In Defense of First Principles

I thought I’d pen a brief response to Sven’s provocative opening salvo against moral philosophy, “I Want It All, Baby!” Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I like to play one on the Internet. (Actually, I almost went into a philosophy Ph.D. program, but in the end the infamously dire job market in that discipline deterred me.)

As I see it, moral philosophy is the derivation of valid principles for normative judgment, where normative judgment is the making of (true) statements about whether particular types of conduct are and are not justifiable. Now, I don’t see how making normative judgments without a unified, underlying principle or rule is possible.

After all, we can’t have it all – we can’t have a society that combines perfect liberty, perfect equality, and absolute security. We have to make tradeoffs, but on what basis do we make those tradeoffs? We have to have a principle! To be precise, we have to have one and only one principle. If there are multiple moral principles, they can always come into conflict, and we will have to rely on a more fundamental principle to adjudicate the conflict.

More fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s quite right to view moral judgment as a process of making tradeoffs among values. This point of view implicitly assumes that we’re trying to maximize some kind of function, in which our values (liberty, equality, security, etc.) are variables. That sounds a lot like stealth utilitarianism. Defending utilitarianism is fine, but it should be done forthrightly, not slipped in through the back door. Are liberty, equality, and security  valuable only insofar as they promote the aggregate happiness of Homo sapiens (or perhaps the entire animal kingdom?).

Rather, most defenders of liberty and equality see these terms as shorthand for principles of justice (any view that fails to equate “security” with a form of “liberty” is just confused). Thus, a Marxist sees the employment contract as inherently and necessarily wrong and exploitative, while a libertarian sees that same relationship as an inviolable exercise of liberty. I don’t see any way these different positions can be “weighed and balanced.” They can only be reasoned back to first principles.

On a final note, moral philosophy makes progress by tracing first-order arguments about justice back to their atomic particles, the basic principles on which they are based. It is deductive, not inductive, so we should not hold it to the same standard of progress as inductive science. By its proper standard, moral philosophy has actually made great strides over the centuries.

31 thoughts on “In Defense of First Principles

  1. But what if, at the level of society, there is nothing but conflict among moral principles, i.e., no objectively “higher” principle to adjudicate the conflict? In that case, there is nothing but trade-offs. You might look to liberty as the principle to help you decide where to make the trade-off between liberty, equality, and security, but others will view the matter differently, and there’s no objective position from which to judge them. Isaiah Berlin thought this was both true and tragic — and that sounds about right to me.

  2. Imagine you put three theoretical physicists from Harvard into a room and ask them to write a report on the progress of their discipline since Aristotle. They could only include in the report what they all agreed on. My guess is that the report would be long and they would be in large agreement about most things.

    Now imagine that you got three moral philosophers from Harvard (say Nozick, Rawls and Sandel) into a room and gave them the same tasks. How long would this report be?

    You seem to be saying that there are some really smart moral philosophers who have written some brilliant stuff. Couldn’t agree more.

    I teach policy analysis for a living, and policy analysis is all about trade-offs. So I’m a fan of trade-offs. You say first that “We have to make trade-offs” and then you say, “its not quite right to view moral judgment as a proces of making tradeoffs among values.” So you want to use moral principles to make trade-offs but you don’t want to make trade-offs among values. That is a distinction that I think would be very hard to maintain intellectually (though what do I know, I’m just an economist–all our trade-offs are represented with mathematics)

    I would argue that most real-world trade-offs require making trade-offs between public values. In the area of free-speech, I am strongly libertarian and give almost no ground to utilitarians or communitarians. In the area of educating children, I give a lot of ground (I think the state has to play a role, but the state shouldn’t actually run schools).

    So lots of real problems require balancing liberty and utility. I think the context of the case is more informative than either liberal or utilitarian philosophy. One reason I like Mill is that he is both a liberal and a utilitarian. I think he implicitly sees the tradeoffs between these values, though I don’t know him well enough to make such a case. Modern pragmatists go even further and argue against the “tyranny of principles.” I’m not sure I’m in that boat, but it does have an appeal.

    When making difficult tradeoffs, I do like having principles. Very helpful things (which is why I listed my principles at the outset). I could be convinced to change a principle, and any fool could produce cases where my principles come into conflict. That’s OK, because a system of non-conflicting principles usually doesn’t prove very useful in the real world and can always be tripped up by someone who can show, for instance, that either liberal or utilitarian views can lead to noxious outcomes if they are not balanced.

