About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Massimo's ethical system, an introduction

For the curious among you, and since questions of ethics and morality often come up, obviously, on this blog, below is a brief summary of how I seek guidance in that realm of human experience.

First, my framework is provided by Aristotle's contrast between "eudaimonia" and "akrasia." Aristotle realized (well before modern psychology) that it is human nature to seek immediate gratification, even when we ought to know better. He used the term "akrasia" to indicate this, it literally means weakness of the will. What we should do instead is to aim at eudaimonia, often translated as "happiness," but which in fact means a satysfying (in an ethical sense), well balanced life. To me, we all struggle between these two poles, and life is -- as Aristotle suggested -- an ongoing project hopefully leading us to control our akratic behavior better and better. In this sense, I therefore subscribe to Aristotle's "virtue ethics," where one has to make reasonable decisions on a case by case basis (often steering from extreme positions), mindful of the constant threat of akrasia, and attempting to increase his eudaimonia. Virtue, then, requires practice. Occasional sliding back isn't a problem, since nobody is perfect and it is human to err (even more than once).

Second, I complement the Aristotelian view with a bit of deontology (i.e., ethics based on rules), but of course not of the "Ten Commandments" flavor. Rather, I like and try to follow Immanuel Kant's two versions of his "categorical imperative":

* "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature."

* "Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means."

Finally, at the level of society (as opposed to the individual, as in the first two instances), I subscribe to a general form of utilitarianism (see, for example, John Stuart Mill), according to which we should do things that maximize the happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia, not personal pleasure or possession of things) of the largest number of individuals. Of course, I realize the pitfalls of utilitarianism (e.g., it is impossible to quantify happiness, and one can come up with clever cases where the maximization of happiness for the majority comes at the cost of suffering for the minority), but these are in fact either trivial (no other system of ethics is required to carry out precise calculations) or balanced by my first two approaches (to attempt to maximize happiness of the many by making a few suffer would contradict Kant's imperative, and it would not make for a virtuous life).

If you think that virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism are incompatible (as some philosophers do), I can only respond that your mind is limited. I feel free to take elements of each and brew my own mix of ethical theory. Got a problem with that?


  1. Big ups to JSM. :) He's my favorite political philosopher. I've considered myself a utilitarian ever since reading On Liberty 6 or 7 years ago.

    I recently saw a list published by Human Events Online(?) of the ten most dangerous books ever. Interestingly, On Liberty makes their 'honorable mention' list.

    I can't quite understand why people object to utilitarianism. Is it a desire to control others?


  2. "If you think that virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism are incompatible (as some philosophers do), I can only respond that your mind is limited."

    Maybe not exactly (or just) that. Probably it is just people demanding that we be strictly rational and coherent, which is definitely impossible (only computers can do that, and look how "smart" they are).

    I mean, contradiction and irrationality are essential to human beings, so you can combine those three things even if they actually are logically incompatible. Just like religious people do, combining reality with their beliefs as it fits the situation, ignoring them when convenient, etc.

    I myself am more than happy to turn off my rational brain while I'm in the movies or reading a Stephen King book, or playing some musical instrument (or writing comments here...)


  3. J,

    While most animals are non-rational entities working only from base instinct, society demands that we act above that standard when dealing with ethical questions.

    You miss the point that ethics and morality are usually silent on non-moral or non-ethical questions like what flavor of ice cream to like or what books to read. But when faces with an ethical or moral delima we must act with virtue. People who have studied and understand these problem are more likley to act correctly our of rationality or instinct. The more your moral actions come from rationality the easier it becomes until it is second nature.

    Wisdom to many of the great ethical and moral teachers is the innate ability to see the moraly good choice in a situation quickly and with limited information. By that standard MANY great religious teachers had wisdom. I'm not talking the Pat Robertsons of the world, but the idealized teachings of the bible or aseops would probably quality as wise stories.

