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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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Moral Monster or Moral Master?

by Steve Neumann

It seems to me that all philosophizing ultimately boils down to ethics, broadly conceived. We just can’t help ourselves. We’re social primates who need to know how to act and how to tell others how to act. No matter which branch of philosophy we consider, the normative component is present like stink on a skunk. Metaphysics? We want to know what types of things exist in order to adjust our beliefs accordingly, because our beliefs guide our actions. Epistemology? We want our beliefs to be instances of genuine knowledge, so that we know how to live in light of that knowledge. Aesthetics? The genius of Kant notwithstanding, aesthetic valuation is decidedly not free of interest. If I think cyberpunk anime is the most beautiful cinematic experience possible, so should you. Ethics? Well, that’s just another word for philosophy.

Though I said that all philosophy is but broadly conceived ethics in fancy dress, what I really mean is that all philosophizing is really directed towards how we interact with others. Educating oneself in metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics certainly reaps benefits for one’s own life, for one’s own fulfillment; but equally important are the consequences for how we treat others. To that end, I’d like to conduct a little thought experiment. I’d like to tell you the tale of two brothers - let’s call them John and Peter.

John is of less than average height and build, affable, altruistic, circumspect and non-confrontational. There isn’t a mean bone in his body, and he’s been that way since childhood. Peter, on the other hand, is tall and muscular, aloof, self-centered, impulsive and combative.

Both John and Peter are soccer players, and they play on the same team. They have an unbreakable sibling bond. During one game, John gets fouled by one of the other team’s players and is temporarily injured. The foul was fairly dramatic, prompting the referee to give the offending player a red card. John winced in pain and fell to the ground, clutching his leg. Peter, seeing this, became enraged and rushed to the scene of the foul, knocking over the offending player by the sheer force of his stronger frame. Peter receives a red card for his blatant retaliation and is ejected from the game.

Peter has always been acutely aware of his superior physique. He’s always been taller and stronger than most of his peers and opponents. Whenever there was conflict, he had the confidence of his sinewy strength to bolster his engagement in it. Though he doesn’t necessarily like to start fights, he has no compunction about finishing them. And his confidence probably gets him into more confrontations than most others.

John, on the other hand, never really gave much thought to his physical presence. Though just as active as Peter, he rarely experienced any conflicts with peers or opponents. It’s not that he felt inadequate because of his size; the inclination toward friction simply isn’t present in him. He has always been the peacemaker. When others commanded, he obeyed. When others asserted authority, he submitted.

Peter is powerful and he knows it. Since he experiences so many conflicts, he regularly fantasizes about them: he rehearses various scenarios, imagining the potential thrusts and ripostes of both himself and his adversaries. He knows that he will always experience conflict, and he wants to be prepared. Sometimes he even looks forward to conflict because of his intensely competitive nature. But even though he is aware of his overwhelming physical and intellectual prowess, he has nevertheless been reared in the same moral milieu as his brother, John, and accordingly he refrains from gratuitously overpowering others or violating their equal rights.

For John, not only is he literally incapable of prevailing in most conflicts, the impulse to engage in them in the first place simply never arises. At the first sign of dissonance, he instinctively withdraws like a turtle into its shell. If he is inescapably drawn into the conflict, he seeks the path of least resistance for all parties involved. If by pure happenstance he ends up wronging someone, he immediately and thoroughly provides restitution. His mental rehearsals are filled with scenes of sympathy and unity. His reveries are of summer love affairs, and swallows dipping and swerving after insects over wind-kissed waters.

When it comes to morality, we have two basic options: there are things we should do, and things we shouldn’t do. We should perform certain actions, or we should refrain from performing certain actions. When it comes to Peter and John, we’ve seen that both of them are able to refrain from performing certain actions, but Peter is the only one with the capability to perform immoral actions. He has to fight himself, conquer himself, struggle against his nature. For John, it just comes naturally.

