Are there basic, universal virtues?

Celo asked:

Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?

Answer by Paul Fagan

If we accept that human beings evolved from apes, which had to live together in some harsh environments, then it would be sensible to assume that virtues evolved and allowed them to survive this experience. For instance, the virtue of sharing would have been essential in order to share food in times of scarcity. But prior to sharing food, one would have to realise that one of your compatriots was hungry and this would require one to have the virtue of compassion. From this simple scenario, it should be noticeable that plural virtues were seemingly necessary for the survival of our ancestors. Hence, it may be expected that there should be basic, universal virtues lodged within human beings.

The problem for our ancestors is that they may have also had to face adversity of such a magnitude that it outweighed these basic virtues. For instance, if you only could obtain enough food to ensure your own survival, then you would need to be able to override both virtues of sharing and compassion. Consequently, the basic virtues may have been accompanied by an innate rationale which was also important.

With regard to the second part of your question, inquiring whether virtues change with time, place and social context, then it is certainly true that moralities may change on this basis: the society that one finds oneself in often sets the morality that one believes to be righteous (please see my previous articles What is a moral environment? and The consequences of cultural relativism). To explain, if a society exists with little food, then eating moderately may be considered to be a virtue: in order to ensure food for all. However, in a society with an abundance of food, having a voracious appetite may be considered virtuous: as less food would go to waste. Here differing virtues have been constructed, and although both are based upon the asset of food, they differ markedly due to food’s availability.

Although we may see ethical values changing both through time and place, there would be opponents to the above argument, who may claim that too much emphasis is being placed upon the exterior behaviour of persons. They may believe that there is a deeper, underlying morality that links human beings: for example, they may note that whatever society we live in, we all feel the same disgust when our leaders abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves. The problem here is that not all persons would be disgusted and some may be pleased that their leaders have done ‘well’ for themselves; moreover they may wish to do likewise if placed in the same position of power. Hence, a complex tapestry of virtues and rationale seem to be operating at all times

In concluding, although there are specific values that we may recognise as virtues, they are often intertwined with other values that we may not. It is not an area where philosophers may give a simple answer, and it may be worth the inquisitive reader’s while to consult with psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists in order to gain a fuller view.

Rawls and justifiable inequality

Isaiah asked:

When discussing Rawls, do you believe that some inequality is justifiable in order to maximise the well-being of the worst off?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Life is full of inequality and whether one accepts this, wishes to eradicate this, or wishes to mitigate this, will depend upon one’s personal viewpoint. Rawls wished to lessen the inequality of societies and his stance is now explained.

If we accept that the worst off are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, as Rawls did, then many would feel obliged to tackle this problem. Rawls’ feelings upon the matter are explained in great detail in his book entitled A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999: 57-73): in particular, Rawls considered distributions of material wealth based upon talent to be unreasonable and he justified this position by describing how talent is distributed by a ‘natural lottery’ and how ‘this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective’ (Rawls 1999: 64).

In tackling the problem, Rawls offered his difference principle, which may be viewed as a device that allows the most favoured groups to benefit from their talents provided any social and economic inequalities are ‘to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged’ (Rawls 1999: 266). Rawls effectively helps the worst off by harnessing persons’ collective desires to better themselves and maintains a profit motive within society in order to do this.

As already noted, individuals will have very differing views as to whether this is the correct approach to take and many other schools of political philosophy are highly critical of Rawls and a few of their views are now aired. Libertarians would number amongst the critics, and Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia felt that Rawls erroneously viewed the ‘natural abilities’ of the individual as a ‘collective asset’ (Nozick 1974: 228-9). Libertarians may wish to increase the level of the profit motive in order to benefit society; based on the rationale that more goods will be available to society if the talented can exercise their talents fully. Whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, many communitarians would favour a system where the least talented are incorporated within working life: as opposed to being assured an improvement in their well-being due to their disadvantage. Here, cooperation is far more important than competition and communitarians would believe that a happier society should arise.

