An American soldier with British war orphans adopted by his unit; London, early 1943. Photo by Robert Capa, International Centre for Photography/Magnum


The right right thing to do

The ethical life means being good to ourselves, to others, and to the world. But how do you choose if these demands compete?

by Irene McMullin + BIO

An American soldier with British war orphans adopted by his unit; London, early 1943. Photo by Robert Capa, International Centre for Photography/Magnum

Conventional wisdom depicts moral struggle as an internal conflict between a higher moral self and an untamed dark side. This picture pervades popular imagination: the angel and the devil on either shoulder, the ‘two wolf’ parable, the Ego and the Id, the ‘true self’ and the ‘false self’. It resonates with religious traditions that place us between angels and animals in a Great Chain of Being, leaving us torn between higher and lower, spirit and body, good and evil, the demands of conscience and the lure of sin.

This view also calls to mind a philosophical tradition from Plato to Immanuel Kant that often presents life’s major moral struggles as a kind of combat between the requirements of duty and the dangers of desire. The self is fragmented and must struggle for wholeness by casting out or silencing its evil components, refusing to give immoral intentions a foothold in thought and deed. A good deal of moral theory, therefore, tends to assume that there’s a morally right answer about what one ought to do in any given circumstance. Any difficulty in doing the right thing results from (evil, selfish) resistance, not from the fact that one cannot do all the good or valuable things that one is called upon to do.

However, this familiar view ignores the fact that, in many cases, the problem is not how best to override or silence one’s dark side, but how to cope with having too many good or morally neutral demands on your limited time, energy or resources. In other words, the key issue in many cases is not whether to be moral at all – but rather how best to distribute your moral resources in conditions of scarcity and conflict. Coping well with this latter kind of moral challenge requires very different ways of thinking about moral agency and how to lead good lives.

There are (at least) three different classes of goods that regularly give rise to incommensurable but competing legitimate moral claims, each revealed through a different practical stance that we adopt towards the world as we try to figure out what to do and who to be. On this picture, each agent is indeed fragmented, but this fragmentation is not best understood as an internal conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ selves. Instead, moral conflict should be understood in terms of competing dimensions of the good – not all of which can be accommodated in any given moment.

What are these three basic normative domains or classes of value? It can be helpful to think of these in terms of the traditional literary distinction between the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. A novel written from the first-person perspective provides access to the protagonist’s struggles from the inside; the reader says ‘I’ along with her. In the second-person perspective, the focus is on the other person: the ‘you’ takes centre stage. When written from the third-person perspective, every character’s struggles are viewed from the outside; each is referred to as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’ in descriptions of their movements in the world of the novel. Though some characters might be more important than others, typically none is singled out as providing the primary lens through which the world finds its meaning.

These perspectives are not just useful literary devices. They are core practical perspectives that we adopt toward the world and our place in it. As we pursue our projects and pleasures, interact with others, and share public institutions and meanings, we are constantly shifting back and forth among these three practical perspectives, each bringing different elements of a situation to salience and highlighting different features of the world and our place in it as good or bad.

From the first-person stance, you navigate the world as an agent trying to realise your projects and satisfy your desires. From the second-person perspective, you understand yourself and the world through the lens of other people, who are a locus of projects and preferences of their own; projects and preferences that make legitimate demands on your time and attention. From the third-person stance, you understand yourself as one among many, called to fit yourself into the shared standards and rules governing a world made up of a multitude of creatures like you.

These different perspectives reveal different features of the same object or situation. Take the example of your own body. When weeding the garden or washing the dishes you are – despite the physical nature of the work – largely ‘unaware’ of your body except insofar as it is the vehicle of your will. Indeed, what’s valuable and salient about the body from this first-person perspective is precisely its ability to disappear into the task. If you’re hampered by a migraine or an arthritic shoulder, the body’s status as vehicle of your agency is compromised, and you’re forced to think of it instead as a kind of recalcitrant object that needs to be managed. If it’s a perfect manifestation of your will, it’s no longer ‘your body’; it is, rather, simply you.

From the second-person perspective, your body appears as an object of experience for the other person. Think of how differently you experience your own body when you’re alone, as opposed to when someone suddenly enters the room. From the second-person perspective, one’s own body might seem awkward, desirable, average, ineffectual and so forth, depending on who the other person is. Now imagine that same body of yours being examined by a doctor. Then your body shows up for you as something quite different from a seamless expression of agency or the manifestation of self before another individual. Your attention shifts to a third-person perspective such that your body is revealed as a physical object subjected to the rules and categories of other physical objects. Different features become important. During a medical examination, you experience your own body as an instance of a general physical type, capable of being helped or hindered by generic procedures and processes developed for managing objects of that kind.

You must answer for who you are – if not to others, then to yourself

This kind of third-person practical perspective moves to the background when another perspective is setting the terms for what counts as particularly relevant or meaningful in a given situation. The point is to see how these different perspectives give us access to different forms of meaning, value and reasons – though we never occupy one stance in total isolation from the others. While occupying one perspective, we don’t simply forget the others, but are aware of and answerable to the claims that they make in an implicit way. Each perspective is constantly providing important information about what matters and what’s best, and we’re answerable to all three at once, even when only one is setting the agenda for how best to allocate our limited time, care and attention in a given situation.

