Acting dutifully and acting well

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

Morality and one’s own desires

Sasha asked:

To act morally is it necessary to fight against one’s desires?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This all depends upon what desires one has and what moral background we are comparing them with; but in general, I would say that one does not necessarily have to wrestle with one’s own desires to act morally. About a month ago I answered the question ‘What is a Moral Society?’ and I would reassert part of my answer: that it is a society or at a lower level a community, that sets a shared code of conduct, that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants, that we may term ‘morality’. As most of the inhabitants of a society would agree upon its values and live their lives by them, then it follows that the seemingly presupposed notion that persons have to restrain themselves to live morally would be fallacious.

I suspect that the majority of persons do not need to restrain themselves in society as they have a desire to be part of a community, or in other words a sense of belonging, which outweighs any other desires to better oneself through antisocial acts that harm others. Additionally, one’s conscience would ensure that one’s behaviour aligns itself with the prevailing morality. Either reason may be enough to ensure that most individuals behave themselves but the combination of both ensures all but the most errant individuals cannot be considered to be moral actors.

With regard to persons needing a sense of belonging, this may be a facet that has evolved as living in social groups has been beneficial to humanity’s survival; and without it society would undoubtedly crumble. I would think that there is a deep-seated, innate desire to belong to groups and this entails absorbing one’s community’s standards. Hence, most persons’ desires would coincide with others’.

Accompanying this, most persons also have a conscience and this facet is often called into play when persons are tempted to commit antisocial acts. In fact society exercises so much disapproval over persons who do not believe or adhere to its standards that this phenomenon alone may guide persons’ actions and ensure compliant behaviour; although disincentives are also provided by punishment established through criminal justice systems. Hence, persons with antisocial desires often align their behaviour with moral standards; and the more they align their behaviour the easier this process seemingly becomes.

The commonest schools of philosophy have realised that persons wish to live lives attuned to their society’s standards. Virtue ethicists wish to channel this phenomenon by educating persons from a young age to behave compliantly and rely upon heightening a person’s sense of belonging to ensure this; whilst deontologists or utilitarians may set boundaries by which persons actions may be judged and therefore seemingly place more reliance upon invoking a person’s conscience.

Hence, I would conclude that for the majority of persons, for the majority of the time, they do not have to restrain their desires as they either coincide with society or become aligned. Furthermore, in general, all persons in a society are judged by the same standards although there are times when the logic fails: for instance, those with prestige, talent or even illness may be offered more latitude when they are judged by others.

As a coda, I would add that there are always those who cannot comply with society’s morality and often must be punished. Hence, since the times of early Greek philosophy, much debate has occurred as to why persons intentionally refrain from acting morally and for further reading, one may seek entries in philosophical dictionaries concerning the conundrum of akrasia.

What is a moral environment?

Jessica asked:

What is a moral environment?

Answer by Paul Fagan

A moral environment, here interchangeable with a moral community or society, for me, should encapsulate both of the qualities of longevity and a shared code of conduct that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants. Initially this may seem to be an obtuse answer but I will attempt to explain my standpoint.

With regard to longevity, I would not expect an amoral community to be long-lasting. Even if all agreed that the correct code of conduct included lying, thieving and cheating; the element of cooperation that I believe persons need, as beings that intrinsically belong to a community, would not be present. Society would reduce to a few individuals leading lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

This leaves the problem of just exactly what are the values and practices that inhabitants of a moral environment would need to agree upon. This is very tricky to answer and is an intense area for debate as human beings have a tendency to adhere to differing philosophies.

There is often the tendency to imagine what a moral society would look like by adopting a particular political philosophy and then extrapolating it to all areas of life. Plato’s Republic and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice represent just two of them. They are often interesting academic activities and quite good reads; but their problem for me is that living persons are often influenced by, what may be termed, ‘cultural relativism’ and would find it difficult to jettison the identity, history and baggage that comes attached with their own culture. I have written on this before and now borrow from my earlier piece entitled ‘The Consequences of Cultural Relativism’:

‘…the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected…it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own…ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others.’

