My Morals and Your Morals

The last two posts have explained the changeableness in ethics as a result of the nature of the moral object, and as a result of evolution and human nature in the concrete. Still a third kind of flexibility results from individual differences.

Aristotle, as we saw, affirms that happiness and virtue consist in performing well the function of man. So insofar as people have human nature in common, their happiness and virtue will be the same. One might suppose that it follows that human happiness and virtue must be entirely the same in all, but this is a mistake. For the nature of virtue in the concrete follows not only from an abstract idea of a “rational animal,” but from the condition of the human animal taken much more concretely. This follows from the last post, where we saw that moral principles, even ones which we currently understand to be universal principles, could have been otherwise, had the circumstances of the human race been otherwise.

One might respond that this makes no difference, since all of us are members of the human race in the concrete, and consequently we must share the same concrete virtue and happiness. This does follow to some extent, just as does the general argument that all humans possess human nature. But it does not follow perfectly.

It does not follow perfectly, that is, it does not follow that our virtue and happiness is the same in every respect. If ethics were simply a logical deduction from an abstract idea like that of “rational animal,” then one might reasonably suppose that virtue and happiness would be entirely the same in all. But in fact ethics also results from facts that are intrinsically changeable, namely facts about what promotes the flourishing of the human race.

Although these facts are intrinsically changeable, one will not expect them to change from person to person in a random manner. It is not that for some, killing the innocent is harmful for human flourishing, while in others, it is beneficial. Instead, it is harmful for all.

But the fact that we are speaking of intrinsically changeable things does mean that we will have a certain amount of variation from one individual to another. There are facts about human beings that result in moral norms. But these “facts about human beings” may vary, e.g. in degree, from one human to another. Alexander Pruss, discussing the origin of Bayesian priors, makes this remark:

Let me try to soften you up in favor of anthropocentrism about priors with an ethics analogy. If sharks developed rationality, we wouldn’t expect their flourishing to involve quite as much friendship as our flourishing does. Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension, and we would expect different species to resolve that tension differently based on the different ways that they are characteristically adapted to their environment. This is, indeed, an argument for a significant Natural Law component in ethics: even if values are kind-independent, the appropriate resolution of tensions between them is something that may well be relative to a kind.

But just as sharks would have less need for friendship than human beings have, so one human being might have less need for friendship than another.

Aristotle discusses virtue as consisting as a mean between opposed vices:

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

Aristotle may be making more or less the same point as this post (and the previous two) when he says that “matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health,” and likewise when he says that “the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” Virtue consists in a mean, not too much of something and not too little. But where exactly this mean falls will differ from one individual to another. The case of friendship mentioned above is an example. As Pruss says, “Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension,” and since those values will affect different people differently, we can expect differently people rightly to resolve that tension in different ways, just as Pruss says we could expect different species to resolve it differently. Naturally, we might expect the difference between species to be greater than the difference between individuals. But there will be differences in each case.

So in order to arrive at the mean of truth, there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. One is the Equality Dogma. The other would be the supposition that the differences between individuals might be more or less the same as differences between species. Ian Morris, in his book Why the West Rules–for Now, remarks,

This technical debate over classifying prehistoric skeletons has potentially alarming implications. Racists are often eager to pounce on such details to justify prejudice, violence, and even genocide. You might feel that taking the time to talk about a theory of this kind merely dignifies bigotry; perhaps we should just ignore it. But that, I think, would be a mistake. Pronouncing racist theories contemptible is not enough. If we really want to reject them, and to conclude that people (in large groups) really are all much the same, it must be because racist theories are wrong, not just because most of us today do not like them.

One of the arguments of the book (best understood by reading the book) is that “people (in large groups) really are all much the same,” and that the causes of the differences between West and East were not primarily differences between peoples, but differences of other kinds such as differences of geography.


