“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.

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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.

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“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.

(continued next post)

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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.

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“… 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, and customers. 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.

(continued next post)

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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.

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“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  

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Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.– Lao Tzu

All levels of personal ethics are dependent on the individual’s ability to master himself. A logical starting point in thinking about this is consideration of what it means biologically to be human. In the course of evolution, nature permitted primates and then humans to lose physical attributes previously necessary to survival such as large teeth or speed, and compensated by giving them larger brains which led to longer periods of dependence and compelled them to live in groups. This left humans with strong drives, uneven moods, and minds capable of negotiating the complexities of social hierarchy. The larger brain eventually led to perhaps nature’s greatest achievement – the ability of self-reflection. But for a human tribe to survive, members had to learn to master their drives and moods, and promote social stability in order to be a useful part of the whole. This primordial need followed us into civilization.

In addition humans, as all animals, live in a world of uncertainty and danger which leads to stress and anxiety. One key need for humans is the ability to rest and refresh the mind in order to concentrate on physical and social needs. Sleep is the biological form of that rest, but the complexity of human functions and psyche requires a waking method of relaxation and centering as well. This is the realm where self-control plays out.

So at one level, self-mastery is simply the ability to control emotions and instincts and maintain equanimity and poise. It is not automatic, rather the result of effort. It begins with parental efforts to modify the child’s unsocial behavior through a socializing process. But most of us are only partially competent as we come out of our parent’s supervision, and it may be a lifelong process to achieve final mastery of the self, if we ever succeed.

Various methods are thought to help one develop this level of self-mastery. The stoics and several Eastern philosophies encourage a process of self-denial and contemplation as a means to live in conformity with the harmony of nature and the cosmos. Yoga and some martial arts are examples of more formal disciplines with self-mastery as a goal. Religions often consider fasting as promoting it. Psychological counselling and self-hypnosis are more typical modern Western means to this end.

By whatever means, this control of instincts and emotions is included in that portion of self-mastery called self-discipline. The cardinal virtues attendant to this portion of self-mastery are temperance and courage.

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“Philosophy is ethics, or it is nothing at all.” – Dagobert Runes

As I discussed in the introduction, the essential function of philosophy comes down to the question: how should I live my life?  Until now, we have been discussing the nature of reality which is the more static dimension of philosophy, and is, over the course of history, increasingly falling into the domain of science. Ethics is more dynamic and has defied scientific analysis to date. It is about how we live our life, about our actions, particularly determining right and wrong action.

Ancient philosophers called right action ‘virtue’ and wrong action ‘vice.’ Modern philosophers seems to prefer the word ‘morality’ over ethics and more recently the trend is to  dissect morality further into its atomic level of values. Perhaps these modified concepts of ethics will prevail in the future, but I still prefer the time honored terms of the ancient thinkers and will mostly address human conduct from that vantage point.

Of course the crux of ethics comes down to deciding what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean. This is an example of where one’s understanding of the nature of reality becomes critical. For instance, in the aristocracies of ancient empires or the middle ages, property rights and local order were maintained by a small group, so strength and honor were the highest virtues (think of King Arthur or the movie Gladiator). In modern history where the ultimate reality is a society or a nation (‘the state’), sacrifice and duty become the highest virtues (think of the soldier in World War II). In Christianity, where loving one’s neighbor is most highly regarded, charity and selflessness are the highest virtues (e.g. Mother Theresa).

The role of philosophy is to define a basis for ethics and conduct that is logically consistent with one’s picture of reality. Since people vary in their view of reality, there is room for variation in ethics. This is not to say that ethics are relative. Rather ethics tends to be tailored to historical and individual circumstances and one’s personal understanding of reality. In any case the carefully thought out ethical systems and principles of the great thinkers should not be discarded in the absence of careful reflection. One such example is abortion – forbidden by Hippocrates-  but after extensive medical, political, and judicial deliberation is legal today, and no longer part of the modern Hippocratic oath.  This site cannot determine what makes for right and wrong action for all its readers, but it can encourage critical analysis of one’s beliefs and actions, and offer robust systems for consideration.

As in our discussion of the nature of reality where there were multiple tiers, human behavior falls into five tiers:

 1.  Self-Mastery

2..  Direct Interaction with Others 

3.   Societal Duty 

4.  Relationship to Ultimate Reality 

5.   Supererogatory Duty

We will now discuss each tier in some detail.

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