Furthermore, some commentators would see internal faults within the difference principle. Many alleged faults of Rawls’ work are described in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (Kymlicka 2002: 70-75). In particular, one criticism that is influenced by his work would indicate that the difference principle could result in a grossly unfair arrangement for the hardest workers. To explain, if enough people in a society prefer the good of leisure time to the good of money, then they will not work too hard, and it will fall disproportionately upon society’s hardest workers to improve the lot of the worst off.

In this light, gaining a single person’s opinion as to the validity of Rawlsian thinking will possibly not give the best judgement on his work. It should be noted that it will be decided by a society as a whole, and not by individuals, whether they wish to live via Rawlsian principles. In fact, the reader may like to view the following video clip produced by The School of Life that explains Rawls’ motives and influences: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-JQ17X6VNg . It is interesting that the video asserts that the application of Rawlsian principles would produce societies similar to those of Denmark and Switzerland, and if the video is right and you also admire these countries, then you would probably feel that Rawls’ thinking is justifiable.

Knowledge versus ethics

Kenneth asked:

Which is better, being knowledgeable or being ethical?

Answer by Paul Fagan

At first glance, the way this question is phrased seemingly begs a simplistic answer, but with some consideration a few differing answers may be uncovered and three are illustrated here.

Firstly, from an individual viewpoint very subjective answers may arise. If being knowledgeable is considered to be paramount to living a worthwhile life, then a person holding this opinion will tend to view being knowledgeable as being better. Of course, some will hold the opposite view.

However, from a second collective viewpoint, the question is intriguing as there seems to be a very strong relationship between being ethical and having knowledge. As an example, those living in the present age will generally be aware that climate change is occurring and that it needs to be tackled. But consider the following scenarios detailing how persons who are not equipped with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change may be perceived:

  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who inadvertently tackles the problem will be perceived as a person who lives a good life.
  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive will be perceived as a blameless person.

In these two examples, those without effective knowledge would not really be judged as acting either particularly ethically or particularly unethically.

However, notice how the addition of knowledge into the mix intensifies the judgment that may be collectively felt:

  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle change and who tackles the problem will be expected to be held in high esteem.
  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive can be expected to be held in low esteem.

The introduction of knowledge into the equation allows persons to be perceived as more ethical if they act upon that knowledge, as in case 3: but it also allows persons who ignore that knowledge to be perceived as the most unethical, as in case 4.

A consensus of opinion is likely to give most praise to the person who is both knowledgeable and ethical, and supporters of such a view may argue that being knowledgeable is ‘better’ as the most ethical behaviour is dependent upon first acquiring knowledge.

However, a third point should be noted: being knowledgeable does not necessarily mean that you will act ethically, as in case 4. Certainly, human beings often act irrationally, are not perfect and may even make choices that are not in their own interest. Hence, some may argue that acting ethically for its own sake, as in case 1, should be valued as a better life as it has not been tainted by human failings; moreover, some may even encourage living such a life and following the person’s actions.

Overall, individual subjectivity, human collective psychology and reasoning may give different opinions as to whether knowledge or ethical behaviour is a superior good. Bearing these in mind, readers may be asked to arrive at their own opinion on the matter.

Robin Hood’s moral tendencies

Julia asked:

How did Robin Hood act if one judges his motifs according to the ethical models of Immanuel Kant, the principle of usefulness of J. Bentham and J. Mill?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The actions of Robin Hood, in particular his ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’, have provided many philosophers with food for thought for many years. In particular he provides a dilemma for deontologists such as Kantians; often leaving the way for many to claim that his actions were utilitarian in nature, providing actions that Benthamites and followers of the Mill family may promote. In fact, before reading this piece, the reader may initially like to visit an interesting and succinct website entitled ‘Moral Dilemmas – The Robin Hood Problem’ (https://nlcsethicsproject9fsilviasicheri.weebly.com/).

