The Value Structure of Action

The distinctions between means and ends, and between being and doing, result in the following structure of action, from beginning to middle to end, upon which much ethical terminology, and the basic forms of ethical theory (ethics of virtues, action, and consequences), are based. Note that "mean" in this context originally meant "middle," as it still does in statistics and in scientific expressions like "the mean annual temperature" of a place. This is very different from "mean" as the verb form of "meaning," or "mean" as in a petty or hostile, malevolent attitude.

Source of Action,
Means to Ends
Ends of Action
Good and evil persons, good and ill will, intentions.

aretaic judgments: judgments of moral worth of character (Gk. aretê = virtue).

Plato & Aristotle: ethics of virtues (e.g. wisdom, justice, bravery, temperance); no rules. Compare the Boy Scout Law: to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Contrast the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. [note]

Moral right and wrong, good and evil actions (also instrumental goods, means that are simply effective to bring about some end).

deontic judgments, judgments of obligation (Gk. déon = needful, right, proper).

deontological theories: the nature of actions instead of or as well as the consequences determines moral worth; must have rules to judge nature of actions.


non-moral value, good and bad things obtained by actions.

What is the Good? pleasure, virtue, happiness, being, life, knowledge?

teleological theories: only consequences determine moral worth. (Gk. télos = end)

Moral character, virtues, what a person is: honest, trustworthy, etc.; what we know about people when we know them & trust them to behave in characteristic ways. Actions, manifestation of moral character; what we expect from what we know of people, or what we use to establish what we know about people; a bad person may do what is right, and a good person may do what is wrong.

The common definitions of teleological and deontological ethics, in terms of means and ends, result in some logical confusion that is a real source of error in the history of ethics. If we begin with the definition of a teleological ethical theory as one where only the ends count (as in the basic form of act Utilitarianism), this secures things pretty clearly. If only the ends (consequences) count, then the ends do count, but the means do not count. In the traditional Square of Opposition at right, the truth of "only the ends count" implies (1) the truth of "the ends count" and the falsehood of both (2) "the means count" and (3) "only the means count." The simple proposition "the means count" contradicts the proposition "only the ends count."

If the basic meaning of a deontological ethical theory is that it contradicts the basic premise of a teleological theory, then all we have is the truth of "the means count." This then does not logically imply either the truth or the falsehood of either "only the means count" or "the ends count." So we are left with a significant ambiguity about the meaning of deontological ethics. This can go either way. "Only the means count" and "the ends count" contradict each other and so cannot be both true or both false. Picking one determines the other. This has been a source of great confusion in ethics, where we often have the sense that because "only the means count" and "only the ends count" are logically exclusive (they cannot both be true), they are therefore logical contradictories (the falsehood of one implies that truth of the other), which they are not. In fact, they can both be false.

Traditional deontological theories in ethics, where the consequences are absolutely irrelevant to right action (e.g. Kant, Confucius), do tend to go with "only the means count." This can be called a strong or exclusive deontological theory. With either a teleological or an exclusive deontological ethical theory, there are no ethical dilemmas of the common "the right versus the good" form. The goodness of the ends is the only consideration for a teleological theory, and the rightness of the means is the only consideration for an exclusive deontological theory. To the extent that such dilemmas are ruled out rather than accounted for, we may say that the given of ethical life (with dilemmas) falsifies both teleological and exclusive deontological ethical theories.

The alternative then, is to go with the other logical possibility for deontological ethics:  Both the means and the ends count. This allows for common dilemmas, since good ends may be chosen despite the wrongness of the means used to obtain them OR the right means may be chosen despite the fact that they lead to bad or worse ends than the wrong means. This is a weak or inclusive deontological ethics. What it implies is just the Polynomic Theory of Value, where the means and ends are judged in terms of different domains of value, which may agree or conflict in their valence. Similar dilemmas can occur between further distinct domains of value, including conflicts between the domains here represented by being and doing. Consequently, this all represents a significant discovery in ethics for the Friesian School.

The Roman Catholic Church (i.e. the Church of the Latin Rite under the authority of the Bishop of Rome) includes, of course, a system of moral teaching, largely founded on Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. As we see in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Doubleday, 1995, pp. 407, 411; translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994], the "Sources of Morality" are divided up in a fashion comparable, in some ways, to the system here [with the section numbers of the edition, pp.485-487]:

The Object ChosenThe End in View or the IntentionThe Circumstances
of the Action
§1751 The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience. §1752 In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken. Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one's whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one's neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it. §1753 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.
§1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting "in order to be seen by men").

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts -- such as fornication -- that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

§1758 The object chosen morally specifies the act of willing according as reason recognizes and judges it good or evil. §1759 "An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention" (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means. §1760 A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.

