Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 18

Note that this is the Concluding part

(Read Part 17 of the series.)

Nowadays, there are still large numbers of people who, even if they do not entirely accept all of the claims made by their religion and no longer recognize it as an authority for their everyday behavior, nevertheless pay lip service. And sentiments such as ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ do seem to contain great wisdom, finding a balance between the two extremes given above.

But with all of our values no longer ‘supplied’ by religion, people have been forced to develop them for themselves. In the absence of expert guidance, the principal influence now tends to be the media and we have such ridiculous situations as the cinema’s cult of the anti-hero. It is now normal for films to conclude with the thief in some luxurious setting surrounded by money and women and no sign whatsoever of justice or retribution. It is acceptable for the individual to triumph over the perceived constraints of society, including its laws. And it is far more usual for the governments, police and similar bodies to be portrayed as corrupt, with ‘hidden agendas’ and secret conspiracies against you and me. And we have been brainwashed into cynically believing this to be normal. 

A variant of the Divine Command notion of morality that does not require that you actually believe in God, is to imagine what a perfectly good ruler, divine or otherwise, would do. Such an approach, used during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th Century or the Puritan witch hunts in the 17th, might have prevented the horrific tortures and killings perpetrated in the name of God. It is, of course, still fallible as a justification for action since people may differ in their understanding of how a perfect being might act.

Yet another modern approach is to deem those actions to be good which are compatible with universal happiness. Kant’s categorical imperative can then be modified to say that we should always act in such a way that it is commensurate with the possibility of universal happiness. With this simple premise, it is then obvious that such things as stealing and murder are wrong because they interfere with someone’s right to seek their own happiness. But would the murder of someone like Hitler be justifiable in this sense?

Another modern approach is to attempt to quantify in some way all of the reasons for action or non-action. The idea is that asking what one should do is a request for information rather than an attempt to elicit actual advice from someone else or from God. We can then take account of all the relevant factors – what we will get out of it, how it will affect others, whether it is free and legal and so on. All of these can then be weighed up in a logical rather than emotive way and a reasoned conclusion reached.

An example of this has occurred to me recently. My mother-in-law was clearing out her attic and we took away several bags full of rubbish to dispose of. In sorting through this later, my wife discovered an old World War Two print of a Robert Taylor painting of Lancaster Bombers, signed by Leonard Cheshire. (My father-in-law used to fly these airplanes.) A quick search on the Internet established that the signature alone was worth around £40, while Robert Taylor prints sold for anything from £50 upwards. On conducting a more detailed search the following day, I found the precise print listed at one specialist site, obviously no-longer available other than by resale. It was valued at around £400.

What to do? My mother-in-law had thrown it out and, as far as she was concerned, it might now have been burned. Perhaps we should sell it and not tell her. This is the stance of the ethical egoist – do whatever is best for the agent (us). My wife thought that we should nevertheless return it or at least ask her what we should do with it and believed her mother should receive all proceeds. This is the position of the ethical altruist – do what is best for everyone but the agent. What I proposed is that we did not tell her until we had sold the print (so as not to raise her expectations) and then give her one third of the proceeds. My wife would have one third, for finding it, and I would have one third, for selling it. This is the ‘Best Reasons’ approach to moral decision making!

As to what actually happened in this example: I sold it for only £50, having discovered that there were quite a few visible creases, which I had thought to be clouds! And my wife gave all of the money to her mother. This is according to the well-known principle whereby you research all of the relevant data to enable you to come to a reasoned conclusion and then your wife does what she had already decided to do in the first place. (Sorry, I lied – the money had already been used to pay bills before we even saw my mother-in-law!)