For deontology, the dilemma may be briefly described here. Robin Hood’s actions would satisfy notions of Kant’s ‘good will’ as they are directly acting out a moral obligation by assisting those in need: nevertheless, the act of robbing a person is using that person as a ‘means’ to produce a result, when according to Kantian theory, people should only ever be used as ‘ends’.

Such dilemmas have generated a seemingly continual stream of discussion and have necessitated Kant’s original work to be adapted and modified (and should the reader be interested the pros and cons of deontology, further reading is provided by Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy’s entry entitled ‘Deontological Ethics’ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/).

That said, the dilemma leaves room for the individual observer’s own feelings to be exercised and show partiality: if a person values the act of helping the needy they would favour the first horn of the dilemma, while those upholding the notion that persons should always be considered as ‘ends’ would favour the second.

Moving to look at the situation form a utilitarian perspective, then such difficulties would not expect to be as pronounced. Immediately, a redistribution of goods in the manner of Robin Hood, would cause an increase in overall happiness, or utility, in society. Of course, the persons being robbed would suffer some grief but if they were robbed of goods that they could spare, then the utility value of these goods when given to the needy would be enormous. To elucidate, if Robin Hood robbed five coats from a man with a wardrobe full of coats, and distributed the proceeds of the robbery to five shivering persons, then the whole of society benefits! Five persons may now go about their business, and although the victim may be upset, on balance the asset of five coats being used in society, rather than residing in a wardrobe, should really benefit of all.

Additionally, utilitarian acts may often be judged by their long term results. For instance, if the persons newly equipped with coats, now produce long lasting goods as a consequence of their warmer life, such as building houses that may be used in the future, then an aggregating amount of utility benefits society.

To conclude, Robin Hood’s actions are problematic for deontologists but he may be viewed far more favourably by utilitarians.

What is duty and what is instinct?

Brigette asked:

What is the difference between acting out of duty and acting out of instinct?

Answer by Paul Fagan

There may be no difference in the actual actions performed, but deontologists, as one example, may make a distinction based upon the motivations causing such actions. In order to demonstrate a distinction we may accept the deontological standpoint that persons should be treated as ‘ends’ and not ‘means’, and we should consciously act out this proposition in our daily lives.

For instance, if you saw someone starving in the street then you may have, what we may call, an instinctive reaction to help this person and you may buy her some food: this is a comprehensible response if we consider human beings to be entities who have evolved in groups and who instinctively wish to help other members of society. Although you may think that you have acted dutifully, here the problem for some deontologists may be that they do not consider it to be a dutiful act as you were not conscious of performing a duty.

Contrast this first situation with a second situation. You may see a person starving in the street and you may experience, what we may again call an instinctive reaction, but this time to avoid helping the person: as you feel that the person in question has not done enough to help herself and remedy the predicament she now experiences. Again this is a comprehensible response if we accept that people often learn the reactions they experience form their host society. However,  if you treat this person as an ‘end’ and buy some food for her, as you are consciously aware that you should do your duty, then the hardened deontologist would be more likely to consider your actions as being dutiful.

Although a duty may coincide with an instinct as in the first instance, the deontologist may claim that the second instance more truly demonstrates what comprises a duty.

The internet provides much food for thought concerning ‘duty’, but for further reading a good place to start would be a very readable article by the BBC entitled ‘Duty-based ethics’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/duty_1.shtml). And should this have whetted your appetite, then the reader may like to move on to the more comprehensive ‘Kant’s Moral Philosophy’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/).

Morality and moralities

Fabricio asked:

What’s the difference between moral subjectivism and moral pluralism? How do I know which one I follow? I do agree that Stalin was both evil and not evil… but utterly, there is no truth.

Answer by Paul Fagan

I will concentrate on the spirit of your question, in an attempt to describe the two branches of moral classification that you have highlighted; I hope this gives you enough pointers to pursue your own research.

A good place to start in this area is provided by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, where one chapter is entitled ‘Subjectivism in Ethics’. Basically, if you found an action such as abortion to be reprehensible or you found homosexuality to be disgusting, and you rested your dislike only upon your intuitions, then you would be enacting a form of ‘moral subjectivism’.

