Monthly Archives: December 2019

Duty vs. Love

The point of this post is to sketch out how duty and love ought to be interrelated in moral thinking. We began by considering duty and love in resolving the basic contradiction in moral thinking.

The basic contradiction in moral thinking runs:

Some harm ought to be
No harm ought to be.


The claim “Some harm ought to be” comes from focusing on rules. Focusing on rules is based on thinking that morality is primarily for restricting conduct to avoid bad consequences. Rules specify a sanction in case they are violated. A sanction will specify that some harm ought to occur upon violation of the rule.

People who believe that rule following is primary in morality believe that the indication that they are acting in accordance with morality is that their intention is to obey the rule. The moral intention is to do one’s duty.

People who believe that rule following is primary in morality believe that the only basic human good is having the character trait of always choosing to follow moral rules. This trait can be called having a morally good will.

In practice, those who hold that the sole basic human good is having a good will, may not be vigilant about promoting and protecting conditions which many believe approach human flourishing
The claim “No harm ought to be” comes from focusing on basic human goods* to be attained. Focusing on attaining basic human goods comes from believing that morality is for human flourishing.

People who believe that promoting human good is primary in morality believe that the indication that they are acting in accordance with morality is that their intention is to promote human good or at least not impede any human good. Since one definition of “love” is “to will the good of a person” we can say that for those who believe that morality is for promotion of human flourishing the moral intention is to express love.

People who believe that the moral intention is to express love by promoting and protecting conditions approaching human flourishing believe that the character trait of a moral person is compassion. They will be vigilant about promoting and protecting conditions which many believe approach human flourishing.

When we consider practice, it may seem that we should prefer resolving the contradiction by taking promotion of good as primary in moral thinking. However, when we consider that promotion of good relies on rules to promote the food and not inhibit it, we see that rules are primary in moral thinking. But rules require sanctions which call for inhibition of the good. Hence, in moral thinking duty is more fundamental than love. Resolution of the contradiction, then, requires alteration of the tendency in moral thinking that takes promotion of human flourishing as primary. The alteration is that some harm, up to including intentionally taking a human life, is morally permissible for violation of a moral law.

However, moral laws apart from how they promote and protect conditions which constitute human flourishing seem pointless. A moral outlook which took the primacy of rules in morality as saying that human goods are morally irrelevant comes close to moral nihilism. Moral nihilism holds that every is permitted – nothing matters morally. The stance I am talking about here holds that what we do matters with respect to morality. However, with respect to human goods our being or not being moral does not matter. So we ought not separate identifying, promoting and protecting basic human goods from our moral thinking.

(I use “ought” because I believe that we ought not let ourselves think and speak about morality which makes it seem stupid, insensitive, irrelevant etc.,.)

We ought to combine duty and love in serious moral thinking. Here is a sketch of how to combine love and duty. Love will seek out the conditions which make for human good, discover what promotes and protects them. This provides content for rules. Duty transforms guidelines from love into moral rules. Once we have rules, love develops guidelines for mellowing the destruction of some human goods required by moral rule sanctions. These will be guidelines for forgiveness and mercy. Of course, love’s guidelines for forgiveness and mercy should not be transformed into moral rules because that would require more sanctions and more harm.

These reflections on combining duty and love in moral thinking have significantly altered my beliefs on how to conduct the aspect of moral thinking which is justifying to my self and persuading others that a moral rule is correct.

*The New Natural Law view holds that practical reason, that is, is reason oriented towards action, grasps as self-evidently desirable a number of basic goods. These goods, which are described as constitutive aspects of genuine human flourishing, include life and health; knowledge and aesthetic experience; skilled work and play; friendship; marriage; harmony with God, and harmony among a person’s judgments, choices, feelings, and behavior. From an essay by Christopher Tollefsen on The New Natural Law Theory .

Inconsistency of Moral Thinking Resolved by Moral Skepticism

It is embarrassingly conceited even to link my fumbling with contradictions in basic concepts of moral thinking with the brilliant investigations of the contradictions in basic concepts of mathematical thinking by Bertrand Russell et al in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, there are some parallels which help clarify what I am trying to accomplish.

I only outline the main steps in finding the inconsistency in mathematical thinking. Mathematical logicians had shown that all mathematical thinking could be represented as thinking about natural numbers. G. Frege showed that all thinking about natural numbers could be represented as thinking about classes. A basic principle for thinking about classes was that there is a class consisting of the extension of any property. Russell considered the property “the class of all classes which do not belong to itself.” A law of excluded middle of the form: for any classes x and y, x belongs to y or x does not belong to y, was accepted as fundamental in mathematical thinking. An explicit contradiction is reached when both x and y are taken as the classes of all classes which do not belong to themselves.

Of course, the set theory contradiction did not hinder mathematical development in any way. For one, mathematical thinking does not depend upon going back to some foundational ideas such as set theory. Secondly, and relevant to my project, is that the contradictions can be resolved by altering the conceptual scheme for thinking about classes. For example, some set theorists restricted the kinds of properties whose extensions were classes.

It is the altering of the conceptual scheme which links my reflections on moral thinking with the foundational work in mathematics. Altering the conceptual scheme leads to a type of skepticism. First, it suggests that our ways of thinking are human inventions for thinking about the way things are. Insofar as they are our inventions the ways of thinking might contain components peculiar to humans and thus not accurately tell us now things really are apart from our thinking. If there were only one way of removing the contradiction, we might have some basis for thinking that we now had the right way of thinking about the topic. Unfortunately, as will be shown in subsequent posts, there are several ways of resolving the contradiction. As a result, one has to take a stance that one specific way of thinking about morality is the correct way.

