can be opposed successfully by other propositions that are logically entailed or even justified as knowledge. Of course, the problem arises when disagreement among merely permissible beliefs appears, whether among persons, cultures, religions, or polities. No coherence system can offer any means of arbitrating conflict without violating the privacy of its mode of warrant other than a broad tolerance. This fails when the universality of religious truth claims clash with the privacy of its warrants. It fails also when correspondence moral systems using authority as justification find their warrant disintegrating in the face of conflict (see “Religion and Truth“) because what powers the warrant must be a trust founded upon a surrender of the rational agency persons must use to arbitrate disagreement. When presented with conflict, congregants must first choose to re-appropriate agency, to take back the trust that surrendered it. Since trust is the entire motive force of authority, its withdrawal even for the purposes of inspection and renewed commitment must challenge authority’s power to shape consensus. With this in mind, coherentist and absolutist systems of morality are heavily depreciated because all moral systems must provide the means of justifying one position over another to persons affected by the systems, and these justification schemas simply cannot reconcile conflict. What remains necessary is a moral system rooted in how people really live that prescribes behavior that logical analysis regards as universally desirable and thus provides the ought logically binding on all persons. That sentence contains a formidable challenge.

Only three universalist moral systems have risen to that challenge. These systems are all based on correspondence, meaning they are universally binding on all moral agents, and they all purport to base their universality on the irresistability of logical reasoning coupled with the compulsive power of moral conviction on preference. The admittedly controversial axiom of their argument is that good reasoning compels assent and the morality it produces compels preference.The only three such moral systems that have been advanced are Kant’s duty ethics, Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. I propose that only Aristotle’s system passes the test of combining is with ought.

One can find many excellent explorations of Kant’s moral system, so I will only sketch it here. I have enormous respect for its subtlety and consistency if not for its motive power. His intellectual honesty compels him to ask whether all moral judgments are actually disguised issues of utility. If they are, the game changes. If we follow religious dictates because we desire reward, if we obey the law because we fear punishment, if we help our family because we desire reciprocity, then all of morality becomes situational, personal, contextual as we act in the moment to pursue our eventual desires. All oughts grounded in experience therefore become hypothetical judgments of utility, structured as if/then statements. If I desire X, then I should choose Y.  No universals or categoricals may be required if every choice is calculated to gain some future advantage dependent on present circumstance, though this hypotheticality of utility also requires an infinite regress of utility. This thought forced Kant to posit a personal disinterest as central to moral reasoning, but this conclusion effectively divorces his moral system from universal application. Kant argued that reasoning alone would reveal certain directives of choice that would move us to correct moral intentionality. All we had to do was phrase the maxim correctly for it to function in all circumstances. He called this maxim the categorical imperative, arguing that only such a general rule would allow us to rise above individual situations so as to “do one’s duty and thus deserve happiness.” Kant’s moral system is called deontological because it relies on a depersonalizing of context, a distilling of experience into its essentials that drain away the contextual and the personal. The phrasing of Kant’s famous categorical imperative actually varies a bit in his effort to articulate it, so much so that thinkers consider different phrasings to differently direct action. “Act so as to treat persons as ends only, never as means” is an admirable formulation of moral direction for sure, but it means something quite differerent from this construction: “Act so that the maxim of your conduct might always be willed to be universal.” The problem with these aphorisms is not only that they differ but also that they might yield consequences far different from what we might consider moral. Kant recognized this problem but ardently defended the moral necessity of valuing intentions over consequences, arguing with force that outcomes are too contextual and beyond the moral agent’s control to be calculated in advance, but this only opened a second front for attack. Perhaps most damaging to duty ethics is its separation of duty and reward,  for “to do one’s duty” may make one worthy of happiness without achieving it, which is a moral system for martinets rather than thinking persons. His categorical imperatives are powerful moral directives because they compel universality and are inspiring incentives to human dignity, but they do nothing to induce participation, for they promise nothing but disinterested satisfaction. Kant scores strong on the ought side of morality, but poorly on how persons actually behave.

