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Duty, Virtue and Consequences

Triangle3 Whenever we are dealing with ethical situations, choices and decisions, we are dealing with an agent acting on certain principles to produce certain outcomes. Whatever the situation, whatever the dilemma, the three elements will remain the same: an agent, actions taken, outcomes that result.

We can learn, derive or devise many different ethical systems but all must contain one or more of these three approaches: 

  • Agent-focused approaches centre upon the nature and characteristics of the agent, referred to as virtue.
  • Rights-focused (or rules-focussed) approaches centre upon the nature of the actions, and often upon the obligation (or permissibility) implied by those actions, referred to as duty.
  • Outcome-focused approaches centre upon the results of the actions – what happens after the actions are taken, referred to as consequences.

These three elements define an “Ethical Triangle”, inside which all ethical discussion must be framed. And since nothing else is involved in an ethical situation but people acting, actions taken, and outcomes that result, this represents a complete model of ethical systems (albeit one of many). Of course, individual systems can include elements from any or all of these different approaches – the variety of actual ethical systems possible is essentially limitless, even within a single framework (such as a particular religion).



In an agent-focused approach, the important factors are the qualities of the people concerned. The most established systems of this type are forms of virtue ethics – in general, such systems talk about what constitutes a good, righteous, or perfect person (depending upon the ethical criteria of the system). Aristotle is the most famous proponent of this kind of approach.

There are many advantages of such a system – not least of which that it is based around identifying ethical role models who can be emulated, rather than trying to specify universal rules or predict outcomes. A common example of an agent-focused ethical practice is embedded in the famous phrase “what would Jesus do?” which holds out Jesus as an ethical role model to be emulated. This example also reveals one of the key disadvantages of this approach – how can anyone actually know what someone else would do, let alone a paradoxical figure such as Jesus? 

Another serious issue is that if one believes ethics and legislation should be related – that is, that the law should be ethical – agent-focused approaches provide very little guidance. They praise good people, but they do not provide a leverage point to consider rules of conduct.



In a rights-focused approach, which can also be referred to as a rules-focused approach, the actions are the relevant element. Such systems are known as deontological, meaning essentially “the theory of moral duty”. Immanuel Kant is the most famous proponent of a deontological position.

Why does focusing on actions lead to rules? The way we approach the ethical issues surrounding actions is to consider what actions are allowed or permitted, or which actions are required or obligatory. In either case, what is specified are rules – permission rules, or obligations, which collectively denote duties. Duty and rules are equivalent – any rule assumes a duty to comply with it, otherwise it is not a rule. 

Why are rules and rights equivalent? When we speak of rights, such as human rights, we are actually talking about rules of interaction – rights place constraints (specify what is permitted) or specify requirements (obligations). For example, the human right to freedom of belief (one of several liberties protected by the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is in effect a rule obligating states and individuals to take no action that compromises a person’s freedom to choose their own beliefs (or, alternatively, specifying that interference in this right to choose is not permitted).

But there are problems, of course. Language is not robust enough to express rules perfectly (since our ideolects cannot be assumed to match), and besides, most people believe that life is too chaotic for strictly enforced rules to govern behaviour in all situations. Furthermore, a perfect rule-based system of ethics requires clearly demarked priorities for the many different rules. The complexity rapidly exceeds what is manageable for an every day context. 


Finally, in an outcome-focused approach, the important element is the outcomes of actions. These systems are usually referred to as Consequentialist, to emphasise the focus on outcomes rather than rules, or the virtues of the agents involved. The most famous Consequentialist ethical system is utilitarianism (although it is by no means the only such approach). This particular school is usually credited to Jeremy Bentham, with some formative influence from David Hume. 

On the surface, this seems like an excellent approach – shouldn’t we judge situations on how things turn out? In practice, this is a tall order. Ethical decisions must be made before actions are taken, and we as human beings have very limited abilities to predict even the overt consequences of our actions, let alone the subtleties. God may be able to operate a perfect outcome-focused system, but anyone without omniscience will run into difficulties.

However, this is not to suggest that there is no value in Consequentalist approaches – it may be that there are certain dilemmas and situations which we can only resolve with an appeal to the outcome, and not just to the nature of the agent, or to rules of conduct. This being so, some outcome-focused elements may be essential to a robust ethical system, although anyone who is able to enforce rules in all situations (as Kant claimed he could) may be able to work from a purely rights-based position. 


The Past and the Future

Ethical decisions occur in the present, but the actions ethical agents take, and their consequent outcomes, leave a mark on the past, and radically affect the future. Hannah Arendt, exploring the nature of action in her book The Human Condition, notes that two particularly troublesome elements of actions relate to their outcomes – that they are irreversible (once undertaken, they cannot be excised from the past) and that they are unpredictable (since no-one can see the future, we cannot determine with certainty the ultimate outcomes of our actions). 

