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Ethical principles, criteria, and the meaning of life.

During my many years of teaching ethics and using Paul Taylor's Problems of Moral Philosophy (Wadsworth, 1978) and Oliver Johnson's Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers (Harcourt Brace, 1994), I developed a matrix of possible ethical principles. Obviously, the schema generates initially from a traditional distinction between relativism and absolutism, but after that, instead of relying on the differentiation between deontological and teleological principles within the latter category, I replaced these principles with a fourfold distinction. Such distinctions distinguish between reason; human nature; fideism (which is in all three cases either immediate or relational) and existentialism.

Teaching Strategies and Goals

The chart (see Table 1) provides a convenient and practical schema of possible ethical first principles and points to the respective moral systems, which can be derived from assumptions inherent within each principle. As a teaching instrument or organon, it readily lends itself to several distinct advantages: (A) It easily allows for the various assumptions to be compared and contrasted. (B) Since the chart itself can stand independently from the ethical readings, in either an anthology or textbook chapter, it is able to provide a conceptual framework for teaching and discussions apart from any of the readings; it is "free standing." (C) And in the interests of time constraints, the instructor can Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 68 forego certain readings and yet still fill in the theoretical hiatuses quickly and smoothly by treating the chart's primitive axioms and then elaborating on their respective constellations of conceptual implications.


Over the years, I have varied the introduction of the chart into the class proceedings. Generally speaking, however, to insert it at the very beginning of the course has turned out to be rather intimidating to the students because of its initial seemingly technical terminology. At times, I have put it in play during the class review, just prior to the midterm exam, and found it helpful but too compressed; it frequently forced me to be too hurried in its presentation. Finally, I decided to usher it in after the readings of St. Augustine. That strategy seems to have worked best because by then I would have covered Relativism (the Sophists); Rationalism (Plato); Empiricism (Aristotle); and Fideism (St. Augustine). From that point on, it's usually easy and meaningful enough to fruitfully teach the readings and chart together. In any case, in my first introductory lecture to the course, I always alert the class that if they can master the chart, they will not only be able to make some sense out of two thousand and five-hundred years of difficult ethical thought in Western philosophy, but each of them will also be able to discover themselves in the chart as well.

Accordingly, in this article, I propose to offer a helpful matrix of ethical principles as they are exhibited in Western thought. And I wish to contend that each and every one of us--philosopher or common man--insofar as we are willing to be consistent (albeit probably somewhat constricted) will end up in one and only one of my schematic offerings or categories. In other words, the principles, the ultimate premises, the unargued assumptions, the starting points are logically mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, one may hold that God exists; or that God does not exist; but one cannot hold, at the same time and in the same way that God both does and does not exist; that would be a violation of the law of non-contradiction (Aristotle Metaphysics, III, 2; IV, 4, 6).

Similarly, one may wish to hold that all human behavior is determined or that there are some human actions, which are free; but one cannot maintain both propositions to be true at once, the muddle of soft determinism not withstanding. Thus, whereas hard determinists, from Democritus to Hospers, assume (1) that all human behavior is grounded in universal causality--either physical, psychological, or both (Hobbes, Spinoza, Freud); (2) that complete theoretical predictability is possible; and (3) that moral responsibility is impossible, soft determinists, by contrast, draw a distinction between causes that are external (to the agent) and "internal" causes, e.g., desires, motives, and claim that we are responsible when our actions issue/arise from "within," from an internal, stable (hence predictable) state of character. Accordingly, soft determinists, like Hume, hold that we are not only both "free" and determined, at the same time and in the same act, but also that we are responsible as well. The hard determinist would, of course, argue that our motives and desires are themselves caused by external conditions, namely, genetic and environmental factors.

One may wish to maintain that there is truth and that it is knowable (epistemological dogmatism), or that there is no truth (epistemological skepticism). However, if one opts for truth, then several "lower level" optional principles immediately present themselves. Thus, truth either can be grounded (a) in rationalism, which holds that there are some ideas which are known independently of sensation and that these truths are discovered by pure, nonsensuous reason, a priori; (b) in empiricism, which insists that all our ideas are derived from precedent sensations; or (c) in fideism, which maintains that truth is the result of transcendent faith and revelation. By the same token, ethical principles are either relative or absolute; if they fall in the second category, then they are either grounded rationally, empirically, fideistically, or existentially--they are either one or the other but never more than one.

In addition, I wish to maintain that the assumption of a specific first principle commits one to adopting a criterion, a standard for testing and evaluating the morality of individual actions, persons, and even social entities (e.g., societies, communities); as well as answering the question regarding the meaning (or meaninglessness) of human life in general and individual existence in particular.

Implications Inherent within an Ethical Principles' Schemata


At the upper level of the broadest conceptual division, ethical principles can be distinguished into either one of two logical groups, namely, those of (A) moral relativism or (B) moral absolutism. The first school (A), insists on five points: first it maintains that what is considered "good" or "bad" varies from society to society, and from age to age; moral beliefs are relative to specific places and times.

Secondly, relativism ultimately and essentially implies ethical subjectivism, the view that the perceiver inevitably distorts what he or she experiences or feels through psychological prejudices and idiosyncratic sensations. Eventually, by reduction of the "whole" society into its atomic parts, i.e., particular persons, when pushed to its logical extremes, relativism tends to decompose, disintegrate (I don't mean this pejoratively, of course, but rather descriptively) to the position of Protagorean subjectivism. Accordingly, following the Sophist's famous dictum, the subjectivist Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 70 would insist that "[individual] man is the measure of all things; of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not" (Plato, Theaetetus, 152A). A.J. Ayer's emotivist theory of ethics is an excellent example.

