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The Article Review should be 750-1000 words double-spaced (3-4 pages).  It will be a summary and commentary on both assigned readings for June 6.  There are 4 parts to the Reading Review assignment:

1) Succinctly state the viewpoint each author is promoting (1-2 paragraphs) 

2) Summary of main arguments for each position (1-2 pages).

3) Identification of main areas of agreement and disagreement among all readings (1 page)

4) Tell what you think about these key issues –remember to back this up with arguments! (2 pages)

readings in

Jonathan Wolff
Blavatnik Professor of Public Policy

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University

W. W. NOrtON & COm PaNy

N ew Yor k • LoN doN


readings in

W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when
william warder Norton and Mary d. Herter Norton first published lectures delivered at
the People’s Institute, the adult education division of New  york City’s Cooper Union.
The firm soon expanded its program beyond the Institute, publishing books by cele-
brated academics from america and abroad. By midcentury, the two major pillars of
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today— with a staff of four hundred and a comparable number of trade, college, and pro-
fessional titles published each year— W. W. Norton & Company stands as the largest
and oldest publishing house owned wholly by its employees.

Copyright © 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved
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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

To Tom, Kirra- Lee, Kayley, and
Jaxon John

Preface xvii

Pa rt   1
Meta- Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Thomas Nagel
Right and Wrong 10
Study Questions 16

DaviD hume
Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason 17
Study Questions 22

RuTh BeNeDicT
Patterns of Culture 22
Study Questions 26

maRy miDgley
Trying Out One’s New Sword 26
Study Questions 31

FRieDRich NieTzsche
Beyond Good and Evil 32
Study Questions 39



viii ■ Contents

a. J. ayeR
A Critique of Ethics 39
Study Questions 47

J. l. mackie
Inventing Right and Wrong 47
Study Questions 55

haRRy g. FRaNkFuRT
Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility 56
Study Questions 65

God and Morality 65
Study Questions 71

PeTeR siNgeR
Evolution and Morality 71
Study Questions 83

Pa rt   2
Normative Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84
sT. Thomas aquiNas
The Natural Law 95
Study Questions 102

ayN RaND
The Ethics of Emergencies 102
Study Questions 108

What Is the Value of Justice? 108
Study Questions 116

Thomas hoBBes
The State of Nature 117
Study Questions 125

Contents ■ ix

JohN RaWls
The Original Position 125
Study Questions 132

JeRemy BeNTham
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 132
Study Questions 140

JohN sTuaRT mill
Utilitarianism 140
Study Questions 150

RoBeRT Nozick
The Experience Machine 150
Study Questions 152

immaNuel kaNT
The Categorical Imperative 152
Study Questions 160

aNNeTTe BaieR
The Need for More than Justice 160
Study Questions 172

Nicomachean Ethics 172
Study Questions 183

Analects 183
Study Questions 188

viRgiNia helD
The Caring Person 188
Study Questions 198

JeaN- Paul saRTRe
Existentialism and Humanism 198
Study Questions 207

x ■ Contents

Pa rt   3
Applied Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208
Gender equa lity 208
maRy WollsToNecRaFT
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 212
Study Questions 218

simoNe De BeauvoiR
The Second Sex 218
Study Questions 232

auDRe loRDe
Age, Race, Class, and Sex 232
Study Questions 241

loRi giRshick
Gender Policing 241
Study Questions 252

compare and contrast questions 252

Fr ee Speech a nd itS limitS 252
JohN sTuaRT mill
On Liberty of Expression 254
Study Questions 268

caThaRiNe mackiNNoN
Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech 268
Study Questions 278

gReg lukiaNoFF aND JoNaThaN haiDT
The Coddling of the American Mind 278
Study Questions 290

compare and contrast questions 290

Contents ■ xi

Sexua l mor a lity 291
lois PiNeau
Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis 293
Study Questions 306

Nicholas DixoN
Alcohol and Rape 306
Study Questions 316

coNoR kelly
Feminist Ethics: Evaluating the Hookup Culture 316
Study Questions 328

compare and contrast questions 328

a bortion 328
JuDiTh JaRvis ThomsoN
A Defense of Abortion 332
Study Questions 340

maRy aNNe WaRReN
On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion 340
Study Questions 352

DoN maRquis
Why Abortion Is Immoral 352
Study Questions 361

RosaliND huRsThouse
Virtue Theory and Abortion 361
Study Questions 370

compare and contrast questions 370

euth a naSia 371
James Rachels
Active and Passive Euthanasia 372
Study Questions 378

PhiliPPa FooT
Euthanasia 379
Study Questions 388

compare and contrast questions 388

the death pena lty 388
JohN sTuaRT mill
Speech in Defense of Capital Punishment 390
Study Questions 397

hugo aDam BeDau
How to Argue About the Death Penalty 397
Study Questions 406

compare and contrast question 406

the cr imina lization oF druGS 407
Douglas husak
Four Points About Drug Decriminalization 408
Study Questions 420

geoRge sheR
On the Decriminalization of Drugs 420
Study Questions 426

compare and contrast question 426

a nim a l r iGhtS 426
immaNuel kaNT
Duties Towards Animals 428
Study Questions 429

PeTeR siNgeR
All Animals Are Equal 429
Study Questions 435

xii ■ Contents

RogeR scRuToN
Animal Rights and Wrongs 436
Study Questions 443

compare and contrast questions 443

the en vironment 443
alDo leoPolD
The Land Ethic 445
Study Questions 457

DaRRel moelleNDoRF
Justice and Climate Change 457
Study Questions 467

compare and contrast question 467

Wa r 468
JohN RaWls
50 Years After Hiroshima 469
Study Questions 476

Thomas Nagel
War and Massacre 476
Study Questions 487

compare and contrast question 487

ter ror a nd tortur e 488
alaN DeRshoWiTz
Should the Ticking Bomb Terrorist Be Tortured? 489
Study Questions 500

michael WalzeR
Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses 501
Study Questions 511

compare and contrast question 511

Contents ■ xiii

r eSiSta nce 511
heNRy DaviD ThoReau
On Civil Disobedience 513
Study Questions 521

maRTiN luTheR kiNg JR.
Letter From Birmingham Jail 522
Study Questions 530

NelsoN maNDela
I Am Prepared to Die 530
Study Questions 540

compare and contrast questions 540

r acia l JuStice 541
W. e. B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk 543
Study Questions 550

elizaBeTh aNDeRsoN
Racial Integration Remains an Imperative 550
Study Questions 564

shelBy sTeele
Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference 565
Study Questions 572

geoRge yaNcy aND JuDiTh BuTleR
Black Lives Matter 572
Study Questions 580

compare and contrast questions 581

economic JuStice 581
JohN RaWls
A Theory of Justice 583
Study Questions 590

xiv ■ Contents

RoBeRT Nozick
The Entitlement Theory of Justice 590
Study Questions 598

iRis maRioN youNg
Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice 598
Study Questions 612

compare and contrast questions 612

Wor ld hunGer a nd For eiGn a id 612
PeTeR siNgeR
Famine, Affluence, and Morality 614
Study Questions 622

DamBisa moyo
Dead Aid 622
Study Questions 626

oNoRa o’Neill
Ending World Hunger 626
Study Questions 638

compare and contrast questions 638

Credits  C- 1
Index  I- 1

Contents ■ xv


his book is designed to accompany my textbook An Introduction to
Moral Philosophy, also published by  W.  W.  Norton. Although they
are produced so that they can be used independently of each other,
together they provide an extensive and substantial introduction to
moral philosophy. Part 1 of this volume, Meta- Ethics, provides fuller
versions of texts discussed in An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, but

can provide only a sample of issues and texts rather than aiming to be com-
prehensive. Part 2, Normative Ethics, also provides support for An Introduc-
tion, with selections from philosophers discussed in depth there, including
Bentham, Mill, Kant, Aristotle, and their critics, but also extends the range
of sources by including philosophers such as Confucius and Sartre. Part 3,
Applied Ethics, takes the extension further by including readings on a wide
range of applied topics that are only touched on, or not covered at all, in An

A particular effort has been made to include pieces written by women
and people of color, and this has led to the inclusion of several readings
from writers who are not generally regarded as philosophers, such as Nelson
Mandela and the poet and radical thinker Audre Lorde. These writers have
been selected because they raise important ethical questions, even if they do
not discuss them in the standard terms of Western moral philosophy. The
readings allow us to ref lect on the nature of the central issues they raise, as
well as the boundaries of what should be studied under the heading “moral
philosophy.” Some may question their inclusion; if so, I welcome the debate.

Readings in Moral Philosophy includes introductions to each part and
section as well as study questions, which test reading comprehension, and
compare and contrast questions, which test a student’s ability to synthesize
different philosophical viewpoints. The book is also supported by a full test
bank and a coursepack of assignable quizzes and discussion prompts that


xviii ■ Preface

loads into most learning management systems. Access these resources at

This book would not exist without the efforts, encouragement, and vari-
ous methods of persuasion of a number of people, most notably Roby Har-
rington, Peter Simon, and especially Ken Barton and Michael Moss, all
at W. W. Norton. I originally conceived the project on a much more modest
level, simply to provide fuller versions of texts quoted or discussed in An
Introduction. Ken and Michael persuaded me to think on a grander scale
and conducted extensive research with instructors to identify what they
most wanted to see in a book like this. Of course it is not possible to satisfy
everyone completely, or indeed anyone, and hard choices had to be made. We
hope we have made the right ones, but very much welcome further feedback
for future editions.

It would be impossible to thank everyone who gave their opinion on the
contents of this book, but a number of people gave substantial help and
advice. I’d like to give my grateful thanks to Paul Abela, Acadia University;
Caroline  T.  Arruda, University of Texas at El Paso; Andrew  D.  Chapman,
University of Colorado, Boulder; Eric Gampel, California State University–
Chico; Don Hatcher, Baker University; Carol Hay, University of Massachu-
setts, Lowell; Rodger Jackson, Stockton University; Julie Kirsch, D’Youville
College; Michael McKeon, Barry University; Timothy J. Nulty, University of
Massachusetts, Dartmouth; Andrew Pavelich, University of Houston; Arina
Pismenny, Montclair State University; Aleksandar Pjevalica, University of
Texas at El Paso; Weaver Santaniello, Penn State University; Daniel Star,
Boston University; and Glenn Tiller, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.

I would particularly like to thank Derek Bowman, Providence College;
Rory Kraft, York College of Pennsylvania; and Joanna Smolenski, CUNY, for
their work in preparing the test bank and coursepack.

readings in


he collection starts with a selection from Thomas Nagel’s introductory
book on philosophy What Does It All Mean? Nagel raises the funda-
mental question in moral philosophy of what it is we mean when we
say that some conduct is wrong, using examples of stealing a library
book and an umbrella in a rainstorm. It is not simply a matter of fol-
lowing rules, for not all behavior is covered by rules and some rules

are themselves wrong. Often a sense that something is wrong is related to
potential harm that could be caused to others, but suppose you just don’t
care. Does that mean you no longer have a reason to avoid wrongdoing?

Nagel considers the response that God’s punishment or love provides a
reason to avoid acting wrongly or, alternatively, that we should act well so
that others act well to us, but he points out a number of limitations to those
arguments. More promising is the idea that morality provides reasons that
apply to everyone, and therefore in considering the morality of an act such
as stealing another person’s umbrella we should ask “How would you like it
if someone did that to you?” He answers that if we find that we would resent
it, then this response shows that there is a type of universal reason not to
steal the umbrella.

P a r t   1


Part 1: Meta-Ethics ■ 3

Nagel suggests that morality requires us to adopt a general point of view,
taking everyone’s interests into account and not just our own. Nevertheless,
it would be very hard to live according to a morality in which I literally took
everyone’s interests as seriously as I take my own, for example by giving to
charity all but the bare minimum of my money. Somehow a line has to be
drawn to allow me to pursue my own interests rather than devote myself
entirely to the interests of others.

A further question is whether right and wrong are the same for everyone.
Moral customs have changed over the centuries, which may lead us to think
that moral standards should be relative to the standards of our own society.
This is the question of cultural relativism, to which we will return shortly.
Nagel comments that he finds cultural relativism very hard to believe, as it
would seem to cut off the possibility of being critical about our own society’s
moral standards.

Finally Nagel considers a challenge to morality that claims we always
act selfishly and that any apparent morally good action is done purely to
avoid guilt or to achieve the “warm glow” of self- satisfaction. But Nagel sug-
gests that we would not feel guilty or experience a warm glow unless there
were external moral standards to follow. Morality, he says, tries to appeal to
impartial motivation, even though it may sometimes give way to selfish or
personal motives.

Nagel raises numerous important issues and argues for particular posi-
tions. But he recognizes that he has not provided a definitive answer to any
of the questions raised. Therefore his discussion is a perfect springboard for
further ref lection and an excellent introduction to moral philosophy.

We move next to David Hume, who, writing in the 18th century, aims to
bring out a distinction between two ways of thinking about morality. One is
that morality is based on “reason,” the other that it is based on what he calls
“passions,” which we might now call “feelings” or perhaps “preferences”
or “desires.” Hume claims that morality is a practical matter, leading to
action, but, he also claims, reason alone cannot lead to action. He argues
that reason  reveals relations between ideas and hence concerns thought
and belief alone. In order to motivate human action, something more than
thought and belief is needed: desire. I can believe that there is a refreshing
drink in front of me, but this will not lead me to drink it unless I have a
desire to drink. Insofar as morality is a practical sphere, requiring people to
be motivated to act, then morality must be based not merely on reason but
also on desire or passion.

4 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Hume’s discussion suggests only a limited way in which we can use ideas
of reason in our thinking about action. If we desire something, then reason
can help us calculate how to achieve it. And we can sometimes use our rea-
son to discover that something we desire is possible or available (or not). But
the ultimate ends of our action cannot be criticized for being reasonable or
unreasonable, or rational or irrational. There are some things that “excite
our passions,” which is to say that we desire them, and some things that do
not. On this view, no desire is irrational, unless it is a desire for something
that will frustrate a more important desire. Similarly, Hume claims, we must
come to understand that something is morally good through the fact that it
accords with our passions, rather than because it is derived by our reason.

Hume next, in a very inf luential argument, points out that it has been
very common for writers about moral questions to move from passages that
describe some factual state of affairs to a judgment of right or wrong, with-
out making clear how that transition is made. Hume wants us to appreciate
that no statement about facts logically implies any moral judgment. On a
literal reading of the text, Hume is simply pointing out that there is often a
gap in the argument between “facts” and “values” and is criticizing other
philosophers for leaving that gap unfilled. However, Hume is often read as
suggesting that such a gap cannot be filled and that it is simply illegitimate
to move from an “is”—a statement of fact— to an “ought”—a statement of
values. And indeed this may well have been Hume’s subtle intention, raising
a very significant question of how the “is/ought gap” can be filled.

The next reading is a short extract from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict
which provides examples of cultural difference with respect to moral atti-
tudes. Benedict lists different practices regarding the taking of life, and sui-
cide, to support the claim that there are no universal values and that values
differ from culture to culture. As an anthropologist her project is to under-
stand cultures, rather than to make a philosophical argument. However, the
type of evidence that Benedict draws on is often used in arguments for the
view that there are no universal moral standards, but that moral standards
differ from culture to culture and there is no external standpoint from which
one can be judged “right” and another “wrong.” This is the view known as
cultural relativism, mentioned above in relation to Nagel, and it is certainly
encouraged, whether or not directly advocated, by Benedict’s writing.

Mary Midgley’s task is to consider the merits of the type of cultural rel-
ativism suggested by the writings of Benedict and others, which Midgley
calls “moral isolationism.” Such a view prevents us from criticizing other

cultures, for each culture’s value system is said to be relative to that particu-
lar culture and hence immune to external judgment. Midgley points out that
moral isolationism blocks praise as well as blame and makes it impossible to
learn from other cultures. Indeed, she argues that moral isolationism makes
it problematic for us even to judge our own culture, for what standards could
we use if not comparisons with other cultures?

Midgley asks us to ref lect on what is claimed to be the ancient Samurai
practice of “trying out one’s new sword” on an innocent wayfarer, who would
be sliced in half as a result. An external critic might well condemn such a
practice as barbaric. Midgley points out that one way of replying to the critic
is to explain the practice as arising within Japanese culture and even to
suggest that the wayfarer may well consent. In addition to raising the ques-
tion of whether such consent is likely, Midgley points out that even to enter
into such a discussion is to reject moral isolationism. The true isolationist
response would be that it is simply not for us to try to judge or attempt to
understand. But those tempted to say anything substantive in criticism or
justification are applying one set of values (their own) to try to justify other
practices. Moral isolationism turns out to be a very difficult theory to live by,
and, Midgley argues, very misguided, as any real culture has been formed by
a good number of different traditions, many from “outside,” which should
not be possible on an isolationist view.

The challenge to conventional morality begun by cultural relativism or
moral isolationism is continued in the extract of Friedrich Nietzsche’s bril-
liant but rather elusive writings. He begins by applauding the role of strong
people in human development and achievement. He moves on to a deeply par-
adoxical position: that refraining from injuring, exploiting, and being violent
to others, which is normally thought to be morally required, will lead to the
denial of morality. Life, Nietzsche says, is “will to power,” by which he means
the drive to impose one’s own goals on others, even at their expense. There-
fore, conventional morality, in curbing the will to power, is contrary to life.

Nietzsche then goes on to distinguish what he calls “master morality”
and “slave morality.” Master morality identifies the good with the aims of
the nobility or aristocracy, which attempts to separate itself from the mass.
The noble have contempt for the “cowardly” and inferior. They have the
power even to determine their own values, and although they may help the
weak, it is simply an exercise of their own power. “Good” is the exercise of
the will of the nobility, and “bad” its frustration. Slave morality, by contrast,
is the morality of “good” and “evil.” Nietzsche regards slave morality as a

Part 1: Meta-Ethics ■ 5

6 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

type of agreement or conspiracy among the weak, to protect them from
the “evil” that they fear: those very people who are the masters of master
morality. Hence slave morality turns out to be a conspiracy of the weak to
protect themselves from the strong. And it is clear that Nietzsche regards
slave morality as a highly undesirable system, opposed to “life” and in urgent
need of replacement by master morality.

From Nietzsche we move to  A.  J.  Ayer’s equally radical, though more
calmly expressed, critique of ethics. Ayer’s position f lows from a more gen-
eral philosophical position known as logical positivism, which is a theory
of how statements can be meaningful. For the logical positivist, statements
are meaningful only if they meet one of two conditions concerning how they
can be tested, which Ayer calls the “criterion of verifiability.” The first is if
they can be tested by logic; the second if they can be tested by experience.

Two moral theories could meet the criterion of verifiability, according
to Ayer. These are subjectivism and utilitarianism. Subjectivism is here
defined as identifying the good with what is generally desired, and utili-
tarianism with what maximizes happiness. Ayer’s objection to both takes
the same form: It is not contradictory to say that something is good but not
desired, or good but not maximizing of happiness. Hence the good cannot
be defined as subjectivists or utilitarians do.

This failure leads to the startling conclusion that statements expressing
moral beliefs appear to be classified as meaningless, for there is no conceiv-
able test we can use to decide a moral dispute. Rather than take this path,
Ayer provides a different way of understanding moral statements as express-
ing our attitudes. To say that something is good is rather like cheering for it,
and to say it is bad is akin to booing it. Hence, on this view, moral judgments
do not aim to be true, but rather, they express our emotions. Hence the
position defended by Ayer is known as “emotivism.” And it has the further
feature that any apparent moral disagreement is just that: apparent. For it
is perfectly possible, and no contradiction, for two people to take opposed
attitudes to the same state of affairs.

In reply to the objection that his theory makes it impossible to argue
about moral questions, Ayer replies that typically moral disagreements con-
cern the background matters of fact that give rise to the moral judgment,
such as whether someone really did take something from a shop without
paying for it. When we agree on all the facts, Ayer suggests that further
moral argument is not possible and that different moral judgments simply
ref lect different emotions or attitudes toward the case.

Like Ayer, J. L. Mackie wishes to argue against the view that moral stan-
dards are in some sense objective. Unlike Mackie, however, he does not rest
his argument on a theory of meaning. Rather, he concedes that the meaning
of an ethical judgment such as “stealing is wrong” is that it states that it is an
objective fact that stealing is wrong. However, Mackie wishes to convince us
that all such statements are false. For they presuppose that there are objec-
tive values in the world— in this case, the “wrongness” of stealing— but,
he says, there are no such things as objective values. All moral judgments
contain the same error of presupposing the existence of moral values. For
this reason, Mackie’s view has become known as “error theory.”

Mackie presents two main arguments for his conclusion. The first is
the argument from cultural relativity that we have seen in Ruth Benedict’s
writing. Mackie suggests that the great cultural diversity in moral values we
observe in the world is a good reason for believing that there are no objective
truths about morality. The second is known as the argument from “queer-
ness” (using the term in its old- fashioned sense) that if there were objective
values, they would be very odd or queer, unlike anything that exists in the
world. This argument has two parts. The first is metaphysical, in that it
concerns what, fundamentally, exists in the world. Objective values would
be very strange objects. The second part is epistemological, concerning how
we can know values. If values are subjective, then it is very easy to see how
we could know them, for we would have made them for ourselves. But if they
are objective, how do we have the type of engagement with them that would
lead to knowledge? For all these reasons, Mackie concludes that objective
values do not exist and hence our ordinary moral judgments are false.

Harry Frankfurt’s journal article moves us to a different topic. He
considers the thesis that people are morally responsible for their actions
only if they could have acted otherwise. Frankfurt calls this thesis the
“principle of alternate possibilities.” It, or something very like it, is often
taken for granted in ordinary understandings of morality, for if you had
no alternative to doing something, how could you be blamed (or praised)
for doing it? Consider, for example, someone who acts under hypnotic
suggestion or under extreme coercion. But this principle has far- reaching
consequences. For if it turns out that human beings do not have free will
and that all our actions are determined by factors outside our control,
then human beings have no alternative to acting as we do. Then it will
also turn out that we have no moral responsibility and cannot be praised
or blamed for anything.

Part 1: Meta-Ethics ■ 7

8 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Frankfurt sets out to cast doubt on the principle of alternate possibili-
ties by imagining a case in which someone voluntarily performs an action
which, had that person not chosen to perform the action, someone else
would have forced the person to do. In one example, another person has
taken control of my brain and could change my choices if need be. Whatever
happens, I would have performed the action and hence had no alternative
to doing so. But in this case, because I have voluntarily chosen to undertake
the action, and no intervention was necessary, we have very little hesitation
in saying that I am indeed morally responsible for the action. Frankfurt
wishes to replace the principle of alternate possibilities with the principle
that people are not morally responsible for what they have done if they did it
only because they could not have done otherwise. Through this simple argu-
ment, Frankfurt provides a possible basis for what is known as a compati-
bilist position in the free will debate, in which determinism is compatible
with moral responsibility.

Changing topics again, we move to Plato’s Euthyphro, which contains
one of the most important arguments in the history of moral philosophy,
even though the dialogue form and the literary writing style may some-
what obscure its significance. The topic is whether God’s command can
be foundation of morality. The context of the extract is that Euthyphro has
told Socrates that he is bringing a prosecution against his own father who
has unjustly brought about the death of a slave. The discussion moves on
to the nature of “piety,” raising the question of whether some actions are
pious because the gods command those actions, or whether the gods com-
mand them because these actions are pious for other reasons. The context
in which Plato is writing is that of Greek polytheism, in which there are
many gods, often in dispute with each other. Hence it may seem that Plato
is concerned with a local theological question that has little general appli-
cation. But in fact this argument has been taken as presenting exactly the
same question for the relation between morality and God in a monotheistic
religion. The question for us today is this: On a view that founds morality
on religion, are actions good because God commands them, or does God
command them because they are independently good? This is now known
as the Euthyphro dilemma.

The dilemma is that if we take the latter alternative and say that God com-
mands certain actions because they are independently good, then it seems we
have denied that there is a religious basis to morality. Goodness would not,
then, depend on God’s command. So someone who wishes to find a religious

foundation for morality seems compelled to take the first alternative and
argue that actions are good because God commands them. But this, it seems,
is problematic in a different way. If actions are good simply because God com-
mands them, it seems that morality is unconstrained. Hence whatever God
commands becomes morally correct, however repellent those commands
appear to us to be. Can this consequence be accepted? If not, then it appears
that it will be very difficult to find a religious basis for morality.

Our final reading in this section jumps forward 2,500 years to explore
the links between recent theorizing in genetics and in moral philosophy.
Given that human beings are a product of evolution, it is reasonable to sup-
pose that elements of human behavior can be explained in evolutionary
terms. Moral behavior would be no exception, and therefore it could be fruit-
ful to explore how much moral behavior can be explained as a product of
evolution, in that it could have evolved in order to facilitate human survival
and reproduction. This is the area known as sociobiology.

Peter Singer understands altruism as behavior that helps others at some
cost to oneself, and the puzzle is to explain how genes for this sort of self-
sacrificing behavior could evolve and survive when it would seem to be
against the interests of the being that developed them. Singer identifies
three possible mechanisms that have been thought to be candidates for
playing a role in the evolution of moral norms: kin altruism, reciprocal altru-
ism, and group altruism. Kin altruism starts from the insight that my close
relatives contain much of the same genetic material as I do, and so my own
genes can survive through their survival. Hence there is any easy genetic
explanation for why I might sacrifice my own interests to those of my close
relatives, especially my children, if this sacrifice would better preserve my
genes. Reciprocal altruism arises from the insight that although cooperation
can be a cost, it is generally better to live under cooperative arrangements
than ones in which we ignore or cheat each other. These two mechanisms
seem plausible explanations of at least part of morality. The third mecha-
nism, group altruism, is more controversial. It is the idea that cooperative
groups will do better as a whole than noncooperative groups. However, coop-
erative groups are likely to be subject to free riders (those who reap the ben-
efits without paying the costs), which could lead to destruction of the group.
Consequently, Singer sees only a limited role for group altruism, perhaps as
a way of helping reciprocal altruism get established, at which point group
and reciprocal altruism reinforce each other, especially when combined with
hostility to outside groups, to prevent new free riders from entering.

Part 1: Meta-Ethics ■ 9

10 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Thomas Nagel
R ight a nd Wrong

Thomas Nagel (b. 1937) is an American philosopher, particularly noted for his
contributions to moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of mind.

Suppose you work in a library, checking people’s books as they leave, and
a friend asks you to let him smuggle out a hard- to- find reference work that
he wants to own.

You might hesitate to agree for various reasons. You might be afraid
that he’ll be caught and that both you and he will then get into trouble. You
might want the book to stay in the library so that you can consult it yourself.

But you may also think that what he proposes is wrong— that he shouldn’t
do it and you shouldn’t help him. If you think that, what does it mean, and
what, if anything, makes it true?

To say it’s wrong is not just to say it’s against the rules. There can be bad
rules which prohibit what isn’t wrong— like a law against criticizing the
government. A rule can also be bad because it requires something that is
wrong— like a law that requires racial segregation in hotels and restaurants.
The ideas of wrong and right are different from the ideas of what is and
is not against the rules. Otherwise they couldn’t be used in the evaluation
of rules as well as of actions.

If you think it would be wrong to help your friend steal the book, then
you will feel uncomfortable about doing it: in some way you won’t want to
do it, even if you are also reluctant to refuse help to a friend. Where does
the desire not to do it come from; what is its motive, the reason behind it?

There are various ways in which something can be wrong, but in this
case, if you had to explain it, you’d probably say that it would be unfair to
other users of the library who may be just as interested in the book as your
friend is, but who consult it in the reference room, where anyone who needs
it can find it. You may also feel that to let him take it would betray your
employers, who are paying you precisely to keep this sort of thing from

These thoughts have to do with effects on others— not necessarily effects
on their feelings, since they may never find out about it, but some kind
of damage nevertheless. In general, the thought that something is wrong
depends on its impact not just on the person who does it but on other people.
They wouldn’t like it, and they’d object if they found out.

Thomas Nagel ■ 11

But suppose you try to explain all this to your friend, and he says, “I know
the head librarian wouldn’t like it if he found out, and probably some of the
other users of the library would be unhappy to find the book gone, but who
cares? I want the book; why should I care about them?”

The argument that it would be wrong is supposed to give him a reason
not to do it. But if someone just doesn’t care about other people, what reason
does he have to refrain from doing any of the things usually thought to be
wrong, if he can get away with it: what reason does he have not to kill, steal,
lie, or hurt others? If he can get what he wants by doing such things, why
shouldn’t he? And if there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, in what sense is
it wrong?

Of course most people do care about others to some extent. But if some-
one doesn’t care, most of us wouldn’t conclude that he’s exempt from moral-
ity. A person who kills someone just to steal his wallet, without caring about
the victim, is not automatically excused. The fact that he doesn’t care doesn’t
make it all right: He should care. But why should he care?

There have been many attempts to answer this question. One type of
answer tries to identify something else that the person already cares about
and then connect morality to it.

For example, some people believe that even if you can get away with
awful crimes on this earth and are not punished by the law or your fellow
men, such acts are forbidden by God, who will punish you after death (and
reward you if you didn’t do wrong when you were tempted to). So even when
it seems to be in your interest to do such a thing, it really isn’t. Some people
have even believed that if there is no God to back up moral requirements
with the threat of punishment and the promise of reward, morality is an
illusion: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

This is a rather crude version of the religious foundation for morality.
A more appealing version might be that the motive for obeying God’s com-
mands is not fear but love. He loves you, and you should love Him, and
should wish to obey His commands in order not to offend Him.

But however we interpret the religious motivation, there are three objec-
tions to this type of answer. First, plenty of people who don’t believe in
God still make judgments of right and wrong, and think no one should kill
another for his wallet even if he can be sure to get away with it. Second, if
God exists, and forbids what’s wrong, that still isn’t what makes it wrong.
Murder is wrong in itself, and that’s why God forbids it (if He does). God
couldn’t make just any old thing wrong— like putting on your left sock

12 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

before your right— simply by prohibiting it. If God would punish you for
doing that it would be inadvisable to do it, but it wouldn’t be wrong. Third,
fear of punishment and hope of reward, and even love of God, seem not to be
the right motives for morality. If you think it’s wrong to kill, cheat, or steal,
you should want to avoid doing such things because they are bad things to
do to the victims, not just because you fear the consequences for yourself,
or because you don’t want to offend your Creator.

This third objection also applies to other explanations of the force of
morality which appeal to the interests of the person who must act. For
example, it may be said that you should treat others with consideration so
that they’ll do the same for you. This may be sound advice, but it is valid
only so far as you think what you do will affect how others treat you. It’s
not a reason for doing the right thing if others won’t find out about it, or
against doing the wrong thing if you can get away with it (like being a hit
and run driver).

There is no substitute for a direct concern for other people as the basis of
morality. But morality is supposed to apply to everyone: and can we assume
that everyone has such a concern for others? Obviously not: some people
are very selfish, and even those who are not selfish may care only about
the people they know, and not about everyone. So where will we find a rea-
son that everyone has not to hurt other people, even those they don’t know?

Well, there’s one general argument against hurting other people which
can be given to anybody who understands English (or any other language),
and which seems to show that he has some reason to care about others, even
if in the end his selfish motives are so strong that he persists in treating
other people badly anyway. It’s an argument that I’m sure you’ve heard, and
it goes like this: “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

It’s not easy to explain how this argument is supposed to work. Suppose
you’re about to steal someone else’s umbrella as you leave a restaurant in a
rainstorm, and a bystander says, “How would you like it if someone did that
to you?” Why is it supposed to make you hesitate, or feel guilty?

Obviously the direct answer to the question is supposed to be, “I wouldn’t
like it at all!” But what’s the next step? Suppose you were to say, “I wouldn’t
like it if someone did that to me. But luckily no one is doing it to me. I’m
doing it to someone else, and I don’t mind that at all!”

This answer misses the point of the question. When you are asked how
you would like it if someone did that to you, you are supposed to think about
all the feelings you would have if someone stole your umbrella. And  that

Thomas Nagel ■ 13

includes more than just “not liking it”—as you wouldn’t “like it” if you
stubbed your toe on a rock. If someone stole your umbrella you’d resent it.
You’d have feelings about the umbrella thief, not just about the loss of the
umbrella. ✻ ✻ ✻

When our own interests are threatened by the inconsiderate behavior of
others, most of us find it easy to appreciate that those others have a reason to
be more considerate. When you are hurt, you probably feel that other people
should care about it: you don’t think it’s no concern of theirs, and that they
have no reason to avoid hurting you. That is the feeling that the “How would
you like it?” argument is supposed to arouse.

Because if you admit that you would resent it if someone else did to you
what you are now doing to him, you are admitting that you think he would
have a reason not to do it to you. And if you admit that, you have to consider
what that reason is. It couldn’t be just that it’s you that he’s hurting, of all
the people in the world. There’s no special reason for him not to steal your
umbrella, as opposed to anyone else’s. There’s nothing so special about you.
Whatever the reason is, it’s a reason he would have against hurting anyone
else in the same way. And it’s a reason anyone else would have too, in a
similar situation, against hurting you or anyone else.

But if it’s a reason anyone would have not to hurt anyone else in this way,
then it’s a reason you have not to hurt someone else in this way (since any-
one means everyone). Therefore it’s a reason not to steal the other person’s
umbrella now.

This is a matter of simple consistency. Once you admit that another per-
son would have a reason not to harm you in similar circumstances, and once
you admit that the reason he would have is very general and doesn’t apply
only to you, or to him, then to be consistent you have to admit that the same
reason applies to you now. You shouldn’t steal the umbrella, and you ought
to feel guilty if you do.

Someone could escape from this argument if, when he was asked, “How
would you like it if someone did that to you?” he answered, “I wouldn’t
resent it at all. I wouldn’t like it if someone stole my umbrella in a rainstorm,
but I wouldn’t think there was any reason for him to consider my feelings
about it.” But how many people could honestly give that answer? I think
most people, unless they’re crazy, would think that their own interests and
harms matter, not only to themselves, but in a way that gives other people a
reason to care about them too. We all think that when we suffer it is not just
bad for us, but bad, period.

14 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

The basis of morality is a belief that good and harm to particular people
(or animals) is good or bad not just from their point of view, but from a more
general point of view, which every thinking person can understand. That
means that each person has a reason to consider not only his own interests
but the interests of others in deciding what to do. And it isn’t enough if he is
considerate only of some others— his family and friends, those he specially
cares about. Of course he will care more about certain people, and also about
himself. But he has some reason to consider the effect of what he does on
the good or harm of everyone. If he’s like most of us, that is what he thinks
others should do with regard to him, even if they aren’t friends of his.

Even if this is right, it is only a bare outline of the source of morality. ✻ ✻ ✻
There are many disagreements among those who accept morality in general,
about what in particular is right and what is wrong.

For instance: should you care about every other person as much as you
care about yourself? Should you in other words love your neighbor as your-
self (even if he isn’t your neighbor)? Should you ask yourself, every time you
go to a movie, whether the cost of the ticket could provide more happiness if
you gave it to someone else, or donated the money to famine relief?

Very few people are so unselfish. And if someone were that impartial
between himself and others, he would probably also feel that he should
be just as impartial among other people. That would rule out caring more
about his friends and relatives than he does about strangers. He might
have special feelings about certain people who are close to him, but complete
impartiality would mean that he won’t favor them— if for example he has to
choose between helping a friend or a stranger to avoid suffering, or between
taking his children to a movie and donating the money to famine relief.

This degree of impartiality seems too much to ask of most people: some-
one who had it would be a kind of terrifying saint. But it’s an important
question in moral thought, how much impartiality we should try for. You
are a particular person, but you are also able to recognize that you’re just
one person among many others, and no more important than they are,
when looked at from outside. How much should that point of view inf luence
you? You do matter somewhat from outside— otherwise you wouldn’t think
other people had any reason to care about what they did to you. But you
don’t matter as much from the outside as you matter to yourself, from the
inside— since from the outside you don’t matter any more than anybody else.

Not only is it unclear how impartial we should be; it’s unclear what would
make an answer to this question the right one. Is there a single correct way

Thomas Nagel ■ 15

for everyone to strike the balance between what he cares about personally
and what matters impartially? Or will the answer vary from person to person
depending on the strength of their different motives?

This brings us to another big issue: Are right and wrong the same for
everyone? ✻ ✻ ✻

Many things that you probably think are wrong have been accepted
as morally correct by large groups of people in the past: slavery, serfdom,
human sacrifice, racial segregation, denial of religious and political free-
dom, hereditary caste systems. And probably some things you now think
are right will be thought wrong by future societies. Is it reasonable to believe
that there is some single truth about all this, even though we can’t be sure
what it is? Or is it more reasonable to believe that right and wrong are rela-
tive to a particular time and place and social background?

There is one way in which right and wrong are obviously relative to cir-
cumstances. It is usually right to return a knife you have borrowed to its
owner if he asks for it back. But if he has gone crazy in the meantime,
and wants the knife to murder someone with, then you shouldn’t return it.
This isn’t the kind of relativity I am talking about, because it doesn’t mean
morality is relative at the basic level. It means only that the same basic moral
principles will require different actions in different circumstances.

The deeper kind of relativity, which some people believe in, would mean
that the most basic standards of right and wrong— like when it is and is
not all right to kill, or what sacrifices you’re required to make for others—
depend entirely on what standards are generally accepted in the society in
which you live.

This I find very hard to believe, mainly because it always seems possible
to criticize the accepted standards of your own society and say that they are
morally mistaken. But if you do that, you must be appealing to some more
objective standard, an idea of what is really right and wrong, as opposed to
what most people think. It is hard to say what this is, but it is an idea most
of us understand, unless we are slavish followers of what the community
says. ✻ ✻ ✻

I should answer one possible objection to the whole idea of morality.
You’ve probably heard it said that the only reason anybody ever does any-
thing is that it makes him feel good, or that not doing it will make him feel
bad. If we are really motivated only by our own comfort, it is hopeless for
morality to try to appeal to a concern for others. On this view, even appar-
ently moral conduct in which one person seems to sacrifice his own interests

16 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

for the sake of others is really motivated by his concern for himself: he wants
to avoid the guilt he’ll feel if he doesn’t do the “right” thing, or to experience
the warm glow of self- congratulation he’ll get if he does. But those who don’t
have these feelings have no motive to be “moral.”

Now it’s true that when people do what they think they ought to do, they
often feel good about it: similarly if they do what they think is wrong, they
often feel bad. But that doesn’t mean that these feelings are their motives for
acting. In many cases the feelings result from motives which also produce
the action. You wouldn’t feel good about doing the right thing unless you
thought there was some other reason to do it, besides the fact that it would
make you feel good. And you wouldn’t feel guilty about doing the wrong
thing unless you thought that there was some other reason not to do it,
besides the fact that it made you feel guilty: something which made it right
to feel guilty. At least that’s how things should be. It’s true that some people
feel irrational guilt about things they don’t have any independent reason to
think are wrong— but that’s not the way morality is supposed to work.

In a sense, people do what they want to do. But their reasons and motives
for wanting to do things vary enormously. I may “want” to give someone my
wallet only because he has a gun pointed at my head and threatens to kill
me if I don’t. And I may want to jump into an icy river to save a drowning
stranger not because it will make me feel good, but because I recognize that
his life is important, just as mine is, and I recognize that I have a reason
to save his life just as he would have a reason to save mine if our positions
were reversed.

Moral argument tries to appeal to a capacity for impartial motivation
which is supposed to be present in all of us. Unfortunately it may be deeply
buried, and in some cases it may not be present at all. In any case it has to
compete with powerful selfish motives, and other personal motives that
may not be so selfish, in its bid for control of our behavior. The difficulty
of justifying morality is not that there is only one human motive, but that
there are so many.

Study QueStionS

1. How does Nagel think you should respond to your friend who wants you to
help steal a library book?

2. How impartial should we be, according to Nagel?
3. How does Nagel respond to the suggestion that we act morally only in order

to get the “warm glow” of acting well?

David Hume ■ 17

DaviD hume
Mora l Distinctions Not Derived From Reason

David Hume (1711–1776) was a Scottish philosopher who wrote enormously in-
fluential works on a very wide range of philosophical topics, although he was
better known in his own day as a historian.

If morality had naturally no influence on human passions and actions, it
were in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing would be more
fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moral-
ists abound. Philosophy is commonly divided into speculative and practical;
and as morality is always comprehended under the latter division, it is sup-
posed to influence our passions and actions, and to go beyond the calm and
indolent judgments of the understanding. And this is confirmed by com-
mon experience, which informs us, that men are often governed by their
duties, and are deterred from some actions by the opinion of injustice, and
impelled to others by that of obligation.

Since morals, therefore, have an inf luence on the actions and affections,
it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason
alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such inf luence. Morals
excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly
impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclu-
sions of our reason. ✻ ✻ ✻

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood consists
in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to
real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of
this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can
never be an object of our reason. Now it is evident our passions, volitions,
and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement;
being original facts and realities, complete in themselves, and implying no
reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. It is impossible, there-
fore, they can be pronounced either true or false, and be either contrary or
conformable to reason.

This argument is of double advantage to our present purpose. For it
proves directly, that actions do not derive their merit from a conformity to
reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it; and it proves the same
truth more indirectly, by showing us, that as reason can never immediately
prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot

18 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

be the source of moral good and evil, which are found to have that inf lu-
ence. Actions may be laudable or blamable; but they cannot be reasonable
or unreasonable: laudable or blamable, therefore, are not the same with
reasonable or unreasonable. The merit and demerit of actions frequently
contradict, and sometimes control our natural propensities. But reason has
no such inf luence. Moral distinctions, therefore, are not the offspring of
reason. Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a
principle as conscience, or a sense of morals. ✻ ✻ ✻

It has been observed, that reason, in a strict and philosophical sense, can
have an inf luence on our conduct only after two ways: either when it excites
a passion by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper
object of it; or when it discovers the connection of causes and effects, so as
to afford us means of exerting any passion. These are the only kinds of judg-
ment, which can accompany our actions, or can be said to produce them in
any manner; and it must be allowed, that these judgments may often be false
and erroneous. A person may be affected with passion, by supposing a pain or
pleasure to lie in an object, which has no tendency to produce either of these
sensations, or which produces the contrary to what is imagined. A person
may also take false measures for the attaining his end, and may retard, by
his foolish conduct, instead of forwarding the execution of any project. These
false judgments may be thought to affect the passions and actions, which
are connected with them, and may be said to render them unreasonable, in a
figurative and improper way of speaking. But though this be acknowledged,
it is easy to observe, that these errors are so far from being the source of all
immorality, that they are commonly very innocent, and draw no manner of
guilt upon the person who is so unfortunate as to fall into them. They extend
not beyond a mistake of fact, which moralists have not generally supposed
criminal, as being perfectly involuntary. I am more to be lamented than
blamed, if I am mistaken with regard to the inf luence of objects in producing
pain or pleasure, or if I know not the proper means of satisfying my desires.
No one can ever regard such errors as a defect in my moral character.

Should it be pretended, that though a mistake of fact be not criminal, yet
a mistake of right often is; and that this may be the source of immorality:
I would answer, that it is impossible such a mistake can ever be the original
source of immorality, since it supposes a real right and wrong; that is, a real
distinction in morals, independent of these judgments. A mistake, therefore,
of right may become a species of immorality; but it is only a secondary one,
and is founded on some other, antecedent to it.

David Hume ■ 19

As to those judgments which are the effects of our actions, and which,
when false, give occasion to pronounce the actions contrary to truth and
reason; we may observe, that our actions never cause any judgment, either
true or false, in ourselves, and that it is only on others they have such an
inf luence. It is certain, that an action, on many occasions, may give rise to
false conclusions in others; and that a person, who thro’ a window sees any
lewd behaviour of mine with my neighbour’s wife, may be so simple as to
imagine she is certainly my own. In this respect my action resembles some-
what a lie or falsehood; only with this difference, which is material, that I
perform not the action with any intention of giving rise to a false judgment
in another, but merely to satisfy my lust and passion. It causes, however, a
mistake and false judgment by accident; and the falsehood of its effects may
be ascribed, by some odd figurative way of speaking, to the action itself. But
still I can see no pretext of reason for asserting, that the tendency to cause
such an error is the first spring or original source of all immorality. ✻ ✻ ✻

But to make these general ref lections more clear and convincing, we
may illustrate them by some particular instances, wherein this character of
moral good or evil is the most universally acknowledged. Of all crimes that
human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural
is ingratitude, especially when it is committed against parents, and appears
in the more f lagrant instances of wounds and death. This is acknowledged
by all mankind, philosophers as well as the people: the question only arises
among philosophers, whether the guilt or moral deformity of this action
be discovered by demonstrative reasoning, or be felt by an internal sense,
and by means of some sentiment, which the ref lecting on such an action
naturally occasions. This question will soon be decided against the former
opinion, if we can show the same relations in other objects, without the
notion of any guilt or iniquity attending them. Reason or science is nothing
but the comparing of ideas, and the discovery of their relations; and if the
same relations have different characters, it must evidently follow, that those
characters are not discovered merely by reason. To put the affair, therefore,
to this trial, let us choose any inanimate object, such as an oak or elm;
and let us suppose, that by the dropping of its seed, it produces a sapling
below it, which springing up by degrees, at last overtops and destroys the
parent tree: I ask, if in this instance there be wanting any relation, which is
discoverable in parricide or ingratitude? Is not the one tree the cause of the
other’s existence; and the latter the cause of the destruction of the former,
in the same manner as when a child murders his parent? It is not sufficient

20 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

to reply, that a choice or will is wanting. For in the case of parricide, a will
does not give rise to any different relations, but is only the cause from which
the action is derived; and consequently produces the same relations, that in
the oak or elm arise from some other principles. It is a will or choice, that
determines a man to kill his parent; and they are the laws of matter and
motion, that determine a sapling to destroy the oak, from which it sprung.
Here then the same relations have different causes; but still the relations
are the same: and as their discovery is not in both cases attended with a
notion of immorality, it follows, that that notion does not arise from such
a discovery.

But to choose an instance, still more resembling; I would fain ask any
one, why incest in the human species is criminal, and why the very same
action, and the same relations in animals have not the smallest moral tur-
pitude and deformity? If it be answered, that this action is innocent in ani-
mals, because they have not reason sufficient to discover its turpitude; but
that man, being endowed with that faculty, which ought to restrain him to
his duty, the same action instantly becomes criminal to him. Should this be
said, I would reply, that this is evidently arguing in a circle. For, before rea-
son can perceive this turpitude, the turpitude must exist; and consequently
is independent of the decisions of our reason, and is their object more prop-
erly than their effect. According to this system, then, every animal, that
has sense and appetite and will, that is, every animal must be susceptible
of all the same virtues and vices, for which we ascribe praise and blame to
human creatures. All the difference is, that our superior reason may serve
to discover the vice or virtue, and by that means may augment the blame
or praise: but still this discovery supposes a separate being in these moral
distinctions, and a being, which depends only on the will and appetite,
and which, both in thought and reality, may be distinguished from reason.
Animals are susceptible of the same relations, with respect to each other,
as the human species, and therefore would also be susceptible of the same
morality, if the essence of morality consisted in these relations. Their want
of a sufficient degree of reason may hinder them from perceiving the duties
and obligations of morality, but can never hinder these duties from existing;
since they must antecedently exist, in order to their being perceived. Reason
must find them, and can never produce them. This argument deserves to
be weighed, as being, in my opinion, entirely decisive.

Nor does this reasoning only prove, that morality consists not in any rela-
tions, that are the objects of science; but if examined, will prove with equal

David Hume ■ 21

certainty, that it consists not in any matter of fact, which can be discovered
by the understanding. This is the second part of our argument; and if it can
be made evident, we may conclude, that morality is not an object of reason.
But can there be any difficulty in proving, that vice and virtue are not mat-
ters of fact, whose existence we can infer by reason? Take any action allowed
to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see
if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In
whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions
and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely
escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you
turn your ref lection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disappro-
bation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but
it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.
So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean
nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or
sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore,
may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to
modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind:
and this discovery in morals, like that other in physics, is to be regarded as a
considerable advancement of the speculative sciences; though, like that too,
it has little or no inf luence on practice. Nothing can be more real, or concern
us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these
be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite
to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may,
perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I
have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for
some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a
God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I
am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions,
is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought,
or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last
consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation
or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and
at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether
inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which
are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this pre-
caution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded,

22 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality,
and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely
on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

Study QueStionS

1. What are Hume’s reasons for claiming that moral distinctions are not
derived from reason?

2. What does Hume mean by “passions”? What role do they play in moral

3. What is wrong, according to Hume, with deriving an “ought” from an “is”?

RuTh BeNeDicT
Patterns of Culture

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) was a major American anthropologist. Her docu-
mentation of cultural difference has influenced the development of cultural rela-
tivism in moral philosophy.

The diversity of cultures can be endlessly documented. A field of human
behaviour may be ignored in some societies until it barely exists; it may
even be in some cases unimagined. Or it may almost monopolize the whole
organized behaviour of the society, and the most alien situations be manip-
ulated only in its terms. Traits having no intrinsic relation one with the
other, and historically independent, merge and become inextricable, pro-
viding the occasion for behaviour that has no counterpart in regions that
do not make these identifications. It is a corollary of this that standards, no
matter in what aspect of behaviour, range in different cultures from the
positive to the negative pole. We might suppose that in the matter of taking
life all peoples would agree in condemnation. On the contrary, in a matter
of homicide, it may be held that one is blameless if diplomatic relations have
been severed between neighbouring countries, or that one kills by custom
his first two children, or that a husband has right of life and death over
his wife, or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are
old. It may be that those are killed who steal a fowl, or who cut their upper
teeth first, or who are born on a Wednesday. Among some peoples a person
suffers torments at having caused an accidental death; among others it is a
matter of no consequence. Suicide also may be a light matter, the recourse
of anyone who has suffered some slight rebuff, an act that occurs constantly

Ruth Benedict ■ 23

in a tribe. It may be the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform.
The very tale of it, on the other hand, may be a matter for incredulous
mirth, and the act itself impossible to conceive as a human possibility. Or
it may be a crime punishable by law, or regarded as a sin against the gods.

The diversity of custom in the world is not, however, a matter which we
can only helplessly chronicle. Self- torture here, head- hunting there, prenup-
tial chastity in one tribe and adolescent licence in another, are not a list of
unrelated facts, each of them to be greeted with surprise wherever it is found
or wherever it is absent. The tabus on killing oneself or another, similarly,
though they relate to no absolute standard, are not therefore fortuitous. The
significance of cultural behaviour is not exhausted when we have clearly
understood that it is local and man- made and hugely variable. It tends also
to be integrated. A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent
pattern of thought and action. Within each culture there come into being
characteristic purposes not necessarily shared by other types of society. In
obedience to these purposes, each people further and further consolidates
its experience, and in proportion to the urgency of these drives the hetero-
geneous items of behaviour take more and more congruous shape. Taken up
by a well- integrated culture, the most ill- assorted acts become characteristic
of its peculiar goals, often by the most unlikely metamorphoses. The form
that these acts take we can understand only by understanding first the emo-
tional and intellectual mainsprings of that society.

Such patterning of culture cannot be ignored as if it were an unimport-
ant detail. The whole, as modern science is insisting in many fields, is not
merely the sum of all its parts, but the result of a unique arrangement and
inter relation of the parts that has brought about a new entity. Gunpowder is
not merely the sum of sulphur and charcoal and saltpeter, and no amount of
knowledge even of all three of its elements in all the forms they take in the
natural world will demonstrate the nature of gunpowder. New potentialities
have come into being in the resulting compound that were not present in
its elements, and its mode of behaviour is indefinitely changed from that of
any of its elements in other combinations.

Cultures, likewise, are more than the sum of their traits. We may know
all about the distribution of a tribe’s form of marriage, ritual dances,
and puberty initiations, and yet understand nothing of the culture as a
whole which has used these elements to its own purpose. This purpose
selects from among the possible traits in the surrounding regions those
which it can use, and discards those which it cannot. Other traits it recasts

24 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

into conformity with its demands. The process of course need never be
conscious during its whole course, but to overlook it in the study of the
patternings of human behaviour is to renounce the possibility of intelligent

This integration of cultures is not in the least mystical. It is the same
process by which a style in art comes into being and persists. Gothic archi-
tecture, beginning in what was hardly more than a preference for altitude
and light, became, by the operation of some canon of taste that developed
within its technique, the unique and homogeneous art of the thirteenth
century. It discarded elements that were incongruous, modified others to its
purposes, and invented others that accorded with its taste. When we describe
the process historically, we inevitably use animistic forms of expression as
if there were choice and purpose in the growth of this great art- form. But
this is due to the difficulty in our language- forms. There was no conscious
choice, and no purpose. What was at first no more than a slight bias in local
forms and techniques expressed itself more and more forcibly, integrated
itself in more and more definite standards, and eventuated in Gothic art.

What has happened in the great art- styles happens also in cultures as
a whole. All the miscellaneous behaviour directed toward getting a living,
mating, warring, and worshipping the gods, is made over into consistent
patterns in accordance with unconscious canons of choice that develop
within the culture. Some cultures, like some periods of art, fail of such
integration, and about many others we know too little to understand the
motives that actuate them. But cultures at every level of complexity, even
the simplest, have achieved it. Such cultures are more or less successful
attainments of integrated behaviour, and the marvel is that there can be so
many of these possible configurations.

Anthropological work has been overwhelmingly devoted to the analysis
of culture traits, however, rather than to the study of cultures as articulated
wholes. This has been due in great measure to the nature of earlier ethno-
logical descriptions. The classical anthropologists did not write out of first-
hand knowledge of primitive people. They were armchair students who had
at their disposal the anecdotes of travellers and missionaries and the formal
and schematic accounts of the early ethnologists. It was possible to trace
from these details the distribution of the custom of knocking out teeth, or
of divination by entrails, but it was not possible to see how these traits were
embedded in different tribes in characteristic configurations that gave form
and meaning to the procedures.

Ruth Benedict ■ 25

Studies of culture like The Golden Bough and the usual comparative
ethnological volumes are analytical discussions of traits and ignore all the
aspects of cultural integration. Mating or death practices are illustrated by
bits of behaviour selected indiscriminately from the most different cultures,
and the discussion builds up a kind of mechanical Frankenstein’s monster
with a right eye from Fiji, a left from Europe, one leg from Tierra del Fuego,
and one from Tahiti, and all the fingers and toes from still different regions.
Such a figure corresponds to no reality in the past or present, and the fun-
damental difficulty is the same as if, let us say, psychiatry ended with a
catalogue of the symbols of which psychopathic individuals make use, and
ignored the study of patterns of symptomatic behaviour—schizophrenia,
hysteria, and manic- depressive disorders—into which they are built. The
rôle of the trait in the behaviour of the psychotic, the degree to which it is
dynamic in the total personality, and its relation to all other items of expe-
rience, differ completely. If we are interested in mental processes, we can
satisfy ourselves only by relating the particular symbol to the total configu-
ration of the individual.

There is as great an unreality in similar studies of culture. If we are
interested in cultural processes, the only way in which we can know the sig-
nificance of the selected detail of behaviour is against the background of the
motives and emotions and values that are institutionalized in that culture.
The first essential, so it seems today, is to study the living culture, to know
its habits of thought and the functions of its institutions, and such knowl-
edge cannot come out of post- mortem dissections and reconstructions. ✻ ✻ ✻

It is one of the philosophical justifications for the study of primitive peo-
ples that the facts of simpler cultures may make clear social facts that are
otherwise baff ling and not open to demonstration. This is nowhere more
true than in the matter of the fundamental and distinctive cultural config-
urations that pattern existence and condition the thoughts and emotions
of the individuals who participate in those cultures. The whole problem
of the formation of the individual’s habit- patterns under the inf luence of
traditional custom can best be understood at the present time through the
study of simpler peoples. This does not mean that the facts and processes
we can discover in this way are limited in their application to primitive
civilizations. Cultural configurations are as compelling and as significant
in the highest and most complex societies of which we have knowledge. But
the material is too intricate and too close to our eyes for us to cope with it

26 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

The understanding we need of our own cultural processes can most
economically be arrived at by a détour. When the historical relations of
human beings and their immediate forbears in the animal kingdom were
too involved to use in establishing the fact of biological evolution, Darwin
made use instead of the structure of beetles, and the process, which in the
complex physical organization of the human is confused, in the simpler
material was transparent in its cogency. It is the same in the study of cultural
mechanisms. We need all the enlightenment we can obtain from the study
of thought and behaviour as it is organized in the less complicated groups.

Study QueStionS

1. What evidence does Benedict provide to support the claim that moral stan-
dards can differ from culture to culture?

2. How can such evidence be used in an argument for cultural relativism?
3. What does Benedict think can be gained through the study of relatively less

developed societies?

maRy miDgley
Tr y ing Out One’s New Sword

Mary Midgley (b. 1919) is an influential English moral philosopher who has
written more than 15 books, the first of which was published when she had reached
the age of 59.

All of us are, more or less, in trouble today about trying to understand cul-
tures strange to us. We hear constantly of alien customs. We see changes
in our lifetime which would have astonished our parents. I want to dis-
cuss here one very short way of dealing with this difficulty, a drastic way
which many people now theoretically favour. It consists in simply denying
that we can ever understand any culture except our own well enough to
make judgements about it. Those who recommend this hold that the world
is sharply divided into separate societies, sealed units, each with its own
system of thought. They feel that the respect and tolerance due from one
system to another forbids us ever to take up a critical position to any other
culture. Moral judgement, they suggest, is a kind of coinage valid only in
its country of origin.

I shall call this position “moral isolationism.” I shall suggest that it
is certainly not forced upon us, and indeed that it makes no sense at all.

Mary Midgley ■ 27

People usually take it up because they think it is a respectful attitude to other
cultures. In fact, however, it is not respectful. Nobody can respect what is
entirely unintelligible to them. To respect someone, we have to know enough
about him to make a favourable judgement, however general and tentative.
And we do understand people in other cultures to this extent. Otherwise a
great mass of our most valuable thinking would be paralysed.

To show this, I shall take a remote example, because we shall probably
find it easier to think calmly about it than we should with a contemporary
one, such as female circumcision in Africa or the Chinese Cultural Revo-
lution. The principles involved will still be the same. My example is this.
There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means “to try out one’s
new sword on a chance wayfarer.” (The word is tsujigiri, literally “ crossroads-
cut.”) A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly,
it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the
opposite f lank. Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke. This could injure
his honour, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor. So tests
were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended. Any wayfarer would do pro-
vided, of course, that he was not another Samurai. Scientists will recognize
a familiar problem about the rights of experimental subjects.

Now when we hear of a custom like this, we may well ref lect that we
simply do not understand it; and therefore are not qualified to criticize it at
all, because we are not members of that culture. But we are not members
of any other culture either, except our own. So we extend the principle to
cover all extraneous cultures, and we seem therefore to be moral isolation-
ists. But this is, as we shall see, an impossible position. Let us ask what it
would involve.

We must ask first: Does the isolating barrier work both ways? Are people
in other cultures equally unable to criticize us? This question struck me
sharply when I read a remark in The Guardian by an anthropologist about
a South American Indian who had been taken into a Brazilian town for an
operation, which saved his life. When he came back to his village, he made
several highly critical remarks about the white Brazilians’ way of life. They
may very well have been justified. But the interesting point was that the
anthropologist called these remarks “a damning indictment of Western
civilization.” Now the Indian had been in that town about two weeks. Was
he in a position to deliver a damning indictment? Would we ourselves be
qualified to deliver such an indictment on the Samurai, provided we could
spend two weeks in ancient Japan? What do we really think about this?

28 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

My own impression is that we believe that outsiders can, in principle,
deliver perfectly good indictments— only, it usually takes more than two
weeks to make them damning. Understanding has degrees. It is not a slap-
dash yes- or- no matter. Intelligent outsiders can progress in it, and in some
ways will be at an advantage over the locals. But if this is so, it must clearly
apply to ourselves as much as anybody else.

Our next question is this: Does the isolating barrier between cultures
block praise as well as blame? If I want to say that the Samurai culture has
many virtues, or to praise the South American Indians, am I prevented
from doing that by my outside status? Now, we certainly do need to praise
other societies in this way. But it is hardly possible that we could praise them
effectively if we could not, in principle, criticize them. Our praise would be
worthless if it rested on no definite grounds, if it did not f low from some
understanding. Certainly we may need to praise things which we do not
fully understand. We say “there’s something very good here, but I can’t quite
make out what it is yet.” This happens when we want to learn from strang-
ers. And we can learn from strangers. But to do this we have to distinguish
between those strangers who are worth learning from and those who are
not. Can we then judge which is which?

This brings us to our third question: What is involved in judging? Now
plainly there is no question here of sitting on a bench in a red robe and
sentencing people. Judging simply means forming an opinion, and express-
ing it if it is called for. Is there anything wrong about this? Naturally, we
ought to avoid forming— and expressing— crude opinions, like that of a
simple- minded missionary, who might dismiss the whole Samurai culture
as entirely bad, because non- Christian. But this is a different objection. The
trouble with crude opinions is that they are crude, whoever forms them, not
that they are formed by the wrong people.

Anthropologists, after all, are outsiders quite as much as missionaries.
Moral isolationism forbids us to form any opinions on these matters. Its
ground for doing so is that we don’t understand them. But there is much
that we don’t understand in our own culture too. This brings us to our last
question: If we can’t judge other cultures, can we really judge our own?
Our efforts to do so will be much damaged if we are really deprived of our
opinions about other societies, because these provide the range of compar-
ison, the spectrum of alternatives against which we set what we want to
understand. We would have to stop using the mirror which anthropology
so helpfully holds up to us.

Mary Midgley ■ 29

In short, moral isolationism would lay down a general ban on moral
reasoning. Essentially, this is the programme of immoralism, and it car-
ries a distressing logical difficulty. Immoralists like Nietzsche are actually
just a rather specialized sect of moralists. They can no more afford to put
moralizing out of business than smugglers can afford to abolish customs
regulations. The power of moral judgement is, in fact, not a luxury, not a
perverse indulgence of the self- righteous. It is a necessity. When we judge
something to be bad or good, better or worse than something else, we are
taking it as an example to aim at or avoid. Without opinions of this sort, we
would have no framework of comparison for our own policy, no chance of
profiting by other people’s insights or mistakes. In this vacuum, we could
form no judgements on our own actions.

Now it would be odd if Homo sapiens had really got himself into a position
as bad as this— a position where his main evolutionary asset, his brain, was
so little use to him. None of us is going to accept this sceptical diagnosis.
We cannot do so, because our involvement in moral isolationism does not
f low from apathy, but from a rather acute concern about human hypocrisy
and other forms of wickedness. But we polarize that concern around a few
selected moral truths. We are rightly angry with those who despise, oppress
or steamroll other cultures. We think that doing these things is actually
wrong. But this is itself a moral judgement. We could not condemn oppres-
sion and insolence if we thought that all our condemnations were just a
trivial local quirk of our own culture. We could still less do it if we tried to
stop judging altogether.

Real moral scepticism, in fact, could lead only to inaction, to our losing
all interest in moral questions, most of all in those which concern other
societies. When we discuss these things, it becomes instantly clear how far
we are from doing this.

Suppose, for instance, that I criticize the bisecting Samurai, that I say
his behaviour is brutal. What will usually happen next is that someone will
protest, will say that I have no right to make criticisms like that of another
culture. But it is most unlikely that he will use this move to end the discus-
sion of the subject. Instead, he will justify the Samurai. He will try to fill
in the background, to make me understand the custom, by explaining the
exalted ideals of discipline and devotion which produced it. He will proba-
bly talk of the lower value which the ancient Japanese placed on individual
life generally. He may well suggest that this is a healthier attitude than our
own obsession with security. He may add, too, that the wayfarers did not

30 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

seriously mind being bisected, that in principle they accepted the whole

Now an objector who talks like this is implying that it is possible to
understand alien customs. That is just what he is trying to make me do.
And he implies, too, that if I do succeed in understanding them, I shall do
something better than giving up judging them. He expects me to change
my present judgement to a truer one— namely, one that is favourable. And
the standards I must use to do this cannot just be Samurai standards.
They have to be ones current in my own culture. Ideals like discipline and
devotion will not move anybody unless he himself accepts them. As it hap-
pens, neither discipline nor devotion is very popular in the West at present.
Anyone who appeals to them may well have to do some more arguing to
make them acceptable, before he can use them to explain the Samurai. But
if he does succeed here, he will have persuaded us, not just that there was
something to be said for them in ancient Japan, but that there would be
here as well.

Isolating barriers simply cannot arise here. If we accept something as a
serious moral truth about one culture, we can’t refuse to apply it— in how-
ever different an outward form— to other cultures as well, wherever cir-
cumstance admit it. If we refuse to do this, we just are not taking the other
culture seriously.

This becomes clear if we look at the last argument used by my objector—
that of justification by consent of the victim. It is suggested that sudden
bisection is quite in order, provided that it takes place between consenting
adults. I cannot now discuss how conclusive this justification is. What I am
pointing out is simply that it can only work if we believe that consent can
make such a transaction respectable— and this is a thoroughly modern and
Western idea. It would probably never occur to a Samurai: if it did, it would
surprise him very much. It is our standard.

In applying it, too, we are likely to make another typically Western
demand. We shall ask for good factual evidence that the wayfarers actu-
ally do have this rather surprising taste— that they are really willing to be
bisected. In applying Western standards in this way, we are not being con-
fused or irrelevant. We are asking the questions which arise from where we
stand, questions which we can see the sense of. We do this because asking
questions which you can’t see the sense of is humbug. Certainly we can
extend our questioning by imaginative effort. We can come to understand
other societies better. By doing so, we may make their questions our own,

Mary Midgley ■ 31

or we may see that they are really forms of the questions which we are
asking already. This is not impossible. It is just very hard work. The obsta-
cles which often prevent it are simply those of ordinary ignorance, laziness
and prejudice.

If there were really an isolating barrier, of course, our own culture could
never have been formed. It is no sealed box, but a fertile jungle of different
inf luences— Greek, Jewish, Roman, Norse, Celtic and so forth, into which
further inf luences are still pouring— American, Indian, Japanese, Jamai-
can, you name it. The moral isolationist’s picture of separate, unmixable
cultures is quite unreal. People who talk about British history usually stress
the value of this fertilizing mix, no doubt rightly. But this is not just an odd
fact about Britain. Except for the very smallest and most remote, all cultures
are formed out of many streams. All have the problem of digesting and
assimilating things which, at the start, they do not understand. All have
the choice of learning something from this challenge, or, alternatively, of
refusing to learn, and fighting it mindlessly instead.

This universal predicament has been obscured by the fact that anthropol-
ogists used to concentrate largely on very small and remote cultures, which
did not seem to have this problem. These tiny societies, which had often
forgotten their own history, made neat, self- contained subjects for study.

No doubt it was valuable to emphasize their remoteness, their extreme
strangeness, their independence of our cultural tradition. This emphasis
was, I think, the root of moral isolationism. But, as the tribal studies them-
selves showed, even there the anthropologists were able to interpret what
they saw and make judgements— often favourable— about the tribesmen.
And the tribesmen, too, were quite equal to making judgements about the
anthropologists— and about the tourists and Coca- Cola salesmen who fol-
lowed them. Both sets of judgements, no doubt, were somewhat hasty, both
have been refined in the light of further experience. A similar transaction
between us and the Samurai might take even longer. But that is no reason
at all for deeming it impossible. Morally as well as physically, there is only
one world, and we all have to live in it.

Study QueStionS

1. What does Midgley mean by “moral isolationism”?
2. Why does Midgley suggest that moral isolationism leaves us in difficulty in

forming judgments on our own culture?
3. What is Midgley’s example of “trying out one’s new sword” intended to show?

32 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

FRieDRich NieTzsche
Beyond Good a nd Ev il

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher who produced a
number of brilliant and revolutionary works, though he suffered a breakdown and
severe mental illness for the last decade of his life.

As long as the utility reigning in moral value judgments is solely the utility
of the herd, as long as one considers only the preservation of the community,
and immorality is sought exactly and exclusively in what seems dangerous
to the survival of the community— there can be no morality of “neighbor
love.” Supposing that even then there was a constant little exercise of consid-
eration, pity, fairness, mildness, reciprocity of assistance; supposing that even
in that state of society all those drives are active that later receive the honor-
ary designation of “virtues” and eventually almost coincide with the concept
of “morality”—in that period they do not yet at all belong in the realm of
moral valuations; they are still extra- moral. An act of pity, for example, was
not considered either good or bad, moral or immoral, in the best period of
the Romans; and even when it was praised, such praise was perfectly com-
patible with a kind of disgruntled disdain as soon as it was juxtaposed with
an action that served the welfare of the whole, of the res publica.

In the last analysis, “love of the neighbor” is always something secondary,
partly conventional and arbitrary- illusory in relation to fear of the neighbor.
After the structure of society is fixed on the whole and seems secure against
external dangers, it is this fear of the neighbor that again creates new per-
spectives of moral valuation. Certain strong and dangerous drives, like an
enterprising spirit, foolhardiness, vengefulness, craftiness, rapacity, and
the lust to rule, which had so far not merely been honored insofar as they
were socially useful— under different names, to be sure, from those chosen
here— but had to be trained and cultivated to make them great (because one
constantly needed them in view of the dangers to the whole community,
against the enemies of the community), are now experienced as doubly
dangerous, since the channels to divert them are lacking, and, step upon
step, they are branded as immoral and abandoned to slander.

Now the opposite drives and inclinations receive moral honors; step upon
step, the herd instinct draws its conclusions. How much or how little is dan-
gerous to the community, dangerous to equality, in an opinion, in a state

Friedrich Nietzsche ■ 33

or affect, in a will, in a talent— that now constitutes the moral perspective:
here, too, fear is again the mother of morals.

The highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and
drive the individual far above the average and the f lats of the herd con-
science, wreck the self- confidence of the community, its faith in itself, and
it is as if its spine snapped. Hence just these drives are branded and slan-
dered most. High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even
a powerful reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an
individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called
evil; and the fair, modest, submissive, conforming mentality, the mediocrity
of desires attains moral designations and honors. Eventually, under very
peaceful conditions, the opportunity and necessity for educating one’s feel-
ings to severity and hardness is lacking more and more; and every severity,
even in justice, begins to disturb the conscience; any high and hard nobility
and self- reliance is almost felt to be an insult and arouses mistrust; the
“lamb,” even more the “sheep,” gains in respect.

There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologi-
cally soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who
harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing
somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment”
and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough
to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.”
With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate
consequence. Supposing that one could altogether abolish danger, the rea-
son for fear, this morality would be abolished, too, eo ipso: it would no longer
be needed, it would no longer consider itself necessary.

Whoever examines the conscience of the European today will have to
pull the same imperative out of a thousand moral folds and hideouts— the
imperative of herd timidity: “we want that some day there should be nothing
any more to be afraid of!” Some day— throughout Europe, the will and way to
this day is now called “progress.” ✻ ✻ ✻


Every enhancement of the type “man” has so far been the work of an aristo-
cratic society— and it will be so again and again— a society that believes in
the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and
man, and that needs slavery in some sense or other. Without that pathos of
distance which grows out of the ingrained difference between strata— when

34 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

the ruling caste constantly looks afar and looks down upon subjects and
instruments and just as constantly practices obedience and command, keep-
ing down and keeping at a distance— that other, more mysterious pathos
could not have grown up either— the craving for an ever new widening of
distances within the soul itself, the development of ever higher, rarer, more
remote, further- stretching, more comprehensive states— in brief, simply the
enhancement of the type “man,” the continual “ self- overcoming of man,” to
use a moral formula in a supra- moral sense.

To be sure, one should not yield to humanitarian illusions about the
origins of an aristocratic society (and thus of the presupposition of this
enhancement of the type “man”): truth is hard. Let us admit to ourselves,
without trying to be considerate, how every higher culture on earth so
far has begun. Human beings whose nature was still natural, barbarians
in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession
of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurled themselves upon
weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races, perhaps traders or cattle raisers,
or upon mellow old cultures whose last vitality was even then f laring up in
splendid fireworks of spirit and corruption. In the beginning, the noble caste
was always the barbarian caste: their predominance did not lie mainly in
physical strength but in strength of the soul— they were more whole human
beings (which also means, at every level, “more whole beasts”).

Corruption as the expression of a threatening anarchy among the instincts
and of the fact that the foundation of the affects, which is called “life,” has
been shaken: corruption is something totally different depending on the
organism in which it appears. When, for example, an aristocracy, like that
of France at the beginning of the Revolution, throws away its privileges with
a sublime disgust and sacrifices itself to an extravagance of its own moral
feelings, that is corruption; it was really only the last act of that centuries- old
corruption which had led them to surrender, step by step, their governmen-
tal prerogatives, demoting themselves to a mere function of the monarchy
(finally even to a mere ornament and showpiece). The essential character-
istic of a good and healthy aristocracy, however, is that it experiences itself
not as a function (whether of the monarchy or the commonwealth) but
as their meaning and highest justification— that it therefore accepts with
a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake,
must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to

Friedrich Nietzsche ■ 35

instruments. Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must
not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on
which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a
higher state of being— comparable to those sun- seeking vines of Java— they
are called Sipo Matador— that so long and so often enclasp an oak tree with
their tendrils until eventually, high above it but supported by it, they can
unfold their crowns in the open light and display their happiness.

Refraining mutually from injury, violence, and exploitation and placing
one’s will on a par with that of someone else— this may become, in a certain
rough sense, good manners among individuals if the appropriate condi-
tions are present (namely, if these men are actually similar in strength and
value standards and belong together in one body). But as soon as this prin-
ciple is extended, and possibly even accepted as the fundamental principle of
society, it immediately proves to be what it really is— a will to the denial of
life, a principle of disintegration and decay.

