Posted by: Becoming Gaia | Jun 13, 2010

Recommended Reading Link

Haidt, J. & Kesebir, S. (2010) Morality – available here

I particularly liked this definition of morality

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible.

I also found the following statement very interesting in light of the libertarian “No force, no fraud”:

This way of thinking (morality = not harming or cheating others) has become a kind of academic common sense, an assumption shared widely by educated secular people.



  1. I am not convinced that a focus on our cached responses to moral quandaries (in form of the moral sense) is that relevant in face of difficult cases. Like the case of a just war; (see, the plot described in, this Hollywood flick even mentions the term “consequentialist”). But certainly understanding the tools of the moral sense helps develop deep understanding, thus intuitive search for good (not merely justifiable) solutions.

    (Note: there is nothing magical about intuition, it is simply thinking mode that is engaging too much of the brain to be fully grasped by the reflective faculty of consciousness. Most thinking is intuitive to some degree. So “moral intuition” is a very broad term, while “moral sense” is more the built-in core of heuristics.)

  2. Reading re. virtues: “Ancient Ethical Theory”

    • Teasers:

      “‘happiness’ has a secondary sense that does not focus on feelings but rather on activities. For instance, one might say, “It was a happy time in my life; my work was going well.” The speaker need not be referring to the feelings he or she was experiencing but just to the fact that some important activity was going well. Of course, if their work is going well, they might feel contentment. But in speaking of their happiness, they might just as well be referring to their absorption in some successful activity. For ancient philosophers eudaimonia is closer to the secondary sense of our own term.”

      “[…] virtue is a psychological good in this life. To live a mortal human life with this good is in itself happiness. This position that links happiness and virtue is called eudaimonism”

      “By contrast, ancient moral theory explains morality in terms that focus on the moral agent. These thinkers are interested in what constitutes, e.g., a just person. They are concerned about the state of mind and character, the set of values, the attitudes to oneself and to others, and the conception of one’s own place in the common life of a community that belong to just persons simply insofar as they are just. A modern might object that this way of proceeding is backwards. Just actions are logically prior to just persons and must be specifiable in advance of any account of what it is to be a just person. Of course, the ancients had a rough idea of what just actions were; and this rough idea certainly contributed to the notion of a just person, and his motivation and system of values. Still, the notion of a just person is not exhausted by an account of the consequences of just actions, or any principle for determining which actions are and which are not just. For the ancients, the just person is compared to a craftsman, e.g., a physician. Acting as a physician is not simply a collection of medically effective actions. It is knowing when such actions are appropriate, among other things; and this kind of knowledge is not always definable. To understand what being a physician means one must turn to the physician’s judgment and even motivation. These are manifested in particular actions but are not reducible to those actions. In the same way, what constitutes a just person is not exhausted by the actions he or she does nor, for that matter, by any catalogue of possible just actions. Rather, being a just person entails qualities of character proper to the just person, in the light of which they decide what actions justice requires of them.”

    • More teasers to (a biased selection):


      “Socrates argues that no one knowingly desires what is bad (to kakon). His argument shows that by ‘bad’ he means things that are harmful to the subject, i.e., the one who would desire these things. […] Socratic intellectualism has two significant consequences. One is that virtue (which guarantees good action) is knowledge and the other is that virtue is sufficient for happiness.”


      “For instance, justice in the city is each one [rulers, military, producers] performing that function for which he is suited by nature and not doing the work that belongs to others”

      “He argues that [the soul] has three parts, each corresponding to one of the classes in the city. Reason calculates, especially about what is good for the soul. The appetites for food, drink, and sex are like the producing class — they are necessary for bodily existence. […] the part of the soul that corresponds to the auxiliaries, the military class is the spirited part (thymos or thymoeides). Associated with the heart, it is an aggressive drive concerned with honor. The spirited part is manifested as anger with those who attack one’s honor. Perhaps more importantly, it is manifested as anger with oneself when failing to do what one knows he should do. […] A soul ruled by appetites is the very picture of psychological injustice.”

      “This approach to the virtues by way of moral psychology, in fact, proves to be remarkably durable in ancient moral theory.”