The treatment of the "sources of morality" in the Catechism begins in medias res, i.e. "in the middle of things," in terms of the analysis above, with the action considered first. However, there is a significant ambiguity here. The "object chosen" can mean either the action that is the immediate manifestation of the will (the legal actus reus), or the goal, end, or purpose that the action is intended and expected to bring about. This confuses the means and the ends of action and thus does not promise a clear analysis, despite the later statement, suddenly introducing the distinction, that "The end does not justify the means." This ambiguity puts us in the position that we canot immediately say whether the system of morality will be deontological or teleological. The absence of the terms right and wrong, and a preference for the terminology of "good" and "evil," betrays a neglect of the centrality of the action itself in moral judgment. The "virtue ethics" form of Aristotelian ethics may explain the underdeveloped character of the distinctions.

The end of action as such is introduced under the heading of the intention, which again involves an ambiguity, since the inherent value of an end, as a good or evil object, is a different question from the internal quality of the intention or motive (the legal mens rea). Thus, a good action, such as distributing food to the poor, although causally resulting in a good end, that the poor have been fed, may be done from a bad motive, for an ulterior end, "in order to be seen by men." This may be seen as something that "corrupts the action," but the action and its outcome as such actually remain good and laudable. As Sir James Frazer said, it is better (for all the rest of us) to have people doing good from bad motives that doing evil from good ones. The objective value of the action or its natural outcome are different from what the subject thinks he is doing, and why. The Catholic system makes it difficult to separate these elements.

What are then called the "circumstances" of the action involve a further ambiguity. The circumstances of an action may determine whether it is right or wrong, or even a moral issue at all. But the Catechism includes the consequences in these "circumstances," which again confuses the means with the ends. The statement of §1760, that "A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together," is simply false. As we see in moral dilemmas, right action may have bad consequences, or wrong action good consequences. Hence the dilemmas. The act of killing may be right or wrong depending on the circumstances, with good or bad consequences, or even good or bad motives, occurring quite independently. A person may hate another and wish them dead yet quite justifiably end up killing them in self-defense -- and thankful for the opportunity to do so. In fact, a morally good act does require a morally innocent motive -- an act of out good will. That does not affect whether the action is right or wrong in itself. Jesus may reproach the killer for ill will, but the law will stop at a justifiable actus reus. Yet the formula just quoted does not even mention the motive, unless, because of the previous ambiguity, the phrase "of its end" is supposed to refer to the mens rea.

Failure to Distinguish
Means from EndsIntention from ObjectCircumstances from Consequences

Thus, every one of the three "Sources of Morality" cited in the Catechism involves ambiguity and confusion that subvert an understanding of the structure of morality. Some of the consequences of these confusions may be seen in the general statement, "There are some concrete acts -- such as fornication -- that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." Choosing a moral evil may involve a "disorder of the will," and fornication may even be, ex hypothese, an intrinsic moral evil; but a "disorder of the will" is not entailed by the act, as this statement asserts, unless fornication is itself a evil independently of an ordered or disordered will. Thus, it doesn't explain anything to a person committing fornication to say, "You have a disordered will." They will want to know why, in itself, fornication is wrong. We are not told that here and are provided with nothing that would enable us to figure it out. Instead, the confusion we see in these distinctions allows a statement like that to come in "under the radar."

Despite these confusions, Catholicism features conceptions of atonement and expiation that are generally superior to what we find elsewhere in philosophy and religion. These motivate the theory of Purgatory, which, although rejected by Protestants, is morally more sophisticated than their view of forgiveness, redemption, and the afterlife.

The terminology used by Confucius easily fits the categories of the analysis above. The discussion of Confucianism is reserved for the page at the link. See also the Chinese Virtues.

Confucian Terminology
Rén, "benevolence, charity, humanity, love," kindness. The fundamental virtue of Confucianism. Confucius defines it as "Aì rén," "love others." , "right conduct, morality, duty to one's neighbor," which may be broken down into: zhong1, doing one's best, conscientiousness, "loyalty"; and shù, "reciprocity," altruism, "what you don't want yourself, don't do to others." Li3, "propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship." Xiào, "to honor one's parents," filial piety. , "profit, gain, advantage': NOT a proper motive for actions affecting others. The idea that profit is the source of temptation to do wrong is the Confucian ground of the later official disparagment of commerce and industry.

The Polynomic Theory of Value

Crime and Punishment, Repentance, Restitution, and Atonement

The Fallacies of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

The Seven Sins and Virtues

Confucius [K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi]

Chinese Virtues


Value Theory

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2009, 2012, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Value Structure of Action, Note;
The Seven Sins and Virtues

In Mediaeval Europe the "Four Cardinal Virtues" -- wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance -- were the virtues listed in Plato's Republic. The three Christian or Theological virtues -- faith, hope, and charity -- were given by St. Paul (Corinthians I, 13:13). These seven together are sometimes said to correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins -- pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust (in this form the original work of Pope Gregory the Great). So far, however, I have not seen these systematically matched up and explained.