Working entirely from a secular position, she notes that remarkable solutions to these problems have been provided historically by religion. She suggests that forgiveness is the antidote to the problem of irreversibility (by allowing mistakes to be erased in the hearts of the people affected), and that promising ameliorates the problem of unpredictability (by overcoming humanity’s general unreliability through mutual agreements, thus creating ‘isolated islands of certainty’ in a future which remains an ‘ocean of uncertainty’). She traces the former insight to Jesus of Nazareth, and the latter to Abraham of Ur. (From an Eastern perspective, a very different – but significantly equivalent – account could also be given).

Arendt’s view looks outside the Ethical Triangle, and in weighing up the general consequences of action as a process identifies a valuable role for rights-based ethics, since duty is the source of the strength of promising, and an equally valuable role for agent-based ethics, as forgiveness can only be understood as a virtue, and not as a rule, since we cannot force people to forgive. From an outcome-based perspective, the consequences of societies able to forgive, and to dutifully promise, seems undeniably more appealing than the prospect of a society that lacks these abilities. 


A Tripartite Lens 

Ethics seen through this model becomes a set of three lenses which we can switch between, learning something different from each view. The Golden Rule, for instance, seen through the agent-lens yields ‘The Golden Virtue’ of compassion; through the rights-lens, it becomes the classic statement of ‘love thy neighbour’ and its equivalents; and through the outcome-lens it becomes the desire to choose those consequences which are most compassionate for all concerned, as best as our limited faculties will allow. Whatever the ethical situation or dilemma, we can switch the lens to give us a different point of view, perhaps allowing us unique and valuable insights into the nature of the problem at hand, and occasionally giving us ideas for new solutions.

Expanded from part of the sketchpad notes in Are You Ethical? If there are other parts of that post that you would like expanding, just let me know!

The opening image is Infinite Triangle III by Bela Fidel, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked. (I originally posted this with a different image... but a sneaking suspicion I had used it before turned out to be correct!)

Dear Christians...

I'm troubled by the absence of Christian voices in the ethics discussions so far. Atheists and agnostics are represented, but I know I have some Christian readers, and they are thus far silent. This project cannot succeed without discussion from all parties - the presence of a Christian perspective is vital. (Ideally, I would also like a Muslim perspective, and other religious perspectives, but these seem harder to come by...)

I am hoping that this silence is simply because the Christians are too busy to comment, or have nothing yet to say, and not that they are too troubled by what is implied by relative ethics to want to air their views. I am not proposing anything that should be a challenge to one's faith - relative ethics does not remove absolutes, it merely contextualises them (and observes that only God is in a position to know the answer to all things). It asks that we respect the God-given right of free will, in the loving manner implied by Jesus' teachings.  If you have questions on how to relate anything said to your Christianity, I am happy to discuss it with you - the purpose of the exercise, after all, is communication.

I hope that I am just being paranoid; if you can assuage my concerns, I would be grateful for your comment.

Advice on Raimon Panikkar

Does anyone have a good working knowledge of the truly exceptional Catholic Priest Raimon Panikkar? Everything I have read by Panikkar thus far has been fantastic, and completely compatible with where my path seems to be taking me. If anyone can advise me as to one of his books that will make a good starting point for someone chiefly interested in Panikkar's call for interreligious dialogue, I would be most grateful. Also, would his book Cultural Disarmament: The Way to Peace be relevant for my current Ethics campaign, or will this be more relevant when we get to Politics?

Thanks in advance!

The Wiccan Rede

Ashgrn In our discussion of the Golden Rule, I intentionally did not mention the Wiccan Rede, a principle which states:

An it harm none, do what ye will

Or less colourfully: 

Do what you will, so long as it harms none

‘Rede’ is a Middle English word meaning ‘advice’ or ‘counsel’, and the Wiccan Rede is usually interpreted in ethical terms. Because it insists that ‘no harm is done’, the rede all but requires an outcome-focussed interpretation. The most famous wording of the rede is attributed to Doreen Valiente, a member of the “original” Wiccan coven led by Gerald Gardner. 

Gardner was a British civil servant, considered either to have founded, or at least to have popularised, Wicca in 1954. He claimed that the practices were based upon the pagan religion practiced in Britain in earlier times, which gives rise to its claim as being ‘the Old Religion’. However, while some neo-pagans believe in and assert the antiquity of their practices, most historians ascribe more influence to the work of Aleister Crowley earlier in the twentieth century.

In 1904, Crowley published his Book of the Law, which contained his famous statement “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” – clearly an influence in the Wiccan Rede. It is worth noting that this statement is followed by the response: “Love is the law, love under will” (collectively known as the Law of Thelema, an ancient Greek term meaning ‘will’), which ties this precept to the Golden Rule.

Crowley is occasionally erroneously characterised as a Satanist, he is best understood as a mystic; his lifestyle would probably offend many Christians, but it is a grave error to suggest that he ‘worshipped Satan’, just as it would be a mistake to equate Wicca with Satanic practices.

Other influences on the rede may include John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, and the medical precept “First, do no harm” (Primum non nocere in the original Latin), often mistakenly assumed to be part of the Hippocratic oath. There is also similarity with Saint Augustine of Hippo’s 4th century A.D. phrase “Love, and do what you will.” Since Augustine is considered to be one of the Christian ‘church fathers’, the rede can be linked to Christianity, albeit tangentially.

