Ethics – What is Good?
The first essay in this section addressed the question of, “Why be good?” this one asks, “What sorts of things are good?”

Free will

We need a few preliminaries. First of all, in order to “do” ethics at all, we have to accept that we have free will. If we don’t have a choice, then we can’t make good choices. Is our behavior only a function of our genes, and our learned cultural memes? Can random chance and deterministic laws of physics be ultimately responsible for all of our behavior? Do we have free will? All of the above?  This topic is covered in other essays, so I only mention it as a prerequisite here. To talk about ethics, we must use a language that includes choices.


Another related idea, that we will want to dispense with, is the idea that any choice we make is moral. We could believe that we are in the natural state of man described by Hobbes, and that all action is ultimately about self-interest. Or, that we are evolved to always act in our own interest, so somehow all of our actions are related to our personal survival and well being. In fact, evolution could also select for behaviors that favor group survival. But, in any case, we will want to eliminate those ideas by definition. If we say that all actions are moral, then the word “moral” loses any meaning. To make distinctions between various actions, we want the word, “moral” to include some actions, and not others.

So, we will start with a vague definition, similar to the golden rule, that ethics is about considering the good of others, as well as your self. We won’t be any more precise than that for now, since we’ll discuss specifics later. For now, we just want to eliminate by definition the possibilities described above.

Subjectivism and personal faith

I describe these two ideas together because they are like two sides of the same coin. Subjectivism says that all personal ideas about morality are equally valid. I don’t really know anyone who thinks that way, but it is an often-discussed possibility. The other side of this coin is someone who claims that, based on personal faith, their set of moral believes is the correct one. It’s easy to see how these two ideas are related. If there are no objective facts we can use to argue one idea over another, they are the only possibilities we are left with.

It is true that ultimately we are all responsible for what we believe, what authorities we trust, what we believe is wrong, and how we behave. And, in fact, many Christians believe their religion can only truly be accepted as the result of profound personal experience.

These belief systems and personal codes of morality are fine for self-governance, and are protected by the 1st amendment in the U.S. But if we are going to form a society, we are going to have to strive for rules that we can generally agree on. The basis of this agreement can not be subjective personal experience. Just as science, which strives toward agreement about nature, must be based on evidence from the world, so too, public morality, which strives towards agreement about behavior, must be based on evidence.

So can we look to societal consensus?

Relativism and tradition

These also are flip sides of a coin. The relativist says that all cultures are equally valid in the rules that they have arrived at. The traditionalist says that the rules of his of her society are the correct rules. (See
interesting example here) Again, if there are no objective facts to choose between cultures we will not be able to go beyond this. But again, I think we would like to do better. In fact if we ever hope to reach agreement, we must do better than this.

A question related to a discussion of relativism is, “Are there moral absolutes at all?”
This is a question that we will not attempt to answer here. However, a more practical question is, "Can we know what is moral with absolute certainty?" Some religions would claim the answer is yes, but they must be believed on faith. So, I would argue the answer is no. However, we may be able to come to probable answers, based on evidence.

It is possible that moral absolutes do exist, and yet, it may be correct for societies to change their views over time. One possibility is that although moral absolutes do exist, no human society has every grasped them perfectly and we are still striving towards perfection.

For another possibility, we can take our clues from Thomas Aquinas who certainly believed in the absolute authority of God. He thought there were certain first principles of morality that were eternal, unchanging, and evident to all. However, there were secondary principles of morality, which could be derived through reason from the first principles. These secondary principles might change over time, as knowledge increased, or as the circumstances they were applied to changed.

An example of a first principle might be a statement of the golden rule. "Love your neighbor like thyself." or "Do on to others as you would have them do on to you." But the application of this first principle might vary from time to time and from place to place.

So, although cultural traditions may be where most people learn their moral ideas, these ideas may change over time, and certainly change from culture to culture. If we are going to try to choose between various cultural ideas, we need some sort of concrete evidence.