Thirdly, the notion that ethical relativism maintains that moral values are conditioned or caused by external factors, influences outside of the agent, must be considered. In effect, then, the moral views of a person or a society are causally determined by genetic, biological, psychological, and sociological antecedents, which result in theoretically predictable outcomes. On this model, morality is caused by environmental conditions, which are inherently beyond the ability of the person to control or for which one cannot be held responsible. The writings of Freud and Skinner, although for very different reasons, serve as good examples for this view. It follows, of course, that on this paradigm, ethical values can be conditioned or programmed consciously by external forces or agents. (George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon are precisely written as ideological protests against such negative utopias.) Basically, this position is empirical and scientific in perspective and derives its plausibility in great part from both the physical, biological, and social sciences.

A fourth implication of moral relativism states that if the value is not currently--or never was--factually represented in a particular person or society, then either that value does not actually exist or it never existed. Relativism is essentially tied down to particular, factual, empirical instances. Without the particular historical or contemporary concrete fact, the value cannot exist. On this account, "values" are reducible to historical facts, actual circumstances, and specific instants, which are empirically confirmable or verifiable. The philosophy of Logical Positivism is very much in tune with this paradigm. Ethical relativism is essentially nominalistic, only particular facts and acts exist.

Finally, ethical skepticism directly follows from the implications of relativism, subjectivism, determinism, and nominalism. Thus either (a) there are no moral truths (pyrrhonian skepticism); or (b) there are no moral values but even about that we cannot be certain (academic, constructive, mitigated skepticism). Classic epistemological skepticism, of course, insists that both the criteria of sensation and reason lead to either an infinite regress or to circularity.

In summary, then, ethical skepticism follows from four contentions: (1) "right" and "wrong" vary from society to society and time to time; (2) values reduce to personal taste because the individual perceiver distorts whatever he/she thinks or feels; (3) values are conditioned/caused/ determined by external and ultimately impersonal physical or psychological factors; and (4) values are grounded in empirical, contingent and nominalistic circumstances. Moral skepticism thus reduces in the end to value neutral customs or mores, to the conventional and artificial. Thus, the critical difference between ethical relativism and absolutism is that the former is descriptive and factual whereas the latter is evaluative and normative. This reflects Hume's distinction between the Is and Ought; Fact and Value; Science and Morality. (Consequently, the statement, "Helen is 5'2" and weighs 130 lbs" is descriptive and factual whereas the proposition, "Helen is good and beautiful" is evaluative and normative.)


There are, in point of fact, three forms of ethical relativism (as opposed to epistemological relativism): descriptive; normative; and metaethical relativism (Taylor, 1978). (1) The first is characterized as descriptive, factual, or scientific relativism; it holds that no absolute moral standard exists (not merely that one has not been found as yet). Hence, it denies the possibility of an objective, universal criterion, a standard, which would be independent of any particular group, or person who happens to hold it. Rather, on this interpretation, ethical beliefs are a matter of empirical fact, either psychologically or sociologically caused, conditioned by environmental factors; and an empirical and disinterested observation informs the unprejudiced eye of the social scientist that all moral values are derivative, contingent, and dependent. In this sense, all values are based merely on prevailing circumstances, on custom; they are artificial and conventional; and they are, as previously stated, caused or conditioned. Ethical mores represent cultural and historical facts, anthropological data, if you will, from which one is entitled to conclude that there is no independent moral law which could conceivably ever serve as a regulative maxim for human conduct. This position dates at least as far back as Herodotus, Democritus, and the Greek Sophists and later was exemplified in the skeptical writings of Sextus Empiricus, who pointed out that cultures do in fact vary in their rules of conduct; that these rules, in turn, can be discovered to have an empirical origin and are environmentally determined; and, finally, that each culture tends to ethnocentrically imagine that its own codes of behavior are the only "correct" ones, whereas it was obvious to the Skeptics that ubiquitous disagreement about ethical principles clearly proves that no culture is right and nothing is universally true.

Strictly speaking, however, as Walter Terrence Stace has indicated, this latter argument appears to be a non-sequitur, since it only shows, at most, that the ultimate principle has not been found as yet and not that it can never be found (Stace, 1937). Nevertheless, the skeptical camp continues to insist that moral truths stand discredited by virtue of the constant and ongoing dissension among candidates vying to be the supreme and sole principle.

The second species of relativism is termed normative ethical relativism and it declares that there is, indeed, a valid meaning to the terms "right" and "wrong" or "good" and "bad" but that these meanings are only significant within the context of a particular society. Thus, although two (or more) societies may disagree about what is praiseworthy or blameworthy, nevertheless, within a given social order, there is a genuine right even though this specific right may be inconsistent with or even contradictory to the virtue of some other culture. For example, it is a vice for an individual to hoard a surplus of goods in a Marxist system whereas it may be both expedient and laudable to do so in a capitalist economic structure thereby creating artificial demand. Judgments of praise and blame, accordingly, are meaningful only within a specific and restricted social framework. It follows that what may be morally right in one society may be wrong in another. Or, put differently, both societies are right even though their moral rules are diametrically opposed and contradictory. Representatives of normative ethical relativism would include Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and William Graham Sumner among others. Possibly the earliest expression of this principle is to be found in Glaucon's speech in the Republic, which Cornford characterizes as an early formulation of the social contract theory.