The Wiccan Rede is difficult to interpret except from an outcome-focussed perspective. Outcome-based ethical systems of all kinds suffer from severe problems, not least of which is the limited capacity we have to anticipate all the consequences of our actions. This critique of Consequentialism is worth exploring as a separate issue. 

I am not a neo-pagan, except in so much as some pagans consider Discordianism (one of my five religions) to be an affiliate of neo-paganism, and I do not practice the Wiccan Rede; I found my ethics on my Christianity, with influences from my other religions. However, I am friends with and have considerable contact with pagans (including Wiccans) and must say that, pragmatically, the Wiccan Rede has not yet provided any firm foundation for ethical conduct among the practitioners of this religion. In fact, the neo-pagan communities in Tennessee have severe problems resolving their collective ethical issues, in part because of a tension between those who wish a more formal stance on the subject and those who find such an approach anathematic to their religious practice.

However, this practical failure of the Wiccan Rede is not sufficient to indict it in principle; after all, a great many Christians do not seem to follow the Golden Rule, but this is at most an indictment of those people, not of the principle itself. Many treat the rede as a restatement of the Golden Rule, others enter into arguments on the issue of harm caused by action versus harm caused by inaction, demonstrating a general problem with outcome-focussed ethics. 

On the whole, I believe it may be safer for Wiccans to interpret the rede in the context of the Golden Rule, while recognising the uniqueness of their principle in terms of an explicit rejection of any notion of consensual sin (the only thing that can be considered ‘evil’ under the rede being harm). However, on the basis of my observation of the pagan community, I must conclude that the rede is as insufficient a foundation for an ethical system as the Golden Rule – at most, it contributes valuably to an ethical frame of reference. An individual practicing the Wiccan Rede must still derive their own moral system if they wish to be an ethical individual.

My Phone's Nervous Breakdown

Ever since my mobile phone was cut off from its parent network in the UK, it has become increasingly erratic. Already feeling it's age, its menu stick has been dodgy for quite some time now, but since losing its support it has started forgetting how to play audio files, takes unbelievably long times to work out how to focus, and quite often has a panic attack and switches itself off. The trouble is, whichever US network I migrate to, chances are I'll be getting a downgrade (I have a Sony Ericsson k750i at the moment).

I'm considering not bothering, and just getting a new digital camera and a decent alarm clock - those are the functionalities I use most at the moment. I used to send txts a lot, but there doesn't seem to be so much of a culture of this over here.

Anyway, some short thoughts...

  • We're laying some meta-ethical foundations at the moment - I want to get a framework in place before we start exploring some specific ethical dilemmas. In  Are You Ethical? I sketched a broad outline, but I'm wondering if I need to go into more depth about the specific choices one can make to organise one's ethical system - agent-focussed, rights-focussed or outcome-focussed. Is this worth expanding at this stage?
  • Nothing on games at the moment, principally because I'm not really playing anything. I bought a PAL to NTSC converter, but it still only outputs in 50 Hz making it largely useless.
  • Try as I might, I'm failing to get together enough effort to go and see Spider-man 3 at the movies. I'm not much of a Spider-man fan, but I usually like Sam Raimi's films.
  • Are there any decent vegetarian sausages in the US? (Not an oxymoron, despite how it may sound!) I miss the Cauldron foods Cumberland and Lincolnshire style veggie sausages. I wish I could mail-order them.
  • I'm off to San Fransisco next week, which will disrupt blogging for about two weeks in total. If anyone knows of some good second-hand book stores in the city, let me know!

More later this week!

The Golden Rule

Rockwel1 The Golden Rule, also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity, is a moral principle found in virtually all the major world religions, usually explicitly. Stated simply, it asks that we treat other people as we would have ourselves be treated. So fundamental to religious practice is this principle, that the Parliament of the World’s Religions (a recurrent conference of religious representatives) endorsed it as the common principle of the majority of world religions.

Philosophers get themselves into tangles over the Golden Rule, usually because they are bending over backwards to disprove it. But one does not prove or disprove ethics – ethics are not mathematical theorems – one simply adopts or ignores them. I contend that the ethic of reciprocity should be chosen as central to most systems of religious, a priori ethics, and I ask that even those who prefer to derive their ethics consider this ethical principle seriously as a useful maxim. However, I also acknowledge that the Golden Rule is insufficient by itself to produce a complete system of ethics. 


Statements of the Golden Rule 

Let us begin by looking at the many ways the Golden Rule has been stated in various religious sources.

The oldest cited source for this principle is probably in Leviticus, approximately 3,000 years ago: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). 

The Zoroastrians claim a similar principle from a similar timeframe: “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” (Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29).

Buddhism offers: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5:18). 

Taoism offers: “The Sage...makes the self of the people his self.” (Tao Te Ching Ch 49, as translated by Ch'u Ta-Kao).