However, most of us, when given a choice, change our minds about many important aspects of our lives: our religion; our politics; our diet; and our conduct towards others. The very fact that there are other opinions that we may adopt, should give us a strong hint that being morally subjective is often not the most rational way of living our lives, and we may query whether there are other more cogent moral approaches.

Often such questioning of one’s own opinions is a precursor of accepting, what may be termed, ‘moral pluralism’ (and one definition may be found in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/moral-pluralism/v-1). Moral pluralism generally acknowledges that there is a variety of viewpoints, but moreover, one may be encouraged to apply a selection of these viewpoints to problems to find a solution.

The example of the twentieth century soviet leader, Josef Stalin, provides a focus where both moral viewpoints may be demonstrated. Firstly, if you think that Stalin was a ruthless, political ideologue who would stop at nothing in order to introduce his politics to the world, and nothing will shift your opinion from this, then you are possibly prone to moral subjectivism. However, if you accept this first stance as only one opinion, but at the same time, would also consider that Stalin liberated oppressed peasants by industrialising the Soviet Union and provided the dynamism for the creation of a world superpower, then you are possibly a follower of moral pluralism.

To conclude, if you are set in your ways and have a dogmatic opinion on the most important aspects that affect people’s lives then you may consider yourself to be a moral subjectivist: but if you are likely to change your mind about such things, after due deliberation, then you may be a follower of moral pluralism.

Is having lots of money wrong?

Nigel asked:

What’s so wrong about having lots of money?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Depending upon which philosopher you ask, having ‘lots’ of money may not necessarily be a bad thing. That said, it is argued here that current liberal societies should be wary of too few people having enormous amounts of money.

For libertarians, one should ideally be able to own all of ones produce without interference from anybody, and if this includes lots of money, then being wealthy represents a natural state for some (and for more detail, the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership).

The libertarian position may expect to be opposed by various factions, and this would include communitarians. They may argue that a person is not an entity that can be separated from their surrounding society, and for this reason, an individual cannot expect sole control over wealth, which is in fact society’s wealth. They may further elaborate this argument by noting that individuals learn their skills from society and owe society a debt for their enrichment; additionally persons are dependent upon society in which to exercise and benefit from their skills (and for more discussion, the reader may like to visit one of my older articles on this site, entitled Man is semi-autonomous). Hence, the individual may be considered to be enmeshed within society.

That said, most societies in practice, such as liberal and socialist ones, occupy a position in between these two extremes. In order to prevent suffering within their populaces, or because they feel society would benefit if money was redistributed, most societies value some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

However, the modern age may have brought a new phenomenon. It would appear that with the advent of globalisation and the free movement of capital, greater and greater amounts of money are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In 2017, the following statement came to light:

‘…the world’s richest one per cent […] own more than the other 99 per cent combined’

This was published by Oxfam (Oxfam. 2017. ‘Press Releases’. https://www.oxfam.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2017/01/eight-people-own-same-wealth-as-half-the-world), and admittedly, there have been those who query its accuracy. Nevertheless, if we accept for the purposes of argument, that it is roughly correct, then it may contain the seeds of problems for some societies.

This may be particularly true of liberal societies, which generally exalt the freedom of the individual and encourage personal aggrandisement (and a definition of liberalism may be found here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/liberalism). To explain, if a few people own enough money to control manufacturing, then they may limit the goods a person may buy, and if a few people own the media, then they may attempt to dictate how people should think. Hence, a paradoxical situation may be arising: although liberalism extols individualism, there may actually be less individualism in practice where a mere handful of individuals dominate the resources.  Liberal societies may be inadvertently limiting liberalism, and when this is realised, they may decide to take remedying action. Hence, from a liberal viewpoint, if too few persons have so much money that they confine liberalism, then it may be considered ‘wrong’ for these individuals to have too much money.