    So, I’m happy being a libertarian-utilitarian-egalitarian-communitarian. Indeed, I think most ordinary people are. Its just the moral philosophers that haven’t caught up yet.

    If you asked Kant to tell you what the speed limit should be on I-95, what could he possibly tell you?

  3. Damon – I think I might agree with you. There are multiple, logically consistent, comprehensive theories of the good. We can try to adjudicate among them by resorting to the “intuition pump,” but ultimately there’s no conclusive way to prove or disprove, say, utilitarianism. But if we say that the right thing to do is simply to “average them all out” somehow into some kind of compromise, that view itself becomes just another competing theory of the good. So there’s really no escape from the problem – we can do nothing more but attempt to figure out the truth for ourselves as best we can, and then try to live by the principles in which we believe.

    Sven – Moral philosophers could agree on how existing theories of the good are derived, what their assumptions are, and what they imply. That doesn’t mean they will agree on which is the true theory of the good, of course.

    The point I was trying to make in the 3rd & 4th grafs is that utilitarianism requires making tradeoffs among values. But utilitarianism isn’t an escape from the problem – it’s just another moral principle among many. And it doesn’t make sense to trade off moral principles against each other, because what’s the basis for doing that? Another moral principle! (Or just blank intuition.)

    I don’t think the appropriate speed limit for a particular road belongs to the domain of moral philosophy at all, any more than what I should buy from the grocery store today does. They belong to the realm of the “morally indifferent.” Questions about the legitimate authority to set the speed limit, the principles by which speed limits should be set in general, and so on do potentially have philosophical answers.

    1. Hmmmmmm. I find that very strange. So, if you set a speed limit of 5 mph, nobody dies. But if you set a limit of 75, then 10,000 people die.

      So the deaths of 10,000 people are morally irrelevant, in the domain of the morally indifferent. Do you think those 10,000 people would agree?

      Now say, at 55 mph only 5,000 people die.

      Is gain in efficiency due to the higher limit worth the 5,000 lives? If moral philosophy can’t address these very real practical questions dealing with life and death that policy makers have to ask every day, what good is it, again?

      What about 10,000 people dying in a military conflict abroad. Are they morally relevant, or is that the domain of the morally indifferent?

      1. Assuming that the government is legitimate, enjoying the consent of the governed, and the government owns the roads, then the only moral question, in my view, is whether the government has set the speed limit in accordance with its established procedures. If so, the speed limit is moral. I see nothing immoral about a speed limit that results in vastly more deaths – although such a speed limit is presumably extremely undesirable. In the same way, a company that sells cigarettes that kills thousands of its customers is doing nothing immoral if it isn’t hiding the health consequences of its product. Consuming its product may be undesirable or irresponsible, but providing cigarettes to willing, informed customers isn’t immoral.

        But I’m not a utilitarian – if you’re a utilitarian, then a bad speed limit is also an immoral one. I just want utilitarians not to pretend that they uniquely lack a particular comprehensive moral philosophy. 😉

  4. Jason, I don’t find in your discussion a statement of exactly what the “unified, underlying moral principle” is. I took you to be suggesting that the putative trade-offs of those other values–liberty, equality, security, etc.–can be properly adjudicated only by application of, or reference to, some single, more fundamental principle. If so, I think you owe us a statement or description of what that more fundamental principle is.

    If, on the other hand, you’re arguing only that there has to be some fundamental principle or other, you would seem to have no defense against a person who argues that the fundamental principle should be authority or control.

    1. Well, I thought such a statement might muddy the waters of the methodological debate too much. But I’m partial to something like the second version of the categorical imperative, “Always act so as to treat persons as ends in themselves and not as means only,” a principle with important liberty-protecting implications.

      1. Jason, as a generalization about something pretty important morally, I’m with you on this. My point in this context would be that this is not because this works as a premise in some sort of deductive model. That gets us some sort of practical traction only we know that doing this here now would be an instance of treating as a means only, or instead an instance of treating as a means and end both. And if we plug in another principle to answer that question, we will get just the same problem again. At some point we have to make a judgment about whether this here now counts as an instance of what the principle speaks to. And then that judgment, not the inference, is doing all the real normative work (it seems to me). So I’m with you broadly in outlook, but not because I think the kind of structure you have in mind makes it so.