6 thoughts on “My Morals and Your Morals

  1. I’ve been pondering this idea about personality and virtue. I see that different people may have significantly differing means to their own good. Do you think a case could be made for that some personalities are objectively better than others? Then one could argue that the means toward this disposition is good for everyone (although these means themselves might be different).


    • I’m having a hard time understanding your question exactly, mainly because I am not sure whether you are speaking about the mean of virtue or the means to an end. People have significantly different means in both senses, but it’s not clear to me what you are saying at the end by “the means toward this disposition is good for everyone.”

      Surely some personalities are objectively better than others, since when two things are different, one is better. But if we are speaking of the mean of virtue, people with different personalities will have different means. And it is not true that the mean for one is good or better for the other simply because one person has a better personality. That would be like saying that it is good for tigers to eat as humans do, because humans are better than tigers. That is true in either case; it is not better for tigers to eat as humans do, and it is not better for introverts or extroverts to act as though they had a different personality.


      • I see the ambiguity you’re speaking about. The first “means to their own good” was referring to the mean of virtue. The latter “means towards this disposition” was referring to the means towards the end, the end in this case being the disposition. I don’t see why one can’t say that people ought to change their personalities (if possible) in order to perfect themselves. For instance, someone who is, by nature, indecisive ought to develop decisiveness; someone who needs to talk out loud in order to reason (characteristic of some extroverts), ought to develop the ability to reason interiorly.

        I don’t think the analogy with the tiger holds because all humans have the same nature, whereas humans and tigers don’t share a common nature. In other words, just because people have different personalities doesn’t mean that they cannot change their personalities. To me, it seems as if personalities are simply deeply set habits which, while difficult to change, are not impossible nor improper to change, if changing helps to develop virtue.

        It might be difficult to come to agreement on this however, since one cannot know a priori whether or not it is possible, in fact, to change one’s personality on a large scale, e.g. introvert to extrovert. It appears that a person can change his habits on a small scale. Given this, I see no reason why one cannot change his deeply set habits, notwithstanding its difficulty.


        • People can change their personalities to some extent, and in some situations they should do so. But it does not follow that everyone should do everything possible to come as closest as possible to the most perfect personality, even though there is one such perfect personality.

          To understand this, consider the flaw in your comparison between humans and tigers. Men and women have human nature in common, but despite the opinion currently coming into style, it is impossible (at least with present technology) for a man to make himself into a woman, or for a woman to make herself into a man. And likewise, many much smaller changes are impossible, as for example you cannot by any ordinary means change the color of your eyes.

          All of this is relevant to differences in personality such as introversion and extroversion, because it is virtually certain that these do not come merely from accumulated habit, as you suggested, but also from physical facts about the brain, physical facts which we are unable to change. What this means is that even if e.g. some amount of talkativeness is most perfect, it will not necessarily be true that it is most virtuous for every individual to undertake to bring himself to that point. It will not be true because, for example, for some individuals such an undertaking would impose costs on them which would do more harm than good.


          • Alright, I think I agree with you in essence. I didn’t mean that someone should do everything they can to develop the “perfect personality.” It does seems like there are many potential costs that come from doing so. Undertaking something like a personality change would require careful planning and self-observation.

            I also agree that personality/temperament is based in a physical disposition. However, it seems like a physical disposition leads to certain acquired habits, the chief ones being interior habits such as those of the imagination and emotions. This is why people with certain dispositions are prone to act according to certain habits, but are still able to develop new habits. You suggested that this is possible and good in certain circumstances. I’d explain this by saying that a person can obtain new habits, even those which do not follow from the disposition one is born with.

            As an example, let’s say someone is often placed in a circumstance (say at work) where it is better for him to act in way which is not in accord with his natural temperament . At first, he has to deliberately choose to take these actions. After some time, however, he might begin to acquire these actions as habits. He then has this new set of habits which do not normally follow from his physical disposition, although he hasn’t lost the physical disposition. Someone might say that is an unreal scenario, but I don’t see why it would be.


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