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the mat-
ter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation,
injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness,
imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest,
exploitation— but why should one always use those words in which a slan-
derous intent has been imprinted for ages?

Even the body within which individuals treat each other as equals, as
suggested before— and this happens in every healthy aristocracy— if it is a
living and not a dying body, has to do to other bodies what the individuals
within it refrain from doing to each other: it will have to be an incarnate
will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant— not
from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life
simply is will to power. But there is no point on which the ordinary con-
sciousness of Europeans resists instruction as on this: everywhere people
are now raving, even under scientific disguises, about coming conditions of
society in which “the exploitative aspect” will be removed— which sounds
to me as if they promised to invent a way of life that would dispense with
all organic functions. “Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imper-
fect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic
organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all
the will of life.

36 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

If this should be an innovation as a theory— as a reality it is the primordial
fact of all history: people ought to be honest with themselves at least that far.

Wandering through the many subtler and coarser moralities which have
so far been prevalent on earth, or still are prevalent, I found that certain
features recurred regularly together and were closely associated— until I
finally discovered two basic types and one basic difference.

There are master morality and slave morality— I add immediately that
in all the higher and more mixed cultures there also appear attempts at
mediation between these two moralities, and yet more often the interpen-
etration and mutual misunderstanding of both, and at times they occur
directly alongside each other— even in the same human being, within a
single soul. The moral discrimination of values has originated either among
a ruling group whose consciousness of its difference from the ruled group
was accompanied by delight— or among the ruled, the slaves and depen-
dents of every degree.

In the first case, when the ruling group determines what is “good,” the
exalted, proud states of the soul are experienced as conferring distinction
and determining the order of rank. The noble human being separates from
himself those in whom the opposite of such exalted, proud states finds
expression: he despises them. It should be noted immediately that in this
first type of morality the opposition of “good” and “bad” means approxi-
mately the same as “noble” and “contemptible.” (The opposition of “good”
and “evil” has a different origin.) One feels contempt for the cowardly, the
anxious, the petty, those intent on narrow utility; also for the suspicious with
their unfree glances, those who humble themselves, the doglike people who
allow themselves to be maltreated, the begging f latterers, above all the liars:
it is part of the fundamental faith of all aristocrats that the common people
lie. “We truthful ones”—thus the nobility of ancient Greece referred to itself.

It is obvious that moral designations were everywhere first applied to
human beings and only later, derivatively, to actions. Therefore it is a gross
mistake when historians of morality start from such questions as: why was
the compassionate act praised? The noble type of man experiences itself as
determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, “what is harmful to
me is harmful in itself”; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor
to things; it is value- creating. Everything it knows as part of itself it honors:
such a morality is self- glorification. In the foreground there is the feeling

Friedrich Nietzsche ■ 37

of fullness, of power that seeks to overf low, the happiness of high tension,
the consciousness of wealth that would give and bestow: the noble human
being, too, helps the unfortunate, but not, or almost not, from pity, but
prompted more by an urge begotten by excess of power. The noble human
being honors himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power
over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent, who delights in being
severe and hard with himself and respects all severity and hardness. “A hard
heart Wotan put into my breast,” says an old Scandinavian saga: a fitting
poetic expression, seeing that it comes from the soul of a proud Viking. Such
a type of man is actually proud of the fact that he is not made for pity, and
the hero of the saga therefore adds as a warning: “If the heart is not hard in
youth it will never harden.” Noble and courageous human beings who think
that way are furthest removed from that morality which finds the distinction
of morality precisely in pity, or in acting for others, or in désintéressement;
faith in oneself, pride in oneself, a fundamental hostility and irony against
“self lessness” belong just as definitely to noble morality as does a slight
disdain and caution regarding compassionate feelings and a “warm heart.”

It is the powerful who understand how to honor; this is their art, their
realm of invention. The profound reverence for age and tradition— all law
rests on this double reverence— the faith and prejudice in favor of ancestors
and disfavor of those yet to come are typical of the morality of the powerful;
and when the men of “modern ideas,” conversely, believe almost instinc-
tively in “progress” and “the future” and more and more lack respect for age,
this in itself would sufficiently betray the ignoble origin of these “ideas.”

A morality of the ruling group, however, is most alien and embarrassing
to the present taste in the severity of its principle that one has duties only to
one’s peers; that against beings of a lower rank, against everything alien, one
may behave as one pleases or “as the heart desires,” and in any case “beyond
good and evil”—here pity and like feelings may find their place. The capac-
ity for, and the duty of, long gratitude and long revenge— both only among
one’s peers— refinement in repaying, the sophisticated concept of friend-
ship, a certain necessity for having enemies (as it were, as drainage ditches
for the affects of envy, quarrelsomeness, exuberance— at bottom, in order to
be capable of being good friends): all these are typical characteristics of noble
morality which, as suggested, is not the morality of “modern ideas” and
therefore is hard to empathize with today, also hard to dig up and uncover.

It is different with the second type of morality, slave morality. Suppose
the violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, who are uncertain of themselves

38 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

and weary, moralize: what will their moral valuations have in common?
Probably, a pessimistic suspicion about the whole condition of man will find
expression, perhaps a condemnation of man along with his condition. The
slave’s eye is not favorable to the virtues of the powerful: he is skeptical and
suspicious, subtly suspicious, of all the “good” that is honored there— he
would like to persuade himself that even their happiness is not genuine.
Conversely, those qualities are brought out and f looded with light which
serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and
obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendli-
ness are honored— for here these are the most useful qualities and almost
the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is
essentially a morality of utility.

Here is the place for the origin of that famous opposition of “good” and
“evil”: into evil one’s feelings project power and dangerousness, a certain ter-
ribleness, subtlety, and strength that does not permit contempt to develop.
According to slave morality, those who are “evil” thus inspire fear; according
to master morality it is precisely those who are “good” that inspire, and wish
to inspire, fear, while the “bad” are felt to be contemptible.

The opposition reaches its climax when, as a logical consequence of
slave morality, a touch of disdain is associated also with the “good” of this
morality— this may be slight and benevolent— because the good human
being has to be undangerous in the slaves’ way of thinking: he is good-
natured, easy to deceive, a little stupid perhaps, un bonhomme. Wherever
slave morality becomes preponderant, language tends to bring the words
“good” and “stupid” closer together.

One last fundamental difference: the longing for freedom, the instinct
for happiness and the subtleties of the feeling of freedom belong just as
necessarily to slave morality and morals as artful and enthusiastic reverence
and devotion are the regular symptom of an aristocratic way of thinking
and evaluating.

This makes plain why love as passion— which is our European specialty—
simply must be of noble origin: as is well known, its invention must be
credited to the Provençal knight- poets, those magnificent and inventive
human beings of the “gai saber” 1 to whom Europe owes so many things and
almost owes itself.

1 “Gay science”: in the early fourteenth century the term was used to designate the art of
the troubadours.

A. J. Ayer ■ 39

Study QueStionS

1. What does Nietzsche mean by “will to power”?
2. What is the distinction between master morality and slave morality?
3. What are Nietzsche’s objections to slave morality?

a. J. ayeR
A Critique of Ethics

A.  J.  Ayer (1910–1989) was an English philosopher who was especially known
as one of the first defenders of logical positivism writing in the English language.
His writings on ethics concern the implications of logical positivism for ethical

The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements
of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually
significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the
proposition which it purports to express— that is, if he knows what obser-
vations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition
as being true, or reject it as being false. If, on the other hand, the puta-
tive proposition is of such a character that the assumption of its truth, or
falsehood, is consistent with any assumption whatsoever concerning the
nature of his future experience, then, as far as he is concerned, it is, if not
a tautology, a mere pseudo- proposition. The sentence expressing it may be
emotionally significant to him; but it is not literally significant. And with
regard to questions the procedure is the same. We enquire in every case
what observations would lead us to answer the question, one way or the
other; and, if none can be discovered, we must conclude that the sentence
under consideration does not, as far as we are concerned, express a genuine
question, however strongly its grammatical appearance may suggest that it
does. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ It is our business to give an account of “judgements of value” which
is both satisfactory in itself and consistent with our general empiricist prin-
ciples. We shall set ourselves to show that in so far as statements of value
are significant, they are ordinary “scientific” statements; and that in so far
as they are not scientific, they are not in the literal sense significant, but
are simply expressions of emotion which can be neither true nor false. ✻ ✻ ✻

The ordinary system of ethics, as elaborated in the works of ethical phi-
losophers, is very far from being a homogeneous whole. Not only is it apt

40 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

to contain pieces of metaphysics, and analyses of non- ethical concepts: its
actual ethical contents are themselves of very different kinds. We may divide
them, indeed, into four main classes. There are, first of all, propositions
which express definitions of ethical terms, or judgements about the legiti-
macy or possibility of certain definitions. Secondly, there are propositions
describing the phenomena of moral experience, and their causes. Thirdly,
there are exhortations to moral virtue. And, lastly, there are actual ethical
judgements. It is unfortunately the case that the distinction between these
four classes, plain as it is, is commonly ignored by ethical philosophers; with
the result that it is often very difficult to tell from their works what it is that
they are seeking to discover or prove.

In fact, it is easy to see that only the first of our four classes, namely that
which comprises the propositions relating to the definitions of ethical terms,
can be said to constitute ethical philosophy. The propositions which describe
the phenomena of moral experience, and their causes, must be assigned to
the science of psychology, or sociology. The exhortations to moral virtue are
not propositions at all, but ejaculations or commands which are designed to
provoke the reader to action of a certain sort. Accordingly, they do not belong
to any branch of philosophy or science. As for the expressions of ethical
judgements, we have not yet determined how they should be classified.
But inasmuch as they are certainly neither definitions nor comments upon
definitions, nor quotations, we may say decisively that they do not belong to
ethical philosophy. A strictly philosophical treatise on ethics should there-
fore make no ethical pronouncements. But it should, by giving an analysis of
ethical terms, show what is the category to which all such pronouncements
belong. And this is what we are now about to do. ✻ ✻ ✻

What we are interested in is the possibility of reducing the whole sphere
of ethical terms to non- ethical terms. We are enquiring whether statements
of ethical value can be translated into statements of empirical fact.

That they can be so translated is the contention of those ethical philoso-
phers who are commonly called subjectivists, and of those who are known
as utilitarians. For the utilitarian defines the rightness of actions, and the
goodness of ends, in terms of the pleasure, or happiness, or satisfaction, to
which they give rise; the subjectivist, in terms of the feelings of approval
which a certain person, or group of people, has towards them. Each of these
types of definition makes moral judgements into a sub- class of psychologi-
cal or sociological judgements; and for this reason they are very attractive to
us. For, if either was correct, it would follow that ethical assertions were not

A. J. Ayer ■ 41

generically different from the factual assertions which are ordinarily con-
trasted with them; and the account which we have already given of empirical
hypotheses would apply to them also.

Nevertheless we shall not adopt either a subjectivist or a utilitarian anal-
ysis of ethical terms. We reject the subjectivist view that to call an action
right, or a thing good, is to say that it is generally approved of, because it
is not self- contradictory to assert that some actions which are generally
approved of are not right, or that some things which are generally approved
of are not good. And we reject the alternative subjectivist view that a man
who asserts that a certain action is right, or that a certain thing is good,
is saying that he himself approves of it, on the ground that a man who
confessed that he sometimes approved of what was bad or wrong would
not be contradicting himself. And a similar argument is fatal to utilitari-
anism. We cannot agree that to call an action right is to say that of all the
actions possible in the circumstances it would cause, or be likely to cause,
the greatest happiness, or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or the
greatest balance of satisfied over unsatisfied desire, because we find that
it is not self- contradictory to say that it is sometimes wrong to perform
the action which would actually or probably cause the greatest happiness,
or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or of satisfied over unsatis-
fied desire. And since it is not self- contradictory to say that some pleasant
things are not good, or that some bad things are desired, it cannot be the
case that the sentence “x is good” is equivalent to “x is pleasant,” or to “x
is desired.” And to every other variant of utilitarianism with which I am
acquainted the same objection can be made And therefore we should, I
think, conclude that the validity of ethical judgements is not determined by
the felicific tendencies of actions, any more than by the nature of people’s
feelings; but that it must be regarded as “absolute” or “intrinsic,” and not
empirically calculable. ✻ ✻ ✻

In admitting that normative ethical concepts are irreducible to empiri-
cal concepts, we seem to be leaving the way clear for the “absolutist” view
of ethics— that is, the view that statements of value are not controlled by
observation, as ordinary empirical propositions are, but only by a mysterious
“intellectual intuition.” A feature of this theory, which is seldom recognized
by its advocates, is that it makes statements of value unverifiable. For it
is notorious that what seems intuitively certain to one person may seem
doubtful, or even false, to another. So that unless it is possible to provide
some criterion by which one may decide between conf licting intuitions,

42 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

a mere appeal to intuition is worthless as a test of a proposition’s validity.
But in the case of moral judgements, no such criterion can be given. Some
moralists claim to settle the matter by saying that they “know” that their
own moral judgements are correct. But such an assertion is of purely psy-
chological interest, and has not the slightest tendency to prove the validity
of any moral judgement. For dissentient moralists may equally well “know”
that their ethical views are correct. And, as far as subjective certainty goes,
there will be nothing to choose between them. When such differences of
opinion arise in connection with an ordinary empirical proposition, one
may attempt to resolve them by referring to, or actually carrying out, some
relevant empirical test. But with regard to ethical statements, there is, on
the “absolutist” or “intuitionist” theory, no relevant empirical test. We are
therefore justified in saying that on this theory ethical statements are held
to be unverifiable. They are, of course, also held to be genuine synthetic
propositions. ✻ ✻ ✻

We begin [our radical empiricist theory] by admitting that the funda-
mental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion
by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur.
So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists,
we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We
say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-
concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to
its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, “You acted wrongly in stealing
that money,” I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, “You
stole that money.” In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any
further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it.
It is as if I had said, “You stole that money,” in a peculiar tone of horror, or
written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or
the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence.
It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feel-
ings in the speaker.

If now I generalise my previous statement and say, “Stealing money
is wrong,” I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning— that is,
expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had
written “Stealing money!!”—where the shape and thickness of the excla-
mation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral
disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed. It is clear that there is

A. J. Ayer ■ 43

nothing said here which can be true or false. Another man may disagree
with me about the wrongness of stealing, in the sense that he may not have
the same feelings about stealing as I have, and he may quarrel with me on
account of my moral sentiments. But he cannot, strictly speaking, contradict
me. For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not
making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of
mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who
is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments.
So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is in the right. For
neither of us is asserting a genuine proposition.

What we have just been saying about the symbol “wrong” applies to all
normative ethical symbols. Sometimes they occur in sentences which record
ordinary empirical facts besides expressing ethical feeling about those facts:
sometimes they occur in sentences which simply express ethical feeling
about a certain type of action, or situation, without making any statement of
fact. But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making
an ethical judgement, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely
“emotive.” It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make
any assertion about them.

It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express
feeling. They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action.
Indeed some of them are used in such a way as to give the sentences in
which they occur the effect of commands. Thus the sentence “It is your duty
to tell the truth” may be regarded both as the expression of a certain sort of
ethical feeling about truthfulness and as the expression of the command
“Tell the truth.” The sentence “You ought to tell the truth” also involves
the command “Tell the truth,” but here the tone of the command is less
emphatic. In the sentence “It is good to tell the truth” the command has
become little more than a suggestion. And thus the “meaning” of the word
“good,” in its ethical usage, is differentiated from that of the word “duty”
or the word “ought.” In fact we may define the meaning of the various
ethical words in terms both of the different feelings they are ordinarily
taken to express, and also the different responses which they are calculated
to provoke.

We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining
the validity of ethical judgements. It is not because they have an “absolute”
validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense- experience, but

44 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

because they have no objective validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no
statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking whether what it says is
true or false. And we have seen that sentences which simply express moral
judgements do not say anything. They are pure expressions of feeling and
as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are
unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is
unverifiable— because they do not express genuine propositions.

Thus, although our theory of ethics might fairly be said to be radically
subjectivist, it differs in a very important respect from the orthodox subjec-
tivist theory. For the orthodox subjectivist does not deny, as we do, that the
sentences of a moralizer express genuine propositions. All he denies is that
they express propositions of a unique non- empirical character. His own
view is that they express propositions about the speaker’s feelings. If this
were so, ethical judgements clearly would be capable of being true or false.
They would be true if the speaker had the relevant feelings, and false if he
had not. And this is a matter which is, in principle, empirically verifiable.
Furthermore they could be significantly contradicted. For if I say, “Tolerance
is a virtue,” and someone answers, “You don’t approve of it,” he would, on
the ordinary subjectivist theory, be contradicting me. On our theory, he
would not be contradicting me, because, in saying that tolerance was a vir-
tue, I should not be making any statement about my own feelings or about
anything else. I should simply be evincing my feelings, which is not at all
the same thing as saying that I have them.

The distinction between the expression of feeling and the assertion of
feeling is complicated by the fact that the assertion that one has a certain
feeling often accompanies the expression of that feeling, and is then, indeed,
a factor in the expression of that feeling. Thus I may simultaneously express
boredom and say that I am bored, and in that case my utterance of the words,
“I am bored,” is one of the circumstances which make it true to say that I am
expressing or evincing boredom. But I can express boredom without actu-
ally saying that I am bored. I can express it by my tone and gestures, while
making a statement about something wholly unconnected with it, or by an
ejaculation, or without uttering any words at all. So that even if the assertion
that one has a certain feeling always involves the expression of that feeling,
the expression of a feeling assuredly does not always involve the assertion
that one has it. And this is the important point to grasp in considering the
distinction between our theory and the ordinary subjectivist theory. For
whereas the subjectivist holds that ethical statements actually assert the

A. J. Ayer ■ 45

existence of certain feelings, we hold that ethical statements are expressions
and excitants of feeling which do not necessarily involve any assertions.

We have already remarked that the main objection to the ordinary sub-
jectivist theory is that the validity of ethical judgements is not determined
by the nature of their author’s feelings. And this is an objection which our
theory escapes. For it does not imply that the existence of any feelings is a
necessary and sufficient condition of the validity of an ethical judgement. It
implies, on the contrary, that ethical judgements have no validity.

There is, however, a celebrated argument against subjectivist theories
which our theory does not escape. It has been pointed out by Moore that
if ethical statements were simply statements about the speaker’s feelings,
it would be impossible to argue about questions of value.1 To take a typical
example: if a man said that thrift was a virtue, and another replied that it
was a vice, they would not, on this theory, be disputing with one another.
One would be saying that he approved of thrift, and the other that he didn’t;
and there is no reason why both these statements should not be true. Now
Moore held it to be obvious that we do dispute about questions of value, and
accordingly concluded that the particular form of subjectivism which he
was discussing was false.

It is plain that the conclusion that it is impossible to dispute about
questions of value follows from our theory also. For as we hold that such
sentences as “Thrift is a virtue” and “Thrift is a vice” do not express propo-
sitions at all, we clearly cannot hold that they express incompatible proposi-
tions. We must therefore admit that if Moore’s argument really refutes the
ordinary subjectivist theory, it also refutes ours. But, in fact, we deny that it
does refute even the ordinary subjectivist theory. For we hold that one really
never does dispute about questions of value.

This may seem, at first sight, to be a very paradoxical assertion. For we
certainly do engage in disputes which are ordinarily regarded as disputes
about questions of value. But, in all such cases, we find, if we consider the
matter closely, that the dispute is not really about a question of value, but
about a question of fact. When someone disagrees with us about the moral
value of a certain action or type of action, we do admittedly resort to argu-
ment in order to win him over to our way of thinking. But we do not attempt
to show by our arguments that he has the “wrong” ethical feeling towards
a situation whose nature he has correctly apprehended. What we attempt to

1 cf. G. E. Moore, Philosophical Studies, “The Nature of Moral Philosophy.”

46 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

show is that he is mistaken about the facts of the case. We argue that he has
misconceived the agent’s motive: or that he has misjudged the effects of the
action, or its probable effects in view of the agent’s knowledge; or that he has
failed to take into account the special circumstances in which the agent was
placed. Or else we employ more general arguments about the effects which
actions of a certain type tend to produce, or the qualities which are usually
manifested in their performance. We do this in the hope that we have only
to get our opponent to agree with us about the nature of the empirical facts
for him to adopt the same moral attitude towards them as we do. And as
the people with whom we argue have generally received the same moral
education as ourselves, and live in the same social order, our expectation is
usually justified. But if our opponent happens to have undergone a differ-
ent process of moral “conditioning” from ourselves, so that, even when he
acknowledges all the facts, he still disagrees with us about the moral value
of the actions under discussion, then we abandon the attempt to convince
him by argument. We say that it is impossible to argue with him because
he has a distorted or undeveloped moral sense; which signifies merely that
he employs a different set of values from our own. We feel that our own
system of values is superior, and therefore speak in such derogatory terms
of his. But we cannot bring forward any arguments to show that our system
is superior. For our judgement that it is so is itself a judgement of value, and
accordingly outside the scope of argument. It is because argument fails us
when we come to deal with pure questions of value, as distinct from ques-
tions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse.

In short, we find that argument is possible on moral questions only if
some system of values is presupposed. If our opponent concurs with us in
expressing moral disapproval of all actions of a given type t, then we may get
him to condemn a particular action A, by bringing forward arguments to
show that A is of type t. For the question whether A does or does not belong
to that type is a plain question of fact. Given that a man has certain moral
principles, we argue that he must, in order to be consistent, react morally to
certain things in a certain way. What we do not and cannot argue about is
the validity of these moral principles. We merely praise or condemn them
in the light of our own feelings. ✻ ✻ ✻

Having upheld our theory against the only criticism which appeared to
threaten it, we may now use it to define the nature of all ethical enquiries.
We find that ethical philosophy consists simply in saying that ethical con-
cepts are pseudo- concepts and therefore unanalysable. The further task of

J. L. Mackie ■ 47

describing the different feelings that the different ethical terms are used to
express, and the different reactions that they customarily provoke, is a task
for the psychologist. There cannot be such a thing as ethical science, if by
ethical science one means the elaboration of a “true” system of morals. For
we have seen that, as ethical judgements are mere expressions of feeling,
there can be no way of determining the validity of any ethical system, and,
indeed, no sense in asking whether any such system is true. All that one
may legitimately enquire in this connection is, What are the moral habits of
a given person or group of people, and what causes them to have precisely
those habits and feelings? And this enquiry falls wholly within the scope of
the existing social sciences.

It appears, then, that ethics, as a branch of knowledge, is nothing more
than a department of psychology and sociology.

Study QueStionS

1. What is the “criterion of verifiability”? What is its significance for moral

2. Explain Ayer’s emotivist theory of ethics.
3. How is argument about moral questions possible in Ayer’s view?

J. l. mackie
Inventing R ight a nd Wrong

J. L. Mackie (1917–1981) was an Australian philosopher who spent his working
life in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Noted especially for his
moral philosophy, he wrote on a wide range of philosophical topics.

moRal scepTicism
There are no objective values. This is a bald statement of the thesis of this
chapter, but before arguing for it I shall try to clarify and restrict it in ways
that may meet some objections and prevent some misunderstanding.

The statement of this thesis is liable to provoke one of three very differ-
ent reactions. Some will think it not merely false but pernicious; they will
see it as a threat to morality and to everything else that is worthwhile, and
they will find the presenting of such a thesis in what purports to be a book
on ethics paradoxical or even outrageous. Others will regard it as a trivial
truth, almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, and certainly too plain
to be worth much argument. Others again will say that it is meaningless or

48 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

empty, that no real issue is raised by the question whether values are or are
not part of the fabric of the world. But, precisely because there can be these
three different reactions, much more needs to be said.

The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the
world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most
naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more
loosely called moral values or disvalues—rightness and wrongness, duty,
obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on. It also
includes non- moral values, notably aesthetic ones, beauty and various kinds
of artistic merit. ✻ ✻ ✻

Since it is with moral values that I am primarily concerned, the view
I am adopting may be called moral scepticism. But this name is likely to be
misunderstood: “moral scepticism” might also be used as a name for either
of two first order views, or perhaps for an incoherent mixture of the two.
A moral sceptic might be the sort of person who says “All this talk of moral-
ity is tripe,” who rejects morality and will take no notice of it. Such a person
may be literally rejecting all moral judgements; he is more likely to be mak-
ing moral judgements of his own, expressing a positive moral condemnation
of all that conventionally passes for morality; or he may be confusing these
two logically incompatible views, and saying that he rejects all morality,
while he is in fact rejecting only a particular morality that is current in the
society in which he has grown up. But I am not at present concerned with
the merits or faults of such a position. These are first order moral views,
positive or negative: the person who adopts either of them is taking a certain
practical, normative, stand. By contrast, what I am discussing is a second
order view, a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral
valuing, about where and how they fit into the world. These first and second
order views are not merely distinct but completely independent: one could
be a second order moral sceptic without being a first order one, or again the
other way round. A man could hold strong moral views, and indeed ones
whose content was thoroughly conventional, while believing that they were
simply attitudes and policies with regard to conduct that he and other people
held. Conversely, a man could reject all established morality while believing
it to be an objective truth that it was evil or corrupt.

With another sort of misunderstanding moral scepticism would seem not
so much pernicious as absurd. How could anyone deny that there is a dif-
ference between a kind action and a cruel one, or that a coward and a brave
man behave differently in the face of danger? Of course, this is undeniable;

J. L. Mackie ■ 49

but it is not to the point. The kinds of behaviour to which moral values and
disvalues are ascribed are indeed part of the furniture of the world, and so
are the natural, descriptive, differences between them; but not, perhaps,
their differences in value. It is a hard fact that cruel actions differ from kind
ones, and hence that we can learn, as in fact we all do, to distinguish them
fairly well in practice, and to use the words “cruel” and “kind” with fairly
clear descriptive meanings; but is it an equally hard fact that actions which
are cruel in such a descriptive sense are to be condemned? The present
issue is with regard to the objectivity specifically of value, not with regard
to the objectivity of those natural, factual, differences on the basis of which
differing values are assigned.

Another name often used, as an alternative to “moral scepticism,” for the view
I am discussing is “subjectivism.” But this too has more than one meaning.
✻ ✻ ✻ What is often called moral subjectivism is the doctrine that, for example,
“This action is right” means “I approve of this action,” or more generally that
moral judgements are equivalent to reports of the speaker’s own feelings or
attitudes. But the view I am now discussing is to be distinguished in two
vital respects from any such doctrine as this. First, what I have called moral
scepticism is a negative doctrine, not a positive one: it says what there isn’t,
not what there is. It says that there do not exist entities or relations of a certain
kind, objective values or requirements, which many people have believed to
exist. Of course, the moral sceptic cannot leave it at that. If his position is
to be at all plausible, he must give some account of how other people have
fallen into what he regards as an error, and this account will have to include
some positive suggestions about how values fail to be objective, about what
has been mistaken for, or has led to false beliefs about, objective values. But
this will be a development of his theory, not its core: its core is the negation.
Secondly, what I have called moral scepticism is an ontological thesis, not
a linguistic or conceptual one. It is not, like the other doctrine often called
moral subjectivism, a view about the meanings of moral statements. ✻ ✻ ✻

The denial that there are objective values does not commit one to any
particular view about what moral statements mean, and certainly not to the
view that they are equivalent to subjective reports. No doubt if moral values
are not objective they are in some very broad sense subjective, and for this
reason I would accept “moral subjectivism” as an alternative name to “moral
scepticism.” But subjectivism in this broad sense must be distinguished

50 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

from the specific doctrine about meaning referred to above. Neither name
is altogether satisfactory: we simply have to guard against the (different)
misinterpretations which each may suggest. ✻ ✻ ✻

The claim To oBJecTiviTy
✻ ✻ ✻ The main tradition of European moral philosophy includes the ✻ ✻ ✻
claim, that there are objective values of just the sort I have denied. ✻ ✻ ✻

But this objectivism about values is not only a feature of the philosoph-
ical tradition. It has also a firm basis in ordinary thought, and even in the
meanings of moral terms. ✻ ✻ ✻

Someone in a state of moral perplexity, wondering whether it would be
wrong for him to engage, say, in research related to bacteriological warfare,
wants to arrive at some judgement about this concrete case, his doing this
work at this time in these actual circumstances; his relevant characteristics
will be part of the subject of the judgement, but no relation between him
and the proposed action will be part of the predicate. The question is not, for
example, whether he really wants to do this work, whether it will satisfy or
dissatisfy him, whether he will in the long run have a pro-attitude towards
it, or even whether this is an action of a sort that he can happily and sincerely
recommend in all relevantly similar cases. Nor is he even wondering just
whether to recommend such action in all relevantly similar cases. He wants
to know whether this course of action would be wrong in itself. Something
like this is the everyday objectivist concept of which talk about non- natural
qualities is a philosopher’s reconstruction.

The prevalence of this tendency to objectify values—and not only moral
ones—is confirmed by a pattern of thinking that we find in existentialists
and those inf luenced by them. The denial of objective values can carry
with it an extreme emotional reaction, a feeling that nothing matters at
all, that life has lost its purpose. Of course this does not follow; the lack of
objective values is not a good reason for abandoning subjective concern or
for ceasing to want anything. But the abandonment of a belief in objective
values can cause, at least temporarily, a decay of subjective concern and
sense of purpose. That it does so is evidence that the people in whom this
reaction occurs have been tending to objectify their concerns and pur-
poses, have been giving them a fictitious external authority. A claim to
objectivity has been so strongly associated with their subjective concerns
and purposes that the collapse of the former seems to undermine the
latter as well. ✻ ✻ ✻

J. L. Mackie ■ 51

I conclude, then, that ordinary moral judgements include a claim to
objectivity, an assumption that there are objective values in just the sense
in which I am concerned to deny this. And I do not think it is going too far
to say that this assumption has been incorporated in the basic, conventional,
meanings of moral terms. Any analysis of the meanings of moral terms
which omits this claim to objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity is to that extent
incomplete; and this is true of any non- cognitive analysis, any naturalist one,
and any combination of the two.

If second order ethics were confined, then, to linguistic and concep-
tual analysis, it ought to conclude that moral values at least are objective:
that they are so is part of what our ordinary moral statements mean: the
traditional moral concepts of the ordinary man as well as of the main line
of western philosophers are concepts of objective value. But it is precisely
for this reason that linguistic and conceptual analysis is not enough. The
claim to objectivity, however ingrained in our language and thought, is not
self- validating. It can and should be questioned. But the denial of objective
values will have to be put forward not as the result of an analytic approach,
but as an “error theory,” a theory that although most people in making
moral judgements implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to
something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false. It is this that
makes the name “moral scepticism” appropriate.

But since this is an error theory, since it goes against assumptions
ingrained in our thought and built into some of the ways in which language
is used, since it conf licts with what is sometimes called common sense, it
needs very solid support. It is not something we can accept lightly or casually
and then quietly pass on. If we are to adopt this view, we must argue explic-
itly for it. Traditionally it has been supported by arguments of two main
kinds, which I shall call the argument from relativity and the argument from
queerness, but these can, as I shall show, be supplemented in several ways.

The aRgumeNT FRom RelaTiviTy
The argument from relativity has as its premiss the well- known variation in
moral codes from one society to another and from one period to another, and
also the differences in moral beliefs between different groups and classes
within a complex community. Such variation is in itself merely a truth of
descriptive morality, a fact of anthropology which entails neither first order
nor second order ethical views. Yet it may indirectly support second order
subjectivism: radical differences between first order moral judgements

52 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective
truths. But it is not the mere occurrence of disagreements that tells against
the objectivity of values. Disagreement on questions in history or biology or
cosmology does not show that there are no objective issues in these fields
for investigators to disagree about. But such scientific disagreement results
from speculative inferences or explanatory hypotheses based on inadequate
evidence, and it is hardly plausible to interpret moral disagreement in the
same way. Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adher-
ence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection
seems to be mainly that way round: it is that people approve of monogamy
because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they
participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monog-
amy. Of course, the standards may be an idealization of the way of life from
which they arise: the monogamy in which people participate may be less
complete, less rigid, than that of which it leads them to approve. This is not
to say that moral judgements are purely conventional. Of course there have
been and are moral heretics and moral reformers, people who have turned
against the established rules and practices of their own communities for
moral reasons, and often for moral reasons that we would endorse. But this
can usually be understood as the extension, in ways which, though new and
unconventional, seemed to them to be required for consistency, of rules to
which they already adhered as arising out of an existing way of life. In short,
the argument from relativity has some force simply because the actual vari-
ations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that
they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions,
most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.

But there is a well- known counter to this argument from relativity,
namely to say that the items for which objective validity is in the first place
to be claimed are not specific moral rules or codes but very general basic
principles which are recognized at least implicitly to some extent in all
society—such principles as provide the foundations of what Sidgwick1 has
called different methods of ethics: the principle of universalizability, per-
haps, or the rule that one ought to conform to the specific rules of any way
of life in which one takes part, from which one profits, and on which one
relies, or some utilitarian principle of doing what tends, or seems likely, to

1 Editor’s note: Henry Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics (Hackett, 1981; original work published

J. L. Mackie ■ 53

promote the general happiness. It is easy to show that such general prin-
ciples, married with differing concrete circumstances, different existing
social patterns or different preferences, will beget different specific moral
rules; and there is some plausibility in the claim that the specific rules thus
generated will vary from community to community or from group to group
in close agreement with the actual variations in accepted codes.

The argument from relativity can be only partly countered in this way.
To take this line the moral objectivist has to say that it is only in these
principles that the objective moral character attaches immediately to its
descriptively specified ground or subject: other moral judgements are objec-
tively valid or true, but only derivatively and contingently—if things had
been otherwise, quite different sorts of actions would have been right. And
despite the prominence in recent philosophical ethics of universalization,
utilitarian principles, and the like, these are very far from constituting the
whole of what is actually affirmed as basic in ordinary moral thought. Much
of this is concerned rather with what Hare2 calls “ideals” or, less kindly,
“fanaticism.” That is, people judge that some things are good or right, and
others are bad or wrong, not because—or at any rate not only because—they
exemplify some general principle for which widespread implicit acceptance
could be claimed, but because something about those things arouses certain
responses immediately in them, though they would arouse radically and
irresolvably different responses in others. “Moral sense” or “intuition” is an
initially more plausible description of what supplies many of our basic moral
judgements than “reason.” With regard to all these starting points of moral
thinking the argument from relativity remains in full force.

The aRgumeNT FRom queeRNess
Even more important, however, and certainly more generally applicable, is
the argument from queerness. This has two parts, one metaphysical, the
other epistemological. If there were objective values, then they would be
entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from
anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them,
it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition,
utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. These
points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non- natural qualities,
and by the intuitionists in their talk about a “faculty of moral intuition.”

2 R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (Oxford University Press, 1963).

54 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Intuitionism has long been out of favour, and it is indeed easy to point out
its implausibilities. What is not so often stressed, but is more important, is
that the central thesis of intuitionism is one to which any objectivist view
of values is in the end committed: intuitionism merely makes unpalatably
plain what other forms of objectivism wrap up. Of course the suggestion
that moral judgements are made or moral problems solved by just sitting
down and having an ethical intuition is a travesty of actual moral thinking.
But, however complex the real process, it will require (if it is to yield author-
itatively prescriptive conclusions) some input of this distinctive sort, either
premisses or forms of argument or both. When we ask the awkward ques-
tion, how we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the truth
of these distinctively ethical premisses or of the cogency of this distinc-
tively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of sensory
perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory
hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or
any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer; “a special sort
of intuition” is a lame answer, but it is the one to which the clear- headed
objectivist is compelled to resort.

Indeed, the best move for the moral objectivist is not to evade this issue,
but to look for companions in guilt. For example, Richard Price argues that
it is not moral knowledge alone that such an empiricism as those of Locke
and Hume is unable to account for, but also our knowledge and even our
ideas of essence, number, identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance,
the necessary existence and infinite extension of time and space, necessity
and possibility in general, power, and causation. If the understanding,
which Price defines as the faculty within us that discerns truth, is also
a source of new simple ideas of so many other sorts, may it not also be
a power of immediately perceiving right and wrong, which yet are real
characters of actions?

This is an important counter to the argument from queerness. The only
adequate reply to it would be to show how, on empiricist foundations, we
can construct an account of the ideas and beliefs and knowledge that we
have of all these matters. I cannot even begin to do that here, though I have
undertaken some parts of the task elsewhere. I can only state my belief that
satisfactory accounts of most of these can be given in empirical terms. If
some supposed metaphysical necessities or essences resist such treatment,
then they too should be included, along with objective values, among the
targets of the argument from queerness. ✻ ✻ ✻

J. L. Mackie ■ 55

Plato’s Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would
have to be. The Form of the Good is such that knowledge of it provides the
knower with both a direction and an overriding motive; something’s being
good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pur-
sue it. An objective good would be sought by anyone who was acquainted
with it, not because of any contingent fact that this person, or every person,
is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because the end has to-
be- pursuedness somehow built into it. Similarly, if there were objective
principles of right and wrong, any wrong (possible) course of action would
have not- to- be- doneness somehow built into it. ✻ ✻ ✻

Another way of bringing out this queerness is to ask, about anything that is
supposed to have some objective moral quality, how this is linked with its nat-
ural features. What is the connection between the natural fact that an action
is a piece of deliberate cruelty— say, causing pain just for fun— and the moral
fact that it is wrong? It cannot be an entailment, a logical or semantic necessity.
Yet it is not merely that the two features occur together. The wrongness must
somehow be “consequential” or “supervenient”; it is wrong because it is a piece
of deliberate cruelty. But just what in the world is signified by this “because”?
And how do we know the relation that it signifies, if this is something more
than such actions being socially condemned, and condemned by us too, per-
haps through our having absorbed attitudes from our social environment?
It is not even sufficient to postulate a faculty which “sees” the wrongness:
something must be postulated which can see at once the natural features that
constitute the cruelty, and the wrongness, and the mysterious consequential
link between the two. Alternatively, the intuition required might be the per-
ception that wrongness is a higher order property belonging to certain natural
properties; but what is this belonging of properties to other properties, and
how can we discern it? How much simpler and more comprehensible the
situation would be if we could replace the moral quality with some sort of
subjective response which could be causally related to the detection of the
natural features on which the supposed quality is said to be consequential.

Study QueStionS

1. Why does Mackie call his approach to ethics “error theory”?
2. What is the argument from relativity, and what does Mackie hope to achieve

with it?
3. What is the argument from queerness? (Explain both its metaphysical and

epistemological aspects.)

56 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

haRRy g. FRaNkFuRT
A lternate Possibilities a nd Mora l Responsibilit y

Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929) is an American philosopher, known for his work
defending compatibilism, as well as political philosophy and a best- selling short
book called On Bullshit (2005).

A dominant role in nearly all recent inquiries into the free- will problem
has been played by a principle which I shall call “the principle of alternate
possibilities.” This principle states that a person is morally responsible for
what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. Its exact meaning
is a subject of controversy, particularly concerning whether someone who
accepts it is thereby committed to believing that moral responsibility and
determinism are incompatible. Practically no one, however, seems inclined
to deny or even to question that the principle of alternate possibilities (con-
strued in some way or other) is true. It has generally seemed so overwhelm-
ingly plausible that some philosophers have even characterized it as an a
priori truth. People whose accounts of free will or of moral responsibility
are radically at odds evidently find in it a firm and convenient common
ground upon which they can profitably take their opposing stands.

But the principle of alternate possibilities is false. A person may well be
morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have
done otherwise. The principle’s plausibility is an illusion, which can be made
to vanish by bringing the relevant moral phenomena into sharper focus.

In seeking illustrations of the principle of alternate possibilities, it is most
natural to think of situations in which the same circumstances both bring
it about that a person does something and make it impossible for him to
avoid doing it. These include, for example, situations in which a person is
coerced into doing something, or in which he is impelled to act by a hyp-
notic suggestion, or in which some inner compulsion drives him to do what
he does. In situations of these kinds there are circumstances that make it
impossible for the person to do otherwise, and these very circumstances
also serve to bring it about that he does whatever it is that he does.

However, there may be circumstances that constitute sufficient condi-
tions for a certain action to be performed by someone and that therefore
make it impossible for the person to do otherwise, but that do not actually

Harry G. Frankfurt ■ 57

impel the person to act or in any way produce his action. A person may
do something in circumstances that leave him no alternative to doing it,
without these circumstances actually moving him or leading him to do
it— without them playing any role, indeed, in bringing it about that he does
what he does.

An examination of situations characterized by circumstances of this sort
casts doubt, I believe, on the relevance to questions of moral responsibility
of the fact that a person who has done something could not have done oth-
erwise. I propose to develop some examples of this kind in the context of a
discussion of coercion and to suggest that our moral intuitions concerning
these examples tend to disconfirm the principle of alternate possibilities.
Then I will discuss the principle in more general terms, explain what I think
is wrong with it, and describe brief ly and without argument how it might
appropriately be revised.

It is generally agreed that a person who has been coerced to do something
did not do it freely and is not morally responsible for having done it. Now
the doctrine that coercion and moral responsibility are mutually exclusive
may appear to be no more than a somewhat particularized version of the
principle of alternate possibilities. It is natural enough to say of a person
who has been coerced to do something that he could not have done oth-
erwise. And it may easily seem that being coerced deprives a person of
freedom and of moral responsibility simply because it is a special case of
being unable to do otherwise. The principle of alternate possibilities may in
this way derive some credibility from its association with the very plausible
proposition that moral responsibility is excluded by coercion.

It is not right, however, that it should do so. The fact that a person was
coerced to act as he did may entail both that he could not have done other-
wise and that he bears no moral responsibility for his action. But his lack
of moral responsibility is not entailed by his having been unable to do oth-
erwise. The doctrine that coercion excludes moral responsibility is not cor-
rectly understood, in other words, as a particularized version of the principle
of alternate possibilities.

Let us suppose that someone is threatened convincingly with a penalty
he finds unacceptable and that he then does what is required of him by the
issuer of the threat. We can imagine details that would make it reasonable
for us to think that the person was coerced to perform the action in question,

58 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

that he could not have done otherwise, and that he bears no moral responsi-
bility for having done what he did. But just what is it about situations of this
kind that warrants the judgment that the threatened person is not morally
responsible for his act?

This question may be approached by considering situations of the follow-
ing kind. Jones decides for reasons of his own to do something, then some-
one threatens him with a very harsh penalty (so harsh that any reasonable
person would submit to the threat) unless he does precisely that, and Jones
does it. Will we hold Jones morally responsible for what he has done? I think
this will depend on the roles we think were played, in leading him to act, by
his original decision and by the threat.

One possibility is that Jones
is not a reasonable man: he is, rather, a

man who does what he has once decided to do no matter what happens
next and no matter what the cost. In that case, the threat actually exerted no
effective force upon him. He acted without any regard to it, very much as
if he were not aware that it had been made. If this is indeed the way it was,
the situation did not involve coercion at all. The threat did not lead Jones


to do what he did. Nor was it in fact sufficient to have prevented him from
doing otherwise: if his earlier decision had been to do something else, the
threat would not have deterred him in the slightest. It seems evident that in
these circumstances the fact that Jones

was threatened in no way reduces

the moral responsibility he would otherwise bear for his act. This example,
however, is not a counterexample either to the doctrine that coercion excuses
or to the principle of alternate possibilities. For we have supposed that Jones


is a man upon whom the threat had no coercive effect and, hence, that it did
not actually deprive him of alternatives to doing what he did.

Another possibility is that Jones
was stampeded by the threat. Given

that threat, he would have performed that action regardless of what decision
he had already made. The threat upset him so profoundly, moreover, that
he completely forgot his own earlier decision and did what was demanded
of him entirely because he was terrified of the penalty with which he was
threatened. In this case, it is not relevant to his having performed the action
that he had already decided on his own to perform it. When the chips were
down he thought of nothing but the threat, and fear alone led him to act. The
fact that at an earlier time Jones

had decided for his own reasons to act in

just that way may be relevant to an evaluation of his character; he may bear
full moral responsibility for having made that decision. But he can hardly
be said to be morally responsible for his action. For he performed the action

Harry G. Frankfurt ■ 59

simply as a result of the coercion to which he was subjected. His earlier
decision played no role in bringing it about that he did what he did, and it
would therefore be gratuitous to assign it a role in the moral evaluation of
his action.

Now consider a third possibility. Jones
was neither stampeded by the

threat nor indifferent to it. The threat impressed him, as it would impress
any reasonable man, and he would have submitted to it wholeheartedly if
he had not already made a decision that coincided with the one demanded
of him. In fact, however, he performed the action in question on the basis
of the decision he had made before the threat was issued. When he acted,
he was not actually motivated by the threat but solely by the considerations
that had originally commended the action to him. It was not the threat that
led him to act, though it would have done so if he had not already provided
himself with a sufficient motive for performing the action in question.

No doubt it will be very difficult for anyone to know, in a case like this
one, exactly what happened. Did Jones

perform the action because of the

threat, or were his reasons for acting simply those which had already per-
suaded him to do so? Or did he act on the basis of two motives, each of which
was sufficient for his action? It is not impossible, however, that the situation
should be clearer than situations of this kind usually are. And suppose it
is apparent to us that Jones

acted on the basis of his own decision and not

because of the threat. Then I think we would be justified in regarding his
moral responsibility for what he did as unaffected by the threat even though,
since he would in any case have submitted to the threat, he could not have
avoided doing what he did. It would be entirely reasonable for us to make
the same judgment concerning his moral responsibility that we would have
made if we had not known of the threat. For the threat did not in fact inf lu-
ence his performance of the action. He did what he did just as if the threat
had not been made at all.

The case of Jones

may appear at first glance to combine coercion and moral

responsibility, and thus to provide a counterexample to the doctrine that
coercion excuses. It is not really so certain that it does so, however, because
it is unclear whether the example constitutes a genuine instance of coer-
cion. Can we say of Jones

that he was coerced to do something, when he

had already decided on his own to do it and when he did it entirely on the
basis of that decision? Or would it be more correct to say that Jones

was not

60 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

coerced to do what he did, even though he himself recognized that there
was an irresistible force at work in virtue of which he had to do it? My own
linguistic intuitions lead me toward the second alternative, but they are
somewhat equivocal. Perhaps we can say either of these things, or perhaps
we must add a qualifying explanation to whichever of them we say.

This murkiness, however, does not interfere with our drawing an import-
ant moral from an examination of the example. Suppose we decide to say
that Jones

was not coerced. Our basis for saying this will clearly be that it is

incorrect to regard a man as being coerced to do something unless he does it
because of the coercive force exerted against him. The fact that an irresistible
threat is made will not, then, entail that the person who receives it is coerced
to do what he does. It will also be necessary that the threat is what actually
accounts for his doing it. On the other hand, suppose we decide to say that

was coerced. Then we will be bound to admit that being coerced does

not exclude being morally responsible. And we will also surely be led to the
view that coercion affects the judgment of a person’s moral responsibility
only when the person acts as he does because he is coerced to do so— i.e.,
when the fact that he is coerced is what accounts for his action.

Whichever we decide to say, then, we will recognize that the doctrine
that coercion excludes moral responsibility is not a particularized version
of the principle of alternate possibilities. Situations in which a person who
does something cannot do otherwise because he is subject to coercive power
are either not instances of coercion at all, or they are situations in which
the  person may still be morally responsible for what he does if it is not
because of the coercion that he does it. When we excuse a person who has
been coerced, we do not excuse him because he was unable to do otherwise.
Even though a person is subject to a coercive force that precludes his per-
forming any action but one, he may nonetheless bear full moral responsi-
bility for performing that action.

To the extent that the principle of alternate possibilities derives its plausibil-
ity from association with the doctrine that coercion excludes moral respon-
sibility, a clear understanding of the latter diminishes the appeal of the
former. Indeed the case of Jones

may appear to do more than illuminate

the relationship between the two doctrines. It may well seem to provide a
decisive counterexample to the principle of alternate possibilities and thus
to show that this principle is false. For the irresistibility of the threat to

Harry G. Frankfurt ■ 61

which Jones
is subjected might well be taken to mean that he cannot but

perform the action he performs. And yet the threat, since Jones

the action without regard to it, does not reduce his moral responsibility for
what he does.

The following objection will doubtless be raised against the suggestion
that the case of Jones

is a counterexample to the principle of alternate pos-

sibilities. There is perhaps a sense in which Jones
cannot do otherwise

than perform the action he performs, since he is a reasonable man and the
threat he encounters is sufficient to move any reasonable man. But it is not
this sense that is germane to the principle of alternate possibilities. His
knowledge that he stands to suffer an intolerably harsh penalty does not
mean that Jones

, strictly speaking, cannot perform any action but the one he

does perform. After all it is still open to him, and this is crucial, to defy the
threat if he wishes to do so and to accept the penalty his action would bring
down upon him. In the sense in which the principle of alternate possibilities
employs the concept of “could have done otherwise,” Jones

’s inability to

resist the threat does not mean that he cannot do otherwise than perform
the action he performs. Hence the case of Jones

does not constitute an

instance contrary to the principle.
I do not propose to consider in what sense the concept of “could have done

otherwise” figures in the principle of alternate possibilities, nor will I attempt
to measure the force of the objection I have just described. For I believe that
whatever force this objection may be thought to have can be def lected by
altering the example in the following way. Suppose someone— Black, let
us say— wants Jones

to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to

considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand
unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones

is about to make up his mind what to

do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge
of such things) that Jones

is going to decide to do something other than what

he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones
is going to decide to

do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones

to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones
’s initial

preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way.
What steps will Black take, if he believes he must take steps, in order to

ensure that Jones
decides and acts as he wishes? Anyone with a theory con-

cerning what “could have done otherwise” means may answer this question
for himself by describing whatever measures he would regard as sufficient
to guarantee that, in the relevant sense, Jones

cannot do otherwise. Let

62 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Black pronounce a terrible threat, and in this way both force Jones
to per-

form the desired action and prevent him from performing a forbidden one.
Let Black give Jones

a potion, or put him under hypnosis, and in some such

way as these generate in Jones
an irresistible inner compulsion to perform

the act Black wants performed and to avoid others. Or let Black manipulate
the minute processes of Jones

’s brain and nervous system in some more

direct way, so that causal forces running in and out of his synapses and
along the poor man’s nerves determine that he chooses to act and that he
does act in the one way and not in any other. Given any conditions under
which it will be maintained that Jones

cannot do otherwise, in other words,

let Black bring it about that those conditions prevail. The structure of the
example is f lexible enough, I think, to find a way around any charge of
irrelevance by accommodating the doctrine on which the charge is based.

Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones
, for

reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action
Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones

will bear pre-

cisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne
if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be
quite unreasonable to excuse Jones

for his action, or to withhold the praise

to which it would normally entitle him, on the basis of the fact that he could
not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to
act as he did. He would have acted the same even if it had not been a fact.
Indeed, everything happened just as it would have happened without Black’s
presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.

In this example there are sufficient conditions for Jones
’s perform-

ing the action in question. What action he performs is not up to him. Of
course it is in a way up to him whether he acts on his own or as a result of
Black’s intervention. That depends upon what action he himself is inclined
to perform. But whether he finally acts on his own or as a result of Black’s
intervention, he performs the same action. He has no alternative but to do
what Black wants him to do. If he does it on his own, however, his moral
responsibility for doing it is not affected by the fact that Black was lurking in
the background with sinister intent, since this intent never comes into play.

The fact that a person could not have avoided doing something is a suffi-
cient condition of his having done it. But, as some of my examples show,
this fact may play no role whatever in the explanation of why he did it.

Harry G. Frankfurt ■ 63

It may not figure at all among the circumstances that actually brought it
about that he did what he did, so that his action is to be accounted for on
another basis entirely. Even though the person was unable to do otherwise,
that is to say, it may not be the case that he acted as he did because he could
not have done otherwise. Now if someone had no alternative to perform-
ing a certain action but did not perform it because he was unable to do
otherwise, then he would have performed exactly the same action even if he
could have done otherwise. The circumstances that made it impossible for
him to do otherwise could have been subtracted from the situation without
affecting what happened or why it happened in any way. Whatever it was
that actually led the person to do what he did, or that made him do it, would
have led him to do it or made him do it even if it had been possible for him
to do something else instead.

Thus it would have made no difference, so far as concerns his action or
how he came to perform it, if the circumstances that made it impossible for
him to avoid performing it had not prevailed. The fact that he could not have
done otherwise clearly provides no basis for supposing that he might have
done otherwise if he had been able to do so. When a fact is in this way irrel-
evant to the problem of accounting for a person’s action it seems quite gra-
tuitous to assign it any weight in the assessment of his moral responsibility.
Why should the fact be considered in reaching a moral judgment concerning
the person when it does not help in any way to understand either what made
him act as he did or what, in other circumstances, he might have done?

This, then, is why the principle of alternate possibilities is mistaken.
It asserts that a person bears no moral responsibility— that is, he is to be
excused— for having performed an action if there were circumstances that
made it impossible for him to avoid performing it. But there may be cir-
cumstances that make it impossible for a person to avoid performing some
action without those circumstances in any way bringing it about that he
performs that action. It would surely be no good for the person to refer to
circumstances of this sort in an effort to absolve himself of moral respon-
sibility for performing the action in question. For those circumstances, by
hypothesis, actually had nothing to do with his having done what he did.
He would have done precisely the same thing, and he would have been led
or made in precisely the same way to do it, even if they had not prevailed.

We often do, to be sure, excuse people for what they have done when they
tell us (and we believe them) that they could not have done otherwise. But
this is because we assume that what they tell us serves to explain why they

64 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

did what they did. We take it for granted that they are not being disingenu-
ous, as a person would be who cited as an excuse the fact that he could not
have avoided doing what he did but who knew full well that it was not at all
because of this that he did it.

What I have said may suggest that the principle of alternate possibilities
should be revised so as to assert that a person is not morally responsible for
what he has done if he did it because he could not have done otherwise. It
may be noted that this revision of the principle does not seriously affect the
arguments of those who have relied on the original principle in their efforts
to maintain that moral responsibility and determinism are incompatible. For
if it was causally determined that a person perform a certain action, then it
will be true that the person performed it because of those causal determi-
nants. And if the fact that it was causally determined that a person perform
a certain action means that the person could not have done otherwise, as
philosophers who argue for the incompatibility thesis characteristically sup-
pose, then the fact that it was causally determined that a person perform
a certain action will mean that the person performed it because he could
not have done otherwise. The revised principle of alternate possibilities will
entail, on this assumption concerning the meaning of “could have done
otherwise,” that a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if
it was causally determined that he do it. I do not believe, however, that this
revision of the principle is acceptable.

Suppose a person tells us that he did what he did because he was unable
to do otherwise; or suppose he makes the similar statement that he did what
he did because he had to do it. We do often accept statements like these (if
we believe them) as valid excuses, and such statements may well seem at
first glance to invoke the revised principle of alternate possibilities. But I
think that when we accept such statements as valid excuses it is because we
assume that we are being told more than the statements strictly and literally
convey. We understand the person who offers the excuse to mean that he did
what he did only because he was unable to do otherwise, or only because he
had to do it. And we understand him to mean, more particularly, that when
he did what he did it was not because that was what he really wanted to do.
The principle of alternate possibilities should thus be replaced, in my opin-
ion, by the following principle: a person is not morally responsible for what
he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise. This
principle does not appear to conf lict with the view that moral responsibility
is compatible with determinism.

Plato ■ 65

The following may all be true: there were circumstances that made it
impossible for a person to avoid doing something; these circumstances actu-
ally played a role in bringing it about that he did it, so that it is correct to say
that he did it because he could not have done otherwise; the person really
wanted to do what he did; he did it because it was what he really wanted to do,
so that it is not correct to say that he did what he did only because he could not
have done otherwise. Under these conditions, the person may well be morally
responsible for what he has done. On the other hand, he will not be morally
responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have
done otherwise, even if what he did was something he really wanted to do.

Study QueStionS

1. What is the principle of alternate possibilities, and what consequences does
it have for the debate about free will and moral responsibility?

2. Explain Frankfurt’s counterexample to the principle of alternate possibilities.
3. Does Frankfurt show that moral responsibility does not depend on free will?

God a nd Mora lit y

Plato (429?–347 bce), an ancient Greek philosopher, stands as perhaps the most
significant of the founders of the Western philosophical tradition. He was a pupil
of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. He wrote in dialogue form, generally featur-
ing Socrates as the lead figure in the debate. It has been said that all subsequent
philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

Euthyphro: ✻ ✻ ✻ What is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.
Socrates: Splendid, Euthyphro! You have now answered in the way I

wanted. Whether your answer is true I do not know yet, but you will obvi-
ously show me that what you say is true.

Euthyphro: Certainly.
Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man

dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impi-
ous. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious.
Is that not so?

Euthyphro: It is indeed.
Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement?
Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates.

66 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that
they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with
each other. Has that, too, been said?

Euthyphro: It has.
Socrates: What are the subjects of difference that cause hatred and

anger? Let us look at it this way. If you and I were to differ about numbers
as to which is the greater, would this difference make us enemies and angry
with each other, or would we proceed to count and soon resolve our differ-
ence about this?

Euthyphro: We would certainly do so.
Socrates: Again, if we differed about the larger and the smaller, we

would turn to measurement and soon cease to differ.
Euthyphro: That is so.
Socrates: And about the heavier and the lighter, we would resort to

weighing and be reconciled.
Euthyphro: Of course.
Socrates: What subject of difference would make us angry and hostile

to each other if we were unable to come to a decision? Perhaps you do not
have an answer ready, but examine as I tell you whether these subjects are
the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.
Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to
come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to
each other whenever we do?

Euthyphro: That is the difference, Socrates, about those subjects.
Socrates: What about the gods, Euthyphro? If indeed they have differ-

ences, will it not be about these same subjects?
Euthyphro: It certainly must be so.
Socrates: Then according to your argument, my good Euthyphro, differ-

ent gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad,
for they would not be at odds with one another unless they differed about
these subjects, would they?

Euthyphro: You are right.
Socrates: And they like what each of them considers beautiful, good,

and just, and hate the opposites of these?
Euthyphro: Certainly.
Socrates: But you say that the same things are considered just by some

gods and unjust by others, and as they dispute about these things they are
at odds and at war with each other. Is that not so?

Plato ■ 67

Euthyphro: It is.
Socrates: The same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the

gods, and would be both god- loved and god- hated.
Euthyphro: It seems likely.
Socrates: And the same things would be both pious and impious,

according to this argument?
Euthyphro: I’m afraid so.
Socrates: So you did not answer my question, you surprising man. I did

not ask you what same thing is both pious and impious, and it appears that
what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. So it is in no way surprising
if your present action, namely punishing your father, may be pleasing to
Zeus but displeasing to Cronus and Uranus, pleasing to Hephaestus but
displeasing to Hera, and so with any other gods who differ from each other
on this subject.

Euthyphro: I think, Socrates, that on this subject no gods would differ
from one another, that whoever has killed anyone unjustly should pay the

Socrates: Well now, Euthyphro, have you ever heard any man maintain-
ing that one who has killed or done anything else unjustly should not pay
the penalty?

Euthyphro: They never cease to dispute on this subject, both elsewhere
and in the courts, for when they have committed many wrongs they do and
say anything to avoid the penalty.

Socrates: Do they agree they have done wrong, Euthyphro, and in spite
of so agreeing do they nevertheless say they should not be punished?

Euthyphro: No, they do not agree on that point.
Socrates: So they do not say or do just anything. For they do not venture

to say this, or dispute that they must not pay the penalty if they have done
wrong, but I think they deny doing wrong. Is that not so?

Euthyphro: That is true.
Socrates: Then they do not dispute that the wrongdoer must be punished,

but they may disagree as to who the wrongdoer is, what he did, and when.
Euthyphro: You are right.
Socrates: Do not the gods have the same experience, if indeed they are

at odds with each other about the just and the unjust, as your argument
maintains? Some assert that they wrong one another, while others deny it,
but no one among gods or men ventures to say that the wrongdoer must
not be punished.

68 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Euthyphro: Yes, that is true, Socrates, as to the main point.
Socrates: And those who disagree, whether men or gods, dispute about

each action, if indeed the gods disagree. Some say it is done justly, others
unjustly. Is that not so?

Euthyphro: Yes, indeed.
Socrates: Come now, my dear Euthyphro, tell me, too, that I may become

wiser, what proof you have that all the gods consider that man to have been
killed unjustly who became a murderer while in your service, was bound by
the master of his victim, and died in his bonds before the one who bound
him found out from the seers what was to be done with him, and that it is
right for a son to denounce and to prosecute his father on behalf of such a
man. Come, try to show me a clear sign that all the gods definitely believe
this action to be right. If you can give me adequate proof of this, I shall never
cease to extol your wisdom.

Euthyphro: This is perhaps no light task, Socrates, though I could show
you very clearly.

Socrates: I understand that you think me more dull- witted than the jury,
as you will obviously show them that these actions were unjust and that all
the gods hate such actions.

Euthyphro: I will show it to them clearly, Socrates, if only they will
listen to me.

Socrates: They will listen if they think you show them well. But this
thought came to me as you were speaking, and I am examining it, saying
to myself: “If Euthyphro shows me conclusively that all the gods consider
such a death unjust, to what greater extent have I learned from him the
nature of piety and impiety? This action would then, it seems, be hated by
the gods, but the pious and the impious were not thereby now defined, for
what is hated by the gods has also been shown to be loved by them.” So I
will not insist on this point; let us assume, if you wish, that all the gods
consider this unjust and that they all hate it. However, is this the correction
we are making in our discussion, that what all the gods hate is impious,
and what they all love is pious, and that what some gods love and others
hate is neither or both? Is that how you now wish us to define piety and

Euthyphro: What prevents us from doing so, Socrates?
Socrates: For my part nothing, Euthyphro, but you look whether on

your part this proposal will enable you to teach me most easily what you

Plato ■ 69

Euthyphro: I would certainly say that the pious is what all the gods love,
and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.

Socrates: Then let us again examine whether that is a sound statement, or
do we let it pass, and if one of us, or someone else, merely says that something
is so, do we accept that it is so? Or should we examine what the speaker means?

Euthyphro: We must examine it, but I certainly think that this is now
a fine statement.

Socrates: We shall soon know better whether it is. Consider this: Is the
pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is
being loved by the gods?

Euthyphro: I don’t know what you mean, Socrates.
Socrates: I shall try to explain more clearly: we speak of something

carried and something carrying, of something led and something leading,
of something seen and something seeing, and you understand that these
things are all different from one another and how they differ?

Euthyphro: I think I do.
Socrates: So there is also something loved and— a different thing—

something loving.
Euthyphro: Of course.
Socrates: Tell me then whether the thing carried is a carried thing

because it is being carried, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.
Socrates: And the thing led is so because it is being led, and the thing

seen because it is being seen?
Euthyphro: Certainly.
Socrates: It is not being seen because it is a thing seen but on the con-

trary it is a thing seen because it is being seen; nor is it because it is some-
thing led that it is being led but because it is being led that it is something
led; nor is something being carried because it is something carried, but it
is something carried because it is being carried. Is what I want to say clear,
Euthyphro? I want to say this, namely, that if anything is being changed or
is being affected in any way, it is not being changed because it is something
changed, but rather it is something changed because it is being changed;
nor is it being affected because it is something affected, but it is something
affected because it is being affected. Or do you not agree?

Euthyphro: I do.
Socrates: Is something loved either something changed or something

affected by something?

70 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Euthyphro: Certainly.
Socrates: So it is in the same case as the things just mentioned; it is

not being loved by those who love it because it is something loved, but it is
something loved because it is being loved by them?

Euthyphro: Necessarily.
Socrates: What then do we say about the pious, Euthyphro? Surely that

it is being loved by all the gods, according to what you say?
Euthyphro: Yes.
Socrates: Is it being loved because it is pious, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: For no other reason.
Socrates: It is being loved then because it is pious, but it is not pious

because it is being loved?
Euthyphro: Apparently.
Socrates: And yet it is something loved and god- loved because it is being

loved by the gods?
Euthyphro: Of course.
Socrates: Then the god- loved is not the same as the pious, Euthyphro,

nor the pious the same as the god- loved, as you say it is, but one differs from
the other.

Euthyphro: How so, Socrates?
Socrates: Because we agree that the pious is being loved for this reason,

that it is pious, but it is not pious because it is being loved. Is that not so?
Euthyphro: Yes.
Socrates: And that the god- loved, on the other hand, is so because it is

being loved by the gods, by the very fact of being loved, but it is not being
loved because it is god- loved.

Euthyphro: True.
Socrates: But if the god- loved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthy –

phro, then if the pious was being loved because it was pious, the god- loved
would also be being loved because it was god- loved; and if the god- loved was
god- loved because it was being loved by the gods, then the pious would also
be pious because it was being loved by the gods. But now you see that they
are in opposite cases as being altogether different from each other: the one is
such as to be loved because it is being loved, the other is being loved because
it is such as to be loved. I’m afraid, Euthyphro, that when you were asked
what piety is, you did not wish to make its nature clear to me, but you told me
an affect or quality of it, that the pious has the quality of being loved by all
the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is. Now, if you will, do

Peter Singer ■ 71

not hide things from me but tell me again from the beginning what piety is,
whether being loved by the gods or having some other quality— we shall not
quarrel about that— but be keen to tell me what the pious and the impious are.

Euthyphro: But Socrates, I have no way of telling you what I have in
mind, for whatever proposition we put forward goes around and refuses to
stay put where we establish it.

Study QueStionS

1. Why is it a challenge to religious morality if God commands certain actions
because those actions are independently good?

2. Is it a problem for religious morality if it asserts that whatever God com-
mands is good?

3. Does the Euthyphro dilemma show that there is no religious basis to morality?

peTeR siNgeR
Evolution a nd Mora lit y

Peter Singer (b. 1946) is an Australian utilitarian philosopher, known for his
uncompromising views on many issues of contemporary morality, such as animal
liberation and the moral necessity to address global poverty.

The oRigiNs oF alTRuism
We are not just rather like animals; we are animals.

—Mary Midgley, Beast and Man

a New look at ethics
Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human.
The French philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau once wrote that in the state
of nature human beings had “no fixed home, no need of one another; they
met perhaps twice in their lives, without knowing each other and without
speaking.” Rousseau was wrong. Fossil finds show that five million years
ago our ancestor, the half- human, half- ape creature known to anthropol-
ogists as Australopithecus africanus, lived in groups, as our nearest living
relatives— the gorillas and chimpanzees— still do. As Australopithecus
evolved into the first truly human being, Homo habilis, and then into our
own species, Homo sapiens, we remained social beings.

In rejecting Rousseau’s fantasy of isolation as the original or natural
condition of human existence, we must also reject his account of the origin

72 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

of ethics, and that of the school of social contract theorists to which he
belonged. The social contract theory of ethics held that our rules of right
and wrong sprang from some distant Foundation Day on which previously
independent rational human beings came together to hammer out a basis
for setting up the first human society. Two hundred years ago this seemed
a plausible alternative to the then orthodox idea that morality represented
the decrees of a divine lawgiver. It attracted some of the sharpest and most
skeptical thinkers in Western social philosophy. If, however, we now know
that we have lived in groups longer than we have been rational human
beings, we can also be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our
fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some
degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members
make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another. Just when a pattern
of restraint toward other members of the group becomes a social ethic is
hard to say; but ethics probably began in these pre- human patterns of behav-
ior rather than in the deliberate choices of fully f ledged, rational human

Eighteenth- century philosophers like Rousseau had little information to
draw on about the social behavior of non- human animals; and they knew
even less about the evolution of human beings. ✻ ✻ ✻ Only in recent years
have both the study of animal behavior in the wild and the study of human
evolution advanced to the point at which we can claim with some confidence
to know something about ourselves and our animal ancestors and relatives. ✻
✻ ✻ Sociobiology [is] “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social
behavior” [and therefore] ethics falls within the scope of sociobiology. One
might, of course, raise questions about the extent to which ethics has a
biological basis; but if the origins of ethics lie in a past which we share with
many non- human animals, evolutionary theory and observations of non-
human social animals should have some bearing on the nature of ethics.
So what does sociobiology offer us in place of the historical myth of the
social contract?

Sociobiology bears on ethics indirectly, through what it says about the
development of altruism, rather than by a direct study of ethics. Since it is
difficult to decide when a chimpanzee or a gazelle is behaving ethically, this
is a wise strategy. If we define altruistic behavior as behavior which bene-
fits others at some cost to oneself, altruism in non- human animals is well
documented. ✻ ✻ ✻ Understanding the development of altruism in animals
will improve our understanding of the development of ethics in human

Peter Singer ■ 73

beings, for our present ethical systems have their roots in the altruistic
behavior of our early human and pre- human ancestors.

Altruism intrigues sociobiologists. [Edward O.] Wilson calls it “the cen-
tral theoretical problem of sociobiology.” It is a problem because it has to
be accounted for within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
If evolution is a struggle for survival, why hasn’t it ruthlessly eliminated
altruists, who seem to increase another’s prospects of survival at the cost
of their own?

aNimal alTRuism
Let us look at some examples of altruistic behavior in non- human animals.
We can start with the warning calls given by blackbirds and thrushes when
hawks fly overhead. These calls benefit other members of the flock, who
can take evasive action; but giving a warning call presumably also gives
away the location of the bird giving the call, thus exposing it to additional
risk. ✻ ✻ ✻ If, as we would expect, birds who give warning calls are eaten at a
higher rate than birds who act to save themselves without warning the rest
of the flock, how does such altruism survive?

Another illustration comes from the behavior of Thomson’s gazelles, a
species of small antelope that is hunted by packs of African wild dogs. When
a gazelle notices a dog pack, it bounds away in a curious, stiff- legged gait
known as “stotting.” Here is a description of this behavior and an indication
of the puzzle it suggests:

Undoubtedly a warning signal it [stotting] spread wavelike in advance of the
pack. Apparently in response to the stotting, practically every gazelle in sight
fled the immediate vicinity. Adaptive as the warning display may seem, it
nonetheless appears to have its drawbacks; for even after being singled out
by the pack, every gazelle began the run for its life by stotting, and appeared
to lose precious ground in the process. ✻ ✻ ✻ It is therefore hard to see any
advantage to the individual in stotting when chased, since individuals that
made no display at all might be thought to have a better chance of surviving
and reproducing.

Nor is altruism limited to warnings. Some animals threaten or attack
predators to protect other members of their species. African wild dogs have
been observed attacking a cheetah at considerable risk to their own lives in
order to save a pup. Male baboons threaten predators, and cover the rear as
the troop retreats. Parent birds frequently lead predators away from their
nests with bizarre dances and displays which distract the predator’s atten-
tion from the nest to the parent itself.

74 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

Food sharing is another form of altruism. Wolves and wild dogs bring
meat back to members of the pack who were not in on the kill. Gibbons and
chimpanzees without food gesture for, and usually receive, a portion of the
food that another ape has. Chimpanzees also lead each other to trees with
ripe fruit; indeed, their altruism extends beyond their own group, for when
a whole group of chimpanzees is at a good tree, they make a loud booming
noise which attracts other groups up to a kilometer away.

Several species help injured animals survive. Dolphins need to reach the
surface of the water to breathe. If a dolphin is wounded so severely that it
cannot swim to the surface by itself, other dolphins group themselves under
it, pushing it upward to the air. If necessary they will keep doing this for
several hours. The same kind of thing happens among elephants. A fallen
elephant is likely to suffocate from its own weight, or it may overheat in the
sun. Many elephant hunters have reported that when an elephant is felled,
other members of the group try to raise it to its feet.

Finally, the restraint shown by many animals in combat with their fellows
might also be a form of altruism. Fights between members of the same
social group rarely end in death or even injury. When one wolf gets the
better of another, the beaten wolf makes a submissive gesture, exposing
the soft underside of its neck to the fangs of the victor. Instead of taking the
opportunity to rip out the jugular vein of his foe, the victor trots off, content
with the symbolic victory. From a purely selfish point of view, this seems
foolish. How is it that wolves who fight to kill, never giving a beaten enemy
a second chance, have not eliminated those who pass up opportunities to
rid themselves of their rivals forever?

evolution and altruism
Many people think of evolution as a competition between different species;
successful species survive and increase, unsuccessful ones become extinct.
If evolution really worked mainly on the level of whole species, altruistic
behavior between members of the same species would be easy to explain.
The individual blackbird, taken by the hawk because of its warning call,
dies to save the blackbird flock, thus increasing the survival prospects of
the species as a whole. The wolf who accepts the submissive gesture of a
defeated opponent exhibits an inhibition without which there would be no
more wolves. And so on, for the other instances of altruism among animals.

The f law in this simple explanation is that it is hard to see how, except
under very special and rare conditions, the evolution of altruism could occur

Peter Singer ■ 75

on so general a level as the survival or extinction of whole species. The real
basis of selection is not the species, nor some smaller group, nor even the
individual. It is the gene. Genes are responsible for the characteristics we
inherit. If a gene leads individuals to have some feature which enhances
their prospects of surviving and reproducing, that type of gene will itself
survive into the next generation; if a gene reduces the prospects of leaving
offspring for those individuals who carry it, that type of gene will itself die
out with the death of the individual carrier.

For selection at the level of whole species to counteract this individual
selection of genes, evolution would have to select species at something like
the rate at which it selects genes. This means that old species would have
to become extinct, and new species come into existence, nearly as often
as individuals either succeed or fail in reproducing. But of course nature
does not work like that; species evolve slowly, over many, many generations.
Hence any genes that lead to altruism will normally lose out, in competition
between members of the same species, to genes that lead to more selfish
behavior, before the altruistic genes could spread through the species and so
benefit the species as a whole in its competition with other species. And even
if, under special circumstances, altruistic behavior did lead one species to
survive where others without the genes for altruism became extinct, compe-
tition within the species would still work against the persistence of altruistic
behavior in the surviving species, once the external competition was over.