      2. Hi Mark – Glad to see you on the site! Let me see if I get what you’re saying. (And, BTW, the threaded comment system here really stinks. Will have to look into that.) I agree that context matters, and Kant was not very attuned to this. Lying, for instance, which he thought was always wrong, might actually be consistent with treating others as ends in themselves, under some circumstances. So the question is: How do we know what those circumstances are? And the answer to that question, you’re saying, is where all the real normative work is being done, and we can’t simply deduce a rule for parsing all possible circumstances into those which make X OK and those which do not make X OK. Is that anywhere close? 😉

        Have you written anything on this specifically? If so, I’d enjoy taking a look.

      3. Yeah, I’m not sure about the threading here either. I’m trying to respond to your last comment on my comment on your comment on…

        Anyway, yes, that’s the main idea. It’s one motivation for a broad “particularist” approach to ethics that has been a subject of lively debate in the last ten or fifteen years. For me the key is that there simply is no way around the exercise of judgment, and principles by their nature don’t do that work. Surprisingly, I think the first person to see this really clearly was Kant! But the significance of the exercise of judgment is characteristic of ancient ethics, especially Aristotle. So this is a roughly Aristotelian way of thinking about moral norms. (At least at one level. At the level of thinking about norms governing our claims on each other as moral equals, I don’t think the ancients had nearly as much useful to say.)

        I do have a conference paper on this; if you’re interested, it’s on my [ website].

      4. Thanks, I’ll check it out. Then I might have something intelligent to say about the idea!

  5. So, Jason, how far are you willing to follow this process argument.

    Consider three scenarios:

    1) The speed limit is set such that 10,000 people each year die to to random events associated with highway driving at high speeds

    2) No one dies from accidents; instead, the government sets up marksmen along the road who randomly shoot people. 10,000 people die.

    3) Now, the marksmen are told to specifically target only African-Americans. 10,000 die.

    In each case, the government follows clear, “established procedures.”

    Still no moral question here?

    1. In that scenario, the government is violating the rights of those assassinated, because they haven’t agreed to be killed or to a constitution that would permit arbitrary killings. Whereas with speed limits, I assumed that the government enjoyed the consent of the governed to the procedures/constitution by which the roads came under public ownership and speed limits were authorized.

      1. Jason, so when you said “the only moral question, in my view, is whether the government has set the speed limit in accordance with its established procedures” you really meant in “…in accordance with its established procedures along with any rights I think people should have, regardless of what procedures are actually in place.”

        Given that you want to maintain your deontological purity, I’m not going to get you to admit that the consequences of rules have moral import, which goes to the heart of my original criticism of moral philosophy, with deontological “reasoning” being the worst example.

        Even a simple rule such as the speed limit is loaded with moral import, as it deals with life and death, with due process, with winners and losers, with changing incentives. Trying to take it out of the realm of moral questions just proves my basic point, I think.

      2. Here’s what I wrote:

        Assuming that the government is legitimate, enjoying the consent of the governed, and the government owns the roads, then the only moral question, in my view, is whether the government has set the speed limit in accordance with its established procedures.

        The notion that people have rights that may not be violated was embedded within the phrase “consent of the governed,” which I take to mean, by the way, unanimous consent of the governed.

        But the broader point is that what utilitarians miss is that some consequences shouldn’t count for certain purposes. Consequences matter in terms of determining what the “best” decision is, but not always in determining what the “right” or “wrong” decision is.

        Another example of this is the banning of fatty foods. Public health paternalists say that fatty foods should be banned because they lead to X amount of deaths per year. Economists say that we should also consider the downside for economic growth from a fatty food ban.

        So if we adopt your approach and “weigh and balance,” what’s the solution? Maybe tax the fatty foods?

        Someone like me would say that the deaths from consumption of fatty foods simply don’t matter for the question of government intervention. People have an absolute liberty right to eat whatever they want, so long as they’re not violating the rights of anyone else. So there’s nothing to weigh and balance – any government intervention is absolutely unjustified.

        Similarly, with an issue like slavery or genocide, I would say that the positive utility enjoyed by the perpetrators simply shouldn’t count. I don’t see how utilitarians can deal with that issue. The ultimate point I wanted to make, though, wasn’t to refute utilitarianism but simply to argue against it as some kind of default position outside the debates of normative philosophy – or the view that it can give us everything we want.