A clue, however, may be found in Dante's Divine Comedy. The levels of Purgatory in the Purgatorio are organized around the Seven Sins, while the levels of Heaven are organized around the seven virtues in the Paradiso. If we match these up, top to top and bottom to bottom, we get the first two columns of the following table. At the top of the table are Love (or Charity), which of course is the most characteristic of God in Christianity, and Lust, characteristic of the highest circle of Purgatory for Dante, and which may be the functional equivalent of love for some people.
Love/Charity, CaritasLust, LuxuriaChastity
Hope, SpesGluttony, GulaAbstinence
Faith, FidesAvarice/Greed,
Sloth, AcediaDiligence
Justice, IustitiaWrath, IraPatience
Courage, FortitudoEnvy, InvidiaKindness
Wisdom, SapientiaPride, SuperbiaHumility
It is not hard to see how Love and Lust correspond to each other. The others, if they are really supposed to correspond, pose more of a challenge.

That Wrath can be a corrupted sense of Justice is something that we might see at the end of the very disturbing movie Seven (1995), where Brad Pitt, who has tracked down the serial murderer Kevin Spacey (who has killed people he thinks are guilty of each of the Seven Deadly Sins) and has just discovered that the man has also murdered and decapitated Pitt's own pregnant wife, kills him. This exemplifies Wrath, but it also happens to be Just Retribution. Divine Justice, indeed, has commonly been characterized as the Wrath of God.

Someone who thinks they are Wise, but isn't, is likely to be Proud. One who is Slothful, may sometimes appear Temperant, but only because they are too lazy to do wrong or overindulge, not because they are deliberately restraining themselves. Explanations could be produced for the other matches, but they seem less obvious.

The final column is called the "Heavenly" or "Contrary" virtues, which clearly are intended as the opposites of the Seven Sins. I had not heard of these for years, but they may originate, like the Sins themselves, in the pious moralizing of Late Antiquity.

I don't know why, but a small industry now seems to have developed over the Seven Sins. Multiple books have been published, and The History Channel has featured a series on the Sins, often featuring authors of the recent books. One interesting addition to the lore mentioned in these venues is the demonology of the Sins. From the 16th century we have the demon of Lust identified as "Asmodeus," of Gluttony as "Beelzebub," of Avarice as "Mammon," of Sloth as "Belphagor," of Wrath as "Amon," of Envy as "Leviathan," and of Pride as "Lucifer." A curious thing about this list is that several of the names, especially "Beelzebub" and "Lucifer," are alternative names for Satan himself. Indeed, I wasn't aware the "Lucifer" could possibly refer to anyone else. This may be an example of a general problem with supernatural beings, whether different names go with different beings or belong to the same one. The same dynamic can be seen in India, where Brahmâ and Prajapati may or may not be the same person, and goddesses like Kâlî, Pârvatî, and Mahâdevî are worshiped independently but at some level of theory seem to merge into a single Goddess. We also get something of the sort with the difference between, say, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Fatima. They are clearly both supposed to be the Virgin Mary, but they each have a separate cult and very different associations. In Classical religion, of course, this is like the differences between Athena Parthenos, Athena Promachos, Athena Nike, etc. With the demonology of the Sins, however, the assignments may well be the imaginative work of a single idiosyncratic modern writer.

Return to Text

The Virtues of Franklin and Wooden

The Value Structure of Action, Note;
Chinese Virtues

five virtues
benevolenceproprietygood faithrighteousnessknowledge
The "five virtues" in Chinese ethics are part of the system of correspondences that go with the five Chinese
elements. Although the theory of the elements creates a strong tendency to classify everything in terms of fives, we also get a fair number of independent classifications by sixes, as in the Six Relationships, and in fours. Here I consider several systems of virtues and then wander off into some other numerical classifications.

four principles
four virtues (of women )
& cookery
four studies
good faith
The first set of fours, the "four fundamental principles," i.e. of Confucianism, are simply the "five virtues" with one missing, but we also get a related concept and character, , for "wisdom," in place of "knowledge." What we end up with are virtues that in the five element theory correspond to the four cardinal directions. If this is done deliberately, or "good faith" passed over for some other reason, I couldn't say.

The next set of four, although simply the "four virtues," are traditionally supposed to be those in particular of women. Their content would, of course, be traditional notions about the proper roles of women, though, curiously, the gloss of "proper employment" meaning "needlework & cookery" is from a modern dictionary [ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis, University of Hawai'i Press, 2003, p.888] rather than in an old source like Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972, p.770]. There is an old expression, the "three obediences and the four virtues" for women, . The "three obediences," "subjections," or "dependencies," are upon the father, the husband, and the son. As elsewhere historically, these attitudes tend to persist in rural society but break down in urban, if not liberal, society.