So now we come to the moral of our little tale: Is Peter a moral monster or a moral master? Who is more moral, Peter or John? Does one of them deserve our praise? Does one deserve our condemnation? Or do neither deserve our praise or blame?


  1. This is a nice example but I think it is incomplete. What you have described is reactive morality but there is also active morality. For example, does John(or Peter for that matter) seek out opportunities to do good, help others and alleviate distress?

    Your example is also two dimensional. By that I mean it is frozen in time. The reality is that we all experience moral progress(or we should), making mistakes, recognising them and atoning for them, resolving not to repeat the mistakes. In the process becoming a more moral person over the passage of time. It is this progress in a positive direction which is so important.

    The concept of forgiveness is not brought out clearly in your example. Peter was not forgiving but was John forgiving? Even John will experience assaults, insults and injustices. How will he react to them? With forgiveness or otherwise? I mention all this because a capacity for forgiveness is also important when making an assessment.

    1. Peter -

      I left it incomplete because I just wanted to focus on the reactive part. I agree with Nietzsche to a certain extent about morality - that is, a lot of morality is self-overcoming, in which case I personally view Peter as the "more moral" of the two.

      With regard to forgiveness, I imagine someone like John being *predisposed* to forgiveness and a turn-the-other-cheek ethic à la Jesus. But even in that case, I'm more inclined to value higher the one who chooses to forgive or turn the other cheek even though they have the power to requite "assaults, insults and injustices" in a like manner--but refrain.

      As an aside, if the gospel accounts of Jesus's life are accurate, I would value Jesus's turn-the-other-cheek ethic more because he seemed to be capable of tit-for-tat but refrained (with the exception of the money-changer's table incident).

  2. >Is Peter a moral monster or a moral master? Who is more moral, Peter or John? Does one of them deserve our praise? Does one deserve our condemnation? Or do neither deserve our praise or blame?

    My take:

    (1) John is morally better as an agent, because he has no inclination to perform morally bad acts.

    (2) Nobody deserves anything.

    (3) The purpose of the speech acts of praise and blame is to incentivize prosocial behaviour. So we should blame Peter and praise John (Peter's behaviour may be influenced by both the blame and the promise of praise if he changes). Praising John is pointless qua John's behaviour, but still necessary for influencing Peter's behaviour.

    I am deliberately not picking several nits regarding whether John's disposition is really always better, because I think these are incidental to the question behind this post.

    1. Ian -

      1) I assign Peter more value, because he's capable of performing bad acts, but refrains from doing so (usually - no one's perfect).

      2) Agreed. But I was wondering what the RS world thinks.

      3) "Praising John is pointless qua John's behaviour"; yes, but I'm skeptical as to how much Peter's behavior can be changed by assignments of praise or blame.

    2. Gotcha.

      >I assign Peter more value, because he's capable of performing bad acts, but refrains from doing so (usually - no one's perfect).

      We should clarify two different senses of "capable". I am capable of murder in the sense that I could use a weapon to deadly effect if I decided to. I am also incapable of murder in the sense that I would probably never make such a decision.

      I agree that somebody who is physically capable of violence & restrains themselves is in some sense more admirable than somebody who doesn't bite merely for lack of teeth.

      However, the way you described John made me interpret his nonviolence as a matter of inclination rather than physical capability. And if you think people who struggle against their inclinations to evil are better than those who have no such inclinations, that is susceptible to a reductio.

      Alice has an overwhelming desire to torture kittens, but manages to resist it for her entire life. Bob has never had any such thoughts occur to him & wouldn't remotely wish to act on them if he did.

      I think it's pretty obvious that Bob is the morally better agent (for example I'd rather be him, or have him as a friend). Alice's restraint is admirable in itself, but it is a solution to a problem that it's better one just doesn't have at all.