✻ ✻ ✻ How could the genes for such self- sacrificing behavior get estab-
lished? How is it that, as soon as the combination of genes necessary for
giving warning calls appears, this type of combination is not rapidly wiped
out along with the individual birds who, by giving the warning, reduce their
own prospects of living long enough to leave descendants? It may be true
that if this happened the species as a whole would be less likely to survive;
but all this shows is that there is a real puzzle as to how the species does
survive, since the species as a whole is powerless to prevent the elimination
of altruism within it. ✻ ✻ ✻

Darwin himself was aware of this difficulty in the way of an evolutionary
account of social and moral traits in humans. In The Descent of Man he wrote:

But it may be asked, how within the limits of the same tribe did a large num-
ber of members first become endowed with these social and moral qualities,
and how was the standard of excellence raised?

It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathet-
ic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their

76 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish
and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe. He who was ready to
sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades,
would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature. The bravest men,
who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked
their lives for others, would on an average perish in larger numbers than
other men. Therefore it hardly seems probable that the number of men gift-
ed with such virtues, or the standard of their excellence, could be increased
through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest; for we are not
here speaking of one tribe being victorious over another.

Darwin thought that part of the explanation was that as human reason-
ing powers increased, early humans would learn that if they helped their
fellows, they would receive help in return; the remainder of his explanation
was that virtuous behavior was fostered by the praise and blame of other
members of the group. Sociobiologists do not invoke the institution of praise
and blame for an explanation of altruism, since altruism occurs among
non- human animals who do not praise or blame as we do. Sociobiologists
have, however, developed Darwin’s suggestion of the importance of the
principle of reciprocity. They have suggested that two forms of altruism
can be explained in terms of natural selection: kin altruism and reciprocal
altruism. Some also allow a minor role for group altruism, but this is more

kin altruism
Evolution can, as we have seen, be regarded as a competition for survival
among genes. “Gene” as I use the term does not refer to the physical bits of
DNA— which cannot survive any longer than the individual wolf, blackbird,
or human in which they are present— but to the type of DNA. In this sense,
genes can survive indefinitely, for one bit of DNA in one generation can lead
to the existence of similar bits of DNA in the next. The most obvious way in
which this can be done is by reproduction. Each sperm I produce contains
a random sample of half my genes; therefore each time I fertilize an egg
which grows into a child, a set of half my genes takes on an independent
existence, with a chance of surviving my death and in turn passing some of
its genes on down through the generations. So, for example, by “the gene
for brown eyes” I do not mean the particular bit of biological matter I carry
which will cause my child to have brown eyes; I mean the type of biologi-
cal matter which, passed on in reproduction, leads human beings to have
brown eyes.

Peter Singer ■ 77

Thus strictly selfish behavior— behavior aimed at furthering my own
survival without regard for anyone else— will not be favored by evolution.
I am doomed in any case. The survival of my genes depends largely on my
having children, and on my children having children, and so forth. Evo-
lution will favor, other things being equal, behavior which improves the
prospects of my children surviving and reproducing. Thus the first and
most obvious way in which evolution can produce altruism is the concern
of parents for their children. This is so widespread and natural a form of
altruism that we do not usually think of it as altruism at all. Yet the sacrifices
that humans as well as many non- human animals constantly make for their
children represent a tremendous effort for the benefit of beings other than
themselves. Thus they must count as altruism, as we have defined the term
so far. ✻ ✻ ✻

But taking care of one’s children is only one way of increasing the
chances of one’s genes surviving. When I reproduce, my children do not
have all the genes I have. ✻ ✻ ✻ Each child I produce contains half my genes;
the other half of my children’s genes comes, of course, from their mother.
Each of my sisters and brothers will also, on average, have 50  percent of
the same genes as I have, since, like me, they have half of my mother’s and
half of my father’s genes. (This 50  percent is an average figure because,
depending on how the genetic lottery fell out, they could have anything
from all to none of their genes in common with me— but the huge number
of genes involved makes either extreme fantastically unlikely.) Therefore in
genetic terms my siblings are as closely related to me as my children; there
is no special significance in the fact that the genes my children share with
me replicate through my own body, whereas those I share with my sister
did not. Assisting my brothers and sisters will enhance the prospects of my
genes surviving, in much the same way as assisting my children will. (That
care for siblings is not ordinarily as intense as care for offspring may be
due to the fact that the difference in age makes parents able to care for their
offspring when the offspring most need it, whereas siblings usually are
too young to do so. In addition, in non- monogamous species full siblings
are the exception, and half siblings— where the genetic relationship is only
25  percent— the rule.)

This is the basis of kin altruism: the genetically based tendency to help
one’s relatives. The relationship does not have to be as close as that of par-
ents to their children or siblings to each other. The proportion of genes in
common does fall off sharply as it becomes more distant— between aunts

78 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

(or uncles) and their nieces (or nephews) it is 25  percent; between first
cousins 12½ percent— but what is lacking in quality can be made up for
by an increased quantity. Risking my life will not harm the prospects of
my genes surviving if it eliminates a similar risk to the lives of two of my
children, four of my nieces, or eight of my first cousins. Thus kin selection
can explain why altruism should extend beyond the immediate family. In
close- knit groups, where most members are related to other members, kin
selection may explain altruistic behavior like giving the alarm when preda-
tors are near, which benefits the entire group.

Kin altruism does not imply that animals know how closely related they
are to each other— that they can distinguish full sisters from half sisters,
or cousins from unrelated animals. The theory says only that animals can
be expected to act roughly as if they were aware of these relationships.
In fact, since we are talking about complex living beings, there are many
instances where animals do not behave in accordance with the nicely cal-
culated fractions of genetic relationships. A female chimpanzee with many
reproductive years ahead of her may sacrifice her life for a single child. Afri-
can wild dogs have been observed risking their lives by attacking a cheetah
that was threatening a pup that was at most a nephew to them. Evolved
behavioral tendencies are not as predictable as the motions of the planets.
Nevertheless, kin selection can explain some otherwise mysterious facts.
For instance, why do adult zebras defend any calf in the herd attacked by a
predator, whereas wildebeest do not? The reason could be that zebras live
in family groups, so that adults and calves would generally all be related;
wildebeest interbreed much more with other groups and adults would not
be related to randomly selected calves. More startling still is the infanticide
practiced by male langur monkeys. Female langurs live in groups, each
under the control of a dominant male who prevents any other male from
breeding with them. The other males, being unwilling bachelors, try to
overthrow the dominant male and take his harem. If one should succeed,
he will set about killing all the infants in his newly acquired group. This
may not be good for the species as a whole, but the killer is not related
to his victims; moreover, females nursing infants do not ovulate, so by
removing the infants the male is able to have his own children earlier than
would otherwise be possible. To these children he will be a better father.
In the difference between his behavior toward infants genetically related
to him and his behavior toward those that are not, the langur monkey
demonstrates in a brutally clear form the kind of “altruism” that may evolve

Peter Singer ■ 79

through kin selection. (Male lions have also been observed to kill infants
on taking over a pride. Is there a human parallel in the wicked stepparents
so common in fairy tales? Or in the mass rapes that for centuries have
characterized military conquests?)

Reciprocal altruism
Kin altruism exists because it promotes the survival of one’s relatives;
but not all altruistic acts help relatives. Monkeys spend a lot of their time
grooming each other, removing parasites from those awkward places a
monkey cannot itself reach. Monkeys grooming each other are not always
related. Here reciprocal altruism offers an explanation: you scratch my back
and I’ll scratch yours.

Here’s another example: I see a stranger drowning and I jump in to save
her. Suppose that in so doing I run a 5  percent risk of drowning myself;
suppose too that without my help the stranger would run a 50 percent risk
of drowning, but that with my help she will be saved, except in the 5 per-
cent of cases in which we both drown. At first glance, jumping in seems
to be a purely altruistic act. I run a 5 percent risk of death in order to help
a stranger. But suppose that one day I myself will need to be rescued, and
the person I saved this time will then jump in and help me. Suppose that
without help I would have a 50 percent chance of drowning, but with help
my prospects improve to 95  percent. Then, taking the two acts together,
it is in my interest to save the drowning stranger, for I thus exchange two
separate small risks (the 5  percent risk I incur when I help the stranger
and also when I am helped) for one large risk (the 50 percent risk I would
have if I were not helped). Obviously two 5 percent risks are better than one
50 percent risk.

This is an artificial example, with the risks made precisely measurable
in order to make the benefit clear. One might question the example on
that ground; but there is a more important question that needs to be asked
about the example: What is the link between rescuing a stranger and being
rescued oneself? If one can arrange to get rescued without having to do
any rescuing oneself, that seems the best strategy, from a self- interested
standpoint. Why isn’t that what happens? What ensures that this form of
altruism is reciprocal?

On one level, the answer to this question could be that individuals can
remember who has helped them and who has not, and they will not help
anyone who has refused to help them. Cheats— those who take help but

80 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

refuse to give it— never prosper, for their cheating is noticed and punished.
If this is right we would expect reciprocal altruism only among creatures
capable of recognizing other individuals, sorting them into those who
help and those who do not. Reciprocity may not require human reasoning
powers, but it would require intelligence. It would also be more likely in
species with a relatively long life span, living in small, stable groups. For
in this way, opportunities for repeated reciprocal acts would occur more

The evidence supports this conclusion. Reciprocal altruism is most com-
mon among, and perhaps limited to, birds and mammals; its clearest cases
come from highly intelligent social animals like wolves, wild dogs, dolphins,
baboons, chimpanzees, and human beings. In addition to grooming each
other, members of these species often share food on a reciprocal basis and
help each other when threatened by predators or other enemies.

On another level, there is still a problem: How did this reciprocal altru-
ism get going? ✻ ✻ ✻ If there was no deliberate contract of the “you scratch
my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind, the first animals to risk their lives for
other, unrelated members of their species were risking their lives without
much prospect of anything in return. If reciprocal altruism is widely prac-
ticed, it pays to take part— chances are, you’ll benefit later. But if reciprocal
altruism is rare, it might be better, from the self- interested point of view,
not to put yourself out. In the drowning example just given, it would not
pay to rescue another, running a 5 percent risk of drowning oneself, unless
by doing so one significantly raises the chances that one will oneself be res-
cued when the need arises. So it is not quite true that cheats never prosper.
Cheats prosper until there are enough who bear grudges against them to
make sure they do not prosper. If we imagine a group consisting partly of
those who accept help but give none—“cheats”—and partly of those who
accept help and give help to all except those who have refused to help— call
them “grudgers”—there is a critical number of how many grudgers there
must be before it pays to be a grudger rather than a cheat. One grudger in
a population of cheats will get cheated often and never be helped; but the
more grudgers and fewer cheats there are, the more often the grudger will
be repaid for her help and the more rarely she will be cheated. So while we
can understand why reciprocal altruism should prosper after it gets estab-
lished, it is less easy to see why the genes leading to this form of behavior
did not get eliminated as soon as they appeared.

Peter Singer ■ 81

group altruism
It may be that to explain how reciprocal altruism can get established, we
need to allow a limited role for a form of group selection. Imagine that a
species is divided into several isolated groups— perhaps they are monkeys
whose terrain is divided by rivers which, except in rare droughts, are too
swift to cross. Now suppose that reciprocal altruism somehow appears
from time to time in each of these groups. Let us say that one monkey
grooms another monkey, searching for disease- carrying parasites; when
it has finished it presents its own back to be groomed. If the genes that
make this behavior probable are rare mutations, in most cases the altru-
istic monkey would find its kindness unrewarded; the groomed monkey
would simply move away. Grooming strangers would therefore bring no
advantage, and since it leads the monkey to spend its time helping strang-
ers instead of looking after itself, in time this behavior would be elimi-
nated. This elimination may not be good for the group as a whole, but as
we have seen, within the group it is individual rather than group selection
that dominates.

Now suppose that in one of these isolated groups it just happens that a
lot of monkeys have genes leading them to initiate grooming exchanges. (In
a small, closely related group, kin altruism might bring this about.) Then,
as we have seen, those who reciprocate could be better off than those who
do not. They will groom and be groomed, remaining healthy while other
members of the group succumb to the parasites. Thus in this particular iso-
lated group, possessing the genes for reciprocal grooming will be a distinct
advantage. In time, all the group would have them.

There is one final step. The reciprocal grooming group now has an advan-
tage, as a group, over other groups who do not have any way of ridding
themselves of parasites. If the parasites get really bad, the other groups may
become extinct, and one dry summer the pressure of population growth in
the recripocal grooming group will push some of its members across the
rivers into the territories formerly occupied by the other groups. In this way
group selection could have a limited role— limited because the required
conditions would not often occur— in the spread of reciprocal altruism.

✻ ✻ ✻ A group would have to keep itself distinct from other groups for
group altruism to work— otherwise more egoistically inclined outsiders
would work their way into the group, taking advantage of the altruism of
members of the group without offering anything in return. They would

82 ■ Part 1: Meta-Ethics

then outbreed the more altruistic members of the group and so begin to
outnumber them, until the group would cease to be more altruistic than any
other group of the same species. Although this would cost it its evolutionary
advantage over other groups, there would be no mechanism for stopping
this. If the group altruism had been essential to the group’s survival, the
group would simply die out.

This suggests that group altruism would work best when coupled with
a degree of hostility to outsiders, which would protect the altruism within
the group from penetration and subversion from outside. Hostility to out-
siders is, in fact, a very common phenomenon in social animals. Although
there is a popular myth that human beings are the only animals who kill
members of their own species, other species can be as unpleasant toward
foreigners as we are. Many social animals, from ants through chickens to
rats, will attack and often kill outsiders placed in their midst. ✻ ✻ ✻

It may be objected that in a small, isolated group of the kind I have
described, there will be so much interbreeding that all members of the
group will be related to each other, and so what we have is not group selec-
tion at all, but rather kin selection in the special case in which all the group
are kin to each other. This may be so; certainly kin and non- kin selection
will be hard to distinguish in this situation. Nevertheless, when members of
the group behave in certain ways toward all other members of the group—
irrespective of whether they are full siblings or very distant cousins— and
when this behavior gives the entire group a selective advantage over other
groups, it is reasonable to describe what is going on as “group selection”
even if it may ultimately be possible to explain what is going on in terms of
kin selection.

Keeping outsiders away would not be enough to prevent erosion of high
levels of self- sacrificing behavior for the benefit of the group. Evolutionary
theory would lead us to expect a drift back toward selfishness within the
group, since individuals who behaved selfishly would reap the benefits of
the sacrifices of others without making any sacrifices themselves. Perhaps,
though, a group could develop a way of dealing with a small number of
free- riders who emerge within it. Human societies, at least, have institu-
tions which serve this end; but here we are beginning to look beyond the
development of altruism in non- human animals to its existence in our
own species.

Peter Singer ■ 83

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the difference between kin, reciprocal, and group altruism.
2. Why is group altruism susceptible to free- riding and breakdown?
3. Can evolutionary arguments explain our moral duties to people to whom we

are not closely related?

n Part 2 we turn to normative ethics, where the issues move away from
the meta- ethical problems of the nature of ethics to the more practical
questions of what morality requires of us. Of course there will often be
close connections between meta- ethics and normative ethics, but norma-
tive ethics has a much more direct tie to action.

We start with St. Thomas Aquinas on “natural law.” Aquinas distin-
guishes between what he calls “the eternal law,” which is God’s plan for the
world based on his divine wisdom; “the natural law,” which is that part of
the eternal law accessible to human reason; and “the human law,” which
concerns the way human beings order the world for themselves, albeit in
accordance with reason and the natural law. As mentioned, our main topic
here is the natural law. Aquinas explains his position both by contrasting
natural law with eternal and human law, and by setting out and replying to
objections to his account.

For Aquinas, all laws, ultimately, concern themselves with the happiness
of the community, and, indeed, all laws presuppose a proper end or outcome,
to which we have a natural inclination. In the case of the natural law, the end
includes our desire to pursue our own good, in the sense of self- preservation.
Aquinas claims that our natural inclinations also include the union of man


P a r t   2


■ 85Part 2: Normative Ethics ■ 85

and woman and the education of children and the desire to know the truth
about God and to live in society with others. The natural law, then, is that
set of laws, accessible through the use of our reason, to achieve these goals.

The natural law, says Aquinas, can be derived by natural reason. It is in
that sense self- evident. Yet he admits that not everyone is equally capable of
easily making the necessary derivations. Whether something is self- evident
is ultimately a matter of logic, but Aquinas further argues that in many
cases only the wise are capable of making the deductions in order to grasp
the truth. Furthermore, although the natural law is the same for all people
at the level of principle, when we look at particular cases the law can require
what seem to be exceptions, such as not repaying a debt to someone who
intends evil with the money. The highest- level principles of the natural law
are said to be unchanging, but they can be added to by God’s command or
human invention.

We move next to a very different figure, Ayn Rand, a novelist and pub-
lic intellectual who has had an enormous inf luence in American public
thought, inspiring citizens, think tanks, and businesspeople. Her inf luence
in academic philosophy is much more limited: She is often dismissed as
having little to contribute, a crude advocate of a form of dogmatic selfish
individualism. However, in this extract we see her sketching a view that,
while clearly advocating a form of individualism and rejecting altruistic self-
sacrifice, equally involves concern for others. Rand uses an expanded con-
cept of benevolence, in which one contributes to the lives of others through
love or affection, rather than by making sacrifices.

Rand displays impatience with traditional ethics, which often raises ques-
tions that are far from ordinary experience and depicts others as passive
victims in need of help. Commonly, moral philosophy contrasts the self-
sacrificing altruist to the almost psychopathic person who pays no attention
to others. Neither alternative, argues Rand, does justice to our situation as
human beings, in which benefiting particular others can often be an expres-
sion of our highest values. Rand uses the example of a man who can save
his wife’s life by spending a great deal of money or, alternatively, can save
ten other women, letting his wife die. Rand claims that altruism would call
for saving the strangers. Objectivism, which is the name she gives to her
view, says that the morally good action depends on both self- interest and the
hierarchy of your own values, which in this case is very likely to instruct you
to save your wife, even if the strangers will die. The virtue in saving the life
of the one you love Rand calls “integrity” rather than altruism.

86 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

Rand does admit that in emergencies we can have extensive duties to
strangers. However, she criticizes advocates of altruism for treating ordinary
life as if it is always an emergency.

Next we return to Plato. This extract is taken from Book II of Plato’s
Republic, one of the most important works in the Western philosophical
tradition. It is written in dialogue form, with Plato’s teacher Socrates as
the central figure. We enter at a point where Thrasymachus, a character in
the dialogue, has just departed, after energetically presenting the view that
“justice is the interest of the stronger.” This skeptical thesis presents justice
as a type of cloak or screen by which the powerful attempt to legitimize
their power. Socrates, refusing to accept this argument, wants to defend the
thesis that justice is good for its own sake, as well as for the results it can
bring. However, he has not satisfied the others who are also listening to the
discussion. So the skeptical case is restated, in a more reasoned form, by
Glaucon and Adeimantus, who, in real life, were Plato’s brothers.

Glaucon begins with three arguments, not, he says, because he believes
them, but because he thinks they state the common position and he wants
to hear Socrates’ reply. First, Glaucon presents the view that justice is a kind
of compromise. Ideally, we would all wish to act according to our own selfish
interests. Yet if we did this, each of us would be liable to harm caused by
others in pursuit of their own interests. Hence morality is a kind of social
contract, or compromise, as it is the best we can collectively achieve (this
argument is very similar to the theory of reciprocal altruism, mentioned in
Peter Singer’s essay in Part 1). This position denies that justice is good in
itself, of course.

Glaucon develops this line of argument by introducing “the ring of
Gyges,” a mythical ring that gave the person who wore it the power to
become invisible. Glaucon argues that anyone who really did have this ring
would use it unjustly in order to obtain advantages at the cost of others.
This, he suggests, is further evidence that people act justly because of the
consequences and not because of any intrinsic motivation for justice. And
Glaucon’s third challenge is to compare an unjust person who has a reputa-
tion for justice with a just person who is wrongly thought to be unjust and is
punished for this supposed injustice. Glaucon suggests that everyone would
consider the life of the unjust person preferable to that of the just.

Adeimantus adds that when parents educate their children to act justly,
they say that justice is important because of the value of having the rep-
utation for justice, rather than for its intrinsic good. And that reputation

is valuable for the good fortune it is likely to bring. Adeimantus adds that
the rich and powerful are admired and the poor and weak despised, inde-
pendently of whether they are, in fact, just or not.

Glaucon and Adeimantus set these objections out in order for Socrates
to reply. The rest of the long dialogue known as The Republic is Socrates’
attempt to answer these very powerful arguments.

The theme of the social contract is continued in Thomas Hobbes’s Levi-
athan, perhaps the most important work of political philosophy written in
English. Hobbes sets out his bleak vision of what life would be like in a “state
of nature,” without government. Life, he says, would be “solitary, poore,
nasty, brutish and short.” In a state of nature, without laws and punishment
to constrain people, everyone would live in fear of others, for no one is strong
enough to be invulnerable to others. As a result, people would attack each
other and their property, for three reasons: for gain, as a preemptive strike
for safety, and for glory or reputation. It would be a war of all against all, at
least in the sense that all people would need to be on their guard at all times.

Although our predicament in the state of nature leads us to war, Hobbes
believes that the “law of nature” suggests “convenient articles of peace,”
by which human beings can live together in cooperation. The immediate
difficulty is how to avoid war and achieve peace. The solution, for Hobbes,
is for each person to lay down the right to attack others, in favor of the sov-
ereign, the Leviathan, who can ensure peace. Of course, the laying down of
the right especially of self- defense has to be conditional on all other people
doing the same thing, to avoid extreme vulnerability. Under such circum-
stances, which Hobbes regards as a social contract, we would be able to reap
the fruits of cooperation and civilization. Hobbes makes a point of arguing
that the fact that the contract is entered into out of fear does not invalidate
it. For Hobbes, the social contract is the basis of right and wrong: Injustice
is defined in terms of not performing “covenants.”

Hobbes’s position bears comparison with the idea of “justice as a compro-
mise” put forward by Glaucon in the previous extract from Plato’s Republic.
Glaucon presented it as a skeptical thesis for Plato to refute, but Hobbes
takes a different perspective, regarding the social contract as the welcome
truth about morality.

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice takes the idea of the social contract in
a new direction. This book is often regarded as the most important con-
tribution to political philosophy of the 20th century. Rawls introduces the
related ideas of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” to provide

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a modern development of social contract theory. Part of the heart of the
social contract theory of morality is the idea that our moral duties are what
we would agree to in a contract made between all people. The difficulty is
that, because people have different interests and values, it is not obvious that
they would agree to very much beyond mutual noninterference, if even that.

Rawls’s extension to the theory is to suppose that we should imagine
a hypothetical contract made between free and equal people who want to
advance their own interests but are placed behind what he calls a “veil of
ignorance.” Rawls’s assumption of freedom and equality has radical conse-
quences. It leads him to model the contract as being made between people
who are ignorant about the sorts of facts about themselves that are likely to
lead them to different views about justice. These facts include such things as
your sex, race, or religion, your skills, your family background, your age, and
even your ideas about justice or what you want out of life (your conception of
the good). Such ignorance means that you need to be very cautious in what
you would agree to, for you could otherwise agree to an outcome that would
be highly problematic. For once the veil of ignorance is lifted, you would find
yourself in whatever society you agreed to. If, for example, you had agreed
to religious intolerance but then find that you are a member of a minority
religion, your life would be very badly affected. Hence you are much more
likely to seek agreement to tolerant, inclusive arrangements. In this way we
can see Rawls’s hypothetical contract, made under conditions of ignorance,
as a very promising method to use when thinking about moral questions.
In essence it asks you to consider what solution would be acceptable if you
didn’t know what role in the situation you were playing and therefore could
find yourself suffering if a one- sided decision were made.

Rawls argues that particular principles would be chosen from behind the
veil of ignorance (and we will return to this idea in a later reading). Those
principles are to be tested by considering their consequences for the real
world and whether those consequences match our “considered convictions,”
such as, for example, the idea that racial discrimination is unjust. Rawls
imagines that we can adjust the conditions of the original position so that
it yields principles that generate acceptable consequences. Going between
principles and consequences in this way Rawls calls the process of “ref lec-
tive equilibrium,” suggesting that we can make adjustments to any of our
beliefs so that they finally constitute a set that we can accept.

We move next to an extract from Jeremy Bentham, who was the first sys-
tematic defender of the moral theory known as utilitarianism. According to

utilitarianism, the right action to do in any circumstance is that which will
lead to the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness, or pleasure over
pain. Hence it is also known as the “greatest happiness principle.” In this
extract from his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legisla-
tion, Bentham sets out the basic concepts of the theory. He also compares it to
alternative theories, which he calls “the principle of asceticism” (maximize the
balance of pain over pleasure) and “the principle of sympathy and antipathy”
(actions are right or wrong depending on how the theorist feels toward them).
Bentham finds it easy to argue against both these alternatives, leaving utilitar-
ianism as the only theory standing. Whether this is a good argument for utili-
tarianism is highly debatable, but the arguments help illustrate what Bentham
was seeking in a moral theory. First, it must take human (and animal) pleasure
and pain very seriously, and second it must provide an external standpoint that
can be used to assess the morality of actions, rather than leaving it to individual
judgment. The utilitarian moral theory does both of these things.

Bentham goes on to explain how pleasure and pain are to be measured,
which is an issue of critical importance for a utilitarian. If we seek to
maximize something, then it is obvious that it has to be quantified. Ques-
tions remain about whether Bentham has really said enough to make this
possible, and in particular whether he has given enough attention to the
question of how to measure the intensity of pleasures and pains.

John Stuart Mill, a philosophical “disciple” of Bentham, also sets out to
defend utilitarianism. Mill follows much of Bentham’s own definition and
position. Part of Mill’s purpose is to ward off what he regards as misun-
derstandings of the theory that treat the greatest happiness principle as a
doctrine “worthy only of swine” because it focuses on pleasure and pleasure
alone. Replying that human beings are capable of much more refined plea-
sures than pigs, Mill modifies the theory, adding that pleasures can be of
different qualities. Mill suggests that there are higher and lower pleasures.
The higher pleasures seem to be those that engage the intellect, such as
the enjoyment of poetry. How the distinction between higher and lower
pleasures is to be made, and the consequences for utilitarianism, are mat-
ters for debate. For example, once we admit that there are different types of
pleasures, it is much harder to understand what it would mean to maximize
the sum total of pleasure, for how are higher and lower pleasures to be mea-
sured against each other?

Mill adds a further development to the theory by attempting to provide
a type of proof for utilitarianism. Mill argues that just as the only proof

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that something is visible is that people see it, the only proof that some-
thing is desirable is that people desire it. As people do desire happiness, it
would then follow that happiness is desirable, which is part of the utilitar-
ian position. (The other part is to argue that happiness is the only thing
that is desirable as an ultimate end, for which Mill also argues.) Some have
objected that this argument problematically assumes too close an analogy
between the terms “visible” and “desirable.” Visible means “capable of being
seen,” whereas desirable does not mean “capable of being desired” but rather
“ought to be desired.” It is, therefore, not clear that the proof does establish
what Mill wants.

The next extract, from Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick,
attempts to show readers that they do not believe one of the key elements
of utilitarianism: that happiness is the only thing that is desirable. Nozick
imagines that a machine has been invented that can provide people with
any experience that they want. Accordingly, you will be able to experience
whatever it is that makes you happy. When in the machine, you would not
know that you were plugged in; instead, you would have experiences that
match how you would feel in real life. Would you plug in? If you have any
resistance to this idea (other than on the grounds that you do not believe it
would work as described), then it seems you cannot believe that happiness is
the sole good, for this machine could give you all the happiness you desire.
For those reluctant to surrender to the machine, there must be something
else that makes life valuable. Nozick suggests that the extra element is a
type of authenticity: You want actually to achieve things and be someone,
not simply have the experience of doing so. Therefore, Nozick concludes,
utilitarianism in its classic formulation is unsatisfactory.

We turn next to a very different theory of morality. In this extract from
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant sets out the heart
of his moral philosophy in terms of the fundamental principle, which he
calls “the categorical imperative”: “Act only in accordance with that maxim
through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal
law.” The maxim of an action is a type of general rule. For example, if I am
tempted to lie to get out of a difficulty, my maxim, turned into a universal
law, would be “Always tell a lie if it will get you out of a difficulty.” Yet, Kant
thinks, we could not have such a law, for if people were free to tell lies, con-
ventions of truth- telling would come to an end and it would be impossible
to tell a lie. The fact that it is impossible to universalize the maxim of your
action shows, for Kant, that your action is immoral.

Kant has several different formulations of the categorical imperative.
The formula just set out is known as the formula of universal law. Equally
important is the formula of humanity, which states, “So act that you use
humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always
at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” Kant does not pre-
clude using others as means to an end so long as you respect their own ends
too. And notice that Kant suggests it is possible to treat yourself as a mere
means too, a concept which has echoes in ordinary morality such as when
we accuse people of lacking self- respect. A third formulation of the categori-
cal imperative, very similar to the first, makes use of the idea of a “kingdom
of ends.” When we act in accordance with universal laws and treat all other
people as ends, we can regard ourselves, through our actions, as sovereign,
making law for the kingdom of ends.

In the next article, we see a feminist critique of the type of moral phi-
losophy set out both by utilitarians and by Kant. Annette Baier draws on
the important psychological work of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan distinguishes
what she calls “the ethics of justice” from the “ethics of care.” The ethics
of justice is exemplified especially in Kantian moral philosophy but also
in utilitarianism, by supposing that the highest form of moral reasoning
consists in the use of abstract general principles that can be applied broadly
to moral questions. The ethics of justice is very appealing in that, if correct,
it provides a principled and rigorous way of settling moral questions. How-
ever, Gilligan argues that the ethics of justice is a distinctively male way
of approaching moral questions and that her empirical research revealed
another way, based on what she calls “the ethics of care,” more typically used
by women. The ethics of care refuses to attempt to reduce complex moral
situations to abstract problems that can be resolved by the application of rea-
son. Rather it pays attention to the complexities of each particular situation,
giving special concern to the individuals affected and their relations to each
other. It takes relationships and human interdependence as a given part of
life, rather than acquired through voluntary agreement. The ethics of care
opposes the detachment of the moral subject as depicted within the ethics
of justice. It also sees emotion as essential to moral perception, rather than
a clouding factor.

While it may be highly plausible that men and women are likely to
approach ethical questions in these different ways, it is important to con-
sider what is meant to follow from this assumption. As Baier points out,
one problematic interpretation is that the research provides evidence that

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men and women have different natures. Pushed further, this assumption
could be used to bolster an argument that men are better suited to profes-
sions such as the law and politics, in which impartial abstract reasoning
is required, and women more suited to “caring” roles. But this would be
a deeply retrograde step for feminist philosophers, reinscribing the sexist
culture that feminism has tried so hard to undo over recent decades. Baier
is determined not to take this supposed lesson from Gilligan’s research,
instead using it to point out a kind of one- sidedness in the ethics of justice,
including Kantian moral philosophy, arguing instead that both justice and
care must be part of a complete ethical account.

It is common now to suggest that there are three main traditions of moral
philosophy. We have seen two of them, utilitarianism and Kantian ethics
(also sometimes called deontology). The next selection, from Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics, introduces the third, virtue ethics. A virtue is a dispo-
sition of character, such as bravery, which typically involves characteristic
patterns of deliberation, emotion, and action. On this approach, morality is
as much about becoming the right sort of person as it is about performing
the right sort of actions. Virtue, says Aristotle, is an activity of the soul rather
than the body.

The virtues, for Aristotle, are those character traits that will help us live
well and achieve happiness over a complete life. For many people, Aristotle
says, virtue and pleasure conf lict, but those who have genuinely achieved
virtue will take pleasure in acting well. Achieving virtue, Aristotle argues,
is facilitated by the possession of external goods such as wealth, friendship,
and good children. Moral virtue is not innate and has to be acquired or culti-
vated. It is largely a matter of practice. For example, we learn how to become
just by performing just actions.

Aristotle suggests that, typically, virtue is a “mean” or intermediate
between excess and deficiency. For example, the virtue of pride is interme-
diate between two vices: “empty vanity,” which is the excess, and “undue
humility,” which is the deficiency. Although, as Aristotle admits, not all
virtues fall into this pattern— an excess of justice, for example, might not
be possible— it is a helpful way of thinking about many virtues. Aristotle
runs through many examples, concluding that it is not always an easy task
to be good.

The work of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius makes a very
interesting comparison with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who
lived 200 years later. In these two chapters from his great work The Analects,

Confucius sets out his approach to moral wisdom. Although the style of
their writing is very different, Confucius, like Aristotle, is very focused
on conditions under which people will be able cultivate the most desirable
forms of virtues of character. Morality, for Confucius, is a form of wisdom
as well as action. To this degree, the ideas of Aristotle and Confucius are
similar. However, Confucius’s doctrines differ from Aristotle’s in a number
of important ways.

One immediate contrast with Aristotle is Confucius’s attitude to what
Aristotle called “external goods.” While Aristotle argues that virtue is facili-
tated by possession of wealth, Confucius confronts the issue that acting vir-
tuously could lead to poverty and exile. In that case, Confucius suggests that
principle should be put above wealth, very difficult though that will be. Here
Confucius is closer to Plato than to Aristotle. Confucius’s model of a virtu-
ous person is someone who acts with humility and integrity. While these
are, of course, virtues for Aristotle too, Aristotle also emphasizes much more
outward facing virtues, such as generosity and being a good companion.

A further notable difference is that Confucius pays a great deal of atten-
tion to the value of ritual, which does not appear in Aristotle’s account. For
Confucius, loyalty and obedience are primary virtues. Confucius’s writings
contain much wisdom about what is most valuable in life, what we should
aim for, and how we should conduct ourselves in relation to others, empha-
sizing the value of humanity. Even though he wrote so long ago and in a
quite different world, we still have much to learn from him.

Like Aristotle and Confucius, contemporary philosopher Virginia Held
is also interested in thinking about ethics from the perspective of character
traits and their development. However, she adds to the analysis a distinc-
tively feminist aspect. Like Annette Baier, she draws on the insights from
the “ethics of care,” which understands persons as interdependent and rela-
tional, embedded in family and social historical contexts. Held begins by
setting out her understanding of a “moral subject,” drawing on a narrative
conception in which our identities are partly constituted by the stories we
construct. By such means, we both respond to the context in which we live
but also shape our own lives.

Held notes that some feminists have felt that an Aristotelian, virtue- based
approach to ethics is a useful way of incorporating the ethics of care into a
moral theory. However, Held makes a subtle distinction between what she
calls the virtue of caring and being a caring person. Virtue ethics, she says,
typically sees virtues as attaching to individuals, whereas the ethics of care

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is more interested in relations between persons. She notes that two people
who display the virtue of caring may still fail to develop a caring relationship
between the two of them, for example by being hostile or even intrusively
caring on occasion. The right types of relations are more important than
simply developing the right types of dispositions. Hence she regards the
ethics of care as an alternative to virtue ethics rather than a component of it.
Indeed, the virtue of care can go too far, in the direction of servility.

Held raises the question of whether autonomy is consistent with being
a caring person, for having obligations to others could be thought to be in
conf lict with the type of freedom of choice associated with autonomy. Held
argues that such a traditional conception of autonomy rests on a myth of nat-
ural independence and self- sufficiency. In its place she develops a concept of
mutual autonomy that starts from the facts of our mutual interdependence
and emphasizes the centrality of cooperation to the development of our
capacities and aims.

In the final extract of Part 2, Jean- Paul Sartre provides an introduction
to a different type of moral theory compared to those considered so far,
existentialist ethics. He initially provides a response to criticisms and then
develops the heart of the theory and its consequences.

The existentialist slogan is “Existence precedes essence.” This is best
understood by contrast with an object such as a knife, which has a purpose
and is made to fulfill that purpose. For a knife, its purpose or function, and
hence its essence, precedes its existence. On a theological worldview, we can
say the same thing about human beings. If human beings are born to fulfill
God’s purposes, as we saw, for example, in the excerpt from Aquinas, then
the essence of each human being is determined by God, even before any
particular individual exists. Hence essence precedes existence. But Sartre’s
atheism asserts that there is no God, and hence there is no plan for us set out
by God. This assumption leads Sartre to declare that our existence precedes
our essence, meaning in effect that each one of us has to work out our life
plan for ourselves— a view combining an exhilarating level of freedom with
heavy responsibility. And this freedom and responsibility are the heart of
the existentialist ethic. Human beings, says Sartre, are “condemned to be
free,” and this freedom is also a source of anguish.

To illustrate the depth of our individual freedom and responsibility, Sar-
tre tells the story of a student who, during the Second World War, had to
choose between staying with his mother or joining the French Resistance.
Sartre argues that neither Christian nor Kantian morality can provide an

St. Thomas Aquinas ■ 95

answer to this dilemma, and in the end the student has no choice but to
rely on his instincts. There is no way of delegating the decision to an exter-
nal system of thought, whether religious or secular. The fact that there is
nothing outside of ourselves to turn to is the reason why Sartre claims that
existentialism is a form of humanism: There is nothing other than the
human world to rely on.

St. thomaS aquinaS
The Natura l Law

St.  Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was probably the most important theologian
and philosopher in the Catholic tradition, notable especially for his Summa
Theologica, in which ethical and religious questions are treated together. He is
also a major natural law theorist.

the treatiSe on Law
qu. 90. the essence of Law
✻ ✻ ✻

2 is Law always Directed toward the Common Good? Every part is
ordered to the whole as the imperfect is to the perfect. The individual is part
of a perfect whole that is the community. Therefore law must concern itself
in particular with the happiness of the community. ✻ ✻ ✻

qu. 91. the Kinds of Law
1 is there an eternal Law? We have stated above that law is nothing else
than a certain dictate of practical reason by a ruler who governs some per-
fect community. Assuming that the world is governed by divine providence
as we argued in Part I, it is evident that the whole community of the uni-
verse is governed by the divine reason. Therefore the rational governance of
everything on the part of God, as the ruler of the universe, has the quality
of law. And since the divine reason’s conception of things is not subject to
time but is eternal, this kind of law must be called the eternal law.

2 is there a natural Law? Since everything that is subject to divine prov-
idence is regulated and measured by the eternal law, as we have shown
above, it is evident that all things participate in the eternal law in a certain
way because it is imprinted upon them through their respective inclina-
tions to their proper actions and ends. Rational creatures are under divine

96 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

providence in a more excellent way than the others since by providing for
themselves and others they share in the action of providence themselves.
They participate in eternal reason in that they have a natural inclination
to their proper actions and ends. Such participation in the eternal law by
rational creatures is called the natural law.

3 is there human Law? The speculative reason proceeds from naturally
known indemonstrable principles to the conclusions of the various sciences
which are not innate in us but are acquired by the effort of our reason. In
the same way human reason must proceed from the precepts of the natural
law as from certain common and indemonstrable principles to other more
particular dispositions. Those particular dispositions arrived at by reason
are called human laws.

4 was there a need for Divine Law? Besides the natural law and human
law it was necessary to have the divine law to direct human life. This is for
four reasons: First, law directs man to actions that are appropriately ordered
to his final end. If man were destined to an end which did not exceed the nat-
ural capacity of mankind, there would be no need for his reason to direct him
in any other way than through the natural law and the humanly enacted law
that is derived from it. But because man is destined to the end of eternal bliss
(beatitudo) which exceeds the capacity of the natural human faculties, as ex-
plained above, it was necessary for him to be directed to this end by a divinely
revealed law, in addition to the natural and human law. Secondly, because
of the uncertainly of human judgment, especially in contingent and partic-
ular matters, it happens that different decisions are made about different
human acts, so that laws are often divergent and even contradictory. For man
to know what he should do and not do without any doubt it was necessary for
him to be directed in his actions by a law given by God, for it is certain that
such a law cannot err. Thirdly, man can make laws about matters that are
capable of being judged. But man cannot make a judgment about internal
motivations that are hidden, but only about external actions that are public.
To be perfectly virtuous, however, man must be upright in both kinds of ac-
tion. Therefore since human law could not punish or direct interior actions
sufficiently, it was necessary for there to be a divine law. Fourthly, as Augus-
tine says, human law cannot punish or prohibit every evil action because in
trying to eliminate evils it may also do away with many good things and the
interest of the common good which is necessary for human society may be

St. Thomas Aquinas ■ 97

adversely affected. Therefore in order for no evil to go unforbidden and un-
punished, it was necessary for there to be a divine law which forbids all sin.

. . .
By the natural law human nature participates in the eternal law in pro-

portion to the capacity of human nature. But man needs to be directed to
his supernatural end in a higher way. Hence there is an additional law given
by God through which man shares more perfectly in the eternal law. ✻ ✻ ✻

. . .
A tyrannical law, since it is not in accordance with reason, is not a law in

the strict sense, but rather a perversion of law. However it has something of
the character of law to the extent that it intends that the citizens should be
good. It only has the character of a law because it is a dictate of a superior
over his subjects and is aimed at their obeying law— which is a good that is
not absolute but only relative to a specific regime.

qu. 93. the eternal Law
1 Does the eternal Law exist in the highest reason of God? Just as
in the mind of every artist there is a plan of what he will create by his art,
so in the mind of every ruler there must already exist a plan as to what is
to be done by those subject to his government. And just as the plan of the
things to be produced by an art is called the art or exemplar of the things
to be produced, so the plan of a ruler concerning the actions of his subjects
has the quality of law, provided that the other conditions for a law that we
have mentioned are met. God in his wisdom is the creator of all things and
is related to them in the same way as an artist is related to his works of art,
as we said in Part I. He governs all the actions and motions that are found
in individual creatures, as we also explained in Part  I.  Therefore just as
the plan of divine wisdom in accordance with which all things are created
by it has the character of an art, or exemplar, or idea, so the plan of divine
wisdom moving all things to their appropriate ends has the quality of law.
Accordingly, the eternal law is nothing else than the rational plan of divine
wisdom considered as directing all actions and movements.

3 is all Law Derived from the eternal Law? Human law has the quality
of a law in so far as it is in accordance with right reason and in this respect it
is evident that it is derived from the eternal law. If it deviates from the right
reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus does not have the character of
a law but rather that of an act of violence. ✻ ✻ ✻

98 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

qu. 94. the natural Law
2 Does the natural Law Contain one Precept or many? The precepts
of the natural law are related to the practical reason as the first principles
of [logical] demonstration are related to the speculative reason. Both are
principles that are self- evident. Something can be described as self- evident
in two ways— either, in itself, or in relation to us. A proposition is said to
be self- evident in itself if its predicate is contained in its subject— although
it may happen that someone who does not know the subject will not know
that the proposition is self- evident. Thus the proposition, “Man is a rational
being” is by its nature self- evident since when we say “man” we are also
saying “rational,” but for someone who does not know what a man is, this is
not a self- evident proposition. Thus Boethius says that certain axioms and
propositions are generally known in themselves by everyone. The terms of
these propositions are known to everyone— for example, that every whole is
greater than its parts or that two things equal to the same thing are equal
to each other. But some propositions are only known to the wise who un-
derstand the meaning of the terms used in the proposition. For example to
someone who knows that an angel is not a body it is self- evident that it is
not located in a particular place, but this is not evident to the unlearned for
they can not grasp it.

A certain order is to be found in the things that are apprehended by men.
The first thing that is apprehended is being, and a knowledge of this is
implied in every act of apprehension. Therefore the undemonstrable first
principle is that something cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time.
This principle is based on the notion of being and non- being. All other prin-
ciples are based on this, as Book IV of the Metaphysics says. Just as being is
the first thing that is apprehended absolutely, so also good is the first thing
that is apprehended by the practical reason which is directed towards action,
since everything that acts does so for an end which possesses the quality of
goodness. Therefore the first principle of the practical reason is based on the
nature of the good, i.e., “Good is that which all things seek.” Hence the first
precept of law is that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.
All the other precepts of the law of nature are based on this, so that all the
things that are to be done or evils to be avoided belong to the precepts of the
natural law which the practical reason naturally apprehends as human goods.

. . .
Since good has the nature of an end and evil its opposite, all the things

to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by the

St. Thomas Aquinas ■ 99

reason as good and therefore as objects to be pursued, and their opposites
as evils to be avoided. Therefore the order of the precepts of the natural
law follows the order of our natural inclinations. There is in man, first, an
inclination to the good that he shares by nature with all substances, since
every substance seeks to preserve itself according to its own nature. Cor-
responding to this inclination the natural law contains those things that
preserve human life and prevent its destruction. Secondly, there is in man
an inclination to certain more specific ends in accordance with the nature
that he shares with other animals. In accordance with this, the natural law
is said to contain “what nature has taught all animals,” such as the union
of man and woman, the education of children, etc. Thirdly, there is in man
a natural inclination to the good of the rational nature which is his alone.
Thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God and to live
in society. Thus the things that pertain to inclinations of this kind belong to
the natural law, such as that man should avoid ignorance, that he should not
offend others with whom he must associate, and other related actions. . . .

4. is the natural Law the Same for all men? Obj. 3. We have said above
that whatever man is inclined to by his nature belongs to the natural law.
But different men are naturally inclined to different things— some to a de-
sire for pleasure, others to a desire for honor and other men to other things.
Therefore the Natural Law is not the same for all men.

I answer that, as we have just said, all the things to which man is inclined
by nature belong to the natural law. One of the things that is proper to man
is that he is inclined to act in accordance with reason. Reason proceeds
from general principles to particulars, as is stated in Book I of the Physics.1

However the speculative reason differs from the practical reason in the way
that it does this. The speculative reason is concerned with necessary truths
which cannot be other than they are, so that truth is found as surely in its
particular conclusions as in its general principles. Practical reason, how-
ever, works with the contingent things related to human actions. Therefore
although there is a certain necessity in its general principles, the further one
goes down into specifics the more frequently one encounters exceptions.

. . . And so it is evident that as to the general principles of reason, whether
speculative or practical, there is a single standard of truth and right for
everyone which is known by everyone. However when it comes to the

1 Aristotle, Physics, I, I.

100 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

specific conclusions of the speculative reason, the truth is the same for
everyone but it is not equally known by everyone. It is universally true, for
instance, that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles but
not everyone knows this. When we come to the particular conclusions of
the practical reason there is neither the same standard of truth and right-
ness for everyone nor are these conclusions equally known by everyone. It
is right and true for everyone to act in accordance with reason. A particular
conclusion that follows from this principle is that loans should be repaid.
This is true in most cases, but it can happen in a particular case that it would
be harmful and therefore irrational to repay a loan, for instance if someone
wanted to use it to make war on his country. And exceptions become more
likely the more we come down to particular cases, for instance, if the loan
was to be repaid with a certain guarantee or in a certain way. The more
particular conditions are involved, the more exceptions there can be as to
whether it is right to repay or not to repay the loan.

Thus we must conclude that as far as its general first principles are con-
cerned the natural law is the same for all, both as a standard of right action and
as to the possibility that it can be known. However as to more particular cases
which are conclusions, as it were, from its general principles it is the same for
everyone in most cases, both as a standard of right action and as known (by
all). However in particular instances there can be exceptions both with regard
to their rightness because of certain obstacles (just as obstacles can produce
exceptional cases among the things that grow and decay in nature) and to their
being known. This can happen because the reason of some has been corrupted
by passion or bad habits, or because of an evil disposition of nature, as Julius
Caesar writes that at one time robbery was not considered wrong among the
Germans even though it is expressly contrary to the law of nature. . . .

5 Can the natural Law Be Changed? Obj. 2. The killing of the innocent,
adultery, and theft are contrary to the natural law. But we find these things
changed by God. God commanded Abraham to kill his innocent son; He
commanded the Jews to steal the borrowed vessels of the Egyptians; and
He commanded Hosea to take a “wife of fornication.” Therefore the natural
law can be changed.

Obj. 3. Isidore [of Seville] says that “the possession of all things in com-
mon and universal freedom are part of natural law.” However we see that
these things have been changed by human laws. Therefore it seems that
natural law is changeable.

St. Thomas Aquinas ■ 101

I answer that the natural law can be changed in two ways. First, some-
thing can be added to it. Nothing prevents the natural law from being
changed in this way, since both the divine law and human laws have added
to the natural law many provisions that are useful to human life. Secondly,
the natural law can be understood to have changed by having something
taken away from it, so that what was previously in accordance with the nat-
ural law ceases to be part of it. In this respect as far as its first principles
are concerned, the natural law is altogether unchangeable. But as to the sec-
ondary precepts which we have said follow as immediate conclusions from
the first principles the natural law does not change in the sense that what
the natural law contains is always right in the majority of cases. However it
can be changed in some particular aspect and in a few cases because some
special reasons make its precepts impossible to observe. . . .

Reply to Obj. 2. Both the guilty and the innocent die natural deaths. Natu-
ral death is inflicted by the power of God as a result of original sin, accord-
ing to I Kings [Samuel], “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Therefore it is
not unjust for God to command that death be inflicted on any man, wheth-
er guilty or innocent. In the same way adultery is intercourse with the wife
of another man who has been given to him by the divine law that comes
from God. Therefore for someone to have intercourse with another woman
at the command of God is not adultery or fornication. The same thing is
true of theft which is taking something that belongs to someone else. If
someone takes something because of the command of God to whom ev-
erything belongs he is not taking something against the will of its owner
which is what theft is. It is not only in human things that whatever God
does is right. In the natural world as well whatever God does is in a certain
sense natural.

Reply to Obj. 3. Something is said to be part of the natural law in two
ways. First because there is a natural inclination to it, for example, that
one should not harm other persons. Second, if nature does not produce the
contrary. Thus we could say that man goes naked by natural law because
human invention, not nature, has given him clothes. In this sense “the
possession of all things in common and universal freedom” can be said to
be part of natural law since neither separate possessions nor slavery result-
ed from nature, but they were produced by human reason for the benefit
of human life. Thus in these cases the law of nature was not changed but
added to.

102 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the relation between eternal law, natural law, and human law.
2. What, for Aquinas, is the basis of natural law?
3. How do human beings come to know the natural law, according to Aquinas?

ayn ranD
The Ethics of Emergencies

Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian/American novelist and philosopher. She
continues to be highly influential in American public intellectual life as a defender
of free market economics and, relatedly, a form of individualism.

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a
great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions
as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped
in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his finger-
nails over an abyss?”

Consider the implications of that approach. If a man accepts the ethics of
altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree
of his acceptance):

1. Lack of self- esteem— since his first concern in the realm of values is
not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.

2. Lack of respect for others— since he regards mankind as a herd of
doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.

3. A nightmare view of existence— since he believes that men are trapped
in a “malevolent universe” where disasters are the constant and
primary concern of their lives.

4. And, in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical
amorality— since his questions involve situations which he is not likely
ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his
own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue
of ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence
or good will among men. It has indoctrinated men with the idea that to
value another human being is an act of self lessness, thus implying that a
man can have no personal interest in others— that to value another means
to sacrifice oneself— that any love, respect or admiration a man may feel for

Ayn Rand ■ 103

others is not and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to
his existence, a sacrificial blank check signed over to his loved ones.

The men who accept that dichotomy but choose its other side, the ulti-
mate products of altruism’s dehumanizing inf luence, are those psychopaths
who do not challenge altruism’s basic premise, but proclaim their rebellion
against self- sacrifice by announcing that they are totally indifferent to any-
thing living and would not lift a finger to help a man or a dog left mangled
by a hit- and- run driver (who is usually one of their own kind).

Most men do not accept or practice either side of altruism’s viciously false
dichotomy, but its result is a total intellectual chaos on the issue of proper
human relationships and on such questions as the nature, purpose or extent
of the help one may give to others. Today, a great many well- meaning, rea-
sonable men do not know how to identify or conceptualize the moral princi-
ples that motivate their love, affection or good will, and can find no guidance
in the field of ethics, which is dominated by the stale platitudes of altruism.

On the question of why man is not a sacrificial animal and why help
to others is not his moral duty, I refer you to Atlas Shrugged. This present
discussion is concerned with the principles by which one identifies and
evaluates the instances involving a man’s nonsacrificial help to others.

“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser
one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree
to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a
stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help
to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite:
always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacri-
fice a greater value to a lesser one.

This applies to all choices, including one’s actions toward other men.
It requires that one possess a defined hierarchy of rational values (values
chosen and validated by a rational standard). Without such a hierarchy,
neither rational conduct nor considered value judgments nor moral choices
are possible.

Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an
expression and assertion of self- esteem, a response to one’s own values in
the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from
the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish
happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.

A “self less,” “disinterested” love is a contradiction in terms: it means that
one is indifferent to that which one values.

104 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s self-
ish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a
fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that
he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no
difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.

Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not
a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices
open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) impor-
tance to him. In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to
the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest
importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice.

But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives
of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him— as the ethics
of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice. Here the difference
between Objectivism and altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifice is
the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifice his wife
for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten
others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice—
nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival.

The Objectivist ethics would tell him: your highest moral purpose is the
achievement of your own happiness, your money is yours, use it to save your
wife, that is your moral right and your rational, moral choice.

Consider the soul of the altruistic moralist who would be prepared to
tell that husband the opposite. (And then ask yourself whether altruism is
motivated by benevolence.)

The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another
person is by reference to one’s own rational self- interest and one’s own hier-
archy of values: the time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes
should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own

To illustrate this on the altruists’ favorite example: the issue of saving
a drowning person. If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally
proper to save him only when the danger to one’s own life is minimal;
when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it: only a lack of
self- esteem could permit one to value one’s life no higher than that of any
random stranger. (And, conversely, if one is drowning, one cannot expect
a stranger to risk his life for one’s sake, remembering that one’s life cannot
be as valuable to him as his own.)

Ayn Rand ■ 105

If the person to be saved is not a stranger, then the risk one should be
willing to take is greater in proportion to the greatness of that person’s value
to oneself. If it is the man or woman one loves, then one can be willing to
give one’s own life to save him or her— for the selfish reason that life without
the loved person could be unbearable.

Conversely, if a man is able to swim and to save his drowning wife, but
becomes panicky, gives in to an unjustified, irrational fear and lets her
drown, then spends his life in loneliness and misery— one would not call
him “selfish”; one would condemn him morally for his treason to himself
and to his own values, that is: his failure to fight for the preservation of a
value crucial to his own happiness. Remember that values are that which one
acts to gain and/or keep, and that one’s own happiness has to be achieved by
one’s own effort. Since one’s own happiness is the moral purpose of one’s
life, the man who fails to achieve it because of his own default, because of
his failure to fight for it, is morally guilty.

The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not “self lessness” or
“sacrifice,” but integrity. Integrity is loyalty to one’s convictions and values; it
is the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, uphold-
ing and translating them into practical reality. If a man professes to love a
woman, yet his actions are indifferent, inimical or damaging to her, it is his
lack of integrity that makes him immoral.

The same principle applies to relationships among friends. If one’s friend
is in trouble, one should act to help him by whatever nonsacrificial means
are appropriate. For instance, if one’s friend is starving, it is not a sacrifice,
but an act of integrity to give him money for food rather than buy some
insignificant gadget for oneself, because his welfare is important in the
scale of one’s personal values. If the gadget means more than the friend’s
suffering, one had no business pretending to be his friend.

The practical implementation of friendship, affection and love consists of
incorporating the welfare (the rational welfare) of the person involved into
one’s own hierarchy of values, then acting accordingly.

But this is a reward which men have to earn by means of their virtues and
which one cannot grant to mere acquaintances or strangers.

What, then, should one properly grant to strangers? The generalized
respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name
of the potential value he represents— until and unless he forfeits it.

A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and, as
such, a common bond among living beings (as against inanimate matter),

106 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own
and thus be of enormous value to him. This does not mean that he regards
human lives as interchangeable with his own. He recognizes the fact that
his own life is the source, not only of all his values, but of his capacity to value.
Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension,
a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.

“The respect and good will that men of self- esteem feel toward other
human beings is profoundly egoistic; they feel, in effect: ‘Other men are
of value because they are of the same species as myself.’ In revering living
entities, they are revering their own life. This is the psychological base of any
emotion of sympathy and any feeling of ‘species solidarity.’”1

Since men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally, a rational
man regards strangers as innocent until proved guilty, and grants them that
initial good will in the name of their human potential. After that, he judges
them according to the moral character they have actualized. If he finds
them guilty of major evils, his good will is replaced by contempt and moral
condemnation. (If one values human life, one cannot value its destroyers.)
If he finds them to be virtuous, he grants them personal, individual value
and appreciation, in proportion to their virtues.

It is on the ground of that generalized good will and respect for the value
of human life that one helps strangers in an emergency— and only in an

It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emer-
gency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human
existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard
and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case
requires precise definitions.

An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that
creates conditions under which human survival is impossible— such as a
f lood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s
primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal
conditions (to reach dry land, to put out the fire, etc.).

By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature
of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not
in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically
possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only

1 Nathaniel Branden, “Benevolence versus Altruism,” The Objectivist Newsletter, July 1962.

Ayn Rand ■ 107

task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its
nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.

It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help
strangers, if it is in one’s power. For instance, a man who values human
life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers
(though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean that
after they all reach shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow
passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles
they might have. Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the
seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.

Or to take an example that can occur in everyday life: suppose one hears
that the man next door is ill and penniless. Illness and poverty are not
metaphysical emergencies, they are part of the normal risks of existence;
but since the man is temporarily helpless, one may bring him food and
medicine, if one can afford it (as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may
raise a fund among the neighbors to help him out. But this does not mean
that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life
looking for starving men to help.

In the normal conditions of existence, man has to choose his goals, proj-
ect them in time, pursue them and achieve them by his own effort. He
cannot do it if his goals are at the mercy of and must be sacrificed to any mis-
fortune happening to others. He cannot live his life by the guidance of rules
applicable only to conditions under which human survival is impossible.

The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be
extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the
misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.

Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not meta-
physical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence,
man has to maintain his life by his own effort; the values he needs— such as
wealth or knowledge— are not given to him automatically, as a gift of nature,
but have to be discovered and achieved by his own thinking and work. One’s
sole obligation toward others, in this respect, is to maintain a social system
that leaves men free to achieve, to gain and to keep their values.

Every code of ethics is based on and derived from a metaphysics, that
is: from a theory about the fundamental nature of the universe in which
man lives and acts. The altruist ethics is based on a “malevolent universe”
metaphysics, on the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and
doomed— that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him— that

108 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his
primary goal is to combat them.

As the simplest empirical refutation of that metaphysics— as evidence of
the fact that the material universe is not inimical to man and that catastro-
phes are the exception, not the rule of his existence— observe the fortunes
made by insurance companies.

Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics
on any facts of men’s normal existence and that they always offer “lifeboat”
situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct.
(“What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry
only one?” etc.)

The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats— and that a lifeboat is not the
place on which to base one’s metaphysics.

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happi-
ness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is
of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency.
But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of oth-
ers, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their
suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception,
not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and
incidental— as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human
existence— and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and
the motive power of his life.

Study QueStionS

1. How does Rand define altruism? What does she think is wrong with it?
2. Does Rand’s Objectivism suggest that we should always pursue our own self-

3. Under what circumstances does Rand think that it is right to assist strangers?

W hat Is the Va lue of Justice?

Plato (429?–347 bce), the ancient Greek philosopher, stands as perhaps the most
significant of the founders of the Western philosophical tradition. He was a pupil
of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. He wrote in dialogue form, generally featur-
ing Socrates as the lead figure in the debate. It has been said that all subsequent
philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

Plato ■ 109

✻ ✻ ✻ With his usual energy, Glaucon ✻ ✻ ✻ went on to ask: Socrates, do you
really want to convince us that justice is preferable to injustice, or will you
be content if we only seem to be persuaded?

I would really like to persuade you.
Well, so far you haven’t succeeded. Consider this question. Is there some

kind of good we ought to strive for, not because we expect it to bring about
profitable results but simply because we value the good for its own sake? Joy
might be an example, or those sorts of harmless pleasures that leave nothing
behind except the memory of enjoyment.

These are good pleasures to savor.
And can we agree that there is a second and different kind of good,

valuable not only for its own sake but also for the desirable effects it pro-
duces? I think of sight, of knowledge, of health.

Of course.
How about a third kind of good? Gymnastic, medicine, the art of mak-

ing money— all these yield benefits but are tiresome in the doing. Hence
we think of them not as goods in themselves but value them only for their

Yes, this is certainly another kind of good. But what is your point?
I want to know in which of these three categories or classes of goods you

locate justice.
Justice belongs in the most valuable category. It is the good that the happy

man loves both for its own sake and for the effects it produces.
But the multitude does not think so. Most people consider the practice

of justice a burdensome affair. They think it a task to be avoided, if possible,
and performed only if necessary to maintain one’s reputation for propriety—
and to collect whatever rewards such a reputation may be worth.

You are right. I know that is the common opinion. ✻ ✻ ✻ But I am too
stupid to be convinced of it Glaucon.

Well, then, Socrates, listen to what I have to say on the subject too. ✻ ✻ ✻
As for me, neither the nature of justice or injustice is yet clear. I want to con-
sider both of them quite apart from their effects or the rewards they might
bring. What are they in themselves? What power do they exert within the
confines of a man’s soul?

To begin with, ✻ ✻ ✻ I will speak first of all of the common view of the
nature and origin of justice. Second, I shall argue that all who practice jus-
tice do so against their own will. This is so because they regard just behavior
as something necessary but not as something good. Third, I shall stress

110 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

that the rationale for such attitudes is rooted in the common view that the
life of the unjust man is far better and happier than the life of the just man.

I do not believe these things myself, Socrates. But I admit that I become
perplexed when I listen to the arguments of Thrasymachus and all those
who believe as he does. My uncertainty is all the greater when I ref lect that
I have never yet heard an unambiguous proof that justice is always superior
to injustice.

What I desire most, Socrates, is to hear someone praise justice for its own
sake, and you are the one most likely to do so. Thus my purpose in praising
the unjust life is to provoke a response from you that will effectively repudi-
ate injustice and vindicate justice. ✻ ✻ ✻

Most men say that to be unjust is good but to suffer injustice is bad. To
this opinion they add another: the measure of evil suffered by one who is
wronged is generally greater than the good enjoyed by one who does wrong.
Now, once they have learned what it is to wrong others— and also what it is
to be wronged— men tend to arrive at this conclusion: justice is unattainable
and injustice unavoidable.

Those so lacking in strength that they can neither inf lict injustice nor
defend themselves against it find it profitable to draw up a compact with one
another. The purpose of the compact is to bind them all neither to suffer
injustice nor to commit it. From there they proceed to promulgate further
contracts and covenants. To all of these they attach the name of justice;
indeed, they assert that the true origin and essence of justice is located in
their own legislation.

Their lawmaking is clearly a compromise, Socrates. The compromise
is between what they say is best of all— to do wrong without incurring
punishment— and what is worst of all— to suffer wrong with no possibility
of revenge. Hence they conceive of justice not as something good in itself
but simply as a midway point between best and worst. Further, they assert
that justice is praised only by those too weak to do injustice and that anyone
who is a real man with power to do as he likes would never agree to refrain
from doing injustice in order not to suffer it. He would be mad to make any
such agreement.

As you very well know, Socrates, this is the orthodox account of the nature
and origin of justice. Its corollary is that when people practice justice, they
do so against their own wills. Only those are just who lack the power to be
unjust. Let us test this proposition by altering the power distribution and
assigning the just and the unjust equal power to do what they please. We

Plato ■ 111

shall then discover that the just man and the unjust man will follow pre-
cisely the same path. They will both do what all nature decrees to be good.
They will pursue their own interests. Only if constrained by law will they
be confined to the path of justice.

The test I propose makes the assumption that both the just and the
unjust enjoy the peculiar liberty said to have been granted to Gyges, ances-
tor of Croesus the Lydian. Tradition has it that Gyges was a shepherd in the
service of the king of Lydia. While he was feeding his f lock one day, there
was a great storm, after which an earthquake opened a chasm directly in
front of the place where Gyges stood with his f lock. Marveling at the sight,
Gyges descended into the chasm. There he beheld many wonders, among
them a hollow bronze horse fitted with doors. When he opened one of the
doors and looked within, he saw the corpse of a huge man, nude except for
a gold ring on his finger. Gyges removed the ring and made his way up and
out of the chasm.

Now when the shepherds next met to prepare their customary monthly
report to the king concerning their f locks, Gyges attended wearing the ring.
While there, he chanced to turn the stone of the ring on his finger inward,
toward the palm of his hand. Instantly he became invisible to all eyes. He
was amazed to hear those who sat near him speak of him as if he were
absent. Fumbling with the ring again, he turned the stone outward, away
from the palm, and became visible once more. Now he began to experi-
ment, turning the ring this way and that and always with the same results—
turning it inward he became invisible, turning it outward he became visible
again. Once he discovered the ring’s power, he hastily managed to have
himself appointed one of the messengers to the king’s court. On arrival he
seduced the queen and then, with her help, murdered the king. Thus it was
that he became king of Lydia.

Supposing now there were two such rings, the just man wearing one and
the unjust man the other. No man is so unyielding that he would remain
obedient to justice and keep his hands off what does not belong to him if he
could steal with impunity in the very midst of the public market itself. The
same if he could enter into houses and lie with whom he chose, or if he could
slay— or release from bondage— whom he would, behaving toward other men
in these and all other things as if he were the equal of a god. The just man
would act no differently from the unjust; both would pursue the same course.

One might argue that here is the great proof that no one is willingly just;
men will be just only if constrained. This is because every man believes that

112 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

justice is really not to his interest. If he has the power to do wrong, he will
do wrong, for every man believes in his heart that injustice will profit him
far more than justice.

These are the settled convictions of all those who choose to adopt them.
They hold that anyone who acquires extraordinary power and then refuses
to do wrong and plunder others is truly to be pitied (and a great fool as
well). Publicly, however, they praise the fool’s example, convinced that they
must deny what they really think so that they will not encourage unjust acts
against themselves. I think I have spoken sufficiently to this point.

Next, if we are to choose between the lives of justice and injustice, we
must be precise in distinguishing the one from the other. Otherwise we
cannot choose rightly. We can make the distinction only by treating the two
as strictly separate. We must assume the just man to be entirely just and the
unjust man entirely unjust. Each must possess all the qualities appropriate
to his character and role as a just— or unjust— man.

First, the unjust man: his behavior must be like that of a clever crafts-
man. Like any good physician or pilot, he must practice his art with an
intuitive sense for what is possible and what is impossible, holding fast to the
first and shunning the latter. When he makes a mistake, he must be able to
recover and correct himself. This means that the unjust man must pursue
injustice in the proper way. If he is altogether unjust, he must possess an
unerring capacity to escape detection; otherwise, if he fails and is caught, he
shows himself to be a mere bungler. After all, the highest form of injustice
is to appear just without being so.

Perfect injustice denotes the perfectly unjust man. Nothing belonging
to injustice must be withheld from him. He must be allowed to enjoy the
greatest reputation for justice all the while he is committing the greatest
wrongs. If by mistake any of his misdeeds should become known, he must
be endowed with ample powers of persuasion so that he can cover them
up. Should he need to use force, let him do so with boldness and manly
strength— and by mobilizing friends and money.

Having constructed a model of the unjust man, we must now do the same
for the just man. He will be noble and pure— in Aeschylus’s words, one who
wants to be good rather than to seem good. Accordingly, he must be deprived
of the seeming. Should he retain the appearance of being just, he would also
enjoy an esteem that brings with it honors and gifts. In that case we could
not know whether he serves justice for its own sake or because he covets the
honors and gifts. He must therefore be stripped of everything but justice;

Plato ■ 113

his situation must be the opposite of his unjust counterpart. Though the
best of men, he must be thought the worst. Then let him be put to the test to
see whether he will continue resolute in the service of justice, even though
all the while he must suffer the opprobrium of an evil reputation. Let him
so persevere— just in actuality but unjust in reputation— until death itself.

Here we have charted the full course for both the unjust and the just
man and should be in a better position to judge which of the two is happier.

My compliments, Glaucon. You have given your characters high finish
and form. One might think you were modeling a pair of sculptures intended
to vie for first honors at the exhibition.

I have spoken of them to the best of my ability. And if I have also spoken
truly, I think it should be an easy matter to anticipate and describe what
life holds in store for each. If I now use language in my description that is
sometimes rude— and even brutal— please remember, Socrates, that my
words should be attributed not to me but to those who value injustice more
than justice.

They will tell you that every man who is just, but whose reputation
stamps him as unjust, will learn what it is to feel the lash, the rack, the
chains, and the branding iron burning out his eyes. And after suffering
all the other agonies he will be impaled on spikes, there finally to learn his
lesson that it is better to seem just than to be so.

They will say that those words of Aeschylus apply far better to the unjust
man. He who wills to be unjust but not to seem so is the real man of truth.
He is the one who does not allow himself to be governed by opinion; instead
he orders his affairs in accord with the way life really is:

He plows deep the furrows of his intellect
and brings home prudence as his harvest.

His reputation for justice will bring him high office. He can enter into mar-
riage with whom he will and arrange the same for his children when their
time comes. He will do business or not at his option. His contracts and
partnerships will always be profitable for he does not hesitate to be unjust.
When he becomes involved in law suits or other kinds of disputes, he bests
all who stand against him. In gaining the decision in each contest he enters
he also augments his wealth. Hence he is increasingly capable of benefiting
friends and injuring enemies. He is able to make sacrifices and other gifts
to the gods in such a way as will display his magnificence. Consequently,
he pays court both to the men he favors and to the gods far more effectively

114 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

than just men can; he may therefore reasonably expect that heaven will
bestow its favors on him rather than on the just.

So do both men and gods favor the unjust man over the just. This is what
the multitude believes.

I was about to respond to Glaucon when his brother, Adeimantus, inter-
vened with a question. Surely, Socrates, you don’t believe the statement of
the case is now complete?

What else would you add?
The quintessential point. It has not yet even been mentioned. ✻ ✻ ✻
Do listen to this further point. Unless we go on to examine the reasoning

and the language of the others— I mean those who extol justice and con-
demn injustice— Glaucon’s case remains incomplete, at least in my view.
You know well how fathers lecture their sons (and guardians their charges)
about a man’s obligation and also how they use words that compliment not
justice but the good repute that comes with it. They calculate that a reputa-
tion for justice will gain a man public office and fortunate alliances and all
the good things that Glaucon already said would accrue to the unjust man
who wears the cloak of righteousness. Expanding still further on the value
of reputation, they summon up the gods themselves to certify in abundant
detail the heavenly blessings in store for the pious.

They bring the worthy Hesiod as well as Homer into their testimony.
They cite Hesiod’s lines where the gods make the very oaks belonging to
the just man

Bear acorns upon their topmost branches
and honey from beeswarms far below on the midtrunk.
His sheep are weighted down by their own soft f leece.

Hesiod adds on many similar blessings, and Homer concurs:

To the good king who governs in fear of the high gods
and upholds justice and the right the black earth
yields reward: barley and wheat and trees
laden and weighted with fair fruits.
His f locks increase, and the teeming seas bring him fish.

Musaeus and his son sing of more tantalizing gifts from the gods to
the righteous. With song and story they lead them down into the house of
Hades. There they join the chosen ones, lying down on couches and feast-
ing, crowned with garlands and drunk for all time. Indeed, in that place the
fairest reward of virtue and the just life is an eternal drunk.

Plato ■ 115

Other poets spin out the rewards from the gods to greater lengths. They
will have it that the fair legacy of the just and faithful shall be handed down
to the third and fourth generations. So much for this style in praise of jus-
tice. But the same poets sound a different note where the wicked are con-
cerned. These they bury in the mud of Hades; some are also compelled to
fetch water in a sieve. Still alive in death, the unjust are suffered to have
infamy heaped upon them and to endure the very same collection of evils
Glaucon said would befall those who, though deemed unjust, are truly just.
That is all they have to say; such is the way they praise justice and condemn

But we must proceed still further, Socrates, and observe that both prose
and poetry play with still other variations on our theme. All the world
declares that justice and right living are honorable and fair but at the same
time tedious and unpleasant. Vice and injustice, on the other hand, are easy
to learn and offer a profusion of pleasures. Only law and conventional opin-
ion condemn them. For the most part, the argument continues, injustice
pays better than justice. All hail the rich and those with other kinds of power
and hasten to do them indiscriminate honor in public and private. But the
poor and the weak they despise, even though admitting that they are better
men than the mighty.

The most bizarre of all these variations has to do with the relationship
between the gods and virtue. The gods are said to visit sorrow and evil on
many good men while bestowing happiness on many a scoundrel. Then
come the priests with begging cups and itinerant soothsayers to the doors
of the rich, talking up the powers they claim to have acquired from the gods
and their skills at sacrifice and incantation. They declare that if a man— or
any of his ancestors— should have committed a misdeed, it can be atoned for
by entirely pleasurable festivals. Or else, if a man have an enemy, whether
justly or not, he need pay only a small fee to cause his enemy to suffer
injury— all because these seedy characters claim knowledge of charms and
enchantments that will constrain the very gods to do their bidding.

Finally, the poets are brought forward again, this time as witnesses to the
allure and ubiquity of vice. Hesiod is recalled once more:

Of evil there is plenty, easy for a man to find,
and smooth is the path to its door.
But the gods have decreed
that toil, sweat, and a steep and weary road
shall mark the quest for virtue.

116 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

On the other hand, Homer is called upon to testify that men are also able
to lead these same gods astray:

The will of gods can also be divorced from purpose.
Having transgressed against them, erring men apologize
with burning incense and libations.
By prayers and sacrifice and vows of future temperance
they would annul the heavenly wrath.