Consequentialist morality

This is the idea that the goodness of any action is based on its actual or potential consequences. We will need to define this in greater detail, because it contains within it a number of possible ideas. We will also need to discuss some competing ideas. But, immediately we can say this: If we are willing to use the consequences of actions as the hard facts for determining correct moral actions, we can reject the systems listed above, since they are not evidence based. Subjectivism, personal faith, relativism, and traditionalism, are all non-evidence-based systems.

Deontological or rule-based morality

This is a competing idea. It says that there are rules that we must not violate, regardless of the consequences. For example if we say killing a person is wrong, then we may not kill a person, even to save 1,000,000 lives. Deontological thought makes a hard distinction between direct and indirect consequences of our actions. But, while we will want to take the difference in to account, I don’t think we want to say that indirect consequences are irrelevant. That is, I don’t think we want to ignore the fact that 1,000,000 lives may be indirectly saved, by directly killing one person.

Rule-based morality is generally associated with a religious view of the world. After all, somebody has to make the rules in this system. In our initial definition, we said that morality was generally about considering what was good for others, as well as ourselves. But this system would ignore the actual outcome, in some cases. Morality here, is more about obeying whoever is in charge, making the rules, than it is about the welfare of others. Deontological systems are authoritarian, and at least partly non-evidence based.

Kant was a famous advocate of rule-based morality. He arrived at rules without invoking a rule maker by saying we should never act in a way that we would not want everyone to act in all situations. But again, this locks us into a system where the indirect consequences of actions can not be considered at all.

Without going into any great detail about Kant, I believe he was the product of a Newtonian world view. Newtonian physics seems to specify laws that make the universe completely deterministic. In order to make room for free will (and ethics) within this deterministic view, Kant had to separate the world of thought from the material world. He called this the nominal world and the phenomenal world. This separation leads to a separation of action from consequences. Ethics for Kant is about actions in the nominal world, not consequences in the phenomenal world.

When confronted with the same dilema, posed by Newtonian physics, Nietzsche later rejected the notion of free will instead. I beleive these both of these ideas, Kant's and Nietzsche's, are radical solutions to a problem that no longer exists. The discovery of quantum mechanics frees us from determinism, and allows for the possibility of freewill without resorting to Kant's system. Once Kant's argument, (that a nominal/phenominal seperation is needed in order for free will and ethics to exist), is discredited, I beleive the rest of his system loses its foundation. It is valid to say that there are consequences that result from our actions, since this is what we observe to be true. And, it is valid to say that these consequences should be considered when contemplating an action.

Rule based systems have appeal, because they tend to be simpler. A rule may be appropriate for 99% of the cases encountered. So following the rule can lead to good results. Our legal system has to be rule based. It is not possible to write separate laws for every possible circumstance. However, we do have judges, whose job it is to take such things into consideration.

Rule based morality will also lock one into traditionalism. If morality is not based on outcomes, then rules that once worked well may become fixed, and over time they may cease to be beneficial as they once were.

Natural Law

Natural law has a long history, and it has meant different things in different times, and in different contexts. When Thomas Aquinas formulated his version, he argued that man could know the moral law through reason, without the aid of scripture. He did not argue that things that are unnatural are immoral, he argued that things that are against reason are immoral.

It may be unnatural for man to fly, but are airplanes immoral? Is it immoral if I walk around on my hands? It is certainly unnatural. Human technology and progress transforms society all the time. To use one of Aquinas’s examples, we do not go around naked, even though that may be natural, and the way we are born.

Natural law, in modern usage, is just a subtle way of introducing either religion or tradition. One is either saying “See this is the way God made it.“ Or, one is implicitly saying that whatever is and has been is what should be. And, again we have the argument from tradition.

There is also a strong deontological component to natural law. It looks at the world, to try to find rules, but then makes two unwarranted jumps. First, it concludes the rules that are found are the rules that should be. But, by trying to determine what should be from what is, it is just engaging in traditionalism. It also makes the deontological claim that the rule should apply to all situations, regardless of consequences.