  4. My first ethical principle is Mill's harm principle. As Dan Barker has pointed out, avoiding harm is a natural instinct, and it shows up throughout history: Confucius, Hippocrates, even Jesus said it, albeit in an upside-down, inside-out way.

    My second ethical principle is "moderation". That way I can change my mind on any issue and say I'm not a hypocrite.

  5. Speaking of atheist ethics, I got involved in a rather long blog discussion involving the supposed lack of morals/ethics among atheists. I should also add that this was on a very conservative Christian blog for a very conservative Christian magazine (Touchstone), so it was no surprise that the majority of bloggers and comment contributors there think atheists are either hedonistic scum of the earth or just hopelessly and stubbornly ignorant.

  6. Eric,

    I do agree with you, basically. I thought it was clear I meant that it is OK to relax when you're having fun and "turn off you brain" a bit.

    But I do maintain the position that complete coherence is impossible unless you're a machine.

    Another interesting point has to do with "pure rationality" in decision making. I don't know if that's what you're suggesting anyway, but there is eveidence that it's something impossible. Actually, if you act only based on reason and logic, you make more wrong decisions (here wrong has different meanings depending on the situation, not just moral situations). The evidence comes from pacients that had accidents or brain problems and, all of a sudden, stopped being able to making rational decisions. All their cognitive and logical faculties are intact, but their brain was damaged in the area that connects the "emotion centers" and the "reason centers". Well, I'm simplifying a lot here, and am no neurobiologist to start with, but these interesting theories are described by Antonio Damasio in his book "The Feeling of What Happens", which is primarily about consciousness and how it is believed to work. (see chapter 2, pp. 41-42 for this part I talked about)

    So, I don't know exactly what's going on there. Maybe the emotions are a way of automatizing, of bringing up what you called "second nature", so we can have faster reactions, without having to wait for all the conscious processing to take place - which is quite slow, if you take your time to think about it... So many questions, so little time. :-)


  7. As David Hume said, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

    What he meant is perfectly compatible with Damasio's thinking, and makes characters like Star Trek's Mr. Spock rather more problematic than I wished...

  8. I've adopted a very condensed version of the Hippocratic Oath as my ethic/moral "lighthouse"...

    "Do No Harm".

    Works for me and is really easy to remember!

  9. My own ethics I think are ver similar but far less trained. I have always felt that we do seek joy, happiness and physical comfort (and more)and those things are easy to attain in the primitive and sensual ways of the world. In fact those of us who are not sociopathic, recognize that those creature comforts that are purely mundane do not really give us the satisfaction or joy that we really want. So, we actually recieve our true happiness in terms of how we relate to others. In essence we cannot be happy by ourselves. It is the giving and empathy that we share with others that provide us that joy.

    Our actions are all that we really have and will be remembered by amongst those that know us. If we become titans of industry the public will know us for having gotten rich, but those that know us will rember us by our empathy, sharing and goodwill (or otherwise of course).

  10. "I like and try to follow Immanuel Kant's two versions of his "categorical imperative":"

    As I know, Kant believed in God and his ethics is finally grounded on transcendental (God, imortality). So, isnt it a contradiction that an atheist follows kantian ethical principles?

  11. Cassandra,

    no contradiction here. Kant was religious, but he made it very clear that he was looking for a system of ethics independent of the existence of the deity. His philosophy is entirely secular.

    Indeed, Kant published some of the best arguments *against* the existence of god!

  12. Yes his system is rational , but at the same time is a way to prove that is rational to believe in god.

    "Kant published some of the best arguments *against* the existence of god!"
    Kant said we can't have knowledge about the existence of God (the same for the non-existence of God), but we have the right to postulate God's existence for moral reasons.

    "Nevertheless, Kant argued, an unlimited amount of time to perfect ourselves (immortality) and a commensurate achievement of wellbeing (insured by God) are “postulates” required by reason when employed in moral matters."


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