The fact that there’s a plurality of these normative perspectives means that there’s more than one way of understanding what’s best. Best for whom? For me? For you? For the many who share the world with us and the institutions that enable this sharing? No single perspective can fully encompass the others. Each shows us a different facet of the world’s irreducibly complex meaningfulness and our place in it. Each gives us access to different ways of understanding what’s important, valuable or good. Our condition of normative pluralism means that we’re supplied with different resources for answering the basic questions of agency: what should I do? What are the better or worse options in this situation? Who am I trying to be? To whom am I answerable? This moral complexity makes living a good life challenging because competing goods from these different normative categories can’t be compared on a single metric. In most cases, there is no simple answer about what to do. To negotiate life’s demands, we constantly move in and out of each perspective against a background sense that we’re answerable to the different criteria of meaning and value constitutive of each of the three perspectives.

This emphasis on ‘answerability’ is a core feature of existentialist accounts of personhood. We experience ourselves as being ‘at stake’ in our choices, aware of the fact that who we are is up to us, and that we care about getting it right. Though we regularly try to cover up and forget this fact by means of bad faith, mindless conformity and self-deception, to be human is to be haunted by the anxiety that comes with an awareness of our freedom and the existential responsibility it entails. Ultimately, you must answer for who you are – if not to others, then to yourself. Our basic status as normatively responsive beings – that is, as beings with a capacity to be oriented towards distinctions of better and worse – depends on this sense of being responsible for who you are.

The awareness of being entrusted with an existence for which you alone are answerable means that we’re always on the lookout for guidance in how to make choices well. The three different normative domains revealed via the first-, second- and third-person perspectives provide tools for answering the fundamental existential questions that underwrite every choice. Each offers a different basic value framework through which the world makes demands on us about what it’s best to do. We are indeed fragmented selves, but what divides us is not, for the most part, a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ intentions. Rather, it’s a tension between different practical frameworks for assessing better and worse options, each anchored in a different aspect of the good.

According to this existentialist picture, you can’t be entirely unmoved by whatever strikes you as better or best in any situation. Why? Because to be utterly indifferent to the considerations that count in favour of choosing one way rather than another is to forfeit one’s agency – to adopt the posture of a thing determined solely by causal forces, rather than that of an agent responsive to reasons. But even this forfeit is a manifestation of agency, albeit one that seeks to conceal this fact from itself. Though it’s not always clear how best to respond to specific normative claims as they arise across different practical perspectives in particular situations – and one might be incompetent or cowardly in facing up to them – we can’t escape the sheer fact that we’re answerable to such claims. We cannot help but care about the difference between better and worse lives, and that means we cannot help but care about responding well to the claims of each of the three practical perspectives.

In contrast, a good deal of moral theory prioritises one of these practical perspectives and downplays the moral relevance of the others by ruling them out as providing genuine access to moral reasons. This has the effect of allowing any responsiveness to other classes of normative claims to be categorised as irrational or evil. For example, classical utilitarianism enjoins us to think of everyone – ourselves included – as an equal unit in the moral calculus that aims to maximise the satisfaction of legitimate desires and preferences. This is a third-person way of approaching the question of what it’s best to do, since each of us is to be treated as an equal moral unit, subjected to the same categories and assessments as any other. Similarly, Kantian deontology prioritises the third-person universality of a reason understood to be identically present in all agents. In each case, the good life is defined in terms of your ability to submit yourself to universally shared moral categories – to think of yourself in third-person moral terms.

There is something right about this approach. It has the compelling result of putting pressure on us to do more for strangers in distress than we tend to do because we’re so often caught up in our own troubles, or those of loved ones. But it also gives rise to objections that ultimately derive from a recognition of the equal value and importance of the first- and second-person perspectives in our moral lives. For example, critics of Kantian deontology point out that respect for a universal reason that manifests in every other human is hardly the same thing as loving concern for this particular person. Critics of utilitarianism, meanwhile, have pointed out that maximising ‘total expected utility’ – ie, getting as large a ‘quantity’ of good results as possible – might require us to, say, harvest someone’s organs when she arrives for a routine check-up at the doctor’s office, since five of her healthy organs could save the lives of five critically ill people. Allowing her to keep her organs will save only a measly one. Though utilitarians and deontologists have come up with many ingenious responses to such objections, these worries follow naturally from a third-person practical perspective, in which each person is viewed as an interchangeable and largely anonymous unit of general rationality or calculable outcomes for the world at large.

An adequate account of the good life requires that all three classes of good are accommodated

But if we think of what matters from the first-person perspective – namely, the individual’s power to govern her own life and express her own unique will – then this kind of approach strikes us as monstrous. Indeed, the approach to moral agency dear to economists and libertarians – rational egoism – swings far in the other direction, insisting that the individual’s power to govern her own life and express her own will is the only thing that is truly valuable, the only thing that can show up as a genuine reason to do anything. According to accounts of this kind – which prioritise the first-person perspective to the exclusion of the others – institutions or persons are immoral insofar as they thwart any individual’s efforts to satisfy her own preferences. All ostensible practical reasons must be understood in terms of the individual’s free pursuit of her preferences if they’re to count as reasons at all.

