Philosophy is to be studied , not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”  – Bertrand Russell

The fourth level of Ethics goes beyond human relations to how one should behave with respect to ultimate reality. If your ultimate reality is humanity, there is in theory no further moral burden, but while humanism may be the dominant belief system of contemporary society, I suspect no reader will on deep consideration stop there. At a minimum, cosmic reality as defined by science obliges humans to develop a mode of conduct consistent with science outside of immediate human interests. We inhabit the Earth and our treatment of our home planet and its other inhabitants is an issue of ethics. We have to come to terms with the consequences of human actions on other species, natural beauty, and the environment. I believe most thoughtful people feel that we have an ethical duty to protect for the future these nonhuman assets from common stupidity, individual avarice, and our immaturity as a species. We should carefully consider the advice of reputable scientists when it is based on consensus. The greatest vice of our lifetimes by our species may be irreparable harm to the only planet known by us to have life, and especially advanced forms of life.

Relationship to the cosmos can be more however. It can take the form of direct observation and appreciation of nature, the practice of astronomy, scientific research and experiment, or even the commitment to learning in the many branches of science and mathematics. For those not disposed to believe in God, this is their religion. It is not a worship of the universe per se, rather an awe of its magnificence and a deep desire to understand it to the extent possible. Whatever one’s personal beliefs, an ethically driven interest in nature and the cosmos is a value not to be overlooked.

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As members of society, the benefits and rights we derive from social order impel the correlative responsibility to discharge our duties to promote that order. In addition, some duties are simply incumbent upon us as members of humanity.

Table 1  is my list of the duties needed in modern societies ranked in order of priority (See Appendix – Table of Duties).  For most of us, all of these duties will apply and in general when duties conflict, the higher rated duty should be chosen.

Readers will note that I consider responsibility for one’s own physical needs as the highest duty to society thereby relieving society of providing for him or her. With the exception of the ill and disabled this is the logical first duty each adult has to society as it allows one to meet the other duties of a full member of society.  Ayn Rand states it succinctly, “Living in a society, instead of a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life.”I am aware this is likely to be controversial.

The logically second most vital duty is support for social justice, that is, all lower ranked duties must meet the tenet of equality and fair treatment for all. It is also a critical element of a constitutional republic for members of the majority to look after the rights of the minority and to oppose inequality. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated brilliantly and unforgettably the ethical course of peaceful disobedience in the case of injustice and oppression. Violent revolution is only justified in the case of persistent tyranny and the suspension of human rights.

Items 3,7, and 8 define the individual’s duty to communal government specifically the duty to follow laws and obey authorities in the absence of ethical conflict. When one must disobey a law for ethical reasons, one should be prepared to suffer the consequences with honor – consider the incarcerations and punishments of Sir Thomas More or of Nelson Mandela.

The fourth and fifth items represent humanitarian duties to others – everything from helping a handicapped person cross the street to saving a drowning child when it is within your means.  In addition, as long as there is poverty and vulnerability in society, the more fortunate are morally bound to offer charity to the less fortunate – this is the great humanist teaching of Christ.

Sixth is the personal obligation to aid in the security and defense of one’s community and nation. This is the fundamental justification of military and police actions by governments and those serving in those roles although even security concerns must be subject to the constraint of avoiding injustice and unnecessary evil. Here too the ill and disabled are ethically absolved of direct responsibility.

The ninth and tenth items are moral duties of participants in capitalist societies necessary to the logical continuation of that economic system and are essentially the fulfillment of contracts. The first is to reciprocate fair labor for fair pay, the duty implicit in employment arrangements. The second is to provide market quality services and merchandise in return for a fair price; which is the duty implied by business-customer relationships.

The eleventh item recognizes the desirability of civil behavior to the quality of communal life and free exchange of views. The last two items delineate the civic duty to stay current in world events and to critically evaluate information in order to facilitate good decision making in voting, political action, and social conduct.

Readers may wish to create their own version of Table 1 or change the prioritization, but fulfilling societal duties is essential to the virtue and personal contentment of a meaningful life.