The weakness of this particular viewpoint is that every social group is essentially composed of smaller and smaller subgroups (aggregates) and that these, in turn, are further reducible to their ultimate constituent components, "parts," i.e., individual persons. At which point, Normative Ethical Relativism becomes indistinguishable from--and degenerates into--ethical subjectivism as characterized above.

Finally, the third kind of relativism is entitled metaethical relativism. It originates with G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), which focuses on the definitions and meanings of terms and the validity of arguments employed in moral discourse rather than the underlying substantive or normative principles. It is, accordingly, a second order study, which asks, "What does the word 'good' mean?" rather than "What is goodness?" or "What is the Good?" Further, metaethical relativism proposes that the meanings of moral terms, e.g., goodness, obligation, duty, etc. not only vary from culture to culture but rather, more specifically, they only have validity within the context of a particular linguistic usage or "language game." Ludwig Wittgenstein has been a most able proponent of this viewpoint. (Moore himself, however, seems to have been an agathistic or ideal utilitarian holding that good is an indefinable quality, it is "simple," like the color yellow.)


The major criticism against the position of empirical, anthropological relativism and skepticism lies along, first, Humean arguments which maintain that ethical values are intrinsically distinct and different in kind from observed facts, that there is a significant distinction between "the ought" and "the is," values and facts, between morality and science. Thus, Hume first distinguishes meaningful propositions from meaningless, metaphysical ones. The former are either concerned with "relations of ideas" (analytic truths) or "matters of fact" (empirical judgments). But beyond these distinctions, Hume also argues that judgments of value (both ethical and aesthetic) are different in kind from contingent, a posteriori, matters of fact. Although ethical propositions are a species of "matters of fact", they are nevertheless more properly felt as opposed to observed. They are, according to Hume, grounded universally, absolutely in a moral (or aesthetic) sense "common to all mankind." (Hume, of course, assumes as Aristotle did and Mill later would that human nature does not change, that it has ever been the same.) Thus, according to Hume, the proposition, "Helen is five foot and two inches tall" is different in kind than the valuative judgments that "Helen is good" or "Helen is beautiful." (We shall return to Hume's moral sense doctrine later.)

Kant, like Hume, similarly believes that ethical principles are genuinely distinct from empirical judgments. For Kant, however, in contrast to Hume, the distinction is ultimately grounded in the separation of two realms of being, a phenomenal realm of natural causality and determinism, which stands in radical opposition to a noumenal sphere of moral freedom. But for both thinkers, as opposed to the relativists, ethical principles are meaningful. (Max Weber and Edmund Husserl would agree.) In any case, while acknowledging possible conflicting interpretations among relativists, I would suggest that Democritus as well as some of the Sophists, Epicurus (if he is interpreted as a psychological hedonist), Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes' model of psychological egoism all essentially represent this position, as does Freud.

In addition, I would include the radically subjective, "emotive theory" of A.J. Ayer within this category; hence even though Ayer claims that moral utterances are meaningless, still they are observable as mere expressions of feeling (extreme subjectivism). Indeed, I think it is safe to say that the theories of classical--of both physical and psychological--determinism (of the "hard" variety as exemplified by John Hospers), inevitably imply moral relativism. Ayn Rand, however, is generally interpreted as a normative egoist, an absolutist position. Epicurus' model of "freedom" as physical chance involves some interpretational issues as well and yet, I am convinced, it essentially entails moral relativism. Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 74 (Sometimes Epicurus, however, is interpreted as a normative hedonist rather than a psychological one, in which case then he would be classified as an absolutist.)


The opposite standard of (B) ethical absolutism, by contrast, holds that the criterion of moral conduct does not fluctuate from place to place or time to time. The principle is universal in rationalism and fidelism; or "general," common to all mankind, as Hume expresses it, in empiricism. In existentialism, however, the ethical choice is individual, as opposed to the particular in relativism, and it can change but nevertheless remain absolute at that specific point in time.

Secondly, it maintains that moral values are objective in the sense that all observers would agree in their "disinterested" judgments. Objective here means that the value is conceived "as if" existing independently of what anyone happens to think or feel. Again, however, existentialism differs in that the moral worth of an action-or decision-is grounded in the subject and cannot exist independently of the concrete individual. Thus, just as ethical relativism implies subjectivism and skepticism, in direct contrast moral absolutism involves claims of objective validity and certainty (dogmatism). The standard is conceived to be independent of the attitude of any particular person or society and when it is ascertained, it is recognized as true or valid beyond skeptical doubts or further disputation. In existentialism, however, the value, criterion, principle cannot exist apart from the individual who has chosen and expressed it and it exists as long as he or she stands committed to it. Sartre's insistence that human values are "subjective" does not negate that they are absolute so long as they are posited intentionally.

Thirdly, the ethical rule is independent of particular causes or conditions--although not necessarily of all mankind in general. Accordingly, it is unconditional, universal, general/common, absolute.

Fourthly, it is conceivable in rationalism and fideism that in actuality a perfect moral act has never been achieved (Plato; Kant; Augustine); nevertheless the principle is real and transcends actual human experience. By contrast, in empiricism, it is grounded in human nature itself and in existentialism it derives from individual choices. Finally, it follows that moral knowledge is in principle attainable and certain.

One final important point before we attend to specific principles. In ethical absolutism, in rationalism, empiricism and fideism, the criterion is discovered by reason, experience, or faith, whereas in existentialism the principles/meanings are created, not discovered. And in rationalism, empiricism, and fideism they are universal (or "general") as opposed to individual in existentialism (and subjective in skepticism).