      3. Is this a place where ambiguity in the “moral” might be part of the problem? Suppose we think about what sort of conflict there might be here over what the government ought to do, or what it owes its citizens. I take Sven’s 10k deaths case to be an argument (and a good one) that it’s not sufficient to think that the government owes its citizens only that it follow its own procedures. Obviously, some can be skanky. Jason’s thought then (I take it) is that the “more” that government owes to its citizens includes respecting things we bundle under the name of ‘rights.’ If we include those in the package, we don’t get Sven’s counterintuitive conclusion.

        Now Sven wants to make a further case that, whatever it is that goes into that “more,” all of the normative support for it comes from the comparative superiority of consequences of some rules over others. I take it that’s the real rub, because I take it Jason is not (he certainly need not) claim that none of that “more” comes from comparatively better consequences. Instead, the point right along (including earlier resistance to trade-offs among values) is resistance to thinking that all of what bears on that “more” that government owes citizens is a matter of consequential comparisons. The non-consequentialist thought here (which I share with Jason) is that we care about some things in ways that don’t allow us to dump them onto the scales for such comparisons.

        Just saying there are such demands doesn’t explain them or justify them, of course. Doing that is (a) task of moral philosophy.

      4. I take Sven’s 10k deaths case to be an argument (and a good one) that it’s not sufficient to think that the government owes its citizens only that it follow its own procedures. Obviously, some can be skanky. Jason’s thought then (I take it) is that the “more” that government owes to its citizens includes respecting things we bundle under the name of ‘rights.’

        Yes, and to be clear, I agree with Sven’s point that the government doesn’t owe its citizens merely that it follow its own procedures. But the rights that citizens have vis-a-vis their government depend to some degree on which rights citizens have agreed to give up to their government. There’s also the question of whether there are some rights that citizens could never give up to any government or indeed anyone (“inalienable rights”). I am inclined to think that no one may legitimately sell himself into slavery or give anyone else the arbitrary power of life or death, for instance, but I don’t have an airtight argument for that position.

        I take it that’s the real rub, because I take it Jason is not (he certainly need not) claim that none of that “more” comes from comparatively better consequences. Instead, the point right along (including earlier resistance to trade-offs among values) is resistance to thinking that all of what bears on that “more” that government owes citizens is a matter of consequential comparisons. The non-consequentialist thought here (which I share with Jason) is that we care about some things in ways that don’t allow us to dump them onto the scales for such comparisons.

        Thanks for clarifying the issue; I’m happy with this way of characterizing the differences between the two positions, as I don’t think it even makes sense to draw a hard distinction between “consequences” and the “acts” themselves.

  6. I’m coming to this conversation a little late, but unlike anybody else here (except maybe Jim), I count myself as a moral philosopher, so it would be good, at least for my sake, if I thought I had something useful to say. Sven’s original post opened up not just one thread but a whole bunch of them. Let me start with one of them, the “what is moral philosophy good for” thread. One thing is: it helps develop skills at noticing that there is more than one thing going on, and at trying to figure out what questions those things are really about. (Maybe that’s not moral philosophy per se, but I didn’t take Sven to be challenging moral philosophers among philosophers per se).

    Here’s another. I don’t think moral philosophy consists in coming up with something like the Euclidean deductive system that Jason takes it to be. My reasons for that lie within moral philosophy, but mostly it’s that I don’t think principles can do just the kind of adjudicatory work that they are required to do, in figuring out how to act in which opportunity costs apply to every choice we make. That fact about us seems really important, in at least two ways. One, we have to find a useful way to think about what we are doing in making such choices. And two, not unrelatedly, we really need normative guidance in doing so.

    A related difference: I think of moral philosophy as consisting at least in part of thinking about our moral natures and what they mean for our understanding of the world. One reasons physicists show such apparently great success is that their problems are by comparison cupcakes (the history of philosophy is of other disciplines hiving off as simple enough that specialists can undertake them, while the philosophers beaver on with the most intractable of them). But what the heck normative demands are, where they come from, and how on earth we — apparently among all other creatures — are capable of responding to them, are really hard questions. That said, answers to those questions may be really important to answering, let alone justifying, questions about what those normative demands are, about what they require us to do.

    That leaves me saying nothing (yet) about the important questions of what sorts of norms there might be relevant to acting, what kinds of things really matter, or why I don’t think a set of undefended precepts a la Sven’s “all” is any better than Jason’s fundamental principle. Later.