Confucianism suggests: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” (Analects of Confucius 15:24). Other similar wordings are also given among the many aphorisms attributed to Master Kong. 

From the Hindi epic, Mahabharata: “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.” (Anusasana Parva 113.8).

Jesus offers the idea both as the old law and the new law: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Mathew 7:12) and “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). 

Muslims encounter the Golden Rule via their strong oral tradition: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you,” Muhammad states in the Farewell Sermon, and in a particular Hadith: “None of you is truly a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

Sikh’s believe: “As you see yourself, see others as well; only then will you become a partner in heaven.” (Bhagat Kabir Guru Granth Sahib, 480). 

And the Baha’i say: “Wish not for others what you wish not for yourselves.” (Baha’u’llah Aqdas 148.73).

The Parliament of World Religions, when meeting in 1993, suggested this was a basis for a Global Ethic, and more than 200 leaders from more than 40 different faith traditions signed an initial declaration of this position, although the principles thus stated moved beyond the Golden Rule, per se. 

This common theme throughout religions is striking. People of faith must surely see a divine pattern at work here, while empiricists must at least accept the widespread cultural importance of this tenet. 


Philosophical Problems

In almost all cases, the problems that philosophers have with the Golden Rule result from trying to apply it as a logical principle – but the Ethic of Reciprocity is not provided as a logical principle, and cannot be applied as such. 

A first consideration is that the Golden Rule appears in two essential forms. The negative form asks what you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others, while the positive form what you wish done to yourself, do to others. Many philosophical objections proceed from these formulations when they are applied as logical principles, which presupposes that ethics must be based on logic. This is not a tenet we need adhere to.

Immanuel Kant, whose moral philosophy we shall look at in detail in the future, objected to the vagueness of the Golden Rule, but in producing his Categorical Imperative seems to have used it as inspiration – Kant’s deontological approach (although his method can certainly be applied in other ways) can be seen as an attempt to codify the Golden Rule more strictly. We should look into this separately, however, as Kant’s work has a wide scope of application, and warrants careful consideration on its own merits. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, the arch anti-Christian, humanist prophet and masterful critic, savages the idea of the Golden Rule, characterising it in Ecce Homo as "depersonalisation" and expressing his horror at the idea of "neighbour love" as a higher (or even absolute value) calling it "addiction to the neighbour." While there is considerable philosophical value buried in Nietzche's work, it is notoriously open to interpretation, and frequently misunderstood. Warmongers and killers of many kinds have taken Nietzsche's writings as their inspiration and twist it to their own ends; most infamously, Hitler twisted Nietzche's writings to justify the Nazi ideology.

On the whole, I am disinclined to take Nietzsche's objection seriously, although this is not to belittle his contribution to philosophy. Nietzsche foresaw the nihilism that would follow widespread atheism, and the epistemological problems with science, and desperately hoped to discover something worthwhile beyond this apparent collapse of values. It is ironic that in trying to push past a crisis then only in its infancy, he inadvertently hastened its onset.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, in assessing the validity of the Golden Rule as a cosmopolitan ethic, provides the example of a Jehovah’s Witness who will die if she does not receive a blood transfusion. You want to save her life, and therefore you want to give her the blood transfusion – that’s what you would want if you were in her situation. But it is not what she would want, as Jehovah’s Witness interpret Leviticus 3:17 (“This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood”) as a prohibition against blood transfusions. Appiah notes: “If I thought I was going to go to hell if you gave me a blood transfusion, I wouldn’t want it either.”

The issue, as Appiah correctly identifies, is whether what matters is what I would like done with my own values, or whether you would want it done with the relevant person’s values. He concludes that the answer is neither, and proceeds to give examples where one would interpret sometimes one way, and sometimes the other. Eventually, he concludes that: “the idea behind the Golden Rule is that we should take other people’s interests seriously, take them into account. It suggests that we learn about other people’s situations, and then use our imaginations to walk a while in their moccasins. These are aims we cosmopolitans endorse. It’s just that we can’t claim that the way is easy.” 

Although Appiah’s analysis is not substantially in error, I believe the problems he encounters result from attempting to treat the Golden Rule as a rule – that is, by evaluating it in a rights-based context. These approaches, which are called deontological approaches in moral philosophy, are based around rules of behaviour from which duties and rights are derived. But even though we call it “a rule”, the Golden Rule is not always worded in such a way as to be understood as a rule in the manner we normally use the word. Rules (and laws) require precision and logical formulations – but the Golden Rule is not based on such precision at all. It’s founding principle is love, and as such a rights-based interpretation is not the strongest way to interpret it. 

I suggest instead that the Golden Rule should be interpreted through the lens of agent-based approaches to ethics – that is, reciprocity (and more specifically, behaving towards others in an attitude of love) should be understood as a virtue to be embodied, not a rule to be enforced. Perhaps we should not think of this as the Golden Rule at all, but as the Golden Virtue of compassion.

