Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so.  Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.
Henry David Thoreau

In this chapter I’d like to discuss how intent and perception plays a role in how we judge the actions of others. Are we less likely to condemn someone for their actions if we perceive them as an “ethical person”. Would the actions be secondary to the “virtue” of the person committing them? If someone’s actions brings about a positive outcome, does that influence our overall judgment of them? Or are there certain moral standards or laws that define every action we take? These questions are covered in the three major branches of normative ethics. The modern philosophical moral theory regarding how one must act to be moral.

We will begin with virtue ethics. This is a school of thought which focuses on character. The makeup of the individual. When judging whether an act is right or wrong, the act is almost meaningless to the virtue ethicist. All that matters is the “moral character” of the person committing the act. Whether the act brought negative or positive consequences is not considered. What matters is how the moral situation was approached. Was the person’s intent a positive one?

Dentological ethics is a school of thought which believes morality is based on one’s adherence to preset rules or duties, and that these rules should guide all our behavior. It differs a bit from moral absolutism in that they can leave room for some actions to be considered positive if they led to a positive outcome. There are dentologists who follow moral absolutism and feel some acts that were not carried out “morally” cannot be considered positive regardless of the results. Mankind must basically have a moral code and that this code will define the morality of their actions. And you cannot stray far from it  and be considered moral, no matter the outcome.

Consequentialism is the view that the outcome of one’s actions should be the true measure of one’s morality. “The ends justify the means”. It differs from virtue ethics in that no thought is given to the approach of the individual, and from dentology in that almost all weight is given to the action and not the “moral code” of the individual or culture. “Vigilante morals” as I like to call them. A great modern example of this, is Batman. His goals are altruistic and he doesn’t kill, but he clearly operates outside of standard law and morals.


Many of the principles and beliefs that define each of these schools of thought find their origins in ancient Greek philosophy. Most notably, virtue ethics, which traces it’s origins as far back as Plato’s book, Republic. In it, he discusses the Four Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. If a man carried himself by these virtues, then that would define the morality of his actions. Not the means or the ends. It was an idea carried through history by the likes of Cicero in Ancient Rome, early  Christian philosophers St. Ambrose and St. Aquinas, and David Hume. Confucianism also shares some parallels with classic virtue theory.

Dentology is  a more modern ethical philosophy though it did pluck some ideas from ancient Greek thought. The first relevant use of the term “dentological” was in 1930 by English philosopher,  C.D. Broad. Dentology gained much of it’s influence from religious structure, beginning with the Divine Command Theory.  A group of  theories that suggest an action is right if GOD deemed it to be so.  The teachings of GOD from the Bible ruled most thought on moral action but some discrepancy is made. If you do not work on the Sabbath because you were being lazy(whatever that means) you will be looked bad upon even though scripture says do no work on the Sabbath.


Consequentialism was also crystallized in modern times by British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe. Who, by the way, is credited with driving C.S. Lewis out of ethics and into children’s books after she destroyed him in a debate on ethics. It has since divided into several different different subgroups all focused on a particular variation of “the ends justify the means”. Noted historical figures who could be considered “founding fathers” of consequentialism include; Niccolò Machiavelli , Friedrich Nietzsche , and Jean – Paul Sartre.

In the 20th century, ethics scholars became increasingly interested in our reasons for what we do as much as what we actually do. A turning point credited to W. D. Ross and his book  The Right and The Good. The theories that make up normative ethics were discussed and fleshed out at great length for many decades  until a brief hiatus with the research of “meta ethics”. A topic we will discuss in a later chapter.

Speaking of which, this brings us to the end of this chapter. Again, I hope you enjoyed it.  Please do join me for the next chapter when we will be discussing personal ethics, moral codes, and the “stages of moral development” as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg. Home players should have 12 air quotes.

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ADONAI, I never was an English teacher, but there are probably folks out there who would love to send me to the confines of English Teacher Purgatory.

And you may be one of them, after I say that I think the word you meant to use in your article was deontological rather than dentological. I’m not trying to be a smartass, but the later could be construed as relating to the study of teeth, and I know that’s not what you meant.

The meaning of the “deon” part of the word was originally something like “duty.”

Which is a subject that we all could sink our teeth into.


k’es. now that is something I could sink my teeth into as both a duty and honor.


Hey, b’ito! At last we meet.

Which is always a pleasure, never a deon. 😉


I have issues…

When I get “vapor locked” and unable to commit to an action, it is typically because no action I can think of will result in a good outcome (defined as no harm to someone). Trying to choose in that situation is the one frustrating thing in my makeup. I usually know what to do instinctively. Even if I end up being harmed, I will not take a deliberate action that will harm another. My choice, I suppose.

I can’t identify my personal idea of morals by or through any one of those three types of moral frameworks. All I know for sure is that the Golden Rule seems a safe and fairly universal bet.