He offered his system in an effort to counter utilitarianism, an ostensibly universalist system first formulated by Jeremy Bentham. This moral system is also well known. It is the antithesis of Kant’s, having at its heart a deep and abiding interest in how people actually do live, considering their private pleasures and pains and attempting a universalist response that accounts for their millions of differing worldviews (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism). Let me say plainly that I see the system as a kind of bait-and-switch in part because it professed to be something it could never be: a correspondentist moral system. Its failures prompted a rewrite by John Stuart Mill that did turn utilitarianism into a correspondentist rather than a coherentist system, but one suffering from some of the same disconnects with ordinary life that Kant’s produced. Briefly, Bentham’s system attempted to see through the actual “goods” people desire, valuing the maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain as their true motive in the ancient tradition of hedonism. Just as Adam Smith saw the invisible hand of the market regulating the value of all sorts of products, so too did Bentham see individuals’ private pleasures and pains adding up to produce a kind of product that in the aggregate might be judged good or bad. While this has been defended on legislative grounds (not very successfully, see “Two Senses of the Common Good), it is far too coherentist to be judged a real moral system, for who is to quantify what my satisfactions and deprivations might be worth to me and who is to calculate how to add mine to yours and so on? This is not to mention the simple truth that many persons derive pleasure from a whole variety of things most of us would think bad. While the history of thought might trace early twentieth century pragmatism to these roots, it would also have to classify Bentham’s utilitarianism as pretty obviously a coherentist system. A generation later, Mill attempted to repair these defects, but his efforts only produced a kind of stratification of pleasures and pains, in which some kinds might be regarded as more desirable than others, regardless of how strongly persons actually desire them. Opera trumps monster truck shows. You can see the issue. It is Hume’s is and ought problem writ large. Root your moral system in how people actually live and you fall into coherence because—let’s face it—people value different things to different degrees. Root it in how they should live and you divorce the system from reality, as you go about creating “higher order pleasures” and duty-driven obligations that disregard what persons actually value and leave them virtuous yet dissatisfied. Mill was deeply committed to democracy, and his moral neutrality was perfectly suited to the contractarianism that was gaining force over the course of the nineteenth century. Like utilitarianism, social contract specifies majority will as the ultimate arbiter of political order, and both also regard notions of preeminent rights as “nonsense upon stilts.” One of the many incoherencies of today’s public morality is the attempt to graft rights onto a contractarian political order (see Natural and Political Rights“). A moral system so defective that it cannot acknowledge human rights, not to mention one that has to be entirely revised from one founder to the next hardly inspires confidence, and one whose vaunted rationality ultimately collapses into pragmatism and materialism must fail to be the consequence its founders intended.

Kant’s deontological intentionalism was too hard, focused too exclusively on the stoic ought of preference. Bentham and Mill’s consequentialist focus on utility leaned too heavily on the hedonistic is of variable desire, and it dragged contractarianism into that pit of endles contention with it.

For my money, the only universalist moral system worth the effort is Aristotle’s virtue ethics. I should offer two qualifications immediately. First, the system that was enunciated in his Nicomachean Ethics was an incomplete one because it was assembled posthumously and rather incoherently. Second, Aristotle here as in other analytic efforts reveals himself to be more bound by culture than we and he might wish, so any present formulation of his system would require us to incorporate two thousand years of moral reasoning into a revised effort. Even considering these two stipulations, the system performs: it takes into account the way persons live and learn as the central element of its methodology. It also meets head-on the postmodernist and coherentist objections to universalist systems. It prescribes the moral good in such a way as to maximize contextual and personal values without degenerating into relativism or subjectivism. This means it arbitrates disputes, something any moral system must do, in pursuit of a summum bonum it is eager to advance as rationally and morally compelling. Its end is human flourishing.

It also guides the kinds of behavior one considers moral as a means to that end.  Forget about arcane and dogmatic notions of “sin.” Think instead of the simpler way we use “good” and “bad” in everyday life to describe the choices we should or shouldn’t make. If it helps, think about these choices in retrospect where their consequences have slapped us on the back or kicked us in the butt. A workable universalist system should guide these behaviors in advance to maximize the back slaps and minimize the butt kicks. That means it should provide guidance for all the kinds of behaviors we act out in ordinary living from those that pertain only to ourselves to those affecting the largest possible environment. Cut another way, a workable system should take a consistent stance on all the kinds of behaviors persons perform: recreational, environmental, social, political, economic, religious, and aesthetic. Virtue ethics does that.