    1. OK, Mark, you’ve just shown that good moral philosophers are way smarter than a run-of-the-mill economists.

      I’ve used a similar argument before that physics deals with way simpler problems than does social science, so they should cut us some slack. And I’ll grant you that moral questions are even more difficult than empirical ones (at least sometimes).

      Welcome to the conversation! We’d obviously love to have more comments from you in the future.

      1. Note that I did not say I count myself as a good moral philosopher! I certainly do not take myself to be smarter than economists, except possibly in avoiding taking up a discipline in which people expect you to produce actual useful ideas. (People have long since given up expecting that of philosophers.)

  7. I’m with Mark in thinking we need some distinctions. For a start, we need a distinction between the optimal and the moral. In my view, the optimal belongs to the economist, whose job it is to tell us how to maximize value, for whom and under what circumstances. As some of you have noted already, however, morality is not a matter of utility. Maybe it should be, but it is not. Nor, despite the attempts of philosophers (think Plato and Kant) to make it so, is morality a matter of high rational principle. Rather, as the sophists of ancient Greece understood, and as David Hume and Adam Smith explained in detail, morality, like law, is a matter for social convention and the attendant sentiments. Doing the moral thing is not doing the best thing; nor, despite Kant and Aquinas, is it doing what comports with such other-worldly and presumably God-given ideals as the Golden Rule of New Testament Christianity. Instead, it is conforming to the mores to which one is subject as a member of some society. So, the task of understanding it belongs primarily to psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists, whose job it is to tell us, with the help of the biologists, not how people should behave but why they behave as they do. What is the job of philosophers? To help sort all of that out.

    1. What if the mores of a society are objectively repugnant, such as circumcising girls or enslaving parts of the population or infanticide? The cultural-relativist argument would seem to say that these things are right and good so long as they are approved by (a majority of? a supermajority of?) a particular society.

  8. Jason’s question presumes the identity of the good with the moral, which it was the point of my comment to deny. The mores of a society determine what conduct is moral in it; not what conduct is beneficial for it or its members. As a society can have bad laws, so it can have bad mores. Yet, just as a society’s laws determine what is legal in it, so its mores determine what is moral in it. And no clear meaning has yet been assigned to the idea that some conduct might be inherently moral or immoral, just as no clear meaning has been assigned to the idea that some conduct is inherently legal or illegal. If we insist on declaring that the moral is always and necessarily good and vice versa, then utility becomes the sole and sufficient test of morality. But, of course, it isn’t. Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.

    1. OK, but then you’re changing what the meaning of “moral” is, from a normative concept to a purely descriptive one. We can define terms to mean whatever we want them to mean, so if we define “moral” to mean simply “what is approved of by most of a given society,” then we need a new term for “what one ought to do.”

  9. Jason, I think the descriptive use is fundamental, the normative use derivative and parasitical. After all, the word ‘moral’ derives from the Latin ‘mos,’ for customs, habits, practices, etc. But I agree that it is important to distinguish the two uses. The trouble is normative use divested of its descriptive basis and justification tends to be purely emotive, so resistant to critical appraisal. All I’m calling for is a return to root meanings divested of emotional accretions.

    1. Max, I agree with you at least in part; I’m not sure if I agree with you in full. First, I agree that the content of ‘moral’ is in a dodgy state. Thinking of it as purely descriptive might be a start; in general it seems to be most useful when it is modifying something like “obligation” or “requirement” or the like. But even then I’m not sure about thinking it has the content “socially fixed,” for a variety of reasons. Since Hobbes at least it seems to be a contrast class for “prudential,” and to be interpreted as something like “interpersonal” instead of, well, whatever the contrast class to that is supposed to be.

      There is also the question whether the “moral” is supposed to be articulable, or perhaps also might (in the more purely anthropological tone you seem to me to suggest) capture behavioral regularities that we don’t think of as normative, such as conversational distances.

      For all these reasons, I’m not inclined to want to rest a lot of weight on the term itself, and I take it in that we’re in agreement, and perhaps even Jason can agree. Then we can ask: “what ought we do to do?” and speak of what we ought to do, or what we have reason to do, or the like, without the complications burdened terminology brings with it?

  10. Max, if the descriptive is truly fundamental to what is moral, such that we can give some kind of positivist account of what is moral in a given society, then it would seem, as Jason noted, that any given society must be moral, by definition. This can be further deconstructed to construe whatever any sub-group within a society does as moral, even though society at large considers them aberrant.

