(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


As a categorical statement, this is full of holes. You’re saying that a soldier who kills someone in a war is more morally culpable than Hitler, who (probably) never personally killed anyone. That’s a hard case to make no matter what kind of ethics you subscribe to.


I originally wrote “killing” and replaced it with “murder” for a reason! Murder is unjustifiable killing, and not all killing is murder. Deontologists are perfectly willing to find justifications for killing, including wartime, self-defense, and (for some) capital punishment.

In fact, Kant came up with a thought experiment in which you were stranded on an island with other folks for many years, formed a small society, and eventually sentenced one of your group to death for some hideous crime. Right before the execution, though, a ship arrives to save you. You could either execute the criminal and go home, or simply get on the ship and leave the criminal alone on the island. Notoriously, Kant said that before you left the island forever, you needed to execute that criminal.

Finally, Hitler doesn’t have to actually lay hands on anyone to be fully responsible for their murder.


If an ethereal right falls in the forest, does it make a sound?


Of course it’s semantics, but it’s your semantics. Your the one insisting on natural law without natural rights.

Fathers don’t have the right to be honored? People don’t have the right not to be murdered? People don’t have property rights? I mean, those are right there in the Ten Commandments. You say they aren’t rights, but you don’t say why they aren’t rights. They sure look like rights to me.

Also, too, the challenge stands. Make your case against the Apartheid laws without explicitly or implicitly acknowledging rights.


By oppressing other people, we open ourselves up to being oppressed ourselves. Further, we limit their ability to contribute to society and improve the world that we all live within.

We, as individuals, benefit from protecting each other from oppression.

See, this serves as a foundation for why our society should establish and defend certain rights. It does not require the presumption that rights exist.


Too easy.

For instance, 1) “You should treat people indifferently to race, because you want them to treat you indifferently to race.”

This does not acknowledge any “rights”, for the same reason that “You should be kind to others, because you want them to be kind to you” does not acknowledge a “right to be treated with kindness”.

Or, 2) “People who are indifferent to race are better people than those who do not.”

Likewise, this does not acknowledge any rights, for the same reason that “People who keep their emotions in check when dealing with others are better people than those who do not” does not acknowledge a “right to make others keep their emotions in check.”


I don’t believe in natural law either. I think ethics are all contingent. Nothing is universal.

There is no rights language anywhere in the Ten Commandments. Those are dictatorial edicts. They don’t establish any general principles; they merely proscribe certain behaviors. Regardless, this whole discussion began with a statement that rights don’t exist unless they have some force (legal, governmental, social, religious, etc) behind them. The Ten Commandments were High Laws, part of a whole legal system, with detailed descriptions of offenses and punishments. Any rights you could derive from there were, indeed, backed up by force.

Right, the problem here is that if I invoke any moral principle whatsoever, you’ll say I’m implicitly acknowledging rights. I mean that’s fine, but that’s what I mean when I say this is a semantic discussion.


Yes! Yes it does. Thank you, I’m glad someone gets it.


This has been a very useful conversation since i think it clarifies that I have always been at war with Eurasia and also a virtue ethicist. I mean i have subscribed to Aristotelean eudaemonia and theories of habitation for awhile now so i guess i should make the leap and declare it outright.

Virtue ethics preserves the idealism of deontology with the practicality of utilitarianism, imo, by not being so pinned down.

I say this because i really liked your example since it’s the same problem i formulated as a kid even er… 25 years ago. Two rich men give huge sums to a school and get their names on buildings; does it matter if one does it for the tax write off and the other out of sincere altruism? There is a utilitarian approach that says no, and leads to the world of economic nudges and indirect governance, but i think the “ultimate” metaphysical answer has to be yes, and that the utilitarian approach is while practical ultimately compromised and tends towards corruption, since i believe that the internal beliefs and justifications of individuals is as important to themselves and society as their external behavior.


How does the virtue ethicist know that greed is bad?


I think the question should probably be split into whether greed is bad for the health of the individual and if greed is bad for society, which may well have different answers.