How does interpreting in this light improve our situation? Solely because when it is seen as an ideal to emulate, not a rule to enforce, its content becomes clearer. When Jesus suggests “love one another as I have loved you”, he is holding himself out as a virtuous role model to be emulated. The command that he issues is the command to emulate his compassion, it is not a law that can be written down logically and then enforced. 

“Love they neighbour,” possibly the oldest form of the Golden Rule, offers more traction against the problems Appiah notes than he originally assumes. If we take into account the issues presented by relative ethics, that our ethics are only absolutely valid from our particular frame of reference (and any other frame of reference which also holds the same values), the application of the Golden Rule becomes simpler. We would not want other people to ignore our values and beliefs, and thus by extension when we behave towards other people we must take into account their values and belief, and then behave in whichever manner we can uphold as loving or compassionate.  

We can see the same concept expressed by Karl Popper – one of the few philosophers content to provide support to the Golden Rule, albeit with a caveat. In The Open Society and Its Enemies he suggests: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.” This is perhaps the canonical way of improving the sentiment expressed by this particular tenet.

We do not eliminate the subjective element from this principle. Indeed, the principle would be of no value to us if we did.  As a result, there will remain serious problems of the kind Appiah identifies, and we shall look at these in due course when we look at the largely intractable issue of respecting other people's taboos.


Abuses Proceeding from the Golden Rule

718goya_2 It is possible to use the Golden Rule, when enforced naively, to justify all manner of abusive actions. The Inquisition, although horrific to our modern sensibilities, was based upon the understandable desire to bring redemption to all. Unfortunately, this attitude presupposed a single absolute frame of reference – it forced a particular metaphysical perspective on others who did not share this perspective nor had any reason or duty to share it. The Inquisition thought it was loving to care for the immortal souls of others, and thus took the “loving” role of a parent, acting “cruel to be kind”. But this analogy offends us – parents may indeed have to punish children, but children are not free moral agents; they are still learning how to live. If one adult takes this role with respect to others, this can never be a loving action unless the other person thus affected is incapable of caring for themselves – and we should be cautious in reaching this conclusion. 

Similarly, one may attempt to justify a war as proceeding from the Golden Rule, but in all cases it can be shown that hubris will be the ultimate foundation of any such validation. It is never a loving action towards any given person to wage war against them. Without reaching a conclusion as to the possible justifications for war, we can at least accept that declaring war is not a loving act, even if the motivations for war can be couched (however spuriously) in loving terms. Again, such attempts rest on the acting party behaving as a parent to a child. But the idea that one nation can act as a parent to another nation is rife with foolishness; it is a tawdry analogy that fails to respect (and therefore to love) the citizens of the nation who are being denied their autonomy.

What if the war seeks to grant the citizens of that nation their autonomy? We still cannot resolve this as a loving action. Consider this example. In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered all slave trading to be abolished in Japan. Many other nations did not come to the abolition of the slave trade until the mid-19th century. Would the Golden Rule grant Japan a justification for invading other countries to enforce the autonomy of slaves? No. Once again, it is never loving to wage war, so even when a high ideal (such as freedom) is at stake, it does not mean that a war of aggression is justified. The only ethical systems that can justify such acts are outcome-based systems, such as consequentialist ethics in which “the ends justify the means,” and the horrors that can emerge from this line of reasoning are, I hope, readily apparent. 

These examples of abuses are political in nature. Ethics, however, must be personal. Any individual who upholds the Golden Rule – because of religious duty or because of choice – cannot endorse their country in initiating an act of war. To do so is to violate their own ethics and behave hypocritically. To begin a war is to fail to act in a loving fashion towards the enemy thus engaged, and it is to fail to act in a loving manner towards friends, family and neighbours being asked to fight that war. We ask people to serve in the armed forces to defend us – many consider it a supreme personal sacrifice to serve in this way (the moral philosopher John Rawls certainly did), and we gravely disrespect such brave souls if the wars they are asked to fight are unjust. As regards acting defensively in war, this far exceeds the scope of our discussion. 



The Ethic of Reciprocity can be a valuable guide to actions, provided it is taken intuitively as a guide to how one should behave (as the virtue of compassion, say) and not as a logical postulate. But it is insufficient in itself to derive a complete system of ethics. It is merely an element in defining an ethical frame of reference for an individual. 

Nonetheless, if our ethical systems are infused with the intention to act in a compassionate manner towards others, we shall make fewer mistakes in our attempts to live together than if our ethical systems are instead motivated by a desire to be right or correct or, worse, by the desire to promote the greater good at any cost.

Must we accept the Golden Rule? Of course not. We are free to choose. But those of us of a religious persuasion cannot ignore it, and those of us who are not can at least appreciate its honourable intentions. Within its simple and ambiguous bounds lies at least the hope of peaceful resolution to any dispute, and the possibility (however fanciful) of a better future for us all. 

The opening image is The Golden Rule, by Norman Rockwell, while the second image is The Inquisition Tribunal, by Francisco Goya.


Kandinsky_sketch_2 What motivates us to accuse people of hypocrisy? How terrible is this accusation? Should we be attempting to avoid being seen as a hypocrite, or is the fear of hypocrisy a barrier to ethical dialogue?

