The Hierarchy of Moral Considerations

In the following discussion I shall argue that some traditional schools of ethics are better than others; and I shall use the meta-theory for Ethics to demonstrate my case.

We need a way of justifying the view that the value of a school has a place on a hierarchy with regard to its betterness or worseness. As you may be aware if you read any of the books by M. C. Katz, formal axiology [value logic] already has a hierarchy built into it, namely, the Logical Existential Hierarchy of Values shown concisely in the formula I > E > S. Explaining what it means, it says: Intrinsic Value is a more valuable value than Extrinsic Value, which in turn is far more valuable than Systemic Value. (I is better than E which trumps S.) :bulb:

Among the formula’s interpretations are: Life takes priority over materials; ; Material (and wealth) are more valuable than theories and schools of thought. It is ‘existential’’ because it affirms life – the life of individuals. That is one of the main thrusts of existential philosophy. Soon we will show how the leading schools of ethics can be ranked, and ranked in a fitting and fair manner. The formula will aid us in this task. :sunglasses:

The three major schools of thought in academic Ethics are Virtue Theory (VT); Consequentialism; and Deontology. The latter is concerned with promises, contracts, rights, duties, obligations and imperatives (which it claims are universal and categorical.)

Consequentialism is concerned with the impact that specific actions and policies will have on human flourishing. [The adherents of this school – or perspective – grant that “flourishing” is a shifting and expanding concept – as more is learned about it.) Consequentialism recommends ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number”; it gives us a sense of direction, a goal to aim for. It provides guidance for sound decision-making.

Modern Virtue Theory teaches that we have a responsibility to care for our family as a first priority, and a responsibility to ourselves to strive to be of virtuous character.

It also teaches prudence: as we go through life neither over-do nor under-do. Both excess and deficit are vices (the opposite of virtue.) [More (excess) or less (deficit) are mathematical notions, so VT has a certain logic to it.]

We need all three sets of tools in our toolbox: there are some strengths in all three schools of thought. Let’s keep in mind, though – using here some concepts from Gestalt Psychology – also Visual Optics - as we emphasize one of these perspectives it becomes “figure” while the others are “ground” (background) …as we give our attention to one of these schools the others tend to recede into the background of our thinking. However it would be negligence to totally ignore any of them. They all can be helpful - as is seen in Appendix Three, pp. 86-89, in ETHICS: A College Course. Here is a link to it:

Of course disciples or exponents of a single viewpoint will claim that their specific school of thought is the best approach to account for ethics and for the moral life.

In my view, after an analysis of all three perspectives, and after giving deep consideration to the topic, while they all deal with quality-of-life issues, while they all praise responsibility, Virtue Theory seem to be the most morally-sensitive with its many subtleties, and its spelling-out with some specificity ways to be immoral, as well as how to live the good life, it looks to be most fitting as an application of In-Value (the “I” in the formula.) VT shows one how to live a principled life, a life in which high ideals are implemented.

As one lives a good (virtuous) life one does not have to measure in advance each act as to its moral rightness or wrongness; instead, by the habits one has developed, a person usually spontaneously “does the right thing.” – once a person has a good character.

He/she deliberately builds an admirable character by the techniques of habit formation …unless one is acculturated into it early in life by one’s parents, guardians, or family; or tribe, or community [“it takes a village”]. Hence Intrinsic Value, when applied, fits most closely to VT.

Extrinsic Value, applied to the three schools of ethical thought, yields Consequentialism, for they both deal with the external everyday world, the socio-economic policy matters. They are both concerned with practical decisions, with the effect of actions on human well-being and happiness. An action is right if it leads to more happiness in your life provided you take into consideration the welfare of others; and can sidestep “zero-sum games.” Game theories, with their finite rewards and penalties fit here; also determinism, behavioral conditioning; political affairs; the common good; public policies. Common goods are public health measures, emergency-management agencies like F.E.M.A., the protection of the environment (clean air and water), peace-keeping and other police work, fire-prevention, etc.