Next the sorcerers bring out a whole bushel of books by Musaeus and
Orpheus, whom they call children of the moon and the Muses. These they
use in their rituals, whose purpose is to persuade not only private individuals
but whole societies that guilty deeds can be expiated and injustices forgiven.
For the living, these objectives can be achieved by following a prescribed
set of sacrifices interspersed with pleasant games. Nor do they neglect the
dead. There are special rites for the defunct which they call functions, or
mysteries. These promise us deliverance from the evils of the other world;
if we disregard these liturgies, however, we shall suffer terrible things. ✻ ✻ ✻

What further argument could persuade us to prefer justice to the most
base injustice? Let us choose the latter, but when in the public eye let us
counterfeit the former. Then shall we prosper mightily with both men and
gods, in life and death. ✻ ✻ ✻

I have always admired the brilliance of Glaucon and Adeimantus, but on
this occasion their words gave me special pleasure. So I said to them: Sons
of a noble father— Glaucon’s friend put it well in the elegy he wrote to honor
you both for your heroic deeds in the battle of Megara:

Sons of Ariston, you honor the godlike
heritage of a famous father.

There must indeed be some divine spark at work in your natures that you
should be able to make such formidable arguments on behalf of injustice and
yet resist being convinced by your own reasoning. And I believe that you are
really not convinced. I infer this, however, from my knowledge of your char-
acters: if I had to deal with your words alone, I would be suspicious of you.

Study QueStionS

1. What view is Socrates hoping to be able to defend?
2. What is the purpose of Glaucon’s argument that justice is a compromise?
3. What is shown by the tale of the ring of Gyges?

Thomas Hobbes ■ 117

thomaS hoBBeS
The State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is a very widely discussed English political philos-
opher, most famous for his book Leviathan, in which he argued that in order to
secure peace it is necessary, by means of a social contract, to submit to absolute

ChaP. Xiii.
Of the naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning
their Felicity, and Misery.
Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as
that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in
body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together,
the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one
man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may
not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has
strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by
confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.

And as to the faculties of the mind, (setting aside the arts grounded upon
words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon generall, and infallible
rules, called Science; which very few have, and but in few things; as being
not a native faculty, born with us; nor attained, (as Prudence,) while we look
after somewhat els,) I find yet a greater equality amongst men, than that
of strength. For Prudence, is but Experience; which equall time, equally
bestowes on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto.
That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain con-
ceipt of ones owne wisdome, which almost all men think they have in a
greater degree, than the Vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and a
few others, whom by Fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve.
For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many
others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will
hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own
wit at hand, and other mens at a distance. But this proveth rather that men
are in that point equall, than unequall. For there is not ordinarily a greater
signe of the equall distribution of any thing, than that every man is con-
tented with his share.

118 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining
of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which
neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way
to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes
their delectation only,) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other. And
from hence it comes to passe, that where an Invader hath no more to feare,
than an other mans single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a
convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with
forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his
labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like
danger of another.

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to
secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to
master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great
enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation
requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking
pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they
pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be
glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their
power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence,
to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men,
being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him.

Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe)
in keeping company, where there is no power able to over- awe them all. For
every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate
he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing,
naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no
common power to keep them in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy
each other,) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and
from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrell.
First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the
third, for Reputation. The first use Violence, to make themselves Masters
of other mens persons, wives, children, and cattell; the second, to defend
them; the third, for trif les, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any
other signe of undervalue, either direct in their Persons, or by ref lexion in
their Kindred, their Friends, their Nation, their Profession, or their Name.

Thomas Hobbes ■ 119

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common
Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre;
and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For Warre, consisteth
not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will
to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is
to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For
as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an
inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not
in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time
there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man
is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men
live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own
invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place
for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no
Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may
be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving,
and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face
of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which
is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of
man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these
things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade,
and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Infer-
ence, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed
by Experience. Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a
journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going
to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests;
and this when he knowes there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to
revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow
subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his
dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he
not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words? But
neither of us accuse mans nature in it. The Desires, and other Passions of
man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from
those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them: which till Lawes be
made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed
upon the Person that shall make it.

120 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor con-
dition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the
world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage
people in many places of America, except the government of small Families,
the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all;
and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. Howsoever, it
may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were
no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have
formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a
civill Warre.

But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were
in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and
Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in con-
tinuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their
weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts,
Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall
Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War. But because they
uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it,
that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.

To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent;
that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and
Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is
no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two
Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of
the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone
in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that
relate to men in Society, not in Solitude. It is consequent also to the same
condition, that there be no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine dis-
tinct; but onely that to be every mans, that he can get; and for so long, as he
can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition, which man by meer Nature
is actually placed in; though with a possibility to come out of it, consisting
partly in the Passions, partly in his Reason.

The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of
such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their
Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of
Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These Articles, are
they, which otherwise are called the Lawes of Nature: whereof I shall speak
more particularly, in the two following Chapters.

Thomas Hobbes ■ 121

ChaP. XiV.
Of the first and second Naturall lawes, and of ContraCts.
The Right Of Nature, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the
Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the
preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life, and conse-
quently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee
shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.

By Liberty, is understood, according to the proper signification of the
word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft
take away part of a mans power to do what hee would; but cannot hinder
him from using the power left him, according as his judgement, and reason
shall dictate to him.

A Law Of Nature, (Lex Naturalis,) is a Precept, or generall Rule, found
out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive
of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit,
that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that
speak of this subject, use to confound Jus, and Lex, Right and Law; yet they
ought to be distinguished; because Right, consisteth in liberty to do, or to
forbeare; Whereas Law, determineth, and bindeth to one of them: so that
Law, and Right, differ as much, as Obligation, and Liberty; which in one and
the same matter are inconsistent.

And because the condition of Man, (as hath been declared in the prec-
edent Chapter) is a condition of Warre of every one against every one; in
which case every one is governed by his own Reason; and there is nothing
he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life
against his enemyes; It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has
a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body. And therefore, as long
as this naturall Right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be
no security to any man, (how strong or wise soever he be,) of living out the
time, which Nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is
a precept, or generall rule of Reason, That every man, ought to endeavour
Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that
he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre. The first branch of
which Rule, containeth the first, and Fundamentall Law of Nature; which is,
to seek Peace, and follow it. The Second, the summe of the Right of Nature;
which is, By all means we can, to defend our selves.

From this Fundamentall Law of Nature, by which men are commanded
to endeavour Peace, is derived this second Law; That a man be willing, when

122 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

others are so too, as farre- forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall
think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so
much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe.
For as long as every man holdeth this Right, of doing any thing he liketh;
so long are all men in the condition of Warre. But if other men will not lay
down their Right, as well as he; then there is no Reason for any one, to devest
himselfe of his: For that were to expose himselfe to Prey, (which no man
is bound to) rather than to dispose himselfe to Peace. This is that Law of
the Gospell; Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to
them. And that Law of all men, Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris. ✻ ✻ ✻

There be some Rights, which no man can be understood by any words,
or other signes, to have abandoned, or transferred. As first a man cannot
lay down the right of resisting them, that assault him by force, to take away
his life; because he cannot be understood to ayme thereby, at any Good to
himself. ✻ ✻ ✻

The mutuall transferring of Right, is that which men call Contract. ✻ ✻ ✻
If a Covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties performe pres-

ently, but trust one another; in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a
condition of Warre of every man against every man,) upon any reasonable
suspition, it is Voyd: But if there be a common Power set over them both,
with right and force sufficient to compell performance; it is not Voyd. For
he that performeth first, has no assurance the other will performe after;
because the bonds of words are too weak to bridle mens ambition, avarice,
anger, and other Passions, without the feare of some coerceive Power; which
in the condition of meer Nature, where all men are equall, and judges of
the  justnesse of their own fears, cannot possibly be supposed. And therfore
he which performeth first, does but betray himselfe to his enemy; contrary
to the Right (he can never abandon) of defending his life, and means of

But in a civill estate, where there is a Power set up to constrain those that
would otherwise violate their faith, that feare is no more reasonable; and for
that cause, he which by the Covenant is to perform first, is obliged so to do. ✻ ✻ ✻

Covenants entred into by fear, in the condition of meer Nature, are oblig-
atory. For example, if I Covenant to pay a ransome, or service for my life,
to an enemy; I am bound by it. For it is a Contract, wherein one receiveth
the benefit of life; the other is to receive mony, or service for it; and conse-
quently, where no other Law (as in the condition, of meer Nature) forbiddeth
the performance, the Covenant is valid. ✻ ✻ ✻

Thomas Hobbes ■ 123

ChaP. XV.
of other Lawes of nature.
From that law of Nature, by which we are obliged to transferre to another,
such Rights, as being retained, hinder the peace of Mankind, there fol-
loweth a Third; which is this, That men performe their Covenants made: with-
out which, Covenants are in vain, and but Empty words; and the Right of all
men to all things remaining, wee are still in the condition of Warre.

And in this law of Nature, consisteth the Fountain and Originall of Jus-
tice. For where no Covenant hath preceded, there hath no Right been trans-
ferred, and every man has right to every thing; and consequently, no action
can be Unjust. But when a Covenant is made, then to break it is Unjust: And
the definition of Injustice, is no other than the not Performance of Covenant.
And whatsoever is not Unjust, is Just.

But because Covenants of mutuall trust, where there is a feare of not
performance on either part, ✻ ✻ ✻ are invalid; though the Originall of Justice
be the making of Covenants; yet Injustice actually there can be none, till the
cause of such feare be taken away; which while men are in the naturall condi-
tion of Warre, cannot be done. Therefore before the names of Just, and Unjust
can have place, there must be some coërcive Power, to compell men equally
to the performance of their Covenants, by the terrour of some punishment,
greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their Covenant; and to
make good that Propriety, which by mutuall Contract men acquire, in rec-
ompence of the universall Right they abandon: and such power there is none
before the erection of a Common- wealth. And this is also to be gathered out
of the ordinary definition of Justice in the Schooles: For they say, that Justice
is the constant Will of giving to every man his own. And therefore where there
is no Own, that is, no Propriety, there is no Injustice; and where there is no
coërceive Power erected, that is, where there is no Common- wealth, there is
no Propriety; all men having Right to all things: Therefore where there is no
Common- wealth, there nothing is Unjust. So that the nature of Justice, con-
sisteth in keeping of valid Covenants: but the Validity of Covenants begins
not but with the Constitution of a Civill Power, sufficient to compell men to
keep them: And then it is also that Propriety begins.

The Foole hath sayd in his heart, there is no such thing as Justice; and
sometimes also with his tongue; seriously alleaging, that every mans conser-
vation, and contentment, being committed to his own care, there could be no
reason, why every man might not do what he thought conduced thereunto:
and therefore also to make, or not make; keep, or not keep Covenants, was

124 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

not against Reason, when it conduced to ones benefit. He does not therein
deny, that there be Covenants; and that they are sometimes broken, some-
times kept; and that such breach of them may be called Injustice, and the
observance of them Justice: but he questioneth, whether Injustice, taking
away the feare of God, (for the same Foole hath said in his heart there is no
God,) may not sometimes stand with that Reason, which dictateth to every
man his own good; and particularly then, when it conduceth to such a ben-
efit, as shall put a man in a condition, to neglect not onely the dispraise, and
revilings, but also the power of other men. ✻ ✻ ✻ This specious reasoning is
neverthelesse false.

For the question is not of promises mutuall, where there is no security of
performance on either side; as when there is no Civill Power erected over the
parties promising; for such promises are no Covenants: But either where one
of the parties has performed already; or where there is a Power to make him
performe; there is the question whether it be against reason, that is, against
the benefit of the other to performe, or not. And I say it is not against reason.
For the manifestation whereof, we are to consider; First, that when a man
doth a thing, which not- withstanding any thing can be foreseen, and reck-
oned on, tendeth to his own destruction, howsoever some accident which
he could not expect, arriving may turne it to his benefit; yet such events do
not make it reasonably or wisely done. Secondly, that in a condition of Warre,
wherein every man to every man, for want of a common Power to keep them
all in awe, is an Enemy, there is no man can hope by his own strength, or
wit, to defend himselfe from destruction, without the help of Confederates;
where every one expects the same defence by the Confederation, that any
one else does: and therefore he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive
those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, than
what can be had from his own single Power. He therefore that breaketh his
Covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with reason
do so, cannot be received into any Society, that unite themselves for Peace
and Defence, but by the errour of them that receive him; nor when he is
received, be retayned in it, without seeing the danger of their errour; which
errours a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security:
and therefore if he be left, or cast out of Society, he perisheth; and if he live
in Society, it is by the errours of other men, which he could not foresee, nor
reckon upon; and consequently against the reason of his preservation; and
so, as all men that contribute not to his destruction, forbear him onely out
of ignorance of what is good for themselves. ✻ ✻ ✻

John Rawls ■ 125

And though this may seem too subtile a deduction of the Lawes Nature,
to be taken notice of by all men; whereof the most part are too busie in
getting food, and the rest too negligent to understand; yet to leave all men
unexcusable, they have been contracted into one easie sum, intelligible,
even to the meanest capacity; and that is, Do not that to another, which thou
wouldest not have done to thy selfe. ✻ ✻ ✻

The Lawes of Nature oblige in foro interno; that is to say, they bind to a
desire they should take place: but in foro externo; that is, to the putting them in
act, not alwayes. For he that should be modest, and tractable, and performe all
he promises, in such time, and place, where no man els should do so, should
but make himselfe a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruine, con-
trary to the ground of all Lawes of Nature, which tend to Natures preservation.
And again, he that having sufficient Security, that others shall observe the
same Lawes towards him, observes them not himselfe, seeketh not Peace, but
War; & consequently the destruction of his Nature by Violence. ✻ ✻ ✻

The Lawes of Nature are Immutable and Eternall; For Injustice, Ingrat-
itude, Arrogance, Pride, Iniquity, Acception of persons, and the rest, can
never be made lawfull. For it can never be that Warre shall preserve life,
and Peace destroy it.

Study QueStionS

1. What, according to Hobbes, are the reasons why the state of nature would be
a state of war?

2. What, for Hobbes, is the route out of the state of war?
3. What does Hobbes regard as the relation between the social contract and

ideas of justice?

John rawLS
The Origina l Position

John Rawls (1921–2002) was an American philosopher, regarded as the most im-
portant political philosopher writing in English in the twentieth century. He is
best known for his book A Theory of Justice (1971).

1. the roLe oF JuStiCe
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of
thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected
or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how

126 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

efficient and well- arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are un-
just. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even
the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice
denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good
shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are
outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore
in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the
rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the
calculus of social interests. The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in
an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice
is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.
Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompro-

These propositions seem to express our intuitive conviction of the pri-
macy of justice. No doubt they are expressed too strongly. In any event I
wish to inquire whether these contentions or others similar to them are
sound, and if so how they can be accounted for. To this end it is necessary
to work out a theory of justice in the light of which these assertions can be
interpreted and assessed. I shall begin by considering the role of the prin-
ciples of justice. Let us assume, to fix ideas, that a society is a more or less
self- sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another
recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part
act in accordance with them. Suppose further that these rules specify
a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking
part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual
advantage, it is typically marked by a conf lict as well as by an identity of
interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes
possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely
by his own efforts. There is a conf lict of interests since persons are not
indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration
are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger
to a lesser share. A set of principles is required for choosing among the
various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages
and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares.
These principles are the principles of social justice: they provide a way of
assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they
define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social
cooperation. ✻ ✻ ✻

John Rawls ■ 127

3. the main iDea oF the theory oF JuStiCe
My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries
to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as
found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to
think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set
up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the
principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the
original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons
concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position
of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These
principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of
social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government
that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice
I shall call justice as fairness.

Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in social cooperation
choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic
rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits. Men are to
decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another
and what is to be the foundation charter of their society. Just as each person
must decide by rational ref lection what constitutes his good, that is, the
system of ends which it is rational for him to pursue, so a group of persons
must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust.
The choice which rational men would make in this hypothetical situation
of equal liberty, assuming for the present that this choice problem has a
solution, determines the principles of justice.

In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the
state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original
position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs,
much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely
hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of
justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows
his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know
his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence,
strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their
conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The
principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures
that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the
outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since

128 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his
particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agree-
ment or bargain. For given the circumstances of the original position, the
symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other, this initial situation is fair
between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their
own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original
position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the
fundamental agreements reached in it are fair. This explains the propriety
of the name “justice as fairness”: it conveys the idea that the principles of
justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ No society can, of course, be a scheme of cooperation which men
enter voluntarily in a literal sense; each person finds himself placed at birth
in some particular position in some particular society, and the nature of
this position materially affects his life prospects. Yet a society satisfying the
principles of justice as fairness comes as close as a society can to being a
voluntary scheme, for it meets the principles which free and equal persons
would assent to under circumstances that are fair. In this sense its members
are autonomous and the obligations they recognize self- imposed. ✻ ✻ ✻

4. the oriGinaL PoSition anD JuStiFiCation
✻ ✻ ✻ One conception of justice is more reasonable than another, or justi-
fiable with respect to it, if rational persons in the initial situation would
choose its principles over those of the other for the role of justice. Concep-
tions of justice are to be ranked by their acceptability to persons so circum-
stanced. Understood in this way the question of justification is settled by
working out a problem of deliberation: we have to ascertain which princi-
ples it would be rational to adopt given the contractual situation. This con-
nects the theory of justice with the theory of rational choice.

If this view of the problem of justification is to succeed, we must, of
course, describe in some detail the nature of this choice problem. A problem
of rational decision has a definite answer only if we know the beliefs and
interests of the parties, their relations with respect to one another, the alter-
natives between which they are to choose, the procedure whereby they make
up their minds, and so on. As the circumstances are presented in different
ways, correspondingly different principles are accepted. The concept of the
original position, as I shall refer to it, is that of the most philosophically
favored interpretation of this initial choice situation for the purposes of a
theory of justice.

John Rawls ■ 129

But how are we to decide what is the most favored interpretation? I
assume, for one thing, that there is a broad measure of agreement that
principles of justice should be chosen under certain conditions. To justify a
particular description of the initial situation one shows that it incorporates
these commonly shared presumptions. One argues from widely accepted
but weak premises to more specific conclusions. Each of the presumptions
should by itself be natural and plausible; some of them may seem innocuous
or even trivial. The aim of the contract approach is to establish that taken
together they impose significant bounds on acceptable principles of justice.
The ideal outcome would be that these conditions determine a unique set of
principles; but I shall be satisfied if they suffice to rank the main traditional
conceptions of social justice.

One should not be misled, then, by the somewhat unusual conditions
which characterize the original position. The idea here is simply to make
vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on argu-
ments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves.
Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be
advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in
the choice of principles. It also seems widely agreed that it should be impos-
sible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one’s own case. We should
insure further that particular inclinations and aspirations, and persons’
conceptions of their good do not affect the principles adopted. The aim is to
rule out those principles that it would be rational to propose for acceptance,
however little the chance of success, only if one knew certain things that are
irrelevant from the standpoint of justice. For example, if a man knew that he
was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various
taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor,
he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired
restrictions one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this
sort of information. One excludes the knowledge of those contingencies
which sets men at odds and allows them to be guided by their prejudices. In
this manner the veil of ignorance is arrived at in a natural way. This concept
should cause no difficulty if we keep in mind the constraints on arguments
that it is meant to express. At any time we can enter the original position,
so to speak, simply by following a certain procedure, namely, by arguing for
principles of justice in accordance with these restrictions.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the parties in the original position
are equal. That is, all have the same rights in the procedure for choosing

130 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

principles; each can make proposals, submit reasons for their acceptance,
and so on. Obviously the purpose of these conditions is to represent equality
between human beings as moral persons, as creatures having a conception
of their good and capable of a sense of justice. The basis of equality is taken
to be similarity in these two respects. Systems of ends are not ranked in
value; and each man is presumed to have the requisite ability to understand
and to act upon whatever principles are adopted. Together with the veil of
ignorance, these conditions define the principles of justice as those which
rational persons concerned to advance their interests would consent to as
equals when none are known to be advantaged or disadvantaged by social
and natural contingencies.

There is, however, another side to justifying a particular description of
the original position. This is to see if the principles which would be chosen
match our considered convictions of justice or extend them in an acceptable
way. We can note whether applying these principles would lead us to make
the same judgments about the basic structure of society which we now
make intuitively and in which we have the greatest confidence; or whether,
in cases where our present judgments are in doubt and given with hesita-
tion, these principles offer a resolution which we can affirm on ref lection.
There are questions which we feel sure must be answered in a certain way.
For example, we are confident that religious intolerance and racial discrim-
ination are unjust. We think that we have examined these things with care
and have reached what we believe is an impartial judgement not likely to be
distorted by an excessive attention to our own interests. These convictions
are provisional fixed points which we presume any conception of justice
must fit. But we have much less assurance as to what is the correct distri-
bution of wealth and authority. Here we may be looking for a way to remove
our doubts. We can check an interpretation of the initial situation, then, by
the capacity of its principles to accommodate our firmest convictions and to
provide guidance where guidance is needed.

In searching for the most favored description of this situation we work
from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally
shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are
strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for fur-
ther premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our
considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably
there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either
modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing

John Rawls ■ 131

judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are
liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions
of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments
and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a
description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions
and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned
and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as ref lective equilibrium. It is an
equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it
is ref lective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and
the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But
this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further
examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual
situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments.
Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to
justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the
original position.

I shall not, of course, actually work through this process. Still, we may
think of the interpretation of the original position that I shall present as the
result of such a hypothetical course of ref lection. It represents the attempt to
accommodate within one scheme both reasonable philosophical conditions
on principles as well as our considered judgements of justice. In arriving at
the favored interpretation of the initial situation there is no point at which
an appeal is made to self- evidence in the traditional sense either of gen-
eral conceptions or particular convictions. I do not claim for the principles
of justice proposed that they are necessary truths or derivable from such
truths. A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self- evident prem-
ises or conditions on principles; instead, its justification is a matter of the
mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into
one coherent view.

A final comment. We shall want to say that certain principles of justice
are justified because they would be agreed to in an initial situation of equal-
ity. I have emphasized that this original position is purely hypothetical. It
is natural to ask why, if this agreement is never actually entered into, we
should take any interest in these principles, moral or otherwise. The answer
is that the conditions embodied in the description of the original position
are ones that we do in fact accept. Or if we do not, then perhaps we can be
persuaded to do so by philosophical ref lection. Each aspect of the contrac-
tual situation can be given supporting grounds. Thus what we shall do is to

132 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

collect together into one conception a number of conditions on principles
that we are ready upon due consideration to recognize as reasonable. These
constraints express what we are prepared to regard as limits on fair terms of
social cooperation. One way to look at the idea of the original position, there-
fore, is to see it as an expository device which sums up the meaning of these
conditions and helps us to extract their consequences. On the other hand,
this conception is also an intuitive notion that suggests its own elaboration,
so that led on by it we are drawn to define more clearly the standpoint from
which we can best interpret moral relationships. We need a conception that
enables us to envision our objective from afar: the intuitive notion of the
original position is to do this for us.

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the concept of the original position.
2. Why does Rawls modify standard social contract theory?
3. How can the methodology of the original position be used in relation to moral


Jeremy Bentham
A n Introduction to the Principles of
Mora ls a nd Legislation

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was an English philosopher and legal theorist who,
in his copious writings, argued for substantial legal reform around the world,
based on the “greatest happiness principle,” otherwise known as utilitarianism.

ChaPter i: oF the PrinCiPLe oF utiLity
I. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign mas-
ters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to
do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the stan-
dard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are
fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all
we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve
but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure
their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The
principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foun-
dation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity

Jeremy Bentham ■ 133

by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it,
deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness
instead of light.

But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that
moral science is to be improved.

II. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work: it will be
proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of
what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant that principle which
approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency
it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose
interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote
or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore
not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of

III.  By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to
produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the
present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same
thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to
the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in
general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual,
then the happiness of that individual.

IV. The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions
that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning
of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The community is a
fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as
constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is,
what is it?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.

V. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without under-
standing what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the
interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the
sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish
the sum total of his pains.

VI.  An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of
utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the com-
munity at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the
community is greater than any it has to diminish it.

VII. A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action,
performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable

134 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency
which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any
which it has to diminish it.

VIII. When an action, or in particular a measure of government, is sup-
posed by a man to be conformable to the principle of utility, it may be con-
venient, for the purposes of discourse, to imagine a kind of law or dictate,
called a law or dictate of utility: and to speak of the action in question, as
being conformable to such law or dictate.

IX. A man may be said to be a partizan of the principle of utility, when
the approbation or disapprobation he annexes to any action, or to any mea-
sure, is determined by and proportioned to the tendency which he conceives
it to have to augment or to diminish the happiness of the community: or
in other words, to its conformity or unconformity to the laws or dictates of

X.  Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may
always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not
one that ought not to be done. One may say also, that it is right it should be
done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action;
at least that it is not a wrong action. When thus interpreted, the words ought,
and right and wrong and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when other-
wise, they have none.

XI. Has the rectitude of this principle been ever formally contested? It
should seem that it had, by those who have not known what they have been
meaning. Is it susceptible of any direct proof? it should seem not: for that
which is used to prove every thing else, cannot itself be proved: a chain of
proofs must have their commencement somewhere. To give such proof is as
impossible as it is needless.

XII. Not that there is or ever has been that human creature breathing,
however stupid or perverse, who has not on many, perhaps on most occa-
sions of his life, deferred to it. By the natural constitution of the human
frame, on most occasions of their lives men in general embrace this princi-
ple, without thinking of it: if not for the ordering of their own actions, yet
for the trying of their own actions, as well as of those of other men. There
have been, at the same time, not many, perhaps, even of the most intelligent,
who have been disposed to embrace it purely and without reserve. There are
even few who have not taken some occasion or other to quarrel with it, either
on account of their not understanding always how to apply it, or on account
of some prejudice or other which they were afraid to examine into, or could

Jeremy Bentham ■ 135

not bear to part with. For such is the stuff that man is made of: in principle
and in practice, in a right track and in a wrong one, the rarest of all human
qualities is consistency. ✻ ✻ ✻

ChaPter ii: oF PrinCiPLeS aDVerSe
to that oF utiLity
I. If the principle of utility be a right principle to be governed by, and that
in all cases, it follows from what has been just observed, that whatever prin-
ciple differs from it in any case must necessarily be a wrong one. To prove
any other principle, therefore, to be a wrong one, there needs no more than
just to show it to be what it is, a principle of which the dictates are in some
point or other different from those of the principle of utility: to state it is to
confute it.

II.  A principle may be different from that of utility in two ways: 1. By
being constantly opposed to it: this is the case with a principle which may
be termed the principle of asceticism. 2. By being sometimes opposed to it,
and sometimes not, as it may happen: this is the case with another, which
may be termed the principle of sympathy and antipathy.

III. By the principle of asceticism I mean that principle, which, like the
principle of utility, approves or disapproves of any action, according to the
tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of
the party whose interest is in question; but in an inverse manner: approving
of actions in as far as they tend to diminish his happiness; disapproving of
them in as far as they tend to augment it. ✻ ✻ ✻

V. There are two classes of men of very different complexions, by whom
the principle of asceticism appears to have been embraced; the one a set of
moralists, the other a set of religionists. Different accordingly have been the
motives which appear to have recommended it to the notice of these differ-
ent parties. Hope, that is the prospect of pleasure, seems to have animated
the former: hope, the aliment of philosophic pride: the hope of honour and
reputation at the hands of men. Fear, that is the prospect of pain, the latter:
fear, the offspring of superstitious fancy: the fear of future punishment at
the hands of a splenetic and revengeful Deity. I say in this case fear: for of
the invisible future, fear is more powerful than hope. These circumstances
characterize the two different parties among the partizans of the principle of
asceticism; the parties and their motives different, the principle the same. ✻ ✻ ✻

VIII. The principle of asceticism, however, with whatever warmth it may
have been embraced by its partizans as a rule of private conduct, seems not

136 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

to have been carried to any considerable length, when applied to the busi-
ness of government. In a few instances it has been carried a little way by the
philosophical party: witness the Spartan regimen. Though then, perhaps, it
maybe considered as having been a measure of security: and an application,
though a precipitate and perverse application, of the principle of utility. ✻ ✻ ✻
Whatever merit a man may have thought there would be in making himself
miserable, no such notion seems ever to have occurred to any of them, that
it may be a merit, much less a duty, to make others miserable: although it
should seem, that if a certain quantity of misery were a thing so desirable,
it would not matter much whether it were brought by each man upon him-
self, or by one man upon another. It is true, that from the same source from
whence, among the religionists, the attachment to the principle of asceti-
cism took its rise, f lowed other doctrines and practices, from which misery
in abundance was produced in one man by the instrumentality of another:
witness the holy wars, and the persecutions for religion. But the passion
for producing misery in these cases proceeded upon some special ground:
the  exercise of it was confined to persons of particular descriptions: they
were tormented, not as men, but as heretics and infidels. To have inf licted
the same miseries on their fellow-believers and fellow- sectaries, would have
been as blameable in the eyes even of these religionists, as in those of a par-
tizan of the principle of utility. For a man to give himself a certain number
of stripes was indeed meritorious: but to give the same number of stripes
to another man, not consenting, would have been a sin. We read of saints,
who for the good of their souls, and the mortification of their bodies, have
voluntarily yielded themselves a prey to vermin: but though many persons
of this class have wielded the reins of empire, we read of none who have set
themselves to work, and made laws on purpose, with a view of stocking the
body politic with the breed of highwaymen, housebreakers, or incendiaries.
If at any time they have suffered the nation to be preyed upon by swarms
of idle pensioners, or useless placemen, it has rather been from negligence
and imbecility, than from any settled plan for oppressing and plundering of
the people. If at any time they have sapped the sources of national wealth,
by cramping commerce, and driving the inhabitants into emigration, it has
been with other views, and in pursuit of other ends. If they have declaimed
against the pursuit of pleasure, and the use of wealth, they have commonly
stopped at declamation. ✻ ✻ ✻

IX. The principle of asceticism seems originally to have been the reverie
of certain hasty speculators, who having perceived, or fancied, that certain

Jeremy Bentham ■ 137

pleasures, when reaped in certain circumstances, have, at the long run,
been attended with pains more than equivalent to them, took occasion to
quarrel with every thing that offered itself under the name of pleasure.
Having then got thus far, and having forgot the point which they set out
from, they pushed on, and went so much further as to think it meritorious
to fall in love with pain. Even this, we see, is at bottom but the principle of
utility misapplied.

X. The principle of utility is capable of being consistently pursued; and
it is but tautology to say, that the more consistently it is pursued, the better
it must ever be for human- kind. The principle of asceticism never was, nor
ever can be, consistently pursued by any living creature. Let but one tenth
part of the inhabitants of this earth pursue it consistently, and in a day’s time
they will have turned it into a hell.

XI.  Among principles adverse to that of utility, that which at this day
seems to have most inf luence in matters of government, is what may be
called the principle of sympathy and antipathy. By the principle of sympa-
thy and antipathy, I mean that principle which approves or disapproves of
certain actions, not on account of their tending to augment the happiness,
nor yet on account of their tending to diminish the happiness of the party
whose interest is in question, but merely because a man finds himself dis-
posed to approve or disapprove of them: holding up that approbation or
disapprobation as a sufficient reason for itself, and disclaiming the necessity
of looking out for any extrinsic ground. Thus far in the general department
of morals: and in the particular depart ment of politics, measuring out the
quantum (as well as determining the ground) of punishment, by the degree
of the disapprobation.

XII. It is manifest, that this is rather a principle in name than in reality:
it is not a positive principle of itself, so much as a term employed to signify
the negation of all principle. What one expects to find in a principle is some-
thing that points out some external consideration, as a means of warranting
and guiding the internal sentiments of approbation and disapprobation: this
expectation is but ill fulfilled by a proposition, which does neither more
nor less than hold up each of those sentiments as a ground and standard
for itself.

XIII. In looking over the catalogue of human actions (says a partizan of
this principle) in order to determine which of them are to be marked with
the seal of disapprobation, you need but to take counsel of your own feelings:
whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that

138 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

very reason. For the same reason it is also meet for punishment: in what
proportion it is adverse to utility, or whether it be adverse to utility at all, is a
matter that makes no difference. In that same proportion also is it meet for
punishment: if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little:
punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings
of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged
dictates of political utility.

XIV. The various systems that have been formed concerning the standard
of right may all be reduced to the principle of sympathy and antipathy. One
account may serve for all of them. They consist all of them in so many contriv-
ances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and
for prevailing upon the reader to accept of the author’s sentiment or opinion
as a reason for itself. The phrases different, but the principle the same. ✻ ✻ ✻

XVI. The principle of sympathy and antipathy is most apt to err on the side
of severity. It is for applying punishment in many cases which deserve none:
in many cases which deserve some, it is for applying more than they deserve.
There is no incident imaginable, be it ever so trivial, and so remote from mis-
chief, from which this principle may not extract a ground of punishment. Any
difference in taste: any difference in opinion: upon one subject as well as upon
another. No disagreement so trif ling which perseverance and altercation will
not render serious. Each becomes in the other’s eyes an enemy, and, if laws
permit, a criminal. This is one of the circumstances by which the human race
is distinguished (not much indeed to its advantage) from the brute creation.

XVII. It is not, however, by any means unexampled for this principle to
err on the side of lenity. A near and perceptible mischief moves antipathy. A
remote and imperceptible mischief, though not less real, has no effect. ✻ ✻ ✻

ChaPter iV: VaLue oF a Lot oF PLeaSure
or Pain, how to Be meaSureD
I. Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends that the legislator
has in view; it behoves him therefore to understand their value. Pleasures
and pains are the instruments he has to work with: it behoves him therefore
to understand their force, which is again, in other words, their value.

II.  To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain
considered by itself, will be greater or less, according to the four following

1. Its intensity. 2. Its duration. 3. Its certainty or uncertainty. 4. Its propin-
quity or remoteness.

Jeremy Bentham ■ 139

III. These are the circumstances which are to be considered in estimating
a pleasure or a pain considered each of them by itself. But when the value
of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the ten-
dency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances
to be taken into the account; these are,

5. Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the
same kind: that is, pleasures, if it be a pleasure: pains, if it be a pain.

6. Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations
of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be
a pain.

These two last, however, are in strictness scarcely to be deemed prop-
erties of the pleasure or the pain itself; they are not, therefore, in strict-
ness to be taken into the account of the value of that pleasure or that
pain. They are in strictness to be deemed properties only of the act, or
other event, by which such pleasure or pain has been produced; and
accordingly are only to be taken into the account of the tendency of such
act or such event.

IV. To a number of persons, with reference to each of whom the value of a
pleasure or a pain is considered, it will be greater or less, according to seven
circumstances: to wit, the six preceding ones; viz.,

1. Its intensity. 2. Its duration. 3. Its certainty or uncertainty. 4. Its propin-
quity or remoteness. 5. Its fecundity. 6. Its purity. And one other; to wit: 7. Its
extent; that is, the number of persons to whom it extends; or (in other words)
who are affected by it.

V. To take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act, by
which the interests of a community are affected, proceed as follows. Begin
with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be
affected by it: and take an account,

1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be pro-
duced by it in the first instance.

2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the
first instance.

3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after
the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity
of the first pain.

4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the
first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the
first pleasure.

140 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those
of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure,
will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the
interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency
of it upon the whole.

6. Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be
concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the
numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with
respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon
the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom
the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance which if on the
side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to
the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of
pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.

VI. It is not to be expected that this process should be strictly pursued
previously to every moral judgment, or to every legislative or judicial oper-
ation. It may, however, be always kept in view: and as near as the process
actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such pro-
cess approach to the character of an exact one.

Study QueStionS

1. What are Bentham’s arguments against the principle of asceticism?
2. What are Bentham’s arguments against the principle of sympathy and antip-

3. How, according to Bentham, are pleasures and pains to be measured?

John Stuart miLL

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was born in England, of Scottish descent. Mill was
initially a disciple of Bentham but branched out to develop his own distinctive and
highly influential moral views. He wrote on a very wide range of moral, political, phil-
osophical, and economic issues, including arguing for the emancipation of women.

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Great-
est Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they
tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of
happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by

John Stuart Mill ■ 141

unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of
the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in
particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and
to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary ex-
planations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality
is grounded— namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only
things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numer-
ous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the
pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure
and the prevention of pain.

Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds, and among them in
some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose, inveterate dislike. To
suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure— no
better and nobler object of desire and pursuit— they designate as utterly
mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the fol-
lowers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened; and
modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally
polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not
they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light;
since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures
except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the
charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation;
for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and
to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good
enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts
is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a
human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties
more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious
of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their
gratification. ✻ ✻ ✻ There is no known Epicurean theory of life which does
not assign to the pleasures of the intellect; of the feelings and imagination,
and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those
of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in
general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chief ly
in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c, of the former— that is,
in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And
on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might

142 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

have taken the other, and, as it may be called, higher ground, with entire
consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise
the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable
than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things,
quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should
be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what
makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except
its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two plea-
sures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both
give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to
prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those
who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that
they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount
of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure
which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred
enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render
it, in comparison, of small account.

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted
with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most
marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher
faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the
lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures;
no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed per-
son would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be
selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the
dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.
They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most com-
plete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him.
If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme,
that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other,
however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires
more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and
certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in
spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels
to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please
of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given
indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable

John Stuart Mill ■ 143

feelings of which mankind are capable: we may refer it to the love of liberty
and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of
the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to
the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it:
but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human
beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means
in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a
part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which
conf licts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire
to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of
happiness— that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances,
is not happier than the inferior— confounds the two very different ideas, of
happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of
enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied;
and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can
look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its
imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy
the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because
he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better
to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates
dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different
opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The
other party to the comparison knows both sides.

It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures,
occasionally, under the inf luence of temptation, postpone them to the lower.
But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superior-
ity of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election
for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this
no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is
between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury
of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be
further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for every-
thing noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness.
But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change,
voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the
higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one,
they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feel-
ings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile

144 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

inf luences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young
persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in
life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not
favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high
aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time
or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior
pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are
either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they
are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any one
who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever
knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have
broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.

From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be
no appeal. On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or
which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart
from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those
who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority
among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesita-
tion to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there
is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What
means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the
intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those
who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous,
and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide
whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular
pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced? When, therefore,
those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the higher
faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to
those of which the animal nature, disjoined from the higher faculties, is
suspectible, they are entitled on this subject to the same regard. ✻ ✻ ✻

According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the
ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are
desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people),
is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in
enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality. ✻ ✻ ✻ This, being, accord-
ing to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also
the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and
precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such

John Stuart Mill ■ 145

as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to
all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits,
to the whole sentient creation.

Against this doctrine, however, arises another class of objectors, who say
that happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life
and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable: and they contemp-
tuously ask, What right hast thou to be happy? a question which Mr. Carlyle
clenches by the addition, What right, a short time ago, hadst thou even to
be? Next, they say, that men can do without happiness; that all noble human
beings have felt this, and could not have become noble but by learning the
lesson of Entsagen, or renunciation; which lesson, thoroughly learnt and
submitted to, they affirm to be the beginning and necessary condition of
all virtue.

The first of these objections would go to the root of the matter were it
well founded; for if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the
attainment of it cannot be the end of morality, or of any rational conduct.
Though, even in that case, something might still be said for the utilitarian
theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the
prevention or mitigation of unhappiness; and if the former aim be chime-
rical, there will be all the greater scope and more imperative need for the
latter, so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do not take refuge in
the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by
Novalis. When, however, it is thus positively asserted to be impossible that
human life should be happy, the assertion, if not something like a verbal
quibble, is at least an exaggeration. If by happiness be meant a continuity of
highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible.
A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with
some intermissions, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant f lash of
enjoyment, not its permanent and steady f lame. Of this the philosophers
who have taught that happiness is the end of life were as fully aware as those
who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture,
but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains,
many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over
the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more
from life than it is capable of bestowing. A life thus composed, to those
who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy
of the name of happiness. And such an existence is even now the lot of
many, during some considerable portion of their lives. The present wretched

146 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

education, and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to
its being attainable by almost all. ✻ ✻ ✻

I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the
justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian stan-
dard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of
all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarian-
ism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent
spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit
of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neigh-
bour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. ✻ ✻ ✻

Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply
to such objections as this— that there is not time, previous to action, for
calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general
happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible
to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every
occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and
New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample
time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that
time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions;
on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, is
dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience
had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels
tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin con-
sidering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human
happiness. Even then I do not think that he would find the question very
puzzling; but, at all events, the matter is now done to his hand. It is truly a
whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility
to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to
what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the
subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no
difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose
universal idiocy to be conjoined with it. ✻ ✻ ✻

The remainder of the stock arguments against utilitarianism mostly
consist in laying to its charge the common infirmities of human nature,
and the general difficulties which embarrass conscientious persons in shap-
ing their course through life. We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to
make his own particular case an exception to moral rules, and, when under
temptation, will see an utility in the breach of a rule, greater than he will

John Stuart Mill ■ 147

see in its observance. But is utility the only creed which is able to furnish
us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our own conscience?
They are afforded in abundance by all doctrines which recognise as a fact in
morals the existence of conf licting considerations; which all doctrines do,
that have been believed by sane persons. It is not the fault of any creed, but
of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be
so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action
can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable.
There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws, by
giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for
accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances; and under every creed, at
the opening thus made, self- deception and dishonest casuistry get in. ✻ ✻ ✻

ChaPter iV
of what sort of proof the principle of utility is susceptible
It has already been remarked, that questions of ultimate ends do not admit
of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. To be incapable of proof
by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our
knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters
of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of
fact— namely, our senses, and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal
be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what
other faculty is cognisance taken of them?

Questions about ends are, in other words, questions what things are desir-
able. The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing
desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that
end. What ought to be required of this doctrine— what conditions is it req-
uisite that the doctrine should fulfil— to make good its claim to be believed?

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that
people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people
hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I
apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desir-
able, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian
doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged
to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No rea-
son can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each
person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.

148 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case
admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that
each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness,
therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out
its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria
of morality.

But it has not, by this alone, proved itself to be the sole criterion. To do
that, it would seem, by the same rule, necessary to show, not only that people
desire happiness, but that they never desire anything else. Now it is palpable
that they do desire things which, in common language, are decidedly distin-
guished from happiness. They desire, for example, virtue, and the absence of
vice, no less really than pleasure and the absence of pain. The desire of vir-
tue is not as universal, but it is as authentic a fact, as the desire of happiness.
And hence the opponents of the utilitarian standard deem that they have a
right to infer that there are other ends of human action besides happiness,
and that happiness is not the standard of approbation and disapprobation.

But does the utilitarian doctrine deny that people desire virtue, or main-
tain that virtue is not a thing to be desired? The very reverse. It maintains
not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterest-
edly, for itself. Whatever may be the opinion of utilitarian moralists as to
the original conditions by which virtue is made virtue; however they may
believe (as they do) that actions and dispositions are only virtuous because
they promote another end than virtue; yet this being granted, and it hav-
ing been decided, from considerations of this description, what is virtuous,
they not only place virtue at the very head of the things which are good as
means to the ultimate end, but they also recognise as a psychological fact
the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself, without looking
to any end beyond it; and hold, that the mind is not in a right state, not in a
state conformable to Utility, not in the state most conducive to the general
happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner— as a thing desirable in
itself, even although, in the individual instance, it should not produce those
other desirable consequences which it tends to produce, and on account of
which it is held to be virtue. This opinion is not, in the smallest degree, a
departure from the Happiness principle. The ingredients of happiness are
very various, and each of them is desirable in itself, and not merely when
considered as swelling an aggregate. The principle of utility does not mean
that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from
pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective

John Stuart Mill ■ 149

something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are
desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a
part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally
and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those
who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished,
not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness. ✻ ✻ ✻

It results from the preceding considerations, that there is in reality noth-
ing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means
to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a
part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so. Those
who desire virtue for its own sake, desire it either because the consciousness
of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain,
or for both reasons united; as in truth the pleasure and pain seldom exist
separately, but almost always together, the same person feeling pleasure in
the degree of virtue attained, and pain in not having attained more. If one
of these gave him no pleasure, and the other no pain, he would not love or
desire virtue, or would desire it only for the other benefits which it might
produce to himself or to persons whom he cared for.

We have now, then, an answer to the question, of what sort of proof the
principle of utility is susceptible. If the opinion which I have now stated is
psychologically true— if human nature is so constituted as to desire noth-
ing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness, we can
have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things
desirable. If so, happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promo-
tion of it the test by which to judge of all human conduct; from whence it
necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality, since a part is
included in the whole.

And now to decide whether this is really so; whether mankind do desire
nothing for itself but that which is a pleasure to them, or of which the
absence is a pain; we have evidently arrived at a question of fact and expe-
rience, dependent, like all similar questions, upon evidence. It can only be
determined by practised self- consciousness and self- observation, assisted by
observation of others. I believe that these sources of evidence, impartially
consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion
to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or
rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two
different modes of naming the same psychological fact: that to think of an
object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it

150 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except
in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical

Study QueStionS

1. What are Mill’s reasons for introducing the distinction between higher and
lower pleasures, and how is that distinction to be made?

2. Assess Mill’s “proof” that happiness is desirable.
3. How does Mill attempt to demonstrate that only happiness is desirable as an

ultimate end?

roBert noziCK
The Ex perience Machine

Robert Nozick (1938–2002) was an American political philosopher who wrote
on a wide variety of topics; he was especially noted for his defense of the political
philosophy of libertarianism.

There are ✻ ✻ ✻ substantial puzzles when we ask what matters other than how
people’s experiences feel “from the inside.” Suppose there were an experi-
ence machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper
neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and
feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an inter-
esting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes
attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, prepro-
gramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out
on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have
researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose
from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your
life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed,
you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experi-
ences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know
that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also
plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay un-
plugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the ma-
chines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us,
other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because
of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the

Robert Nozick ■ 151

moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a
lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if
your decision is the best one?

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to
do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case
of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that
we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But
why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?)
A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to
be a certain sort of person. Someone f loating in a tank is an indeterminate
blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has
long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s
not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the
machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that
nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets ref lected in our
experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us?
Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with
what we are?

Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man- made
reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people
can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though
the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave them-
selves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.
This clarifies the intensity of the conf lict over psychoactive drugs, which
some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as ave-
nues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the
experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to

We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imag-
ining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it.
We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill
lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience
machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transforma-
tion machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to
be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transfor-
mation machine to become as one would wish, and there- upon plug into the
experience machine! So something matters in addition to one’s experiences
and what one is like. Nor is the reason merely that one’s experiences are

152 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

unconnected with what one is like. For the experience machine might be
limited to provide only experiences possible to the sort of person plugged
in. Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the
result machine, which produces in the world any result you would produce
and injects your vector input into any joint activity. We shall not pursue here
the fascinating details of these or other machines. What is most disturbing
about them is their living of our lives for us. Is it misguided to search for
particular additional functions beyond the competence of machines to do
for us? Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact
with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)

Study QueStionS

1. What reasons could there be for not plugging into the experience machine
for the rest of one’s life?

2. What does the example of the experience machine show regarding utilitari-

3. Would you plug into the experience machine?

immanueL Kant
The Categorica l Imperative

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was an exceptionally significant and influential
philosopher, who wrote on many topics. He was born and lived in Konigsberg,
Germany. He is particularly noted for his fundamental but difficult writings on
metaphysics, especially his Critique of Pure Reason, but equally renowned for his
rigorous, principled approach to moral philosophy.

The present groundwork is ✻ ✻ ✻ nothing more than the search for and es-
tablishment of the supreme principle of morality, which constitutes by itself
a business that in its purpose is complete and to be kept apart from every
other moral investigation. ✻ ✻ ✻

It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even
beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good
will. Understanding, wit, judgment and the like, whatever such talents of
mind may be called, or courage, resolution, and perseverance in one’s plans,
as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable for many
purposes, but they can also be extremely evil and harmful if the will which

Immanuel Kant ■ 153

is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose distinctive constitution
is therefore called character, is not good. It is the same with gifts of fortune.
Power, riches, honor, even health and that complete well- being and satis-
faction with one’s condition called happiness, produce boldness and thereby
often arrogance as well unless a good will is present which corrects the
inf luence of these on the mind. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Moderation in affects and passions, self- control, and calm ref lection
are not only good for all sorts of purposes but even seem to constitute a part
of the inner worth of a person; but they lack much that would be required to
declare them good without limitation (however unconditionally they were
praised by the ancients); for, without the basic principles of a good will they
can become extremely evil, and the coolness of a scoundrel makes him not
only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes
than we would have taken him to be without it.

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because
of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition,
that is, it is good in itself and, regarded for itself, is to be valued incompara-
bly higher than all that could merely be brought about by it in favor of some
inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations. Even if, by
a special disfavor of fortune or by the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly
nature, this will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose— if
with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing and only the good will
were left (not, of course, as a mere wish but as the summoning of all means
insofar as they are in our control)—then, like a jewel, it would still shine by
itself, as something that has its full worth in itself. ✻ ✻ ✻

To be beneficent where one can is a duty, and besides there are many
souls so sympathetically attuned that, without any other motive of vanity
or sell- interest they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them
and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own
work. But I assert that in such a case an action of this kind, however it may
conform with duty and however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true
moral worth but is on the same footing with other inclinations, for example,
the inclination to honor, which, if it fortunately lights upon what is in fact
in the common interest and in conformity with duty and hence honorable,
deserves praise and encouragement but not esteem; for the maxim lacks
moral content, namely that of doing such actions not from inclination but
from duty. ✻ ✻ ✻

154 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

Thus the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected
from it and so too does not lie in any principle of action that needs to borrow
its motive from this expected effect. For, all these effects ( agree ableness of
one’s condition, indeed even promotion of others’ happiness) could have
been also brought about by other causes, so that there would have been no
need, for this, of the will of a rational being, in which, however, the highest
and unconditional good alone can be found. Hence nothing other than the
representation of the law in itself, which can of course occur only in a rational
being, insofar as it and not the hoped- for effect is the determining ground of
the will, can constitute the preeminent good we call moral, which is already
present in the person himself who acts in accordance with this representa-
tion and need not wait upon the effect of his action. ✻ ✻ ✻

Now, all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The
former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to
achieving something else that one wills (or that it is at least possible for
one to will). The categorical imperative would be that which represented an
action as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end.

Since every practical law represents a possible action as good and thus
as necessary for a subject practically determinable by reason, all imper-
atives are formulae for the determination of action that is necessary in
accordance with the principle of a will which is good in some way. Now, if
the action would be good merely as a means to something else the imper-
ative is hypothetical; if the action is represented as in itself good, hence as
necessary in a will in itself conforming to reason, as its principle, then it
is categorical. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ There is one imperative that, without being based upon and having
as its condition any other purpose to be attained by certain conduct, com-
mands this conduct immediately. This imperative is categorical. It has to do
not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the
form and the principle from which the action itself follows; and the essen-
tially good in the action consists in the disposition, let the result be what it
may. This imperative may be called the imperative of morality. ✻ ✻ ✻

When I think of a hypothetical imperative in general I do not know before-
hand what it will contain; I do not know this until I am given the condition.
But when I think of a categorical imperative I know at once what it contains.
For, since the imperative contains, beyond the law, only the necessity that the
maxim be in conformity with this law, while the law contains no condition
to which it would be limited, nothing is left with which the maxim of action

Immanuel Kant ■ 155

is to conform but the universality of a law as such; and this conformity alone
is what the imperative properly represents as necessary.

There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act
only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time
will that it become a universal law. ✻ ✻ ✻

Since the universality of law in accordance with which effects take place
constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as
regards its form)—that is, the existence of things insofar as it is determined
in accordance with universal laws— the universal imperative of duty can also
go as follows: act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a
universal law of nature.

We shall now enumerate a few duties in accordance with the usual divi-
sion of them into duties to ourselves and to other human beings and into
perfect and imperfect duties.

1) Someone feels sick of life because of a series of troubles that has grown
to the point of despair, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he
can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to
take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could
indeed become a universal law of nature. His maxim, however, is: from
self- love I make it my principle to shorten my life when its longer duration
threatens more troubles than it promises agreeableness. The only further
question is whether this principle of self- love could become a universal
law of nature. It is then seen at once that a nature whose law it would be to
destroy life itself by means of the same feeling whose destination is to impel
toward the furtherance of life would contradict itself and would therefore not
subsist as nature; thus that maxim could not possibly be a law of nature and,
accordingly, altogether opposes the supreme principle of all duty.

2) Another finds himself urged by need to borrow money. He well knows
that he will not be able to repay it but sees also that nothing will be lent
him unless he promises firmly to repay it within a determinate time. He
would like to make such a promise, but he still has enough conscience to
ask himself: is it not forbidden and contrary to duty to help oneself out of
need in such a way? Supposing that he still decided to do so, his maxim of
action would go as follows: when I believe myself to be in need of money I
shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know that this
will never happen. Now this principle of self- love or personal advantage is
perhaps quite consistent with my whole future welfare, but the question now
is whether it is right. I therefore turn the demand of self- love into a universal

156 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

law and put the question as follows: how would it be if my maxim became
a universal law? I then see at once that it could never hold as a universal
law of nature and be consistent with itself, but must necessarily contradict
itself. For, the universality of a law that everyone, when he believes himself
to be in need, could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not
keeping it would make the promise and the end one might have in it itself
impossible, since no one would believe what was promised him but would
laugh at all such expressions as vain pretenses.

3) A third find in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could
make him a human being useful for all sorts of purposes. However, he finds
himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to give himself up to plea-
sure than to trouble himself with enlarging and improving his fortunate natu-
ral predispositions. But he still asks himself whether his maxim of neglecting
his natural gifts, besides being consistent with his propensity to amusement,
is also consistent with what one calls duty. He now sees that a nature could
indeed always subsist with such a universal law, although (as with the South
Sea Islanders) the human being should let his talents rust and he concerned
with devoting his life merely to idleness, amusement, procreation— in a word,
to enjoyment; only he cannot possibly will that this become a universal law or
be put in us as such by means of natural instinct. For, as a rational being he
necessarily wills that all the capacities in him be developed, since they serve
him and are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.

Yet a fourth, for whom things are going well while he sees that others
(whom he could very well help) have to contend with great hardships, thinks:
what is it to me? let each be as happy as heaven wills or as he can make him-
self; I shall take nothing from him nor even envy him; only I do not care to
contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in need! Now, if such
a way of thinking were to become a universal law the human race could
admittedly very well subsist, no doubt even better than when everyone prates
about sympathy and benevolence and even exerts himself to practice them
occasionally, but on the other hand also cheats where he can, sells the right
of human beings or otherwise infringes upon it. But although it is possible
that a universal law of nature could very well subsist in accordance with such
a maxim, it is still impossible to will that such a principle hold everywhere as
a law of nature. For, a will that decided this would conf lict with itself, since
many cases could occur in which one would need the love and sympathy of
others and in which, by such a law of nature arisen from his own will, he
would rob himself of all hope of the assistance he wishes for himself. ✻ ✻ ✻

Immanuel Kant ■ 157

If we now attend to ourselves in any transgression of a duty, we find that
we do not really will that our maxim should become a universal law, since
that is impossible for us, but that the opposite of our maxim should instead
remain a universal law, only we take the liberty of making an exception
to it for ourselves (or just for this once) to the advantage of our inclina-
tion. Consequently, if we weighed all cases from one and the same point of
view, namely that of reason, we would find a contradiction in our own will,
namely that a certain principle be objectively necessary as a universal law
and yet subjectively not hold universally but allow exceptions. ✻ ✻ ✻

But suppose there were something the existence of which in itself has
an absolute worth, something which as an end in itself could be a ground
of determinate laws; then in it, and in it alone, would lie the ground of a
possible categorical imperative, that is, of a practical law.

Now I say that the human being and in general every rational being exists
as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its
discretion; instead he must in all his actions, whether directed to himself
or also to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an
end. ✻ ✻ ✻ Beings the existence of which rests not on our will but on nature,
if they are beings without reason, still have only a relative worth, as means,
and are therefore called things, whereas rational beings are called persons
because their nature already marks them out as an end in itself, that is, as
something that may not be used merely as a means, and hence so far limits
all choice (and is an object of respect). These, therefore, are not merely sub-
jective ends, the existence of which as an effect of our action has a worth
for us, but rather objective ends, that is, beings the existence of which is in
itself an end, and indeed one such that no other end, to which they would
serve merely as means, can be put in its place, since without it nothing of
absolute worth would be found anywhere; but if all worth were conditional
and therefore contingent, then no supreme practical principle for reason
could be found anywhere.

✻ ✻ ✻ Rational nature exists as an end in itself. The human being necessarily
represents his own existence in this way; so far it is thus a subjective prin-
ciple of human actions. But every other rational being also represents his
existence in this way consequent on just the same rational ground that also
holds for me; thus it is at the same time an objective principle from which,
as a supreme practical ground, it must be possible to derive all laws of the
will. The practical imperative will therefore be the following: So act that you
use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always

158 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. We shall see whether this
can be carried out.

To keep to the preceding examples:
First, as regards the concept of necessary duty to oneself, someone who

has suicide in mind will ask himself whether his action can be consistent
with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order
to escape from a trying condition he makes use of a person merely as a means
to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. A human being, how-
ever, is not a thing and hence not something that can be used merely as a
means, but must in all his actions always be regarded as an end in itself. I
cannot, therefore, dispose of a human being in my own person by maiming,
damaging or killing him. ✻ ✻ ✻

Second, as regards necessary duty to others or duty owed them, he who
has it in mind to make a false promise to others sees at once that he wants
to make use of another human being merely as a means, without the other
at the same time containing in himself the end. For, he whom I want to
use for my purposes by such a promise cannot possibly agree to my way of
behaving toward him, and so himself contain the end of this action. This
conf lict with the principle of other human beings is seen more distinctly
if examples of assaults on the freedom and property of others are brought
forward. For then it is obvious that he who transgresses the rights of human
beings intends to make use of the person of others merely as means, without
taking into consideration that, as rational beings, they are always to be val-
ued at the same time as ends, that is, only as beings who must also be able
to contain in themselves the end of the very same action.

Third, with respect to contingent (meritorious) duty to oneself, it is not
enough that the action does not conf lict with humanity in our person as
an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it. Now there are in humanity
predispositions to greater perfection, which belong to the end of nature with
respect to humanity in our subject; to neglect these might admittedly be
consistent with the preservation of humanity as an end in itself but not with
the furtherance of this end.

Fourth, concerning meritorious duty to others, the natural end that all
human beings have is their own happiness. Now, humanity might indeed
subsist if no one contributed to the happiness of others but yet did not inten-
tionally withdraw anything from it; but there is still only a negative and not
a positive agreement with humanity as an end in itself unless everyone also
tries, as far as he can, to further the ends of others. For, the ends of a subject

Immanuel Kant ■ 159

who is an end in itself must as far as possible be also my ends, if that repre-
sentation is to have its full effect in me. ✻ ✻ ✻

The concept of every rational being as one who must regard himself as
giving universal law through all the maxims of his will, so as to appraise
himself and his actions from this point of view, leads to a very fruitful con-
cept dependent upon it, namely that of a kingdom of ends.

By a kingdom I understand a systematic union of various rational beings
through common laws. Now since laws determine ends in terms of their
universal validity, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational
beings as well as from all the content of their private ends we shall be able
to think of a whole of all ends in systematic connection (a whole both of
rational beings as ends in themselves and of the ends of his own that each
may set himself ), that is, a kingdom of ends, which is possible in accordance
with the above principles.

For, all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat
himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as
ends in themselves. But from this there arises a systematic union of rational
beings through common objective laws, that is, a kingdom, which can be
called a kingdom of ends (admittedly only an ideal) because what these laws
have as their purpose is just the relation of these beings to one another as
ends and means.

A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he
gives universal laws in it but is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs
to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other.

A rational being must always regard himself as lawgiving in a kingdom
of ends possible through freedom of the will, whether as a member or as
sovereign. He cannot, however, hold the position of sovereign merely by the
maxims of his will but only in case he is a completely independent being,
without needs and with unlimited resources adequate to his will.

Morality consists, then, in the reference of all action to the lawgiving by
which alone a kingdom of ends is possible. This lawgiving must, however,
be found in every rational being himself and be able to arise from his will,
the principle of which is, accordingly: to do no action on any other maxim
than one such that it would be consistent with it to be a universal law, and
hence to act only so that the will could regard itself as at the same time giving
universal law through its maxim. Now, if maxims are not already of their
nature in agreement with this objective principle of rational beings as givers
of universal law, the necessity of an action in accordance with this objective

160 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

principle of rational beings as givers of universal law, the necessity of an
action in accordance with this principle is called practical necessitation, that
is, duty. Duty does not apply to the sovereign in the kingdom of ends, but
it does apply to every member of it and indeed to all in equal measure. ✻ ✻ ✻

The above three ways of representing the principle of morality are at
bottom only so many formulae of the very same law, and any one of them of
itself unites the other two in it. ✻ ✻ ✻

We can now end where we set out from at the beginning, namely with the
concept of a will unconditionally good. That will is absolutely good which can-
not be evil, hence whose maxim, if made a universal law, can never conf lict
with itself. This principle is, accordingly, also its supreme law: act always on
that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will; this is
the sole condition under which a will can never be in conf lict with itself, and
such an imperative is categorical. Since the validity of the will as a universal
law for possible actions has an analogy with the universal connection of the
existence of things in accordance with universal laws, which is the formal
aspect of nature in general, the categorical imperative can also be expressed
thus: act in accordance with maxims that can at the same time have as their
object themselves as universal laws of nature. In this way, then, the formula of
an absolutely good will is provided.

Study QueStionS

1. What is the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives?
2. What does Kant means by “universalizing the maxim” of your action?
3. What does it mean to treat another person merely as a means?

annette Baier
The Need for More tha n Justice

Annette Baier (1929–2012) was a moral philosopher who was born in New Zea-
land but spent her working life in the United States. She produced influential
works on feminism, as well as on David Hume and other topics.

In recent decades in North American social and moral philosophy, alongside
the development and discussion of widely influential theories of justice, tak-
en as Rawls takes it as the “first virtue of social institutions,”1 there has been

1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press). [Editor’s note: See selections
from A Theory of Justice on pps. 583–590 of this reader.]

Annette Baier ■ 161

a counter- movement gathering strength, one coming from some interesting
sources. For some of the most outspoken of the diverse group who have in a
variety of ways been challenging the assumed supremacy of justice among
the moral and social virtues are members of those sections of society whom
one might have expected to be especially aware of the supreme importance
of justice, namely blacks and women. Those who have only recently won
recognition of their equal rights, who have only recently seen the correction
or partial correction of longstanding racist and sexist injustices to their race
and sex, are among the philosophers now suggesting that justice is only
one virtue among many, and one that may need the presence of the others
in order to deliver its own undenied value. ✻ ✻ ✻ A whole group of men and
women, myself included, ✻ ✻ ✻ have been influenced by the writings of Har-
vard educational psychologist Carol Gilligan, whose book In a Different Voice
(Harvard 1982; hereafter D.V.) caused a considerable stir both in the popular
press and, more slowly, in the philosophical journals.

Let me say quite clearly at this early point that there is little disagreement
that justice is a social value of very great importance, and injustice an evil.
Nor would those who have worked on theories of justice want to deny that
other things matter besides justice. Rawls, for example, incorporates the value
of freedom into his account of justice, so that denial of basic freedoms counts
as injustice. Rawls also leaves room for a wider theory of the right, of which
the theory of justice is just a part. Still, he does claim that justice is the “first”
virtue of social institutions, and it is only that claim about priority that I think
has been challenged. It is easy to exaggerate the differences of view that exist,
and I want to avoid that. The differences are as much in emphasis as in sub-
stance, or we can say that they are differences in tone of voice. But these dif-
ferences do tend to make a difference in approaches to a wide range of topics
not just in moral theory but in areas like medical ethics, where the discussion
used to be conducted in terms of patients’ rights, of informed consent, and so
on, but now tends to get conducted in an enlarged moral vocabulary, which
draws on what Gilligan calls the ethics of care as well as that of justice.

For “care” is the new buzz- word. It is not, as Shakespeare’s Portia
demanded, mercy that is to season justice, but a less authoritarian humani-
tarian supplement, a felt concern for the good of others and for community
with them. The “cold jealous virtue of justice” (Hume) is found to be too cold,
and it is “warmer” more communitarian virtues and social ideals that  are
being  called in to supplement it. One might say that liberty and equality
are being found inadequate without fraternity, except that “fraternity” will

162 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

be quite the wrong word, if as Gilligan initially suggested, it is women who
perceive this value most easily. “Sorority” will do no better, since it is too
exclusive, and English has no gender- neuter word for the mutual concern
of siblings.) She has since modified this claim, allowing that there are two
perspectives on moral and social issues that we all tend to alternate between,
and which are not always easy to combine, one of them what she called the
justice perspective, the other the care perspective. It is increasingly obvious
that there are many male philosophical spokespersons for the care perspec-
tive ✻ ✻ ✻ so that it cannot be the prerogative of women. Nevertheless Gilligan
still wants to claim that women are most unlikely to take only the justice
perspective, as some men are claimed to, at least until some mid- life crisis
jolts them into “bifocal” moral vision (see D. V., ch. 6).

Gilligan in her book did not offer any explanatory theory of why there
should be any difference between female and male moral outlook, but she
did tend to link the naturalness to women of the care perspective with their
role as primary care- takers of young children, that is with their parental and
specifically maternal role. She avoided the question of whether it is their
biological or their social parental role that is relevant, and some of those
who dislike her book are worried precisely by this uncertainty. Some find it
retrograde to hail as a special sort of moral wisdom an outlook that may be
the product of the socially enforced restriction of women to domestic roles
(and the reservation of such roles for them alone). For that might seem to
play into the hands of those who still favor such restriction. (Marxists, pre-
sumably, will not find it so surprising that moral truths might depend for
their initial clear voicing on the social oppression, and memory of it, of those
who voice the truths.) Gilligan did in the first chapter of D.V. cite the theory
of Nancy Chodorow (as presented in The Reproduction of Mothering [Berke-
ley 1978]) which traces what appears as gender differences in personality to
early social development, in particular to the effects of the child’s primary
caretaker being or not being of the same gender as the child. Later, ✻ ✻ ✻
she postulates two evils that any infant may become aware of, the evil of
detachment or isolation from others whose love one needs, and the evil of
relative powerlessness and weakness. Two dimensions of moral development
are thereby set— one aimed at achieving satisfying community with others,
the other aiming at autonomy or equality of power. The relative predomi-
nance of one over the other development will depend both upon the relative
salience of the two evils in early childhood, and on early and later rein-
forcement or discouragement in attempts made to guard against these two

Annette Baier ■ 163

evils. This provides the germs of a theory about why, given current customs
of childrearing, it should be mainly women who are not content with only
the moral outlook that she calls the justice perspective, necessary though
that was and is seen by them to have been to their hard won liberation from
sexist oppression. They, like the blacks, used the language of rights and
justice to change their own social position, but nevertheless see limitations
in that language, according to Gilligan’s findings as a moral psychologist.
She reports their discontent with the individualist more or less Kantian
moral framework that dominates Western moral theory and which inf lu-
enced moral psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg, to whose conception
of moral maturity she seeks an alternative. Since the target of Gilligan’s
criticism is the dominant Kantian tradition, ✻ ✻ ✻ her book is of interest as
much for its attempt to articulate an alternative to the Kantian justice per-
spective as for its implicit raising of the question of male bias in Western
moral theory, especially liberal- democratic theory. For whether the supposed
blind spots of that outlook are due to male bias, or to non- parental bias, or to
early traumas of powerlessness or to early resignation to “detachment” from
others, we need first to be persuaded that they are blind spots before we will
have any interest in their cause and cure. Is justice blind to important social
values, or at least only one- eyed? What is it that comes into view from the
“care perspective” that is not seen from the “justice perspective”?

Gilligan’s position here is most easily described by contrasting it with
that of Kohlberg, against which she developed it. Kohlberg ✻ ✻ ✻ developed
a theory about typical moral development which saw it to progress from
a pre- conventional level, where what is seen to matter is pleasing or not
offending parental authority- figures, through a conventional level in which
the child tries to fit in with a group, such as a school community, and con-
form to its standards and rules, to a post- conventional critical level, in which
such conventional rules are subjected to tests, and where those tests are
of a Utilitarian, or, eventually, a Kantian sort— namely ones that require
respect for each person’s individual rational will, or autonomy, and confor-
mity to any implicit social contract such wills are deemed to have made,
or to any hypothetical ones they would make if thinking clearly. What was
found when Kohlberg’s questionnaires (mostly by verbal response to ver-
bally sketched moral dilemmas) were applied to female as well as male sub-
jects, Gilligan reports, is that the girls and women not only scored generally
lower than the boys and men, but tended to revert to the lower stage of the
conventional level even after brief ly (usually in adolescence) attaining the

164 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

post- conventional level. Piaget’s finding that girls were deficient in “the
legal sense” was confirmed.

These results led Gilligan to wonder if there might not be a quite differ-
ent pattern of development to be discerned, at least in female subjects. She
therefore conducted interviews designed to elicit not just how far advanced
the subjects were towards an appreciation of the nature and importance of
Kantian autonomy, but also to find out what the subjects themselves saw as
progress or lack of it, what conceptions of moral maturity they came to pos-
sess by the time they were adults. She found that although the Kohlberg ver-
sion of moral maturity as respect for fellow persons, and for their rights as
equals (rights including that of free association), did seem shared by many
young men, the women tended to speak in a different voice about morality
itself and about moral maturity. To quote Gilligan, “Since the reality of inter-
connexion is experienced by women as given rather than freely contracted,
they arrive at an understanding of life that ref lects the limits of autonomy
and control. As a result, women’s development delineates the path not only
to a less violent life but also to a maturity realized by interdependence and
taking care” (D.V., 172). She writes that there is evidence that “women
perceive and construe social reality differently from men, and that these
differences center around experiences of attachment and separation . . .
because women’s sense of integrity appears to be intertwined with an eth-
ics of care, so that to see themselves as women is to see themselves in a
relationship of connexion, the major changes in women’s lives would seem
to involve changes in the understanding and activities of care” (D.V., 171).
She contrasts this progressive understanding of care, from merely pleas-
ing others to helping and nurturing, with the sort of progression that is
involved in Kohlberg’s stages, a progression in the understanding, not of
mutual care, but of mutual respect, where this has its Kantian overtones of
distance, even of some fear for the respected, and where personal autonomy
and independence, rather than more satisfactory interdependence, are the
paramount values.

This contrast, one cannot but feel, is one which Gilligan might have used
the Marxist language of alienation to make. For the main complaint about
the Kantian version of a society with its first virtue justice— construed as
respect for equal rights to formal goods such as having contracts kept, due
process, equal opportunity including opportunity to participate in political
activities leading to policy and law- making, to basic liberties of speech, free
association and assembly, religious worship— is that none of these goods

Annette Baier ■ 165

do much to ensure that the people who have and mutually respect such
rights will have any other relationships to one another than the minimal
relationship needed to keep such a “civil society” going. They may well be
lonely, driven to suicide, apathetic about their work and about participation
in political processes, find their lives meaningless and have no wish to leave
offspring to face the same meaningless existence. Their rights, and respect
for rights, are quite compatible with very great misery, and misery whose
causes are not just individual misfortunes and psychic sickness, but social
and moral impoverishment.

What Gilligan’s older male subjects complain of is precisely this sort of
alienation from some dimly glimpsed better possibility for human beings,
some richer sort of network of relationships. As one of Gilligan’s male
subjects put it, “People have real emotional needs to be attached to some-
thing, and equality does not give you attachment. Equality fractures society
and places on every person the burden of standing on his own two feet”
(D.V., 167). It is not just the difficulty of self reliance which is complained of,
but its socially “fracturing” effect. Whereas the younger men, in their col-
lege years, had seen morality as a matter of reciprocal non- interference, this
older man begins to see it as reciprocal attachment. “Morality is . . . essential
. . . for creating the kind of environment, interaction between people, that is
a prerequisite to the fulfillment of individual goals. If you want other people
not to interfere with your pursuit of whatever you are into, you have to play
the game,” says the spokesman for traditional liberalism (D.V.  98). But if
what one is “into” is interconnexion, interdependence rather than an indi-
vidual autonomy that may involve “detachment,” such a version of morality
will come to seem inadequate. And Gilligan stresses that the interconnexion
that her mature women subjects, and some men, wanted to sustain was not
merely freely chosen interconnexion, nor interconnexion between equals,
but also the sort of interconnexion that can obtain between a child and her
unchosen mother and father, or between a child and her unchosen older
and younger siblings, or indeed between most workers and their unchosen
fellow workers, or most citizens and their unchosen fellow citizens.

A model of a decent community different from the liberal one is involved
in the version of moral maturity that Gilligan voices. It has in many ways
more in common with the older religion- linked versions of morality and a
good society than with the modern Western liberal ideal. That perhaps is
why some find it so dangerous and retrograde. Yet it seems clear that it also
has much in common with what we can call Hegelian versions of moral

166 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

maturity and of social health and malaise, both with Marxist versions and
with so- called right- Hegelian views.