Hence, cultural relativism discourages the understanding of other environments. To explain, just say a society had practised infanticide as a way of birth control (as attributed to the ancient Spartans by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus:*.html): then most modern persons would consider this to be an immoral society. However, if the majority of inhabitants of this society felt this to be agreeable conduct; and the society in question had flourished for centuries, then it would also seem to contain the longevity that made it a moral society.

Hence, I would conclude that a moral environment is in the eyes of its beholders: which may not be a satisfactory answer for many, but one should understand that we have a high tendency to judge others by our own cultural relativism.

Most good books concerning ethics have sections concerning ‘cultural relativism’, but it is described in greater detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

What’s the difference between rule-based utilitarianism and deontology?

Robert asked:

What’s the difference between a rule-utilitarian and a Kantian? Is there really a difference?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This question is really a big area for debate and a small article such as this one, will never do it justice. However, I will attempt to give the questioner a few helpful pointers.

At first glance, rule based-utilitarianism and deontology (of which Kantianism is a famous variant) may seem to be similar because they both seemingly need ‘rules’ to operate: but there are differences and a major one will be explained.

For me, the difference lies where each particular school of thought places value. For instance, the utilitarian, as a consequentialist, will wish to achieve an end-state which may require rules to achieve this. However, the Deontologist, who may value wholesome interactions between people in their daily life, would wish for codes of conduct to be applied continually. Hence, there may be both a noticeable time difference and a geographical difference when each of the valued goods is realised: the utilitarian’s goal may be realised eventually and distantly, whilst the deontologist’s goal should be realised universally and constantly.

When giving examples of how utilitarians and deontologist differ, often very ludicrous examples are offered; and self-confessed utilitarians or deontologists are prone to use such examples even though they are unlikely to face such dilemmas in their own lives. A typical example is as follows: Sharon wishes to kill Tracey and one may avoid an act of murder by pretending not to know Tracey’s whereabouts. Here, the utilitarian may lie about the matter without any qualms; viewing murder as a potentially wrongful end-state. Contrast this with the deontologist who may believe that one should always act honestly as lying to another person is reprehensibly using them as a means to an end (although it should be noted, that in these cases like this, some variants of deontology will allow some acts that save a potential victim’s life).

Examples like this are often aired and may be found to be quite irksome as they strictly define persons within a single philosophy and do not reflect reality: when faced with this situation the hardened deontologist is likely to momentarily become a utilitarian.

Concerns for realism aside, for me, the important point is what one values the most: an end-state or rightful behaviour. To this end, deontologists and utilitarians alike may construct as many ‘rules’ as they desire to ensure the attainment of their respective desiderata and so focusing upon ‘rules’ is relatively unimportant.

Here, I have attempted, in a very simplistic, manner to demonstrate an important difference of two schools of philosophy. For further reading, in a similar simplistic vein, the reader may like to refer to Ben Dupré’s 50 philosophy ideas you really need to know (London : Quercus); which features a very good section introducing ethics. After this, the reader may like to peruse James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London: McGraw- Hill). I hope this helps.

The awareness of plants

Gerald asked:

Do you believe plants are as aware as humans about their surroundings and themselves? If not, why not?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Personally, I do not believe that plants are as aware as humans about anything; whether this is their surroundings or themselves. For me, plants do not need to have such a highly developed faculty for awareness and this has been dictated by the survival strategy they have employed as organisms. In essence, their survival strategy requires them to produce many potential offspring to ensure their continuance; in turn this requires plants to have a facet, possibly what we may even call a quality, which we may refer to as ‘unawareness’. It should also be noted that this strategy is successful as plants continue to flourish and have existed for aeons.