Thus, the specific sub-principles of moral absolutism can be treated as grounded under four separate headings: (1) rationalism; (2) empiricism or human nature; (3) faith and revelation; and (4) existentialism. In regard to schemes (1), (2) and (3), they may be subdivided further into principles that are either (a) apprehended immediately, directly, intuitively; or (b) comprehended mediately, relationally, discursively, indirectly, inferentially. This distinction will be discussed more fully below.


(1) Religious fideism, as ultimately grounded in faith or revelation, is best exemplified by such thinkers as St. Augustine, who based moral values in the love of God or in St. Thomas Aquinas, who grounds them in the knowledge of God. Thus, St. Augustine, for instance, declares, "I believe (through faith) so that I may understand," first belief through faith, then knowledge or insight. On the other hand, Protestant theologians tend to stress the inner illumination provided by the light of individual conscience as the infallible criterion of moral action. In either case, however, the emphasis on the word of God or the voice of conscience both serve as the final authority for the religiously minded moralist. What is virtuous or vicious is to be decided by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures and explicit faith in those writings. It is a truth, which is manifestly and directly present to the deliberating soul, and it commands in no uncertain voice. Consequently, whether Christian faith, for instance, invokes the "objective authority" of the Catholic Church, with its hierarchy of priests, bishops, and cardinals; or whether the touchstone of subjective conscience in traditional, orthodox Protestantism is invoked; or the appeal is to the esoteric inner illuminations and insights of the mystics, all of these criteria, in some significant sense, refer back to a single act of religious faith, a willingness to believe in a transcendent, theistic reality.

Thus, when moral dilemmas are presented to the believer, the conviction is that they can be securely addressed in prayer and answered through some basic form of an ultimate appeal to religious faith. In this respect, absolute moral truth--with its specific application of the criterion--is discovered by faith. The law of God is discovered to be an already existing reality, which is conceived as universally binding, as a rule legislating impartially for all mankind and at all times. As a criterion, it is to be applied universally, necessarily, without exception. As we shall see in our discussion of (4), in this view, "essence precedes existence," God's command is eternal, immutable, absolute. And because God is conceived to be absolute and eternal, his moral commands are assumed to be timeless as well.

Finally, if the religioethical truth is discovered by conscience, then it is a direct, immediate apprehension; if, on the other hand, it is inferred or interpreted through a chain of authorities, e.g., leading from sinner to priest to bishop to cardinal to pope, then it is determined mediately, indirectly.

This distinction between immediate, direct apprehension of truth and mediate, inferential comprehension has another important implication in Christian theology as well. For if one views the Bible as directly authored by God, then it follows that a literal and in inerrant reading of His words and commands is in order (Fundamentalism). By contrast, if one regards the Bible as inspired--but not directly written--by God but rather composed by men, then a range of interpretation is not only permitted but also inevitable (Liberal Believer). It's the meaning or the message that is paramount.

Rather different from this method of achieving ethical certainty is the rationalist approach. (2) Rationalism is the thesis that some of our concepts/truths are known independently of sensation/experience. These pure/non-sensuous concepts are innate, already (predispositionally) in the mind; and they are a priori: 1) universal, always true, true in any conceivable universe; and 2) necessary, for the opposite assertion implies a metaphysical or logical contradiction. Since what is true within the mind, rationalists believe, is also true in reality outside the mind, it follows that absolute knowledge is attainable. (Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant). Hence, the moral rule or criterion is discovered through pure reason and again it is said to be known either immediately or relationally.


For certain thinkers, like Plato and some of the Cambridge Platonists, the ethical criterion applies immediately, intuitively. Thus, for example, the Platonic principle, that "Virtue is knowledge of the Good," is an instance of an a priori moral truth, one that is grasped by "pure" (non-sensuous) intellectual intuition (Republic, Analogy of the Sun and the Good and the Divided Line Passage). Indeed, the mind or soul actively grasps not only the form of the Good, but each of the moral universals--justice, courage, temperance, wisdom--in their ideal singularity as a result of a direct, immediate intellectual insight (noesis); as Cornford explains, "noesis is constantly compared to the immediate act of vision and it suggests a direct intuition or apprehension of its object."

The distinction between immediate and mediate, i.e., relational, cognition perhaps can be exemplified best by exploiting a passage from Peirce's essay, "How To Make Our Ideas Clear." According to Peirce:
 We observe two sorts of elements of consciousness, the distinction
 between which may best be made clear by means of an illustration.
 In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the
 air. A single tone may be prolonged for an hour or a day, and it
 exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole
 taken together; so that, as long as it is sounding, it might be
 present to a sense from which everything in the past was as
 completely absent as the future itself. But it is different with
 the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time, during
 the portions of which only portions of it are played. It consists
 in an orderliness in the succession of sounds that strike the ear
 at different times; and to perceive it there must be some
 continuity of consciousness, which makes the events of a lapse of
 time present to us. We certainly only perceive the air by hearing
 the separate notes; yet we cannot be said to directly hear it, for
 we hear only what is present at the instant, and an orderliness of
 succession cannot exist in an instant. These two sorts of objects,
 what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately
 conscious of, are found in all consciousness. Some elements (the
 sensations) are completely present at every instant so long as they
 last, while others (like thought) are actions having beginning,
 middle, and end, and consist in a congruence in the succession of
 sensations, which flow through the mind. They cannot be immediately
 present to us, but must cover some portion of the past or future.
 Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our
 sensations. (Peirce, 1957; compare with Edmund Husserl, The
 Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, [section] 3.)