The "four studies" mostly involve virtues of conduct, including , "loyalty" or "conscientiousness," which we do not otherwise find in these lists -- despite its importance for Confucius. But we also find "literature," which sounds like it should be in the "six arts" below, but isn't. The character for "study," , can also mean "teaching," "doctrine," "religion," etc., as discussed with the Six Schools of Japan.

six virtues
good faithrighteous-
six (virtuous) actions
filial piety
love of kin
six arts
With the "six virtues," we get four that are the same as the "five virtues," with the substitution of "wisdom" for "knowledge" as in the "four principles," and a trade-off of "propriety" for "good faith." "Moderation" and "harmony" are new.

The "six virtuous actions" definitely fall into the class of virtues, and they lead off with the significant Confucian virtue of filial piety, . The character here for "action" we have seen already as "conduct" among the "four studies."

Next, with the "six arts," we mostly get things that are extra-ethical skills, even two martial arts (archery and charioteering), but they lead off with propriety, , which is not only a significant Confucian virtue, but one of the "five virtues" and "four principles." This is an interesting and perhaps revealing choice. "Propriety" encompasses manners and etiquette. In general, such things seem to have less to do with morality than with the artistry of polite society. As such, "propriety" was despised by Taoism but treasured by Confucianism. If propriety is not fully a matter of ethics, but a kind of art, this would effect a compromise between Taoism and Confucianism, retaining a place of importance for it, while exempting it from the "persuasion by force" that to Taoism was the "beginning of disorder []."

Despite all these virtues, actions, and arts, we are still missing an important Confucian moral quality. Thus, at Analects IV:15 we see the "one thread" that runs through the teaching of Confucius, the qualities of and , "conscientiousness and reciprocity." "Reciprocity," though defined with the Confucian equivalent of the Golden Rule, is missing from the lists here. So we still don't get a comprehensive system. Profit, , of course, is not a virtue for either Confucianism or Taoism. It might be for Mohism, but does not occur here anyway.

six schools
An urge to classify in sixes is also something we see in the "six schools" of the Spring and Autumn, , Period. The "six arts" were also supposed to originally correspondent to the "six classics," which, however, were later reduced to the more element-friendly "five classics." Unlike with the five elements, I have not noticed a tendency to match up the respective schools, arts, and classics.

six kingdoms
The "six kingdoms" are the states of the
Warring States, , Period which combined in 240 to resist Ying Cheng, the King of Ch'in. Unfortunately for them, by 221 the King of Ch'in had succeeded in conquering all of them, creating the Empire of the Ch'in Dynasty.

four classes
Another set of fours are the "four classes" of traditional Chinese society. These are very definitely in a hierarchical order, with the scholars as the most prestigious and authoritative and the merchants as the least. Like many
Greek philosophers, the Confucians viewed merchants as parasites and trade as something that added no value to things and was more or less a kind of swindle. Not surprisingly, Chinese foreign trade was at times prohibited, never so disastrously as during the Ming Dynasty. But a comparison of the Chinese classes with the Indian caste system is instructive. Thus, the scholars, unlike the Brahmins, were never priests. That sort of thing was relatively uninteresting to Confucians. And so, while Brahmins mainly taught sacred literature, like the Vedas, Confucians taught the largely secular Classics. Otherwise, the remaining Chinese classes would all belong among the Vaishyas in India. We are missing a formal military class, like the Kshatriyas, because the military was largely despised by the Confucians. We are also missing a class, like the Shudras in India, of mere laborers. The character for "artisans," , can mean "labor," but artisans, responsible for wonders like porcelain and silk weaving, would never be considered mere laborers. A more elaborate classification is the "Nine Classes." We can see Confucian hostility towards merchants recycled in Communist China and then in the Marxism of some lingering enthusiasts.

four great beauties
Hsi Shih,
Xi Shi
Wang Chao-chün,
Wang Zhaojun
Yang Kuei-fei,
Yang Guifei
b.506 BC,
Spring &
Autumn Period
b.c.50 BC,
Former Han
b.c.161/176 AD,
Three Kingdoms
719-756 AD,
T'ang Dynasty
The last set of fours are the "four great beautiful women" of Chinese tradition. These range from the fictional (Tiao-ch'an) to the legendary (Hsi Shih) to the firmly historical (the others). These women were supposed to be so beautiful that, respectively, on seeing them, the fish forgot how to swim and sank, birds forgot how to fly and fell from the air, the Moon hid itself in embarrassment, and, finally, Yang Kuei-fei put the flowers to shame. We don't get a group anything like this in the West, and the only comparable example I can think of that involves the appearance of a beautiful woman is when the mistress of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, Maria Scleraena, was
seen at the theater. In the general misogyny of Confucian culture, the story of the women often involves the destruction of a kingdom. Thus, Hsi Shih was sent as an agent to seduce Fu Ch'ai, the King of Wu, and bring about his downfall, which she did, in 473 BC. Tiao-ch'an figures in plots featured in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Yang Kuei-fei was blamed, and executed, for the rebellion that ended the otherwise illustrious reign of Ming Huang in the T'ang Dynasty. On the other hand, in 33 BC Wang Chao-chün was married off to leaders of the Hsiung-nu barbarians and was credited with moderating their policy towards China and in introducing them to Chinese civilization. The tone of the stories is thus slightly different for each of the women.

seven passions
For a set of seven, we can include the Chinese "seven passions," which are a bit more relevant to the virtues than the "six schools," "six kingdoms," or the "four classes." From the page on the
emotions, I include the animation above at right, which also has seven images, though these were chosen more for the color associated with the state, beginning with the conventional "happy face," than to list cardinal emotions. Death is not, of course, an emotion, but its ultimate absence, while envy is not one that makes it into the Chinese list. The colors are not, of course, those associated with the Chinese elements. Another set of seven can be found with the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.