I don’t think so? I mean, the virtue ethicist is deciding that Sally’s actions are won’t, because they are motivated by a “wrong” desire, that being greed.

How did they come to that belief that her motivation is wrong?


Well, generosity is virtuous, so greed is not. Others virtues include courage, honesty, modesty, etc.

Now maybe you were asking, “But why strive for generosity, instead of greed?”

The answer to that is probably similar to “Why do utilitarians strive to maximize the happiness of others, instead of maximizing the suffering of others?” There are various ways to address that question, but IMO they all amount to, “Because that would be shit, duh”.


Well I guess at a fundamental level to buy into virtue ethics you buy into the idea that some things are virtuous or not, which you may not as a utilitarian, and which relates to one’s internal disposition.

But otoh from an external societal view, while all three systems have their contexts in which they make more sense at times than at others, the pure utilitarian perspective is that of rabid animals chained only by self interest which must be channeled by the proper incentives; without the incentives, men (and let’s be honest it’s always men) will quickly devolve into the worst forms of barbarity.

The virtuous man would still follow their ideals even if lost on a desert island with no hope of escape, while the utilitarian has no incentives to stay civilized once the scales of self interest has been tipped. So the problem with utilitarianism is that it makes it incumbent upon society (and those running it) to always ensure such incentives as there are both always exist and always channel behavior toward good and not bad ends.

Utilitarianism for ex., could easily coexist inside a despotic system, while (in theory) while this would be almost impossible to someone trying to be virtuous. And because Sally chooses to be virtuous now, when she doesn’t have to be, she can be virtuous tomorrow, when the despotic system takes over.


Aristotle would have said that greed is vulgar, animal-like, and that humans should strive for prudence in all things, because that most closely fulfills the function of humans.


Have you seen Infinity War? Because this is how you start an Infinity War.


But why is generosity virtuous?

To a utilitarian, generosity is virtuous because on some level doing good things for others benefits oneself.

But it seems like the virtue ethicist depends on someone else telling him what constitutes virtue.


Alasdair MacIntyre (I think the premier contemporary virtue ethicist?) would say that we know what is virtuous by looking at the activity in question (his word is “practice”) and asking what behavior promotes the internal goods of that activity. An example he uses is chess. Fair play is a virtue because it promotes the pursuits toward which chess as a practice strives—a test of skill, endurance, forethought, etc. between two players. Taking a bribe to throw a game of chess is not a virtue within chess because the good it aims toward (enriching yourself) is external to the practice of chess, and ultimately destructive to the internal goods of chess.

In the practice of familial affairs, visiting your sick aunt promotes the goods of being in a family—mutual support and love. Visiting her to secure an inheritance is not aiming your behavior at the internal goods of the familial relationship, but at the exterior good of your personal enrichment. You’re engaging in the practice wrong.

One thing that’s unique about virtue ethics in MacIntyre’s mode is that there isn’t a fixed rule (as in deontology) or a particular calculus (as in utilitarianism) that you engage in to weigh the moral worth of an act. He describes how when cultures first meet each other, they might compare their practices to each other and, if they’re properly open to the refinement of virtue, might appropriate new behaviors they learn from the other culture because they better promote the goods of certain practices or social arrangements. “Maybe leaving our feeble babies in the wilderness to be eaten by animals is promoting the wrong good within the practice of family life…”

I highly recommend reading After Virtue. You don’t have to be convinced by his conclusions to be challenged by his description of modern ethics as saturated with a debilitating emotivism that we all have a hard time escaping.


If a utilitarian is motivated to make others happy solely in order to reap some personal gain in the future, then they might as well give up the pretense of moral action. It’s merely delayed gratification.

On the other hand, if they make others happy even with the understanding that they will not see any personal gain from it, then the question becomes why is the happiness of others important? The answer is basically the same as why virtue ethicists value whatever they value. Maybe “someone told them”, or maybe they figured it out for themselves.


Damn. This thread blew up. I can’t even.