“Charity is the gravitational force which keeps civilization in its orbit.” – Arthur Koester

My final category of ethics – ‘supererogatory duty’ – is not often the subject of philosophical discussion, but its sporadic appearance in my reading suggested to me a potential role it could play in human ethics. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy1 defines supererogation as action beyond the demands of duty, noting that such actions are praiseworthy to perform, but not blameworthy to omit. Traditionally such acts are seen as those of a saint or a hero. However I see supererogatory duty as the best means to resolve one of man’s most difficult conundrums, that of guilt and the myth of ‘original sin.’

Most Christians and many non-Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin, where the disobedience of the first humans, Adam and Eve, eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In this tradition, as we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, we inherit their sin and thus come to the world as sinners or impure, fallen creatures. I struggled with the fairness of this assertion in my youth, and only later philosophical study opened for me window of understanding.

It dawned on me that man’s ‘fallen’ status or ‘original sin’ is best seen as a metaphor of the imperfection of being human and the universal and perhaps unavoidable propensity to error and vice as viewed from at least four vantage points:

1)    Biologic – Non-human life exists instinctively, is untroubled by reflexive thinking, and incapable of immoral behavior so remains intrinsically a part on nature. Man lives deliberately beyond instinct, ruminates constantly, and acts in ways contrary to his environment, thus separating himself from nature.2

2)   Psychological – Man has a protracted period of dependence and societal immaturity during which he makes errors of judgment and causes harm to others.

3)   Existential – Man has unlimited desires, imagination, and freedom, but is confined to a limited body and lifespan, and is a result overwhelmed by the universe.3

4)   Cosmological – Eastern traditions depict negative karma lingering from prior lives as causing suffering in our current life.

If we are in fact ‘fallen’ creatures, imperfect and impure for most or all of our lives, making countless mistakes, and hurting others, even if unintentionally, the question remains, how can we expect to find redemption or salvation? For Christians, belief in Christ completes this process. For the rest of us, supererogatory duty (combined with humility) seems to me the best means to psychological and spiritual cleansing. Culturally this is labelled as charity (not accidentally one of the Christian virtues- despite the presumption of salvation through faith, the Church fathers understood: personal salvation demands supererogatory duty). For the wealthy, this is financial munificence (noblesse oblige); for others it may be volunteer work, a heroic or pious occupation (e.g. firefighter or monk), or taking on a cause.

Added to atonement and self-forgiveness, I believe supererogatory duty offers the final ethic in personal apotheosis.


1Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 903.

2Tolle, Eckhart, Living a Life of Inner Peace. New World Library. 2003.       

3Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 144.


For some of us, the universe is not only a multitude of physical phenomena, but also a unity of which each of us is a part. The Upanishads speak of Brahman, the ultimate power sustaining the cosmos, and Atman, the internal spiritual power of the individual. In a divine equation of unspeakable sublimity, they determine that Brahman and Atman are one. Some Hindus spend the later part of their life in meditation of this cosmic mystery. Some Western philosophers also speak of a cosmic unity including Pythagoras, Plotinus, and Spinoza. Here self-mastery and relationship with the ultimate intersect in an ethical absolute.

Still others believe that there is a divine being separate from or superadded to the cosmos. Most who believe in a divine being do so as practitioners of a particular religion, such as Christianity or Islam, with recognized sacred texts. In that case the sacred text and experts such as priests or clerics typically provide guidance on relationship with the divine. This site cannot address in detail those authorities, but I urge those readers to read carefully the texts, reflect deeply on the meanings, and avoid the error (sin) of misinterpretation. A divine creator it seems to me would judge harshly the destruction of His creation or the taking of life in His name. It also seems unlikely that a divine creator of man would infuse in us reasoning power like that thoughtfully used by traditional philosophers that errs greatly in the ethics outlined above.

For the religious, there is another key method of relationship with the divine, discussed in detail by Thomas Merton in his book, The Inner Experience.1 Merton layers on top of classic Eastern meditation a higher level he calls contemplation, man’s ability to experience the divine in mystical union. Sufiism is the Islamic version of this union.

In summary, no matter what concept you possess on ultimate reality, there is an ethical correlate. It seems to me that at a minimum everyone should embrace a scientifically supported cosmic ethic through respect of nature and desire to appreciate, understand, and learn about the universe. For others there will be religious obligations and perhaps a desire to probe deeper by means of meditation and contemplation.

1Merton, Thomas, The Inner Experience. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. ISBN 0-06-059362-8. Chapter 2, pages 7-18.


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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“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.