The notion of hypocrisy is that of espousing one set of ethical beliefs, and then acting in a manner contrary to those beliefs. The more vehemently the individual espouses their ethics, the more forceful the accusation of hypocrisy is likely to be. It is readily apparent, then, that hypocrisy is by nature an accusation that can be levelled against someone, and not some testable proposition. (We shall not be designing a ‘hypocritometer’ any time soon).

Several questions present themselves. Is there necessarily something wrong with hypocrisy? When is it acceptable behaviour to accuse someone of hypocrisy? What benefits, if any, result from our decision to pay attention to hypocrisy?

It may seem strange to suggest that there need not be anything necessarily wrong with hypocrisy. But consider, for instance, the heroin addict warning other people against the danger of heroin addiction. Is it really fair to indict such a person of hypocrisy? Their warning is justified, it is simply that they have been unable to act upon this caution themselves. This can be seen as a case of technical hypocrisy.

This leads us to consider when it is acceptable to accuse someone of hypocrisy, which begs the question: what is the purpose of raising an accusation of hypocrisy? We wish to impugn the character of someone whose behaviour has been inconsistent. But we humans are often inconsistent, and not all inconsistency turns the mind towards the idea of hypocrisy. So what is it that drives such accusations?

I suggest that when people launch verbal attacks against someone on the grounds that they are a hypocrite, the motivation behind this is anger (although we can of course dispassionately make an assertion of hypocrisy, if we wish). Why should this situation provoke anger? This is not an easy question to answer, and emotions do not necessarily lend themselves to this kind of analysis. There may also be issues of contempt involved. Whatever one believes about the relationship between these emotions and this behaviour, it seems apparent that most accusations of hypocrisy are emotionally motivated.

Accusations of hypocrisy therefore seem to be verbal attacks against an individual who has angered us by their inconsistency. This anger seems to be the root of the issue (as technical hypocrisy does not tend to be much of a problem). It may even be that the accusation of hypocrisy is the voicing of our anger, and the hypocritical behaviour is merely the excuse that justifies our outpouring of ire.

In order for a charge of hypocrisy to be raised, there is a necessary prior condition: we must know the ethical position of the individual being thus accused. Usually, our anger is raised because the person in question has been extremely vocal about their ethical system (perhaps even accusing other people of immorality in respect of it), and therefore when we observe them violating what they vociferously claimed as important to them, our esteem for such a person falls. In many cases, the person about whom an accusation of hypocrisy will be raised is already disliked by the accuser – in effect, the situation which demonstrates the inconsistency of the individual is little more than an excuse to voice that dislike.

Consequently, there are only two kinds of people we can accuse of hypocrisy. On the one hand are those people that we know personally, and therefore have daily contact with their behaviour and (perhaps only by implication) their ethics. On the other hand are those people whom we learn about via the media – leaders and celebrities, along with those who achieve fame in the media via their infamy. In these latter cases, it is usually what has been previously said in the media which forms the basis for the accusation of hypocrisy.

Either way, we must have prior knowledge of the person’s ethics to level a charge of hypocrisy. More than this, we must believe that a person’s ethics should not change – otherwise the accusation of hypocrisy is nothing more than the complaint that individual ethical perspectives can shift. (Surely we are allowed to change our minds?)

Seen this way, it seems suspiciously as if accusations of hypocrisy are simply means of expressing our anger towards people who annoy us in certain ways. They may have angered us originally with their ethical claims (perhaps by criticising other people for some perceived moral infraction), or we may simply dislike their behaviour or demeanour. When we perceive a clear inconsistency between their words and actions, we feel justified in levelling the accusation of hypocrisy – but perhaps this is simply a situation in which we feel it is permissible to voice our anger at a person.

Does this mean we should not accuse people of hypocrisy? Not at all. But it should give us some scepticism as to the value of such accusations.

If hypocrisy were some offence we should endeavour to avoid (which was an implication posed by Are You Ethical? as an open issue to explore), the easiest way to avoid it would be not to voice any opinions about ethical matters at all. With our ethics hidden away, charges of hypocrisy become impossible. But surely we want people to discuss their ethics, at least with a view towards exploring the way our societies are organised, and how we wish them to be organised. In this light, the risk of being accused of hypocrisy might discourage people from having an ethical opinion - a situation which is perhaps more deleterious than the hypocrisy itself. 

Furthermore, some accusations of hypocrisy proceed from logical grounds which will not necessarily hold in the belief system of the accused. Consider when someone accuses a vegetarian of hypocrisy because they wear leather shoes. But why should the decision to avoid eating meat necessarily be related to the use of animal by-products? The individual may not eat meat because of a religious conviction which has no stand on by-products of animal slaughter. Or, as I do, the individual may take the stance that they do not want to be the cause of the death of an animal, but given that this happens anyway, we should at least use all the parts of the animal thus killed, out of respect for the animal (a view held by many hunting tribes). Not all charges of hypocrisy are as well grounded as we like to believe.