1Hadas, Moses, The Basic Works of Cicero. The Modern Library, 1951, pages 3-60.

2Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet Books, The New American Library, 1964, page 52.


“The acknowledgement of duties signifies that the holder of rights recognizes their limited or conditional character.” –  Syntopicon I, Chapter 19, The Great Books.

In the last two posts we  looked at four general approaches to societal duty. Now I would like to consider and define a more concrete list of duties. The prototype of societal ethics in classical philosophy comes from the stoic tradition most systematically outlined by Cicero in his essay On Moral Duties1, ostensibly a letter written to his son encompassing personal as well as societal ethics. Cicero list includes the following duties:

  1. Respect the rights of others.
  2. Observe contracts faithfully.
  3. Do not mistake the unknown for the known and give it blind assent.
  4. Do not waste time on barren studies.
  5. Do no violence except in self-defense.
  6. Create no privileges in public rights.
  7. Respect others’ private property.
  8. Perform acts of kindness.
  9. Employ your talents, industry, and resources in strengthening the bonds of human society.
  10. Do not acquire money through unjust means.
  11. Defend others from injustice.
  12. Work for the common good.
  13. Resolve disputes by discussion not force.
  14. Show beneficence to the worthy.
  15. Achieve honor in military actions.
  16. Participate in government when you have the ability.
  17. Govern without regard to personal interest.
  18. Maintain decorum, that is steady and consistent demeanor.
  19. Choose a career that uses your better nature and abilities and persevere.
  20. Support peaceful and honorable policy.
  21. Avoid immodesty and that which shocks the eye or ear.

This is still an excellent list even for modern times, but of course society has changed over the millennia and the obligations of living in a modern constitutional republic may justify some modifications.

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SOCIETAL DUTY – PART I (continued)

A third societal ethics developed by John Stuart Mill is Utilitarianism. His main principle is that those acts are right and good which produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons. It is based on Jeremy Bentham’s earlier theory that pleasure and pain are the main criteria for good and bad. Justice involves social utilities by which general good is realized. It seems to me that Utilitarianism is an appropriate model for a general policy in governance (with modifications as discussed below), while Kant’s second categorical imperative becomes the philosophical basis for individual rights within the modern republic.

The last component of societal ethics is duty as a citizen and by government to each citizen. In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that principles of justice are whatever a rational, self-interested, and unenvious person would choose in a hypothetical society where one’s own position and natural abilities are unknown. He concludes that the highest principle is thus equal and maximal possible liberty for all. The second highest principle is for power and wealth to be distributed as equally as possible consistent with the aggregate benefit of all, assuming an equal opportunity of everyone to attain any higher level of power and wealth necessary for that aggregate benefit. As a citizen our duty then appears to be to support governance that upholds these two principles through voting and public service.

In summary, societal ethics involves benevolence, propriety, and respect for persons outside one’s immediate circle and for social institutions. Moral decisions of a social nature should be based on the imperative to do what makes sense if universally deployed. The individual and society should look to maximize the happiness of the community while respecting individual rights and ascertaining fairness, equal opportunity, and universal prosperity to the extent possible. Failure to recognize these ethical obligations can undermine a meaningful life and have tragic or catastrophic consequences for humanity.


“There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigor and resolution.”  – Jane Austen, Emma


As human societies grow, there are an increasing number of members who do not know each other and will never have direct contact with each other. In all but the smallest towns, it is likely that most of the community’s members are not directly known to each other. This anonymity is obviously increased as we look at the national level. In addition, larger communities require a system to manage the needs of the society for safety, physical goods, education, medical care, justice, etc. The ethics of the individual and of direct relation to others no longer encompasses all the requirements for ethical conduct. I classify this added ethical component, societal duty, and it consists of two components:                                                                                                                                             1. The Individual’s duty within society.                                                                         2.  Society’s duty to individuals.