I liken a moral dilemma to a fairly common question a girlfriend/wife asks, for which there is no right answer… “Do these pants make me look fat?”

No matter WHAT you say, trouble will ensue. I generally just leave the room at that point. Call me a coward, if you will.


PW…YOU really can’t win on that last one….you aren’t a coward, you are just a survivor! 🙂


Abby – True enough. Actually, this sort of question angers me. It’s a trick question, and is designed to put the person trying to answer it in an inferior position for some other point down the road. I have been known to not only leave the room, but to leave the house and go home. If someone wants to have an argument with me, at least they can be honest about it.


Taking no action, when any action will (or is most likely to) result in a bad outcome, is just prudent, not cowardly.

I don’t trust the Golden Rule.

I know what my principles are, and tailor my actions accordingly.

And if my actions cause a negative outcome, I must take responsibility.

But I refuse to take responsibility for other people’s actions (such as buying pants that make one’s butt look fat).


2nd – the Golden Rule is a pretty good place to start, though.

And I agree. I’ll take the hit if I have to in order to not hurt someone else. My choice.


PW, the Golden Rule presupposes that the “other person” has similar values as to my (or your) own.

*WARNING: The following may offend people (unlike any other comment I ever make)*

When I am at the gay bar, I actually enjoy it when guys I have never met come up to me, grab me in a hug, nuzzle my ear, and pat me in unmentionable places. It allows me feel good, it allows me to feel attractive, and I get to meet men who have a similar value for making others feel wanted and appreciated.

However, I am not going to do so to another man I do not know, as I do not know whether he would appreciate it. I have known people who get unnerved by accidental physical contact with *friends*, so casual contact with strangers would really freak them out.

Is it wrong for my hypothetical admirer to do so to me? No, because I do not see it as inappropriate.

But it would be wrong for me to do the same to someone else who has more restrictive personal boundaries.

I am reminded by a friend of mine who was six months pregnant and had a complete stranger come up to her to feel her abdomen. She told the woman, “do that again and I will break your arm”.

And I wholly support her maintaining her personal space in a way that is comfortable for her.


2nd – I agree that the GR is a subjective measure. What I think of as “harm” may be just fine to someone else. What I think of as “harmless” may be entirely offensive or harmful to someone else.

Having said that, though, I still will go with that concept as a starting point, erring on the side of caution.

I am a fairly reserved person as a result, until I get to know you. I view joking with someone as a very high sign of respect, because it denotes a degree of trust. I have gotten into untold trouble because I have made a joke or used an amusing (so I thought) turn of phrase that was completely misunderstood. I don’t do that any more.

Harm can come in many forms, and some not so obvious. I often stand open-mouthed at what some people get away with.


PW: “what some people get away with”

I could tell you horror stories. I could show you horror stories.

And they would be but a drop in the bucket.

That’s why I adhere to my responsibility for my actions. I can’t do jack about other people’s actions (except maybe help clean up the mess afterward).


Hi PW! You aren’t a coward, I tend to do the same, and I don’t ask if my pants make me look too fat, I don’t want to answer myself, I’m loony enough as it is. Ed the stalker appeared at my backdoor this time, Tuesday night. Scared the crap out of me. I’m fine and it is being taken care of Are you around tomorrow for a chat? I think I have some good news if it works for you.


Hi fox! Holy crap! If I were around, he’d be lucky to be alive!

Sure, I’m always around. Any time.


Great, tomorrow it is:))) He’s lucky to be alive, per your suggestion I have an old wrench of my Dad’s by the door, that thing is solid. I had it ready to use. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. I’m signing off, I’ve got some vittles brewing in the kitchen, it’s my monthly food gift to my daughter as her Christmas present. She loves it, makes the dinner hour real easy for her.


Fox – later, then.


I hope that “being taken care of” is really being taken care of.

Why haven’t you gone to your boss about this?


I did go to my boss, it’s being taken care of, I’ve got witnesses now. I’m fine, lots of people know now.


I’m discovering that I am much more close-minded than I like to admit.

When it comes to Republicans or Tea Party people, I dismiss them and regard them as being “the enemy”, and close my mind to even considering listening to them.

I think of them as WRONG and ignorant right off the bat.

We have neighbors that are good friends, and we’ve made it a point to never talk politics to save our friendship, because they love Glenn Beck and quote him verbatim.

These people helped us, before politics became as volatile as it has, but these people helped us when we so desperately needed help.

These people hate Mexicans – legal or not, and they hate blacks, yet they have a teenage daughter and she has a friend that is Mexican, and they have practically adopted her.

The friend comes from a very poor and broken home, and they have that young girl over every weekend, and on school breaks and they take her on vacations.
They also make up these most magnificent gift baskets filled with food and toiletries and give them to her family.

Their actions are not in line with the things that they believe.

We also have another friend, Dick, and I’ve written about him here before, but he is a Reagan Republican, yet he voted for Gore and Obama.