Return to Value Structure of Action

The Virtues of Franklin and Wooden

Psychological Types, Typology of the Chinese Virtues

Confucius [K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi]

Emperors of China


History of Philosophy

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2006, 2007, 2012, 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Key Distinctions for Value Theories,
and the Importance of Hume

Karman.y evâdhikâras te mâ phales.u kadâcana /
mâ karmaphalahetur bhûr mâ te sango 'stv akarman.i

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.

The Bhagavad Gita, 2:47, Juan Mascaró translation [Penguin Books, 1962, p.52]

Should we then, in the face of this criticism, reconcile ourselves to the view -- expressed countless times by so many: by some of the Sophists in Plato's dialogues, by Hobbes and by many more recent authors -- that what is just is what has been laid down as law by the legislator, and that there is no other valid law apart from this? This view can of course be expressed with varying degrees of consistency. The radical version says that whatever a sovereign or ruling power has established is indeed just: Hitler's Nürnberg laws, and Stalin's codes, and the American Constitution -- all are equally just. But this compels us to accept the inconvenient conclusion that norms which contradict each other may be equally legitimate and equally just. Advocates of this view, therefore, usually try to circumvent the problem by arguing that the value-laden concept of justice has no discernible meaning if it is taken to suggest a supreme paradigm according to which we can measure and assess existing legislation; if, on the other hand, 'justice' means nothing except positive law, i.e., what is established in existing legislation, it is a misleading and useless concept.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "On Natural Law," Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, pp.242-243]

Some key distinctions can be used to characterize the nature of ethics. Most fundamental is whether morality is a matter of rational knowledge or not. If it is a matter of rational knowledge, then our doctrine would be objectivism, which implies that morality is "out there," in the objects, and so is independent of personal preferences or sentiments. If it is not a matter of rational knowledge, then we could subscribe to subjectivism, that morality is indeed a matter of personal preferences or sentiments, in the subject, i.e. only in the mind or self. David Hume, is very properly often cited as the classic representative of subjectivism, as in the ethics textbook Moral Reasoning, by Victor Grassian, which I used to use in my ethics class. To Hume, morality depends on our own sentiments or feelings, as there is no matter of fact to determine moral truth [note].

Nor does this reasoning only prove, that morality consists not in any relations, that are the objects of science; but if examin'd, will prove with equal certainty, that it consists not in any matter of fact, which can be discover'd by the understanding. This is the second part of our argument; and if it can be made evident, we may conclude, that morality is not an object of reason.... Take any action allow'd to be vicious:  Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but 'tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. [A Treatise of Human Nature, Shelby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1888, 1968, pp.468-469, original spelling, boldface added]

If morality is just a matter of feeling, and not a matter of rational knowledge, then it is not really amenable to dispute. I have my feelings and you have yours. It is not uncommon, however, for people to think that others disagree with them on moral issues, not because of different feelings, but because of a lack of feeling. We see this in an example given by Grassian, who recalls responding at the time to a speech by Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the war in Vietnam.

At that moment, it appeared to me that the Secretary of State simply did not feel sufficient sympathy for the vast suffering of human beings who were being sacrificed for unclear ideals of American security. As I listened to Rusk, my predominant reaction was not to argue with him rationally, but in some sense to shake him into an emotional realization of the enormity of human suffering we as a nation were creating in Vietnam. [Moral Reasoning, Second Edition, Prentice Hall, 1992, p.24]

We have no difficulty, however, imagining Rusk telling Grassian that he "did not feel sufficient sympathy for the vast suffering of human beings" who lived under Communism. There are no "unclear ideals of American security" involved. After mass murderers like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Ho Chi Minh, the United States wanted to preserve South Vietnam and Cambodia from Communism. We failed. As it happens, more people were murdered in Indo-China after the Communist takeovers than had died in the wars there that involved France and the United States [cf. Death by Government, by R.J. Rummel, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995]. Many Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees live in the United States after fleeing the terror of the new regimes. Richard Nixon's prediction that there would be a "bloodbath" after a Communist victory, greeted with derision at the time, was fully born out by events.