There are four powerful foundations that define these two aspects of societal duty. The first and oldest comes from the Far East. China is perhaps the oldest highly populous region of the world, so it is not surprising that ancient Chinese philosophy views man as an individual within a network of human relations. The greatest ancient Chinese teacher was Confucius whose philosophy was recorded in The Analects. This short work, available on-line can be read in an afternoon and is one of humanity’s treasures.  In it the students of Confucius record his emphasis on three key principles: Jen, benevolence to other men, Li, rules of propriety and socially acceptable behavior (including etiquette), and Hsiao, filial piety which includes not only respect for one’s parents and teachers, but also the law and order of society.  The ‘superior man’ places moral principle above profit, and governance should be by moral example and persuasion. An orderly and peaceful society leads to the harmonious development of the individual. Confucianism is thus one of the earliest forms of ethical humanism.

Taking a slightly different line of reasoning, Immanuel Kant views ethics from the perspective of ‘good’ as meaning ‘good will.’ Good will is rational will and known to all implicitly. Duty is defined as following the ‘categorical imperative’ which is an action objectively and logically necessary whatever one’s particular inclination. Biblically this would be called a commandment, such as “Thou shalt not kill.” He then delineates three categorical imperatives.

1.  Act only according to that maxim that you can will it should become a universal law.

2.  Act so that you treat yourself and others always as an end and never as a means. 

3.  Act always as if you were legislating for a universal realm of ends.

An example of the first is the obligation to always tell the truth as universal falsehood is inconsistent with making promises or determining criminal behavior in a court of law. The second is essentially an extension of the Golden Rule to all people. The third refers to the wish for an ideal society of completely rational members. A moral duty then is one done from good will rather than personal gain and follows these three fundamental imperatives. I also note that Kant’s version of ‘good will’ requires the actor to have a fully developed internal concept of virtue, and sufficient reasoning power and reflection to successfully identify universals.

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Next is the Nichomachean Ethics, where Aristotle professes that virtue can be learned and made a habit by practice similar to when learning how to play a flute. At first it is unpleasant and tedious to act virtuously or to practice the flute, but as one develops proficiency, performing well becomes second nature, easier, and eventually even pleasant. Habit makes virtue a capacity, part of one’s character just as a sleeping flute player possesses that ability even while asleep.  Aristotle also refers to four ‘cardinal’ virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom. The first three are felt to be a mean between two vices (e.g. courage as the mean between rashness and cowardice). Practical wisdom is the most vital virtue as it allows one to find the mean and to make correct decisions in particular situations.2

Other traditions add different ‘cardinal’ virtues. For example St. Paul suggests the three Christian virtues are faith, hope, and charity. Augustine considered Aristotle’s choices the ‘natural’ virtues and those of St. Paul the ‘supernatural’ virtues while Aquinas called the latter the ‘Theological’ virtues.

Despite the guidance above, we are likely to find ourselves in circumstances more complex than suggested above and Aristotle’s practical wisdom is elusive for many of us. My college ethics book3  offers a rational solution for those situations. It proposes the principle of ‘beneficence’ whereby one’s duty can be ranked:

1.    One ought not to inflict evil or harm.

2.   One ought to prevent evil.         

3.   One ought to remove evil.   

4.   One ought to do or promote good (not a strict duty).       

5.   When a mixed outcome is likely, one ought to do that which brings about the greatest balance of good over evil (when this balance can be measured).

In conclusion, the Golden Rule is a universally accepted principle for ordinary interactions with others in life. A general means to ethical conduct is to instill desired behavior through practice and habit, seeking a middle course based on experience and wisdom. In complex situations, avoid and eliminate evil first, then promote good; never choose any evil unless there is a clear excess of good from the choice.


1  Runes, Dagobert, Pictorial History of Philosophy, Bramhall House, 1959, p. vii.

2 Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, the Great Courses, 2000. Lecture 9,

3Frankena, William K., Ethics,  Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 .  1973, p. 47.