Systemic Value, applied to this topic, results in Deontology, with its rules to live by, its categories and categoricals, its declarations of human rights, and lists of obligations. Here systematically doing one’s duty is the emphasis – staying within the boundaries of proper behavior. It does, to its credit, demand that we treat others as ends, not as mere means to an end. Thus one who takes this imperative seriously eschews the manipulation of other people, one carefully avoids exploiting others.

The Consequentialist would criticize this position by insisting that we must examine the consequences of this way of living. It could be dangerous, they warn. A strict adherence to a Rule – or rules – could blind one to the variability and variety of life-styles that produce a high quality-of-lie, could steer one into a ‘valley’ in “The Moral Landscape,” instead of to a ‘peak.’ At the peaks individuals flourish and blossom. They are most likely to be creative since they have the means and the leisure to indulge in the pursuit of a worthwhile project.

A virtue-theorist may criticize Deontology for being too rigid and barren. Without a good character (which is prerequisite) a person might not keep his promises, pay his debts, attend to his obligations, nor express responsibility. One’s vices may interfere or even prevent one’s adherence to the imperatives. So first and foremost cultivate the virtues.

Sorry that this turned out to be so long. I really would love to hear your comments, additions, and suggestions for improvement. :slight_smile:

I loved the post, but I’m also a VE guy . . . but, you do realize that you are using explicitly VE language in your comparison of the major ethical schools, right? That is not a bad thing, since VE is the best, but it kinda feels like cheating to me. Given an I>E>S framework, VE is the best model but that is because VE deals with I>E>S issues and dilemmas. Using the language of Consequentialism or Deontology for I>E>S issues results is a near meaningless gobbledegook.

I guess what I’m saying is that I dig what you are saying, but isn’t this basically After Virtue in reverse?

Hi there, Xunzian

Would you mind clarifying what is meant by: After Virtue in reverse

I don’t quite understand.

I’m glad to hear that you believe that Virtue Ethics “deals with I>E>S issues and dilemmas”, though I wasn’t aware that I was, as you said, “using explicitly VE language” in writing that original post. And why does it matter?

For my part, I thought I was using Formal Axiology. It developed that pyramid of value dimensions. I never saw any discussion of it, or anything even similar to it, among Virtue-Theory moral philosophers. If such there be, I’d be happy to be informed of it.

Let’s keep in touch. I suspect the new paradigm for Ethics can learn something from you. And I look forward to your contributions to the field.

Per your recommendation in another thread, I checked this one out. Most of what you say resonated with me. However I left the above quote, as I find fault with it. Actually, the George Carlin skit where he boils down the 10 commandments to3 in his Complaints and Grievances special. In it, he takes issue with the “Respect your parents” commandment. He argues that respect is not to be given, respect is to be earned. If your parents are drunkards who beat you senseless, who spend all their money as a result of gambling addiction, or any other thing, caring for your family may not be a first priority. Freeing yourself from it may be a first priority.

In my study of biological drives, the main 2, across species, are generally survival and replication - and in that order. If you have the chance to hook up with someone you are attracted to, but will die in the process, unless you are a preying mantis, this offer is generally passed up. So nature would disagree with modern virtue theory, and say we have a responsibility to care for ourselves as a first priority.Survival takes precedence above all else… because it then allows you to focus on family, human flourishing, and the rest of moral and ethical concerns.


The Doorman

Hi Doorman,

There are many, many species in which individual members will take personal risks to maximise group safety or protect the young (warning calls, leading predators away from a group, bison circling around the young) or even sacrifice themselves, as social insects do. I’m not sure that “nature” says much at all, she’s more of a doer.

If your thesis is that the overriding moral principle is to survive at any cost in order to be able to do good in the future, there are many who’d disagree. Was it Martin Luther King who said that a man who has nothing he would die for has nothing worth living for?

Ahh, good ol’ reciprocal altruism. I’ll have to re-check my sources, however if I recall correctly, that is classified as a survival strategy - strongly supported by evolutionary theory. Don’t take that as written in stone - There’s always a very real chance I may be mistaken.

The Doorman

Of course, it’s evolutionarily advantageous from the gene’s perspective to put oneself at slight risk for a greater benefit to your kin. That’s still caring for others over ourselves and giving something else preference over (our) survival, in line with virtuous behaviour, though, isn’t it?