Basing a moral argument, with an appeal to feeling, on only part of a story of suffering, has also occurred in relation to the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. Many antiwar protesters express outrage over the suffering to the Iraqi people caused by the United States in military actions in Iraq. But the story of an Iraqi exile in Los Angeles, Tamara Darweesh, was related by the Los Angeles Times on 24 March 2003:

A few days ago, Darweesh went to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where antiwar protesters were gathered. She asked to talk to them about why it is important to topple Hussein. The protesters thanked her, turned and walked away.

"I'm so disappointed with the left," said Darweesh, who considers herself a liberal. "They are in complete denial because it doesn't fit into their equation of the Mideast. But Saddam is an Arab leader who has killed more Arabs than Israel ever has."

The antiwar protesters, she added, are "very condescending. They are supposed to be for human rights, but the suffering of the Iraqi people just doesn't exist for them. They deny us our stories."

For people whose argument is their sensitivity to suffering, the political left thus puts itself in the position of protecting one of the nastiest neo-Nazi dictators in recent history. As a matter of fact, examined elsewhere, feeling cannot be morally commanded; and so the approach of insufficient feeling for moral correctness is barking up the wrong tree.

If morality is not just a matter of feeling, but of rational knowledge, we then must face the question of how that works. This is addressed in detail elsewhere. Here it may be noted that Aristotelian arguments about knowledge, which reduce reason to the self-evidence of first principles, leaves us with certainties that seem fully as subjective as Hume's moral sentiments. There is no more verification of self-evident propositions than there is of those based on feeling. This problem is resolved when it is noted that Socratic Method, as used by Socrates himself (not that described by Plato in the Meno), examines the logical consequences of propositions in order to expose contradictions. This will falsify some of our premises, in a manner first appreciated by Karl Popper. Which premises is a matter of continuing inquiry. This does not, to be sure, verify with certainty any remaining premises, but it does give us something to do, which subjectivism and self-evidence do not.

A common misconception in ethics is that another distinction, absolutism and relativism, means or amounts to the same thing as objectivism and subjectivism, and that any absolutist or objectivist view of ethics is necessarily heteronomous (see definitions in chart below). Likewise with relativism, subjectivism, and autonomy. The "Pirsig" of the chart is Robert Pirsig in the popular philosophizing novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Grassian and Pirsig, although no more than a popular novelist, are taken to represent views that are very characteristic of current academic philosophy. (A further version of this chart, below, proceeds to better known recent philosophers.)

It is easily assumed that autonomy implies subjectivism and relativism. This is especially deceptive when dealing with Hume, who is a subjectivist and is thus liable to be presented (as in Grassian's Moral Reasoning, and elsewhere) as a relativist. But Hume's theory of knowledge allows him to believe things he cannot rationally know (or prove); so while his theory is subjectivist, his beliefs are in fact absolutist. That was also the case with the issue he is the most famous for -- causality:  He had no doubt that everything that happened had a cause, he just didn't believe that this could be proven or otherwise rationally motivated. Most important for our purposes is the Socratic differentiation of absolutism. Socratic Ignorance means that ethical values are real, objective, and absolute but that the human condition is to be ignorant of them. This enables us to distinguish Socratic Absolutism, where values are absolute but unknown, from Dogmatic Absolutism, where absolute values are claimed to be already known. Platonic Recollection is Plato's theory that knowledge is possible but that it comes from within and is our memory of another world, a place of perfect goodness, justice, and beauty (the "World of Being"). This is the classic combination of autonomy with objectivism, although, of course, it is not the only way that autonomy can be combined with objectivism.

Whether Hume was a heteronomist or autonomist is a good question. After a fashion he was both:  he explains the occurrence of morality by reference to the customs of society as those develop over time, just as he explains causality itself on the basis of habit and custom. That sounds very heteronomous. However, as with causality again, he is aware that morality is not proven or rationally justified by his explanation. Indeed, it cannot be: Hume is also famous for noting that a proposition with an "ought" (assertions of value) cannot be logically derived from propositions merely with an "is" (assertions of fact):

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason. [op.cit., pp.469-470, original spelling, boldface added]

And so the assertions of morality cannot be logically derived from factual assertions about social or historical habit and custom. The force, certainty, and actual moral nature of morality is a residue that reference to society cannot account for. Since that residue is found in our own moral sentiments, this is something left to autonomy. While Hume's distinction between "is" and "ought" is often used as an argument that moral statements are baseless or meaningless, this was not what Hume had in mind. Instead, we must take him as arguing for what now would be called the "axiomatic independence" of ethics, something that would have already been comprehensible to Aristotle, who expected that each area of knowledge possessed its own first principles. It seems like many recent philosophers neither know their Aristotle nor understand their Hume.