Let me try to summarize the main differences, as I see them, between
on the one hand Gilligan’s version of moral maturity and the sort of social
structures that would encourage, express and protect it, and on the other
the orthodoxy she sees herself to be challenging. I shall from now on be
giving my own interpretation of the significance of her challenges, not
merely reporting them. The most obvious point is the challenge to the
individualism of the Western tradition, to the fairly entrenched belief in the
possibility and desirability of each person pursuing his own good in his own
way, constrained only by a minimal formal common good, namely a work-
ing legal apparatus that enforces contracts and protects individuals from
undue interference by others. Gilligan reminds us that noninterference
can, especially for the relatively powerless, such as the very young, amount
to neglect, and even between equals can be isolating and alienating. On her
less individualist version of individuality, it becomes defined by responses to
dependency and to patterns of interconnexion, both chosen and unchosen. It
is not something a person has, and which she then chooses relationships to
suit, but something that develops out of a series of dependencies and inter-
dependencies, and responses to them. This conception of individuality is not
f latly at odds with, say, Rawls’ Kantian one, but there is at least a difference
of tone of voice between speaking as Rawls does of each of us having our
own rational life plan, which a just society’s moral traffic rules will allow
us to follow, and which may or may not include close association with other
persons, and speaking as Gilligan does of a satisfactory life as involving
“progress of affiliative relationship” (D.V., 170) where “the concept of identity
expands to include the experience of interconnexion” (D.V., 173). Rawls can
allow that progress to Gilligan- style moral maturity may be a rational life
plan, but not a moral constraint on every life- pattern. The trouble is that it
will not do just to say “let this version of morality be an optional extra. Let
us agree on the essential minimum, that is on justice and rights, and let
whoever wants to go further and cultivate this more demanding ideal of
responsibility and care.” For, first, it cannot be satisfactorily cultivated with-
out closer cooperation from others than respect for rights and justice will
ensure, and, second, the encouragement of some to cultivate it while others
do not could easily lead to exploitation of those who do. It obviously has
suited some in most societies well enough that others take on the respon-
sibilities of care (for the sick, the helpless, the young) leaving them free to

Annette Baier ■ 167

pursue their own less altruistic goods. Volunteer forces of those who accept
an ethic of care, operating within a society where the power is exercised and
the institutions designed, redesigned, or maintained by those who accept a
less communal ethic of minimally constrained self- advancement, will not
be the solution. The liberal individualists may be able to “tolerate” the more
communally minded, if they keep the liberals’ rules, but it is not so clear
that the more communally minded can be content with just those rules, nor
be content to be tolerated and possibly exploited.

For the moral tradition which developed the concept of rights, autonomy
and justice is the same tradition that provided “justifications” of the oppres-
sion of those whom the primary right- holders depended on to do the sort
of work they themselves preferred not to do. The domestic work was left to
women and slaves, and the liberal morality for right- holders was surrepti-
tiously supplemented by a different set of demands made on domestic work-
ers. As long as women could be got to assume responsibility for the care of
home and children, and to train their children to continue the sexist system,
the liberal morality could continue to be the official morality, by turning its
eyes away from the contribution made by those it excluded. The long unno-
ticed moral proletariat were the domestic workers, mostly female. Rights
have usually been for the privileged. Talking about laws, and the rights
those laws recognize and protect, does not in itself ensure that the group
of legislators and rights- holders will not be restricted to some elite. Bills
of rights have usually been proclamations of the rights of some in- group,
barons, landowners, males, whites, non- foreigners. The “justice perspec-
tive,” and the legal sense that goes with it, are shadowed by their patriarchal
past. What did Kant, the great prophet of autonomy, say in his moral theory
about women? He said they were incapable of legislation not fit to vote, that
they needed the guidance of more “rational” males.2 Autonomy was not for
them, only for first class, really rational, persons. It is ironic that Gilligan’s
original findings in a way confirm Kant’s views— it seems that autonomy
really may not be for women. Many of them reject that ideal (D.V., 48), and
have been found not as good at making rules as are men. But where Kant
concludes—“so much the worse for women,” we can conclude—“so much
the worse for the male fixation on the special skill of drafting legislation,
for the bureaucratic mentality of rule worship, and for the male exaggeration
of the importance of independence over mutual interdependence.”

2 Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 46

168 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

It is however also true that the moral theories that made the concept of
a person’s rights central were not just the instruments for excluding some
persons, but also the instruments used by those who demanded that more
and more persons be included in the favored group. Abolitionists, reformers,
women, used the language of rights to assert their claims to inclusion in the
group of full members of a community. The tradition of liberal moral theory
has in fact developed so as to include the women it had for so long excluded,
to include the poor as well as rich, blacks and whites, and so on. Women like
Mary Wollstonecraft3 used the male moral theories to good purpose. So we
should not be wholly ungrateful for those male moral theories, for all their
objectionable earlier content. They were undoubtedly patriarchal, but they
also contained the seeds of the challenge, or antidote, to this patriarchal

But when we transcend the values of the Kantians, we should not forget
the facts of history— that those values were the values of the oppressors of
women. The Christian church, whose version of the moral law Aquinas cod-
ified, in his very legalistic moral theory, still insists on the maleness of the
God it worships, and jealously reserves for males all the most powerful posi-
tions in its hierarchy. Its patriarchical prejudice is open and avowed. In the
secular moral theories of men, the sexist patriarchal prejudice is today often
less open, not as blatant as it is in Aquinas, in the later natural law tradition,
and in Kant and Hegel, but is often still there. No moral theorist today would
say that women are unfit to vote, to make laws, or to rule a nation without
powerful male advisors (as most queens had), but the old doctrines die hard.
In one of the best male theories we have, John Rawls’s theory, a key role is
played by the idea of the “head of a household.” It is heads of households
who are to deliberate behind a “veil of ignorance” of historical details, and
of details of their own special situation, to arrive at the “just” constitution
for a society. Now of course Rawls does not think or say that these “heads”
are fathers rather than mothers. But if we have really given up the age- old
myth of women needing, as Grotius put it, to be under the “eye” of a more
“rational” male protector and master, then how do families come to have
any one “head,” except by the death or desertion of one parent? They will
either be two- headed, or headless. Traces of the old patriarchal poison still
remain in even the best contemporary moral theorizing. Few may actually

3 Editor’s note: See selections from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman on pps. 212–218 of this reader.

Annette Baier ■ 169

say that women’s place is in the home, but there is much muttering, when
unemployment figures rise, about how the relatively recent f lood of women
into the work force complicates the problem, as if it would be a good thing
if women just went back home whenever unemployment rises, to leave the
available jobs for the men. We still do not really have a wide acceptance of
the equal right of women to employment outside the home. Nor do we have
wide acceptance of the equal duty of men to perform those domestic tasks
which in no way depend on special female anatomy, namely cooking, clean-
ing, and the care of weaned children. All sorts of stories (maybe true stories),
about children’s need for one “primary” parent, who must be the mother if
the mother breast feeds the child, shore up the unequal division of domestic
responsibility between mothers and fathers, wives and husbands. If we are
really to transvalue the values of our patriarchal past, we need to rethink all
of those assumptions, really test those psychological theories. And how will
men ever develop an understanding of the “ethics of care” if they continue
to be shielded or kept from that experience of caring for a dependent child,
which complements the experience we all have had of being cared for as
dependent children? These experiences form the natural background for
the development of moral maturity as Gilligan’s women saw it.

Exploitation aside, why would women, once liberated, not be content to
have their version of morality merely tolerated? Why should they not see
themselves as voluntarily, for their own reasons, taking on more than the lib-
eral rules demand, while having no quarrel with the content of those rules
themselves, nor with their remaining the only ones that are expected to be
generally obeyed? To see why, we need to move on to three more differences
between the Kantian liberals (usually contractarians) and their critics. These
concern the relative weight put on relationships between equals, and the
relative weight put on freedom of choice, and on the authority of intellect
over emotions. It is a typical feature of the dominant moral theories and
traditions, since Kant, or perhaps since Hobbes, that relationships between
equals or those who are deemed equal in some important sense, have been
the relations that morality is concerned primarily to regulate. Relationships
between those who are clearly unequal in power, such as parents and chil-
dren, earlier and later generations in relation to one another, states and citi-
zens, doctors and patients, the well and the ill, large states and small states,
have had to be shunted to the bottom of the agenda, and then dealt with
by some sort of “promotion” of the weaker so that an appearance of virtual
equality is achieved. Citizens collectively become equal to states, children

170 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

are treated as adults- to- be, the ill and dying are treated as continuers of their
earlier more potent selves, so that their “rights” could be seen as the rights
of equals. This pretence of an equality that is in fact absent may often lead
to desirable protection of the weaker, or more dependent. But it somewhat
masks the question of what our moral relationships are to those who are our
superiors or our inferiors in power. A more realistic acceptance of the fact
that we begin as helpless children, that at almost every point of our lives we
deal with both the more and the less helpless, that equality of power and
interdependency, between two persons or groups, is rare and hard to recog-
nize when it does occur, might lead us to a more direct approach to ques-
tions concerning the design of institutions structuring these relationships
between unequals (families, schools, hospitals, armies) and of the morality
of our dealings with the more and the less powerful. One reason why those
who agree with the Gilligan version of what morality is about will not want to
agree that the liberals’ rules are a good minimal set, the only ones we need
pressure everyone to obey, is that these rules do little to protect the young or
the dying or the starving or any of the relatively powerless against neglect,
or to ensure an education that will form persons to be capable of conform-
ing to an ethics of care and responsibility. Put baldly, and in a way Gilligan
certainly has not put it, the liberal morality, if unsupplemented, may unfit
people to be anything other than what its justifying theories suppose them
to be, ones who have no interest in each others’ interests. Yet some must take
an interest in the next generation’s interests. Women’s traditional work, of
caring for the less powerful, especially for the young, is obviously socially
vital. One cannot regard any version of morality that does not ensure that it
gets well done as an adequate “minimal morality,” any more than we could
so regard one that left any concern for more distant future generations an
optional extra. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ So far I have discussed three reasons women have not to be content
to pursue their own values within the framework of the liberal morality.
The first was its dubious record. The second was its inattention to relations
of inequality or its pretence of equality. The third reason is its exaggeration
of the scope of choice, or its inattention to unchosen relations. Showing up
the partial myth of equality among actual members of a community, and
of the undesirability of trying to pretend that we are treating all of them
as equals, tends to go along with an exposure of the companion myth that
moral obligations arise from freely chosen associations between such equals.
Vulnerable future generations do not choose their dependence on earlier

Annette Baier ■ 171

generations. The unequal infant does not choose its place in a family or
nation, nor is it treated as free to do as it likes until some association is freely
entered into. Nor do its parents always choose their parental role, or freely
assume their parental responsibilities any more than we choose our power
to affect the conditions in which later generations will live. Gilligan’s atten-
tion to the version of morality and moral maturity found in women, many
of whom had faced a choice of whether or not to have an abortion, and who
had at some point become mothers, is attention to the perceived inadequacy
of the language of rights to help in such choices or to guide them in their
parental role. It would not be much of an exaggeration to call the Gilligan
“different voice” the voice of the potential parents. The emphasis on care
goes with a recognition of the often unchosen nature of the responsibilities
of those who give care, both of children who care for their aged or infirm
parents, and of parents who care for the children they in fact have. Contract
soon ceases to seem the paradigm source of moral obligation once we attend
to parental responsibility, and justice as a virtue of social institutions will
come to seem at best only first equal with the virtue, whatever its name,
that ensures that each new generation is made appropriately welcome and
prepared for their adult lives.

✻ ✻ ✻ The fourth feature of the Gilligan challenge to liberal orthodoxy is a
challenge to its typical rationalism, or intellectualism, to its assumption that
we need not worry what passions persons have, as long as their rational wills
can control them. This Kantian picture of a controlling reason dictating to
possibly unruly passions also tends to seem less useful when we are led to
consider what sort of person we need to fill the role of parent, or indeed want
in any close relationship. It might be important for father figures to have
rational control over their violent urges to beat to death the children whose
screams enrage them, but more than control of such nasty passions seems
needed in the mother or primary parent, or parent- substitute, by most psy-
chological theories. They need to love their children, not just to control their
irritation. So the emphasis in Kantian theories on rational control of emo-
tions, rather than on cultivating desirable forms of emotion, is challenged
by Gilligan, along with the challenge to the assumption of the centrality of
autonomy, or relations between equals, and of freely chosen relations. ✻ ✻ ✻

It is clear, I think, that the best moral theory has to be a cooperative prod-
uct of women and men, has to harmonize justice and care. The morality it
theorizes about is after all for all persons, for men and for women, and will
need their combined insights. As Gilligan said (D.V., 174), what we need now

172 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

is a “marriage” of the old male and the newly articulated female insights. If
she is right about the special moral aptitudes of women, it will most likely
be the women who propose the marriage, since they are the ones with more
natural empathy, with the better diplomatic skills, the ones more likely to
shoulder responsibility and take moral initiative, and the ones who find it
easiest to empathize and care about how the other party feels. Then, once
there is this union of male and female moral wisdom, we maybe can teach
each other the moral skills each gender currently lacks, so that the gender
difference in moral outlook that Gilligan found will slowly become less

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the difference between the ethics of justice and the ethics of care.
2. In what way is the ethics of justice individualistic?
3. How could the idea of the ethics of care be misused?

Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle (384–322 bce) was one of the world’s greatest and most influential phi-
losophers. He was a pupil of Plato but disagreed sharply with many of Plato’s doc-
trines. His works cover a huge variety of topics, from ethics, politics, and rhetoric
to metaphysics and even biology.

BooK i: the human GooD
2. If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its
own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do
not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the
process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain),
clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of
it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a
mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try,
in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or
capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative
art and that which is most truly the master art. ✻ ✻ ✻

3. Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-
matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions,

Aristotle ■ 173

any more than in all the products of the crafts. ✻ ✻ ✻ We must be content,
then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the
truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only
for the most part true, and with premisses of the same kind, to reach con-
clusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type
of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for
precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject
admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a
mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs.

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good
judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of
that subject, and the man who has received an all- round education is a good
judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on
political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but
its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he
tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because
the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference
whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not
depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as
passion directs. ✻ ✻ ✻

4. Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge
and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science
aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally
there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people
of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and
faring well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they
differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the for-
mer think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or hon-
our; they differ, however, from one another— and often even the same man
identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth
when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who
proclaim some great thing that is above their comprehension. Now some
thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is good in
itself and causes the goodness of all these as well. ✻ ✻ ✻

7. Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can
be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in med-
icine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of

174 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this
is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere
something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake
of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end
for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are
more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

✻ ✻ ✻ Clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently
something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what
we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will
be what we are seeking. ✻ ✻ ✻

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we
choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour,
pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if
nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we
choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we
shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake
of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

From the point of view of self- sufficiency the same result seems to follow; for
the final good is thought to be self- sufficient. ✻ ✻ ✻ The self- sufficient we now
define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing;
and such we think happiness to be; and further we think it most desirable of all
things, not a thing counted as one good thing among others. ✻ ✻ ✻ Happiness,
then, is something final and self- sufficient, and is the end of action.

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a plat-
itude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps
be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a
f lute- player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a
function or activity, the good and the “well” is thought to reside in the func-
tion, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. ✻ ✻ ✻ We state the
function of man to be certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions
of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be
the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed
when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue: if this is the
case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting virtue, and if there
are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make
a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not
make a man blessed and happy. ✻ ✻ ✻

Aristotle ■ 175

Some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, oth-
ers with a kind of philosophic wisdom, others with these, or one of these,
accompanied by pleasure or not without pleasure; while others include also
external prosperity. ✻ ✻ ✻

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our
account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes,
perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession
or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist
without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some
other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity
will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it
is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who
compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win,
and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.

Their life is also in itself pleasant. For pleasure is a state of soul, and to
each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant. ✻ ✻ ✻ Now for
most men their pleasures are in conf lict with one another because these
are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the
things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that
these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life,
therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm,
but has its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who
does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call
a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not
enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous
actions must be in themselves pleasant. But they are also good and noble,
and have each of these attributes in the highest degree, since the good
man judges well about these attributes; his judgement is such as we have
described. Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in
the world. ✻ ✻ ✻

Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is
impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment.
In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instru-
ments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from
happiness— good birth, goodly children, beauty, for the man who is very
ugly in appearance or ill- born or solitary and childless is not very likely to
be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly
bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. ✻ ✻ ✻

176 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

13. Since happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue,
we must consider the nature of virtue; for perhaps we shall thus see better
the nature of happiness. The true student of politics, too, is thought to have
studied virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow citizens
good and obedient to the laws. ✻ ✻ ✻ But clearly the virtue we must study
is human virtue; for the good we were seeking was human good and the
happiness human happiness. By human virtue we mean not that of the
body but that of the soul; and happiness also we call an activity of soul. But
if this is so, clearly the student of politics must know somehow the facts
about the soul. ✻ ✻ ✻

Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference,
for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philo-
sophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual,
liberality and temperance moral. For in speaking about a man’s character we
do not say that he is wise or has understanding, but that he is good- tempered
or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of
mind; and of states of mind we call those which merit praise virtues.

BooK ii: moraL Virtue
1. Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual vir-
tue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which
reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about
as a result of habit, whence also its name (ēthikē) is one that is formed by
a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that
none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by
nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which
by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not
even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can
fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature
behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then,
nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by
nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the
potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the
senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these
senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not
come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising
them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have

Aristotle ■ 177

to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become
builders by building and lyre- players by playing the lyre; so too we become
just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing
brave acts.

This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citi-
zens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator,
and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good
constitution differs from a bad one.

Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every
virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from
playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre- players are produced. And the
corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will
be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were
not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have
been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues
also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we
become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of
danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave
or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men
become temperate and good- tempered, others self- indulgent and irascible,
by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus,
in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the
activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of
character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small
difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our
very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things
to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and
of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evi-
dence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the
strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain
amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces
and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance
and courage and the other virtues. For the man who f lies from and fears
everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a cow-
ard, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger
becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and
abstains from none becomes self- indulgent, while the man who shuns every

178 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage,
then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth
the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actual-
ization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more
evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and
undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able
to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures
we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most
able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by
being habituated to despise things that are fearful and to stand our ground
against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we
shall be most able to stand our ground against them. ✻ ✻ ✻

3. We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that
supervenes upon acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and
delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at
it is self- indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are
terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man
who is pained is a coward. For moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and
pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account
of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been
brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both
to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right

Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions and passions, and every
passion and every action is accompanied by pleasure and pain, for this rea-
son also virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains. ✻ ✻ ✻

4. The question might be asked, what we mean by saying that we must be-
come just by doing just acts, and temperate by doing temperate acts; for if
men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate, exactly
as, if they do what is grammatical or musical, they are grammarians and

Or is this not true even of the arts? It is possible to do something gram-
matical, either by chance or under the guidance of another. A man will be
a grammarian, then, only when he has both done something grammatical
and done it grammatically; and this means doing it in accordance with the
grammatical knowledge in himself.

Aristotle ■ 179

Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the
products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough
that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accor-
dance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow
that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain
condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge,
secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and
thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. ✻ ✻ ✻

Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the
just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these
that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and tem-
perate men do them. ✻ ✻ ✻

But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they
are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving some-
what like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the
things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by
such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such
a course of philosophy. ✻ ✻ ✻

6. ✻ ✻ ✻ In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take
more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself
or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and de-
fect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from
each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all; by the intermediate
relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little— and this is not
one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the
intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by
an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion.
But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds is too
much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that
the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the per-
son who is to take it, or too little— too little for Milo [a wrestler], too much for
the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling.
Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate
and chooses this— the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.

If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well— by looking to the
intermediate and judging its works by this standard (so that we often say of
good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything,

180 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while
the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work),
and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also
is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean
moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and
in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear
and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and
pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but
to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards
the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both
intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with
regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now
virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form
of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form
of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics
of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims
at what is intermediate.

Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class
of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the
limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also
one is easy and the other difficult— to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult);
for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and
the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a
mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, and by
that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now
it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which
depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall
short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue
both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of what
it is, i.e. the definition which states its essence, virtue is a mean, with regard
to what is best and right an extreme.

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have
names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the
case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things
imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or
deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to

Aristotle ■ 181

them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard
to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the
right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong.
It would be equally absurd, then, to expect that in unjust, cowardly, and
self- indulgent action there should be a mean, an excess, and a deficiency;
for at that rate there would be a mean of excess and of deficiency, an excess
of excess, and a deficiency of deficiency. But as there is no excess and defi-
ciency of temperance and courage because what is intermediate is in a sense
an extreme, so too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor
any excess and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for
in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and
deficiency of a mean.

7. We must, however, not only make this general statement, but also apply
it to the individual facts. For among statements about conduct those which
are general apply more widely, but those which are particular are more true,
since conduct has to do with individual cases, and our statements must har-
monize with the facts in these cases. ✻ ✻ ✻ With regard to feelings of fear and
confidence courage is the mean; of the people who exceed, he who exceeds
in fearlessness has no name (many of the states have no name), while the
man who exceeds in confidence is rash, and he who exceeds in fear and falls
short in confidence is a coward. With regard to pleasures and pains— not
all of them, and not so much with regard to the pains— the mean is tem-
perance, the excess self- indulgence. Persons deficient with regard to the
pleasures are not often found; hence such persons also have received no
name. But let us call them “insensible.”

With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the
excess and the defect prodigality and meanness. In these actions people
exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in spending and
falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in taking and falls short
in spending. ✻ ✻ ✻ With regard to money there are also other dispositions— a
mean, magnificence (for the magnificent man differs from the liberal man;
the former deals with large sums, the latter with small ones), an excess,
tastelessness and vulgarity, and a deficiency, niggardliness; these differ
from the states opposed to liberality, and the mode of their difference will
be stated later.

With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride, the
excess is known as a sort of “empty vanity,” and the deficiency is undue
humility. ✻ ✻ ✻

182 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

With regard to anger also there is an excess, a deficiency, and a mean.
Although they can scarcely be said to have names, yet since we call the
intermediate person good- tempered let us call the mean good temper; of the
persons at the extremes let the one who exceeds be called irascible, and his
vice irascibility, and the man who falls short an unirascible sort of person,
and the deficiency unirascibility.

There are also three other means, which have a certain likeness to one
another, but differ from one another. ✻ ✻ ✻ With regard to truth, then, the
intermediate is a truthful sort of person and the mean may be called truth-
fulness, while the pretence which exaggerates is boastfulness and the person
characterized by it a boaster, and that which understates is mock modesty
and the person characterized by it mock- modest. With regard to pleasant-
ness in the giving of amusement the intermediate person is ready- witted and
the disposition ready wit, the excess is buffoonery and the person character-
ized by it a buffoon, while the man who falls short is a sort of boor and his
state is boorishness. With regard to the remaining kind of pleasantness, that
which is exhibited in life in general, the man who is pleasant in the right
way is friendly and the mean is friendliness, while the man who exceeds
is an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a f latterer if he is aiming
at his own advantage, and the man who falls short and is unpleasant in all
circumstances is a quarrelsome and surly sort of person.

There are also means in the passions and concerned with the passions;
since shame is not a virtue, and yet praise is extended to the modest man.
For even in these matters one man is said to be intermediate, and another to
exceed, as for instance the bashful man who is ashamed of everything; while
he who falls short or is not ashamed of anything at all is shameless, and the
intermediate person is modest. Righteous indignation is a mean between
envy and spite, and these states are concerned with the pain and pleasure
that are felt at the fortunes of our neighbours; the man who is characterized
by righteous indignation is pained at undeserved good fortune, the envious
man, going beyond him, is pained at all good fortune, and the spiteful man
falls so far short of being pained that he even rejoices. ✻ ✻ ✻

9. ✻ ✻ ✻ It is no easy task to be good. For in every thing it is no easy task to
find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but
for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry— that is easy— or give or
spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the
right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every-
one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Confucius ■ 183

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the idea that a virtue is a disposition of character.
2. Why does Aristotle think it is necessary to be habituated into virtue? How is

this to be done?
3. Explain the doctrine of the mean.


Confucius (551?–479? bce) was a Chinese philosopher, among the most influen-
tial in the Chinese tradition. His works still have wide influence and application

ChaPter 4
4.1. The Master said: “It is beautiful to live amidst humanity. To choose a
dwelling place destitute of humanity is hardly wise.”

4.2. The Master said: “A man without humanity cannot long bear adversity
and cannot long know joy. A good man rests in his humanity, a wise man
profits from his humanity.”

4.3. The Master said: “Only a good man can love people and can hate

4.4. The Master said: “Seeking to achieve humanity leaves no room for evil.”

4.5. The Master said: “Riches and rank are what every man craves; yet if the
only way to obtain them goes against his principles, he should desist from
such a pursuit. Poverty and obscurity are what every man hates; yet if the
only escape from them goes against his principles, he should accept his lot.
If a gentleman forsakes humanity, how can he make a name for himself?
Never for a moment does a gentleman part from humanity; he clings to it
through trials, he clings to it through tribulations.”

4.6. The Master said: “I have never seen a man who truly loved goodness
and hated evil. Whoever truly loves goodness would put nothing above it;
whoever truly hates evil would practice goodness in such a way that no evil
could enter him. Has anyone ever devoted all his strength to goodness just
for one day? No one ever has, and yet it is not for want of strength— there
may be people who do not have even the small amount of strength it takes,
but I have never seen any.”

184 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

4.7. The Master said: “Your faults define you. From your very faults one can
know your quality.”

4.8. The Master said: “In the morning hear the Way; in the evening die

4.9. The Master said: “A scholar sets his heart on the Way; if he is ashamed
of his shabby clothes and coarse food, he is not worth listening to.”

4.10. The Master said: “In the affairs of the world, a gentleman has no parti
pris: he takes the side of justice.”

4.11. The Master said: “A gentleman seeks virtue; a small man seeks land.
A gentleman seeks justice; a small man seeks favors.”

4.12. The Master said: “He who acts out of self- interest arouses much re-

4.13. The Master said: “If one can govern the country by observing ritual
and showing deference, there is no more to be said. If one cannot govern
the country by observing ritual and showing deference, what’s the use of

4.14. The Master said: “Do not worry if you are without a position; worry lest
you do not deserve a position. Do not worry if you are not famous; worry lest
you do not deserve to be famous.”

4.15. The Master said: “Shen, my doctrine has one single thread running
through it.” Master Zeng Shen replied: “Indeed.”

The Master left. The other disciples asked: “What did he mean?” Master Zeng
said: “The doctrine of the Master is: Loyalty and reciprocity, and that’s all.”

4.16. The Master said: “A gentleman considers what is just; a small man
considers what is expedient.”

4.17. The Master said: “When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him.
When you see an unworthy man, examine yourself.”

4.18. The Master said: “When you serve your parents, you may gently re-
monstrate with them. If you see that they do not take your advice, be all
the more respectful and do not contradict them. Let not your efforts turn
to bitterness.”

4.19. The Master said: “While your parents are alive, do not travel afar. If you
have to travel, you must leave an address.”

4.20. The Master said: “If three years after his father’s death, the son does
not alter his father’s ways, he is a good son indeed.”

Confucius ■ 185

4.21. The Master said: “Always keep in mind the age of your parents. Let
this thought be both your joy and your worry.”

4.22. The Master said: “The ancients were reluctant to speak, fearing dis-
grace should their deeds not match their words.”

4.23. The Master said: “ Self- control seldom leads astray.”

4.24. The Master said: “A gentleman should be slow to speak and prompt
to act.”

4.25. The Master said: “Virtue is not solitary; it always has neighbors.”

4.26. The Master said: “In the service of one’s lord, pettiness brings dis-
grace; in friendly intercourse, pettiness brings estrangement.” ✻ ✻ ✻

ChaPter 12
12.1. Yan Hui asked about humanity. The Master said: “The practice of
humanity comes down to this: tame the self and restore the rites. Tame
the self and restore the rites for but one day, and the whole world will rally
to your humanity. The practice of humanity comes from the self, not from
anyone else.”

Yan Hui said: “May I ask which steps to follow?” The Master said: “Observe
the rites in this way: don’t look at anything improper; don’t listen to anything
improper; don’t say anything improper; don’t do anything improper.”

Yan Hui said: “I may not be clever, but with your permission, I shall
endeavor to do as you have said.”

12.2. Ran Yong asked about humanity. The Master said: “When abroad,
behave as if in front of an important guest. Lead the people as if performing
a great ceremony. What you do not wish for yourself, do not impose upon
others. Let no resentment enter public affairs; let no resentment enter pri-
vate affairs.”

Ran Yong said: “I may not be clever, but with your permission I shall
endeavor to do as you have said.”

12.3. Sima Niu asked about humanity. The Master said: “He who practices
humanity is reluctant to speak.” The other said: “Reluctant to speak? And
you call that humanity?” The Master said: “When the practice of something
is difficult, how could one speak about it lightly?”

12.4. Sima Niu asked: “What is a gentleman?” The Master said: “A gentle-
man is without grief and without fear.” Sima Niu said: “Without grief and

186 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

without fear? And that makes a gentleman?” The Master said: “His con-
science is without reproach. Why should he grieve, what should he fear?”

12.5. Sima Niu was grieving: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.”
Zixia said: “I have heard this: life and death are decreed by fate, riches and
honors are allotted by Heaven. Since a gentleman behaves with reverence
and diligence, treating people with deference and courtesy, all within the
Four Seas are his brothers. How could a gentleman ever complain that he
has no brothers?”

12.6. Zizhang asked about clear- sightedness. The Master said: “He who is
soaked in slander and deafened with denunciations, and still does not waver,
may be called clear- sighted. Actually he may also be called farsighted.”

12.7. Zigong asked about government. The Master said: “Sufficient food,
sufficient weapons, and the trust of the people.” Zigong said: “If you had to
do without one of these three, which would you give up?—“Weapons.”—“If
you had to do without one of the remaining two, which would you give
up?”—“Food; after all, everyone has to die eventually. But without the trust
of the people, no government can stand.”

12.8. Ji Zicheng said: “One is a gentleman simply by his nature. What is
the use of culture?” Zigong said: “Sir, what you have just said is deplorable
indeed. ‘A team of four horses cannot catch up with a loose tongue.’ Nature is
culture, culture is nature. Without its hair, the skin of a tiger or of a leopard
is just the same as that of a dog or of a sheep.”

12.9. Duke Ai asked You Ruo: “The crops have failed; I am running out of
supplies. What should I do?” You Ruo replied: “Why not levy a tithe?” Duke
Ai said: “Even the double of that would not meet my needs; what could be
the use of a mere tithe?” You Ruo replied: “If the people have enough, how
could their lord not have enough? If the people do not have enough, how
could their lord have enough?”

12.10. Zizhang asked how to accumulate moral power and how to recognize
emotional incoherence. The Master said: “Put loyalty and faith above every-
thing, and follow justice. That is how one accumulates moral power. When
you love someone, you wish him to live; when you hate someone, you wish
him to die. Now, if you simultaneously wish him to live and to die, this is
an instance of incoherence.”

If not for the sake of wealth,
Then for the sake of change . . .

Confucius ■ 187

12.11. Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius
replied: “Let the lord be a lord; the subject a subject; the father a father; the
son a son.” The Duke said: “Excellent! If indeed the lord is not a lord, the
subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, I could be
sure of nothing anymore— not even of my daily food.”

12.12. The Master said: “To pass judgment on the mere basis of half the
evidence: only Zilu can do that.”

Zilu never slept over a promise.

12.13. The Master said: “I could adjudicate lawsuits as well as anyone. But I
would prefer to make lawsuits unnecessary.”

12.14. Zizhang asked about government. The Master said: “Ponder over it
untiringly. Carry it out loyally.”

12.15. The Master said: “A gentleman enlarges his learning through litera-
ture and restrains himself with ritual; therefore he is not likely to go wrong.”

12.16. The Master said: “A gentleman brings out the good that is in people,
he does not bring out the bad. A vulgar man does the opposite.”

12.17. Lord Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied: “To
govern is to be straight. If you steer straight, who would dare not to go straight?”

12.18. Lord Ji Kang was troubled by burglars. He consulted with Confucius.
Confucius replied: “If you yourself were not covetous, they would not rob
you, even if you paid them to.”

12.19. Lord Ji Kang asked Confucius about government, saying: “Suppose I
were to kill the bad to help the good: how about that?” Confucius replied: “You
are here to govern; what need is there to kill? If you desire what is good, the
people will be good. The moral power of the gentleman is wind, the moral
power of the common man is grass. Under the wind, the grass must bend.”

12.20. Zizhang asked: “When can one say that a scholar has attained supe-
rior perception?” The Master said: “It depends: what do you mean by ‘per-
ception’?” Zizhang replied: “To be recognized in public life, to be recognized
in private life.” The Master said: “This is recognition, not perception. To
attain perception, a man must be cut from straight timber and love justice,
examine men’s words and observe their expressions, and bear in mind the
necessity of deferring to others. As regards recognition, it is enough to put
on an air of virtue while behaving to the contrary. Just keep up an unf lap-
pable pretense, and you will certainly achieve recognition in public life and
you will certainly achieve recognition in private life.”

188 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

12.21. Fan Chi was taking a walk with Confucius under the Rain Dance Ter-
race. He said: “May I ask how one can accumulate moral power, neutralize
hostility, and recognize emotional incoherence.” The Master said: “Excellent
question! Always put the effort before the reward: is this not the way to
accumulate moral power? To attack evil in itself and not the evil that is in
people: is this not the way to neutralize hostility? To endanger oneself and
one’s kin in a sudden fit of anger: is this not an instance of incoherence?”

12.22. Fan Chi asked about humanity. The Master said “Love all men.”
He asked about knowledge. The Master said: “Know all men.” Fan Chi

did not understand. The Master said: “Raise the straight and put them above
the crooked, so that they may straighten the crooked.”

Fan Chi withdrew. He saw Zixia and asked: “A moment ago, as I was with
the Master I asked him about knowledge, and he said: ‘Raise the straight
and put them above the crooked, so that they may straighten the crooked.’
What does this mean?” Zixia said: “Rich words indeed! When Shun ruled
the world, choosing among the multitude he raised Gao Yao, and the wicked
disappeared. When Tang ruled the world, choosing among the multitude he
raised Yi Yin, and the wicked disappeared.”

12.23. Zigong asked how to treat friends. The Master said: “Give them loyal
advice and guide them tactfully. If that fails, stop: do not expose yourself
to rebuff.”

12.24. Master Zeng said: “A gentleman gathers friends through his culture;
and with these friends, he develops his humanity.”

Study QueStionS

1. How does Confucius deal with the possible clash between the acquisition of
worldly goods and virtue?

2. In what way or ways does Confucius emphasize the importance of ritual and

3. What does Confucius mean by humanity? Illustrate with examples.

VirGinia heLD
The Ca ring Person

Virginia Held (b. 1929) is an American moral and political philosopher who has
produced important works of feminist philosophy.

Virginia Held ■ 189

Being caring is not one of the virtues we immediately think of when we try to
recall the lists of virtues we have encountered. But most of us think that it is ad-
mirable to be caring, and we want our children to become caring persons. ✻ ✻ ✻

I argue that to be a caring person is not the same as to be a person with
a virtue we call caring. But what else could it be?

Let’s begin with the question of persons: Who and what are they? I start
with a normative framework, asking how we should think of persons capable
of wondering how they should live. Then I’ll ask whether they should be
caring and what that should mean.

✻ ✻ ✻ I will see persons as moral subjects, capable of action and of shaping
their lives and institutions and societies over time, at least to some extent,
through cultivating in themselves and others certain characteristics and
practices and values.

What is a person who is a moral subject? ✻ ✻ ✻
✻ ✻ ✻ I begin with the self- awareness I think we have of being saddled with

moral responsibility. ✻ ✻ ✻
✻ ✻ ✻ We experience ourselves, I take it, as moral subjects and as persons.

From the normative perspective of considering how we should live, we must
assume there is an I capable of responding to proposed recommendations
with acceptance or rejection (even children partially grasp this) and capable
of being responsible for many of our choices. ✻ ✻ ✻

Children are potentially (if not actually) moral subjects. When they fail to
do what they ought, we disapprove with the intention of gradually steering
them to take moral responsibility for themselves. At given stages, we may
not expect them to understand the moral significance of their behavior, but
we can try to cultivate in them from early ages the appropriate characteris-
tics and bring about their participation in moral practices.

Hilde Nelson, along with various others, shows how “identities are nar-
ratively constructed,” although this may not be all they are.1 She also shows
how we can change our identities through “counterstories.” Diana Meyers
says that “narrativity clarifies how people can be profoundly inf luenced by
their social context and yet retain their capacity to shape self- determined
moral lives— to transvalue values, reroute their own pathways, and recon-
figure their social ideals.”2 This may be a helpful way of thinking about

1 Hilde Lindemann Nelson, “Identity and Free Agency,” in Feminists Doing Ethics, eds.
Peggy DesAutels and Joanne Waugh (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), p. 45.
2 Diana Tietjens Meyers, “Narrative and Moral Life,” in Setting the Moral Compass, ed.
Cheshire Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 299.

190 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

how we shape our selves and even how we are able to go in new directions.
It leaves open our questions about how we should continue our stories:
Should we become more caring, more concerned with injustice, less asser-
tive in pursuing our interests, more demanding of respect? And why?

I start, then, with a normative perspective. But instead of the Kantian nor-
mative perspective some things I have said might suggest, I will start with
that of the ethics of care. ✻ ✻ ✻ I see the ethics of care from as fully a normative
point of view as any other ethic. It addresses questions about whether and
how and why we ought to engage in activities of care, questions about how
such activities should be conducted and structured, and questions about the
meanings of care and caring. It especially evaluates relations of care.

the PerSon in the ethiCS oF Care
It is characteristic of the ethics of care to view persons as relational and
as interdependent. Deontological and consequentialist moral theories of
which Kantian moral theory and utilitarianism are the leading examples
concentrate their attention on the rational decisions of agents assumed to
be independent, autonomous individuals. Virtue theory also focuses on
individual persons and their dispositions. The ethics of care, in contrast,
conceptualizes persons as deeply affected by, and involved in, relations with
others; to many care theorists persons are at least partly constituted by their
social ties. The ethics of care attends especially to relations between per-
sons, evaluating such relations and valuing relations of care. It does not as-
sume that relations relevant for morality have been entered into voluntarily
by free and equal individuals, as do dominant moral theories. It appreciates
as well the values of care between persons of unequal power in unchosen
relations such as those between parents and children and between mem-
bers of social groups of various kinds. To the ethics of care, our embedded-
ness in familial, social, and historical contexts is basic.

Jean Keller argues that this conception of the person is central to feminist
ethics. She writes that “whatever shape feminist ethics ends up taking, it
will incorporate a relational model of moral agency. That is, the insight that
the moral agent is an ‘encumbered self,’ who is always already embedded
in relations with f lesh- and- blood others and is partly constituted by these
relations, is here to stay.”3 I would slightly modify this position because I

3 Jean Keller, “Autonomy, Relationality, and Feminist Ethics,” Hypatia: A Journal of Femi-
nist Philosophy 12(2) (1997): 152–65, p. 152.

Virginia Held ■ 191

see feminist ethics as wider than care ethics, but it is largely true, I think,
of the ethics of care.

Here is Marilyn Friedman’s characterization of relational persons as
developed by contemporary feminists:

According to the relational approach, persons are fundamentally social be-
ings who develop the competency of autonomy . . . in a context of values,
meanings, and modes of self- reflection that cannot exist except as constituted
by social practices. . . . It is now well recognized that our reflective capacities
and our very identities are always partly constituted by communal traditions
and norms that we cannot put entirely into question without at the same time
voiding our very capacities to reflect.

We are each reared in a social context of some sort, typically although not
always that of a family, itself located in wider social networks such as com-
munity and nation. Nearly all of us remain, throughout our lives, involved in
social relationships and communities, at least some of which partly define
our identities and ground our highest values.4 ✻ ✻ ✻

Diana Meyers describes what she sees as various currently inf luential
conceptions of the self. “The feminist relational self,” she writes,

is the interpersonally bonded self. . . . As relational selves . . . people share
in one another’s joys and sorrows, give and receive care, and generally profit
from the many rewards and cope with the many aggravations of friendship,
family membership, religious or ethnic affiliation, and the like. These re-
lationships are sources of moral identity, for people become committed to
their intimates and to others whom they care about, and these commitments
become central moral concerns.5

The concept of the relational person might solve some of the current
puzzles of how it is that we feel empathy for others. In examples of small
children trying to alleviate the distress of other children, we see some-
thing that appears to be direct and spontaneous sympathetic feeling with
others and wanting to help them overcome their unhappiness. The idea
that “human nature” is displayed in the image of toddler Hobbesian ego-
istically fighting all obstacles to get what he wants is seen to have another
side. If small children do not yet have a sense of themselves as separate
persons, perhaps they are simply feeling the pain of the other child as
their own. But if they do understand themselves as individuals, what is
going on? ✻ ✻ ✻

4 Marilyn Friedman, “Autonomy, Social Disruption, and Women,” in Relational Autonomy:
Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, eds. Catriona Mackenzie and
Natalie Stoljar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 40–41.
5 Meyers, “Narrative and Moral Life,” p. 292.

192 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

If we see the person as an embodied nexus of relations, the relations con-
stituting one child are different from those constituting another, and even
a small child can be aware that he is different from others. But when the
other child is in distress, the relation between them may be upset, and he
may wish it would be better. This would not be inconsistent with his feeling
glee on another occasion at the pain of the other child if he felt that the other
child was a threat, say, to his own possession of a toy. ✻ ✻ ✻

CarinG anD autonomy
Can caring persons be autonomous? ✻ ✻ ✻ Autonomy is still to be sought, but
it will be a quite different kind of autonomy than that of the self- sufficient,
atomistic self that can be distilled, uncharitably, from traditional liberal
theory. ✻ ✻ ✻ Persons are shaped by a complex of intersecting social factors,
including race, class, gender, ethnicity, and ties of family and community. ✻ ✻ ✻

Diana Meyers’s description of autonomy as a set of competencies is per-
suasive: The autonomous person, she says, will have developed a “repertory
of skills through which self- discovery, self- definition, and self- direction are
achieved.” Relational persons can develop these skills, though for some it
will be harder than for others. “As with other competencies,” she notes, “one
learns through practice and practice augments proficiency.”6 ✻ ✻ ✻

The point, for relational persons, is that as we modify and often distance
ourselves from existing relations, it is for the sake of better and often more
caring relations, rather than for the splendid independence, self- sufficiency,
and easy isolation of the traditional liberal ideal of the autonomous rational

Are some persons just caused by their upbringings and friends, perhaps
with the help of their genes, to be caring and considerate, sensitive to and
respectful of the feelings of others, and adept at engaging in the practices
of care, whereas others are brought up in such a way that they simply lack
and can never attain these competencies? The goal of being a caring per-
son can certainly and should be a matter of autonomous choice. A person
who has merely unthinkingly and uncritically followed the caring practices
into which she has been brought up can seem in outward appearance to be
caring but will lack the appropriate motive of consciously and ref lectively
recognizing the value of care. Learning and cultivating the relevant abilities

6 Diana Tietjens Meyers, “Intersectional Identity and the Authentic Self; Opposites Attract!”
in Relational Autonomy, eds. Mackenzie and Stoljar, pp. 174/1. See also Diana T. Meyers, Self,
Society, and Personal Choice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 174 –175.

Virginia Held ■ 193

to be a caring person will depend on many efforts by a moral agent and by
others in relations with that person. Given practices should be subjected
to critical scrutiny and improved. Some persons at any given time will fail
to be caring persons; I doubt that any person has a permanent incapacity to
become caring.

reLationaL PerSonS anD oVerCommitment
To some critics of the ethics of care, the conception of the person as relation-
al with which it works is thought to be dangerously submerged in unchosen
social relations. ✻ ✻ ✻ The ethics of care must take account of the experience
of recipients of care as well as providers, how care must not be overbearing
[and] ✻ ✻ ✻ the many ways caring can go wrong as well as the many ways it
should be promoted. Care has been seriously undervalued in the past by
dominant moral theories. Those now clarifying its value aim to correct this
but do not suggest that it is the only value to which we need to attend. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Deficient social assistance makes ✻ ✻ ✻ many of the commitments of
the relational person ✻ ✻ ✻ burdensome and hard to fulfill. For instance, what
puts so much of the burden of caring for aged parents on their daughters
is society’s failure to take responsibility for the care of the elderly. And that
mothers have such trouble with entanglement in their relational webs is
highly related to the paucity of adequate child care arrangements. An ade-
quately cared for and caring elderly parent can be content with an occasional
phone call from a busy daughter, affirming a bond of relational closeness
that includes a mutual understanding that the parent does not want her
to and the adult child does not need to expend large amounts of time or
energy to reaffirm the relation. Children well cared for and happy in publicly
provided daycare do not need to interact constantly with their parents to
understand that they are loved and valued and that their relation with their
parents is strong and close.

Sometimes, certainly, the actual demands made by other persons on the
relational person will seem overwhelming, and the demands may not be
of the kind for which society could take responsibility, even if it included
mental health services along with other health care provisions. But when
relationships are so entangling that they impede free agency, they are often
the kind of relationship that is in need of revision.

The difference here may often be like that between persons who feel they
must constantly talk with a partner for the relationship to be close, which
is not a problem if the partner feels the same way. But there can be close

194 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

relationships in which mutual understanding allows both to be absent or
silent for long periods and certainly to be fully independent moral agents.
Many of the relationships in which we are entangled are ones we did not
choose but simply found ourselves in, as with our parents and siblings. But
even these relationships can be ones we strive to revise. Among the relations
we choose, we can steer our lives toward those that will be harmonious with
respect to the degree of entanglement they require and in terms of their
level of demandingness. Friends can recognize each other as highly caring
without constant demonstrations of care.

Care aS a Virtue oF PerSonS
It is easy to suppose that caring is a virtue that persons can have and to
interpret the virtues, as virtue theory standardly does, as dispositions of indi-
viduals. Some think of caring as another name for benevolence, a familiar
virtue. I will show why I do not agree. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ A caring person, in my view, will not only have the intention to care
and the disposition to care effectively but will participate in caring relations.
If persons lack the capacity to do so, they can be persons who are trying to
be caring, but they are not yet caring persons. To be a caring person requires
more than the right motives or dispositions. It requires the ability to engage
in the practice of care, and the exercise of this ability. Care, as we saw, is work
as well as an emotion or motive or intention. The caring person participates
in this work in ways that roughly meet its standards. Care is not only work,
however. So it is not enough that the work get done and the child get fed if
done without an appropriately caring motive. But, in my view, having caring
motives is not enough to make one a caring person. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Seeing care as simply a virtue, I think ✻ ✻ ✻ misses a central feature of
care: its evaluations of and recommendations concerning relations between
persons. [Howard Curzer] says “a person is caring if he or she is disposed to
make and maintain the right sort of relationships, with the right people, in
the right way, at the right times, for the right motives, etc. The caring person
must also feel the right level and sort of fondness and responsibility for people
standing in various different relationships to him or her.”7 He acknowledges
the affinities between this definition and Aristotle’s of friendship.

7 Howard J. Curzer, “Admirable Immorality, Dirty Hands, Care Ethics, Justice Ethics, and
Child Sacrifice,” Ratio 15(3) (September 2002): 227–24 4, 236.

Virginia Held ■ 195

This goes a considerable way toward describing a caring person, but it is
limited to evaluating an individual’s dispositions and behavior, including
interactions with others, but not relations themselves between persons.
Descriptions of the virtues concentrate on the characteristics of persons as
individuals. These individuals should “make and maintain,” as Curzer puts
it, various relations. But this misses the enormous reality of the relations
we are already enmeshed in from the moment we are born. For many years
we are in relations, we gradually find and become aware of them, we do not
“make” them. Many of these relations will be highly unsatisfactory, certainly
not chosen by us, and we may have to struggle to unmake them. But often
where they are unsatisfactory, we can try to modify, improve, and transform
them. In all these cases we need moral evaluations of relations, not just dis-
positions. And we need moral recommendations for whether to maintain
or change or try to break them, though the extent to which the latter is even
possible is a serious question, since they will often remain part of who we
are. We will never, for instance, cease to be the child of given parents, or the
person brought up with a certain group identity, even if we repudiate these.
The ethics of care and our conceptions of caring persons should be able to
offer these evaluations and recommendations, I think.

Some feminists find an Aristotelian approach to moral problems far
more hospitable to their concerns than Kantian or utilitarian ones. Some
have felt close to Hume in their moral orientations. Virtue theory, however,
including that of Aristotle and Hume, has characteristically seen the virtues
as attaching to individual persons. The ethics of care, in contrast, is more
concerned with relations between persons. A relation of caring is seen as
valuable or faulty, more than the dispositions of persons apart from this. Of
course valuable relations between persons depend to a considerable extent
on the characteristics of the persons in them, but persons with individually
valuable characteristics may still fail to have good relations between them.

For all these reasons, care should not in my view be seen as just another
component— hitherto neglected— in the longer lists or shorter compendi-
ums of virtues. The ethics of care is an alternative moral approach of its own.

✻ ✻ ✻ Two individuals can be personally virtuous in the sense of having vir-
tuous dispositions and yet have a relationship that is hostile, conf lictual, and
unhelpful to either. A caring relationship requires mutuality and the cultiva-
tion of ways of achieving this in the various contexts of interdependence in
human life. Noticing interdependencies, rather than thinking only or largely
in terms of independent individuals and their individual circumstances is

196 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

one of the central aspects of an ethics of care. A caring person will cultivate
mutuality in the interdependencies of personal, political, economic, and
global contexts. A caring person will appropriately value caring relations and
will seek to modify existing relations to make them more caring. And yes,
caring persons will do this in the right ways, with the right motives, and all
that. But the focus will remain, for the caring person, on his or her relations
rather than on his or her own dispositions, and on the practice of care. ✻ ✻ ✻

ProBLemS with Care aS a DiSPoSition
If we think of a caring person as having a virtuous disposition instead of
(as I am advocating) as engaging in a caring relational practice, consider
the many ways that care as a disposition can go wrong. To continue to have
strong feelings of affection for someone who does not want those feelings
but wants rather to be left alone, can be a failure of care in the sense of
failing to constitute a caring relation. Of course one cannot simply shut
off one’s affectionate feelings at will, but one can cultivate distance, stop
bestowing gifts or unwanted praise, and so forth. On the other hand, some-
one who seems to want to be left alone, such as a young person trying to
distance himself from an overly concerned parent, may actually welcome
continuing affection despite the appearance of disdaining it. Both parent
and child may acknowledge that the caring relation is important and solid
and needs only reinterpretation to allow for greater mutual autonomy.

Mutual autonomy is very different from what traditional autonomy would
be, if there were such a thing. Traditionally, autonomy has been understood
in terms of self- sufficiency, noninterference, self- direction, rational control,
and the like. Feminist and other critics have pointed out the artificial and
misleading aspects of ideals of these kinds of autonomy. We are all in fact
thoroughly dependent as children and for periods of illness and deeply inter-
dependent as inhabitants of modern societies. Holding up liberal ideals of
self- sufficiency masks these facts of dependency and interdependence, and
distorts the realities of, among other things, caring labor. There can certainly
be lives of greater or lesser capacity to make choices in life without undue
outside constraints. Choices can be interfered with by educational inade-
quacies, economic pressures, political and legal compulsions, and coercive
persons. They can also be constrained by the psychological pressures that
those to whose affections we are vulnerable can exert. To live and act as we
choose requires the resources and capacities to do so. So there can be more,
or less, self- direction within the interdependencies that surround us, and

Virginia Held ■ 197

caring relations often contribute to such autonomy. But more self- sufficiency
is not always better: Cooperative activity involves mutual dependence. The
critique of domination basic to the ethics of care can contribute to fostering
appropriate kinds of autonomy.

The ideal of rational control asks us to exclude emotional inf luence in
achieving autonomy. But the emotions thus excluded would include the
moral emotions of empathy, sensitivity, and mutual consideration, as well
as the emotions that threaten morality. We may thus do well to question the
ideal of autonomy as rational control. Through appropriate relations with
caretakers and through education and practice, we can learn the compe-
tencies of thinking for ourselves and resisting undue pressure from others.
Such autonomy is fully consistent with the ethics of care and should be
cultivated, but does not require the suppression of emotion. ✻ ✻ ✻

Another limitation in seeing care as a virtue becomes apparent when we
ask how caring we should be. The person who tries to be caring but is instead
self less to the point of lacking self- respect, can be criticized as failing to have
the requisite virtue. The servile housewife, the martyr mother, aspire to vir-
tue but miss it. We can discern the deficiencies in their dispositions, but we
can discern them even more clearly when we examine the relations in which
they display them. The servile housewife contributes to the macho husband
and martinet father who disdain her. The martyr mother produces children
who either f lee from indebtedness to her or face the world presuming they
are owed deference. The person who participates in an admirable practice of
care will not only respect himself but will foster mutual respect and mutual
sensitivity. ✻ ✻ ✻

In political and economic contexts, ✻ ✻ ✻ relations of power ✻ ✻ ✻ can ✻
✻ ✻ easily undermine the value of care. Differences of actual power are
inevitable in public as well as in personal contexts, and we do well to rec-
ognize them rather than mask them behind liberal fictions of equality.
But when we focus on relations, we can come to see how to shape good
caring relations so that differences in power will not be pernicious and so
that the vulnerable are empowered. Good caring relations can involve not
only mutual recognition of moral equality but practices that avoid subtle
as well as blatant coercion where it is disrespectful and inconsiderate. We
can foster trust and mutuality in place of benevolent domination. Caring
persons may often need to exercise power, but they will also understand
how best to do so and especially how to avoid doing so in ways that become
violent and damaging.

198 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

Study QueStionS

1. What is Held’s conception of the moral subject?
2. Explain Held’s distinction between “care as a virtue” and the “caring person.”
3. What does Held mean by “mutual autonomy” and how does it differ from

traditional conceptions of autonomy?

Jean- PauL Sartre
Existentia lism a nd Huma nism

Jean- Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was a leading French philosopher, novelist, play-
wright, and radical public intellectual— a key figure in existentialism.

My purpose here is to offer a defence of existentialism against several re-
proaches that have been laid against it.

First, it has been reproached as an invitation to people to dwell in qui-
etism of despair. For if every way to a solution is barred, one would have to
regard any action in this world as entirely ineffective, and one would arrive
finally at a contemplative philosophy. Moreover, since contemplation is a
luxury, this would be only another bourgeois philosophy. This is, especially,
the reproach made by the Communists.

From another quarter we are reproached for having underlined all that is
ignominious in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or
base to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong
to the brighter side of human nature: for example, according to the Catholic
critic, Mlle. Mercier, we forget how an infant smiles. Both from this side and
from the other we are also reproached for leaving out of account the solidarity
of mankind and considering man in isolation. And this, say the Communists,
is because we base our doctrine upon pure subjectivity— upon the Cartesian
“I think”: which is the moment in which solitary man attains to himself; a
position from which it is impossible to regain solidarity with other men who
exist outside of the self. The ego cannot reach them through the cogito.

From the Christian side, we are reproached as people who deny the reality
and seriousness of human affairs. For since we ignore the commandments
of God and all values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is
strictly voluntary. Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from
such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action
of anyone else.

Jean-Paul Sartre ■ 199

It is to these various reproaches that I shall endeavour to reply to- day; that
is why I have entitled this brief exposition “Existentialism and Humanism.”
Many may be surprised at the mention of humanism in this connection, but
we shall try to see in what sense we understand it. In any case, we can begin
by saying that existentialism, in our sense of the word, is a doctrine that
does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every
truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity.
The essential charge laid against us is, of course, that of over- emphasis upon
the evil side of human life. I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she
lets slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by
exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.” So it appears that
ugliness is being identified with existentialism. ✻ ✻ ✻

What is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you
is ✻ ✻ ✻ that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. To verify this, let us
review the whole question upon the strictly philosophic level. What, then,
is this that we call existentialism? ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ What [existentialists] have in common is simply the fact that they
believe that existence comes before essence— or, if you will, that we must
begin from the subjective. What exactly do we mean by that?

If one considers an article of manufacture— as, for example, a book or
a paper- knife— one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a
conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a
paper- knife and to the pre- existent technique of production which is a part
of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper- knife is at
the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which,
on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that
a man would produce a paper- knife without knowing what it was for. Let
us say, then, of the paper- knife that its essence— that is to say the sum of
the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition
possible— precedes its existence. The presence of such- and- such a paper-
knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are view-
ing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production
precedes existence.

When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of
the time, as a supernal artisan. ✻ ✻ ✻ God ✻ ✻ ✻ knows precisely what he is
creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to
that of the paper- knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man accord-
ing to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a

200 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

paper- knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man
is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine under-
standing. In the philosophic atheism of the eighteenth century, the notion
of God is suppressed, but not, for all that, the idea that essence is prior to
existence; something of that idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in
Voltaire and even in Kant. Man possesses a human nature; that “human
nature,” which is the conception of human being, is found in every man;
which means that each man is a particular example of an universal concep-
tion, the conception of Man. In Kant, this universality goes so far that the
wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the bourgeois are all
contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental qualities.
Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we
confront in experience.

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with
greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being
whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can
be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has
it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes
essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges
up in the world— and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existen-
tialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing.
He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of
himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have
a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives
himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after
already existing— as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is
nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle
of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the
word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that
man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that
man primarily exists— that man is, before all else, something which pro-
pels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a
project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or
a fungus or a caulif lower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists;
not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when
he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For
what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision
taken— much more often than not— after we have made ourselves what we

Jean-Paul Sartre ■ 201

are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry— but in such a
case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and
more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to
essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existen-
tialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places
the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.
And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that
he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible
for all men. The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses, and
our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the
one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man
cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper
meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do
mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean
that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the
actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is
not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as
he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time
to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose
the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better
for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence
and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image
is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our
responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns
mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a
Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that member-
ship, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best
becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit
myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action
is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take
a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though
this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my
desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole,
to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all
men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be.
In fashioning myself I fashion man.

This may enable us to understand what is meant by such terms— perhaps
a little grandiloquent— as anguish, abandonment and despair. As you will

202 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

soon see, it is very simple. First, what do we mean by anguish? The existen-
tialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows—
When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not
only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator
deciding for the whole of mankind— in such a moment a man cannot escape
from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many,
indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely dis-
guising their anguish or are in f light from it. Certainly, many people think
that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything:
and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug
their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought
always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing;
nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-
deception. The man who lies in self- excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do
it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the uni-
versal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself.
This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called “the anguish of Abraham.” You
know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son: and
obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and
said, “Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son.” But anyone in such a case
would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether
I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs? A certain mad woman who
suffered from hallucinations said that people were telephoning to her, and
giving her orders. The doctor asked, “But who is it that speaks to you?” She
replied: “He says it is God.” And what, indeed, could prove to her that it was
God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I
hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell,
or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can
prove that they are really addressed to me?

Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my own
choice, my conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof
whatever; there will be no sign to convince me of it. If a voice speaks to me,
it is still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an
angel. If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to
say that it is good and not bad. There is nothing to show that I am Abraham:
nevertheless I also am obliged at every instant to perform actions which are
examples. Everything happens to every man as though the whole human
race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct

Jean-Paul Sartre ■ 203

accordingly. So every man ought to say, “Am I really a man who has the right
to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do.” If a
man does not say that, he is dissembling his anguish. Clearly, the anguish
with which we are concerned here is not one that could lead to quietism or
inaction. It is anguish pure and simple, of the kind well known to all those
who have borne responsibilities. When, for instance, a military leader takes
upon himself the responsibility for an attack and sends a number of men
to their death, he chooses to do it and at bottom he alone chooses. No doubt
he acts under a higher command, but its orders, which are more general,
require interpretation by him and upon that interpretation depends the life
of ten, fourteen or twenty men. In making the decision, he cannot but feel
a certain anguish. All leaders know that anguish. It does not prevent their
acting, on the contrary it is the very condition of their action, for the action
presupposes that there is a plurality of possibilities, and in choosing one
of these, they realise that it has value only because it is chosen. Now it is
anguish of that kind which existentialism describes, and moreover, as we
shall see, makes explicit through direct responsibility towards other men
who are concerned. Far from being a screen which could separate us from
action, it is a condition of action itself.

And when we speak of “abandonment”—a favourite word of Heidegger—
we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to
draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist
is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to
suppress God at the least possible expense. Towards 1880, when the French
professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something
like this:—God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it.
However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law- abiding world, it is
essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an à
priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory à priori
to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so
forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable
us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible
heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words— and this is, I
believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism— nothing will
be changed if God does not exist; we shall re- discover the same norms of
honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an
out- of- date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist,
on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for

204 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible
heaven. There can no longer be any good à priori, since there is no infinite
and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good”
exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the
plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky once wrote “If God did not
exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the
starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and
man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon
either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without
excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to
explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in
other words, there is no determinism— man is free, man is freedom. Nor,
on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values
or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither
behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of jus-
tification or excuse. We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean
when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did
not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that
he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. The
existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard
a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into
certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He
thinks that man is responsible for his passion. ✻ ✻ ✻

As an example by which you may the better understand this state of
abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out
in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother
and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed
in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment
somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was
living alone with him, deeply aff licted by the semi-treason of his father and
by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young
man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to
join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her
to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his
disappearance— or perhaps his death— would plunge her into despair. He
also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his
mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live,
where as anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous

Jean-Paul Sartre ■ 205

action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For
instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a
Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in
Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he
found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one
concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other
an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but
for that very reason ambiguous— and it might be frustrated on the way. At
the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one
side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side,
a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose
between those two. What could help him to choose? Could the Christian
doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour,
deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But
which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love,
the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one
of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping
one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that à priori? No
one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never
regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain
with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means:
but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are
fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid
of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating
my mother as a means.

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the
particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust
in our instincts. That is what this young man tried to do; and when I saw
him he said, “In the end, it is feeling that counts; the direction in which
it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose. If I feel that I love my
mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her— my will to be avenged,
all my longings for action and adventure— then I stay with her. If, on the
contrary, I feel that my love for her is not enough, I go.” But how does one
estimate the strength of a feeling? The value of his feeling for his mother
was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her. I may say
that I love a certain friend enough to sacrifice such or such a sum of money
for him, but I cannot prove that unless I have done it. I may say, “I love my
mother enough to remain with her,” if actually I have remained with her. I

206 ■ Part 2: Normative Ethics

can only estimate the strength of this affection if I have performed an action
by which it is defined and ratified. But if I then appeal to this affection to
justify my action, I find myself drawn into a vicious circle. ✻ ✻ ✻

Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot
do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of
this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further,
indeed, and adds, “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only
in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of
his actions, nothing else but what his life is.” Hence we can well understand
why some people are horrified by our teaching. For many have but one
resource to sustain them in their misery, and that is to think, “Circum-
stances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better
than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship;
but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I
have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do
so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is because I
did not find the man I could have lived with. So there remains within me a
wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly
viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from
the mere history of my actions.” But in reality and for the existentialist,
there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other
than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that
which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the
works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside
of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity
to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In
life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing
but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who
has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a
position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expecta-
tions and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive
hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively,
not positively. Nevertheless, when one says, “You are nothing else but what
you live,” it does not imply that an artist is to be judged solely by his works of
art, for a thousand other things contribute no less to his definition as a man.
What we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of undertakings,
that he is the sum, the organisation, the set of relations that constitute these
undertakings. ✻ ✻ ✻

Jean-Paul Sartre ■ 207

What is at the very heart and centre of existentialism, is the absolute
character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in
realising a type of humanity— a commitment always understandable, to no
matter whom in no matter what epoch— and its bearing upon the relativity of
the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or
with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that
their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance
of the human race on earth,—I shall call scum. But neither cowards nor
scum can be identified except upon the plane of strict authenticity. Thus,
although the content of morality is variable, a certain form of this morality
is universal. Kant declared that freedom is a will both to itself and to the
freedom of others. Agreed: but he thinks that the formal and the universal
suffice for the constitution of a morality. We think, on the contrary, that
principles that are too abstract break down when we come to defining action.
To take once again the case of that student; by what authority, in the name
of what golden rule of morality, do you think he could have decided, in
perfect peace of mind, either to abandon his mother or to remain with her?
There are no means of judging. The content is always concrete, and therefore
unpredictable; it has always to be invented. The one thing that counts, is to
know whether the invention is made in the name of freedom. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe
of human subjectivity. ✻ ✻ ✻ This is humanism, because we remind man
that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned,
must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back
upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one
of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself
as truly human.

Study QueStionS

1. What does Sartre mean by “existence precedes essence”?
2. Why does Sartre believe that the human condition is one of anguish?
3. What lesson does Sartre draw from the example of the student forced to

choose between staying with his mother or joining the French Resistance?

art  3 of this book moves from normative ethics to topics in applied
ethics. Both normative ethics and applied ethics are concerned with
the practicalities of moral action. However, normative ethics con-
centrates on the issue of how to develop a general perspective on the
requirements of morality, whereas applied ethics narrows the focus to
explore particular moral questions, or a related set of concerns. Accord-

ingly, Part 3 is split into a large number of sub- sections, each clustered on
a single problem or set of problems. We start with the problem of gender

Gender equality
We have already encountered two contributions to feminist moral philoso-
phy in this book, by Annette Baier and Virginia Held, in criticism of aspects
of mainstream, male- dominated moral philosophy. We will continue to see
feminist contributions later, in the discussion of pornography, sexual con-
sent, and other topics. In this section, we will look first at two classic con-
tributions to feminist thought and then two more which widen the debates.


P a r t   3


■ 209Part 3: Applied Ethics ■ 209

We begin with the work of pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstone-
craft, the mother of novelist Mary Shelley, who was the author of Franken-
stein. This extract, taken from her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,
which she wrote shortly after another important work, A Vindication of the
Rights of Man, sets out her understanding of the role of education in bring-
ing women to be regarded as inferiors to men, and what is necessary in order
to improve their position.

Wollstonecraft’s main claim is that women are educated not as human
beings but to prepare them to fulfill feminine, subservient roles in society.
True, she says, men are typically physically stronger than women, but that
alone cannot justify the many ways in which women are treated as inferiors.
Women, she says, are kept in a state of “perpetual childhood,” utterly depen-
dent on men, existing to serve them, and, at least for the wealthy women
who are Wollstonecraft’s subject, kept in a state of leisure and idleness.

Instead, women need to be educated with the virtues that will allow for
their independence. In addition to the good it will do for women themselves,
such an education will make them better companions for their husbands.
An independent woman can be a friend, rather than slave, of her husband,
argues Wollstonecraft.

Simone de Beauvoir begins with a different question: “What is a woman?”
In doing so she forces us to make a distinction between the biological—“she
is a womb, some say”—and the social question concerning the nature of
femininity. And this question is much more difficult. Is there a feminine
“essence” that all woman have, or can have, perhaps to different degrees?
Or is it an arbitrary classification, and should we stop considering people as
men or as women, but just as human beings? For de Beauvoir, though, that
suggestion goes too far, and there is no doubt that human beings divide into
two groups, who wear different clothes, behave in different ways, and have
different interests and occupations. Perhaps, she says, this is a superficial
difference that will disappear. But its current existence cannot be denied.
And it is asymmetrical, for women are defined in terms of not being men.
Man is the “absolute human type”; woman is the “other.” The distinction
between the biological and the social can also be described as a distinction
between (biological) sex and (social) gender, to describe the social roles and
attributes typically taken on by women and men. Gender is often thought to
be “socially constructed” and hence much more liable to change.

De Beauvoir compares the subordination of women with the situation of
other groups, such as American blacks, Jews, or the proletariat. Although

210 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

there are some parallels, the position of women is unique, in that it is not
possible to conceive of a “before” in which women were not subordinated
to men. De Beauvoir also believes that women lack opportunity for orga-
nized resistance because they are dispersed, and their interests, for example
as bourgeois and proletariat women, are often opposed. De Beauvoir cites
examples from religion, philosophy, and law that all express and attempt
to justify women’s inferiority and the need to keep women “in their place.”
Treating women as inferior is self- perpetuating, as women do, in a sense,
become inferior, and men see themselves as superior, holding their privi-
leged position as a matter of right.

De Beauvoir concludes this section of her writing by raising the question
of how feminists can go beyond analysis to action, noting that some small
victories have already been won and linking her position to the existentialist
moral philosophy that she developed with Jean- Paul Sartre, included earlier
in this volume. On this view, women must take charge of their own freedom,
understanding what circumstances limit their freedom and what they can
do to overcome those circumstances.

The next reading, from Audre Lorde, intensifies a point made by de Beau-
voir by considering the many differences that divide society and what it
would mean to relate across those differences as equals. These differences
induce what Lorde calls “distortions” in which one side is taken to be supe-
rior and the other inferior and therefore subordinated. Instead of looking
for creative change, we tend either to deny that barriers exist or to take the
barriers as insurmountable.

Lorde remarks, “As a forty- nine- year- old Black lesbian feminist socialist
mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an inter- racial couple, I
usually find myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior,
or just plain wrong.” And in this role Lorde argues that she has had to edu-
cate her oppressors about the oppression she and her family suffer.

Even within an oppressed group, divisions appear; for example, white
women may assume that they speak for all women, ignoring differences
of class or race. Lorde points out that, at the time of writing, the literature
of women of color was rarely included even in women’s literature courses.
Lorde explores what has become known as “intersectionality.” Those who
experience more than one form of oppression may suffer in a way that is
distinctive and cannot be treated as the combination of the oppressions
suffered by all members of the groups to which they belong. For example,
black women and black men experience racism in different ways, with black

women often subject to violence and sexual hostility. Black women, says
Lorde, are the lowest- paid sector of the American economy. Black lesbians
also face prejudice from other black women, although, of course, not only
from black women.

The essay, taken from Lorde’s collection Sister Outsider, sets out the
phrase for which Lorde is best known (and which in fact is the title of
another essay in the collection): “The master’s tools will never dismantle the
master’s house.” What Lorde means is that oppression in society can go so
deep that the oppressing class can even control the ways in which justice and
injustice are defined and understood. When this is the case, existing concep-
tual “tools”—theories and concepts— will not be able to express the nature
and depth of the suffering experienced by those who are most oppressed,
and therefore new approaches will be needed.

Finally in this section we turn to Lori Girshick’s discussion “Gender
Policing.” It is not, in itself, offered as a contribution to moral philosophy,
but rather documents some very significant ways in which people with
nonbinary gender identities or presentation face significant prejudice. Gir-
shick uses the term “gender policing” to emphasize that these practices of
intimidation are often a way of trying to force people to take up conventional
gender identities. The discussion, therefore, provides some powerful case
studies on which we should ref lect in order to consider how, from a moral
point of view, society and law should respond.

Girshick’s first example is the use of public bathrooms, which has
become a widely contended issue. In some cases, a transgender individual
has been refused access to both male and female restrooms. Rather than
try to solve the problem in conventional terms, Girshick’s suggestion is to
de- gender restrooms, just as, some decades ago in the United States, racially
segregated restrooms were abolished, despite protests. A second difficult
issue concerns “ women- only” events, which raises the question “who is a
real woman?” Girshick points out that a rule identifying only those who are
born biologically female or have gone through surgical transition would
discriminate against those who identify as female but cannot afford expen-
sive surgery.

People who do not fall into the traditional binary gender classifications
often face bullying and harassment, even to the point of murder. While
these are very serious crimes against individuals, Girshick argues that
they also send a message that anyone who challenges gender norms is
in danger. Other examples concern the response of the medical and legal

Part 3: Applied Ethics ■ 211

212 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

establishments to gender change, in terms of medical care (including sur-
gery), access to medical records, legal practices such as marriage, and the
issuing of documents such as driving licenses.

These examples force us to consider what would genuinely count as an
inclusive, equal society, given the wide variety of human difference in the
world today, especially in the area of gender identity and presentation.

Mary Wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the R ights of Woma n

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was an English political philosopher, author of
A Vindication of the Rights of Man, shortly followed by A Vindication of the
Rights of Woman, a highly influential early feminist work. She was the mother
of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

After considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anx-
ious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation
have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that
either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that
the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very
partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of educa-
tion, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management
of schools; but what has been the result?—a profound conviction that
the neglected education of my fellow- creatures is the grand source of the
misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and
wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty
conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove
that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are
planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beau-
ty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade,
disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have
arrived at maturity.—One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a
false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject
by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures,
have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affection-
ate wives and rational mothers; and the understanding of the sex has been

Mary Wollstonecraft ■ 213

so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the pres-
ent century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when
they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues
exact respect. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ In the government of the physical world it is observable that the
female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law
of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of
woman. A degree of physical superiority cannot, therefore, be denied— and
it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural pre- eminence,
men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for
a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the
inf luence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest
in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find
amusement in their society.

I am aware of an obvious inference:—from every quarter have I heard
exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found?
If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunt-
ing, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it
be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the
attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the
human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being,
when they are comprehensively termed mankind;—all those who view them
with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may
every day grow more and more masculine. ✻ ✻ ✻

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures,
instead of f lattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they
were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish
to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists—I wish to
persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body,
and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy
of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets
of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that
kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of

Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men conde-
scendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak
elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, sup-
posed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to shew

214 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is
to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex;
and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone. ✻ ✻ ✻

The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than for-
merly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by
the writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them. It is
acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquir-
ing a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind
are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing
themselves,—the only way women can rise in the world,—by marriage.
And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as
such children may be expected to act:—they dress; they paint, and nickname
God’s creatures.—Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!—Can
they be expected to govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor
babes whom they bring into the world?