Utilitarianism is a natural outgrowth of consequentialist thinking. But it has problems of its own. Utilitarianism says that we should try to maximize the total good for all. This sounds admirable. But its main problem can be summed up as follows: Only an omniscient, omnipotent being could implement it correctly. Who gets to decide what is in everyone’s best interest? A centralized authority?  Stalin tried this. The problem with a human implementation of utilitarianism is that it seems to be able to easily justify huge atrocities, all in the name of the greater good.

Another question is, “Do we do what is actually in peoples best interest, or what they think is in their own best interest?” These may not be the same, and if you force people to do things, “for their own good” they may get resentful.

The key problem then is limited knowledge. Without full knowledge of all consequence, utilitarianism can not be made to be completely effective. This does suggest a solution, since we all have limited knowledge we should be responsible for those things we have knowledge of.


Libertarianism has a response to the problems of utilitarianism. A person decides for himself or herself what outcomes are desirable for them. A person is also responsible for direct consequences of their actions. Aside from that limitation, individuals have complete freedom of action.

But this too has limitations. It says nothing about the greater good. Yes, we can do no direct harm without prior cause, but there is nothing to suggest that charity is a good thing. It also suffers from one of the same problems deontology does. There is no consideration of indirect consequences.

A proposed partial answer

From libertarianism, I believe we should retain the idea that each individual is responsible for determining what consequences are good for themselves. From Kant we can borrow the idea that there are primary and secondary moral duties. We have a primary responsibility to do no direct harm to others. However, we also have secondary responsibilities to the greater society. We have less direct knowledge of what is at stake, and less ability to change outcomes, but it can not be ignored. There is still an obligation to charity. The wider the society contemplated, and the less direct knowledge and power we have, the less responsibility we have. On the other hand, weighted against this, the consequences on this scale are often much greater. In certain circumstances, utilitarian ideas of the greater good must be invoked and take precedence over individual liberty. But given the inherent danger in that, it should only be done when there is broad social agreement on the necessity. This view is similar to Rawl's theory of justice. Rawl's basic premise is primarily libertarian, and he believes that social inequality for the greater good can only be justified by consideration of the "initial position". That is, if we could structure a society apriori, without knowing what role we would play in that society, then we would be cognizant of the position of the least advantaged within that society, as well as the overall function of the society. Another way to put it is this: If you knew that in your next life you would be born into a specific society, but you did not know what your status would be, how would you go about structuring society today?

Thus we arrive at a system where things must be balanced against each other. The freedom of the individual must be balanced, in some cases, with the overall social good. The goal must be a sort of Aristotelian mean.There are other balances that must be weighted in this consequentialist scheme. “How much of today’s resources should be put to use today, and how much should be invested towards tomorrow?” “How much risk should be incurred to bring about positive change?” “As an individual, how much focus should we put on local events where we have more knowledge and control, and how much focus should be put on wider events, where the consequences may be greater?” All of these questions are matters of judgement, and how we as a society resolve them is mostly a matter of politics, not ethics. Another key set of questions, which deserve separate treatment, are, “Who counts as an individual?” and, “Who is a member of society?”

So, is there anything firm we can say within this system?


1) Things that cause direct harm, without social benefit, are unquestionable wrong.
2) Things that cause direct harm for social benefit, may only be engaged in with wide social agreement.
3) Things that cause no direct harm to any individual, but cause indirect harm to society, may be prohibited, but only with wide social agreement.
4) Actions that neither harm another individual nor indirectly harm society may not be prohibited by society.
5) While it is not a primary obligation, in addition to an obligation not to do harm, we have a secondary obligation to promote the social good.

In all cases decisions about actions are based on the consequences of those actions. Primary responsibility for the actions falls on those who engage in them, and primary responsibility for weighting the consequences falls on those directly effected. In addition, we must attempt to reach social agreement about acceptable actions, based on evidence of consequences, and rational debate.
I believe the above diagram to be virtually exhaustive. Essentially any position anyone could argue on any ethical issue could be classified as one of the above. I don't agree with the placement of Christianity, however. There are many versions, and aspects of Christianity. We could make a case for it being included virtually anywhere in the diagram. In the location it is currently placed, it indicates a more "Old Testament" sort of God, a strict rule-making father. The bible is the rule book, filled with lots of
"Thou shalt not"s.