  3. Steve,
    >Though I said that all philosophy is but broadly conceived ethics in fancy dress, what I really mean is that all philosophizing is really directed towards how we interact with others.<

    I think this perhaps the most important single point in Steve's post(expressed with his trademark clarity). It is the quality of our interaction with each other that is the most important single aspect of our society. This is relevant to the previous posting about scientism. Science contributes greatly to the comfort of our life but it contributes little to the quality of our interaction.

    1. >Science contributes greatly to the comfort of our life but it contributes little to the quality of our interaction.

      The quality of our interaction improves when life's comforts can be obtained without coercing others. Anybody living comfortably in a low-tech society probably had slaves. Comfort in a high-tech society has less bad impact on others.

      Thus we could say tech increases moral luck. Which is a good thing.

    2. Ian,
      >The quality of our interaction improves when life's comforts can be obtained without coercing others.<

      Yes, good point. Comfort provides the space where morality can act.

    3. Yes, I suppose I am one of those deranged "postmodernists"! There is no pure "knowledge" or "truth" separate from one's own viewpoint. Maybe I'm a "perspectivist"?

    4. Steve, you would be if you lived alone without contact with the rest of society. Our myriads of daily social interactions act to refresh our knowledge of truth and synchronize it, freeing it(partially at least) from the prison of one's own viewpoint.

      But it works the other way too and you become a prisoner of the group viewpoint. I saw this firsthand in South Africa during the Apartheid era when large numbers of intelligent, well informed people subscribed to an unsustainable and immoral world view.

      Today they have, as a group, become amnesiac which just goes to confirm my statement. I sometimes think I can't trust my own memories of that time. Were there really two attempts on my own life? It seems too unreal, too far fetched, too disconnected with my present reality.

      So I half concur with you, truth is a thing we construct in our memories but it gains some credence when verified by the experience of others.

    5. > Science contributes greatly to the comfort of our life but it contributes little to the quality of our interaction. <

      The people who made my cell phone concur.

      I can play music and Angry Birds simultaneously, but God help me if I need a signal from the basement.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The Other Way

    Philosophy boils down to truth, and once found it must be practiced, shared and lived. Ethics is this Way.

    As for judging or measuring others as is One self, there in lies the flaw; Nature Mr. Neumann is truly immeasurable. Have you ever tried to measure the depth of a river, or even the direction it flows? Can you count the leaves on a tree, the grains of sand on a beach, the drops of water in a sea?

    You question how to measure or judge Peter and John. Perhaps it would be better to ask: how do you measure anything? Einstein, a true searcher went down that train track too. What is the speed of a train traveling on a rotating planet, circling the Sun, rotating in a galaxy, while moving through the Universe?
    Is a train measurable, is Peter and John, are you, am I, are we?

    When One finds the answer to the speed of a train, One finds the light at the end of the tunnel is Nature's infinite immeasurability. And rather than asking how to measure another, I would humbly suggest One go the other Way.

    To light,


    1. Actually, if I had the time or the inclination, I could count the leaves on a tree. I prefer maple trees. I like the syrup.

    2. But can you paint with all the colours of the wind?

    3. I love that idea: painting maple trees with all the colors of the wind. :)

  5. Thomas -

    No trap intended. But I do have an affinity for Socratic dialog. My point in this post is that I personally admire those who have the capacity for inflicting damage on others but refrain from doing so. It's not that I don't value those incapable of inflicting damage; it's just that I value the others more.

  6. How many leaves are there?

    I'd been working for sometime on the problem of measure, its uncertainty as science and Heisenberg had proven, its probability at best, when I found myself One day at the great University of California, Berkeley searching for truth. I had traveled there to ask the renowned physics department a simple question: is nature measurable? I was told by the physicists there that this was not a physics question, but rather a philosophy question, so off to the philosophy department I went. I asked the same question there and was told by philosophers quit surprisingly that this was not a philosophy question but rather a physics question and I should go back to physics and find the answer there. I went back and forth between physics and philosophy many times that day asking professors and students the same question, a simple question, and was told repeatedly the answer was not there.