Here, I will attempt to demonstrate how plants have benefitted from a level of unawareness. But prior to this, if we consider a concept such as awareness to be akin to consciousness, then it should be realised that many philosophers would consider it difficult to transfer the very subjective, human experience of consciousness to other organisms. That said, some would be tempted to ascribe senses, such as awareness to ‘animals’ rather than vegetation; just exactly where this defining line may be drawn is an area for debate and as a starting point the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for ‘Animal Consciousness’ ( Additionally, it may also be noted that a few philosophers are willing to entertain the possibility that plants and single-celled organisms possess a form of consciousness; notably Alexandra Nagel in his ‘Are Plants Conscious?’ ( Moreover, the reader may like to read the article ‘There is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence’ by Simon Worrall in National Geographic (

However, let us imagine a plant, whose seeds are distributed in the wind by whichever way the wind blows. Now, if the plant was aware that for its offspring to flourish, its seeds would need to be distributed to the west as the east was unsuitable, then it would only release its seeds to an easterly wind. But if the climate changed, and the west became unsuitable whilst the east became verdant, then all of its offspring would perish. Additionally, if plants repeatedly reacted to such events in their environs it may divert resources from a tried and tested survival strategy. Hence, it is in a plant’s interests to be unaware; but more than this, it may be argued that plants must have a necessary and sufficient level of unawareness in order to survive and procreate.

That said, it would seem that plants are aware, in some manner, that their immediate circumstances are not ideal: for instance, when they stretch and writhe to maximise their exposure to sunlight; in a similar manner, plants rejuvenate themselves after being predated by herbivores. But these local tribulations are probably a limit to their awareness and their survival strategy rests for its success upon many other compatriots germinating in suitable conditions and an abundance of plants that predators cannot deplete. Overall, it should be realised that plants easily accomplish all of the functions they need to survive but seemingly without the necessity of a highly developed faculty for awareness.

Ethics and potentially harmful foodstuffs

Emmanuel asked:

Invoking ideas from consequentialism non-consequentialism and/or virtue ethnics, what ethical issues are raised by the heart and stroke foundation endorsement of certain foods? Does it matter, ethically, that there is anything left to the buyer beware sentiment when it comes to advertising and endorsement? What are the responsibilities of the consumer to remain informed and vigilant when it comes to consumer issues and advertising marketing rubric?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s endorsement of certain foods would seem to be an educational act to enable people to make sensible life-choices. Now these sorts of choices would be applicable whatever personal philosophy one chose to follow in life; as such, I would consider this to be an act of meta-ethics, being influential upon the vast majority of philosophical schools.

Within any liberal society, all but the most incapacitated or children would expect to keep abreast of the latest information when purchasing the majority of foodstuffs. However, the most damaging foodstuffs would be expected to be prohibited or controlled: for instance, in the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are highly taxed and this is one measure by which their consumption is controlled; other measures include restricting advertising and restricting sales to adults.

With regard to the consumers’ interaction with the world of marketing, in this litigious age, the most erroneous claims may expect to be heard in court; or dismissed by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who may even refrain from buying the product. In the past, a notable confectioner claimed that eating one of its chocolate bars on a daily basis would help one to ‘work, rest and play’. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this type of claim would be unlikely to be made today.

Looking at how differing schools of philosophy may consider potentially harmful foodstuffs, three are briefly noted here; being utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.  The utilitarian, when attempting to maximise utility, by attempting to attain the maximum good for the maximum number of people, may discourage the consumption of the more harmful foods but possibly offer incentives to eat healthy foods. The deontologist may expect to live by a code of conduct, whereby the more harmful foods would not be sold or promoted to persons without their full knowledge of the product; hence, consumers would not be subjected to deceit or become a means to an end for unscrupulous manufacturers. The virtue ethicist would be educated and habituated to consume potentially harmful food on a moderate basis and perhaps a chocolate bar would comprise an occasional treat; in this manner, a virtuous society would collectively regulate their consumption.

It should be noted that the examples here would be expected to minimise potential harm but not ban a foodstuff outright; and this state of affairs may occur when it is realised that most foodstuffs may be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, using the example of a chocolate bar, if one considered chocolate bars to be harmful, because they may contribute to obesity; one should still appreciate that giving a chocolate bar to a starving person may assist that person immeasurably.

To conclude, philosophical schools may provide an ethos to control potentially harmful foods. And it is arguable that in certain western societies, an ethos is needed to control the rise of obesity. For that purpose, an example of controlling foodstuffs is already provided by the restraints placed upon the sale of alcoholic beverages.