But the golden rule could be the basis of social-utilitarianism. Those that find the principles of freedom and free-will in Christianity could argue it supports Egoism. Certainly many American Protestants never found any contradiction between Christianity and capitalism. I have also argued that personal faith is related to subjectivism, and traditionalism is related to relativism, so Christianity could be placed there as well. Its placement would depend on which version or aspects of Christianity we were talking about.

Jesus against the deontologists -
Luke 11:32  Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered."

Jesus the consequentialist -
Matthew 7:15 "Watch out for false prophets... 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit...20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Jesus the egalitarian -
Matthew 22:36Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Matthew 7:12 - "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

My argument rejects the right branch of the diagram as non-evidence based, and rejects the left branch as at least partly non-evidence based, and as being based on unjustified over-generalizations. I also reject EgoTism as non-ethical selfish behavior. I then argue that we must try to weight the drawbacks and advantages of social-utilitarianism and libertarianism/objectivism and try to arrive at an Aristotelian mean between them. In addition, we must weigh certain other questions contained within these ideas. While certainly not providing all answers, this at least establishes a frame in which to work.

Are there any uses for the branches I have rejected? I believe there are. We do not always have to invent the wheel from scratch. Traditions and rules or guidelines that we learn may serve us well. It is only when traditions are called into question, or when we need to consider the possibility of an exception to the general rule that we have to resort to fundamental analysis using consequensialist ethics.

Conservative vs. Liberal ethics

I probably would be remiss if I did not say at least a little about this. I see the big divide here as a different degree of abstractedness v. situatedness. Science requires that the observer remove him/her self from considerations. The results of an experiment does not depend on who does it. Liberal morality tries to do the same thing. It should not matter who asks a moral question, the answer should be the same. Liberal morality tries to reason from basic principles to specific results. There are individualizing tendencies, and universalizing tendencies. So the libertarian and utilitarian ideas I have mentioned fit in well with liberal thought. On economic issues libertarianism and utilitarianism may give different answers, tending towards capitalism, and socialism respectively, but on cultural issues they tend to give specifically liberal results. Robert Bork described the two tendencies of liberalism as "radical egalitarianism" and "radical libertinism”. He saw these in conflict, and leading towards totalitarianism. I don’t reach that conclusion. I think one can compromise between them, and I would not use the pejorative “radical”, but I do agree with the basic characterization of liberalism as individualistic and universalizing at the same time.

Conservative morality involves some of the other questions I said needed to be resolved. For example, conservatives would generally be less likely to want to take on the risk associated with change. Conservatives are also generally interested in doing more locally, where one has greater knowledge, and chance for impact, rather than more global changes. Ideas like nationalism, and a stronger focus on one’s own family, are important to conservatives. Conservatives see people with current possessions, debts, responsibilities and duties. Say, a duty to country, an obligation to previous generations and parents, and responsibility to children. Traditions are important, as part of the duty to the past. Justice above and beyond crime prevention, and deterrence, is also a concern. Conservatives are unwilling to only look for the best solution going forward, after a crime, but not forgetting history demand a sense of fairness or justice in seeing that a criminal pay for his crimes, regardless of whether this is otherwise best for society. In all these cases the conservative view looks from a specific situated position.

Either liberal or conservative ideas pushed to extremes can lead to problems. On the conservative side, extreme nationalism is fascism. It may be possible for two people in their own situations, both acting morally from their point of view, to start a war. Moral answers may be different for different individuals, and could lead to conflicts where both sides were “right”. On the other hand, if the universalizing tendency of liberalism is taken too far, so that one values everything, then Ayn Rand would argue, we value nothing.
This then leaves only the individualizing side of liberalism, which while forbidding direct harm, does not demand positive action in the world.

Again, as in many things, an Aristotelian mean is needed. The golden rule demands that we try to see the world from the point of view of others. But at the same time, we should not forget our specific place in time and space and the specific relationships we are in.
For more information -
A companion to Ethics"
Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience"
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