Dick has the 2 gay daughters, and one of the gay daughters has a partner, and Dick and his wife have a real hard time with the gay thing.

But that gay daughter adopted a mixed heritage little boy – he’s Mexican and black – and they absolutely love that little boy, yet they are more worried about that grandchild for him having 2 mommies, over the racial divide.

Dick is the person who bought both of Barack Obama’s books and loaned them to us, and we had to respect that, as we would never ever consider buying books from anyone on the right.

Dick does say things and sends things via email that are so extreme right wing, and then my husband, who is much more diplomatic than I will ever be, and then my husband tells Dick to check it out using scopes and politifacts.

And Dick does that.

Dick and his wife are people who use the “n” word right and left, and they really hate Mexicans and Muslims, yet Dick reads and well, he’s more open-minded than I will ever be.


I must be a very strange individual, because I can not see evaluating a person’s character as being divorced from their actions and the consequences of their actions.

I do see that one individual action or consequence does not define a person’s character.

The question with virtues is complicated by far too many people seeking to redefine virtues or add new virtues to the list. There are those who seek to redefine “Fidelity” such that stepping out with one’s mistress isn’t a violation at all. There are others who have sought to add such things as “Family Values” and “Conservatism” to the list, without even being able to define the terms except via anecdotal evidence.

And, once again, the problem with morality is that it can only be delineated by the person with that specific personal moral code. Even those who share a common religion can not define a common moral code, as each has their own interpretation (which they try to apply indiscriminately to other people).

I have had people tell me that I am being immoral for helping a minor child escape an abusive home life, because the minor should “honor their mother and father”. I have been told it is wrong for me to apply the *stated* moral code of a person to their own behavior.

However, I am adult enough to recognize that other people are going to do whatever it is they want to do, regardless of their own stated values or my opinion. I will govern my own moral code, I can not do anything about theirs.


I find the ethics and morality by which most people with whom I associate and function are nowhere in this list. They’d not assume ‘character” was sufficient, do not adhere to a preformed list of right and wrong, and certainly do not justify the means by the ends.

Hmmm. So what else is left?

Judgment based on seeing oneself as part of all humanity for which each action requires discernment based in compassion. I don’t think this fits any of the three categories since it is utterly dynamic and requires constant evaluation – and constant vigilance over self and one’s own capacity for selfishness. It is part of Thoreau’s assertion one needs to be “good for something”.

It can be guided by faith, by science, by philosophy, by practice, by compassion – and it may be the most elusive of all since it comes from a wellspring of real mental health grounded in mutual respect for every living thing. (The last point – MUTUAL respect – actually is not essential. Albert Schweitzer refused to kill anything, even bugs. Same is true for many Buddhists. But I doubt the bugs returned the favor.Doesn’t stamp out respect for all life just because some of it cannot empathize back.)

When religion insists its rules exist because the religion has the sole moral good, I have two words: The Inquisition. Two more: Northern Ireland.

When science insists its processes and findings are the sole information needed for true morality, I have two words: Hydrogen Bomb. Two more: Tuskegee Experiment.

Morality comes from someplace else. It is pretty clearly NOT morality when it is bound with a set of rules rather than principles, when it imposes rather than discerns. When it pities rather than exercises true compassion. When it is self interested rather than altruistic. When it judges rather than forgives. When it forgives without requiring restoration and accountability.

Morality always begins with the “I-Thou” formulation in which the other person is your equal in every way. Anytime we strike a moral stance which is “I-It”, reducing the other to an object or category, then no matter where we go from there, it is not a moral exercise. Might be political or instrumental, but it is not the practice, much less the discernment, of morality. When your rules of morality affect only someone else, that is again political and instrumental, not moral.

So I’m not comfortable with those three classes of morality. None of the three seems to describe the processes of growing and becoming a more humane and compassionate society. I suspect these are not the only views however much they may express the ways we look at the world today. But I’m danged if I can put a name to what I’ve described here as my vision and practice. If anyone can, please do let me know?


Adonai, oftentimes our laws and morality are not one and the same. There are such things as, “bad laws.” Are virtues not enough, in and of themselves?
Must I believe as others believe, if I am virtuous and do no harm?


Great topic for discussion Adonai!

I love such subjective topics that provide much ability to really discuss the various ideas and opinions of both philosophers and the masses.

I haven’t really studied this subject at length and simply only have a passing familiarity with some of the concepts of differing philosophers and religious doctrine.

As to my own personal belief system and ethical code, I believe, I would be more apt to subscribe to the Virtue ethics concept. I tend to think the motives of a person and the WHY’s of an action or behavior is important from an ethical perspective sometimes more so than the outcome itself…but that’s just my opinion.

I look forward to further installments on this subject!


“The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to meet Anscombe’s objections], shows his honesty and seriousness. The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis’s part […]. My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.”
Elizabeth Anscombe’s own very gracious commentary on the debate you refer to.