Of course, conceding that there is no right way to resolve the fundamental contradiction in moral thinking is not conceding that there is no right way to think morally. Indeed a possible stance, which I take, is that after qualifications in the notion of an authoritarian morality to allow acceptance of “Some harm ought to be” we have attained the correct way of moral thinking. I have to concede, though, that I might have taken the wrong stance.

Let me put it as follows. I take the stance “There are absolute moral principles which correctly express the normativity in reality.” I concede that I might be mistaken about reality by taking such a stance. Moral skepticism is not moral relativism. There is only one correct way of thinking about morality. Unfortunately, I am not absolutely certain that I have the correct way.

This means that moral arguments have two phases: First, persuade someone to take your stance. Second, convince the other of the correctness of your reasoning within the stance. Also the need to take a stance implies that there may be irresolvable moral disputes.

A significant difference between the mathematical and moral resolution of a basic contradiction is that in the mathematical case a person can enjoy working with the different set theories. In the moral case, only a cynic, switches from one stance to the other. It is morally significant to take a stance and stay with it.

Inconsistency of Moral Thinking is Based on Free Will

In this post I connect the fundamental inconsistency of moral thinking established in my previous post Inconsistency of Moral thinking with belief in free will.

This is my understanding of what it is to have free will. We have the opportunity to exercise free will when we have a a choice between the following alternatives. We weigh the benefit of gaining a true good, e.g., life, over the costs of pursuing a path to attain a true good where benefits and costs are characterized in terms of satisfaction of inclinations. It turns out that the costs of pursuing the true good outweigh the satisfactions of having the true good. A clear case of this occurs when a patient is suffering a painful terminal illness.

In this post I do not elaborate on true human goods. They will be conditions such as life, liberty, knowledge and dignity. Here I need only specify that inclination satisfaction is not a true human good

Certainly, any characterization of the genuine human goods will bring out that they satisfy desires and inclinations. Still, it cannot be guaranteed that in all conditions the inclination satisfaction of true human goods outweighs the pains required to get them. This is especially the case when the probability of getting the satisfaction of the true human good is low.

Back to free will.

The alternatives for a free will choice when inclination satisfaction is attained by a situation different from having the true human good:

1. to pursue the true human good
2. follow our inclinations

The choice to pursue the true human good will be a choice to follow a rule commanding choice leading to the true human good.

The reality of free will as characterized here is well established in everyday life. It seems that people are faced with a choice of obeying moral laws when doing so is challenging. Frequently people seem to meet the challenges. I am almost certain that I have done so. Note that free will as here characterized makes no assumptions about universal causal determinism or divine omniscience.

So, the belief in free will leads to recognition of moral laws commanding pursuit and protection of true human goods. And now we have the source of the inconsistency of the previous post. This source of inconsistency is the concept of an obligatory good.. The moral rules both tell us that no harm ought to be but that some harm ought to be if the rules are violated.

I will not go into detail. But I think it obvious that as I have sketched out an interpretation of free will, there is free will if and only if there are moral laws commanding that certain goods be protected and pursued.

So, all that is needed to make the triad: belief in true human goods, belief in free will, belief in moral laws, an inconsistent triad is belief that at least one moral law has been violated

Inconsistency of Moral Thinking

This post brings out a fundamental logical contradiction in our ordinary everyday moral thinking. By moral thinking I am referring to ways of thinking about right and wrong, what is good and how to get it apart from any effort to avoid inconsistencies. The moral rules are supposed to say what is obligatory and forbidden for all human beings and over-ride any other type of rule.

Our ordinary ways of thinking about morals take both rule following-deontological thinking and good pursuing -teleological thinking- as fundamental. Holding deontological and teleological thinking as fundamental produces the inconsistency. Pursuit of fundamental goods are required by fundamental rules.

The obligatory goods are various conditions which constitute a full human life. They are conditions such as knowledge, meaningfulness, enjoying beauty, liberty, sufficient food. It is a task for philosophers, where “philosophy” is to be understood as wisdom, to elaborate on the conditions which make for a full human life. Most people will have deficiency in enjoying these basic human goods. Maybe everyone will always have some deficiency with respect to these goods.

The so-called New Natural Law writings of Grizse, Finnis et al. have influenced my thought on basic human goods.

Once we have specified what is good we can specify what “harm” means when I write of “moral harm.” To produce harm is to bring about a deficiency in these basic goods.

This definition of “harm” brings us close to bringing out the inconsistency once we recall that the so-called first principle of natural moral thinking is an apparent truism in everyday moral thinking. This truism is not true at all. It contains the fundamental contradiction.

Do good, avoid evil.

This principle tells us:
Promote the basic human goods and never produce harm.
A corollary is:
There ought never be harm. Or


However, we have several moral laws commanding that basic human goods be promoted and never deliberately inhibited.

But laws, which are not mere words, carrying sanctions. They specify that harm ought to result upon their violation.

So, assuming that some moral laws have been violated we have


So, here we have uncovered the inconsistency in everyday uncritical moral thinking.

Subsequent posts sketch out ways of avoiding this inconsistency.