“… the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit”– Aristotle

When most people discuss morality, they are thinking about how a person interacts with others, particularly through direct contact. This refers to conduct with family members, friends, coworkers, customers, and strangers. It includes such issues as keeping promises, telling the truth, respecting another’s property, not inflicting injury, and so forth. This appears to be an area which remains resistant to scientific certainty, so philosophers still debate systems of morality and specific moral issues actively.  I believe three approaches elucidate good basic reasoning at this level of ethics.

The first is the Golden Rule best known from the New Testament, Matthew 7:12, the words of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. This is popularly known as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” though there are some differences in the phrasing based on which version of the Bible is consulted. However, this is a reiteration of what is “perhaps the oldest ethical proposition of distinctly universal character. ”1 Additional versions include (among others):

“What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others.” – Confucius – The Analects

“That nature alone is good which shall not do unto another whatever is not good unto its own  self.” – Zarathustra – Avesta

“May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.”  – Plato

“Do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.” – Mahabharata

It appears treating others as one wishes to be treated oneself is a nearly self-evident ethical maxim and the platform for building a moral system for human interactions.

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 The Truth Matters1 – Bruce Bartlett  

“Learn what is true in order to do what is ‘right’ is the summing up of the whole duty of man.”– T.H. Huxley


On a recent stop in Sylva, N.C., I purchased a small book at their library’s book store written, not by a philosopher, but by Bruce Bartlett, a magazine columnist, former presidential advisor, and commentator. It is a poignant fit with blogs I have done on cultural reality and epistemology. It also dovetails nicely with the philosophical tool of logic in determining truth in current events.

The author notes early in the book that the fairness doctrine which required both sides to be present for radio and television based political endorsements or opinions was abolished in 1987 – an event of which I and probably many others have no memory. This ushered in the ‘anything goes’ news that permeates our airways and the internet today.

He offers excellent practical tips to increase the likelihood of finding journalistic truth including:

  1. Primary sources are more reliable than secondary sources.
  2. Evidence and statements closer to the time of an event are more reliable than later ones.
  3. The quality of evidence is best in documentaries.
  4. Reputable publications meet journalistic standards that ensure truthfulness.
  5. Academic (peer reviewed) sources and university professors are more trustworthy than think tanks.
  6. Libraries offer excellent resources to access truthful information.
  7. Numbers must always be placed in context.
  8. Readers should be aware the media tend to erroneously present issues as having only two sides.
  9. Polls involve various perils and are best used for confirming trends.
  10. Readers should counter ‘fake news’ with fact checking.
  11. Critical thinking is the best defense against deception.
  12. Readers should be skeptical when a story confirms something they want to believe.

To help us access truthful information, he also provides excellent websites such as and . I urge you to read and take notes on Bartlett’s book or purchase a copy for reference as you deal with real world issues.

As we discussed in an earlier blog, cultural reality is vital to our daily life, but is perhaps the least easily verifiable tier of reality. However ethical behavior in society depends on a valid understanding of the world we inhabit. By marrying journalistic precautions like those listed above to philosophical techniques in logic and epistemology such as those outlined in The Philosopher’s Toolkit2 and other texts, we should be able to maintain as accurate an understanding of the world as possible. This is a key duty for anyone committed to truth, virtue, and a meaningful life.

1 Bartlett, Bruce, The Truth Matters.  Ten Speed Press. 2017. ISBN 978-0-399-58116-8.

2 Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S., The Philosopher’s Toolkit. Blackwell Publishing. 2003. ISBN  978-0-631-22874-5.


“This is the culminating gift of God, this is the supreme and marvelous felicity of man…that he can be that which he wills to be.” – Pico de Mandrola



The last component of self-mastery is self-actualization, determining and aiming for your unique purpose in life. This is a later concept perhaps born in Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power and  the uberman and echoed by Heidegger’s resoluteness to exceed the ordinary self and become authentic. It is carefully explored and refined by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow who characterizes self-actualization as (1) actualization of one’s potential, (2) fulfillment of a mission, and (3) self-integration. According to Maslow, successful efforts involve spontaneity, problem-centering, detachment, autonomy, creativeness, and perhaps most importantly enjoyment of the process (the means becomes the end).2

It is important to point out that none of the components of self-mastery is intended to permit selfishness or self-aggrandizement, and it seems unlikely that anyone truly devoted to self-mastery will become misdirected and end up there, but that concern is one reason most spiritual, religious, and even philosophical traditions deploy a master to guide the novice and the apprentice.