If then it can be fairly deduced from the present conduct of the sex, from
the prevalent fondness for pleasure which takes place of ambition and those
nobler passions that open and enlarge the soul; that the instruction which
women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil
society, to render them insignificant objects of desire— mere propagators of
fools!—if it can be proved that in aiming to accomplish them, without culti-
vating their understandings, they are taken out of their sphere of duties, and
made ridiculous and useless when the short- lived bloom of beauty is over,
I presume that rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade
them to become more masculine and respectable. ✻ ✻ ✻

Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female
excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this
artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to
cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off
those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they
excite desire. Let men become more chaste and modest, and if women do
not grow wiser in the same ratio, it will be clear that they have weaker
understandings. It seems scarcely necessary to say, that I now speak of the
sex in general. Many individuals have more sense than their male relatives;
and, as nothing preponderates where there is a constant struggle for an
equilibrium, without it has naturally more gravity, some women govern
their husbands without degrading themselves, because intellect will always
govern. ✻ ✻ ✻

Mary Wollstonecraft ■ 215

chap. ii
the prevailing opinion of a sexual character discussed
To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments
have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement
of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak
explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to ac-
quire what really deserves the name of virtue. Yet it should seem, allowing
them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by Providence to
lead mankind to either virtue or happiness.

If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron trif lers, why should they
be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men com-
plain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do
not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and groveling vices.—Behold,
I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be
unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with
destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force. Women are told
from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little
knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper,
outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety,
will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful,
every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives. ✻ ✻ ✻

How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves
gentle, domestic brutes! ✻ ✻ ✻ Men, indeed, appear to me to act in a very
unphilosophical manner when they try to secure the good conduct of women
by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood. ✻ ✻ ✻

Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an
exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body
and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain
such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to
call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its
own reason. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ In the education of women, the cultivation of the understanding is
always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment;
even while enervated by confinement and false notions of modesty, the body
is prevented from attaining that grace and beauty which relaxed half- formed
limbs never exhibit. Besides, in youth their faculties are not brought forward
by emulation; and having no serious scientific study, if they have natural
sagacity it is turned too soon on life and manners. They dwell on effects,

216 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and complicated
rules to adjust behaviour are a weak substitute for simple principles. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Riches and hereditary honours have made cyphers of women to give
consequence to the numerical figure; and idleness has produced a mix-
ture of gallantry and despotism into society, which leads the very men who
are the slaves of their mistresses to tyrannize over their sisters, wives, and
daughters. This is only keeping them in rank and file, it is true. Strengthen
the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience;
but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists
are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because
the former only want slaves, and the latter a play- thing. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Rousseau declares that a woman should never, for a moment, feel
herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her
natural cunning, and made a coquetish slave in order to render her a more
alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses
to relax himself. He carries the arguments, which he pretends to draw from
the indications of nature, still further, and insinuates that truth and forti-
tude, the corner stones of all human virtue, should be cultivated with certain
restrictions, because, with respect to the female character, obedience is the
grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigour.

What nonsense! when will a great man arise with sufficient strength of
mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread
over the subject! If women are by nature inferior in men, their virtues must
be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; conse-
quently, their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have
the same aim. ✻ ✻ ✻

Besides, the woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind
will, by managing her family and practising various virtues, become the
friend, and not the humble dependent of her husband; and if she, by pos-
sessing such substantial qualities, merit his regard, she will not find it nec-
essary to conceal her affection, nor to pretend to an unnatural coldness of
constitution to excite her husband’s passions. In fact, if we revert to history,
we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have nei-
ther been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel- like affection are, on this ground,
consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; and, disre-
garding the arbitrary economy of nature, one writer has declared that it is
masculine for a woman to be melancholy. She was created to be the toy of

Mary Wollstonecraft ■ 217

man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason,
he chooses to be amused. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Do passive indolent women make the best wives? Confining our
discussion to the present moment of existence, let us see how such weak
creatures perform their part? Do the women who, by the attainment of a few
superficial accomplishments, have strengthened the prevailing prejudice,
merely contribute to the happiness of their husbands? Do they display their
charms merely to amuse them? And have women, who have early imbibed
notions of passive obedience, sufficient character to manage a family or
educate children? So far from it, that, after surveying the history of woman,
I cannot help, agreeing with the severest satirist, considering the sex as
the weakest as well as the most oppressed half of the species. What does
history disclose but marks of inferiority, and how few women have emanci-
pated themselves from the galling yoke of sovereign man?—So few, that the
exceptions remind me of an ingenious conjecture respecting Newton: that
he was probably a being of a superior order, accidentally caged in a human
body. Following the same train of thinking, I have been led to imagine that
the few extraordinary women who have rushed in eccentrical directions out
of the orbit prescribed to their sex, were male spirits, confined by mistake in
female frames. But if it be not philosophical to think of sex when the soul is
mentioned, the inferiority must depend on the organs; or the heavenly fire,
which is to ferment the clay, is not given in equal portions.

But avoiding, as I have hitherto done, any direct comparison of the two
sexes collectively, or frankly acknowledging the inferiority of woman, accord-
ing to the present appearance of things, I shall only insist that men have
increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of
rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues
to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in
the intellectual scale. Yet let it be remembered, that for a small number of
distinguished women I do not ask a place.

It is difficult for us purblind mortals to say to what height human disco-
veres and improvements may arrive when the gloom of despotism subsides,
which makes us stumble at every step; but, when morality shall be settled on
a more solid basis, then, without being gifted with a prophetic spirit, I will
venture to predict that woman will be either the friend or slave of man. We
shall not, as at present, doubt whether she is a moral agent, or the link which
unites man with brutes. But, should it then appear, that like the brutes they
were principally created for the use of man, he will let them patiently bite the

218 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

bridle, and not mock them with empty praise; or, should their rationality be
proved, he will not impede their improvement merely to gratify his sensual
appetites. He will not, with all the graces of rhetoric, advise them to submit
implicitly their understanding to the guidance of man. He will not, when
he treats of the education of women, assert that they ought never to have the
free use of reason, nor would he recommend cunning and dissimulation to
beings who are acquiring, in like manner as himself, the virtues of humanity.

Surely there can be but one rule of right, if morality has an eternal foun-
dation, and whoever sacrifices virtue, strictly so called, to present conve-
nience, or whose duty it is to act in such a manner, lives only for the passing
day, and cannot be an accountable creature. ✻ ✻ ✻

These may be termed Utopian dreams.—Thanks to that Being who
impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to
dare to exert my own reason, till, becoming dependent only on him for the
support of my virtue, I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that
enslave my sex. ✻ ✻ ✻

Brutal force has hitherto governed the world, and that the science of
politics is in its infancy, is evident from philosophers scrupling to give the
knowledge most useful to man that determinate distinction.

I shall not pursue this argument any further than to establish an obvious
inference, that as sound politics diffuse liberty, mankind, including woman,
will become more wise and virtuous.

Study QueStionS

1. How, according to Wollstonecraft, have women been educated?
2. What differences does Wollstonecraft acknowledge between the sexes? How

have these differences been treated, and how, does she argue, should they be

3. What are the advantages of educating women with the virtues needed for

siMone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was a French writer and philosopher, whose
book The Second Sex is one of the classics of feminist philosophy.

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 219

I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irri-
tating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over
the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it any
more. Yet it is still being talked about. And the volumes of idiocies churned
out over this past century do not seem to have clarified the problem. Be-
sides, is there a problem? And what is it? Are there even women? True, the
theory of the eternal feminine still has its followers; they whisper, “Even
in Russia, women are still very much women”; but other well- informed
people— and also at times those same ones— lament, “Woman is losing
herself, woman is lost.” It is hard to know any longer if women still exist,
if they will always exist, if there should be women at all, what place they
hold in this world, what place they should hold. “Where are the women?”
asked a short- lived magazine recently. But first, what is a woman? “Tota
mulier in utero: she is a womb,” some say. Yet speaking of certain wom-
en, the experts proclaim, “They are not women,” even though they have
a uterus like the others. Everyone agrees there are females in the human
species; today, as in the past, they make up about half of humanity; and
yet we are told that “femininity is in jeopardy”; we are urged, “Be women,
stay women, become women.” So not every female human being is nec-
essarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered
reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it en-
shrined in a Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down
to earth? Although some women zealously strive to embody it, the model
has never been patented. It is typically described in vague and shimmer-
ing terms borrowed from a clairvoyant’s vocabulary. In St Thomas’s time
it was an essence defined with as much certainty as the sedative quality of
a poppy. But conceptualism has lost ground: biological and social scienc-
es no longer believe there are immutably determined entities that define
given characteristics like those of the woman, the Jew or the black; science
considers characteristics as secondary reactions to a situation. If there is no
such thing today as femininity, it is because there never was. Does the word
“woman,” then, have no content? It is what advocates of Enlightenment phi-
losophy, rationalism or nominalism vigorously assert: women are, among
human beings, merely those who are arbitrarily designated by the word
“woman”; American women in particular are inclined to think that woman
as such no longer exists. If some backward individual still takes herself for
a woman, her friends advise her to undergo psychoanalysis to get rid of

220 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

this obsession. Referring to a book— a very irritating one at that— Modern
Woman: The Lost Sex, Dorothy Parker wrote: “I cannot be fair about books
that treat women as women. My idea is that all of us, men as well as women,
whoever we are, should be considered as human beings.” But nominalism
is a doctrine that falls a bit short; and it is easy for anti- feminists to show
that women are not men. Certainly woman like man is a human being; but
such an assertion is abstract; the fact is that every concrete human being is
always uniquely situated. Rejecting the notions of the eternal feminine, the
black soul or the Jewish character is not to deny that there are today Jews,
blacks or women: this denial is not a liberation for those concerned, but an
inauthentic flight. Clearly, no woman can claim without bad faith to be sit-
uated beyond her sex. A few years ago, a well- known woman writer refused
to have her portrait appear in a series of photographs devoted specifically to
women writers. She wanted to be included in the men’s category; but to get
this privilege, she used her husband’s influence. Women who assert they
are men still claim masculine consideration and respect. I also remem-
ber a young Trotskyite standing on a platform during a stormy meeting,
about to come to blows in spite of her obvious fragility. She was denying her
feminine frailty; but it was for the love of a militant man she wanted to be
equal to. The defiant position that American women occupy proves they are
haunted by the feeling of their own femininity. And the truth is that anyone
can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with
manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests
and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they
are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist
in a strikingly obvious way.

If the female function is not enough to define woman, and if we also
reject the explanation of the “eternal feminine,” but if we accept, even tem-
porarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: what is a

Merely stating the problem suggests an immediate answer to me. It is
significant that I pose it. It would never occur to a man to write a book on
the singular situation of males in humanity. If I want to define myself, I
first have to say, “I am a woman”; all other assertions will arise from this
basic truth. A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a
certain sex: that he is a man is obvious. The categories “masculine” and
“feminine” appear as symmetrical in a formal way on town hall records
or identification papers. The relation of the two sexes is not that of two

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 221

electrical poles: the man represents both the positive and the neuter to such
an extent that in French hommes designates human beings, the particular
meaning of the word vir being assimilated into the general meaning of the
word “homo.” Woman is the negative, to such a point that any determination
is imputed to her as a limitation, without reciprocity. I used to get annoyed
in abstract discussions to hear men tell me: “You think such and such a
thing because you’re a woman.” But I know my only defence is to answer, “I
think it because it is true,” thereby eliminating my subjectivity; it was out
of the question to answer, “And you think the contrary because you are a
man,” because it is understood that being a man is not a particularity; a man
is in his right by virtue of being man; it is the woman who is in the wrong.
In fact, just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical that defined
the oblique, there is an absolute human type that is masculine. Woman
has ovaries and a uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in
her subjectivity; some even say she thinks with her hormones. Man vainly
forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his
body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he appre-
hends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a
prison, burdened by everything that particularises it. “The female is female
by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,” Aristotle said. “We should regard
women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness.” And St Thomas
in his turn decreed that woman was an “incomplete man,” an “incidental”
being. This is what the Genesis story symbolises, where Eve appears as if
drawn from Adam’s “supernumerary” bone, in Bossuet’s words. Humanity
is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself,
she is not considered an autonomous being. “Woman, the relative being,”
writes Michelet. Thus Monsieur Benda declares in Uriel’s Report: “A man’s
body has meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas
the woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male.
Man thinks himself without woman. Woman does not think herself without
man.” And she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called
“the sex,” meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for
him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute. She determines and differenti-
ates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the
inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute.
She is the Other.

The category of Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality
between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the

222 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category
of the division of the sexes, it was not based on any empirical given: this
comes out in works like Granet’s on Chinese thought, and Dumézil’s on
India and Rome. In couples such as Varuna– Mitra, Uranos– Zeus, Sun–
Moon, Day– Night, no feminine element is involved at the outset; neither
in Good– Evil, auspicious and inauspicious, left and right, God and Luci-
fer; alterity is the fundamental category of human thought. No group ever
defines itself as One without immediately setting up the Other opposite
itself. It only takes three travellers brought together by chance in the same
train compartment for the rest of the travellers to become vaguely hostile
“others.” Village people view anyone not belonging to the village as suspi-
cious “others.” For the native of a country, inhabitants of other countries
are viewed as “foreigners”; Jews are the “others” for anti- Semites, blacks
for racist Americans, indigenous people for colonists, proletarians for the
propertied classes. After studying the diverse forms of primitive society in
depth, Lévi- Strauss could conclude: “The passage from the state of Nature
to the state of Culture is defined by man’s ability to think biological relations
as systems of oppositions; duality, alternation, opposition, and symmetry,
whether occurring in defined or less clear form, are not so much phenom-
ena to explain as fundamental and immediate givens of social reality. These
phenomena could not be understood if human reality were solely a Mitsein
based on solidarity and friendship. On the contrary, they become clear if,
following Hegel, a fundamental hostility to any other consciousness is found
in consciousness itself; the subject posits itself only in opposition; it asserts
itself as the essential and sets up the other as inessential, as the object.

But the other consciousness has an opposing reciprocal claim: travel-
ling, a local is shocked to realise that in neighbouring countries locals view
him as a foreigner; between villages, clans, nations and classes there are
wars, potlatches, agreements, treaties and struggles that remove the absolute
meaning from the idea of the Other and bring out its relativity; whether
one likes it or not, individuals and groups have no choice but to recognise
the reciprocity of their relation. How is it, then, that between the sexes this
reciprocity has not been put forward, that one of the terms has been asserted
as the only essential one, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative,
defining the latter as pure alterity? Why do women not contest male sover-
eignty? No subject posits itself spontaneously and at once as the inessential
from the outset; it is not the Other who, defining itself as Other, defines the
One; the Other is posited as Other by the One positing itself as One. But in

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 223

order for the Other not to turn into the One, the Other has to submit to this
foreign point of view. Where does this submission in woman come from?

There are other cases where, for a shorter or longer time, one category
has managed to dominate another absolutely. It is often numerical inequality
that confers this privilege: the majority imposes its law on or persecutes the
minority. But women are not a minority like American blacks, or like Jews:
there are as many women as men on the earth. Often, the two opposing
groups concerned were once independent of each other; either they were not
aware of each other in the past or they accepted each other’s autonomy; and
some historical event subordinated the weaker to the stronger: the Jewish
diaspora, slavery in America, or the colonial conquests are facts with dates.
In these cases, for the oppressed there was a before: they share a past, a tra-
dition, sometimes a religion, or a culture. In this sense, the parallel Bebel
draws between women and the proletariat would be the best founded: prole-
tarians are not a numerical minority either and yet they have never formed
a separate group. However, not one event but a whole historical development
explains their existence as a class and accounts for the distribution of these
individuals in this class. There have not always been proletarians: there have
always been women; they are women by their physiological structure; as far
back as history can be traced, they have always been subordinate to men;
their dependence is not the consequence of an event or a becoming, it did not
happen. Alterity here appears to be an absolute, partly because it falls outside
the accidental nature of historical fact. A situation created over time can
come undone at another time—blacks in Haiti for one are a good example;
on the contrary, a natural condition seems to defy change. In truth, nature
is no more an immutable given than is historical reality. If woman discovers
herself as the inessential, and never turns into the essential, it is because
she does not bring about this transformation herself. Proletarians say “we.”
So do blacks. Positing themselves as subjects, they thus transform the bour-
geois or whites into “others.” Women— except in certain abstract gatherings
such as conferences— do not use “we”; men say “women” and women adopt
this word to refer to themselves; but they do not posit themselves authenti-
cally as Subjects. The proletarians made the revolution in Russia, the blacks
in Haiti, the Indo- Chinese are fighting in Indochina. Women’s actions have
never been more than symbolic agitation; they have won only what men have
been willing to concede to them; they have taken nothing; they have received.
It is that they lack the concrete means to organise themselves into a unit that
could posit itself in opposition. They have no past, no history, no religion

224 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

of their own; and unlike the proletariat, they have no solidarity of labour or
interests; they even lack their own space that makes communities of Amer-
ican blacks, or the Jews in ghettos, or the workers in Saint- Denis or Renault
factories. They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic
interests and social conditions to certain men— fathers or husbands— more
closely than to other women. As bourgeois women, they are in solidarity
with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians; as white women, they
are in solidarity with white men and not with black women. The proletariat
could plan to massacre the whole ruling class; a fanatic Jew or black could
dream of seizing the secret of the atomic bomb and turning all of human-
ity entirely Jewish or entirely black: but a woman could not even dream of
exterminating males. The tie that binds her to her oppressors is unlike any
other. The division of the sexes is a biological given, not a moment in human
history. Their opposition took shape within an original Mitsein and she has
not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unit with the two halves riveted to
each other: cleavage of society by sex is not possible. This is the fundamental
characteristic of woman: she is the Other at the heart of a whole whose two
components are necessary to each other.

One might think that this reciprocity would have facilitated her liber-
ation; when Hercules spins wool at Omphale’s feet, his desire enchains
him. Why was Omphale unable to acquire long- lasting power? Medea, in
revenge against Jason, kills her children: this brutal legend suggests that the
bond attaching the woman to her child could have given her a formidable
upper hand. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes light- heartedly imagined a group of
women who, uniting together for the social good, tried to take advantage of
men’s need for them: but it is only a comedy. The legend that claims that
the ravished Sabine women resisted their ravishers with obstinate sterility
also recounts that by whipping them with leather straps, the men magically
won them over into submission. Biological need— sexual desire and desire
for posterity— which makes the male dependent on the female, has not
liberated women socially. Master and slave are also linked by a reciprocal
economic need that does not free the slave. That is, in the master– slave
relation, the master does not posit the need he has for the other; he holds
the power to satisfy this need and does not mediate it; the slave, on the other
hand, out of dependence, hope or fear, internalises his need for the master;
however equally compelling the need may be to them both, it always plays
in favour of the oppressor over the oppressed: this explains the slow pace of
working- class liberation, for example. Now woman has always been, if not

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 225

man’s slave, at least his vassal; the two sexes have never divided the world
up equally; and still today, even though her condition is changing, woman is
heavily handicapped. In no country is her legal status identical to man’s, and
often it puts her at a considerable disadvantage. Even when her rights are
recognised abstractly, long- standing habit keeps them from being concretely
manifested in customs. Economically, men and women almost form two
castes; all things being equal, the former have better jobs, higher wages and
greater chances to succeed than their new female competitors; they occupy
many more places in industry, in politics, and so on, and they hold the most
important positions. In addition to their concrete power they are invested
with a prestige whose tradition is reinforced by the child’s whole education:
the present incorporates the past, and in the past all history was made by
males. At the moment that women are beginning to share in the making of
the world, this world still belongs to men: men have no doubt about this, and
women barely doubt it. Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with
man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the supe-
rior caste confers on them. Lord- man will materially protect liege- woman
and will be in charge of justifying her existence: along with the economic
risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its goals
without help. Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as
subject— an ethical claim— lies the temptation to f lee freedom and to make
himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive,
alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence,
robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authen-
tically assumed existence are thus avoided. The man who sets the woman up
as an Other will thus find in her a deep complicity. Hence woman makes no
claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means, because
she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing its
reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as Other.

But a question immediately arises: how did this whole story begin? It is
understandable that the duality of the sexes, like all duality, be expressed in
conf lict. It is understandable that if one of the two succeeded in imposing
its superiority, it had to establish itself as absolute. It remains to be explained
how it was that man won at the outset. It seems possible that women might
have carried off the victory, or that the battle might never be resolved. Why
is it that this world has always belonged to men and that only today things
are beginning to change? Is this change a good thing? Will it bring about an
equal sharing of the world between men and women or not?

226 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

These questions are far from new; they have already had many answers;
but the very fact that woman is Other challenges all the justifications that
men have ever given: these were only too clearly dictated by their own inter-
est. “Everything that men have written about women should be viewed
with suspicion, because they are both judge and party,” wrote Poulain de la
Barre, a little- known seventeenth- century feminist. Males have always and
everywhere paraded their satisfaction of feeling they are kings of creation.
“Blessed be the Lord our God, and the Lord of all worlds that has not made
me a woman,” Jews say in their morning prayers; meanwhile their wives
resignedly murmur: “Blessed be the Lord for creating me according to His
will.” Among the blessings Plato thanked the gods for was, first, being born
free and not a slave, and second, a man and not a woman. But males could
not have enjoyed this privilege so fully had they not considered it as founded
in the absolute and in eternity: they sought to make the fact of their suprem-
acy a right. “Those who made and compiled the laws, being men, favoured
their own sex, and the jurisconsults have turned the laws into principles,”
Poulain de la Barre continues. Lawmakers, priests, philosophers, writers
and scholars have gone to great lengths to prove that women’s subordinate
condition was willed in heaven and profitable on earth. Religions forged by
men ref lect this will for domination: they found ammunition in the leg-
ends of Eve and Pandora. They have put philosophy and theology in their
service, as seen in the previously cited words of Aristotle and St Thomas.
Since ancient times, satirists and moralists have delighted in depicting
women’s weaknesses. The violent indictments brought against them all
through French literature are well known: Montherlant, with less verve,
picks up the tradition from Jean de Meung. This hostility seems sometimes
founded but is often gratuitous; in truth, it covers up a more or less skilfully
camouf laged will to self- justification. “It is much easier to accuse one sex
than to excuse the other,” says Montaigne. In certain cases, the process is
transparent. It is striking, for example, that the Roman code limiting a wife’s
rights invokes “the imbecility and fragility of the sex” just when a weakening
family structure makes her a threat to male heirs. It is striking that in the
sixteenth century, to keep a married woman under wardship, the authority
of St Augustine affirming “the wife is an animal neither reliable nor stable”
is called on, whereas the unmarried woman is recognised as capable of
managing her own affairs. Montaigne well understood the arbitrariness
and injustice of the lot assigned to women: “Women are not wrong at all
when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world,

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 227

inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them. There is a
natural plotting and scheming between them and us.” But he does not go
so far as to champion their cause. It is only in the eighteenth century that
deeply democratic men begin to consider the issue objectively. Diderot, for
one, tries to prove that, like man, woman is a human being. A bit later, John
Stuart Mill ardently defends women. But these philosophers are exceptional
in their impartiality. In the nineteenth century the feminist quarrel once
again becomes a partisan quarrel; one of the consequences of the Industrial
Revolution is that women enter the labour force: at that point, women’s
demands leave the realm of the theoretical and find economic grounds;
their adversaries become all the more aggressive; even though landed prop-
erty is partially discredited, the bourgeoisie clings to the old values where
family solidity guarantees private property: it insists all the more fiercely
that woman’s place should be in the home as her emancipation becomes a
real threat; even within the working class, men tried to thwart women’s lib-
eration because women were becoming dangerous competitors— especially
as women were used to working for low salaries. To prove women’s inferior-
ity, antifeminists began to draw not only, as before, on religion, philosophy
and theology, but also on science: biology, experimental psychology, and
so forth. At most they were willing to grant “separate but equal status” to
the other sex. That winning formula is most significant: it is exactly that
formula the Jim Crow laws put into practice with regard to black Amer-
icans; this so- called egalitarian segregation served only to introduce the
most extreme forms of discrimination. This convergence is in no way pure
chance: whether it is race, caste, class or sex reduced to an inferior condition,
the justification process is the same. “The eternal feminine” corresponds to
“the black soul” or “the Jewish character.” However, the Jewish problem on
the whole is very different from the two others: for the anti- Semite, the Jew
is more an enemy than an inferior and no place on this earth is recognised
as his own; it would be preferable to see him annihilated. But there are deep
analogies between the situations of women and blacks: both are liberated
today from the same paternalism, and the former master caste wants to keep
them “in their place,” that is, the place chosen for them; in both cases, they
praise, more or less sincerely, the virtues of the “good black,” the carefree,
childlike, merry soul of the resigned black, and the woman who is a “true
woman”—frivolous, infantile, irresponsible, the woman subjugated to man.
In both cases, the ruling caste bases its argument on the state of affairs it
created itself. The familiar line from George Bernard Shaw sums it up: “The

228 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

white American relegates the black to the rank of shoe- shine boy, and then
concludes that blacks are only good for shining shoes.” The same vicious
circle can be found in all analogous circumstances: when an individual or
a group of individuals is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he
or they are inferior. But the scope of the verb to be must be understood; bad
faith means giving it a substantive value, when in fact it has the sense of the
Hegelian dynamic: to be is to have become, to have been made as one man-
ifests oneself. Yes, women in general are today inferior to men; that is, their
situation provides them with fewer possibilities: the question is whether this
state of affairs must be perpetuated.

Many men wish it would be: not all men have yet laid down their arms.
The conservative bourgeoisie continues to view women’s liberation as a danger
threatening their morality and their interests. Some men feel threatened by
women’s competition. In Hebdo- Latin the other day, a student declared: “Every
woman student who takes a position as a doctor or lawyer is stealing a place
from us.” That student never questioned his rights over this world. Economic
interests are not the only ones in play. One of the benefits that oppression
secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior: in
the United States, a “poor white” from the South can console himself for not
being a “dirty nigger”; and more prosperous whites cleverly exploit this pride.
Likewise, the most mediocre of males believes himself a demigod next to
women. It was easier for M. de Montherlant to think himself a hero in front
of women (handpicked, by the way) than to act the man among men, a role
that many women assumed better than he did. Thus, in one of his articles in
Le Figaro Littéraire in September 1948, M. Claude Mauriac— whom everyone
admires for his powerful originality— could write about women: “We listen
in a tone [sic!] of polite indifference . . . to the most brilliant one among them,
knowing that her intelligence, in a more or less dazzling way, ref lects ideas
that come from us.” Clearly his female interlocutor does not ref lect M. Mau-
riac’s own ideas, since he is known not to have any; that she ref lects ideas
originating with men is possible: among males themselves, more than one
of them takes as his own opinions he did not invent; one might wonder if it
would not be in M. Claude Mauriac’s interest to converse with a good ref lec-
tion of Descartes, Marx or Gide rather than with himself; what is remarkable
is that with the ambiguous “we,” he identifies with St Paul, Hegel, Lenin and
Nietzsche, and from their heights he looks down on the herd of women who
dare to speak to him on an equal footing; frankly, I know of more than one
woman who would not put up with M. Mauriac’s “tone of polite indifference.”

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 229

I have stressed this example because of its disarming masculine naïvety.
Men profit in many other more subtle ways from woman’s alterity. For all
those suffering from an inferiority complex, this is a miraculous liniment;
no one is more arrogant towards women, more aggressive or more disdain-
ful, than a man anxious about his own virility. Those who are not threatened
by their fellow men are far more likely to recognise woman as a counterpart;
but even for them the myth of the Woman, of the Other, remains precious for
many reasons; they can hardly be blamed for not wanting to light- heartedly
sacrifice all the benefits they derive from the myth: they know what they lose
by relinquishing the woman of their dreams, but they do not know what the
woman of tomorrow will bring them. It takes great abnegation to refuse to
posit oneself as unique and absolute Subject. Besides, the vast majority of
men do not explicitly make this position their own. They do not posit woman
as inferior: they are too imbued today with the democratic ideal not to recog-
nise all human beings as equals. Within the family, the male child and then
the young man sees the woman as having the same social dignity as the
adult male; afterwards, he experiences in desire and love the resistance and
independence of the desired and loved woman; married, he respects in his
wife the spouse and the mother, and in the concrete experience of married
life she affirms herself opposite him as a freedom. He can thus convince
himself that there is no longer a social hierarchy between the sexes and
that on the whole, in spite of their differences, woman is an equal. As he
nevertheless recognises some points of inferiority— professional incapacity
being the predominant one— he attributes them to nature. When he has an
attitude of benevolence and partnership towards a woman, he applies the
principle of abstract equality; and he does not posit the concrete inequality
he recognises. But as soon as he clashes with her, the situation is reversed.
He will apply the concrete inequality theme and will even allow himself to
disavow abstract equality. This is how many men affirm, with quasi- good
faith, that women are equal to man and have no demands to make, and at
the same time that women will never be equal to men and that their demands
are in vain. It is difficult for men to measure the enormous extent of social
discrimination that seems insignificant from the outside and whose moral
and intellectual repercussions are so deep in woman that they appear to
spring from an original nature. The man most sympathetic to women never
knows her concrete situation fully. So there is no good reason to believe men
when they try to defend privileges whose scope they cannot even fathom.
We will not let ourselves be intimidated by the number and violence of

230 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

attacks against women; nor be fooled by the self- serving praise showered
on the “real woman”; nor be won over by men’s enthusiasm for her destiny,
a destiny they would not for the world want to share.

We must not, however, be any less mistrustful of feminists’ arguments:
very often their attempt to polemicise robs them of all value. If the “question
of women” is so trivial, it is because masculine arrogance turned it into a
“quarrel”; when people quarrel, they no longer reason well. What people
have endlessly sought to prove is that woman is superior, inferior or equal to
man: created after Adam, she is obviously a secondary being, some say; on
the contrary, say others, Adam was only a rough draft, and God perfected the
human being when he created Eve; her brain is smaller, but relatively bigger;
Christ was made man: but perhaps out of humility. Every argument has its
opposite and both are often misleading. To see clearly, one needs to get out
of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, inferiority and equality
that have distorted all discussions must be discarded in order to start anew.

But how, then, will we ask the question? And in the first place, who are
we to ask it? Men are judge and party: so are women. Can an angel be found?
In fact, an angel would be ill qualified to speak, would not understand all the
givens of the problem; as for the hermaphrodite, it is a case of its own: it is
not both a man and a woman, but neither man nor woman. I think certain
women are still best suited to elucidate the situation of women. It is a soph-
ism to claim that Epimenides should be enclosed within the concept of Cre-
tan and all Cretans within the concept of liar: it is not a mysterious essence
that dictates good or bad faith to men and women; it is their situation that
disposes them to seek the truth to a greater or lesser extent. Many women
today, fortunate to have had all the privileges of the human being restored
to them, can afford the luxury of impartiality: we even feel the necessity of
it. We are no longer like our militant predecessors; we have more or less
won the game; in the latest discussions on women’s status, the UN has not
ceased to imperiously demand equality of the sexes, and indeed many of us
have never felt our femaleness to be a difficulty or an obstacle; many other
problems seem more essential than those that concern us uniquely: this very
detachment makes it possible to hope our attitude will be objective. Yet we
know the feminine world more intimately than men do because our roots
are in it; we grasp more immediately what the fact of being female means
for a human being, and we care more about knowing it. I said that there are
more essential problems; but this one still has a certain importance from
our point of view: how will the fact of being women have affected our lives?

Simone de Beauvoir ■ 231

What precise opportunities have been given us and which ones have been
denied? What destiny awaits our younger sisters, and in which direction
should we point them? It is striking that most feminine literature is driven
today by an attempt at lucidity more than by a will to make demands; coming
out of an era of muddled controversy, this book is one attempt among others
to take stock of the current state.

But it is no doubt impossible to approach any human problem without
partiality: even the way of asking the questions, of adopting perspectives,
presupposes hierarchies of interests; all characteristics comprise values;
every so- called objective description is set against an ethical background.
Instead of trying to conceal those principles that are more or less explicitly
implied, we would be better off stating them from the start; then it would
not be necessary to specify on each page the meaning given to the words
“superior,” “inferior,” “better,” “worse,” “progress,” “regression,” and so on.
If we examine some of the books on women, we see that one of the most fre-
quently held points of view is that of public good or general interest: in reality,
this is taken to mean the interest of society as each one wishes to maintain
or establish it. In our opinion, there is no public good other than one that
assures the citizens’ private good; we judge institutions from the point of
view of the concrete opportunities they give to individuals. But neither do we
confuse the idea of private interest with happiness: that is another frequently
encountered point of view; are women in a harem not happier than a woman
voter? Is a housewife not happier than a woman worker? We cannot really
know what the word “happiness” means, and still less what authentic values
it covers; there is no way to measure the happiness of others, and it is always
easy to call a situation that one would like to impose on others happy: in par-
ticular, we declare happy those condemned to stagnation, under the pretext
that happiness is immobility. This is a notion, then, we will not refer to. The
perspective we have adopted is one of existentialist morality. Every subject
posits itself as a transcendence concretely, through projects; it accomplishes
its freedom only by perpetual surpassing towards other freedoms; there is
no other justification for present existence than its expansion towards an
indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence lapses into immanence,
there is degradation of existence into “ in- itself,” of freedom into facticity;
this fall is a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if this fall is inf licted on
the subject, it takes the form of frustration and oppression; in both cases it
is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned with justifying his existence
experiences his existence as an indefinite need to transcend himself. But

232 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans,
an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where
men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as
an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be for-
ever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s
drama lies in this conf lict between the fundamental claim of every subject,
which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that
constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human
being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to
dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What cir-
cumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? These are
the fundamental questions we would like to elucidate. This means that in
focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities
not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.

Study QueStionS

1. Explain de Beauvoir’s claim that “One is not born, but rather becomes,

2. Why does de Beauvoir describe women as “the Other” to men?
3. What use does de Beauvoir make of existentialist moral philosophy?

audre lorde
A ge, R ace, Class, a nd Sex

Audre Lorde (1934–1982) was an African American poet, essayist, and activist.

Much of western european history conditions us to see human differences
in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad,
up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms
of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some
group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel
surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. Within this soci-
ety, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working- class
people, older people, and women.

As a forty- nine- year- old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two,
including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find
myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain

Audre Lorde ■ 233

wrong. Traditionally, in american society, it is the members of oppressed,
objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap
between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor.
For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as american
as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the
language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them
for some illusion of protection. Whenever the need for some pretense of
communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us
to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of
the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes. I am responsible for
educating teachers who dismiss my children’s culture in school. Black and
Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity.
Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected
to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position
and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of
energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising
realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit
economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an
economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differ-
ences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in
one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it
is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no pat-
terns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those
differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation
and confusion.

Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex.
But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather
our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions
which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human
behavior and expectation.

Racism, the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and
thereby the right to dominance. Sexism, the belief in the inherent superiority of
one sex over the other and thereby the right to dominance. Ageism. Heterosexism.
Elitism. Classism.

It is a lifetime pursuit for each one of us to extract these distortions
from our living at the same time as we recognize, reclaim, and define those
differences upon which they are imposed. For we have all been raised in a

234 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

society where those distortions were endemic within our living. Too often,
we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into
pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do
not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous
connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human differ-
ence as a springboard for creative change within our lives. We speak not of
human difference, but of human deviance.

Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical
norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In
america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosex-
ual, christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the
trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside
that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume
that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions
around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising. By and
large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their
oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference,
class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered
by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.

Unacknowledged class differences rob women of each others’ energy and
creative insight. Recently a women’s magazine collective made the decision for
one issue to print only prose, saying poetry was a less “rigorous” or “serious”
art form. Yet even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the
art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret,
which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which
can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps
of surplus paper. Over the last few years, writing a novel on tight finances, I
came to appreciate the enormous differences in the material demands between
poetry and prose. As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the major voice
of poor, working class, and Colored women. A room of one’s own may be a
necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty
of time. The actual requirements to produce the visual arts also help determine,
along class lines, whose art is whose. In this day of inf lated prices for material,
who are our sculptors, our painters, our photographers? When we speak of a
broadly based women’s culture, we need to be aware of the effect of class and
economic differences on the supplies available for producing art.

As we move toward creating a society within which we can each f lourish,
ageism is another distortion of relationship which interferes without vision.

Audre Lorde ■ 235

By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes. The “genera-
tion gap” is an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger
members of a community view the older members as contemptible or sus-
pect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living
memories of the community, nor ask the all important question, “Why?”
This gives rise to a historical amnesia that keeps us working to invent the
wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread.

We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons
over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have
learned, or because we are unable to listen. For instance, how many times
has this all been said before? For another, who would have believed that
once again our daughters are allowing their bodies to be hampered and
purgatoried by girdles and high heels and hobble skirts?

Ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications
of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of
women’s joint power.

As white women ignore their built- in privilege of whiteness and define
woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of Color become
“other,” the outsider whose experience and tradition is too “alien” to compre-
hend. An example of this is the signal absence of the experience of women of
Color as a resource for women’s studies courses. The literature of women of
Color is seldom included in women’s literature courses and almost never in
other literature courses, nor in women’s studies as a whole. All too often, the
excuse given is that the literatures of women of Color can only be taught by
Colored women, or that they are too difficult to understand, or that classes
cannot “get into” them because they come out of experiences that are “too
different.” I have heard this argument presented by white women of oth-
erwise quite clear intelligence, women who seem to have no trouble at all
teaching and reviewing work that comes out of the vastly different experi-
ences of Shakespeare, Molière, Dostoyefsky, and Aristophanes. Surely there
must be some other explanation.

This is a very complex question, but I believe one of the reasons white
women have such difficulty reading Black women’s work is because of their
reluctance to see Black women as women and different from themselves.
To examine Black women’s literature effectively requires that we be seen
as whole people in our actual complexities— as individuals, as women, as
human— rather than as one of those problematic but familiar stereotypes
provided in this society in place of genuine images of Black women. And I

236 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

believe this holds true for the literatures of other women of Color who are
not Black.

The literatures of all women of Color recreate the textures of our lives, and
many white women are heavily invested in ignoring the real differences. For
as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then
the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt. To allow women
of Color to step out of stereotypes is too guilt provoking, for it threatens the
complacency of those women who view oppression only in terms of sex.

Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different
problems and pitfalls facing us as women.

Thus, in a patriarchal power system where whiteskin privilege is a major
prop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black women and white women are
not the same. For example, it is easy for Black women to be used by the power
structure against Black men, not because they are men, but because they are
Black. Therefore, for Black women, it is necessary at all times to separate the
needs of the oppressor from our own legitimate conf licts within our com-
munities. This same problem does not exist for white women. Black women
and men have shared racist oppression and still share it, although in different
ways. Out of that shared oppression we have developed joint defenses and joint
vulnerabilities to each other that are not duplicated in the white community,
with the exception of the relationship between Jewish women and Jewish men.

On the other hand, white women face the pitfall of being seduced into
joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibil-
ity does not exist in the same way for women of Color. The tokenism that
is sometimes extended to us is not an invitation to join power; our racial
“otherness” is a visible reality that makes that quite clear. For white women
there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with
patriarchal power and its tools.

Today, with the defeat of ERA,1 the tightening economy, and increased
conservatism, it is easier once again for white women to believe the danger-
ous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet
enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the
right men, then you will be allowed to co- exist with patriarchy in relative
peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist hap-
pens along. And true, unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult
to remember that the war against dehumanization is ceaseless.

1 Editor’s note: The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional reform which
was not formally ratified within its allowed time period.

Audre Lorde ■ 237

But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched
with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it
only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where
we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves
through the daily tissues of our living— in the supermarket, in the class-
room, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber,
the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who
does not serve us.

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your chil-
dren will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our
children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will
turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.

The threat of difference has been no less blinding to people of Color.
Those of us who are Black must see that the reality of our lives and our
struggle does not make us immune to the errors of ignoring and misnam-
ing difference. Within Black communities where racism is a living reality,
differences among us often seem dangerous and suspect. The need for
unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity, and a Black feminist
vision mistaken for betrayal of our common interests as a people. Because
of the continuous battle against racial erasure that Black women and Black
men share, some Black women still refuse to recognize that we are also
oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is prac-
ticed not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our Black
communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of Black nationhood,
and silence will not make it disappear. Exacerbated by racism and the pres-
sures of powerlessness, violence against Black women and children often
becomes a standard within our communities, one by which manliness can
be measured. But these woman- hating acts are rarely discussed as crimes
against Black women.

As a group, women of Color are the lowest paid wage earners in amer-
ica. We are the primary targets of abortion and sterilization abuse, here
and abroad. In certain parts of Africa, small girls are still being sewed
shut between their legs to keep them docile and for men’s pleasure. This is
known as female circumcision, and it is not a cultural affair as the late Jomo
Kenyatta insisted, it is a crime against Black women.

Black women’s literature is full of the pain of frequent assault, not only by
a racist patriarchy, but also by Black men. Yet the necessity for and history
of shared battle have made us, Black women, particularly vulnerable to the

238 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

false accusation that anti- sexist is anti- Black. Meanwhile, womanhating as a
recourse of the powerless is sapping strength from Black communities, and
our very lives. Rape is on the increase, reported and unreported, and rape is
not aggressive sexuality, it is sexualized aggression. As Kalamu ya Salaam,
a Black male writer points out, “As long as male domination exists, rape will
exist. Only women revolting and men made conscious of their responsibility
to fight sexism can collectively stop rape.”2

Differences between ourselves as Black women are also being misnamed
and used to separate us from one another. As a Black lesbian feminist com-
fortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman
committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am con-
stantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present
this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But
this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration
of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am,
openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to f low back and
forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of exter-
nally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a
whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living.

A fear of lesbians, or of being accused of being a lesbian, has led many
Black women into testifying against themselves. It has led some of us into
destructive alliances, and others into despair and isolation. In the white
women’s communities, heterosexism is sometimes a result of identifying
with the white patriarchy, a rejection of that interdependence between
women- identified women which allows the self to be, rather than to be
used in the service of men. Sometimes it ref lects a die- hard belief in the
protective coloration of heterosexual relationships, sometimes a self- hate
which all women have to fight against, taught us from birth.

Although elements of these attitudes exist for all women, there are par-
ticular resonances of heterosexism and homophobia among Black women.
Despite the fact that woman- bonding has a long and honorable history in
the African and African-american communities, and despite the knowledge
and accomplishments of many strong and creative women- identified Black
women in the political, social and cultural fields, heterosexual Black women
often tend to ignore or discount the existence and work of Black lesbians.

2 From “Rape: A Radical Analysis, An African- American Perspective” by Kalamu ya
Salaam in Black Books Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 4 (1980).

Audre Lorde ■ 239

Part of this attitude has come from an understandable terror of Black male
attack within the close confines of Black society, where the punishment for
any female self- assertion is still to be accused of being a lesbian and there-
fore unworthy of the attention or support of the scarce Black male. But part
of this need to misname and ignore Black lesbians comes from a very real
fear that openly women- identified Black women who are no longer depen-
dent upon men for their self- definition may well reorder our whole concept
of social relationships.

Black women who once insisted that lesbianism was a white woman’s
problem now insist that Black lesbians are a threat to Black nationhood, are
consorting with the enemy, are basically un- Black. These accusations, com-
ing from the very women to whom we look for deep and real understanding,
have served to keep many Black lesbians in hiding, caught between the rac-
ism of white women and the homophobia of their sisters. Often, their work
has been ignored, trivialized, or misnamed, as with the work of Angelina
Grimke, Alice Dunbar- Nelson, Lorraine Hansberry. Yet women- bonded
women have always been some part of the power of Black communities,
from our unmarried aunts to the amazons of Dahomey.

And it is certainly not Black lesbians who are assaulting women and rap-
ing children and grandmothers on the streets of our communities.

Across this country, as in Boston during the spring of 1979 following the
unsolved murders of twelve Black women, Black lesbians are spearheading
movements against violence against Black women.

What are the particular details within each of our lives that can be scru-
tinized and altered to help bring about change? How do we redefine differ-
ence for all women? It is not our differences which separate women, but
our reluctance to recognize those differences and to deal effectively with
the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of
those differences.

As a tool of social control, women have been encouraged to recognize
only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences which
exist between women and men. And we have learned to deal across those
differences with the urgency of all oppressed subordinates. All of us have
had to learn to live or work or coexist with men, from our fathers on. We
have recognized and negotiated these differences, even when this recogni-
tion only continued the old dominant/subordinate mode of human relation-
ship, where the oppressed must recognize the masters’ difference in order
to survive.

240 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

But our future survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within
equality. As women, we must root out internalized patterns of oppression
within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of
social change. Now we must recognize differences among women who are
our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others’
difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles.

The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to iden-
tify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across
difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports
us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress,
still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges,
the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.

For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and
response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same
time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures.
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

As Paulo Freire shows so well in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,3 the true
focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations
which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted
deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the
oppressors’ relationships.

Change means growth, and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-
definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those
whom we define as different from ourselves, although sharing the same
goals. For Black and white, old and young, lesbian and heterosexual women
alike, this can mean new paths to our survival.

We have chosen each other
and the edge of each others battles
the war is the same
if we lose
someday women’s blood will congeal
upon a dead planet
if we win
there is no telling
we seek beyond history
for a new and more possible meeting.4

3 Seabury Press, New York, 1970.
4 From “Outlines,” unpublished poem.

Lori Girshick ■ 241

Study QueStionS

1. What does Lorde mean by the “distortions” that arise in respect to differences?
2. Why cannot the experience of black woman be analysed in terms of the com-

bination of being a black person and a woman?
3. Why cannot “the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house”?

lori Girshick
Gender Policing

Lori Girshick (born 1953) is an American sociologist and feminist.

While transitioning, I go to the bathroom in a movie theater. The female ticket
taker objects when I try to go into the ladies’ room. The male ticket taker objects
when I try to go into the men’s room. When I confront them both and ask which
I should use, they refuse to come up with an answer, both just desperately reit-
erating that I can’t go in either “for the sake of the other patrons.” Rather than
call the manager, make a scene, and leave my kid sitting for a long time alone in
the theater, I go out back and piss in a dumpster and then went back to the film.
(Raven, transgendered FtM intersexual)

I’m frequently made uneasy by off hand comments, jokes made at the expense
of cross- dressers or gays. It’s not as acceptable as it used to be, at least not in the
academic community I live in, but cross- dressers are still fair game, especially in
the media, where almost routinely in television commercials they are employed for
the sake of a guaranteed laugh. In this way, I’m reminded of the attitudes deemed
appropriate by the majority. It’s as if a cultural edict has been issued: Thou shalt
ridicule those who cross the gender line. (BJ, male cross- dresser)

The gender binary has a little wiggle room. After all, some men are
househusbands, some women are astronauts, some men have long hair, and
some women sculpt their bodies, muscles bulging, through body- building.
David Bowie, Boy George, Dennis Rodman, and Marilyn Manson are hugely
popular. But, in general, it is a serious offense to violate gender norms.

✻ ✻ ✻ Some transgressions that are public— such as when transsexuals
transition and face job loss, or when masculine women are harassed in the
bathroom— give us clues as to what kinds of departures from the binary
norms draw people’s ire. Other transgressions that are often private—
such as when males cross- dress in secrecy, or when intersex people cannot
access their own medical records— indicate their importance by the shame
attached. ✻ ✻ ✻

242 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

BathrooM policinG
Public bathrooms, with the familiar stick symbols for men and for women
on the doors, are, as Dan (FtM) put it, “a perfect crystallization of all the
gender norms in place. . . . It’s like this amazing literalization of the more
abstract binary teachings we get everyday.” For Dan, bathrooms have been a
“site of terror.” He continued: “All it takes is one snotty person to make you
feel like you don’t deserve to live. I’ve had security guards remove me be-
cause they had quote unquote complaints from other students. And being
removed from a public washroom at the University of Oxford isn’t the sort
of thing you want to tell your parents.”

I heard from many genderqueer and butch women that women had
reacted negatively to their using the women’s restroom. These upset women
had challenged the right of androgynous and masculine- looking female-
bodied individuals to use the bathroom. But you shouldn’t have to be a
certain kind of woman to be entitled to use a public space; some women
should not be privileged over other women. Why do feminine women feel
that they have a greater right to use the bathroom, and furthermore why are
they allowed to humiliate or antagonize other women? ✻ ✻ ✻

Hostile reactions to gender- nonconforming people using public bath-
rooms are common. ✻ ✻ ✻

For transitioning employees, use of the bathrooms at work is a conten-
tious point. Oftentimes transpersons are either told they can’t use the bath-
room of their gender identification or told to use a bathroom on a different
f loor or in a different building. ✻ ✻ ✻

At other workplaces, management has taken a strong stand to support
every employee’s right to use the bathroom of self- identity. ✻ ✻ ✻

Clearly, the issue of who uses what bathroom creates anxiety for many
non- trans or non- genderqueer people, and these fears do need to be
addressed. Everyone, whether male or female, needs a safe place to go to the
bathroom. Some women feel that a sex- segregated bathroom increases their
safety, but an unlocked door that anyone can walk through doesn’t really
make them any safer. The stereotype that only men (and never women) are
potentially violent or rapists is factually incorrect. A violent male or female
can walk through that door. Greater safety would be achieved with either
single- user bathrooms or multiple- user bathrooms with locked stall doors
that go from the f loor to the ceiling. ✻ ✻ ✻

A second concern of some women is that men are messy when they pee
standing up. That can be ameliorated by having toilets with push- button

Lori Girshick ■ 243

plastic sanitary seat covers that change with each use. Businesses and public
works can also have bathrooms cleaned more frequently. ✻ ✻ ✻ Perhaps boys
need stronger socialization in bathroom etiquette.

The thought of all- gender or gender- neutral public bathrooms, some-
times proposed as a way to secure everyone’s right to equal access, makes
many people uncomfortable. This is something they aren’t used to. How-
ever, after much resistance people got used to race- desegregated public facil-
ities, and people can get used to gender- desegregated facilities. Right now,
because of the harassment they encounter, some people are denied safe
access to freely use the bathrooms they need and have a right to use in public
spaces, at work, or at school.

Since going to the bathroom is not in itself a safety threat, we should
work on education to decrease the discomfort of people who feel that sex-
segregated spaces are natural and necessary. They are neither. In fact, tak-
ing the “Men” and “Women” signs off bathroom doors and calling them
“Restrooms” would go a long way toward loosening the idea of the gender
binary. It would eliminate the experience of intersex individuals’ having to
choose which type of bathroom to enter, and of someone, such as a butch
woman or male cross- dresser, not fitting in. Everyone of any gender expres-
sion fits into a restroom.

the WoMen’s MoveMent and Who is a “WoMan”
Sadly, feminist politics has its share of controversy around the boundaries
of who qualifies as a man and who as a woman. Since women- only events
are largely organized and attended by lesbians, lesbians have been in the
forefront of debates about whether transwomen qualify as real women.
A polarization opened up in 1973 when the lesbian rights organization
Daughters of Bilitis splintered on the issue of whether MtF Beth Elliott,
who had been the group’s vice president, was a woman. She was expelled
as not being one. Later that year Elliott, also a musician, was performing
at the West Coast Lesbian Conference and was shouted off the stage. There
was a huge split among attendees regarding Elliott’s status. The next day,
feminist leader Robin Morgan denounced Elliott in her keynote speech,
accusing male- bodied transsexuals of “leeching off women.” ✻ ✻ ✻

One of the most contentious efforts in the lesbian community to police
who is accepted as a woman is the policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music
Festival (MWMF), which is open to “women who were born as women, who
have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women”

244 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

(statement by festival owner Lisa Vogel). The policy divides women along
lines of “real women” and “fake women.” MWMF is the oldest and larg-
est feminist women’s music festival in the country, dedicated to creating
women- only space for safety, cultural renewal and production, and escape
from sexism, misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia. While it is open
to women of a wide range of gender presentation (bearded, butch, androg-
ynous, and femme), transgender and transsexual women have not been
welcome. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ By policy, MWMF workers will not question an attendee’s gender,
and they rely on individuals who attend to respect their policy of “womyn-
born womyn” only. In other words, they request that transwomen stay away
for that week of women- only space. Yet their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy
means that transwomen, genderqueers, tranny boys, and others who don’t
mention they are trans or perhaps are male- identified can attend. ✻ ✻ ✻

Apparently the debate continues as to whether transwomen are real
women, and the feminist community has vocal adherents to the different
perspectives. To advocate only for acceptance of post- op transwomen only
is classist and racist, since surgery is an option only for those with money.
It is also exclusionary, since many transwomen don’t choose to have sur-
gery. To deny the self- determination of individuals who identify as women
regardless of the body they were born in seems contrary to feminism. Gen-
itals are not the only markers of femaleness or maleness— some people are
born identifying in ways that do not correspond with the gender binary
edict. For feminists to reject those who are marginalized by society because
of gender identification is particularly unfeminist gender policing. While
there are many strands of feminism, and lesbian separatists in particular
may always find transwomen incompatible with their politics, ✻ ✻ ✻ genitals
do not determine gender identity— nor does socialization, as important as
that is in inf luencing gender expression and gender roles.

BullyinG, hostility, and hate criMes
Hate- motivated violence arises from a variety of sources: fear, ignorance,
bigotry, misdirected anger, intolerance, and a need for control. Perpetra-
tors of violence can be acquaintances of the victim, peers, family mem-
bers, or strangers. Often, homophobic and gender identity anxieties are
mixed up together, and perpetrators may not even be aware of their moti-
vations. While statistics of harassment of and violence against transgender
people are hard to come by, a 1996 survey of 397 MtFs by the San Francisco

Lori Girshick ■ 245

Department of Public Health gives us one impression. Eighty- three per-
cent suffered verbal abuse; 46  percent faced employment discrimination;
37 percent had suffered abuse within the previous twelve months (and, of
those, 44 percent reported it was by a partner); and 59 percent reported a
history of rape.

Only a small number of the people I interviewed said they had faced no
hostility ✻ ✻ ✻

The message of this hostility is, You need to change. And while most
individuals stand up to this, they do so at considerable emotional cost.

Bullying of MtFs was common. ✻ ✻ ✻ Felicia (transgendered) talked about
her discomfort around men: “When I walk into a room full of men, the
intimidation starts at the door. I feel intimidated. I feel I’m being bullied
even before I even speak or even before they even speak. There’s something
about a group of men being together, there’s a lot of tension in the air. Men
are very intense. Highly competitive, violent, rough, coarse.” Since Felicia
works as a male in a macho occupation, she has been having a difficult time.
She is smaller than the typical firefighter and speaks softly. “I’ve heard lots
of comments, you’re a fag, you’re a sissy, you’re queer.”

Being yelled at on the street, or accosted by strangers laughing and ask-
ing, “Are you a man or a woman?” are not uncommon experiences. cj (trans-
gendered) has had “strangers freak out and call me perverted and pull young
kids farther from me.” These insults and shaming comments are forms
of gender policing, attempts to keep people who are preceived as gender
transgressors in line. ✻ ✻ ✻

The verbal taunts, bullying behaviors, and harassments are preludes to
the more severe physical violence inf licted on many of them. Dee (MtF) was
beaten up and urinated on while in the military and stationed in Germany.
A former lover who “couldn’t deal with the gender situation” beat up Keven
( two- spirit). Jennifer (MtF) was told by her wife before their separation that
a man Jennifer’s wife had slept with had offered to kill Jennifer. Laura (MtF)
has been beaten up several different times by men denigrating her trans-
sexual status.

The ultimate and irreversible gender policing involves the hate crime of
murder. Hate crimes are defined as being motivated by hatred or dislike of
someone because of that person’s identity, perceived identity, or affiliation
with a particular group. Police view a crime as bias- or hate- motivated when
it involves slurs or name- calling against the particular identity or group,
and/or extreme violence. Trans- identified victims of hate crimes are often

246 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

called fags or queers, or hatred is expressly directed toward transsexuals.
Hate crime laws address the violence that is motivated by bias and provide
for the tracking of these crimes, the training of law enforcement personal,
and sometimes the mandatory enhancement of penalties at sentencing for
those convicted of hate crimes. ✻ ✻ ✻

A report by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition titled 50 under 30
examines the murders of fifty people aged thirty and under who were
targeted because of their gender presentation or identity in the previous
ten years. The findings are significant: most victims were people of color
(85 percent Black and Latino), most victims were poor (often unemployed
and/or homeless), 88 percent of the victims were from the LGBT communi-
ties (4 percent were heterosexual, and 8 percent of identities were unknown),
92 percent of the victims were biologically male but presenting some degree
of femininity, and most cases were ignored by the media even though assail-
ants used extreme violence and the murders typically took place in major
cities. Only 46  percent of these cases have been solved (compared with
69 percent of all homicides nationally). ✻ ✻ ✻

Such hate crimes have an importance beyond the loss of precious life.
They are also message crimes committed against an entire group. When
any transgender person is attacked, verbally and physically, because of being
transgender, the message is that something is terribly wrong with all trans-
gender identities and behaviors. Continue to be this way, the message goes,
and all of you face this type of punishment— humiliation, pain, or death. It
is clearly an extreme form of gender policing. I found that most participants
in this study were aware of the risks they were taking just to be themselves.
Because of the fears and ignorance of other people, they risked their very lives.

Medical GatekeepinG
Trans- identified individuals face many barriers in accessing medical care.
Although the hormones, procedures, and surgeries that many seek are med-
ically necessary and essential for confirming their sense of self, all too of-
ten doctors, therapists, and insurance companies view these treatments as
cosmetic or elective. Health care providers may not be well informed about
transgender issues, and their low level of cultural competence may result in
stigmatizing behaviors, insensitivity, or denial of needed services. ✻ ✻ ✻

An FtM may have difficulty accessing gynecological care, whether for a
pap smear or a hysterectomy. An MtF may need tests for prostate cancer.
Non- trans men who have gynecomastia (excessive breast tissue) can have

Lori Girshick ■ 247

breast tissue removed and the procedure covered by insurance, but a female-
bodied transman who wants his excessive breast tissue removed through
double mastectomy is not covered. Hormonal imbalances are not uncom-
mon, and people who are non- trans routinely have insurance coverage for
their thyroid medication, estrogen replacement, or T prescriptions for low
testosterone levels. But a transsexual’s medical need for hormone replace-
ment therapy is not generally covered by insurance. These double standards
are linked to judgments of acceptable medical conditions and the view that
gender is determined at birth.

Perhaps the most significant gender- policing mechanisms our society
employs for transsexuals are the diagnoses of gender identity disorder (GID)
and transvestic fetishism (TF) found in the current Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.
The label “gender identity disorder” suggests that to have a gender identity
different from the category a doctor assigned to one’s body at birth is disor-
dered, confused, illegitimate, or perverted. Such an individual is dysphoric,
perhaps neurotic, bipolar, autogynephilic, or has a dissociative personality.
The TF diagnosis labels cross- dressing by heterosexual males as a sexual
fetish. Application of these diagnostic labels unnecessarily pathologizes
transgender and gender- variant people.

When the DSM was updated in 1994, GID replaced the diagnosis of gen-
der dysphoria, which referred to an intense, persistent distress with one’s
physical sex characteristics or their associated social role. But transsexuality
should be seen as the medical condition it is and not a mental illness, since
there is no illness or disease to cure. The real medical issue is more with the
person’s physical body than it is with the person’s gender identity, but the
GID label focuses on cross- gender identity as a problem, a “disorder,” rather
than on what can be done to alleviate the distress of the mismatch. The fact
is antianxiety medications, antipsychotic medications, and electroshock do
not relieve gender dysphoria. The only measure that “works” is living in the
gender the person identifies as.

The university- affiliated gender identity clinics that opened in the mid-
1960s were highly experimental and research- oriented. The treatment they
offered was quite limited (serving a tiny fraction of the people who con-
tacted them), and those individuals who were successful in obtaining what
was then called sex change surgery told the therapists and doctors what
they wanted to hear. At that time, based on little actual knowledge, thera-
pists believed that the drag queen was the ideal model of the MtF. Those

248 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

male- bodied people with exaggerated feminine looks and mannerisms, who
were highly sexualized and who expressed sexual interest in men, were
considered to be transsexual. Well- adjusted people who were not homeless,
unemployed, or on the brink of suicide or drug addiction were not believed
to be transsexual. Such individuals were denied not only surgery but also
access to hormones. The concept of GID is both sexist and heterosexist in
its application and its gendered expectations.

In the heyday of the gender clinics in the United States (1966–1990),
transsexuals were sent away in droves without help. The clinics were not
staffed to handle the numbers of people looking for treatment, and in any
case the research and knowledge that would have been needed did not exist.
Clinics often demanded that patients agree to research interviews and years
of therapy, that they divorce spouses, or that they change jobs. Many of these
demands would be seen today as unethical.

Although this “illness” of GID had no cure, therapists did become the
primary gatekeepers for transsexuals who were seeking to gain access to
their medical needs. ✻ ✻ ✻

Today, ✻ ✻ ✻ the protocol used by most doctors in the United States for pro-
viding medical care to transsexuals ✻ ✻ ✻ calls for a therapist’s diagnosis and
consequent letter that can be presented to an endocrinologist for hormones
and/or a surgeon for sex reassignment or chest reconstruction surgery. A
surgeon will usually require letters from two therapists. [The protocol] also
calls for a transitioning individual to live full- time for one year in true gender
identity (called the Real Life Experience, RLE) before having surgery. ✻ ✻ ✻ The
yearlong RLE is supposed to show the patient’s ability to adjust. Many see this
year as a very dangerous time: the transitioning individual, now living full-
time as what will often seem to others the “wrong” gender, is at higher risk
for hate crimes, hostility, job loss, and family rejection because the measures
(such as hormones or chest reconstruction) that might help that person be
better accepted as the gender he or she is are the very measures being denied.
✻ ✻ ✻ These risks ✻ ✻ ✻ reside in social attitudes and practices. ✻ ✻ ✻

A group known as GID Reform Advocates ✻ ✻ ✻ argue[s], first, that a psy-
chiatric diagnosis is unnecessarily stigmatizing for transsexuals, who in
fact have a physical (body) problem, and, second, that calling it an “identity
disorder” suggests that cross- gender identity is not legitimate. ✻ ✻ ✻ It is the
distress of gender dysphoria that is the problem, and ✻ ✻ ✻ medical steps that
make cross- living easier alleviate this distress. ✻ ✻ ✻ A different way— without
stigma— must be found to provide access to needed medical services. These

Lori Girshick ■ 249

should be available just as prescriptions and procedures are provided for
other medical conditions.

leGal docuMents
Medical gatekeeping influences far more than just access to medical care.
It also influences legal status, since the “letters” that are written by thera-
pists and surgeons provide access to legal change of one’s gender status.
This in itself is problematic. Most transgender people do not have surgery,
because they either do not want it, cannot afford it, or it is medically contra-
indicated. Furthermore, many transgender people, including transsexuals,
do not have surgery or therapy or take hormones, yet they live in their true
gender. Therefore, the requirement that they need proof of such medical
interventions to validate their authentic gender clearly impedes their ability
to function in society. Since they are no longer living as their birth sex, they
cannot freely access services (employment, housing, health care, travel,
etc.) dependent on identification that indicates one’s sex (passports, driver’s
licenses, social security cards, etc.).

One’s legal status as a male or a female matters. It matters for mar-
riage, divorce, adoption, child custody, inheritance, immigration status,
employment; for access to services such as shelters, clinics and centers,
health benefits; and for identity papers and personal records (name, driver’s
license, passport, birth certificate, school transcript, work history). For trans
individuals, even those who are not transitioning (e.g., genderqueers or male
cross- dressers), being stopped by police or showing a driver’s license to cash
a check can be stressful. The M or F on a driver’s license may not jibe with
what people see (or how the person identifies). Some transsexuals carry
their therapist’s letter in case they find themselves in precisely this kind of
situation, needing to “justify” who they are. The anxiety this causes, and the
ridicule or embarrassment that may follow, originate from a personal med-
ical matter that should be no one else’s business. As a medical issue (since
being able to fully live one’s true gender is therapeutic), trans- identified
people should have an easier time getting the legal documents they need to
complete their transition or live in their preferred gender— they should not
have to deal with the complexity and roadblocks they now encounter.

Identity documents may seem completely reasonable documents to
have, but for trans- identified people they become a form of gender policing.
Required procedures for changing names and/or sex designations are time-
consuming and costly. ✻ ✻ ✻

250 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

Leslie Feinberg talks about these labels:

Why am I forced to check off an F or an M on these documents in the first
place? For identification? Both a driver’s license and a passport include pho-
tographs! Most cops and passport agents would feel insulted to think they
needed an M or an F to determine if a person is a man or a woman. It’s only
those of us who cross the boundaries of sex or gender, or live ambiguously
between those borders, who are harassed by this legal requirement.1

In fact one could argue that these designations are so often incorrect as
to render them meaningless— or at least to reduce their usefulness to the
point that we should not depend on them as part of a true identification.
After all, intersex individuals may later realize they are not the sex and/
or gender the birth certificate states, and transsexual individuals undergo
surgical changes to align their identity. The records were wrong originally
and need to be corrected.

Legal name change is supposed to be available to anyone as long as that
person is not seeking to defraud. ✻ ✻ ✻

After name change, the driver’s license is often the next item to change. ✻ ✻ ✻
Birth certificates are another key item that needs to be changed. Three

states ✻ ✻ ✻ do not allow a change of sex designation on birth certificates.
Other states will change the M or F after receiving a letter from a surgeon
stating that the individual has gone through irreversible sex change surgery.
While this has generally been interpreted to mean genital surgery, some
FtMs have succeeded in getting their birth certificate changed after having
only chest reconstruction and being on testosterone. A court order showing
the name change is also needed.

Some states amend the birth certificate; others issue a completely new
document. ✻ ✻ ✻

New York City had been unique in issuing new birth certificates with-
out a sex designation altogether. This in itself was embarrassing. It made
the certificates less useful as identification, and because only transsexuals
had this type of birth certificate, they were outed. In September 2006, the
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene proposed liberal-
izing the rules so that birth certificates could be changed even if individuals
did not have surgery. However, in December of 2006 city officials slowed
the rule- changing process in order to consider whether this proposal might
conf lict with new federal rules that are being developed. The Department

1 Editor’s note: Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), pp. 61–62.

Lori Girshick ■ 251

of Health did, however, change its policy of eliminating gender on the cer-
tificate. Now the birth sex will be listed until a letter confirming irreversible
sex change surgery has been performed. ✻ ✻ ✻

Marriage is another area where trans- identified people encounter road-
blocks and risks in their pursuit of happiness. Legally, marriage is a union
between a man and a woman, except for same- sex marriages ✻ ✻ ✻ and civil
unions ✻ ✻ ✻ . If a birth certificate establishes the legal sex of an individual, then
a heterosexual transsexual who wants to be married needs to have that doc-
ument changed. However, even in cases where the birth certificate has been
changed, marriages involving transsexuals have been successfully challenged.

In 2002, the Kansas Supreme Court invalidated the marriage between
J’Noel Gardiner (MtF) and Marshall Gardiner. After Mr. Gardiner’s death,
his son contested Mrs.  Gardiner’s inheritance, and the court ruled in his
favor by refusing to recognize Mrs. Gardiner’s birth certificate and what the
court deemed to be a same- sex marriage. ✻ ✻ ✻

There has been some concern as to whether marriages continue to be
legal after one partner transitions and changes his or her birth certificate.
Does this become a same- sex marriage, which is illegal in most states?2 It
would be best if there were no restrictions on marriage— individuals who
commit to each other should be able to marry regardless of how they iden-
tify. But for now, marriage laws are not trans- friendly. Transsexuals remain
at the mercy of the state they were born in, and the gender- policing beliefs
and prejudices of individual judges and the court process.

Gender policinG and leGal protection
Overcoming discrimination is a long and painful process. ✻ ✻ ✻ There is an
urgent need for nondiscrimination policies and laws in government juris-
dictions, at workplaces, and in schools and colleges to prevent discrimina-
tion against trans- identified people. ✻ ✻ ✻
✻ ✻ ✻ Countless individuals still lack the protection they need against dis-
crimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. ✻ ✻ ✻

What is needed is a federal law that specifically includes gender identity
and sexual orientation among the kinds of discrimination it covers. ✻ ✻ ✻

Gender policing has complicated the lives of trans- identified individuals
because of the barriers it has created, the personal stress it has produced,

2 Editor’s note: More recently the law has changed, and state- level bans were deemed uncon-
stitutional in 2015.

252 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

and the physical and emotional risks it has exposed them to through rein-
forcement of their presumed abnormality. Medical and legal gatekeeping,
lack of legal protection, and other forms of gender policing facilitate the
ongoing harassment of, and discrimination against, trans-identified people.

Study QueStionS

1. What does Girshick mean by “gender policing”?
2. Take one of Girshick’s examples. What issues does it raise, and how can so-

ciety adopt a fully inclusive policy?
3. How far is it possible and desirable to remove gender classification from offi-

cial documents such as driving licenses and passports?

■ Compare and Contrast Questions
1. Are there any significant differences in the arguments of Wollstonecraft and

de Beauvoir?
2. Does Lorde’s perspective reveal limitations in the arguments of Wollstone-

craft and de Beauvoir?
3. How far do the positions of Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir, and Lorde presup-

pose a binary conception of gender? Do they have the resources to answer the
problems raised by Girshick?

free speech and its liMits
This section contains three very different discussions of free speech. We
start with the classic case for free speech by John Stuart Mill, in his book
On Liberty. Mill begins by emphasizing the importance of the free press
against tyrannical government. Mill asserts that the majority has no right
to silence a minority opinion, however unpopular. The essence of his case
is that society progresses, and permanently benefits, through free and open
discussion. Suppose the minority view is true. Then we lose the oppor-
tunity to exchange error for truth, as Mill puts it, by not listening to the
new view. But even if the minority view is false, we still have good reason
to let it be heard. For if we refuse to listen to opposition, we will hold our
views as “dead dogma” and may forget the good reasons for which we hold
them. This can be dangerous, for when we are confronted with plausible
false views in the future, we might lose our ability to defend the true view.
Hence, we must always allow our views to be challenged, even if we are
certain we are right. Finally, if the new view is in part true, we can improve
our understanding by combining the old and new views.

Free Speech and Its Limits ■ 253

Mill’s position is essentially utilitarian, since he argues that the conse-
quences of freedom of expression will tend to lead to human happiness. This
contrasts with those who would argue that we have a right— perhaps even a
human right— to freedom of expression independently of the consequences.
And Mill has been criticized for making his case in the way he does, for if
it turned out that freedom of expression had bad consequences (contrary
to Mill’s belief ), then there would be a utilitarian justification for limiting
it. And indeed Mill does find utilitarian reason for banning freedom of
expression in some rare cases if, for example, it would incite an angry mob
to violence. In such a case, the reason for the prohibition is not the content
of the view, but the fact that, on the occasion on which it is expressed, it is
very likely to have adverse consequences.

What is to count as speech, however? Should all forms of pornography be
protected as free speech? Catharine MacKinnon, lawyer and philosopher, has
been, with Andrea Dworkin, a very powerful critic of some forms of pornog-
raphy, on feminist grounds. She has thus opposed an argument that regards
pornography as a type of speech that is protected by the First Amendment of
the American Constitution. MacKinnon and Dworkin drafted a possible new
human rights ordinance on pornography for Minneapolis. Here, however,
we look primarily at the moral issues. It is important to keep in mind that
MacKinnon and Dworkin define pornography as “graphic sexually explicit
subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women
dehumanized as sexual objects.” It is distinguished from erotica, which
involves sexually explicit materials, but not subordination.

MacKinnon’s main case is that pornography, so understood, oppresses
women. Hence she is not especially interested in arguments regarding
obscenity, but rather relates pornography to power and powerlessness. She
considers how pornography is made, how it is used, and the effect it has on
gender relations in society. First, her studies show that women who take
part especially in violent pornography sometimes do so under extreme
coercion, to the point of rape and even murder. Second, pornography has
been implicated in very serious sex crimes and inf luences the type of sex
men force on their partners. Third, and in the main argument of the paper,
pornography eroticizes dominance and submission and in doing so cel-
ebrates and reinforces gender oppression, thereby harming all women.
MacKinnon argues that a great many women have been victims of sexual
violence, harassment, and assault, but find it impossible, in general, to speak
of this abuse. This reticence is reinforced by the representation of gender

254 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

oppression as consensual in pornography. In this way, and others, pornog-
raphy contributes to an atmosphere that, according to MacKinnon, silences
women. Feminism can contribute to giving women the means by which they
can express, oppose, and perhaps overcome their subordination. For Mac-
Kinnon, prohibiting pornography (as she defines it) is part of that process.

The third selection is a controversial and provocative piece by Greg
Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who describe a number of developments
in U.S. universities regarding the exposure of students to views that they
might find distressing, offensive, or traumatic. Many academics now offer
“trigger” warnings concerning sensitive material that they may cover in
class; other instructors even adopt policies of self- censorship.

Another important issue concerns “microaggressions,” which are seem-
ingly innocent comments that have nevertheless an aggressive element,
such as asking Asian Americans “Where are you really from?”—implying
that they are not really American. Campuses are issuing instructions to pro-
tect students from such microaggressions and other forms of offence, so that
the university does not place students at risk of trauma or deep offense. The
authors use the term “vindictive protectiveness” for the practice of punish-
ing those who, by failing to give trigger warnings or using microaggressive
speech, violate the rules.