Hume is a skeptic (which in philosophy means believing that knowledge is impossible) but of a certain kind. "Pyrrhonian" skepticism, named after Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BC), is that because knowledge is impossible, we should practice suspension (epochê) of judgment on all things. On the other hand, this was later modified when the scholars in Plato's Academy went through a phase of skepticism. Carneades of Cyrene (d. 129 BC), a Scholarch (president) of the Academy, is particularly associated with this movement of "Academic" skepticism. The Academic skeptics ultimately said that although there may be no certain knowledge, there is reasonable belief, and this is necessary for practical judgments in life. That is the term that Hume uses, as he says, "The great subverter of Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of scepticism is action, and employment, and the occupations of common life" [Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding p. 126], and "There is, indeed, a more mitigated scepticism or academical philosophy, which may be both durable and useful, and which may, in part, be the result of this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, when its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common sense and reflection" [p. 129]. Kant understood that Hume was in no doubt of the quid facti (the matter of fact, the existence) of causality or morality but that his skepticism merely consisted in his inability to account for the quid juris, the foundational justification of them. The failure to find the quid juris cast no doubt whatsoever on the quid facti. Hence Kant famously says that Hume's critics "were ever taking for granted that which he doubted, and demonstrating with zeal and often with impudence that which he never thought of doubting..." [Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics p. 259, Lewis White Beck translation, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1950, p.6].

To think that Hume did not believe in the principles of causality and morality is to confuse the content of knowledge with its object, or de dicto ("concerning what is said") properties with de re ("concerning the thing") properties. Observing that moral claims are made in historically contingent, fallible, and corrigible ("correctable") propositions, some infer that the objects of those propositions share in the same historical contingency. There is no force to that inference whatsoever, since it can only be made by confusing dictum with res and applying predicates of the former to the latter. Could that inference be made, it would simply erase the entire significance of moral discourse: no moral imperative (an "ought"), as Hume himself noted, can be derived from the contingent fact of something being said at some moment in history (an "is"). The idea that the description of practice, as the natural history of what we actually do, is sufficient for moral theory, which is what many philosophers today wish to do with Hume, effects a grotesque reductionism of people's sense that they ought to do certain things into the bare, retrospective indicative that they have. This would indeed be a pure Pyrrhonian suspension of moral judgment, and it is not at all a reflection of Hume's views.

Modern historicist and linguistic relativist theories (see Relativism about Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Robert Solomon) combine relativism with objectivism and heteronomy -- since history and language are objective things that exist outside of us but vary in time, place, and context. These connections are the worst of all possible worlds: putting the moral agent at the mercy of external standards (language, society, culture, etc.), even while these standards cannot be rationally questioned. Hegel had thought that history was the concrete exemplification of Reason and so could be rationally critiqued and changed, but the real, external reality, as such nevertheless derived authority from its presupposed rationality. Other versions of heteronomous relativism, even those derived from Hegel, now do not need to take Hegel's notion, or any notion, of reason very seriously. This can give near or complete totalitarian force to mere social and cultural traditions.

The idea that actual, heteronomous institutions and practices thereby possess moral force is "judicial positivism" -- what Leonard Nelson called Rechtswissenschaft ohne Recht, "Jurisprudence without Justice." This can be stated as the doctrine that:

  1. "Justice is the practice of the courts," and
  2. The only law is "positive law," i.e. actual statutory and case law.

The opposite of "positive law" is natural law, i.e. principles of natural justice, including natural rights, that do not exist as statutes or case law but that actually have moral force. Thus, Martin Luther King, quoting St. Augustine, said, "An unjust law is no law at all" ["Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 1963].

While the terminology of natural law goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas (also quoted by King), the scholastic versions of it nevertheless emphasized obedience to authority. This changed with John Locke, who justified the English Glorious Revolution (1688) on the principle that unjust authority did not merit obedience, and might rightfully be overthrown. This view was simply taken over by Thomas Jefferson and the other theorists of the American Revolution.

Later, in the debate over the Constitution, one problem was whether there should be a Bill of Rights. The Federalists Alexander Hamilton and James Madison argued that a Bill of Rights could produce misunderstandings:

  1. People might say that we only have the particular rights listed in the Bill; and

  2. That we only have the rights because they are listed and so positively granted.

When most of the States insisted on a Bill of Rights, and Madison was won over by his friend Jefferson, he suggested the Ninth Amendment to prevent such misunderstandings:  "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Various sophistries have been offered to get around the plain meaning, and the historical motivation, of this text, but it clearly allows that rights exist which are not listed in the Constitution, and it thus implies that such rights do not exist because they are granted by positive law.

Today, the most infamous self-professed judicial positivist is probably the late Robert Bork, who famously stated that the Ninth Amendment was a "blot of ink," i.e. a meaningless hieroglyph that could not be interpreted. In this, he at least honestly admitted that his judicial philosophy denied the existence of the very things the Ninth Amendment was talking about. Bork was not confirmed for the Surpreme Court. Later, however, when Clarence Thomas was nominated, he was actually attacked, before other things were found to accuse him of, for not being a judicial positivist. Thomas's acknowledged adherence to, and Bork's rejection of, natural law principles, however, are both unusual. Most judges today (and most Constitutional case law) are reflexive and unconscious positivists; and modern American political and judicial attitudes are overtly hostile, as was Bork, to principled disobedience to existing law, even law that is grotesquely unjust and, on any honest reading of the Constitution, unconstitutional. A good example of this reflexive positivism was President Clinton, who said, after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City:

When we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving [sic] a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly... that they would work for the common good, as well as for the individual welfare... However, now there's a lot of irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it. [boldface added]

The stigmata of positivism are all over this, with Clinton, a former professor of Constitutional law (!), considering whether some of the freedom "given" to us in the Bill of Rights should be taken back. To have politicians, and especially such a man as Clinton, considering how others have been "irresponsible" and should be deprived of their freedom is full of a particularly bitter but tragicomic irony. The same positivist animus to natural law principles of justice and freedom can be found in the modern rejection of the powers of juries, and in recent treatments of Jefferson.