We occasionally encounter moral dilemmas, where two or more possible courses of action are available and we have to choose between them. It is usually fairly obvious once we actually look at the situation objectively and some contrivance may be needed to invent an example where there really does seem to be a dilemma. One way of deciding the matter can be to look at the various factors that are involved and ask which has the highest ‘intrinsic good’. This idea was introduced by Aristotle, who said that some things, such as health, were good ‘in themselves’ when compared to something like money, which was only indirectly good, as a means for obtaining other things. Thus, if we decided that the highest intrinsic good in an apparent dilemma was our own personal pleasure, then the course of action that we should choose would be whichever maximized that pleasure. In all of this, we are guided by reason and the theory is therefore called Moral Rationalism.

There is also the paradox of those people who derive pleasure from acting unselfishly. How are they to decide how to act? If they do so according their inclination to be unselfish, because that will give them pleasure then, by definition, they are being selfish. Having realized that, they may feel obliged not to act. For this to work, the pleasure has to come unexpectedly as a bonus and not be premeditated.

Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic philosopher in the thirteenth century, thought that we actually had a built-in faculty for intuiting the highest ‘good’ and argued that we use reason to deduce lower order duties. Later philosophers, such as David Hume in the eighteenth century, claimed that reason had little to do with it and that in truth we relied upon our feelings; that there are no actual moral ‘facts’ about which we could apply the logic of reason. Whether or not we think that something is right, is in the same realm as whether we think a painting is beautiful. Furthermore, he argued that we cannot derive statements about how we ought to act from initial statements of fact. Because a tramp happens to have come to our door asking for food, it does not automatically follow that we ought to give him some food.

For Sartre, there is only subjectivity and the best that we can hope to achieve is to act honestly, in accordance with what we believe. The belief itself might be true or false but that is not the point. If this is in fact how we behave then we are morally ‘right’, irrespective of the outcome of our action. This is in contrast with the Consequentialist and hedonistic attitude of someone like J. S. Mill, who argued that an action is right if it actually helps to bring about happiness, irrespective of what we happen to believe.

The above analysis has only been considering Western theories of morality. It is worth mentioning here as well the Hindu concept of karma. The word itself means ‘action’ but the theory of karma refers to the belief that the motive for our actions will bring about repercussions in the future. This may be sometime in the future of this life or it may not mature until a future life (since Hindus believe in reincarnation or more accurately metempsychosis – we may come back as a cockroach if we are particularly bad!).

Note that it is ‘motive’ that is the key word here so that the belief is more akin to those of Kant than the Consequentialist theory of the Utilitarians. The Hindus are also very strong on the notion of duty, which they call dharma and which covers many areas of everyday life. The difference from Western notions however is significant. We should act neither selfishly nor deliberately unselfishly. That is to say our motive should be neither to obtain a desirable outcome for ourselves nor one for someone else. In fact we should act without any motive, simply in response to the dispassionately perceived needs of what is in front of us and without wishing for or claiming the outcome or, as they phrase it, the ‘fruit’ of the action.

To act selfishly would result in ‘bad’ karma, an accumulation of which would mean rebirth in order to ‘work off’ the karma. To act unselfishly also accumulates karma, even though this is of the ‘good’ type – a surfeit of this might give us a spell in heaven after our death but we would still have to come back and live another human life. Only through acting without motivation can we avoid acquiring new karma and, when all previous karma has been exhausted, attain release from the cycle of rebirth.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that one of the significant consequences for us in behaving according to our beliefs, whatever they might be, is self-respect. Relevant synonyms here are dignity and even pride, leading to greater self-confidence and feelings of worth. Conversely, acting against our better judgment is likely to lead to self-deprecation and guilt. There is no escaping the fact that ‘what we ought to do’ cannot be dissociated from what we happen to believe it is ‘right’ to do. Only if we are genuinely skeptical or nihilistic with regard to morality can we simply do what we feel like doing, willy-nilly.


This is the last of this short series on Western Philosophy. Most of it was originally written for the first edition of ‘Book of One’ but was deemed inappropriate (and making the book too long) by the publisher. It was later revised for publication on the Advaita Academy site. I have now revised it further and added additional material. It will be published by Iff Books as ‘Western Philosophy Made Easy: A personal Search for Meaning‘ in a few months time. I will make an announcement when a date and book cover are fixed.