Archives for posts with tag: morality

Virtue ethics has been a thing for a long time. It’s about embodying certain characteristics that make someone a good person. Aristotle, who coined the whole system, advocated admiring the virtuous sage and copying their behaviour; the sage being someone who embodies characteristics that ought to be copied. It’s a bit of a circular process that certainly deserves some criticism, but it’s hard to shake the notion that there are certain characteristics that make a person more virtuous. Aristotle gave out a list, but I’m not going to focus on every single one because some of them are dumb.

I mean, you can have a look… try to figure out the dumb ones!

The thing about virtues is that they require personal sacrifice. Courage is the best example, because courage without risk to the self is incoherent. It no longer functions as a concept. Honesty, for instance, is certainly not incoherent when there isn’t any risk, but lying about something benign would usually typify some kind of pathology. Honesty is only a virtue when the sage has something to lose by being honest (we’ll call “something to gain” the loss of an opportunity to gain to keep our sacrificial theme simple). Patience is only a virtue when it would feel real good to lose our shit on someone. Temperance is literally the sacrifice of indulgence, which, if you’ve ever indulged, is a lot of fun. While loyalty is not on Aristotle’s list, it is a common sense virtue that only has value during instances of temptation; its value coming from the sacrifice associated with it. Aristotle liked to think of virtues as the perfect balance of moral homeostasis, but it is very easy to frame them instead as the subjugation of the self for the sake of a higher purpose.

Ask yourself: is this a better depiction of virtue than a soldier throwing themselves on a grenade to save their peers?

To be virtuous then, is to act for the benefit beyond oneself. What this means is that individualism is inherently an unethical philosophy, and systems built on individualism are by definition immoral. By focusing entirely on ourselves, we limit the risks we are willing to absorb for others. We may want to think of the tenets proselytized by individualism such as efficiency and productivity as virtues, but we would be sacrificing the core of virtue ethics. Personal sacrifice for the boss’s profit may seem virtuous to admirer’s of “good work ethic“, but where is the reciprocity necessary in an ethical system? Do bosses exist outside of that system? Probably wouldn’t be great if they did! What’s good for General Motors is not good for the group; I mean, unless General Motors became a collective… *cough*.

Hm. This collective may be a bit problematic.

Again, there are problems with virtue ethics. For one, they’re very tribal. Loyalty to the group may detract from perfectly good or better alternatives, for instance. Friendliness literally points to a circle of friends, and no one can tell me that the same level of friendliness extends outside of that group. For those wondering about which of Aristotle’s virtues are dumb, they’re the ones only attainable by rich people like liberality, magnificence, and magnanimity (listed as great-souledness in that weird list I found on Google). Dude made a living selling philosophy lectures to those with the means to pay for fucking philosophy lectures; he had to play to his audience. However, this illustrates very well the problems of virtue ethics as a system. Virtues develop within the tribe for the benefit of that tribe, giving them a degree of subjectivity as well as a parochialism that I certainly reject.

Our virtuous ethics; their dishonourable sinfulness

I may not be a virtue ethicist, but despite my reservations, I can’t argue with the fundamental principle that ethics require a vision beyond oneself. If we recognize this truth, then we become much more resilient to socially destructive propaganda trying to pass itself off as virtues: independence, self-interest, etc. If a character trait seems designed to prevent unionization, it probably is!

You gotta love charity, right? I know it’s my favourite. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You know that feeling? I get to feel, deep down, that I’ve helped some miserable wretch. These people certainly can’t help themselves, so it is up to me to wander in and solve their problems for them! I’m better than them, and I am graciously spreading my goodness, not to necessarily elevate anybody, but to alleviate suffering. Temporarily, of course, because eliminating the problem so that nobody needs any kind of condescending “help” would mean sacrificing some of my own privileges. I could never do that, because then how would I know that I’m better than other people?


One above, one below. The very image of giving to a homeless person belies the hierarchy the act places each into.

That warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from being charitable appears to be unique among traditionally moral behaviours. Telling the truth, for instance, kinda sucks. It sucks when it’s a moral action, that is. If someone asks you about the weather, and you answer truthfully, it’s not really a moral action. If someone were to lie in that situation, it would invoke concerns of pathology. Telling the truth is moral when it generates personal consequences. You tell the truth when you leave a note with your information on the windshield of a parked car you dinged. You tell the truth when you slip after a few years of sobriety and call your parents to admit your transgression. Kant’s killer at the door is a test of morality because it calls into question one’s commitment to their own values.

It is not just honesty. Loyalty really only matters when temptation is present. Temperance only counts when anger is deserved. Forgiveness only makes sense when there is something to forgive. Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek only after the first had been struck. The entire point of morality is to regulate relationships and situations that might otherwise escalate wildly. It’s not to feel great about how swell of a human being you might be.


Moral temperance would be recognizing the context that leads to violence, but choosing an alternative. Even if the violence would end up being hilarious.

Which brings us back to charity. Giving a few dollars to a local non-profit is about the equivalent of telling someone that it’s raining when it’s raining. In short, it is not a moral action. What would be the charitable equivalent to telling your girlfriend the truth about how her butt looks in those pants?

There is the Peter Singer option, to start. Singer invites us to imagine having just bought a $100 pair of shoes. We’re walking home in our new shoes, and we see a small child struggling to stay afloat in a pond. The child goes under the water. What do we do? Singer suggests that there are few people who would even hesitate to jump into the pond to rescue the child, the status of their shoes be damned. If most people would save a child, despite the loss of their purchase, then why is it that the status of our charity is so pitiable? Singer wants charity to take on a much more extreme role, where individuals donate all their income minus enough for their own basic needs, and argues that this is our basic human drive anyway based on how we would approach these life or death situations if we were ever faced with them in person.


Do you offer a receipt for tax purposes?

Redistribution of wealth is certainly one way to address poverty, but it is not the only way. Another might be to restructure the current system that stratifies people into class hierarchies into one that allows people to take care of themselves (such as through communal ownership of property), which eliminates the need for charity entirely. If everyone has their basic needs met, then poverty will have become inconsequential.

There are probably more moral ways to address poverty, but charity certainly isn’t one of them. From my arguments, you can join the fight to implement social policies that will help the working class, or you can start a revolution. Neither of them will give you any warm fuzzies, in fact, they’ll require great sacrifice, but at least you’ll be behaving ethically.

Immanuel Kant is a famous philosopher dude who said famously that ‘ought implies can.’ What this means is that in order for something to be a moral imperative, one must be able to perform that action in the first place. For example, a person in Canada is not responsible for the actions of a foreign government, whereas we are responsible for our own government due to the ability we possess to elect, petition, and remove that government. Another example could be that if a person is being crushed by a large boulder, we are not morally responsible if we can’t lift that boulder, and it crushes them to death. To misquote Uncle Ben, “Little power prevents relevant responsibility.”

This can also be measured in degrees. If, for example, a train ticket costs $1, and one person has $10 000 to their name and another has $2, both in theory are able to afford that train ticket. However, if they both hop the turnstile, we would condemn more harshly the individual with $10 000. This person is significantly more able to follow the moral imperative, and therefore they become more responsible to adhere to it. I guess Uncle Ben would have been more appropriate here, but I’ve already used that reference, and I like it better as a misquotation.

God, being infinitely powerful, would have infinite ability to act in every circumstance. The largest inequity imaginable in our temporal framework would still be less than a trifle. This means that every instance of immoral behaviour that does occur is the result of infinite neglect. The moral repugnance of His allowing evil to flourish becomes universal in scale. Now if you’re thinking, “What is evil?” like some kind of nerdy philosopher, remember that both God and Kant are duty-oriented ethicists.

“He works in mysterious ways” is the desperate attempt by apologists to skirt around the magnitude of God’s moral failing. We prefer naive confusion over the stark reality, avoiding with every effort the cognitive dissonance that’s sheer weight would crush any inkling of a just or benevolent deity. Infinite neglect. Not the scale of $10 000 over $2; beyond the pecuniary, beyond every measurement, on an infinite level.

If ought implies can, then the being with infinite ability is infinitely responsible. Or in this case, infinitely irresponsible.