The immediate is directly given or intuitively grasped, and this can occur either in a sensory context, as in Hume's moral sense doctrine, or it can happen in an intellectual framework, as in Plato's noetic insight into the meaning of the moral forms or universals. By contrast, the relational "moves", joins, or unifies separate concepts or propositions together, as in the Utilitarian's measurements of pleasure or happiness or in Kant's synthetic judgment a priori, the categorical imperative. These two quite different modes of knowing, then, constitute radically different categories of access in terms of possible ethical principles.

The foregoing distinction between immediate ideas and conceptual relations conforms to a traditional medieval distinction, which opposes innate, self-evident truths against discursive or reasoned ones, conception from inference, a premise from a syllogism, intuition from demonstration, and apprehension from comprehension. The former, as we have intimated above, is immediately and directly known; the latter involves mediate, indirect, and relational knowledge, a process of thought. For Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 78 example, the ontological "argument" for God's existence, by identifying essence and existence in the case of God and God alone, is an instance of the former truth whereas the cosmological argument, which moves from effect to cause is an example of the latter. Ultimately, the distinction between intellectual intuition and discursive understanding, again, originates in Plato's outline formulated in the third and fourth levels of the Divided Line.

In opposition to the intuitionist school, other philosophers, like the Stoics, Kant, and Rawls theorize that the ultimate standard of morality is both rational and relational. Accordingly, the Stoics maintained, for instance, that the eternal laws of nature are grasped by reason, by the faculty which understands the necessary cause and effect interconnections governing the universe as dictated by the principle of a divine order. Everything is as it must be. Virtue or happiness consists, then, in actively affirming this natural, divine, eternal order, of adjusting one's thoughts and feelings so that one positively acquiesces in the foreordained order of events. It is in this attitude that our moral duty consists.
 Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but
 wish [affirm] for everything to happen as it actually does happen,
 and your life will be serene. (Epictetus)

Universal conceptions and rules consequently follow, namely that no man is born a slave; all men are brothers; and everyone has an ethical obligation to help his fellows. That there are natural, human laws even in the state of nature, the condition of man prior to the formation of society and government, is a notion, which has dominated Western philosophy. Its ultimate origin clearly begins with Plato; but it receives its unique stamp of discursive, mediate, relational thought by virtue of the Stoic conception of duty, which posits the subject's active affirmation of his "will", a will which expresses itself in conformity with the objective moral order. This principle--and paradigm--is the same in Kant. And when the Nazi war criminals were condemned at Nuremberg it was precisely because they were found to have committed crimes against all humanity--the universal class of mankind. The argument, so ably propounded by Kant, in his stricture against suicide, is that it is intrinsically irrational and self-destructive for a rule or law to exterminate itself; it is contrary to reason that reason should command its own cessation. Thus, to universally counsel suicide in moments of despair (or genocide as a political expedient) is against reason because it necessarily entails the elimination of reason itself. No law can reasonably will its own non-existence. That is a contradiction.

In Kant's terminology, the criterion of morality is a synthetic but a priori proposition. (Other philosophers who posit synthetic and a priori relations include Plato, Hegel, Husserl, and Sartre.) Consequently, the categorical imperative, which states, "Always act so that the subjective maxim [your will, intention] of your action can become an [objective] universal moral law legislating for all rational beings in any [possible, conceivable] universe," constitutes a relational principle synthetically linking two distinct concepts--the subjective will and the objective law--to each other in an a priori fashion. Similarly, Kant's second formulation of the ethical principle is likewise relational, since it states that you should always treat others as ends-in-themselves and never as a means to your own ends, i.e., happiness. The third formulation is equally mediate, relational, discursive in that it combines the will as sovereign in commanding and the person as subject in obeying through the principle of autonomy. Following Rousseau, Kant agrees that man is free when he gives the law to himself, when he self-consciously follows his own law; in this sense, self-consciousness, reason, and freedom are identified through the relation of the subjective will and the objective moral law.

Parenthetically, I might add that Western philosophy has formulated two opposing principles of freedom (see Figure 1); either freedom is doing as you should; or it consists in doing as you please; either it is determined by knowledge (Plato) or law (Stoics); or by power (Sophists) or individual nature (Democritus). Both the Stoics, Rousseau, and Kant subscribe to law as the model of freedom. (Richard Peter McKeon, lecture notes.)



A far different rule is offered by the proponents of empiricism, those who assume the stability of human nature (3). Thus, philosophers like Aristotle, Hutcheson, Shaftesbury, Butler, Hume, Bentham, J.S. Mill, and G.E. Moore contend that the criterion is discovered through experience, it is empirically derivable, objective, and certain once ascertained. By empiricism I mean the position, which maintains that there is nothing, which is present within the mind, which is not originally derived from sensation, from some precedent impression (Aristotle--in certain passages--Locke, Hume, Mill). Empiricism is the thesis that all of our ideas are derived from precedent sensations; or that there is no idea in the mind, which is not first given in experience (the mind is likened to a blank tablet: Aristotle-Locke). Since the opposite of a 'matter of fact'/sensation is always conceivable/possible/imaginable, it follows that there is no logical contradiction in denying any 'matter of fact.' Thus, at best all we can attain are varying degrees of belief--not knowledge--grounded in empirical probabilities and culminating in feelings of psychological anticipation (Hume). On this principle, one could argue, for example, that it is a fact of human nature that all men desire happiness or that all mothers naturally love their children (unless a destructive environment intervenes).