It works well because it begins with the is of life. How do we actually live? What are we genetically programmed to do?  How ought human persons to function if their goal is to flourish? Considering the many regrets we all create in a lifetime of choosing, what would a better life look like? Who would you ask to find out? Aristotle’s general philosophy regarded all things to have been created for a purpose, which he called its final cause. He regarded each thing to have a designed function, which it may or may not fulfill dependent on the accidents of circumstance. For humans, add the effects of free will. Now I will be the first to acknowledge the outdated nature of the final cause, that view frequently derived from religiously grounded views of a divinity’s purpose for mankind. This notion is summarized under the blanket term teleology. The notion is in disrepute today. We all have absorbed our zeitgeist’s conviction that contingent determinism rules the universe. Since Darwin, we have been unable to take the notion of having a final cause, in the sense of a given purpose for existence, seriously. And just as our science has cast aside the notion of creation necessitating a creator, it has embraced the causal relationships that make empiricism possible, insisting that God, if one exists, does indeed play dice with the fate of the universe by allowing the natural laws that govern it to play out in predictable ways that make science possible and miracles rare. It hasn’t been able to dispose of free will, though, and free will makes moral choosing possible (see “The Determinism Problem). Science may not be comfortable with the notion that we have preferential freedom to choose this or that. After all, everything in the universe seems contingently determined. But we as well as the scientists who doubt us certainly feel free to choose, and we feel at least some responsibility for those choices. Despite that unfortunate chink in the armor of modern science, we also must accept its discoveries in the nature of genetics, so we are left with a being that may have been programmed less by its creator and more by its DNA to act in certain ways. Let us embrace either definition of “final cause”: God’s will or our genes’ will. At least in regard to persons’ sense of preferential freedom and moral responsibility, Aristotle’s notion of final cause will do fine (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument). Flourishing means proper human functioning.

We are living in a transitional moment in the zeitgeist when the above argument will gain some traction thanks to research on neurology, artificial intelligence, and genetics. It was not so for most of the twentieth century, when notions of cultural conditioning and a diffuse acceptance of the blank slate overstressed the importance of culture in forming identity. The human sciences brought us this conviction during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). The natural sciences are complicating that notion in the twenty-first by reviving the older idea that genetics interacts with environment to create nature. This more nuanced view challenges postmodernsts’ faith in cultural determinism and subjective reasoning. For the purposes of this discussion, the notion that humanity has some commonalities coded into its programming from whatever source reinforces an essential argument Aristotle made in favor of our having a final cause.

Interview the happiest people from a variety of cultures. Such studies are a current emphasis of the human sciences. For now, ignore the meaning of happiness and allow people to self-report based on their own judgments. Find the common denominators and isolate out cultural variances after examining them to see if they are in any way determinative. This is what Aristotle did in his own efforts. He found what researchers in the last century have also found, including Abraham Maslow and Jeffrey Sachs. The constituents of happiness when aggregated are fairly simple, impressively universal, and absolutely necessary. Many, many things bring us happiness, some cultural and many personal. But these varied things satisfy common requirements that seem coded in our nature. Achieving them over a lifetime allows our flourishing. Failing to achieve them produces frustration and discontent. One might summarize this line of thinking by saying that we need these things to live a complete life just as we need proper nutrition to maintain health. If we should ask why we need health, we will scratch our heads and simply say something like “we need it to flourish as human beings.” This makes health a true end of preference, classifying it as more than a simple means to some other pursuit. This is the is of Aristotle’s moral system. The ought follows as day follows night. We should satisfy these needs (see “Needs Anchor Morality).

Were I reading these lines for the first time, I would at this point grunt in disapproval and say something like, “No kidding. Tell me something I don’t know.” I reply to what is probably your sense of impatience by reminding you that starting with the obvious is of how people really live is a very good thing provided it proceeds to oughts that provide true universal moral guidance. Virtue ethics does just that, but to do it, it must begin at this simple and very obvious beginning. Starting here already has accomplished two important goals. It roots moral systematizing in correspondence rather than coherence-based relativism and subjectivism because it posits a universality of human needs that can be discovered by logical analysis. And this is no small thing now. It requires you to acknowledge as a corollary that you can learn something from the wisdom of others about how to live a life of flourishing, as opposed to all the materialist and consumerist iterations that “happiness” connotes today. We want to flourish. To do so requires satisfying our needs. I leave you for the moment with the simplest of requests. Tell me what your needs are. (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer“).

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