Such vindictive protectiveness raises important questions of freedom of
speech and expression. Lukianoff and Haidt object to the issuing of trigger
warnings and similar protective practices, arguing that they are harmful to stu-
dent development. They argue that it is important for people to be confronted
with views they find difficult, even if they have previously suffered trauma.
Only through exposure, the authors argue, can people develop the capacities
that will allow them to overcome past trauma or cope with potential threats to
their emotional well- being. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, protecting stu-
dents from the emotional shock of confronting views that make them uncom-
fortable is bad for the students, bad for the university, and bad for democracy.

John stuart Mill
On Liber t y of Ex pression

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was born in England, of Scottish descent. Mill was
initially a disciple of Bentham but branched out to develop his own distinctive and
highly influential moral views. He wrote on a very wide range of moral, political,
philosophical and economic issues, including arguing for the emancipation of women.

John Stuart Mill ■ 255

of the liBerty of thouGht and discussion
The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be neces-
sary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or
tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed,
against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest
with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doc-
trines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. This aspect of the
question, besides, has been so often and so triumphantly enforced by preced-
ing writers, that it needs not be specially insisted on in this place. Though
the law of England, on the subject of the press, is as servile to this day as it
was in the time of the Tudors, there is little danger of its being actually put
in force against political discussion, except during some temporary panic,
when fear of insurrection drives ministers and judges from their propriety;
and, speaking generally, it is not, in constitutional countries, to be appre-
hended, that the government, whether completely responsible to the people
or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in
doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public. Let
us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people,
and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement
with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to
exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The
power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than
the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with
public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one were
of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind
would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had
the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a per-
sonal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the
enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference
whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the
peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the
human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent
from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right,
they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong,
they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier
impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which
has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be

256 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stif le is a false opinion; and if
we were sure, stif ling it would be an evil still.

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may
possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth;
but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for
all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.
To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to
assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silenc-
ing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be
allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility
is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment which is always
allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible,
few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or
admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may
be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves
to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited
deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on
nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their
opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are
wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions
as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer;
for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judg-
ment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the
world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it
with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of
society; the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-
minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country
or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his
being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties
have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his
own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient
worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has
decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and
that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have
made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself,
as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible

John Stuart Mill ■ 257

than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent
ages have deemed not only false but absurd: and it is as certain that many
opinions now general will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once
general, are rejected by the present.

The objection likely to be made to this argument would probably take
some such form as the following. There is no greater assumption of infalli-
bility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is
done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility. Judgment
is given to men that they may use it. Because it may be used erroneously, are
men to be told that they ought not to use it at all? To prohibit what they think
pernicious, is not claiming exemption from error, but fulfilling the duty
incumbent on them, although fallible, of acting on their conscientious con-
viction. If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may
be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties
unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct can be no valid
objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and
of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form carefully, and
never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right.
But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness
but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines
which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in
this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other
people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed
to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake:
but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which
are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid
on bad taxes, made unjust wars. Ought we therefore to lay on no taxes, and,
under whatever provocation. make no wars? Men and governments, must act
to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but
there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and
must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct:
and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by
the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

I answer, that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest differ-
ence between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportu-
nity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the
purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting

258 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in
assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a
being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right. ✻ ✻ ✻

In the present age— which has been described as “destitute of faith, but
terrified at scepticism”—in which people feel sure, not so much that their
opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—
the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so
much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged,
certain beliefs so useful, not to say indispensable, to well- being that it is
as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any
other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in
the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained,
warrant, and even bind, governments to act on their own opinion, confirmed
by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener
thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary
beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad
men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode
of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question
of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and f latters itself by that
means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of
opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the
assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The
usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to
discussion, and requiring discussion as much as the opinion itself. There is
the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be
noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full
opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may
be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though
forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility.
If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should
be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is
true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is
contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from
urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some
doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false?
Those who are on the side of received opinions never fail to take all possible
advantage of this plea: you do not find them handling the question of utility
as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it

John Stuart Mill ■ 259

is, above all, because their doctrine is “the truth,” that the knowledge or the
belief of it is held to be so indispensable. There can be no fair discussion
of the question of usefulness when an argument so vital may be employed
on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public
feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just
as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an
extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positive guilt of rejecting it.

In order more fully to illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to
opinions because we, in our own judgment, have condemned them, it will
be desirable to fix down the discussion to a concrete case; and I choose, by
preference, the cases which are least favourable to me— in which the argu-
ment against freedom of opinion, both on the score of truth and on that of
utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief
in a God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines
of morality. To fight the battle on such ground gives a great advantage to
an unfair antagonist; since he will be sure to say (and many who have no
desire to be unfair will say it internally), Are these the doctrines which you
do not deem sufficiently certain to be taken under the protection of law?
Is the belief in a God one of the opinions to feel sure of which you hold to
be assuming infallibility? But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not
the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assump-
tion of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others,
without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I
denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side
of my most solemn convictions. However positive any one’s persuasion may
be, not only of the falsity but of the pernicious consequences— not only of
the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether
condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of
that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his coun-
try or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its
defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being
less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral
or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. These are
exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those
dreadful mistakes which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.
It is among such that we find the instances memorable in history, when
the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the
noblest doctrines; with deplorable success as to the men, though some of

260 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

the doctrines have survived to be (as if in mockery) invoked in defence of
similar conduct towards those who dissent from them, or from their received

Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man
named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opin-
ion of his time there took place a memorable collision. Born in an age and
country abounding in individual greatness, this man has been handed down
to us by those who best knew both him and the age, as the most virtuous
man in it; while we know him as the head and prototype of all subsequent
teachers of virtue, the source equally of the lofty inspiration of Plato and the
judicious utilitarianism of Aristotle, “i maëstri di color che sanno,” the two
headsprings of ethical as of all other philosophy. This acknowledged master
of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived— whose fame, still growing
after more than two thousand years, all but outweighs the whole remainder
of the names which make his native city illustrious— was put to death by his
countrymen, after a judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality. Impiety,
in denying the gods recognised by the State; indeed his accuser asserted
(see the “Apologia”) that he believed in no gods at all. Immorality, in being,
by his doctrines and instructions, a “corruptor of youth.” Of these charges
the tribunal, there is every ground for believing, honestly found him guilty,
and condemned the man who probably of all then born had deserved best
of mankind to be put to death as a criminal.

To pass from this to the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the men-
tion of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anti-
climax: the event which took place on Calvary rather more than eighteen
hundred years ago. The man who left on the memory of those who witnessed
his life and conversation such an impression of his moral grandeur that
eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty
in person, was ignominiously put to death, as what? As a blasphemer. Men
did not merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact
contrary of what he was, and treated him as that prodigy of impiety which
they themselves are now held to be for their treatment of him. The feelings
with which mankind now regard these lamentable transactions, especially
the later of the two, render them extremely unjust in their judgment of the
unhappy actors. These were, to all appearance, not bad men— not worse
than men commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a
full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral and patri-
otic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times,

John Stuart Mill ■ 261

our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and
respected. ✻ ✻ ✻

But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is
one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they
pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems
with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever,
it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions:
the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put
down, Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down. Savon-
arola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put
down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after
the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, it was successful.
In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out;
and, most likely, would have been so in England, had Queen Mary lived, or
Queen Elizabeth died. Persecution has always succeeded, save where the
heretics were too strong a party to be effectually persecuted. No reasonable
person can doubt that Christianity might have been extirpated in the Roman
Empire. It spread, and became predominant, because the persecutions were
only occasional, lasting but a short time, and separated by long intervals of
almost undisturbed propagandism. It is a piece of idle sentimentality that
truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing
against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than
they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social
penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The
real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true,
it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages
there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its
reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes
persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent
attempts to suppress it. ✻ ✻ ✻

Let us now pass to the second division of the argument, and dismissing
the supposition that any of the received opinions may be false, let us assume
them to be true, and examine into the worth of the manner in which they
are likely to be held, when their truth is not freely and openly canvassed.
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the pos-
sibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consider-
ation that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly
discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

262 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly)
who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think
true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion,
and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objec-
tions. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority,
naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to
be questioned. Where their inf luence prevails, they make it nearly impossi-
ble for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it
may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely
is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on con-
viction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument.
Waiving, however, this possibility— assuming that the true opinion abides
in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof
against, argument— this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by
a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one
superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate
a truth.

If the intellect and judgment of mankind ought to be cultivated, a thing
which Protestants at least do not deny, on what can these faculties be more
appropriately exercised by any one, than on the things which concern him
so much that it is considered necessary for him to hold opinions on them?
If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in
another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one’s own opinions. What-
ever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to
believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common
objections. But, some one may say, “Let them be taught the grounds of their
opinions. It does not follow that opinions must be merely parroted because
they are never heard controverted. Persons who learn geometry do not sim-
ply commit the theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the
demonstrations; and it would be absurd to say that they remain ignorant of
the grounds of geometrical truths, because they never hear any one deny,
and attempt to disprove them.” Undoubtedly: and such teaching suffices on
a subject like mathematics, where there is nothing at all to he said on the
wrong side of the question. The peculiarity of the evidence of mathemati-
cal truths is that all the argument is on one side. There are no objections,
and no answers to objections. But on every subject on which difference of
opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between
two sets of conf licting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always

John Stuart Mill ■ 263

some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory
instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be
shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown,
and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of
our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to
morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-
fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling
the appearances which favour some opinion different from it. The greatest
orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his
adversary’s case with as great, if not still greater, intensity than even his
own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success requires to be
imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who
knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may
be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally
unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much
as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The
rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he
contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the
generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is
it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own
teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer
as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring
them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them
from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and
do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible
and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the
true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never
really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that
difficulty. Ninety- nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in
this condition; even of those who can argue f luently for their opinions. Their
conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they
have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think
differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say;
and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the
doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of
it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show
that a fact which seemingly conf licts with another is reconcilable with it,
or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be

264 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the
judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it
ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to
both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light.
So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human
subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indis-
pensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments
which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. ✻ ✻ ✻

If, however, the mischievous operation of the absence of free discussion,
when the received opinions are true, were confined to leaving men ignorant
of the grounds of those opinions, it might be thought that this, if an intellec-
tual, is no moral evil, and does not affect the worth of the opinions, regarded
in their inf luence on the character. The fact, however, is, that not only the
grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too
often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it cease to
suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally
employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief
there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell
and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost. The
great chapter in human history which this fact occupies and fills, cannot be
too earnestly studied and meditated on.

It is illustrated in the experience of almost all ethical doctrines and reli-
gious creeds. They are all full of meaning and vitality to those who originate
them, and to the direct disciples of the originators. Their meaning continues
to be felt in undiminished strength, and is perhaps brought out into even
fuller consciousness, so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or
creed an ascendancy over other creeds. At last it either prevails, and becomes
the general opinion, or its progress stops; it keeps possession of the ground
it has gained, but ceases to spread further. When either of these results
has become apparent, controversy on the subject f lags, and gradually dies
away. The doctrine has taken its place, if not as a received opinion, as one of
the admitted sects or divisions of opinion: those who hold it have generally
inherited, not adopted it; and conversion from one of these doctrines to
another, being now an exceptional fact, occupies little place in the thoughts
their professors. Instead of being, as at first, constantly on the alert either
to defend themselves against the world, or to bring the world over to them,
they have subsided into acquiescence, and neither listen, when they can
help it, to arguments against their creed, nor trouble dissentients (if there

John Stuart Mill ■ 265

be such) with arguments in its favour. From this time may usually be dated
the decline in the living power of the doctrine. We often bear the teachers of
all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers
a lively apprehension of the truth which they nominally recognise, so that
it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct.
No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its
existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are
fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines: and in that
period of every creed’s existence, not a few persons may be found, who have
realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed
and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced
the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in
a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be an hereditary
creed, and to be received passively, not actively— when the mind is no longer
compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the
questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to
forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid
assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it
in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases
to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. Then are
seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the
majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting
and petrifying it against all other inf luences addressed to the higher parts
of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living
conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except
standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.

✻ ✻ ✻ Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there
is no enemy in the field.

✻ ✻ ✻ It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic—
that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice, without
establishing positive truths. Such negative criticism would indeed be poor
enough as an ultimate result; but as a means to attaining any positive knowl-
edge or conviction worthy the name, it cannot be valued too highly; and until
people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great think-
ers, and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and
physical departments of speculation. On any other subject no one’s opinions
deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced
upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process

266 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy
with opponents. That, therefore, which when absent, it is so indispensable,
but so difficult, to create, how worse than absurd it is to forego, when spon-
taneously offering itself ! If there are any persons who contest a received
opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them
for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one
to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the
certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour
for ourselves.

✻ ✻ ✻ We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received
opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that,
the received opinion being true, a conf lict with the opposite error is essen-
tial to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a com-
moner case than either of these; when the conf licting doctrines, instead of
being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the
nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth,
of which the received doctrine embodies only a part. Popular opinions,
on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the
whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes
a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjointed from the truths
by which they ought to be accompanied and limited. Heretical opinions,
on the other hand, are generally some of these suppressed and neglected
truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down, and either seeking rec-
onciliation with the truth contained in the common opinion, or fronting
it as enemies, and setting themselves up, with similar exclusiveness, as
the whole truth. The latter case is hitherto the most frequent, as, in the
human mind, one- sidedness has always been the rule, and many- sidedness
the exception. Hence, even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth
usually sets while another rises. Even progress, which ought to superadd,
for the most part only substitutes, one partial and incomplete truth for
another; improvement consisting chief ly in this, that the new fragment
of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that
which it displaces. Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions,
even when resting on a true foundation, every opinion which embodies
somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits, ought
to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion
that truth may be blended. No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound
to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we

John Stuart Mill ■ 267

should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see.
Rather, he will think that so long as popular truth is one- sided, it is more
desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one- sided asser-
tors too; such being usually the most energetic, and the most likely to
compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim
as if it were the whole. ✻ ✻ ✻

We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well- being of man-
kind (on which all their other well- being depends) of freedom of opinion,
and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which
we will now brief ly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for
aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very com-
monly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing
opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the
collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance
of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth;
unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested,
it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice,
with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only
this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of
being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and
conduct; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for
good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and
heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some
notice of those who say that the free expression of all opinions should be
permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the
bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fix-
ing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence
to those whose opinions are attacked, I think experience testifies that this
offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every
opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer,
appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intem-
perate opponent. But this, though an important consideration in a practical
point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the

268 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very
objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ An opinion that corn- dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private
property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through
the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an
excited mob assembled before the house of a corn- dealer, or when handed
about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts, of whatever
kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the
more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavour-
able sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind.
The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make
himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others
in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and
judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show
that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without
molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Study QueStionS

1. What is lost, according to Mill, if we ban the expression of a false view?
2. Is Mill’s utilitarian defense the best basis for arguing for free expression?
3. Under what circumstances, according to Mill, can free expression rightly be

limited? Is his position defensible?

catharine Mackinnon
Pornography, Civ il R ights, a nd Speech

Catharine MacKinnon (b. 1946) is an American lawyer, radical feminist, and activ-
ist. She is known especially for her work with Andrea Dworkin on pornography.

I will first situate a critique of pornography within a feminist analysis of the
condition of women. I will speak of what pornography means for the social
status and treatment of women. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Once power constructs social reality, as I will show pornography con-
structs social reality of gender, the force behind sexism, the subordination
in gender inequality, is made invisible; dissent from it becomes inaudible as
well as rare. What a woman is, is defined in pornographic terms; this is what
pornography does. If the law then looks neutrally on the reality of gender

Catharine MacKinnon ■ 269

so produced, the harm that has been done will not be perceptible as harm. It
becomes just the way things are. ✻ ✻ ✻

In the philosophical terms of classical liberalism, an equality- freedom
dilemma is produced: Freedom to make or consume pornography weighs
against the equality of the sexes. Some people’s freedom hurts other people’s
equality. ✻ ✻ ✻ Equality for women is incompatible with a definition of men’s
freedom that is at our expense. What can freedom for women mean, so long
as we remain unequal? Why should men’s freedom to use us in this way be
purchased with our second- class civil status?

There is a belief that this is a society in which women and men are basically
equals. Room for marginal corrections is conceded, flaws are known to exist,
attempts are made to correct what are conceived as occasional lapses from
the basic condition of sex equality. Sex discrimination law has centered most
of its focus on these occasional lapses. It is difficult to overestimate the extent
to which this belief in equality is an article of faith to most people, including
most women, who wish to live in self- respect in an internal universe, even
(perhaps especially) if not in the world. It is also partly an expression of nat-
ural law thinking: If we are inalienably equal, we can’t “really” be degraded.

This is a world in which it is worth trying. In this world of presumptive
equality, people make money based on their training or abilities or diligence
or qualifications. They are employed and advanced on the basis of merit. In
this world of just deserts, if someone is abused, it is thought to violate the
basic rules of the community. If it doesn’t, that person is seen to have done
something she could have chosen to do differently, by exercise of will or
better judgment. Maybe such people have placed themselves in a situation
of vulnerability to physical abuse. Maybe they have done something provoc-
ative. Or maybe they were just unusually unlucky. In such a world, if such
a person has an experience, there are words for it. When they speak and say
it, they are listened to. If they write about it, they will be published. If there
are certain experiences that are never spoken, or certain people or issues
seldom heard from, it is supposed that silence has been chosen. The law,
including much of the law of sex discrimination and the first amendment,
operates largely within the realm of these beliefs.

Feminism is the discovery that women do not live in this world, that the
person occupying this realm is a man, so much more a man if he is white
and wealthy. This world of potential credibility, authority, security, and just

270 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

rewards, recognition of one’s identity and capacity, is a world that some
people do inhabit as a condition of birth, with variations among them. It is
not a basic condition accorded humanity in this society, but a prerogative of
status, a privilege, among other things, of gender.

I call this a discovery because it has not been an assumption. Feminism
is the first theory, the first practice, the first movement, to take seriously
the situation of all women from the point of view of all women, both on our
situation and on social life as a whole. ✻ ✻ ✻

Looking at the world from this point of view, a whole shadow world of
previously invisible silent abuse has been discerned. Rape, battery, sexual
harassment, forced prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children emerge
as common and systematic. We find rape happens to women in all con-
texts, from the family, including rape of girls and babies, to students and
women in the workplace, on the streets, at home, in their own bedrooms
by men that they do not know, and by men that they do know, by men they
are married to, men they have had a social conversation with, or, least
often, men they have never seen before. Overwhelmingly, rape is some-
thing that men do or attempt to do to women ( forty- four percent accord-
ing to a recent study) at some point in our lives. Sexual harassment of
women by men is common in workplaces and educational institutions. Up
to eighty- five percent of women in one study report it, many in physical
forms. Between a quarter and a third of women are battered in their homes
by men. Thirty- eight percent of little girls are sexually molested inside or
outside the family. Until women listened to women, this world of sexual
abuse was not spoken of. It was the unspeakable. What I am saying is, if
you are the tree falling in the epistemological forest, your demise doesn’t
make a sound if no one is listening. Women did not “report” these events,
and overwhelmingly do not today, because no one is listening, because no
one believes us. This silence does not mean nothing happened, and it does
not mean consent. ✻ ✻ ✻

Men are damaged by sexism. (By men, I am referring to the status of
masculinity which is accorded to males on the basis of their biology, but
is not itself biological.) But whatever the damage of sexism is to men, the
condition of being a man is not defined as subordinate to women by force.
Looking at the facts of the abuses of women all at once, you see that a woman
is socially defined as a person who, whether or not she is or has been, can
at any time be treated in these ways by men, and little, if anything, will be

Catharine MacKinnon ■ 271

done about it. This is what it means when feminists say that maleness is a
form of power and femaleness is a form of powerlessness. ✻ ✻ ✻

I could describe this but I couldn’t explain it until I started studying
a lot of pornography. In pornography, there it is, in one place, all of the
abuses that women had to struggle so long even to begin to articulate, all
the unspeakable abuse: the rape, the battery, the sexual harassment, the
prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children. Only in the pornography it
is called something else: sex, sex, sex, sex, and sex, respectively. Pornog-
raphy sexualizes rape, battery, sexual harassment, prostitution, and child
sexual abuse; it thereby celebrates, promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes
them. More generally, it eroticizes the dominance and submission that is
the dynamic common to them all. It makes hierarchy sexy. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Pornography’s world of equality is a harmonious and balanced place.
Men and women are perfectly complementary and perfectly bipolar. Wom-
en’s desire to be fucked by men is equal to men’s desire to fuck women. All
the ways men love to take and violate women, women love to be taken and
violated. The women who most love this are most men’s equals, the most lib-
erated; the most participatory child is the most grown- up, the most equal to
an adult. Their consent merely expresses or ratifies these preexisting facts.

✻ ✻ ✻ Women are there to be violated and possessed, men to violate and
possess us either on screen or by camera or pen on behalf of the consumer.
On a simple descriptive level, the inequality of hierarchy, of which gender is
the primary one, seems necessary for the sexual arousal to work. ✻ ✻ ✻

What pornography does goes beyond its content: It eroticizes hierarchy, it
sexualizes inequality. It makes dominance and submission sex. Inequality is
its central dynamic; the illusion of freedom coming together with the reality
of force is central to its working. ✻ ✻ ✻

From this perspective, pornography is neither harmless fantasy nor a corrupt
and confused misrepresentation of an otherwise natural and healthy sexual situ-
ation. It institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy, fusing the erotization
of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female.
To the extent that gender is sexual, pornography is part of constituting the
meaning of that sexuality. Men treat women as who they see women as being.
Pornography constructs who that is. Men’s power over women means that the
way men see women defines who women can be. Pornography is that way. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Pornography participates in its audience’s eroticism through creating
an accessible sexual object, the possession and consumption of which is
male sexuality, as socially constructed; to be consumed and possessed as

272 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

which, is female sexuality, as socially constructed; and pornography is a
process that constructs it that way.

✻ ✻ ✻ Pornography defines women by how we look according to how we can
be sexually used. Pornography codes how to look at women, so you know what
you can do with one when you see one. Gender is an assignment made visually,
both originally and in everyday life. A sex object is defined on the basis of its
looks, in terms of its usability for sexual pleasure, such that both the looking—
the quality of the gaze, including its point of view— and the definition accord-
ing to use become eroticized as part of the sex itself. This is what the feminist
concept “sex object” means. In this sense, sex in life is no less mediated than it
is in art. One could say men have sex with their image of a woman. It is not that
life and art imitate each other; in this sexuality, they are each other.

✻ ✻ ✻ To defend pornography as consistent with the equality of the sexes is
to defend the subordination of women to men as sexual equality. What in the
pornographic view is love and romance looks a great deal like hatred and tor-
ture to the feminist. Pleasure and eroticism become violation. Desire appears
as lust for dominance and submission. The vulnerability of women’s projected
sexual availability, that acting we are allowed (i.e. asking to be acted upon), is
victimization. Play conforms to scripted roles. Fantasy expresses ideology, is
not exempt from it. Admiration of natural physical beauty becomes objectifica-
tion. Harmlessness becomes harm. Pornography is a harm of male supremacy
made difficult to see because of its pervasiveness, potency, and, principally,
because of its success in making the world a pornographic place. ✻ ✻ ✻

Obscenity law provides a very different analysis and conception of the prob-
lem. In 1973, the legal definition of obscenity became that which

the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would
find that, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; that which depicts
and describes in a patently offensive way [You feel like you’re a cop reading
someone’s Miranda rights] sexual conduct as defined by the applicable state
law; and that which, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political
or scientific value.1

Feminism doubts whether the average gender- neutral person exists; has
more questions about the content and process of defining what community
standards are than it does about deviations from them; wonders why pru-
rience counts but powerlessness does not, and why sensibilities are better

1 Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 24 (1973).

Catharine MacKinnon ■ 273

protected from offense than women are from exploitation; defines sexuality,
and thus its violation and expropriation, more broadly than does state law;
and questions why a body of law which has not in practice been able to
tell rape from intercourse should, without further guidance, be entrusted
with telling pornography from anything less. Taking the work “as a whole”
ignores that which the victims of pornography have long known: Legitimate
settings diminish the injury perceived to be done to those whose trivializa-
tion and objectification it contextualizes. Besides, and this is a heavy one, if
a woman is subjected, why should it matter that the work has other value?
Maybe what redeems the work’s value is what enhances its injury to women,
not to mention that existing standards of literature, art, science, and politics,
examined in a feminist light, are remarkably consonant with pornography’s
mode, meaning, and message. And finally— first and foremost, actually—
although the subject of these materials is overwhelmingly women, their
contents almost entirely comprised of women’s bodies, our invisibility has
been such, our equation as a sex with sex has been such, that the law of ob-
scenity has never even considered pornography a woman’s issue.

Obscenity, in this light, is a moral idea; an idea about judgments of good
and bad. Pornography, by contrast, is a political practice, a practice of power
and powerlessness. Obscenity is ideational and abstract; pornography is
concrete and substantive. The two concepts represent two entirely different
things. Nudity, excess of candor, arousal or excitement, prurient appeal, ille-
gality of the acts depicted, and unnaturalness or perversion are all qualities
that bother obscenity law when sex is depicted or portrayed. Sex forced on
real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women;
women’s bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be
hurt and obtained and accessed and this presented as the nature of women
in a way that is acted on and acted out over and over; the coercion that is
visible and the coercion that has become invisible— this and more bothers
feminists about pornography. Obscenity as such probably does little harm.
Pornography is integral to attitudes and behaviors of violence and discrimi-
nation which define the treatment and status of half the population.

At the request of the city of Minneapolis, Andrea Dworkin and I conceived
and designed a local human rights ordinance in accordance with our ap-
proach to the pornography issue. We define pornography as a practice
of sex discrimination, a violation of women’s civil rights, the opposite of

274 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

sexual equality. Its point is to hold accountable, to those who are injured,
those who profit from and benefit from that injury. It means that women’s
injury— our damage, our pain, our enforced inferiority— should outweigh
their pleasure and their profits, or sex equality is meaningless.

We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of
women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as
sexual objects, things, or commodities, enjoying pain or humiliation or rape,
being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt, in postures of
sexual submission or servility or display, reduced to body parts, penetrated by
objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture,
shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes
these conditions sexual. Erotica, defined by distinction as not this, might be
sexually explicit materials premised on equality. We also provide that the use
of men, children or transsexuals in the place of women is pornography. The
definition is substantive in that it is sex- specific, but it covers everyone in a
sex- specific way, so is gender neutral in overall design. ✻ ✻ ✻

This law aspires to guarantee women’s rights consistent with the first
amendment by making visible a conf lict of rights between the equality
guaranteed to all women and what, in some legal sense, is now the freedom
of the pornographers to make and sell, and their consumers to have access
to, the materials this ordinance defines. Judicial resolution of this conf lict,
if they do for women what they have done for others, is likely to entail a
balancing of the rights of women arguing that our lives and opportuni-
ties, including our freedom of speech and action, are constrained by— and
in many cases f latly precluded by, in, and through— pornography, against
those who argue that the pornography is harmless, or harmful only in part
but not in the whole of the definition; or that it is more important to preserve
the pornography than it is to prevent or remedy whatever harm it does.

✻ ✻ ✻ Pornography is a practice of discrimination on the basis of sex, on
one level because of its role in creating and maintaining sex as a basis for
discrimination. It harms many women one at a time and helps keep all
women in an inferior status by defining our subordination as our sexuality
and equating that with our gender. It is also sex discrimination because its
victims, including men, are selected for victimization on the basis of their
gender. But for their sex, they would not be so treated. ✻ ✻ ✻

Pornography does treat the sexes differently, so the case for sex differen-
tiation can be made here. Men as a group do not tend to be (although some
individuals may be) treated like women are treated in pornography. But as

Catharine MacKinnon ■ 275

a social group, men are not hurt by pornography the way women as a social
group are. ✻ ✻ ✻

The first victims of pornography are the ones in it. ✻ ✻ ✻ This is particu-
larly true in visual media, where it takes a real person doing each act to make
what you see. This is the double meaning in a statement one ex-prostitute
made at our hearing: “[E]very single thing you see in pornography is hap-
pening to a real woman right now.” Linda Marchiano, in her book Ordeal,
recounts being coerced as “Linda Lovelace” into performing for “Deep
Throat,” a fabulously profitable film, by abduction, systematic beating, being
kept prisoner, watched every minute, threatened with her life and the lives
of her family if she left, tortured, and kept under constant psychological
intimidation and duress. ✻ ✻ ✻

The further fact that prostitution and modeling are structurally women’s
best economic options should give pause to those who would consider wom-
en’s presence there a true act of free choice. ✻ ✻ ✻ I will leave you wondering,
with me, why it is that when a woman spreads her legs for a camera, what
she is assumed to be exercising is free will. Women’s freedom is rather
substantively defined here. And as you think about the assumption of con-
sent that follows women into pornography, look closely some time for the
skinned knees, the bruises, the welts from the whippings, the scratches, the
gashes. Many of them are not simulated. ✻ ✻ ✻

Coerced pornography models encounter devastating problems of lack of
credibility because of a cycle of forced acts in which coercion into pornogra-
phy is central. For example, children are typically forced to perform the acts
in the pornography that is forced on them; photographs are taken of these
rapes, photographs which are used to coerce the children into prostitution or
into staying in prostitution, telling them that if they try to leave, the pictures
will be shown to the authorities, their parents, their teachers, (whoever is not
coercing them at the time) and no one will believe them. This gets them into
prostitution and keeps them there. Understand, the documentation of the
harm as it is being done is taken as evidence that no harm was done. Partly,
desire for the abuse is attributed to the victim’s nature from the fact of the
abuse: She’s a natural born whore; see, there she is chained to a bed. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Marchiano now tells that it took kidnapping and death threats and
hypnosis to put her there, [and] that is found difficult to believe. The point
is not only that when women can be coerced with impunity the results,
when mass- produced, set standards that are devastating and dangerous for
all women. The point is also that the assumptions that the law of the first

276 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

amendment makes about adults— that adults are autonomous, self- defining,
freely- acting, equal individuals— are exactly those qualities which pornogra-
phy systematically denies and undermines for women. ✻ ✻ ✻ It is ✻ ✻ ✻ vicious to
suggest, as many have, that women like Linda Marchiano should remedy their
situations through the exercise of more speech. Pornography makes their
speech impossible and where possible, worthless. Pornography makes women
into objects. Objects do not speak. When they do, they are by then regarded
as objects, not as humans, which is what it means to have no credibility. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Under the obscenity rubric, much legal and psychological scholarship
has centered on a search for the elusive link between pornography defined
as obscenity and harm. They have looked high and low— in the mind of the
male consumer, in society or in its “moral fabric,” in correlations between
variations in levels of anti- social acts and liberalization of obscenity laws.
The only harm they have found has been one they have attributed to “the
social interest in order and morality.” Until recently, no one looked very
persistently for harm to women, particularly harm to women through men.
The rather obvious fact that the sexes relate has been overlooked in the
inquiry into the male consumer and his mind. The pornography doesn’t just
drop out of the sky, go into his head and stop there. Specifically, men rape,
batter, prostitute, molest, and sexually harass women. Under conditions of
inequality, they also hire, fire, promote, and grade women, decide how much
or whether or not we are worth paying and for what, define and approve
and disapprove of women in ways that count, that determine our lives. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Recent experimental research on pornography shows that the mate-
rials covered by our definition cause measurable harm to women through
increasing men’s attitudes and behaviors of discrimination in both violent
and nonviolent forms. Exposure to some of the pornography in our defini-
tion increases normal men’s immediately subsequent willingness to aggress
against women under laboratory conditions. It makes normal men more
closely resemble convicted rapists attitudinally, although as a group they don’t
look all that different from them to start with. It also significantly increases
attitudinal measures known to correlate with rape and self- reports of aggres-
sive acts, measures such as hostility toward women, propensity to rape, con-
doning rape, and predicting that one would rape or force sex on a woman if
one knew one would not get caught. This latter measure, by the way, begins
with rape at about a third of all men and moves to half with “forced sex.”

As to that pornography covered by our definition in which normal
research subjects seldom perceive violence, long- term exposure still makes

Catharine MacKinnon ■ 277

them see women as more worthless, trivial, non- human, and object- like, i.e.,
the way those who are discriminated against are seen by those who discrim-
inate against them. Crucially, all pornography by our definition acts dynam-
ically over time to diminish one’s ability to distinguish sex from violence.
The materials work behaviorally to diminish the capacity of both men and
women to perceive that an account of a rape is an account of a rape. X- only
materials, in which subjects perceive no force, also increase perceptions that
a rape victim is worthless and decrease the perception she was harmed. ✻ ✻ ✻
Women are rendered fit for use and targeted for abuse. ✻ ✻ ✻

In our hearings, women spoke, to my knowledge for the first time in his-
tory in public, about the damage pornography does to them. We learned that
pornography is used to break women, to train women to sexual submission,
to season women, to terrorize women, and to silence their dissent. It is this
that has previously been termed “having no effect.” Men inf lict on women
the sex that they experience through the pornography in a way that gives
women no choice about seeing the pornography or doing the sex. Asked if
anyone ever tried to inf lict sex acts on them they did not want that they knew
came from pornography, ten percent of women in a recent random study
said yes. Twenty- four percent of married women said yes. That is a lot of of
women. A lot more don’t know. ✻ ✻ ✻

Pornography also hurts men’s capacity to relate to women. ✻ ✻ ✻
✻ ✻ ✻ Substantively, pornography defines the meaning of what a woman is

by connecting access to her sexuality with masculinity through orgasm. ✻ ✻ ✻
✻ ✻ ✻ Exceptions to the first amendment ✻ ✻ ✻ exist. The reason they exist is

that the harm done by some speech outweighs its expressive value, if any.
✻ ✻ ✻ One can say— and I have— that pornography is a causal factor in vio-
lations of women; one can also say that women will be violated so long as
pornography exists; but one can also say simply that pornography violates
women. Perhaps this is what the woman had in mind who testified at our
hearings that whether or not pornography causes violent acts to be perpe-
trated against some women is not her only issue. “Porn is already a violent
act against women. It is our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, and our
wives that are for sale for pocket change at the newsstands in this country.”
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire recognizes the ability to restrict as “fighting
words” speech which, “by [its] very utterance inf licts injury. . . . ” Perhaps
the only reason that pornography has not been “fighting words”—in the
sense of words which by their utterance tend to incite immediate breach of
the peace— is that women have seldom fought back, yet. ✻ ✻ ✻

278 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

The most basic assumption underlying first amendment adjudication is
that, socially, speech is free. The first amendment says Congress shall not
abridge the freedom of speech. Free speech, get it, exists. Those who wrote the
first amendment had speech— they wrote the Constitution. Their problem
was to keep it free from the only power that realistically threatened it: the
federal government. They designed the first amendment to prevent govern-
ment from constraining that which if unconstrained by government was free,
meaning accessible to them. At the same time, we can’t tell much about the
intent of the Framers with regard to the question of women’s speech, because
I don’t think we crossed their minds. It is consistent with this analysis that
their posture to freedom of speech tends to presuppose that whole segments
of the population are not systematically silenced, socially, prior to government
action. If everyone’s power were equal to theirs, if this were a non- hierarchical
society, that might make sense. But the place of pornography in the inequality
of the sexes makes the assumption of equal power untrue.

This is a hard question. It involves risks. Classically, opposition to cen-
sorship has involved keeping government off the backs of people. Our law is
about getting some people off the backs of other people. The risks that it will
be misused have to be measured against the risks of the status quo. Women
will never have that dignity, security, compensation that is the promise of
equality so long as the pornography exists as it does now. The situation of
women suggests that the urgent issue of our freedom of speech is not pri-
marily the avoidance of state intervention as such, but getting affirmative
access to speech for those to whom it has been denied.

Study QueStionS

1. How does MacKinnon distinguish her critique of pornography from objec-
tions based on obscenity?

2. What, for MacKinnon, is the relation between pornography and powerless-

3. In what way, according to MacKinnon, does pornography silence women?

GreG lukianoff and Jonathan haidt
The Coddling of the A merica n Mind

Greg Lukianoff (b. 1974) is an American attorney and the president and CEO of
the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Jonathan Haidt (b.
1963) is an American social psychologist.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 279

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities.
A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub
campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort
or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for
The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard
not to teach rape law— or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that
violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis,
a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of
Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia— and
was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended
by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her.
In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for
Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor,
and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popu-
lar comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college
campuses. Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the over-
sensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus par-
lance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their
face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence
nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggres-
sion to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,”
because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings
are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course
might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have
called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial
violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny
and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized
by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they
believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis
University, the Asian American student association sought to raise aware-
ness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps
of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions
such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind!
I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American stu-
dents, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association
removed the installation, and its president wrote an e- mail to the entire

280 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the con-
tent of the microaggressions.”

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what
can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the
2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10
University of California system schools were presented by administrators at
faculty leader- training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list
of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and
“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of
political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differ-
ences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and
’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed
at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and
historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more- diverse perspectives.
The current movement is largely about emotional well- being. More than the
last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and there-
fore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The
ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young
adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And
more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes
with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive pro-
tectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before
speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

✻ ✻ ✻ What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students them-
selves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are
students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that
polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic liter-
ature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of
violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected
to act as both protectors and prosecutors?

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what
to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as
Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that
fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their
own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around
them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger,
on the way to understanding.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 281

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different
way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands
intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial
or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted
to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of
thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive
behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protec-
tiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

hoW did We Get here?
It’s difficult to know exactly why vindictive protectiveness has burst forth so
powerfully in the past few years. The phenomenon may be related to recent
changes in the interpretation of federal antidiscrimination statutes (about
which more later). But the answer probably involves generational shifts as well.
Childhood itself has changed greatly during the past generation. Many Baby
Boomers and Gen Xers can remember riding their bicycles around their home-
towns, unchaperoned by adults, by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. In the
hours after school, kids were expected to occupy themselves, getting into minor
scrapes and learning from their experiences. But “free range” childhood be-
came less common in the 1980s. The surge in crime from the ’60s through the
early ’90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own parents
had been. Stories of abducted children appeared more frequently in the news,
and in 1984, images of them began showing up on milk cartons. In response,
many parents pulled in the reins and worked harder to keep their children safe.

The f light to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures
were removed from playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student
lunches. After the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, many schools
cracked down on bullying, implementing “zero tolerance” policies. In a variety
of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials— got a consistent message
from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to
protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.

These same children grew up in a culture that was (and still is) becoming
more politically polarized. Republicans and Democrats have never particu-
larly liked each other, but survey data going back to the 1970s show that on
average, their mutual dislike used to be surprisingly mild. Negative feelings
have grown steadily stronger, however, particularly since the early 2000s.
Political scientists call this process “affective partisan polarization,” and
it is a very serious problem for any democracy. As each side increasingly

282 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

demonizes the other, compromise becomes more difficult. A recent study
shows that implicit or unconscious biases are now at least as strong across
political parties as they are across races.

So it’s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might
be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological oppo-
nents than in generations past. This hostility, and the self- righteousness
fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to any
moral crusade. A principle of moral psychology is that “morality binds and
blinds.” Part of what we do when we make moral judgments is express alle-
giance to a team. But that can interfere with our ability to think critically.
Acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is risky— your
teammates may see you as a traitor.

Social media makes it extraordinarily easy to join crusades, express sol-
idarity and outrage, and shun traitors. Facebook was founded in 2004, and
since 2006 it has allowed children as young as 13 to join. This means that
the first wave of students who spent all their teen years using Facebook
reached college in 2011, and graduated from college only this year.

These first true “ social- media natives” may be different from members
of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments
and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conf licts. We find
much to like about these trends; young people today are engaged with one
another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree
than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has
also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between
students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do
to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them.

We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness
in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent
decades.  ✻  ✻  ✻ Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many
seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and
administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those
changes might be doing more harm than good.

the thinkinG cure
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is;
we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The
Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said,
“Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 283

begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, devel-
oped practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and find-
ing release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient
wisdom. It is the most extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment
of mental illness, and is used widely to treat depression, anxiety disorders,
eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to schizophrenics. No
other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of
problems. Studies have generally found that it is as effective as antidepres-
sant drugs (such as Prozac) in the treatment of anxiety and depression. The
therapy is relatively quick and easy to learn; after a few months of training,
many patients can do it on their own. Unlike drugs, cognitive behavioral
therapy keeps working long after treatment is stopped, because it teaches
thinking skills that people can continue to use.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accu-
rately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common
cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and
emotional reasoning). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of
them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative
interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line
with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this
process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in
this way— when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts
that had previously filled so much of their consciousness— they become less
depressed, anxious, and angry.

The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy
teaches good critical- thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven
for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires
grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and
learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s
initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or
does it coax students to think in more- distorted ways? ✻ ✻ ✻

hiGher education’s eMBrace of
“eMotional reasoninG”
✻ ✻ ✻ Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discus-
sions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression
of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge

284 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that
the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an

There have always been some people who believe they have a right not
to be offended. Yet throughout American history— from the Victorian era
to the free- speech activism of the 1960s and ’70 s— radicals have pushed
boundaries and mocked prevailing sensibilities. Sometime in the 1980s,
however, college campuses began to focus on preventing offensive speech,
especially speech that might be hurtful to women or minority groups. The
sentiment underpinning this goal was laudable, but it quickly produced
some absurd results.

Among the most famous early examples was the so- called water- buffalo
incident at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1993, the university charged
an Israeli- born student with racial harassment after he yelled “Shut up,
you water buffalo!” to a crowd of black sorority women that was making
noise at night outside his dorm- room window. Many scholars and pundits
at the time could not see how the term water buffalo (a rough translation
of a Hebrew insult for a thoughtless or rowdy person) was a racial slur
against African Americans, and as a result, the case became international

Claims of a right not to be offended have continued to arise since then,
and universities have continued to privilege them. In a particularly egre-
gious 2008 case, for instance, Indiana University- Purdue University at
Indianapolis found a white student guilty of racial harassment for reading
a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The book honored student opposition
to the Ku Klux Klan when it marched on Notre Dame in 1924. Nonethe-
less, the picture of a Klan rally on the book’s cover offended at least one
of the student’s co- workers (he was a janitor as well as a student), and that
was enough for a guilty finding by the university’s Affirmative Action

These examples may seem extreme, but the reasoning behind them has
become more commonplace on campus in recent years. Last year, at the
University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, an event called Hump Day, which
would have allowed people to pet a camel, was abruptly canceled. Students
had created a Facebook group where they protested the event for animal
cruelty, for being a waste of money, and for being insensitive to people from
the Middle East. The inspiration for the camel had almost certainly come
from a popular TV commercial in which a camel saunters around an office

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 285

on a Wednesday, celebrating “hump day”; it was devoid of any reference
to Middle Eastern peoples. Nevertheless, the group organizing the event
announced on its Facebook page that the event would be canceled because
the “program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable
and possibly unsafe environment.”

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the vic-
tim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonable-
ness (let  alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly
if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument
“I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what
[journalist] Jonathan Rauch ✻ ✻ ✻ calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in
which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process,
the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and

Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced
this trend. Federal antidiscrimination statutes regulate on- campus harass-
ment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national ori-
gin. Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights
acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be
deemed actionable as sexual harassment— it would have to pass the “rea-
sonable person” test. To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly
harassing speech would have to go “beyond the mere expression of views,
words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”

But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broad-
ened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is
simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are
now applying that standard— defining unwelcome speech as harassment—
not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is
supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether
a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore
grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be
used effectively as weapons— or at least as evidence in administrative
proceedings— then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hyper-
sensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn- out conf licts in college
and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will
damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.

286 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

fortune- tellinG and triGGer WarninGs
Burns defines fortune- telling as “anticipat[ing] that things will turn out
badly” and feeling “convinced that your prediction is an already- established
fact.” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as “predict[ing] the future
negatively” or seeing potential danger in an everyday situation. The re-
cent spread of demands for trigger warnings on reading assignments with
provocative content is an example of fortune- telling.

The idea that words (or smells or any sensory input) can trigger searing
memories of past trauma— and intense fear that it may be repeated— has
been around at least since World War I, when psychiatrists began treating
soldiers for what is now called post- traumatic stress disorder. But explicit
trigger warnings are believed to have originated much more recently, on
message boards in the early days of the Internet. Trigger warnings became
particularly prevalent in self- help and feminist forums, where they allowed
readers who had suffered from traumatic events like sexual assault to avoid
graphic content that might trigger f lashbacks or panic attacks. Search-
engine trends indicate that the phrase broke into mainstream use online
around 2011, spiked in 2014, and reached an all- time high in 2015. The use
of trigger warnings on campus appears to have followed a similar trajectory;
seemingly overnight, students at universities across the country have begun
demanding that their professors issue warnings before covering material
that might evoke a negative emotional response.

In 2013, a task force composed of administrators, students, recent
alumni, and one faculty member at Oberlin College, in Ohio, released an
online resource guide for faculty (subsequently retracted in the face of fac-
ulty pushback) that included a list of topics warranting trigger warnings.
These topics included classism and privilege, among many others. The task
force recommended that materials that might trigger negative reactions
among students be avoided altogether unless they “contribute directly” to
course goals, and suggested that works that were “too important to avoid”
be made optional.

It’s hard to imagine how novels illustrating classism and privilege
could provoke or reactivate the kind of terror that is typically implicated
in PTSD. Rather, trigger warnings are sometimes demanded for a long list
of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the
name of preventing other students from being harmed. This is an example
of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—we spontaneously gener-
ate arguments for conclusions we want to support. Once you find something

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 287

hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing could trauma-
tize some other people. You believe that you know how others will react, and
that their reaction could be devastating. Preventing that devastation becomes
a moral obligation for the whole community. Books for which students have
called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for “suicidal inclinations”) and
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault).

Jeannie Suk’s New Yorker essay described the difficulties of teaching rape
law in the age of trigger warnings. Some students, she wrote, have pressured
their professors to avoid teaching the subject in order to protect themselves
and their classmates from potential distress. Suk compares this to trying to
teach “a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that
he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.”

However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According
to the most- basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with
anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is
trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is
going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections
in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to
retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your
cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as expo-
sure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an
elevator from a distance— standing in a building lobby, perhaps— until
her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s
standing in the lobby— if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin
to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction
in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days,
you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button,
and eventually to step in and go up one f loor. This is how the amygdala
can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety
or normalcy.

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their
peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course
readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students
with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid
normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discus-
sions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma (such

288 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

as the word violate). A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by
actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations
that are causing them discomfort. And they’d better get their habituation
done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to
accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt- outs.

The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy men-
tal habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from
PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from
their own past experiences, but from social learning as well. If everyone
around you acts as though something is dangerous— elevators, certain
neighborhoods, novels depicting racism— then you are at risk of acquir-
ing that fear too. The psychiatrist Sarah Roff pointed this out last year
in an online article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “One of my
biggest concerns about trigger warnings,” Roff wrote, “is that they will
apply not just to those who have experienced trauma, but to all students,
creating an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to believe that there
is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects
of our history.”

In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities
professors wrote that the trigger- warning movement was “already having
a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” They reported their
colleagues’ receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators
investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’
material in their courses, with or without warnings.” A trigger warn-
ing, they wrote, “serves as a guarantee that students will not experience
unexpected discomfort and implies that if they do, a contract has been
broken.” When students come to expect trigger warnings for any material
that makes them uncomfortable, the easiest way for faculty to stay out of
trouble is to avoid material that might upset the most sensitive student in
the class. ✻ ✻ ✻

What can We do noW?
Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause
them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the
workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expec-
tations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American de-
mocracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the
ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ■ 289

willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind
of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make
politics a positive- sum game.

Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they
will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students
to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of
the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many
other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the
world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits
of thought. This, of course, is the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy. With
this in mind, here are some steps that might help reverse the tide of bad
thinking on campus.

The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or
university administrators, but rather the federal government, which should
release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanc-
tions by the Department of Education. Congress should define peer- on-
peer harassment according to the Supreme Court’s definition in the 1999
case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Davis standard holds
that a single comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal
harassment; harassment requires a pattern of objectively offensive behavior
by one student that interferes with another student’s access to education.
Establishing the Davis standard would help eliminate universities’ impulse
to police their students’ speech so carefully.

Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need
to balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel wel-
come. Talking openly about such conf licting but important values is just the
sort of challenging exercise that any diverse but tolerant community must
learn to do. Restrictive speech codes should be abandoned.

Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warn-
ings. They should endorse the American Association of University Pro-
fessors’ report on these warnings, which notes, “The presumption that
students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at
once infantilizing and anti- intellectual.” Professors should be free to use
trigger warnings if they choose to do so, but by explicitly discouraging the
practice, universities would help fortify the faculty against student requests
for such warnings.

Finally, universities should rethink the skills and values they most want
to impart to their incoming students. At present, many freshman- orientation

290 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

programs try to raise student sensitivity to a nearly impossible level. Teach-
ing students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, espe-
cially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds.
But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential
offenses. Why not teach incoming students how to practice cognitive behav-
ioral therapy? Given high and rising rates of mental illness, this simple
step would be among the most humane and supportive things a university
could do. The cost and time commitment could be kept low: a few group
training sessions could be supplemented by Web sites or apps. But the out-
come could pay dividends in many ways. For example, a shared vocabulary
about reasoning, common distortions, and the appropriate use of evidence to
draw conclusions would facilitate critical thinking and real debate. It would
also tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some
colleges these days, allowing students’ minds to open more widely to new
ideas and new people. A greater commitment to formal, public debate on
campus— and to the assembly of a more politically diverse faculty— would
further serve that goal.

Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia, said:

This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.
For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate
any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

We believe that this is still— and will always be— the best attitude for
American universities. Faculty, administrators, students, and the federal
government all have a role to play in restoring universities to their historic

Study QueStionS

1. What do the authors mean by “trigger warnings” and “microagressions”?
2. What is “vindictive protectiveness”?
3. Why might overprotectiveness be harmful to those who are protected?

■ Compare and Contrast Questions
1. Does John Stuart Mill’s argument for freedom of expression mean that it

would be wrong to prohibit pornography in the sense in which Catharine
MacKinnon defines it?

2. Does Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument have the consequence that individuals
opposed to pornography ought to be exposed to it?

3. Would John Stuart Mill agree with Lukianoff and Haidt’s arguments?

Sexual Morality ■ 291

sexual Morality
The three papers in this section consider the distinction between fully con-
sensual sex and sex that crosses the line into a form of assault. There are
of course very clear cases of sexual assault, but these papers are more con-
cerned with cases at the margins. We start with Lois Pineau’s attempt to
understand the circumstances in the gray area between fully consensual
sex and aggressive rape, commonly known as “date rape”; nonconsensual
sex that does not involve violence, physical pressure, or its threat. Conven-
tionally, whether an act counts as date rape has been regarded as a matter
of whether valid consent was given. Yet silent submission is often taken as
consent, and what really amounts to assault can sometimes be confused
with seduction. A woman might “go along with” a man’s overbearingness
because her resistance is worn down and she fears worse if she doesn’t, but
it would be highly problematic to count her acquiescence as consent. Fur-
thermore, Pineau also argues that a woman who has engaged in sexually
provocative behavior has not, simply in virtue of that behavior, in effect
consented to sex. Such beliefs, she thinks, generate a series of myths that
often wrongly excuse men’s behavior, through a “she asked for it” defense.

Pineau argues that for sex to go well it is important that both parties
should understand, and take on as their own, the other person’s ends and
desires, without paternalism or manipulation. This suggests that commu-
nication needs to be at the heart of sexual relations. Sex, therefore, must be
conceived of as a communicative activity. Pineau argues that the notion of
consent relevant to sex should be understood in this communicative fash-
ion, rather than modeled on the negotiation and bargaining typical of a
commercial contract. Pineau calls this “communicative sexuality.” It means
that genuine conversation and discussion will typically be part of a commu-
nicative sexual act, and the question of whether date rape took place should
focus not on the simple yes/no of consent but on the nature of the entire
communication between the parties.

Nicholas Dixon builds on Pineau’s analysis to consider the role of alco-
hol and sexual consent. The actus reus—guilty act— of rape is sex without
consent. The mens rea, or guilty mind, requires that the act took place
“intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently.” The question Dixon
considers is how a woman’s consumption of alcohol can affect both the actus
reus and the mens rea. At one extreme, a woman could be so incapacitated
by alcohol that she is unable to give meaningful consent, and to have sex

292 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

with someone in that condition should normally count as rape. At the other
extreme, a woman may have her inhibitions relaxed by drinking a little more
than she is used to; she therefore consents but later regrets it. This should
not count as rape. But where is the line to be drawn? Dixon uses the term
“impaired sex” for an intermediate case in which a woman is significantly
under the effects of alcohol but still able to act for herself. If the man delib-
erately got her drunk, then arguably the case meets the conditions for rape,
but is less clear in examples where this is not the case. Dixon argues that
Pineau’s notion of communicative sexuality shows that impaired sex can be
sexual assault, for merely saying “yes” when drunk cannot always be taken
as a sign of real consent.

Dixon then moves on to ask whether a man should be punished for
engaging in impaired sex, discussing a range of different circumstances.
He notes the great difficulties in framing a law that can define what it is for
a woman to be so intoxicated that she is not able to give meaningful consent
but is still able to act. It can also be very difficult for a man to be able to judge
how much a woman has drunk, and as a result laws in this area would be
fraught with difficulty and the possibility of false conviction. Hence Dixon
argues that impaired sex should be dealt with by strong moral disapproval
rather than legal punishment.

Conor Kelly’s topic is the “hookup culture”: the practice, said to be
increasingly prevalent on U.S. campuses, of sexual activity with no expec-
tation of a longer- term relationship. Reactions range from appalled moral-
ism to enthusiastic endorsement of the practice as an expression of female
liberation. Approaching the issues from the standpoint of feminist theory,
Kelly argues that typical features of the hookup culture reveal its sexist

According to Kelly, four features of the hookup culture work against the
interests of women. The first is a lack of commitment. This is welcomed
by many participants because early emotional attachment to a partner may
well stand in the way of ambition and pursuit of a career. The second is an
acceptance of ambiguity. What, after all, is a “hookup”? It could mean any-
thing from “fairly chaste making out” to sexual intercourse. Hence when
two people report that they have hooked up, they can be understood in dif-
ferent ways by their different audiences. The third is a role for alcohol, which
often allows people to take the view that they were less responsible for their
actions than they would otherwise be. And finally, there is social pressure

Lois Pineau ■ 293

to conform, which makes it very difficult to have any type of relationship
that does not follow the hookup culture’s “script.”

While the hookup culture may seem to offer freedom and independence,
Kelly argues that a feminist perspective reveals several problems. It is argued
that, despite appearances, it is impossible to remove emotional attachment
completely and the pretense of doing so is damaging. Further, many women,
over time, would wish to develop longer- term relationships, but the hookup
culture stands in the way. The use of alcohol and ambiguous language also
are said to work against women’s interests. Together, Kelly argues, these fea-
tures combine so that the hookup culture is a form of sexism that produces
the perception of freedom but without the reality.

lois pineau
Date R ape: A Feminist A na lysis

Lois Pineau was formerly a professor of philosophy at Kansas State University.

Date rape is nonaggravated sexual assault, nonconsensual sex that does not
involve physical injury, or the explicit threat of physical injury. But because
it does not involve physical injury, and because physical injury is often the
only criterion that is accepted as evidence that the actus reas is nonconsen-
sual, what is really sexual assault is often mistaken for seduction. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The criteria for consent continues to be the central concern of dis-
course on sexual assault. ✻ ✻ ✻

the proBleM of the criterion
The reasoning that underlies the present criterion of consent is entangled
in a number of mutually supportive mythologies which see sexual assault
as masterful seduction, and silent submission as sexual enjoyment. ✻ ✻ ✻
This ✻ ✻ ✻ has given rise to a network of rationalizations that support the con-
flation of assault with seduction, submission with enjoyment. I therefore
want to begin my argument by providing an example which shows both
why it is so difficult to make this distinction, and that it exists. ✻ ✻ ✻

The woman I have in mind agrees to see someone because she feels an initial
attraction to him and believes that he feels that same way about her. She goes
out with him in the hope that there will be mutual enjoyment and in the

294 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

course of the day or evening an increase of mutual interest. Unfortunately,
these hopes of mutual and reciprocal interest are not realized. We do not know
how much interest she has in him by the end of their time together, but what-
ever her feelings she comes under pressure to have sex with him, and she
does not want to have the kind of sex he wants. She may desire to hold hands
and kiss, to engage in more intense caresses or in some form of foreplay, or
she may not want to be touched. She may have reasons unrelated to desire
for not wanting to engage in the kind of sex he is demanding. She may have
religious reservations, concerns about pregnancy or disease, a disinclination
to be just another conquest. She may be engaged in a seduction program of
her own which sees abstaining from sexual activity as a means of building an
important emotional bond. She feels she is desirable to him, and she knows,
and he knows that he will have sex with her if he can. And while she feels
she doesn’t owe him anything, and that it is her prerogative to refuse him,
this feeling is partly a defensive reaction against a deeply held belief that if
he is in need, she should provide. If she buys into the myth of insistent male
sexuality she may feel he is suffering from sexual frustration and that she is
largely to blame.

We do not know how much he desires her, but we do know that his desire
for erotic satisfaction can hardly be separated from his desire for conquest.
He feels no dating obligation, but has a strong commitment to scoring. He
uses the myth of “so hard to control” male desire as a rhetorical tactic, telling
her how frustrated she will leave him. He becomes overbearing. She resists,
voicing her disinclination. He alternates between telling her how desirable
she is and taking a hostile stance, charging her with misleading him, accus-
ing her of wanting him, and being coy, in short of being deceitful, all the
time engaging in rather aggressive body contact. It is late at night, she is tired
and a bit queasy from too many drinks, and he is reaffirming her suspicion
that perhaps she has misled him. She is having trouble disengaging his body
from hers, and wishes he would just go away. She does not adopt a strident
angry stance, partly because she thinks he is acting normally and does not
deserve it, partly because she feels she is partly to blame, and partly because
there is always the danger that her anger will make him angry, possibly vio-
lent. It seems that the only thing to do, given his aggression, and her queasy
fatigue, is to go along with him and get it over with, but this decision is so
entangled with the events in process it is hard to know if it is not simply a
recognition of what is actually happening. She finds the whole encounter
a thoroughly disagreeable experience, but he does not take any notice, and
wouldn’t have changed course if he had. He congratulates himself on his
sexual prowess and is confirmed in his opinion that aggressive tactics pay
off. Later she feels that she has been raped, but paradoxically tells herself that
she let herself be raped.

The paradoxical feelings of the woman in our example indicate her aware-
ness that what she feels about the incident stands in contradiction to the

Lois Pineau ■ 295

prevailing cultural assessment of it. She knows that she did not want to
have sex with her date. She is not so sure, however, about how much her
own desires count, and she is uncertain that she has made her desires clear.
Her uncertainty is reinforced by the cultural reading of this incident as an
ordinary seduction.

As for us, we assume that the woman did not want to have sex, but just
like her, we are unsure whether her mere reluctance, in the presence of
high- pressure tactics, constitutes nonconsent. We suspect that submission
to an overbearing and insensitive lout is no way to go about attaining sexual
enjoyment, and we further suspect that he felt no compunction about pro-
viding it, so that on the face of it, from the outside looking in, it looks like a
pretty unreasonable proposition for her.

Let us look at this reasoning more closely. Assume that she was not
attracted to the kind of sex offered by the sort of person offering it. Then it
would be prima facie unreasonable for her to agree to have sex, unreason-
able, that is, unless she were offered some pay– off for her stoic endurance,
money perhaps, or tickets to the opera. The reason is that in sexual matters,
agreement is closely connected to attraction. Thus, where the presumption
is that she was not attracted, we should at the same time presume that
she did not consent. Hence, the burden of proof should be on her alleged
assailant to show that she had good reasons for consenting to an unattractive

This is not, however, the way such situations are interpreted. In the
unlikely event that the example I have described should come before the
courts, there is little doubt that the law would interpret the woman’s even-
tual acquiescence or “going along with” the sexual encounter as consent.
But along with this interpretation would go the implicit understanding that
she had consented because when all was said and done, when the “token”
resistances to the “masterful advances” had been made she had wanted
to after all. Once the courts have constructed this interpretation, they are
then forced to conjure up some horror story of feminine revenge in order to
explain why she should bring charges against her “seducer.”

In the even more unlikely event that the courts agreed that the woman
had not consented to the above encounter, there is little chance that her
assailant would be convicted of sexual assault. The belief that the man’s
aggressive tactics are a normal part of seduction means that mens rea cannot
be established. Her eventual “going along” with his advances constitutes
reasonable grounds for his believing in her consent. These “reasonable”

296 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

grounds attest to the sincerity of his belief in her consent. ✻ ✻ ✻ The sympathy
of the court is more likely to lie with the rapist than with his victim, since,
if the court is typical, it will be strongly inclined to believe that the victim
had in some way “asked for it.”

The position of the courts is supported by the widespread belief that male
aggression and female reluctance are normal parts of seduction. Given their
acceptance of this model, the logic of their response must be respected. For
if sexual aggression is a part of ordinary seduction, then it cannot be incon-
sistent with the legitimate consent of the person allegedly seduced by this
means. And if it is normal for a woman to be reluctant, then this reluctance
must be consistent with her consent as well. The position of the courts is not
inconsistent just so long as they allow that some sort of protest on the part of
a woman counts as a refusal. As we have seen, however, it frequently happens
that no sort of a protest would count as a refusal. Moreover, if no sort of pro-
test, or at least if precious few count, then the failure to register these protests
will amount to “asking for it,” it will amount, in other words, to agreeing. ✻ ✻ ✻

rape Myths
The claim that the victim provoked a sexual incident, that “she asked for
it,” is by far the most common defence given by men who are accused of
sexual assault. Feminists, rightly incensed by this response, often treat it as
beneath contempt. ✻ ✻ ✻

The least sophisticated of the “she asked for it” rationales, and in a sense,
the easiest to deal with, appeals to an injunction against sexually provoc-
ative behaviour on the part of women. If women should not be sexually
provocative, then, from this standpoint, a woman who is sexually provoca-
tive deserves to suffer the consequences. Now it will not do to respond that
women get raped even when they are not sexually provocative, or that it is
men who get to interpret (unfairly) what counts as sexually provocative. The
question should be: Why shouldn’t a woman be sexually provocative? Why
should this behaviour warrant any kind of aggressive response whatsoever?

Attempts to explain that women have a right to behave in sexually provoc-
ative ways without suffering dire consequences still meet with surprisingly
tough resistance. Even people who find nothing wrong or sinful with sex
itself, in any of its forms, tend to suppose that women must not behave
sexually unless they are prepared to carry through on some fuller course of
sexual interaction. The logic of this response seems to be that at some point
a woman’s behaviour commits her to following through on the full course

Lois Pineau ■ 297

of a sexual encounter as it is defined by her assailant. At some point she has
made an agreement, or formed a contract, and once that is done, her con-
tractor is entitled to demand that she satisfy the terms of that contract. ✻ ✻ ✻
But we do not normally suppose that casual nonverbal behaviour generates
agreements. Nor do we normally grant private persons the right to enforce
contracts. What rationale would support our conclusion in this case?

The rationale, I believe, comes in the form of a belief in the especially
insistent nature of male sexuality, an insistence which lies at the root of nat-
ural male aggression, and which is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible
to contain. At a certain point in the arousal process, it is thought, a man’s
rational will gives way to the prerogatives of nature. His sexual need can
and does reach a point where it is uncontrollable, and his natural masculine
aggression kicks in to assure that this need is met. Women, however, are
naturally more contained, and so it is their responsibility not to provoke the
irrational in the male. If they do go so far as that, they have both failed in
their responsibilities, and subjected themselves to the inevitable. One does
not go into the lion’s cage and expect not to be eaten. ✻ ✻ ✻

This belief about the normal aggressiveness of male sexuality is comple-
mented by common knowledge about female gender development. Once,
women were taught to deny their sexuality and to aspire to ideals of chastity.
Things have not changed so much. Women still tend to eschew conquest
mentalities in favour of a combination of sex and affection. Insofar as this
is thought to be merely a cultural requirement, however, there is an expec-
tation that women will be coy about their sexual desire. The assumption
that women both want to indulge sexually, and are inclined to sacrifice this
desire for higher ends, gives rise to the myth that they want to be raped.
After all, doesn’t rape give them the sexual enjoyment they really want, at
the same time that it relieves them of the responsibility for admitting to and
acting upon what they want? And how then can we blame men, who have
been socialized to be aggressively seductive precisely for the purpose of
overriding female reserve? If we find fault at all, we are inclined to cast our
suspicions on the motives of the woman. For it is on her that the contradic-
tory roles of sexual desirer and sexual denier has been placed. ✻ ✻ ✻

But if women really want sexual pleasure, what inclines us to think that
they will get it through rape? This conclusion logically requires a theory about
the dynamics of sexual pleasure that sees that pleasure as an emergent prop-
erty of overwhelming male insistence. For the assumption that a raped female
experiences sexual pleasure implies that the person who rapes her knows how

298 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

to cause that pleasure independently of any information she might convey
on that point. Since her ongoing protest is inconsistent with requests to be
touched in particular ways in particular places, to have more of this and less
of that, then we must believe that the person who touches her knows these
particular ways and places instinctively, without any directives from her.

Thus we find, underlying and reinforcing this belief in incommunicative
male prowess, a conception of sexual pleasure that springs from wordless
interchanges, and of sexual success that occurs in a place of meaningful
silence. The language of seduction is accepted as a tacit language: eye con-
tact, smiles, blushes, and faintly discernible gestures. It is, accordingly,
imprecise and ambiguous. It would be easy for a man to make mistakes
about the message conveyed, understandable that he should mistakenly
think that a sexual invitation has been made, and a bargain struck. But
honest mistakes, we think, must be excused.

In sum, the belief that women should not be sexually provocative is log-
ically linked to several other beliefs, some normative, some empirical. The
normative beliefs are that (1) people should keep the agreements they make
(2) that sexually provocative behaviour, taken beyond a certain point, gen-
erates agreements (3) that the peculiar nature of male and female sexuality
places such agreements in a special category, one in which the possibility
of retracting an agreement is ruled out, or at least made highly unlikely,
(4) that women are not to be trusted, in sexual matters at least. The empir-
ical belief, which turns out to be false, is that male sexuality is not subject
to rational and moral control.

dispellinG the Myths
The “she asked for it” justification of sexual assault incorporates a con-
ception of a contract that would be difficult to defend in any other context
and the presumptions about human sexuality which function to reinforce
sympathies rooted in the contractual notion of just deserts are not sup-
ported by empirical research.

The belief that a woman generates some sort of contractual obligation
whenever her behaviour is interpreted as seductive is the most indefensi-
ble part of the mythology of rape. In law, contracts are not legitimate just
because a promise has been made. In particular, the use of pressure tactics
to extract agreement is frowned upon. Normally, an agreement is upheld
only if the contractors were clear on what they were getting into, and had
sufficient time to ref lect on the wisdom of their doing so. ✻ ✻ ✻

Lois Pineau ■ 299

✻ ✻ ✻ Even if we assume that a woman has initially agreed to an encounter,
her agreement does not automatically make all subsequent sexual activity to
which she submits legitimate. If during coitus a woman should experience
pain, be suddenly overcome with guilt or fear of pregnancy, or simply lose
her initial desire, those are good reasons for her to change her mind. Having
changed her mind, neither her partner nor the state has any right to force her
to continue. But then if she is forced to continue she is assaulted. Thus, estab-
lishing that consent occurred at a particular point during a sexual encounter
should not conclusively establish the legitimacy of the encounter. ✻ ✻ ✻

If the “she asked for it” contractual view of sexual interchange has any
validity, it is because there is a point at which there is no stopping a sexual
encounter, a point at which that encounter becomes the inexorable outcome
of the unfolding of natural events. If a sexual encounter is like a slide on
which I cannot stop halfway down, it will be relevant whether I enter the
slide of my own free will, or am pushed.

But there is no evidence that the entire sexual act is like a slide. While
there may be a few seconds in the “plateau” period just prior to orgasm in
which people are “swept” away by sexual feelings to the point where we could
justifiably understand their lack of heed for the comfort of their partner, the
greater part of a sexual encounter comes well within the bounds of morally
responsible control of our own actions. Indeed, the available evidence shows
that most of the activity involved in sex has to do with building the requisite
level of desire, a task that involves the proper use of foreplay, the possibility
of which implies control over the form that foreplay will take. ✻ ✻ ✻ Sexologists
are unanimous ✻ ✻ ✻ in holding that mutual sexual enjoyment requires an
atmosphere of comfort and communication, a minimum of pressure, and
an ongoing check- up on one’s partner’s state. They maintain that different
people have different predilections, and that what is pleasurable for one
person is very often anathema to another. These findings show that the way
to achieve sexual pleasure, at any time at all, let alone with a casual acquain-
tance, decidedly does not involve overriding the other person’s express res-
ervations and providing them with just any kind of sexual stimulus. ✻ ✻ ✻

If aggressive seduction does not lead to good sex, if women do not like it
or want it, then it is not rational to think that they would agree to it. Where
such sex takes place, it is therefore rational to presume that the sex was not

The myth that women like to be raped, is closely connected, as we have
seen, to doubt about their honesty in sexual matters, and this suspicion is

300 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

exploited by defence lawyers when sexual assault cases make it to the court-
room. It is an unfortunate consequence of the presumption of innocence
that rape victims who end up in court frequently find that it is they who are
on trial. For if the defendant is innocent, then either he did not intend to
do what he was accused of, or the plaintiff is mistaken about his identity, or
she is lying. Often the last alternative is the only plausible defence, and as a
result, the plaintiff’s word seldom goes unquestioned. Women are frequently
accused of having made a false accusation, either as a defensive mechanism
for dealing with guilt and shame, or out of a desire for revenge.

✻ ✻ ✻ We can now establish a logical connection between the evidence
that a woman was subjected to high- pressure aggressive “seduction” tactics,
and her claim that she did not consent to that encounter. Where the kind of
encounter is not the sort to which it would be reasonable to consent, there
is a logical presumption that a woman who claims that she did not consent
is telling the truth. Where the kind of sex involved is not the sort of sex we
would expect a woman to like, the burden of proof should not be on the
woman to show that she did not consent, but on the defendant to show that
contrary to every reasonable expectation she did consent. The defendant
should be required to convince the court that the plaintiff persuaded him to
have sex with her even though there are no visible reasons why she should.

In conclusion, there are no grounds for the “she asked for it” defence.
Sexually provocative behaviour does not generate sexual contracts. ✻ ✻ ✻ Sec-
ondly, all the evidence suggests that neither women nor men find sexual
enjoyment in rape or in any form of non- communicative sexuality. Thirdly,
male sexual desire is containable, and can be subjected to moral and rational
control. Fourthly, since there is no reason why women should not be sexually
provocative, they do not “deserve” any sex they do not want. This last is a
welcome discovery. The taboo on sexual provocativeness in women is a taboo
both on sensuality and on teasing. But sensuality is a source of delight, and
teasing is playful and inspires wit. What a relief to learn that it is not sexual
provocativeness, but its enemies, that constitutes a danger to the world.

coMMunicative sexuality: reinterpretinG
the kantian iMperative
In thinking about sex we must keep in mind its sensual ends, and the facts
show that aggressive high- pressure sex contradicts those ends. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ If a man wants to be sure that he is not forcing himself on a woman,
he has an obligation either to ensure that the encounter really is mutually

Lois Pineau ■ 301

enjoyable, or to know the reasons why she would want to continue the
encounter in spite of her lack of enjoyment. A closer investigation of the
nature of this obligation will enable us to construct a more rational and a
more plausible norm of sexual conduct.

Onora O’Neill has argued that in intimate situations we have an obli-
gation to take the ends of others as our own, and to promote those ends in
a non- manipulative and non- paternalistic manner.1 Now it seems that in
honest sexual encounters just this is required. Assuming that each person
enters the encounter in order to seek sexual satisfaction, each person engag-
ing in the encounter has an obligation to help the other seek his or her ends.
To do otherwise is to risk acting in opposition to what the other desires, and
hence to risk acting without the other’s consent.

But the obligation to promote the sexual ends of one’s partner implies the
obligation to know what those ends are, and also the obligation to know how
those ends are attained. Thus, the problem comes down to a problem of epis-
temic responsibility, the responsibility to know. The solution, in my view,
lies in the practice of a communicative sexuality, one which combines the
appropriate knowledge of the other with respect for the dialectics of desire.

So let us, for a moment, conceive of sexual interaction on a communica-
tive rather than a contractual model. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The difference is this: typically, where contracts are concerned, coop-
eration is primarily required as a means to some further end set by the
contract. In proper conversations, as I shall define them here, cooperation
is sought as an end in itself.

It is not inimical to most contracts that the cooperation necessary for
achieving its ends be reluctant, or even hostile. Although we can find fault
with a contractor for failing to deliver goods or services, we do not normally
criticize her for her attitude. And although there are situations where we
employ people on the condition that they be congenial, even then we do
not require that their congeniality be the real thing. When we are having a
proper conversation, however, we do, typically, want the real thing. In con-
versation, the cooperation with the other is not just a means to an interesting
conversation; it is one of the ends we seek, without which the conversation
ceases to satisfy.