Parenthetically, it should be noted that all three relativisms (scientific, normative, and metaethical) are similarly ultimately based on empirical facts or linguistic usage. And, although normative ethical empiricism is likewise grounded in experience, the differences between empirical relativism and empirical absolutism is that the latter posits an unchanging human nature which commands us in what we ought to do; and, unlike relativism, it is not grounded in particular, subjective feelings. It is a normative principle as opposed to a descriptive one. Thus, the tradition from Aristotle to Hume and into Bentham and Mill believes that human beings have ever been the same and that the same virtues of friendship, loyalty, gratitude, generosity, benevolence, etc. have prevailed. (It is not until the writings of Rousseau, Hegel and Marx that the possibility of a "changing" human nature arises.)

Aristotle's normative assertion that moral perception is constituted by the individual's ability to choose and know the mean between two vices or extremes is an example of a criterion, embedded in universal human nature ("All men desire happiness"), which is both immediate and directly grasped by the sensations of pleasure and pain. Thus, according to the Greek philosopher, the morally brave person is one who is able, voluntarily and after deliberation, to choose between the vices of foolhardiness and cowardice; he is the man who exhibits practical wisdom. But the certainty that one has deliberated well, acted rightly, and chosen correctly is provided by an immediate sense of pleasure, a perception. The criterion (principle) is determined by a direct perception, a feeling of pleasure when one has chosen rightly and pain when one has chosen wrongly. When this perceived feeling of pleasure becomes customary, habitual upon the performance of a good act, then the moral disposition can be said to have been actualized, attained (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 6). Thus Aristotle proposes that we become good by doing good acts; it is a matter of training as we develop our (potentially) virtuous character. Aristotle, of course, emphasizes "deliberation" as a condition of moral judgments and acting well but the ultimate appeal rests on perception, an immediate feeling. Thus although Aristotle states that choice is the result of both desire and deliberation, that "The intellect alone moves nothing," that it is ratiocinative desire or desiderative reason, as W.D. Ross describes it, nevertheless the assurance that the choice is a correct one lies with perception.

Similarly, Hume's insistence that the "moral sense" is the ultimate arbiter between virtue and vice is another instance of a principle, which is grounded in human nature, but manifests itself immediately. We are so constituted, says Hume that nature has determined us to judge as well as to breathe. Analogous to our five senses, the moral sense pronounces or responds directly when it is confronted by a moral action, although, to be sure, unlike the other five senses, it does not have a physical organ to which it can be traced as the sense of sight can be referred to the eye and hearing to the ear. Nevertheless Hume confesses that the moral sense can be corrupted, or even destroyed, just as the eye can be damaged by adverse circumstances. For example, although all mothers naturally love their children, it is possible to find women who have suffered so greatly at the hands of a brutal and uncompromising environment that they have lost the capacity for natural affection toward their offspring. And yet, under normal events and when the moral sense has the opportunity to judge "disinterestedly," dispassionately, apart from egoistic considerations and self-interest, it will inevitably judge correctly; its sentiments are objective and "universal" (as with the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson). These three thinkers, then, ground their ethical principle in a moral sense that judges directly, immediately. The "heart" determines whether an act that does not affect our self-interest (disinterestedly) is either virtuous or vicious. To be sure, Hume also defends an early utilitarian position as well but his main appeal lies in his moral sense doctrine.
 The notion of morals implies some sentiment common to all mankind,
 which recommends the same object [i.e., moral action] to general
 approbation, and makes every man ... agree in the same opinion or
 decision concerning it. It also implies some sentiment, so
 universal and comprehensive as to extend to all mankind and render
 the actions and conduct, even of the persons the most remote, an
 object of applause or censure, according as they agree or disagree
 with that rule of right, which is established. These two requisite
 circumstances [namely, universality and comprehensiveness] belong
 alone to the sentiment of humanity here insisted on. The other
 passions produce in every breast, many strong sentiments of desire
 and aversion, affection and hatred; but these neither are felt so
 much in common, nor are so comprehensive, as to be the foundation
 of any general system and established theory of blame and
 approbation. When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival,
 his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the
 language of self-Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of
 Life 82 love, and to express sentiments peculiar to himself, and
 arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when
 he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or
 depraved, he then speaks another language and expresses sentiments,
 in which he expects all his audience to concur with him. He must
 here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation,
 and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must
 move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a
 string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony ... [T]he
 humanity of one man is the humanity of every one, and the same
 object touches this passion in all human creatures. (An Enquiry
 Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section IX).

Hume thus was convinced that his science of human nature was empirically analogous to Newtonian physics and that the psychological principle of the association of ideas complemented Newton's law of gravity. Correspondingly, the moral sense functioned in the domain of ethical sentiment in a similar manner that the principle of the association of ideas served in the cognitive realm. The moral sense, accordingly, is grounded in human feeling, in sentiment rather than reason, although unlike "matters of fact," which are also derived from experience, the moral sense is a non-cognitive apprehension not based on causal connections or relations.