The real power of the accusation of hypocrisy is political. Even if calling someone a hypocrite merely voices our anger, in political terms negative emotions such as anger are extremely costly. If your actions cause people to react angrily, you lose your support, and support is everything in the political arena, as the (democratic) politician’s goal is to maintain their power and status through the support of the people. It is perhaps solely the politician (and by extension the celebrity – the modern analogue to aristocracy) who must fear charges of hypocrisy. 

It’s important to give voice to anger as otherwise we dwell upon it, allowing it to poison us inside, and people should feel free to express their anger through accusations of hypocrisy. But we should not be afraid of such accusations, and they do not necessarily hold much importance. The ethical views we hold and the actions we take are related, but imperfectly – we are, after all, only human. We are free to change our minds, and our ethics, and we are free to state a certain view while acting in an apparently contradictory fashion; the cost of doing so may simply be the willingness to listen to criticism when we do.

The opening image is Kandinsky's Sketch 2 for "Composition VII".

Don't Believe in Cthulhu

Lil_cthulhu Cthulhu is an invention of the early twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft – an indescribably grotesque and gigantic cosmic horror, that caricatures a human, an octopus and a dragon, and that moves as if it were a mountain stumbling forward. To gaze upon it is to bathe in madness, and to encounter it is to meet death at the casual hands of something so immense and terrible that you are nothing to it but an insigificant speck beneath its tentacles. It symbolises a stark and meaningless universe, where nothing but death or madness await us all. Surely no-one believes in Cthulhu, except perhaps for their own amusement? So why bother to ask that we not believe in it at all? 

To get to the bottom of this cryptic nonsense, let us cast our minds back in time a few hundred years to the cultural circumstances that existed at what has been dubbed the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment…

The triumph of the Enlightenment was the assertion of reason as a superior tool to tradition, and from the 18th century onwards we consequently saw the rise of philosophical debate and scientific exploration as a new way of coming to grips with the world. The Enlightenment pushed against established ways of thinking, and in particular resisted the authority of religious traditions. The work of the Enlightenment in shifting our focus is long since concluded, but unfortunately the momentum is still pushing in this direction – and arguably no longer to our general benefit.

If the Enlightenment managed to put pay to many religious superstitions, it could not have anticipated that it would lead to the establishment of so many scientific superstitions, such as presumptive teleology, the multiverse of quantum timelines and the mythology of progress as a sustainable ideal. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, what began as a noble overthrowing of institutions that exceeded their domain now seems turning full circle: now the revolutionary threatens to become the oppressor.

Whereas before religious authorities provided canonical opinions for the masses, now scientific authorities provide their canonical interpretations. Indeed, many people now look to scientists in much the same way they used to look at priests – as a source of authoritative interpretation. The underlying assumption seems to be that “the scientists know what’s really going on…” One only has to look at the way newspapers turn to scientists to provide justifications or explanations as an example. The problem with this is that the domain of science is the empirical, but the domain of life and experience extends far beyond what may be tested. I trust scientists to conduct experiments or develop engineering solutions to problems, but there the implicit expertise ends.

Culture, art, narrative, ethics and imagination all become stunted if one attempts to bound them at the edge of the testable, or indeed in any way other than the ways we individually chose. If humanity did not accept the attempts of tyrannical authority figures to place limits on what was allowable thought under religious guises, I am hopeful it can resist any attempt by tyrannical authority figures to achieve the same end under scientific guises. 

The influential Enlightenment philosopher David Hume looked deeply into the world through an empirical lens. He dismissed religious superstitions as unfounded, but drew a line at God saying the problem is man’s tendency to presume qualities of God, who was essentially unknowable. He dismissed tradition as an inferior means of understanding the world to reason, but observed that reason itself was severely limited as a tool, requiring a leap of faith before it could be successfully employed. He dismissed conventional ethics as inferior to a morality based upon utility and agreeableness, but observed that our notions of self were illusory.

There seems to be a widely distributed secular worldview that renders life both bleak and pointless, and perhaps this viewpoint counts Hume as part of its causes – but if so, it has taken all of his initial observations, and ignored all his caveats. It is a sickness of the modern world that the legacy of the Enlightenment has been the elevation of science to some strange doctrine of inflexible Truth (and not of exploration), and that the philosophical questioning which drove the Enlightenment seems almost to have passed, leaving in its wake a widespread belief in a hollow and valueless reality of meaningless nihilism. 

Here is a brief sample of some common tenets of this peculiar belief system:

Nothing exists that cannot be tested. Everything has come about through pure chance. Humanity, and all life on Earth, appeared through a series of random processes, which gradually refined life as we know it. Life is selfish. It preys on other life. Our ultimate fate is to die. If the universe could be personified as a god it would be Great Cthulhu – a lurking madness that if it happens to notice us at all, it is as food to devour, but mostly we are utterly insignificant to this blind and ultimately destructive force. 