    I eventually stopped outside in Nature, a grassy park area somewhere between the two departments to ponder where and how I would find the answer I was looking for. It was lunch time and as I sat there I saw some leaves on the sidewalk, and a scholarly woman sitting nearby enjoying the day. I asked her if she would mind helping me with a simple physics experiment, and she asked me how. I explained that I was trying to find the answer to Nature's measure and ask her to count how many leaves there were on the sidewalk in front of us? She said there are only five. I asked her if she was absolutely certain of her answer and she said yes. I pressed further and asked her: would you bet everything you know on your answer, five leaves? With some growing discomfort she agreed. We sat for a moment starring at the leaves when a light breeze came along and flipped one leave over revealing another, now there were six? I asked her again, now how many leaves are there, and can Nature even be counted? Before she could answer an even stronger breeze came along and blew them all away. Nature came along that great day to show me the proof and blew the science of physics, the measure of Nature, and even the philosophy of Nature, simply away.

    Michelangelo told me once that if you are searching for truth study Nature and O how true he was.

    How many leaves are on a tree, do tell?


  7. I think if you give credit to Peter for his ability to restrain himself but you don't blame him for his tendencies towards violence then you're being inconsistent.

    So yes, Peter deserves to be praised for his restraint but so does John for his peaceful nature.

    Personally, I would only partly agree with Ian's interpretation. While I do think that behaviour should be all we consider when looking at rewards and punishment, I think when considering praise or blame we might want to consider someone's motivation for acting.

    If Peter restrains himself out of a desire to be a good person, then he is moral. If Peter restrains himself out of fear of punishment, I think he is considerably less so.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      I don't see your point. The original post asked for opinions about Peter and John, and I provided mine.

  8. Steve,

    The point seems to me obvious and at first I'd follow your preference, but if he refrains his harmful impulses not for fear of punishment (as showed by Disagreeable), wouldn't it be due to something in his own nature that we can call compassion? But it seem that he does it because "he has ... been reared in the same moral milieu as his brother": so, it might be because he adopted a code of conduct, the one of his parents. Why? For fear of punishments or because those rules were truly internalized, becoming part of his nature as it seems they innately are in his brother? The fear of parents' punishments may be expressed by 'trying to be good' to them or this expresses just, again, the guy's good nature (tries to show himself good because he likes that)? The problem, indeed Socratic/Platonic, would be: if he indeed desire (not for fearing punishment) to be good, this is in his nature as it is in his brother's and so it is the good natured one who should be praised, perhaps not as a moral master. And, then, is there any way out of shaping moral behavior by fear of punishment (that somehow is believed to make germ the seed of compassion if there's any one there)? Is there a way to morally (I mean, not eugenically, for instance) twist one's nature to make him truly good?

    Another puzzle, from Plato: do you believe that the wise man is allowed to lie just because he knows very well why he's doing it (that perhaps meaning: he'll lie for a good reason)?

  9. I fear I didn't make myself clear: let me put it another way.

    The problem seemed to me be the one of praising acquired or innate - let's say - goodness. So, if acquired, goodness should be through fear of punishment or - say - because the subject feels it is good to be good. The fear situation is multiple and can be instanced either by classical punishments - like rejection, aggression, or even by the opposite - or by rewards - one term denotes the other in an opposition. The situation 'the subject feels it is good to be good' may seem to be an instance of the above mentioned rewarding situation (the subject feels it's good to be good because being rewarded makes him feel good), but it really means that his inner nature has become similar to John's. Then, as Disagreeable put it, if a moral behavior shaped by fear situations is not to be praised, what deserves praise is just the truly good nature of the self, although not as a mastery, because the subject doesn't have to fight for reshaping it.

    And thus, some questions: is it possible to reshape a neutral or an evil character to the point it becomes indistinguishable from an innate good one? If so, is it doable by solely ethic or moral teaching?

    And finally, as the wise man is supposed to be a good man, is he allowed to lie just because, being wise, he knows why he is lying, I mean, because he believes his lie is for good?


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