At this point, it is worth cautioning that interpretational issues will frequently arise when we seek to determine the ultimate principle. Joseph Butler, for instance, states that the normative criterion is conscience as embedded in empirical human nature. And yet, he obviously believes that it is God who has planted this faculty within us. So should we say that his position is fideistic or empiricist? In addition, he often speaks as if it is reflection that judges, and not conscience. If this is the case, then we wish to be able to tell whether the principle is direct and immediate (conscience) or rather the result of comparison and hence relational (reflection). It is confusions over first principles such as these which lead W.D. Hudson into grouping together (mistakenly) such diverse thinkers as the Platonist Ralph Cudworth and Hume; or Samuel Clarke and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury merely on the basis that ethical judgments are interpreted as immediately derived (Hudson, 1967).

By contrast, empirical yet relational in orientation are both Jeremy Bentham's and John Stuart Mill's normative brands of hedonistic and eudaemonistic utilitarianism, respectively. Bentham thus instructs us to measure, add, and calculate physical pleasures against pains with the end in view of reaching an objective conclusion as to what ought to be done. By the same token, Mill advises that we must calculate the consequences, in terms of happiness, in order to resolve what ought to be done. In both cases, the underlying assumption is self-evident, "all human beings by nature seek and desire to be happy." That truth or fact alone, however, is insufficient to guide us; it is a mere general truth without specific guidance or determination. Beyond its empirical validity, we are required to perform certain intellectual calculations, which will in turn result in a directive conclusion telling us what ought to be done, what action should be taken, in any given situation. Accordingly, the hedonistic, eudaemonistic, and agathistic (G.E. Moore) brands of utilitarianism are different species of a single empirical principle, grounded in human nature, which posits a mediate "calculation of the consequences" as the criterion of what ought to be done. Similarly, both act and rule utilitarianism ultimately rests upon an inferential train of premises to reach a moral conclusion.


In each of the three preceding absolutist principles--the fideistic, rationalist, and empiricist--the criterion of morality is discovered and it commands universally or "generally" (Hume, An Inquiry into the Principles of Morals). This is quite different from the principle underlying existentialism. According to existentialist thinkers, the criterion is created--not discovered--and although it obligates individually rather than universally, it is nevertheless an absolute principle. This latter consideration is important because existentialists are not relativists. Their criteria are absolute but they only apply to the individuals who posit them and not to all rational beings (Kant) or human beings (Hume). Relativism inherently implies personal taste, subjective standards; it reduces to an "each to his own" indifference. Relativism is ultimately grounded in the particular; and it is conditioned, contingent, or dependent. Consequently, as previously stated, if a specific person or society did not exist, then that particular value would cease. For the empirical absolutist, although the value is contingent to human nature, nevertheless the assumption remains that human nature itself is unchanging and therefore as objective as are the laws of astronomy or physics.

What is at issue, of course, is the meaning of human life. For the empiricist, it lies in a sense of happiness, which is essentially there even before one is born and which can be objectively discovered by an appeal to human nature. To the relativist, life has no pre-existent value or meaning but rather it often provides some sense of subjective, personal satisfaction, which varies from person to person. By contrast, for the existentialist, although human existence is meaningless, still the individual is able to create an absolute value for oneself alone.

Thus, the existentialists declare that the individual chooses, wills, or creates an absolute law, meaning, or value for herself or himself alone; Ethical Principles, Criteria, and the Meaning of Life 84 accordingly, a sense of ethical responsibility as well as moral imputability inevitably follows (authenticity, good faith). The result is a moral commitment or involvement. As Sartre indicates, in his essay, "Existentialism Is a Humanism," neither God nor a priori reason nor human nature can guide us in what we ought to do. Rather, each individual's values are the result of radically free decisions. For Nietzsche, it was based on an aesthetic "will to power," the power to create artistically, expressively and even morally. For Kierkegaard, it was a paradoxical act of faith, a passionate belief in something that is intrinsically against reason, absurd, self-contradictory ("I believe because it is absurd").

When St. Augustine pronounces, "I believe so that I may understand," he posits a truth "beyond" reason; but when Kierkegaard declares, "I believe because it is absurd" (Tertullian), he invokes a truth against reason. Thus, Abraham believes that he will both kill Isaac and that his son will be saved. And for Sartre, it is a radically free choice unbounded by any structure of a transcendental or empirical "self." Neither human nature nor reason nor God can dictate whether we ought to fight in the Resistance or collaborate with the Germans. In each case, however, the act or choice creates a value against which the individual judges his or her own efforts. It is in this spirit (and essentially following Hegel) that Kierkegaard regards the individual as "higher" than the universal; the religious "leap of faith" transcends universal morality. Similarly, according to Nietzsche, Achilles creates values; he does not follow pre-existing rules. When he withdraws from the battle because of Agamemnon's insult, he is noble; when he allows Patroclus to fight with his armor, it is the right thing to do; when his friend is slain, he weeps from strength and anger; and when he returns to the fighting, it is the virtuous thing to do because he is great and chooses to do it. And even when he drags Hector's corpse behind his chariot his deed is great in its contempt because Achilles is noble.


What do moral principles have to do with the meaning of life? Everything. Whether one lives in society or on a desert island, the meaning--or meaninglessness--of one's life is determined by one's ethical or non-ethical assumptions. When the relativist, the hedonist, and the egoist posit their own subjective feelings as the goal of their existence, they have opted for a certain nonmoral principle. Similarly, when St. Augustine elects to invest the meaning of his existence in an absolutely good lawgiver, he thereby endows his life with transcendent value. When Kant maintains that reason directs us to self-consciously recognize not only our duty to others but also an obligation to perfect our talents, even in isolation from our fellows, he thereby affirms the rule of reason as the guiding element in ethics. When Mill counsels us to maximize the happiness of others, he provides a social meaning for human existence; and when he defends the individual's absolute right over his self-regarding conduct, he liberates us from peripheral social entanglements (On Liberty). And when Sartre forces and condemns us to choosing either to fight in the resistance or collaborate with the occupying forces, he is compelling us to create, each of us individually and alone, our values, our meanings.