In summary, the components of self-mastery are:

1.   Self-discipline – mastery of instincts, desires, emotions – development of equanimity and poise.

2.   Selflessness- the commitment to right action with others, society, and nature –fortitude, virtue, and humility.

3.   Self-knowledge – psychological and ontological understanding of the self.

4.   Self-improvement – lifelong dedication to acquiring new skills and increasing knowledge.

5.   Self-actualization –determining and aiming for one’s unique purpose.

When combined these five components prepare each of us for an ethical and meaningful life that benefits ourselves, society and nature, and allows us to transcend the merely physical creature we are in the universe. Self-mastery is in many ways the most vital tier of virtuous living, as it affects all of our actions. It is also likely to be the most difficult to achieve. It is what Socrates calls ‘care of the soul’ and relies on wisdom and the desire to live in accordance with moral excellence.


1 Adler, Mortimer, The Time of Our Lives. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 03-081836-2.  Chapter 4, pages 29-37. In this chapter, Adler divides human time into five parts – (1) biologically compulsory (e.g. sleep), (2) subsistence-work (not always compulsory), (3) pleasure-play, (4) idling (doing nothing), and (5) leisure-work (self-improvement, creation, personal growth). He argues that a good life requires a balance of these components, with leisure-work as a particularly important, but underappreciated component.  

2 Maslow, Abraham, Towards a Psychology of Being. D. Van Nostrand Company, 1968. Chapter 3, pages 21-43.


“Self-knowledge is the first prerequisite of self-realization.”  – Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man,     quoting the skeptics.



In the last part we discussed self-discipline as an essential part of self-mastery with respect to human function in society. It is recognized by virtually all of the earliest philosophers as a primary ethical goal. However further reflection reveals at least four other components of self-mastery vital to a meaningful life.  The first is selflessness, an unwavering commitment to right action with regard to others, society, and nature. This must be fully adopted by the thoughtful individual as a precursor to ethical behavior within the world. Buddha includes this as a key component of his eight-fold path and Aristotle and other Greek philosophers incorporate it in the concepts of virtue and fortitude. Within its domain is the learning of humility, that is, recognition of our limited status in the universe, perhaps the greatest gift of Christianity to philosophy. Humility in self-value is the dominant intentional force in our behavior in dealing with others and the environment and humility in knowledge impels us to greater study and acceptance of other viewpoints. Humility then is not weakness, but the fundamental power behind ethical behavior and self-improvement. At its extreme it leads to the paradoxical ideal of the saint.

The second is self-knowledge expressed in an aphorism of the oracle of Delphi – “know thyself.” It also  consists of two parts: (1) reflection on one’s psychological makeup, major ingredients of the philosophy of Plato and Seneca, and refined by modern behavioral science, and (2) contemplation of one’s ontological being- the primal self, as for instance investigated by the ancient Indian spiritualists and more recently in depth by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. One should anticipate a long process of personal exploration in this area.

The third is self-improvement, the lifelong necessity of increasing knowledge and acquiring new skills. This is more important in recent times, because while Greek philosophy emphasizes learning music, geometry, logic, and rhetoric, the more complex fields of science and advanced mathematics, and more advanced law, history, and literature of later times require greater study than in the past. In addition the speed of current discovery unseen in the ancient world imposes a greater commitment to ongoing study by those dedicated to remaining up-to-date. With the longer lifespan of modernity, the opportunity for acquiring new skills such as playing an instrument or learning new uses of technology must be seized to optimize one’s potential. I find this effectively argued by Mortimer Adler who focuses on ‘leisure time’ activities of self-improvement and personal growth as key goal to living a good life in his book, The Time of Our Lives.1