      “One might object that eudaimonist theories reduce morality to self-interest. […] In this way, the soul has the best internal economy, so to speak. […] the philosopher who imitates forms in ruling her soul is equally motivated to imitate forms in ruling the city. […] [Plato’s] Eudaimonia, then, includes looking after the welfare of others.”


      “[…] the good of flute players (as such) is found in their functioning as a flutist. […] there is a human function, to be found in the human soul’s characteristic activity, i.e., reason. […] [It has two aspects: one] deliberates about decisions, both for the short term and the long. [The other aspect is that appetites obey decisions.] Aristotle then argues that since the function of a human is to exercise the soul’s activities according to reason, the function of a good human is to exercise well and finely the soul’s activities according to reason. […] Thus, good persons reason well about plans, short term or long; and when they satisfy their appetites, and even when they *have* appetites, it is in conformity with reason. […] happiness is not just the ability to function well in this way; it is the activity itself.”

      “For instance, people are badly disposed with respect to anger who typically get angry violently or who typically get angry weakly. […] After arguing that virtue is neither feeling nor capacity, Aristotle turns to what it means to be well or badly off with respect to feelings [i.e. virtues = balanced dispositions].”

      “Even if happiness is virtuous activity of the soul, in some cases [bodily and external] goods are needed to be virtuous […] [but] He even suggests that the life of contemplation is secure against the need for external goods”

      Epicureanism: “If psychological hedonism is true, then when one realizes the necessary link between virtue and pleasure, one has all the reason one needs to be virtuous and the only reason one can have.”

      Stoics: “argue that health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good reputation, and noble birth are neither good nor bad [but preferred indifferents].”

      “virtue is a craft (technê) having to do with the things of life. […] the things of life include impulse (hormê). Each animal has an impulse for self-preservation; it has an awareness of its constitution and strives to preserve its integrity. There is also a natural impulse to care for offspring. Humans, then, are naturally inclined toward preserving life, health, and children. But then grown-up humans also do these things under the guidance of reason; reason in the adult human case is the craftsman of impulse […] just following natural impulse is not enough. […] adult human nature is such as to do everything they do by reason, [n]ever to follow the sort of natural impulses that animals and immature humans do in their actions. In order to lead a virtuous life, reason must shape our impulses and guide their expression in action.”

      “emotions or passions ( pathê) are incorrect impulses that treat what is indifferent as good. However, they do not come from a non-rational part of the soul but are false judgments about the good. […] For instance, the desire for health is the impulse that embodies the false judgment that health is good, instead of a preferred indifferent. […] [But] feelings attuned to reason, eupatheiai [are OK, for instance, joy over virtue]”

      “the central Stoic teaching [is] that virtue is living in agreement with nature. The universe is governed by right reason that pervades everything and directs (causes) the way it functions — with the exception of rational animals: their actions are caused by their own individual decisions. […] Since reason governs the universe for the good, everything happens of necessity and for the overall good. Virtue, then, includes understanding both one’s individual nature as a human being and the way nature arranges the whole universe.”


      “Not knowing what was good or bad by nature, [Pyrrho] was indifferent where dogmatists would be unhappy or at least anxious. For instance, he performed household chores usually done by women. Thus Pyrrho’s skepticism detached him from the dogmatic judgments of a culture in which a man’s performing women’s work was considered demeaning.”

    • But it is a better use of time to read the “Virtue Ethics” article:

  3. Lukasz — Congratulations! You’ve successfully given me enough to think about that I’m now re-arranging everything. Please be patient with me until I manage a coherent response. 😉

  4. “Regulate selfishness?”

    Surely we’ve known since Adam Smith in the 1700’s that selfishness is the best driver for growth and optimal production*?

    * Which ultimately leads to the greatest growth and then the greatest well-being.

  5. Nope. Adam Smith promoted *self-interest*, not selfishness. Looking out for yourself and your interests is common sense. Interfering with others and their interests is only asking for conflict — which is not in your own self-interest.

    • What is the difference between self-interest and selfishness, in your opinion?

      • Selfishness values the self above others to the extent that you are willing to accept larger disadvantages for others in exchange for minor advantages for yourself.

        Self-interest can frequently lead to a positive outcome for all involved.

        If the combined outcome for all parties (including your positive outcome) is negative, then the action is selfish.

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