Human beings live either by no genuine moral rules i.e., moral relativism, or by absolute ethical principles. They derive their sense of pleasure, happiness, or goodness from their conscious commitments to underlying principles and criteria. Animals may merely seek their self-preservation but even the most reductively naturalistic scheme, such as that of Hobbes, invokes a desire for pleasure as a goal. It is in this sense that the answer to how one feels and thinks about his or her ethical or non-ethical assumptions determines how one is committed to the meaning of his or her life. For the relativists, the meaning is personal, subjective, and often recognized as determined by psychological and social factors. For the theistic fideist, the meaning of life derives from the existence of God, a belief in a power greater than one's self. For the rationalist, the meaning consists in a pursuit of ethical knowledge through reason. For the empiricist, it is sought in terms of human happiness for one's self and for others. And finally, for the existentialist, it arises by virtue of an individual choice, an act, which is creative, and morally binding at once.

Some Pedagogical Conclusions

Let me conclude by invoking a principle of "applicability" in relation to both teaching and learning. Aristotle describes philosophy as a search for first principles. From this basic insight, we begin to understand that all philosophical systems--metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical--"flow," "follow from," or are "grounded in" certain fundamental conceptual definitions. Thus even Hegel and Husserl, who claim to have presuppositionless beginnings, nevertheless start with a conception of consciousness which assumes it to be mental, i.e., that it is minds that think. Now although relatively few philosophers employ the geometrical method, as Spinoza and Hobbes do, in presenting their systems, nevertheless it is instructive to consider that philosophical and conceptual systems derive from assumed basic definitions (principles), "axioms", and their consequent interdependent propositions. How these foundational concepts are selected is another issue although I tend to agree with Pascal, Fichte, and James that they are decided "by our passional natures: "The heart has its reasons which the head (reason) does not know."

It is precisely because of this universal capacity of "intuiting" or selecting various principles, and developing their respective systems from them, that makes the chart useful and practical as a teaching instrument. Just as a student who is first exposed to geometry soon discovers that the system is organized in such a fashion that one must first grasp the definitions before proceeding, just so the key ethical concepts of relativism and absolutism must be first intuited, accepted, or entertained, and the critical "axioms," such as rationalism and empiricism, must be understood, before proceeding to the ethical system itself. Nevertheless, we must also bear in mind, of course, that the difference between geometry and the chart lies in the fact that there is multiple alternative starting points in the latter.

It follows that by enlisting the proposed matrix of possibilities (see Table 1, this page and next page), as a didactic tool, any student or teacher who understands how geometry functions would be able to follow--and appreciate--the advantages of the proposed table of principles. And in point of fact, the chart can stand by itself--it is independent of the readings because ultimately what is important is not who said what or even how they said it but what it means. For better or for worse, in our culture, students and even teachers are not only technologically oriented but indeed "diagrammatically" inclined as well; they want to absorb as much important information as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And it is more effective to learn the schema of ethical principles than to risk losing them amidst the complexity of the readings. But it is to be hoped that as time and interest move forward, students will become more inclined and encouraged to ponder the readings if they have the companionship of the directional map of the chart along with them. The chart is focused, concrete, clear, and direct, whereas ethical readings are often digressive, abstract, vague, and ambiguous.

And there is also the factor of time. Often there is not enough time to cover all the material necessary for a comprehensive survey that the course intends. But this is not only true of philosophy but of other fields as well. Thus, for example, today's students are more apt to be assigned Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby rather than Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel even though the principle of human loneliness is a central theme in both novels; or the instructor will prefer Conrad's Heart of Darkness over Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge although the concept of human betrayal grounds them both.

Finally, I have sought to provide what I take to be a helpful matrix of possible ethical principles in the context of Western philosophical options/paradigms. I flatter myself that this schema has certain advantages of clarity over the more traditional distinction between deontological and teleological moral principles because it does not group thinkers, like Plato and Mill together, whose views are "poles" apart.

Let me finish with an important observation. Philosophical arguments cannot proceed unless the participants have the same basic principles, premises, or assumptions. Thus when Hobbes objects to Descartes' metaphysical and epistemological system and Descartes in turn replies, it is clear that the two thinkers are not so much arguing with each other as past each other. Since their principles are diametrically opposed, the one asserts precisely what the other denies (just so in ethical controversies). Not only is it fruitless for a relativist and an absolutist to argue with each other, but it is also just as futile for a rationalist and an empiricist (even though both are absolutists) to contend against one another. Without shared assumptions, discussion is impossible. And ultimately first principles can only be changed by a "conversion," since they are essentially a matter of the heart and not the head.


Hudson, W.D., 1967. Ethical intuitionism. New York: St. Martin's Press, pp. 1-3. Johnson, O., 1994. Ethics: Selections from classical and contemporary writers. Boston: Harcourt Brace (7th Ed.) Peirce, C.S., 1957. Essays in the philosophy of science. New York: Liberal Arts Press. Stace, W.T., 1937. The concept of morals. Taylor, Paul, 1978. Problems of moral philosophy. Belmont, CA: Dickenson, pp. 39-48.

Ben Mijuskovic California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Author:Mijuskovic, Ben
Publication:Journal of Thought
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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