Most people, even those with a broad liberal arts education, have little patience with moral philosophers.
As a group they tend to dither, seldom reaching firm conclusions, ceaselessly mired in qualifications. The annoyingly indecisive philosopher in the American television series “The Good Place” reflects something archetypal in our collective imagination.
And indeed, caveats arise at every step in moral theory. With a sizable body of work detailing a variety of ethical systems, with exhaustive analysis over millenia by philosophers East and West, complications naturally multiply.
Nonetheless, there may be some value in the particular kind of ethical dithering, the particular style of evasive qualification, outlined here. In a way some professional philosophers might find objectionable, it puts an emphasis on ethical flexibility.
Not necessarily relativism, in the usual sense of the term. Moral relativism refers to the view that moral judgments are valid only in reference to some context, typically a culture or historical period. There is much of use in this view (how much being a matter of considerable controversy) but it is not the focus here. Rather, the focus is best described as "ethical eclecticism". Meaning the suggestion, within one’s current culture, to apply some types of ethical systems here, and others there.
The “here” and “there” are domains of application, and I propose to examine three: the personal, the interpersonal, and the political. Vague and greatly overlapping terms, granted, but hopefully susceptible to useful clarification.
By the personal sphere I mean an individual going through the day, engaging with different things, projects, ideas, people, and so on. In other words, one actor in various activities. The most helpful ethical framework here, I suggest, is known in the West as virtue ethics.
This approach emphasizes aspects of character, or what some today might call personality, and thus is well suited to the focus on one person as he or she moves through the day. It maps most clearly onto what might be seen as the broadest concern of ethics—leading the best life possible—rather than deliberation over specific moral situations.
And a prominent theme among virtue ethicists, a broadly applicable motif appearing in various cultures since antiquity, is a focus on moderation.
In Greek thought moderation is central to ethics, going back at least to the Delphic admonition “nothing in excess”. But it is best developed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in his discussion of how virtue, and thus happiness, emerges from adherence to the "golden mean".
This “mean” refers to steering a middle course between excess and deficiency in the various aspects of one’s functioning. There are many dimensions of character discussed, but the principle remains the same. For example, courage is seen as the virtuous mean between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness, on the other. As this example illustrates, the mean might not be the exact middle of a character trait—since this might hypothetically be inactivity or paralysis—but often slightly toward one pole or the other.
The theme of moderation has been prominent in the East as well. For example, The Middle Way of Buddhism advises a middle ground between asceticism on the one hand, and indulgence on the other. And Confucianism offers a more general doctrine of the mean—Zhongyong—as the guiding principle of all behavior. It is seen as a dynamic kind of mean, changing with the situation. Avoiding extremes leads to centeredness or balance, and embodies the central value of harmony.
These various portrayals of moderation are ideals—conceptions of the best possible—but they are of a special type. They do not partake of the unidirectionality, and thus the potentially aggressive extremity, of some ideals. Rather they are in a sense dialectical, conversational. A recursive consideration of extremes, settling eventually somewhere in the middle. Uniquely qualified, in other words, to help buffer the sometimes excessive propensities of human beings.
The interpersonal concerns one’s relationship with another person. Now obviously this overlaps enormously with the previous category, since you bring your personal style with you in any such relationship. But by interpersonal I mean values that bear only on how we relate to another person (or sentient being), rather than those that might also apply to dealing with things, projects, and so on.
For this domain I suggest some aspects of deontology as most beneficial. This is the version of ethics concerned with universal duty and obligation. Kant is the figure most identified with this perspective, embodied particularly in his categorical imperative. Here I am thinking of his second formulation of this imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
The social value of this perspective—striving to treat another person, no matter what, as an end in herself—is that it at least somewhat suppresses your own agenda. It at least somewhat inclines you toward empathy, toward immersion in the other’s perspective. It helps you swim—again, somewhat—against the relentless tide of your self-absorption. The potential benefits for both party’s well-being is evident.
This Kantian admonition is akin--but certainly not identical--to another deontological maxim, what most of us in the West call the “Golden Rule”. The common English phrasing of the New Testament version is of course “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But some version of the maxim appears in most cultures and religions. One of the earliest is from Confucius: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself”.
To perhaps bring these older maxims into closer alignment with the intent of Kant’s imperative, I would recommend a small but significant restatement: “treat others as you believe they would like to be treated”. Although this may usually amount to the same thing, sometimes it will not, particularly when dealing with people from other cultures or subcultures. The suggested revision is a little extra push away from the self-reference of the original formulations.
As we were helpfully reminded beginning in the late 60’s, the personal is indeed the political. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to restrict the meaning of “political” to the domain of government policy.
Here the focus is not so much on an individual (the personal), or on two people relating (the interpersonal), but rather on an entire group of people at once, defined in a formal political way.
Some person or institution will be responsible for designing laws and policies. So we might well ask, what ethical perspectives should be prominent in their consideration? For this domain I would recommend a version of utilitarianism.
The modern origin of utilitarianism is ordinarily attributed to Jeremy Bentham, although he did not use the term himself. His phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” has become a typical shorthand for summarizing the position. Despite the myriad complications it involves, it is still probably the best description.
The version of the position I am recommending for the political domain is sometimes called “rule utilitarianism”. Simply enough, this views right action as that which complies with a rule designed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
As a value for governing I find this congenial, in part because of its egalitarian stance. In making any calculation all persons, regardless of their circumstances, count equally as conscious agents.
But critics of utilitarianism are legion, and quick to point out its daunting complexities. Aren’t there many kinds of good? How do we measure them and then sum them all into some final formula? How can we be sure our actions will have the intended consequences? And if we aim only at the “greatest number”, don’t we risk violating the rights of the minority?
All important, formidable questions, certainly not to be settled here. But the most important matter, I submit, is the very nature of the domain we are considering: groups of people. In this context some calculus aiming at the greatest overall good seems unavoidable, even if the dimensions of the calculation are uncertain, shifting, and constantly debated.
And debated they will assuredly be. After all, we’re talking about ethics.