This will doubtless seem like an overstatement, and the evocation of Cthulhu as unnecessary. However, it does sometimes seem to me that there are at least a few people who believe something akin to the proposition: if there is a god, it is Cthulhu, and I refuse to worship Cthulhu, especially since it does not exist. I doubt this is a fair caricature of the motivation behind anti-theist sentiments which seek to “bring down” religion, but it is at least, I hope, an amusing perspective on the issue.

The problem which gives rise to this philosophy of Cthulhu realism, if you will permit me some license, is the belief that the tenets of the secular worldview described above are the only ones logical, reasonable or possible.  

But is it really reasonable to believe that nothing exists that cannot be tested? This is to presume that the universe consists only of those elements which we happen to have senses and tools to detect. It is like seeing the universe as a Lego construction, and the only real entities as those constructed out of Lego. Is it not more likely that there are other elements to the universe that lie beyond our ability to test? Or at the very least, that we will find new tools for observation in the future that will take us further than the short distance we see now?

Not to mention our sense of self, our love of others, our societies and nations and so forth; these are not empirical constructs at all, but part of our personal reality – a reality which is both private, and untestable. 

Is it really reasonable to believe that everything has come about by chance? Even accepting the evolutionary process, it was still necessary for us to live in a universe where the laws and circumstances made such a process possible. We can imagine an infinite number of possible worlds, with every possible variation of physics, chemistry and biology – yet the one we live in happens to have atoms that form certain chemicals that self-replicate, which can form complex and fascinating life forms. It need not be so.

The anthropic principle declares that given that we exist as observers, we must be in a universe that allows such a state – it is not entirely clear how this idea substantially differs from belief in a pantheistic God, other than its choice of words. Either way, it seems to be an error to believe that chance is the only factor in our existence. 

Is it really reasonable to characterise life as being selfish, existing solely to prey on other life for its own self-perpetuation? Every multi-cellular organism is a testament to the power of symbiosis to overcome competition. We are each a walking metropolis of bacteria who have somehow managed to work together so closely than we routinely mistake it for a single entity! Nature is rife with examples of co-operation, symbiosis and mutual aid – and it is a purely metaphysical pursuit to determine which had the greater influence on our evolutionary history, competition or co-operation, since we can neither see the past in full nor make any judgement that requires omniscience for its arbitration.

Is it really reasonable to consider death our only fate? Certainly death is an experience we will all share, but the meaning of our life is what happens between birth and death, not merely how we meet our end. 

And if we believe that the essence of what we are is our consciousness, and our consciousness is a particular state of mind with no necessary connection to our earlier selves than the strictly historical (as Hume shrewdly observes, albeit nervously), then if a future human happens to share our state of consciousness but not our memories, is that human not a phenomenological analogue to ourselves? If we have amnesia, we still believe we are ourselves, and this being so, can we not imagine a kind of amnesiac rebirth to be at work in the universe (even if only for a moment)?

Are you so certain that what makes you yourself could not exist again? And if so, is it solely because you conflate yourself with the metropolis of bacteria you are currently living in? 

I raise these questions not to convince anyone of any specific alternative view, but simply to demonstrate that Cthulhu realism is not the only reasonable view of life, the universe and everything. We have a choice in how we approach these issues, and that choice is perhaps the most vital decision any of us will make. Do we want to work towards a better world, or would we rather just wallow in despair?

The acclaimed writer Michael Moorcock chastises HP Lovecraft’s writing for its bleakness (as well as its misogyny, awful prose and so forth), and comments that Lovecraft appeals to us only when we are feeling depressed and dejected. Who but the most pathological Goth could sustain such an attitude into adulthood, and still hope to glean some enjoyment of life? 

Cthulhu realism is a valid belief system, but it is one of many we can choose between. I suggest we take our instinct to disbelieve in Cthulhu and take it further, to the point whereby the reality that metaphor entails vanishes entirely. If your reality fills you with despair, change it. That is the power of free will and freedom of belief – and it is yours to do with as you will.

Games and Storytelling White Paper

There is not a great deal published exploring our notions of game storytelling in high-level abstract terms, so it gives me great pleasure to shill the new white paper published by PJ's Attic entitled Games and Storytelling: A Working Definition of Storytelling that Encompasses New Media. You can download the white paper directly from here, or from their publications page here.

The white paper sets itself the goal of providing specific definitions for Narrative, Plot and Story that together provide a new perspective on the storytelling process, thus allowing for a better understanding of what can be achieved in interactive (or even participatory) story. As games such as Spore highlight the increasing focus being placed upon the player contribution to their own play, this is a timely examination of the potential of the medium of games for creative narrative purposes.

Here's an extract:

Once the audience receives the narrative, the true storytelling experience begins. Storytelling is a communication. It does not happen in a vacuum. You can write novels, design games, or film movies your entire life, but if it does not end up in the hands of an audience, you're not really storytelling. Any analysis of games or other narrative media that does not take into account the audience's participation is incomplete and lacks relevance.

I'm honoured to be referenced in the paper; it's a great privilege to be mentioned alongside such luminaries as Umberto Eco and Marshal McLuhan. Quite a change of pace from someone who previously denounced the writings of dead intellectuals!