    But perhaps you do not conflate ethics, with its implication of rational principle, with morality. If what a society decides is moral is truly the only measure of what is moral, then morality is truly conventional; when morality is determined by convention, morality is political. Yet I see no reason why we should abandon the idea of a rational morality, or an absolute morality, simply because what we observe is political. Perhaps, following Hobbes, the assent required in the political sphere does not require the same commitment as personal belief does. In this case, what is right to do politically may remain conventional, while what is right for the individual to do may remain ethical.

    Speaking to the overall discussion, I think this division between public politics and private morality supports Sven’s critique of moral philosophy. If moral philosophy is to consist of rational principles, then it will inevitably run up against the necessary conventionality of democratic politics. But if we change the variables, then we can come up with a different answer: (1)if moral philosophy is, per se, conventional, then the political is identical with the moral and there is no conflict in a democracy; (2) if our politics are not democratic, then they may express rational moral truths. In any case, we have to understand that democracies govern by the consent of the governed, rather than by assent to principle on the basis of its rational demonstration (think of Hume’s critique of reason’s role in ethics). To think otherwise is to violate the freedom to choose of the electorate.

    Donald Livingston, last fall, wrote an interesting piece on this aspect of Hume (calling it “conservatism”) over at First Principles (

    1. Corey, I’d think one upshot from the exchange between Max and Jason (one Max seems happy with) would be the thought that focusing on what is “moral” isn’t the proverbial bottom-line for practical, normative thought, individually or collectively. Maybe “ethics” is better (don’t know what Max thinks about that, but it seems to my ear anyway to carry less baggage). I myself would prefer to think in terms of what we ought, all things considered, to do, or even better what we have most reason to do. The way I think of such things (and Max may or may not agree, I’m not sure) is that those really are normative notions, and that they have no essential cultural or societal providence.

      Moreover, I’d be happy to trade in “moral philosopher, as a self-description, for “practical philosopher,” or some-such, except that it’s so obviously lame. It does such a great job of avoiding misleading baggage that it does no work at all. But there is a point to that kind of categorization. Suppose for a moment that we stipulate that the ‘moral’ has to do with the relations of obligation and claim that we have with other people. Then I think that surely what is moral must be an important constraint on the political, and at the same time occupy a space within which it is connected with reasons we have that do not depend on these relations. I can’t imagine that those things could intelligibly be compartmentalized. I think that in substance would yield most of what those who insist on a primacy of “moral principles” (and here I’m thinking of where Jason began) would want by way of a conceptual and terminological framework. In substance, I’m guessing I would end up agreeing with Jason about a lot, but I do think there are better and worse ways of coming to those thoughts.

    2. In any case, we have to understand that democracies govern by the consent of the governed, rather than by assent to principle on the basis of its rational demonstration

      Following Riker’s arguments in Liberalism Against Populism, I would actually say that democracies do not govern by the consent of the governed, but what distinguishes democracies from other regimes is that in democracies the rulers govern by established legislative procedures following competitive elections that allocate power. And I would think that no really existing regime, democratic or otherwise, governs on the basis of rational demonstration of principle.

      I myself would prefer to think in terms of what we ought, all things considered, to do, or even better what we have most reason to do.

      Yes, I’m in full agreement here.

  11. Corey. I do not think the concepts of “rational moral principle” and “moral society” have definite meaning. There is no society without a morality, but a society’s morality is not moral or immoral; it just is. It is only actions, and by extension individual actors, that can meaningfully be described as moral or immoral. This does not mean that a society’s morality is beyond evaluation; but evaluation will involve the question of the morality’s utility, not rational moral principles, whatever those might be thought to be. But see the next paragraph.

    Mark and Jason. Yes, morality, especially since Kant, has to do with obligation, permission, and such; so, it is inherently social. Ethics, a Greek notion, was about what an individual ought to do in order to lead a full and happy life. That would usually include doing what he was obligated to others to do, but that was not its focus. We do sometimes call this sort of Greek thinking prudence, though that term sometimes irrelevantly suggests caution. A more precise term for it is rationality, which implies calculation of means to our ends, selfish or unselfish. Anyhow, I’m all for it. I just want to distinguish it from morality. And I want to make clear that it does not involve the application of what I think Corey means by his talk of rational moral principles, at least not if these are supposed to culturally transcendent standards for what is obligatory and what isn’t. I do not think there are any such standards; they are a religious myth. Describing them as rational is just a philosopher’s way of concealing their illegitimacy from himself and others.

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