The communicative interaction involved in conversation is con-
cerned with a good deal more than didactic content and argument. Good

1 O’Neill, “Between Consenting Adults,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, 252–277.

302 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

conversationalists are intuitive, sympathetic, and charitable. Intuition
and charity aid the conversationalist in her effort to interpret the words
of the other correctly and sympathy enables her to enter into the other’s
point of view. Her sensitivity alerts her to the tone of the exchange. Has
her point been taken good- humouredly or resentfully? Aggressively deliv-
ered responses are taken as a sign that ad hominems are at work, and that
the respondent’s self- worth has been called into question. Good conversa-
tionalists will know to suspend further discussion until this sense of self-
worth has been reestablished. Angry responses, resentful responses, bored
responses, even over- enthusiastic responses require that the emotional
ground be cleared before the discussion be continued. Often it is better to
change the topic, or to come back to it on another day under different cir-
cumstances. Good conversationalists do not overwhelm their respondents
with a barrage of their own opinions. While they may be persuasive, the
forcefulness of their persuasion does not lie in their being over- bearing, but
rather in their capacity to see the other’s point of view, to understand what it
depends on, and so to address the essential point, but with tact and clarity.

Just as communicative conversationalists are concerned with more
than didactic content, persons engaged in communicative sexuality will be
concerned with more than achieving coitus. They will be sensitive to the
responses of their partners. They will, like good conversationalists, be intu-
itive, sympathetic, and charitable. Intuition will help them to interpret their
partner’s responses; sympathy will enable them to share what their partner
is feeling; charity will enable them to care. Communicative sexual partners
will not overwhelm each other with the barrage of their own desires. They
will treat negative, bored, or angry responses, as a sign that the erotic ground
needs to be either cleared or abandoned. Their concern with fostering the
desire of the other must involve an ongoing state of alertness in interpreting
her responses.

Just as a conversationalist’s prime concern is for the mutuality of the
discussion, a person engaged in communicative sexuality will be most con-
cerned with the mutuality of desire. As such, both will put into practice a
regard for their respondent that is guaranteed no place in the contractual
language of rights, duties, and consent. The dialectics of both activities
ref lect the dialectics of desire insofar as each person’s interest in continuing
is contingent upon the other person wishing to do so too, and each person’s
interest is as much fueled by the other’s interest as it is by her own. Each
respects the subjectivity of the other not just by avoiding treading on it,

Lois Pineau ■ 303

but by fostering and protecting the quality of that subjectivity. Indeed, the
requirement to avoid treading on the subjectivity of the other entails the
obligation to respect the dialectics of desire. For in intimacy there is no pass-
ing by on the other side. To be intimate just is to open up in emotional and
personal ways, to share personal knowledge, and to be receptive to the open-
ness of the other. This openness and sharing normally takes place only in an
atmosphere of confidence and trust. But once availed of this knowledge, and
confidence, and trust, one has, as it were, responsibility thrust upon one,
the responsibility not to betray the trust by misusing the knowledge. And
only by respecting the dialectics of desire can we have any confidence that
we have not misused our position of trust and knowledge. ✻ ✻ ✻

cultural presuMptions
✻ ✻ ✻ Traditionally, the decision to date indicates that two people have an
initial attraction to each other, that they are disposed to like each other, and
look forward to enjoying each other’s company. Dating derives its implicit
meaning from this tradition. It retains this meaning unless other aims are
explicitly stated, and even then it may not be possible to alienate this mean-
ing. It is a rare woman who will not spurn a man who states explicitly, right
at the onset, that he wants to go out with her solely on the condition that he
have sexual intercourse with her at the end of the evening, and that he has
no interest in her company apart from gaining that end, and no concern for
mutual satisfaction.

✻ ✻ ✻ As long as we are operating under the auspices of a dating relation-
ship, it requires that we behave in the mode of friendship and trust. But if a
date is more like a friendship than a business contract, then clearly respect
for the dialectics of desire is incompatible with the sort of sexual pressure
that is inclined to end in date rape. And clearly, also, a conquest mentality
which exploits a situation of trust and respect for purely selfish ends is
morally pernicious. Failure to respect the dialectics of desire when operat-
ing under the auspices of friendship and trust is to act in f lagrant disregard
of the moral requirement to avoid manipulative, coercive, and exploitive
behaviour. Respect for the dialectics of desire is prima facie inconsistent with
the satisfaction of one person at the expense of the other. The proper end of
friendship relations is mutual satisfaction. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The evidence of sexologists strongly indicates that women whose
partners are aggressively uncommunicative have little chance of experienc-
ing sexual pleasure. But it is not reasonable for women to consent to what

304 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

they have little chance of enjoying. Hence it is not reasonable for women to
consent to aggressive noncommunicative sex. Nor can we reasonably sup-
pose that women have consented to sexual encounters which we know and
they know they do not find enjoyable. With the communicative model as the
norm, the aggressive contractual model should strike us as a model of devi-
ant sexuality, and sexual encounters patterned on that model should strike
us as encounters to which prima facie no one would reasonably agree. But
if acquiescence to an encounter counts as consent only if the acquiescence
is reasonable, something to which a reasonable person, in full possession
of knowledge relevant to the encounter, would agree, then acquiescence to
aggressive noncommunicative sex is not reasonable. Hence, acquiescence
under such conditions should not count as consent. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ All that is needed then, in order to provide women with legal pro-
tection from “date rape” is to make both reckless indifference and willful
ignorance a sufficient condition of mens rea and to make communicative
sexuality the accepted norm of sex to which a reasonable woman would
agree. Thus, the appeal to communicative sexuality as a norm for sexual
encounters accomplishes two things. It brings the aggressive sex involved
in “date rape” well within the realm of sexual assault, and it locates the
guilt of date rapists in the failure to approach sexual relations on a com-
municative basis.

the episteMoloGical iMplications
✻ ✻ ✻ On the new model of communicative sexuality what we want is evi-
dence of an ongoing positive and encouraging response on the part of the
plaintiff. This new goal will require quite different tactics on the part of the
cross- examiners, and quite different expectations on the part of juries and
judges. Where communicative sexuality is taken as the norm, and aggres-
sive sexual tactics as a presumption against consent, the outcome for the
example that I described above would be quite different. It would be regard-
ed as sexual assault rather than seduction.

Let us then consider a date rape trial in which a man is cross- examined.
He is asked whether he was presuming mutual sexual enjoyment. Suppose
he answers in the negative. Then he would have to account for why he per-
sisted in the face of her voiced reluctance. He cannot give as an excuse that
he thought she liked it, because he believes that she did not. If he thought
that she had consented even though she didn’t like it, then it seems to me
that the burden of proof would lie with him to say why it was reasonable to

Lois Pineau ■ 305

think this. Clearly, her initial resistance, her presumed lack of enjoyment,
and the pressure tactics involved in getting her to “go along” would not
support a reasonable belief in consent, and his persisting in the face of her
dissatisfaction would surely cast doubt on the sincerity of his belief in her

But suppose he answers in the affirmative. Then the cross- examiner
would not have to rely on the old criteria for non- consent. He would not
have to show either that she had resisted him, or that she was in a fearful or
intimidated state of mind. Instead he could use a communicative model of
sexuality to discover how much respect there had been for the dialectics of
desire. Did he ask her what she liked? If she was using contraceptives? If he
should? What tone of voice did he use? How did she answer? Did she make
any demands? Did she ask for penetration? How was that desire conveyed?
Did he ever let up the pressure long enough to see if she was really that
interested? Did he ask her which position she preferred? Assuming that
the defendant does not perjure himself, he would lack satisfactory answers
to these questions. But even where the defendant did lie, a skilled cross-
examiner who was willing to go into detail could probably establish easily
enough when the interaction had not been communicative. It is extraordi-
narily difficult to keep up a consistent story when you are not telling the
truth. ✻ ✻ ✻

In sum, using communicative sexuality as a model of normal sex has sev-
eral advantages over the “ aggressive- acquiescence” model of seduction.
The new model ties the presumption that consensual sex takes place in
the expectation of mutual desire much more closely to the facts about how
that desire actually functions. Where communicative sex does not occur,
this establishes a presumption that there was no consent. The importance
of this presumption is that we are able, in criminal proceedings, to shift
the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who on the contractual model must
show that she resisted or was threatened, to the defendant who must then
give some reason why she should consent after all. The communicative
model of sexuality also enables us to give a different conceptual content to
the concept of consent. It sees consent as something more like an ongoing
cooperation than the one- shot agreement which we are inclined to see it as
on the contractual model. Moreover, it does not matter, on the communica-
tive model, whether a woman was sexually provocative, what her reputation

306 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

is, what went on before the sex began. All that matters is the quality of
communication with regard to the sex itself.

But most importantly, the communicative model of normal sexuality
gives us a handle on a solution to the problem of date- rape. If noncom-
municative sexuality establishes a presumption of nonconsent, then where
there are no overriding reasons for thinking that consent occurred, we have
a criterion for a category of sexual assault that does not require evidence of
physical violence or threat. If we are serious about date rape, then the next
step is to take this criterion as objective grounds for establishing that a date
rape has occurred. The proper legislation is the shortest route to establishing
this criterion.

Study QueStionS

1. How is date rape to be distinguished from other forms of rape?
2. What does Pineau find wrong with the “she asked for it” defense?
3. How does Pineau think consent should be managed in order to avoid the

possibility of date rape?

nicholas dixon
A lcohol a nd R ape

Nicholas Dixon is professor of philosophy at Alma College, Michigan.

Many date or acquaintance rapes, especially those that occur in a college
setting, involve the use of alcohol by both rapist and victim. To what ex-
tent, if any, should the fact that a woman has been drinking alcohol before
she has sexual relations affect our determination of whether or not she has
been raped? I will consider the impact of the woman’s intake of alcohol on
both the actus reus (“guilty act”) and mens rea (“guilty mind”) elements of
rape. A man is guilty of rape only if he not only commits the actus reus of
rape— sex without his partner’s consent— but does so with the requisite
guilty mind, that is, intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. I
will take for granted that, regardless of a woman’s alcoholic intake, she has
been raped whenever a man forces himself on her after she says “no” or
otherwise resists. I will focus instead on situations when women who have
been drinking provide varying levels of acquiescence to sex. Let us begin by
considering two relatively straightforward examples, which we can use as
limiting cases, of sexual encounters involving alcohol.

Nicholas Dixon ■ 307

i. tWo liMitinG cases
a. fraternity Gang rape
In 1988 four Florida State University fraternity members allegedly had sex
with an 18- year- old female student after she had passed out with an almost
lethal blood alcohol level of .349  percent. Afterwards, she was allegedly
“dumped” in a different fraternity house.

If these events, which led to a five- year ban on the fraternity chapter,
really happened, the woman was certainly raped. Since a woman who
is unconscious after heavy drinking is unable to consent, the fraternity
members committed the actus reus of rape. Moreover, any claim that they
were unaware of her lack of consent, thus potentially negating the mens rea
requirement, would ring hollow. We may extrapolate beyond this extreme
case to situations where a person is so drunk that, while she is conscious,
she is barely aware of where she is and who her partner is, and she has no
recollection of what has happened the following day. She may acquiesce and
give the physiological responses that indicate consent, and she may even say
“yes” when asked whether she wants to have sex, but her mental state is so
impaired by alcohol that she cannot give a sufficiently meaningful level of
consent to rebut rape charges against the man with whom she has sexual

B. a regretted sexual encounter
A male and female college student go on a dinner date, and both drink a
relatively small amount of alcohol, say a glass of wine or beer. The conversa-
tion flows freely, and she agrees to go back to his place to continue the eve-
ning. They have one more drink there, start kissing and making out, and he
asks her to spend the night. She is not drunk and, impressed by his gentle
and communicative manner, accepts his offer. However, she is not used to
drinking, and, although she is not significantly cognitively impaired— her
speech is not slurred and her conversation is lucid— her inhibitions have
been markedly lowered by the alcohol. When she wakes up alongside him
the following morning, she bitterly regrets their lovemaking.

No rape has occurred. While she now regrets having spent the night with
her date, and would quite likely not have agreed to do so had she not drunk
any alcohol, her consent at the time was sufficiently voluntary to rule out
any question of rape. While their sexual encounter violated her more lasting
values, this no more entails that she did not “really” consent than the fact
that my overeating at dinner violates my long- term plan to diet entails that

308 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

my indulgence was not an autonomous action. Moreover, even if we granted
for the sake of argument the far fetched claim that the actus reus of rape
occurred, his belief that she did consent was perfectly reasonable, so he would
still fail to exhibit the requisite mens rea. ✻ ✻ ✻ A distinction exists between
rape and bad sex. Unwisely having sex after unwisely drinking alcohol is not
necessarily rape. We do a lot of unwise things when drinking, like continuing
to drink too long and getting a bad hangover, and staying up too late when
we have to work the next day. In neither case would we question our consent
to our act of continuing to drink or staying up late. Why should a person’s
consent to sex after moderate amounts of drinking be any more suspect?

ii.  proBleMatic interMediate cases:
iMpaired sex

Real sexual encounters involving alcohol tend to fall in between these two
limiting cases. Imagine, for instance, a college student who gets very drunk
at a party. Her blood alcohol level is well above the legal limit for driving.
She is slurring her words and is unsteady on her feet, but she knows where
she is and with whom she is speaking or dancing. She ends up spending
the night with a guy at the party— perhaps someone she has just met, per-
haps an acquaintance, but no one with whom she is in an ongoing relation-
ship. She willingly responds to his sexual advances, but, like the woman
in case IB, horribly regrets her sexual encounter the next day. Although
she remembers going home with the guy from the party, she cannot recall
much else from the evening and night. Let us call this intermediate case,
in which the woman’s judgment is significantly impaired by alcohol, “im-
paired sex.” Has she been raped?

In the next two subsections I will examine two competing analyses
of impaired sex, each one suggested by one of the limiting cases in sec-
tion I. First, though, I pause to consider how relevant the degree to which
the man has helped to bring about the woman’s impaired state is to the
question of whether rape has occurred. Suppose that he has deliberately
got her drunk, cajoling her to down drink after drink, with the intention of
lowering her resistance to his planned sexual advances? The very fact that he
uses such a strategy implies that he doubts that she would agree to have sex
with him if she were sober. Should she bring rape charges, on the ground
that her acquiescence to sex when she was drunk was invalid, his claim that
he believed that she voluntarily consented would appear disingenuous. His
recklessness in disregarding doubts about the voluntariness of her consent
arguably meets the mens rea requirement. ✻ ✻ ✻

Nicholas Dixon ■ 309

For the remainder of this paper, I will focus instead on the more difficult
variant of impaired sex in which the man does not use alcohol as a tool for
seduction. Instead, he meets the woman when she is already drunk, or else
he drinks with her with no designs on getting her drunk. In either case, he
spontaneously takes advantage of the situation in which he finds himself.
Is he guilty of rape?

a. Women’s responsibility for their own actions
Few would deny that the woman in section IB is responsible for her own
unwise decision to engage in a sexual encounter that she now regrets. Katie
Roiphe and Camille Paglia would extend this approach to impaired sex, in-
volving a woman who is very drunk but not incoherent. Roiphe insists that
women are autonomous adults who are responsible for the consequences
of their use of alcohol and other drugs.1 And Paglia argues that sex is an
inherently risky business, in which rape is an ever- present danger. Rather
than complain about sexual assault, women who desire to be sexually active
should take steps to minimize its danger, by being alert to warning signs,
learning self- defense, and avoiding getting drunk when doing so would put
them at risk for rape.2

Both Roiphe and Paglia are vulnerable to powerful criticisms. For
instance, Roiphe’s blanket dismissal of the extensive date rape literature is
based on her own f limsy anecdotal evidence and a superficial reading of the
studies. And, among multiple outrageous, offensive comments about uncon-
trollable male sexuality and women’s desire to be with abusive he- men,
Paglia is especially guilty of blatant victim- blaming. Even if it does result
from a woman’s recklessness, rape is still rape and the rapist is primarily to
blame. We would not dream of exonerating a Central Park mugger because
the victim was foolish to go there at 4 a.m. Indeed, the whole point of “Take
Back the Night” marches is precisely that the burden is on aggressors to stop
their violence, not on women to change their behavior to accommodate

However, we can isolate from their more dubious views a relatively uncon-
troversial underlying principle, which is surely congenial to liberal and most
other types of feminists: namely, that we should respect women’s status
as agents, and we should not degrade them by treating them as incapable

1 The relevant passage from Roiphe’s book The Morning After is reprinted in Robert Trevas,
Arthur Zucker, and Donald Borchert (eds.), Philosophy of Sex and Love: A Reader (Upper Sad-
dle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 365.
2 Camille Paglia, “Date Rape: Another Perspective,” William H. Shaw (ed.), Social and Per-
sonal Ethics, 2nd edition (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1996).

310 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

of making autonomous decisions about alcohol and sexuality. We should,
instead, hold women at least partly responsible for the consequences of their
voluntary decision to drink large amounts of alcohol, made in full knowl-
edge that it may result in choices that they will later regret. This principle
would count against regarding impaired sex as rape. A plausible corollary
of this principle is that women, as autonomous beings, have a duty to make
their wishes about sex clear to their partners. When a woman drinks heavily
and ends up having a sexual encounter that she later regrets she has failed
to exercise this positive duty of autonomous people. Her actions have sent
the wrong message to her partner, and to blame him for the sex in which
she willingly engages but that she later regrets seems unfair. Even if we
allow that her consent is so impaired that the actus reus of rape has occurred,
on this view he does not fulfill the mens rea element of the crime of rape.
The onus is on the woman to communicate her lack of consent and, in the
absence of such communication, his belief in her consent is quite reason-
able. In sum, proponents of this approach hesitate to regard impaired sex
as rape, because doing so suggests that women are unable to make autono-
mous decisions about alcohol and sexuality, and because it ignores women’s
positive duty to exercise their autonomy by clearly communicating their
considered preferences (and not just their momentary passion) about sex.

B.  communicative sexuality: Men’s duty to
ensure that Women consent

The “women’s responsibility for sex” approach is very plausible in case
IB, where a woman later regrets sex in which she willingly engaged after
moderate drinking. However, men’s accountability for unwanted sex be-
comes unavoidable in the gang rape described in subsection IA. Granted,
the female student may have voluntarily and very unwisely chosen to drink
massive amounts of alcohol, but once she had passed out, the four fraternity
members who allegedly had intercourse with her had absolutely no reason
to believe that she consented to sex. Regardless of whether they deliberately
got her drunk or, on the other hand, took advantage of her after finding her
in this condition, they are guilty of recklessly ignoring the evident risk that
she did not consent, and hence fulfill the mens rea requirement for rape.

In cases such as this, Lois Pineau’s model of “communicative sexuality”
becomes enormously plausible.3 While Pineau’s view does not preclude

3 Lois Pineau, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis,” Law and Philosophy 8 (1989). [Editor’s note:
See selections from “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis” on pp. 293–306 of this reader.]

Nicholas Dixon ■ 311

regarding women as having a duty to clearly communicate their wishes
regarding sexual intimacy— indeed, such a duty may be an integral part of
communicative sexuality— its central tenet is that men too are responsible for
ensuring that effective communication occurs. In particular, the burden is
on men to ensure that their female partners really do consent to sexual inti-
macy, and they should refrain from sexual activity if they are not sure of this
consent. A reasonable belief that a woman consented to sex will still count as a
defense against rape, but the reasonableness of this belief will itself be judged
on whether it would have been reasonable, from the woman’s point of view,
to consent to sex. Since virtually no woman would want four men to have sex
with her after she has passed into an alcoholic coma, in the absence of some
miraculous evidence that the female student actually wanted sex in such
unpleasant circumstances, the four fraternity members blatantly violated
their duty to be sure of the woman’s consent, and are indeed guilty of rape.

More generally, Pineau argues that it is never reasonable to assume that
a woman consents to “aggressive noncommunicative sex.” Not only does
her approach regard the extreme case of sex with an unconscious person
as rape, but it would put any man who fails to take reasonable precautions
to ensure that a woman consents to sex at risk for a rape conviction should
she later declare that she did not consent. When doubt exists about consent,
the burden is on the man to ask. The much- discussed Antioch University
“Sexual Offense Policy,” which requires explicit consent to each new level of
sexual intimacy every time it occurs, is a quasi- legal enactment of Pineau’s
model of communicative sexuality.4

Pineau’s approach entails a very different analysis of our central case of
impaired sex than the “women’s responsibility for sex” model discussed in
the previous section. At first blush, one might think that all that Pineau
would require of a man would be to ask the woman whether she is really
sure that she wants to continue with sexual intimacy. If he boldly forges
ahead without even asking the woman this question, and if the woman
later claims that she was too drunk for her acquiescence to sex to constitute
genuine consent, he risks being found guilty of Pineau’s proposed category
of “nonaggravated sexual assault,” which would carry a lighter penalty than
“standard” rape when a woman communicates her lack of consent by saying
“no” or otherwise resisting.

4 See Alan Soble, “Antioch’s ‘Sexual Offense Policy’: A Philosophical Exploration,” Journal
of Social Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1997) for an excellent analysis and critique of An-
tioch’s policy.

312 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

But even explicitly asking the woman for consent may be insufficient to pro-
tect him from blame and liability under the communicative sexuality model.
The issue is precisely whether the word “yes,” when spoken by a woman who
is very drunk, is sufficient evidence of her consent. Being very drunk means
that her judgment is impaired, as is evident from her horror and regret the fol-
lowing morning when she realizes what she has done. Given that we are only
too aware of our propensity to do things that we later regret when we are
very drunk, the man in this situation has good reason to doubt whether the
woman’s acquiescence to his advances and her “yes” to his explicit question is
a fully autonomous ref lection of lasting values and desires. Since he cannot
be reasonably sure that the woman consents, he should refrain from sexual
intercourse. Even if he is unaware of the danger that she does not consent,
he should be aware and is, therefore, guilty of negligence. His belief that she
consents may be sincere, but it is unreasonable and does not provide a defense
to charges of nonaggravated sexual assault. On Pineau’s “communicative sex-
uality” model, then, the man who proceeds with impaired sex meets both the
actus reus and mens rea requirements of nonaggravated sexual assault.

iii. should We punish Men for iMpaired sex?
Pineau’s claim that men have a moral obligation to ensure that their partners
consent to sex is very plausible. Given alcohol’s tendency to cloud people’s
judgment, men should be especially careful to ensure that a woman consents
to sex when she is very drunk. In most circumstances, this requires simply
refraining from sexual activity. Imposing this relatively minor restriction
on men’s sexual freedom seems amply justified by the goal of preventing
the enormous harm of rape. However, whether we should find men who fail
to meet this duty and proceed to have sex with very drunk women guilty of
rape— or even of nonaggravated sexual assault or a similar felony carrying a
lighter penalty than “standard” rape— is much more controversial.

a. the importance of context
Alan Soble criticizes the Antioch University policy on the ground that it
fails to distinguish between different types of sexual encounter.5 Its de-
mand that people obtain explicit verbal consent to each new level of sexu-
al activity during each sexual encounter may be appropriate for one night
stands with  strangers. However, it seems unduly intrusive in the con-
text of an ongoing, committed relationship, when the partners may well

5 Ibid., pp. 30–32.

Nicholas Dixon ■ 313

be sufficiently  well attuned to one another’s body language to be reason-
ably sure that both people consent to sex. Under Antioch’s policy, “[t]he
history of the relationship, let alone the history of the evening, counts for

A similar criticism applies to the demand that men always refrain from
impaired sex. While the existence of a long- term, committed relationship
does not provide a man with immunity from charges of sexual misconduct—
marital rape, after all, can occur— men may reasonably proceed with sexual
intimacy with long- term partners who are very drunk when doing so with
a stranger would be wrong. In the case of a stranger, the only clue to her
wishes that he has is her current, drunken acquiescence, whereas his history
of consenting lovemaking with his partner, presumably often when both
are sober, gives him every reason to believe that her current consent is fully
voluntary and ref lective of her ongoing desires. Another exception that could
apply even in the case of one- night stands would be when a woman, while
sober, gives her advance consent to consuming large amounts of alcohol
followed by sexual activity. So if we do criminalize sex with women whose
judgment is impaired by large amounts of alcohol, we need to build in excep-
tions for ongoing relationships and advance consent. ✻ ✻ ✻

c. imprecise distinctions and fairness to Men
Because of the risk of the substantial harm of sex without a woman’s
fully voluntary consent, men should normally not have impaired sex. And,
provided that we widely publicize the change in rape law and allow excep-
tions for established relationships and advance consent, criminalizing im-
paired sex would not be inherently unfair to men. The strongest reason
against doing so is that implementing such a law would be a logistical
nightmare that would indeed create the risk of unjustly convicting men.

Distinctions that are morally significant are difficult to translate into
law. For instance, whether a man deliberately encourages a woman to drink
large amounts of alcohol in order to make her more responsive to his sexual
advances or, on the other hand, encounters her when she is already drunk
or else innocently drinks with her with no intention of taking advantage of
her, is relevant to our judgment of his actions. However, proving such subtle
differences in intention would be extremely difficult, especially when the
prosecution’s star witness, the woman who was allegedly assaulted, was
drunk at the crucial time.

6 Ibid., p. 30.

314 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

The biggest logistical problem of all concerns drawing boundaries. The
only clear cases are of the type discussed in section I: sex with a woman who
is unconscious or incoherent due to alcohol (rape), and communicative sex
with a lucid, slightly tipsy woman who later regrets it (no rape). In between
these limiting cases is a vast array of situations, whose diversity is concealed
by my use of the blanket category of impaired sex. Just how impaired does a
woman’s judgment have to be to fall into this category? At what point does
a woman progress from being merely tipsy, and responsible for any poor
judgments that she makes as a result of her condition, to being so impaired
that a man who proceeds to have sex with her recklessly or negligently runs
the risk of sex without her fully voluntary consent? ✻ ✻ ✻ But the vagueness
of the meaning of “significantly impaired” does indeed create doubts about
whether men would have fair warning about how to conform their behavior
to this new law. Saying that when in doubt, men should err on the side of
caution is fair enough, but the only way to be completely sure of avoid-
ing conviction for this felony would be to completely abstain from sex with
women who have drunk any alcohol, and this would be an unreasonable
restriction on sexual freedom. A law that gives fair warning requires a cer-
tain amount of precision about forbidden behavior, and this is hard to come
by in matters of impairment due to alcohol. Setting a certain blood alcohol
level as the cutoff point seems arbitrary, and requiring a man to be aware
of his partner’s reading on this scale seems unreasonable and even absurd.

In defense of criminalizing impaired sex, one might argue that mak-
ing judgment calls about how a legal rule applies to a particular case is
precisely what courts are supposed to do. This approach works well when
courts are asked to determine how a clear- cut rule applies to the often messy
details of a case. The problem here, though, is that the distinction on which
impaired sex is based is itself fuzzy, making judgments about whether rape
has occurred doubly difficult.

Those who would make impaired sex a felony might point out the anal-
ogy with drunk driving laws, in which we set a more or less arbitrary blood
alcohol level as the legally acceptable limit, in full knowledge that this limit
corresponds only approximately with drivers’ level of impairment. The over-
whelmingly good overall consequences of a law that deters drunk driving
help us to accept the occasional minor injustice of convicting a person whose
driving ability was, despite his or her illegal blood alcohol level, not signifi-
cantly affected. In this light, my dismissal of a blood alcohol level as a cutoff
point for impaired sex may have been premature. Such a law would give

Nicholas Dixon ■ 315

men a strong incentive to refrain from sex when they have any doubts that
their potential partner may be too impaired to give fully voluntary consent.

However, criminalizing impaired sex when the woman’s blood alcohol
level is above a certain limit is unacceptable for several reasons. First, it
places an onerous burden on the man to know his partner’s blood alcohol
level, in contrast to drunk driving laws, which require us to monitor our own
intake of intoxicants. Even a man who accompanies his partner throughout
her drinking may be unaware of her tolerance level, which may be unusually
low. Men who meet women who have already been drinking would have
even less reason to be sure that their blood alcohol level is within the legal
limit. To be sure of escaping conviction for rape, men in these circumstances
would have to either administer portable breathalyzer tests to their partners
or else simply abstain from sex. Now showing such restraint may be pre-
cisely the kind of caring, thoughtful behavior that we, following Pineau’s
communicative sexuality model, want to encourage. But to require men to
do so, on pain of criminal sanctions (typically imprisonment), seems to be
an unduly heavy- handed intrusion into the sex lives of two adults. ✻ ✻ ✻

iv. conclusion
Existing rape laws probably suffice to convict men for clear cases of sexual
misconduct involving alcohol, such as sex with unconscious women or with
women who are drunk to the point of incoherence. In jurisdictions where
such laws do not exist, we should create a category of rape— on the lines of
“sex with a partner who is incapable of consent”—that would criminalize
such cases. Granted, complications would arise. We would probably have
to allow for exceptions for advance consent and for ongoing relationships.
And, as in all rape cases, proving guilt may often be difficult, often reduc-
ing to “her word against his.” But the harm done by men who take advan-
tage of women in such circumstances is great enough to justify taking on
these problems.

However, we would do better to deal with impaired sex by means of moral
disapproval and educational measures rather than legal sanctions. The dan-
gers of unjustly convicting men on the basis of unworkable distinctions,
and of simultaneously degrading women (however inadvertently) and being
unfair to men by underestimating women’s ability to take responsibility for
their alcohol intake and sexuality, are too great. Instead, we should regard
impaired sex as a moral wrong on the lines of obtaining sexual gratification
by means of trickery, such as concealing the fact that one has a spouse or

316 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

significant other, or declaring one’s undying love when all one wants is a
brief f ling. In the case of both impaired sex and trickery, one’s partner is
prevented from making a fully autonomous decision about her sexual activ-
ity: either because her judgment is clouded by alcohol, or because she has
been denied vital information. Both are wrong, and both are better dealt
with by informal sanctions than by inevitably heavy- handed and sometimes
unfair legal interventions.

Study QueStionS

1. What does Dixon mean by “impaired sex”?
2. How does Pineau’s theory of “communicative sexuality” help us judge

whether impaired sex is sexual assault?
3. Why does Dixon think that normally the sexual assault involved in impaired

sex should not be criminalized?

conor kelly
Feminist Ethics: Eva luating the Hookup Culture1

Conor Kelly (1987) teaches and researches in theological ethics at Marquette

Hooking up— the practice of pursuing sexual activity without any expectation
of a relationship— has become a fixture of the  U.S.  college experience. ✻ ✻ ✻
Sociological research reveals that this practice appeals to college students by
ostensibly providing greater independence than traditional relationships. An
outside analysis of these claims, however, demonstrates that the heterosexual
hookup culture operates in a decidedly sexist fashion. In fact, the four com-
mon features of this culture: lack of commitment, ambiguous language, al-
cohol use, and social pressure to conform, all undermine the freedom, equal-
ity, and safety of women on campus. An intentionally feminist perspective is
in a unique position to highlight and critique these faults and the additional
resources of feminist theology and ethics have the potential to help change
this sexism in practice.

✻ ✻ ✻ Pursuit of some level of sexual activity without the constraints and
expectations of a relationship is a common element of the U.S. college expe-
rience. ✻ ✻ ✻ While some parents, faculty, and administrators view it as the

1 Editor’s note: For the purposes of this volume a number of detailed citations have been
omitted. For full details, see the original publication: Conor Kelly, “Feminist Ethics: Evaluat-
ing the Hookup Culture,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion vol. 28, no. 2 (1992), 27–48.

Conor Kelly ■ 317

end of morality, a number of the students involved embrace hooking up as
the epitome of freedom and equality. Common sense suggests that neither
generalization is sufficient, and encourages a closer examination to grasp
the situation more accurately. ✻ ✻ ✻

the hookup culture: What is it?
As college students will reveal from their own experiences, there simply
is not one definition of “hooking up.” Sociologist Kathleen Bogle acknowl-
edges that “it can mean kissing, sexual intercourse, or any form of sexual
interaction generally seen as falling in between those two extremes.” ✻ ✻ ✻ In
general usage, then, hooking up commonly refers to some form of sexual
activity without the expectation of a consequent relationship between the
parties. ✻ ✻ ✻ In actual practice, it appears that the random hookup between
total strangers is very rare. Usually, hookup partners have had some previ-
ous contact, even if it is something as simple as sharing a common class. ✻
✻ ✻ Four common elements— a lack of commitment, an acceptance of ambi-
guity, a role for alcohol, and a social pressure to conform— make it possible
to speak of an identifiable hookup culture across the collegiate landscape
in the United States, ✻ ✻ ✻ although ✻ ✻ ✻ diversity of race, ethnicity, socio-
economic status, the type of institution one attends, and a host of other
variables converge to create different experiences for different people. ✻ ✻ ✻

The most striking common feature among various understandings of
hooking up is the lack of commitment: ✻ ✻ ✻ a divorce between one’s sexual
activity and one’s emotions. ✻ ✻ ✻

The primary commitment that men and women seek to avoid in the
hookup culture is a long- term relationship. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Research shows that those who hook up identify the removal of
relationships as one of the hookup culture’s chief advantages because it
preserves autonomy. Specifically, they view hooking up as a way to get sexual
gratification without compromising their freedom. This is hardly a surpris-
ing by- product of U.S. culture, which traditionally places great emphasis on
independence. High- achieving college students have been encouraged by
both parents and peers to lead multitasking lives in which their success in
academics and extracurricular activities is touted as their ticket to a bright
future. Women in particular are placing higher burdens of perfection upon
themselves, and assume that they can have a successful career or a love life,
but never both. Love actually appears as a stumbling block to the indepen-
dent, successful lives these students have been raised to expect. ✻ ✻ ✻

318 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

A 2001 study discovered that only two kinds of relationships existed on
campus in actuality: either interested parties were “hanging out” in groups,
without any real one- on- one time, or in “joined at the hip’ relationships,” in
which a sexually active couple chose to be exclusive and would immediately
begin spending all their time, including every night, together. There is little
to no space in the college atmosphere for slowly progressing relationships
that might begin on an emotional level before moving to physical intimacy
and even less space for traditional dating relationships.

✻ ✻ ✻ In the hookup framework, though, there are no clear steps to a rela-
tionship and there are few examples of what a relationship can or ought to
look like in the aberrant situation when one should arise. As a result, stu-
dents often imagine that a relationship is an overwhelming commitment
that will completely consume their lives. They have no means to envision
something between hookups and weddings. So, on campuses all across
America, students choose hookups now and postpone marriage for later.

While the decline of dating has indeed been a contributing factor in the rise
of the hookup culture, research on this link at least implies that a return to dat-
ing would be preferable. ✻ ✻ ✻ Such a claim deserves critical analysis from a fem-
inist perspective because the history of dating suggests its return would hardly
be a boon for women. In fact, dating gave a preponderance of power to men,
especially in contrast with previous systems for courtship. Traditionally, men
were expected to provide the financial means for each date, which gave them
control over a number of factors from venues to initiative. This system often
led men to believe that their payments entitled them to sexual favors in return.
Meanwhile, women were expected to limit sexual activity to such an extent
that blame even fell upon the victims of rape. While some have suggested that
dating left both men and women open to the possibility of exploitation— men
being able to exploit women sexually and women being able to exploit men for
their money— these respective potentials cannot be equated fairly. Additionally,
equal capacity for exploitation would hardly be considered the basis of a system
that promotes full human f lourishing. In historical practice, dating functioned
far from its romantic idealization, facilitating the commodification of women
rather than promoting genuine relationships between men and women. Thus,
there is little to suggest that dating would be a positive alternative to the hookup
culture, but even less to characterize hooking up as an improvement. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ When students choose to hook up, the ambiguous nature of lan-
guage in the hookup culture appears as another benefit. ✻ ✻ ✻ Hooking up can
mean anything from “fairly chaste making out” to sexual intercourse. ✻ ✻ ✻
Researchers have found this to be the value of the phrase in the first place,

Conor Kelly ■ 319

with the ambiguity serving a curious double duty in female and male circles.
In general, the imprecision provides women the opportunity to speak about
hooking up without revealing the sorts of specifics that might damage rep-
utations, while allowing men to suggest to their friends that they engaged
in more sexual activity than they actually did.

The very purpose of the ambiguity seems to be the creation of a level of
privacy in what most college students assume to be a public element of their
lives. ✻ ✻ ✻ Like the avoidance of committed relationships, the vague language
allows for the preservation of one of a college student’s most important
assets: independence.

✻ ✻ ✻ A third common feature across the hookup culture is its connection
with the party culture, specifically alcohol use. ✻ ✻ ✻

Significantly, even at the schools where most students self- reported that
their hookup habits did not involve alcohol, these same students still iden-
tified drinking as a key component of the hookup culture on their campus.
Regardless of what students self- report, it seems that alcohol is a central
component in the social expectations of the hookup culture, even if it is not
always an element in isolated practices. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Students choose alcohol because, like other aspects of the hookup
culture, it allows them greater freedom— in this case freedom from com-
plete responsibility for their choices. It helps them handle rejection, allowing
young adults to tell themselves, in retrospect, that they did not put their best
self forward because of the alcohol. Additionally, drinking also allows them
to dismiss activity that they would normally regret, like going too far sexu-
ally or even hooking up with someone with whom they would not normally
choose to partner. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The social pressure to conform to the hookup culture is so great
that ✻ ✻ ✻ no one has the liberty to avoid the system altogether. Certainly,
abstaining from the hookup scene is possible, but this decision is rife with
social consequences that all contribute to the perpetuation of the hookup

The first element ensuring the hookup culture’s power and prevalence is
the potential for social marginalization. ✻ ✻ ✻ Students who wish to avoid the
hookup culture leave themselves with few alternatives for forming intimate
and romantic relationships while at college. ✻ ✻ ✻ Most of the students who
choose to opt out of the hookup culture are already in committed relation-
ships, usually with long- distance boyfriends or girlfriends.

The second element arises from the fact that the hookup culture is the
dominant form for relating between the sexes, with the result that every

320 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

heterosexual college student seems to expect all his or her peers to follow
its script. ✻ ✻ ✻

Consequently, for individuals choosing to leave the hookup culture after
they enter an exclusive relationship with someone else, the temptation to
continue hooking up with individuals back on campus is always present and
the general presumption against commitment offers no real reason to pursue
strict fidelity. ✻ ✻ ✻ Additionally, due to the prevalence of the hookup script,
men and women who remove themselves from the hookup culture run into
difficulties should they attempt to have social lives on campus because other
classmates presume that any interest— from dancing to talking— is a signal
for a hookup. Truly, then, it is impossible to completely sever oneself from
the hookup culture, no matter how distasteful one might find it.

The oppressive nature of the hookup culture’s dominance is also evident
in the effects it can have on dating in the lesbian gay bisexual transgender
and queer (LGBTQ) community. In a profound example, LGBTQ students
report that the heterosexist assumptions of the hookup culture make it diffi-
cult for them to build their own, nonheterosexual relationships. ✻ ✻ ✻ Suffice to
say that the experience of the LGBTQ community on campus reveal that the
hookup culture not only promotes sexist values but heterosexist ones as well.

✻ ✻ ✻ The hookup culture serves students longing for independence and
balancing busy lives. On this basis, one could argue that the hookup culture
is a beneficial element of today’s college experience for those who want to
pursue it. The social pressure to conform problematizes this interpretation
some, although this too could be explained as a necessary evil that should
be mitigated, if not removed, in order to allow the willful participants of the
hookup culture to preserve their freedom.

the hookup culture: Why should
it Be concerninG?
✻ ✻ ✻ Elements of the hookup culture ✻ ✻ ✻ that afford participants freedom are
more complex and more hazardous than the culture acknowledges. Bogle sum-
marizes the situation quite succinctly, noting that “in many ways, the hookup
system creates an illusion of choice. Although students may have many op-
tions about how they conduct themselves within the hookup culture, they can-
not change the fact that hooking up is the dominant script on campus.”1 ✻ ✻ ✻

1 Kathleen A. Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus (New York.
New York University Press, 2008), 184.

Conor Kelly ■ 321

✻ ✻ ✻ Feminism’s pro- women stance is attuned to the sexism that other
points of view might easily miss. ✻ ✻ ✻ Oftentimes a tradition will be unable
to see the problematic aspects of its common practices. This opposition to
criticism ✻ ✻ ✻ can obscure the real issues and prevent necessary challenges
from arising because most people within the system will never conceive of
questioning their normal activities in the first place. In such instances, it
is the “view from the victims” that has the capacity to ✻ ✻ ✻ get to the true
nature of the matter. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ A feminist perspective is necessary to critique each element of hook-
ing up, as it occurs in practice, in order to illuminate the bigger picture. ✻ ✻ ✻

To begin, removing commitment from the interactions between men and
women produces three ✻ ✻ ✻ challenge[s]. ✻ ✻ ✻ First, a true expulsion of com-
mitment requires a separation of emotions from physical activity that is chal-
lenging to accomplish. A number of students report feeling awkwardness
toward their partners in the days after a hookup and both individuals appear
unsure of how to proceed without any sense of obligation to each other. ✻ ✻ ✻

Second, researchers have found that however much young men and
women value freedom, they do not actually wish to eschew all relation-
ships. Admittedly, the extent to which this is a problem seems to vary by
sex and age. Bogle observed that when men and women arrive on campus,
both seem to want the same freedom to play the field, so to speak.2 As time
goes on, though, women quickly become disenchanted with the hookup
culture, hoping for something more. In its 2001 survey, the IAV [Institute
for American Values] found that 83 percent of women envisioned marriage
as “a very important goal” in their lives and 63  percent of young women
expected to meet their future spouse in college.3 Young men, however, do
not seek marriage to the same extent. ✻ ✻ ✻

While none of this is to say that no men want to marry and all women
do, this sort of discussion still raises concerns about stereotyping and gener-
alizing women’s (and men’s) experience. At the same time, acknowledging
diversity does not make it impossible to speak about commonalities across
human experiences. ✻ ✻ ✻ It is still significant that the majority of men and
women in the thirty- year study maintained that marriage is important to
them, making it possible to identify the hookup culture as a disservice to

2 Bogle, Sex, Dating, and Relationships, 97.
3 Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt, Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for
Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today (New York: Institute for American
Values, 2001), quotation on 42, 59.

322 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

both sexes in this regard. ✻ ✻ ✻ However, ✻ ✻ ✻ scholars still generally acknowl-
edge that men are more willing to engage in the hookup culture for sexual
gratification alone while women are more likely to be seeking relationships
from their hookups.

✻ ✻ ✻ Compounding the sexist operation of this arrangement, the IAV
study uncovered that the decision to turn a hookup interaction into an actual
relationship hinged on the male partner. ✻ ✻ ✻ College women are quite aware
of the unlikelihood of achieving their goals within the hookup framework,
but they still settle for hooking up, either in hopes that they will be the ones
to buck the trend or because a “relationship” based on steadily hooking up
with one individual appears better than no relationship at all. All this points
to the disturbing conclusion that the hookup culture’s lack of commitment
serves male goals while limiting female agency.

✻ ✻ ✻ Scholars have also raised concerns about the challenges an aban-
donment of commitment poses for future relationships. ✻ ✻ ✻ The skills
the hookup culture encourages young men and women to develop—
specifically a detachment from emotion in relationships and an aversion
to commitment— are not only unhelpful for creating and sustaining rela-
tionships and marriages later in life, they are antithetical. ✻ ✻ ✻ The only
“norm” operative in the hookup culture is that individuals should avoid
hooking up with someone with whom they might be interested in pursuing
a relationship, and if they were to hook up, they should limit the extent of
sexual activity as much as possible. This reveals that women and men in
the hookup culture realize on some level that hooking up is a habit that is
detrimental to relationships. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The reliance on ambiguous language further contests the perceived
benefits of the hookup culture in much the same vein.

✻ ✻ ✻ The ambiguity in language has the potential to stif le the develop-
ment of character traits that would promote healthy interactions between
the sexes. ✻ ✻ ✻ Relationships, and the trust upon which they are built,
require frank conversations. This task is hardly aided by years of employ-
ing ambiguous language. The fact that this vagueness develops around
relationships and sexual activity only serves to increase the possibility for
future challenges.

In addition, one of the most beneficial traits of the ambiguity embedded
in the term hooking up is its ability to leave as much as possible to the imag-
ination of the listener. Intentionally or otherwise, this has the end result of
fostering some level of misperception about the sorts of practices in which

Conor Kelly ■ 323

college students are actually choosing to engage. ✻ ✻ ✻ In a culture with few
rules to guide students’ behavior, perceptions about what one’s peers are
doing play a huge role in determining how far individuals are willing to go
sexually with a hookup partner. In general, college students believe their
classmates are all engaging in more promiscuous activity than they them-
selves have experienced, a view that the research does not support. This belief
is at least facilitated, if not directly caused, by the ambiguous nature of the
language surrounding hooking up and only serves to encourage individuals
to pursue riskier activities than they might choose on their own. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The supposed assets of alcohol’s role in the hookup culture are also
challenged by a negative potential to facilitate risky behavior. To begin,  a
belief that one’s drunkenness will exculpate bad decisions can, and osten-
sibly does, lead individuals to make more perilous choices in deciding with
whom to hook up and how far to go. Of primary concern, however, is the
way in which an inebriation- induced lack of control puts women at risk
for rape and sexual assault. This is particularly dangerous for women who
may want to hook up but not have intercourse. ✻ ✻ ✻ Women will often drink in
order to lower their inhibitions when they begin this process, and a woman’s
capacity to offer resistance can be further limited. What is just as troubling
✻ ✻ ✻ is the notion taught to and accepted by some females that it is a woman’s
responsibility to look after herself and not get into a position where she is
uncomfortable or loses control. A more critical analysis from a feminist per-
spective shows, however, that the hookup culture and this view both avoid
addressing how much control a woman really has in a system of pressure so
geared toward fulfilling societal expectations of male sexuality.

Lack of control in the hookup culture is ✻ ✻ ✻ [also] created by ✻ ✻ ✻ the
prevalence of social pressure to hook up, and the lack of viable alternatives.
✻ ✻ ✻ Once again, for a variety of reasons, it affects women more than men.
For example, women must deal with a separate set of social pressures than
men do: the legacy of the feminist movement. It may seem counterintuitive,
but ✻ ✻ ✻ the initial message of female empowerment and total equality has
been interpreted to say that women should participate in the hookup culture
in order to match the freedom of men, who have (as a sex, on the whole)
traditionally pursued sexual activity for individual gratification without
worrying about consequences. As a result, women are told, and sometimes
accept, that enjoying the freedoms of the hookup culture is supposed to be
an empowering experience. ✻ ✻ ✻ To this end, some would say that the hookup
culture helps women.

324 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

The claim ✻ ✻ ✻ demands critical analysis. ✻ ✻ ✻ Established traditions are not
intrinsically ordered toward equality and f lourishing for all members. ✻ ✻ ✻ In
✻ ✻ ✻ application to hooking up, this starts with the assumption that the struc-
tures of the hookup culture are not neutrally geared toward everyone’s benefit.
The appropriate challenge for each feature, then, is to ask [for whose benefit?]
and to give women a chance to answer. In the case of social pressure to con-
form, the large number of women who report negative hookup experiences
challenges the narrative of empowerment. The feminist movement may be a
source of pressure for women, but this does not mean that the pressure ben-
efits women. In a disturbing twist, men seem to be benefiting the most, and
the women involved express this on the basis of their own experience. “Most
girls,” admitted one female student in hindsight, “eventually realize that get-
ting a guy to sleep with you is just a fancy way of ‘letting’ a guy sleep with you.”

✻ ✻ ✻ A double standard clearly exists with regard to conduct. ✻ ✻ ✻ Female
students have to walk a fine line between playing the social games of the
hookup culture enough to maintain status while avoiding the “slut” label
for participating too much. ✻ ✻ ✻ Unlike women, men in the hookup culture
quickly learn that promiscuity on their part is either identified jokingly or
for the sake of praise. ✻ ✻ ✻ Should their reputations be damaged, women can
expect either social marginalization or a shrinking pool of viable hookup
partners, since few men would be willing to hook up with a known “slut.”

From a feminist perspective, the mere existence of these contrary sets of
standards is enough to reveal discrimination in the hookup culture. Using
this fact to conclude that the hookup culture is pro- men and anti- women
would be too simplistic, however. Certainly, the hookup culture serves the
relationship goals of the general male population (sex without relationships)
and not those of the general female population (commitment). Addition-
ally, as Stepp discovered, “guys frequently create the social environment
in which hooking up f lourishes and set the expectations about what girls
will do.”4 Yet the fact that men derive benefits from the system does not
make it truly pro- men. Freitas reveals that the same structures that are
stacked against women also pressure men to prove their sexuality by hav-
ing sex with multiple partners, and any dissent from this pattern becomes
a denial of their masculinity.5 It is important to be attentive to this fact

4 Laura Sessions Stepp, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at
Both (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 34.
5 Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on
America’s College Campuses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 101–2.

Conor Kelly ■ 325

because the point of a feminist perspective is not to ignore men and focus
on women. ✻ ✻ ✻ The goal is full human f lourishing. It would be most appro-
priate, then, to speak of the hookup culture as being biased against women
rather than unequivocally biased toward men.

Strengthening the conclusion that the hookup culture is biased against
women, the limited alternatives to hooking up are similarly oppressive. First,
the “friends with benefits” structure purportedly helps women avoid damaging
their reputation without abdicating their sexual license because it limits their
sexual encounters to one man. This hardly constitutes a relationship, though.
More important from a feminist perspective concerned with challenging dis-
crimination, this system is just as biased against women because neither com-
mitment nor exclusivity is expected of the male partner. ✻ ✻ ✻

Combining all these negative implications identified by a feminist anal-
ysis, the conclusion is clearly that the four central elements of the hookup
culture offer only the perception of freedom. While this is arguably true for
both sexes, it is indisputably the case for women. The removal of commit-
ment places an undue burden upon all students to separate their emotions,
deny their actual desires, and inhibit their potential for future relationships.
The ambiguous language encourages them to avoid frank conversations
with their friends and leaves them with little guidance beyond a constant
pressure to go further sexually, while the presence of alcohol as a crutch puts
women at greater risk for assault. Last, the social pressures to participate
in the hookup culture are magnified for women, and work more for men’s
interests. ✻ ✻ ✻

feMinist theoloGy and ethics: addressinG the
In light of its flaws, a desire for some viable solutions to the sexism of the
hookup culture is certainly reasonable, especially for concerned outsiders
adopting a feminist perspective. ✻ ✻ ✻ While there are numerous places to
turn for potential resources, three of the more fundamental concerns of
feminist theology represent excellent tools for this process because they can
address one of the most important, yet least considered, questions behind
the shortcomings of the hookup culture: “Why?” ✻ ✻ ✻

[The] three fundamental concerns from feminist theology that can help
facilitate this evaluation are the role of language in the constitution of the self,
the link between autonomy and relationality, and the importance of struc-
tural analysis. The first notion, that language plays a role in constituting the

326 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

self, is essential because it explains why students should bother talking about
a hookup culture that seems so impossible to change. As feminist theologian
Rebecca Chopp describes, language is political and the act of giving voice to
those who have been silenced has the potential for “emancipatory transfor-
mation.”6 The ultimate goal is to transform the structures of oppression, but
even when falling short of this goal the project is not a failure because there
is something self-actualizing about expressing one’s own experience. ✻ ✻ ✻ The
act of speaking allows individuals not only to ref lect on their experiences but
also to have power over their own identity. ✻ ✻ ✻ This should ✻ ✻ ✻ be the first
step in responding to the hookup culture, for allowing men and women to
voice their own concerns in a culture that functions to silence frank conver-
sation is itself a subversive act. As the notion that language is constitutive of
the self suggests, the result will be first an empowerment of these students
and then, hopefully, an emancipatory transformation of structures.

Similarly, the link between autonomy and relationality in feminist theol-
ogy can help explain why the pursuit of independence in the hookup culture
will necessarily be insufficient. Admittedly, feminism in a multitude of
forms has long promoted freedom and autonomy, especially for women. ✻ ✻ ✻
What feminist theology has stressed alongside this, however, is that freedom
must be properly understood not as complete license, but as interdepen-
dence. An excellent critique of the tendency to understand independence in
isoluation has come from Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara,
who ✻ ✻ ✻ has criticized Western notions of autonomy for being excessively
individualistic. Due to the fact that individual autonomy “was promoted in
a dogmatic, absolute, univocal, and unlimited way,” she laments, “what was
originally affirmed as a value seems to have turned into an antivalue.”7 ✻ ✻ ✻
To counter this possibility, a foundational assumption of feminist theology
and ethics expressed by Elizabeth Johnson stresses “that the self is rightly
structured not in dualistic opposition to the other but in intrinsic relation-
ship with the other.”8 There is an additional caution raised by Elisabeth
Schüssler Fiorenza, however, that an exclusive emphasis on relationality
can undermine women’s agency, making it difficult for women to recognize

6 Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (New York: Crossroads,
1989), 3, quotation on 18.
7 Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Minneapolis: For-
tress Press, 1999), 72.
8 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is. The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
(New York. Herder and Herder, 2002), 68.

Conor Kelly ■ 327

9 See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Project, Critical Issues in
Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum, 1995), 55.

their own individual value apart from their relational identity as daughters,
mothers, sisters, and friends.9 Keeping independence and interdependence
together in tension, though, helps relieve some of these concerns. Thus the
message ✻ ✻ ✻ is not that autonomy is a false human good, but that authentic
independence cannot be understood apart from a relational conception of
the human person. ✻ ✻ ✻

A third basic concern from feminist theology and ethics, the importance
of structural analysis, addresses why the social pressures perpetuating the
hookup culture are so damaging. In feminist theology, structural analysis
has accompanied an attentiveness to social context that has helped identify
and combat injustice. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ Structural analysis highlights the troubling fact that the hookup
culture is built upon a coercive pressure to conform and that women bear
the brunt of this burden. From such a perspective, the perpetuation of the
double standard exemplified in reserving derogatory labels for women alone
serves as an additional example of the injustices inherent in the structures
that promote hooking up. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The role of language in constituting the self, the link between rela-
tionality and autonomy, and the concern for structural analysis will not
lead to a sudden displacement of hooking up, but they can help change the
practice. ✻ ✻ ✻

Given the sexism inherent in the hookup culture, maintenance of the
status quo is an untenable outcome. ✻ ✻ ✻ While it may be tempting to provide
solutions for wholesale transformation of the hookup culture, there can be
no one-size-fits-all answer to a phenomenon that has become a problem
precisely because it assumed everyone should have the same thing. True
change must come from within and the only way to support it is to help
young adults think through the problems and alternatives. ✻ ✻ ✻ The main
significance of these three resources lies in ✻ ✻ ✻ facilitating this conversa-
tion. ✻ ✻ ✻ I hope this discussion will allow students to move to the next step
of creating a space and system for relationships more conducive to human
f lourishing and ✻ ✻ ✻ to chip away at a hookup culture that for all its sup-
posed benefits [the hookup culture] is really nothing more than sexism in

328 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

Study QueStionS

1. Explain the role of “ambiguous language” within the hookup culture.
2. Why does Kelly think that the hookup culture offers the perception of free-

dom but not the reality?
3. Why does Kelly think that the hookup culture is “sexism in practice”?

■ Compare and Contrast Questions
1. How would Pineau respond to Dixon’s argument that some forms of assault

involved in impaired sex should not be subject to the criminal law?
2. Does Kelly’s argument show that there can be a form of mutual coercion into

3. Can Kelly’s arguments about the problems with the hookup culture be ex-

tended to sexual activity that takes place under other circumstances?

This section contains four papers on the critically important question of
the moral standing of abortion. We start with Judith Jarvis Thomson’s
famous paper “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson suggests that typically
the question of the morality of abortion has been thought to turn on
whether a fetus is or is not a human being or person. However, Thomson
argues that even if we assume that the fetus is a person, it could still be
the case that abortion is morally permissible in certain circumstances.
At  the heart of her analysis is an argument from analogy. Suppose you
wake up one day and find that you have been surgically connected to
a famous violinist who needs the use of your kidneys for nine months
and will die if disconnected. What obligations do you have to remain

Thomson argues that you do not violate anyone’s rights if you disconnect,
even though you are disconnecting from a person who will die. This, she
argues, shows that abortion can be morally acceptable even if the fetus is
a person and will die as a result of abortion. She is aware, of course, that
there are complicating factors that render many pregnancies not analogous
to the violinist case, such as the fact that most pregnancies are the result
of intentional action. She appeals to a range of other examples to explore
our intuitions about different cases. Nevertheless, if we accept that in the
violinist case you do have the right to disconnect yourself, the general point

Abortion ■ 329

is established. Even if a fetus is a person, there can be circumstances in
which abortion is permissible, contrary to the “extreme view” that abortion
is never permissible.

Thomson also discusses what it means to have “a right to life.” It cannot,
she thinks, mean to have a right for others to come to your assistance to keep
you alive under all circumstances. Rather, she says, it is the “right not to be
killed unjustly.” We then need a different set of arguments to consider when
an abortion does involve an unjust killing. Thomson accepts that there are
cases in which abortion would be morally indecent, for example if a very late
abortion is requested simply to avoid the nuisance of postponing a foreign
trip. But even in these cases she denies that the fetus has a right to be kept
alive, for Thomson insists that even if abortion (or some other action) is
morally wrong in a particular case, it still does not always follow that the
fetus has the right that the abortion not take place.

Mary Anne Warren replies to Thomson that, although she has set out
a strong case for the permissibility of abortion for pregnancy following
rape, the violinist analogy does not apply to the normal case in which
pregnancy follows from intentional sexual intercourse. In the normal
case, a woman can be regarded as in some way responsible for her preg-
nancy. In order to defend the more general permissibility of abortion,
Warren sets out to argue that the fetus is not a person with a “strong
moral right to life.”

It is central to Warren’s case to make a distinction between the “moral
sense” of the term human being and the “genetic sense.” It is true, she
argues, that a fetus is a human being in the genetic sense, but it does not
follow that it is a human being in the moral sense of being a person who is a
member of the moral community. The characteristics that are central to the
concept of personhood, argues Warren, are sentience, emotionality, reason,
the capacity to communicate, self- awareness, and moral agency. Although
these characteristics are not all strictly necessary for personhood and the
possession of rights, on Warren’s view the more that are present, the stron-
ger the claim to personhood. If sentience is lacking, many others will be
too, and Warren claims that an early fetus lacks sentience and hence, while
genetically human, lacks personhood. This will also be true of an adult who
permanently lacks consciousness.

While it is persons who create rights, argues Warren, they can extend
rights to those who are not persons. But in doing so, they should take

330 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

care not to burden persons with overly demanding duties. And this
is the danger, argues Warren, if we give the fetus a right to life, for there
are times when to do so would create very onerous duties for pregnant
women. Warren concedes that a fetus may gradually develop a stronger
right to  life as it develops, and a seven- month fetus is very different
from  an early fetus. And while it is true that a fetus deserves special
consideration because it is a potential person, nevertheless Warren
insists that the  rights of actual persons take precedence when there is
a conf lict.

It has been objected that Warren’s account would also permit infanticide,
as a newborn baby lacks many of the features of personhood. Warren points
out that the justification for abortion rests on the argument that the rights
of the pregnant woman are a reason not to extend very strong rights to the
fetus, but once the baby is born no such conf lict exists. Hence she does not
regard the objection as convincing.

In opposition to the views of Thomson and Warren, Don Marquis sets
out to argue that the great majority of deliberate abortions are seriously
immoral. After arguing that the standard arguments in the literature on
both sides of the debate are inadequate, Marquis turns to the question of
why killing is wrong. It is, he suggests, because killing deprives someone
of the activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments that would have
constituted the person’s future life. This theory explains why it can be
wrong to kill beings who are not biologically human, such as, possibly,
alien forms of life or some nonhuman mammals. And, of course, the the-
ory also entails that it is wrong to kill a fetus by means of abortion, since
the fetus would thus be deprived of a valuable future. Marquis is aware
that in some cases there can be arguments on the other side. Marquis’s
argument, if successful, shows that abortion is “prima facie” wrong, but it
could be that, all things considered, abortion is acceptable in some cases,
if there are even more important moral considerations to weigh on the
other side.

Marquis argues that the most promising way of replying to his argument
is to find some other basis to explain why ordinary killing is wrong. He
considers two alternatives, the “desire” account and the “discontinuation”
account. The desire account says that it is wrong to kill because people have
a strong desire to remain alive. However, because it would be problematic to
attribute a strong desire to remain alive to a fetus, arguably abortion would

not be wrong on this account. However, Marquis argues that the account is
defective, since it is wrong to kill even those people who have no desire to
live. The discontinuation account is based on the idea that there is value in
the continuation of experience. As the fetus has no past experience, there is
nothing to discontinue and hence, once more, abortion would not be wrong.
Marquis argues, however, that what matters is the value of the future, not
what happened in the past, and so the discontinuation account collapses
into his own “value of the future” theory and hence does not provide an

Rosalind Hursthouse’s contribution to the debate concerning the moral-
ity of abortion draws heavily on Aristotelian virtue ethics and hence can also
be seen as an illustration of how virtue ethics can be applied to a serious
moral problem. Unlike other authors, Hursthouse does not think it fruitful
to consider metaphysical questions about whether or not a fetus is a person,
for the issue is too urgent to wait for a resolution of that question. She also
denies that the most important question is whether a woman should have a
legal right to abortion. Even if there is a legal right, that on its own does not
provide an answer to the question of what a woman facing the decision of
whether to have an abortion should do.

Hursthouse also resists the idea that it should be possible to derive a
formula or universal moral principle that will provide sufficient guid-
ance to answer the question of whether it is right or wrong for a particular
woman to have an abortion. Rather, virtue ethics suggests that what mat-
ters is that a woman deliberates the right way: taking all relevant issues
into account and avoiding doing something “cruel, or callous, or selfish,
light- minded, self- righteous, stupid, inconsiderate, disloyal [or] dishonest.”
Hence a virtuous woman (which Hursthouse points out does not mean a
“chaste”  woman) exhibits certain strengths or virtues of character in her
ref lections.

Hursthouse reminds us that pregnancy is an event with a unique biolog-
ical nature, embedded in human relations and wrapped up with particular
emotional responses. Much writing on abortion takes place at a level of
abstraction that does not capture this nature, and that, in itself, is a type of
the “vice” of not giving the matter proper seriousness. Hursthouse takes
us through a number of examples, including comparing abortion to mis-
carriage in a variety of circumstances, to bring out the point that different
considerations can be relevant in different cases.

Abortion ■ 331

332 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

Judith Jarvis thoMson
A Defense of Abor tion

Judith Jarvis Thomson (b. 1929) is an American philosopher, especially noted for
her contributions to moral and political philosophy.

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human
being, a person, from the moment of conception. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ I am inclined to think ✻ ✻ ✻ that we shall probably have to agree that
the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. ✻ ✻ ✻ The
fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized
ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an
acorn is an oak tree. But I shall not discuss any of this. For it seems to me
to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument,
we allow the premise. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there
to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of
abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus
is a person, and hardly any time explaining the step from there to the
impermissibility of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and
obvious to require much comment. Or perhaps instead they are simply
being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on
the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that will
become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than you have
to? Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither
easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly
given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel
inclined to reject it.

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment
of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this,
I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No
doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body;
everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and
more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to
her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; and abortion
may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up
in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious
violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a

Judith Jarvis Thomson ■ 333

fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the
available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood
type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violin-
ist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be
used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of
the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers
did this to you— we would never have permitted it if we had known. But
still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you
would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then
he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from
you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt
it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have
to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer
still? What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but
you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest
of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and
violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in
and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide
what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from
him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that
something really is wrong with that plausible- sounding argument I men-
tioned a moment ago.

In this case, of course, you were kidnapped; you didn’t volunteer for
the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can those who
oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a preg-
nancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life
only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that
all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than
others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape
have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the
question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you
have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are the product
of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I men-
tioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception
in case of rape.

Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has to
spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that
would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons

334 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact,
that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously
enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the
mother’s life.

Some won’t even make an exception for a case in which continuation of
the pregnancy is likely to shorten the mother’s life; they regard abortion as
impermissible even to save the mother’s life. Such cases are nowadays very
rare, and many opponents of abortion do not accept this extreme view. All
the same, it is a good place to begin: a number of points of interest come
out in respect to it.

Let us call the view that abortion is impermissible even to save the moth-
er’s life “the extreme view.” I want to suggest first that it does not issue
from the argument I mentioned earlier without the addition of some fairly
powerful premises. Suppose a woman has become pregnant, and now learns
that she has a cardiac condition such that she will die if she carries the baby
to term. What may be done for her? The fetus, being a person, has a right to
life, but as the mother is a person too, so has she a right to life. Presumably
they have an equal right to life. How is it supposed to come out that an abor-
tion may not be performed? If mother and child have an equal right to life,
shouldn’t we perhaps f lip a coin? Or should we add to the mother’s right to
life her right to decide what happens in and to her body, which everybody
seems to be ready to grant— the sum of her rights now outweighing the
fetus’ right to life? ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ If directly killing an innocent person is murder, and thus is imper-
missible, then the mother’s directly killing the innocent person inside her
is murder, and thus is impermissible. But it cannot seriously be thought to
be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It
cannot seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by
and wait for her death. Let us look again at the case of you and the violinist.
There you are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of the hospital
says to you, “It’s all most distressing, and I deeply sympathize, but you
see this is putting an additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be dead
within the month. But you have to stay where you are all the same. Because
unplugging you would be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s
murder, and that’s impermissible.” If anything in the world is true, it is
that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if
you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to
save your life.

Judith Jarvis Thomson ■ 335

✻ ✻ ✻ Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing
child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child— you are already
up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to
death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing
is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply
burst open the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand
it if a bystander were to say, “There’s nothing we can do for you. We cannot
choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to decide who is
to live, we cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded that you too can
do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your life. However innocent
the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to
death. ✻ ✻ ✻

I should perhaps stop to say explicitly that I am not claiming that
people have a right to do anything whatever to save their lives. I think,
rather, that there are drastic limits to the right of self- defense. If some-
one threatens you with death unless you torture someone else to death, I
think you have not the right, even to save your life, to do so. But the case
under consideration here is very different. In our case there are only two
people involved, one whose life is threatened, and one who threatens it.
Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of
any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault.
For this reason we may feel that we bystanders cannot intervene. But the
person threatened can.

In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed
by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death. And this shows ✻ ✻ ✻
that the extreme view of abortion is false, and so we need not canvass any
other possible ways of arriving at it from the argument I mentioned at the
outset. ✻ ✻ ✻

Where the mother’s life is not at stake, the argument I mentioned at the
outset seems to have a much stronger pull. “Everyone has a right to life,
so the unborn person has a right to life.” And isn’t the child’s right to life
weightier than anything other than the mother’s own right to life, which
she might put forward as ground for an abortion?

This argument treats the right to life as if it were unproblematic. It is not,
and this seems to me to be precisely the source of the mistake.

For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to
life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given
at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that

336 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

what in fact is the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is some-
thing he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the
only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on
my fevered brow, then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of
Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of
him to f ly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though
no doubt well meant, if my friends f lew out to the West Coast and carried
Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody
that he should do this for me. Or again, to return to the story I told earlier,
the fact that for continued life that violinist needs the continued use of your
kidneys does not establish that he has a right to be given the continued use
of your kidneys. He certainly has no right against you that you should give
him continued use of your kidneys. For nobody has any right to use your
kidneys unless you give him this right— if you do allow him to go on using
your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can
claim from you as his due. Nor has he any right against anybody else that
they should give him continued use of your kidneys. Certainly he had no
right against the Society of Music Lovers that they should plug him into you
in the first place. And if you now start to unplug yourself, having learned
that you will otherwise have to spend nine years in bed with him, there is
nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to see to it that he
is given something he has a right to be given. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ I would stress that I am not arguing that people do not have a right to
life— quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the primary control we must
place on the acceptability of an account of rights is that it should turn out in
that account to be a truth that all persons have a right to life. I am arguing
only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be
given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s
body— even if one needs it for life itself. So the right to life will not serve the
opponents of abortion in the very simple and clear way in which they seem
to have thought it would. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ The right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather
in the right not to be killed unjustly. This runs a risk of circularity, but never
mind: it would enable us to square the fact that the violinist has a right to life
with the fact that you do not act unjustly toward him in unplugging yourself,
thereby killing him. For if you do not kill him unjustly, you do not violate his
right to life, and so it is no wonder you do him no injustice.

Judith Jarvis Thomson ■ 337

But if this emendation is accepted, the gap in the argument against abor-
tion stares us plainly in the face: it is by no means enough to show that the
fetus is a person, and to remind us that all persons have a right to life— we
need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that
abortion is unjust killing. And is it?

I suppose we may take it as a datum that in a case of pregnancy due to
rape the mother has not given the unborn person a right to the use of her
body for food and shelter. Indeed, in what pregnancy could it be supposed
that the mother has given the unborn person such a right? It is not as if
there were unborn persons drifting about the world, to whom a woman who
wants a child says “I invite you in.”

But it might be argued that there are other ways one can have acquired
a right to the use of another person’s body than by having been invited to
use it by that person. Suppose a woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse,
knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become
pregnant; is she not in part responsible for the presence, in fact the very exis-
tence, of the unborn person inside her? No doubt she did not invite it in. But
doesn’t her partial responsibility for its being there itself give it a right to the
use of her body? If so, then her aborting it ✻ ✻ ✻ would be doing it an injustice.

And then, too, it might be asked whether or not she can kill it even to save
her own life: If she voluntarily called it into existence, how can she now kill
it, even in self- defense?

The first thing to be said about this is that it is something new. Oppo-
nents of abortion have been so concerned to make out the independence of
the fetus, in order to establish that it has a right to life, just as its mother
does, that they have tended to overlook the possible support they might
gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother, in order to
establish that she has a special kind of responsibility for it, a responsibility
that gives it rights against her which are not possessed by any independent
person— such as an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her.

On the other hand, this argument would give the unborn person a right
to its mother’s body only if her pregnancy resulted from a voluntary act,
undertaken in full knowledge of the chance a pregnancy might result from
it. It would leave out entirely the unborn person whose existence is due to
rape. Pending the availability of some further argument, then, we would be
left with the conclusion that unborn persons whose existence is due to rape
have no right to the use of their mothers’ bodies, and thus that aborting

338 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to and hence is
not unjust killing.

And we should also notice that it is not at all plain that this argument
really does go even as far as it purports to. For there are cases and cases,
and the details make a difference. If the room is stuffy, and I therefore
open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say,
“Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house— for
she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done
what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as
burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this
if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars
from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars.
It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in,
but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. Again, suppose it were like
this: people- seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your
windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You
don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens,
the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare
occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in
and takes root. Does the person- plant who now develops have a right to the
use of your house? Surely not— despite the fact that you voluntarily opened
your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and
you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that
you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house,
because after all you could have lived out your life with bare f loors and furni-
ture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do— for by the same
token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy,
or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.

It seems to me that the argument we are looking at can establish at most
that there are some cases in which the unborn person has a right to the use
of its mother’s body, and therefore some cases in which abortion is unjust
killing. There is room for much discussion and argument as to precisely
which, if any. But I think we should sidestep this issue and leave it open,
for at any rate the argument certainly does not establish that all abortion is
unjust killing.

There is room for yet another argument here, however. We surely must
all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to
detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose you learn

Judith Jarvis Thomson ■ 339

that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour:
all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him.
Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not
affect your health in the slightest. Admittedly you were kidnapped. Admit-
tedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless
it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that
hour— it would be indecent to refuse.

Again, suppose pregnancy lasted only an hour, and constituted no threat
to life or health. And suppose that a woman becomes pregnant as a result
of rape. Admittedly she did not voluntarily do anything to bring about the
existence of a child. Admittedly she did nothing at all which would give the
unborn person a right to the use of her body. All the same it might well be
said, as in the newly emended violinist story, that she ought to allow it to
remain for that hour— that it would be indecent in her to refuse. ✻ ✻ ✻

✻ ✻ ✻ My own view is that even though you ought to let the violinist use
your kidneys for the one hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has
a right to do so— we should say that if you refuse, you are ✻ ✻ ✻ self- centered
and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust. And similarly, that even suppos-
ing a case in which a woman pregnant due to rape ought to allow the unborn
person to use her body for the hour he needs, we should not conclude that
he has a right to do so; we should conclude that she is self- centered, callous,
indecent, but not unjust, if she refuses. The complaints are no less grave;
they are just different. ✻ ✻ ✻

My argument will be found unsatisfactory on two counts by many of
those who want to regard abortion as morally permissible. First, while I do
argue that abortion is not impermissible, I do not argue that it is always per-
missible. ✻ ✻ ✻ I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that
it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our
sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen- year- old
schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion, and that any
law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports
our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It
would be indecent in the woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a
doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion
just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad. The very fact that the
arguments I have been drawing attention to treat all cases of abortion, or
even all cases of abortion in which the mother’s life is not at stake, as morally
on a par ought to have made them suspect at the outset.

340 ■ Part 3: Applied Ethics

Secondly, while I am arguing for the permissibility of abortion in some
cases, I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn
child. It is easy to confuse these two things in that up to a certain point in
the life of the fetus it is not able to survive outside the mother’s body; hence
removing it from her body guarantees its death. But they are importantly
different. I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine
months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist; but to say this is by no
means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he
survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may
detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guar-
anteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill
him. There are some people who will feel dissatisfied by this feature of my
argument. A woman may be utterly devastated by the thought of a child, a
bit of herself, put out for adoption and never seen or heard of again. She may
therefore want not merely that the child be detached from her, but more,
that it die. Some opponents of abortion are inclined to regard this as beneath
contempt— thereby showing insensitivity to what is surely a powerful source
of despair. All the same, I agree that the desire for the child’s death is not
one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out to be possible to detach
the child alive.

At this place, however, it should be remembered that we have only been
pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment
of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and
so is not dealt with by anything I have said here.

Study QueStionS

1. What does Thomson hope to achieve with the example of the violinist?
2. Are there possible cases of abortion that would be morally wrong, even if we