While Bork is now infamous as a positivist, more prestigious Justices articulated positivist priniciples long ago. An important and influential example of that was Oliver Wendell Holmes (18411935), who said:

There is a tendency to think of judges as if they were independent mouthpieces of the infinite, and not simply directors of a force that comes from the source that gives them their authority. I think our court has fallen into the error at times and it is that that I have aimed at when I have said that the Common Law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky and that the U.S. is not subject to some mystic overlaw that it is bound to obey. [quoted by Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 2011, p.159; boldface added]

Noteworthy about this passage is the apparent contempt and disparagement that Holmes has for natural justice, natural law, and natural rights. He dismisses such conceptions as about "the infinite," a "brooding omnipresence in the sky," or a "mystic overlaw." But the United States, and every American, is indeed subject to some "mystic overlaw that it is bound to obey," and that is, in the memorable words of President Calvin Coolidge, "the eternal foundation of righteousness":

Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of law. [to the Massachusetts State Senate, January 7, 1914; boldface added]

In the great words of Sherlock Holmes, "It's every man's business to see justice done" ["The Crooked Man," Memories of Sherlock Holmes, 1892]. Justice Holmes directly contradicted this when one day Judge Learned Hand (18721961) told him, in parting, "Do justice, sir, do justice." Holmes actually stopped and called Justice Hand back so that he could object that their job was to apply the law, not to "do justice":  "That is not my job... It is my job to apply the law." One wonders if Holmes would have enforced the Fugitive Slave Laws without flinching. Ironically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had named his immortal detective after the father of Justice Holmes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (18091894). But one might not know from Justice Holmes's words that he was denying the philosophical basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as Coolidge and Hand were affirming them.

We see the full meaning of the positivism of Justice Holmes in his statement that law is "the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi-sovereign that can be identified" [ibid.]. This goes back to the Code of Justinian, that "law is the will of the sovereign" -- although, with Holmes, in a democracy, sovereignty lies in the People, not with a Roman Emperor. But this is still not right. Even democracy does not miraculously turn things that are unjust into things that are just. As Coolidge says, "Men do not make laws"; and, as shown at right, Leonard Nelson correctly held that moral obligation depends on no will, either our own or that of any other. Socrates already argued this in the Euthyphro. The Pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, not pious because it is loved by the gods. Justice Holmes and most Constitutional jurisprudence since does not believe in eternal righteousness; and, indeed, Holmes is regarded as representing a form of moral skepticism -- very different from that of Hume, at least in his autonomous form.

Confusions about Hume in Antony Flew

The Polynomic Theory of Value

The Fallacies of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

Chinese Virtues


Value Theory

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2012, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Key Distinctions for Value Theories,
and the Importance of Hume, Note

I am discussing Grassian here because the book is familiar to me, having used it in my ethics classes for a number of years, and because it seems to be representative, in ideology, to other contemporary ethics textbooks that I have examined.

As it happens, Grassian shies away from a complete commitment to feeling and subjectivism:

Although Hume was right that the ultimate source of our moral principles resides in our feelings, one should not assume that we must be slaves to our feelings. One cannot only change one's principles when they conflict intolerably with one's natural feelings, one can also attempt to adjust one's feelings when they conflict with one's reasoned preferences. The moral life is a constant interplay between reason and feeling. [p.24-25]

Unfortunately, on page one of his book, Grassian quotes one of Hume's most famous statements, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions..." If Grassian now disagrees with Hume, and frees reason from Humean slavery, he must explain how reason provides a source of moral knowledge and certainty independent of feeling. This is precisely what Hume denied, and Grassian, now inexplicably breaking with Hume, does not bother to explain how it is that reason, with no identified resources of its own, can overrule moral sentiment -- what is the moral "matter of fact" that Grassian has discovered that Hume did not? Having trashed any clarity in his commitment, Grassian naturally goes on to say that we cannot choose between objectivism and subjectivism. Indeed. The result is simply incoherent, or, at best, missing an account of rational moral knowledge. Since he begins the passage by actually saying that "Hume was right" that the "ultimate source" of our moral principles is in feeling, he evidently doesn't realize that an account of rational moral knowledge, of the rational moral matter of fact, has been rendered necessary.

Return to Text