Again, something about this seems right. Each agent is indeed legitimately claimed by a desire for autonomy and individual success, a basic yearning to satisfy one’s preferences and realise one’s projects. But suggesting that this is the only or the primary source of value – the only legitimate way to answer the question ‘What is best?’ – leads to highly counterintuitive conclusions about the nature of the good life. The main objection is that it completely elides the deeply social nature of good human lives, reducing others to a mere means of satisfying one’s preferences.

In contrast, the truth revealed to us from the second-person perspective is that we treasure others and regularly seek to enable them in their projects and preferences, even at great personal cost. From the second-person perspective, the agent experiences herself as claimed by the value of another person, not as a mere representative of a universal moral category, nor as a useful tool for her own pursuits. The other person is instead experienced as intrinsically valuable. Hence the second-person perspective reveals that even actions that don’t promote one’s own interests can count as reasons.

But the legitimacy of the other two normative domains – the goods of shared world-building and self-expressive autonomy – means that they cannot simply be subordinated to the altruism of the second-person perspective. An adequate account of the good life requires that all three classes of good are accommodated. Though the subordination of the self or the shared political domain to acts of extreme self-sacrifice or charity is a compelling moral ideal advocated by many of the world’s religions, it too distorts the moral picture of what counts as a good human life.

Despite the best efforts of moral theorists to simplify the moral terrain by constraining us to a single perspective on the good – a single source of normative claims to which we’re answerable – doing so invariably results in a picture of human life that neglects some of the sources of value that make a good life good. Each of these normative perspectives offers us a set of distinct reasons that cannot be reduced to or translated into the others without erasing some essential feature of our moral lives.

This means that life confronts us with a fundamental and irresolvable tension. We are tasked with negotiating competing legitimate normative claims – a plurality of goods – with no recourse to an ultimate metric or higher perspective through which to eliminate conflict in answering the basic existential questions to which we’re condemned: who should I be? What should I do? To whom am I beholden?

This shouldn’t prompt us to embrace nihilism, but to recognise the only form that a good life can take for normatively fragmented creatures like ourselves. Leading a good human life – what is sometimes called flourishing – requires that we continuously negotiate these three competing ways of encountering goodness. Flourishing demands achieving a fragile and shifting balance between the different normative terrains. Flourishing is human excellence within each of these domains (self-fulfilment, good relationships, and responsiveness to the demands of a shared world) but achieved in such a way that success in one domain doesn’t unduly compromise success in another.

Well okay, you might be thinking, but how do we know what to do in any particular circumstance? The approach outlined here – which emphasises the irresolvable messiness and conflict at the foundation of our moral lives – seems to have the drawback of not offering sufficient guidance for actually figuring out what one ought to do, at least compared with the resources provided by other moral theories.

But those other approaches succeed in offering guidance by ignoring the moral complexity of being in the grip of an irreducible plurality of goods. This is not to oversimplify these positions, of course. Kantian deontology prioritises the third-person universality of reason, but we can see that it attempts to accommodate the other normative perspectives through the notions of respect for others (the second-person dimension) and respect for self (the first-person dimension). It essentially enjoins us to respect ourselves, respect others, and build a world in which all can be respected. As such, it maps well on to the tripartite moral terrain that I’ve specified above, but it tends to ignore the complexity that results, assuming that all three normative perspectives will subject you to the exact same moral demands.

Everyday moral deliberation involves shifting constantly from one perspective to the other

Similarly, utilitarianism prioritises the third-person norm of universal utility, but it attempts to accommodate the other perspectives through the fact that one’s own preferences don’t automatically trump the other person’s (the second-person dimension) and the fact that the nature of its guiding norm – satisfaction – includes a fundamental reference to the first-personal domain.

But in both cases the intention – an intention that’s understood as realisable – is to provide a decision procedure that stipulates adopting a neutral third-person stance that purportedly captures the normative force of the other two normative domains without remainder. It’s this view that must be questioned.

What engagement with these other theories helps us to recognise is how everyday moral deliberation involves shifting constantly from one perspective to the other in an effort to weigh them against each other, despite their fundamental incommensurability. Imagine that you’re trying to decide whether to quit your job to pursue a less stressful career. The lower pay will make things harder on your family, and you won’t be able to help others as much in the new job. Is it self-indulgent to pursue the easier option when you have the skills to help others, and doing so supports your family? But don’t you deserve a break, too? And the stress is taking a toll on your health and mood, which also affects your family. With the extra time and energy the change affords, you could help out in the community more. What should you do?

These perspective shifts demonstrate that it will almost always be impossible to assess the moral quality of specific acts except against the background of the general tenor of one’s life. In other words, when assessing moral success or failure, the primary target should be lives, not acts. In most cases, a specific act is meaningful only in terms of its place in one’s life as a whole; in terms of the role it plays in the general landscape of competing demands from self, other and world. Are you the kind of person who regularly helps and respects others on both an individual and an institutional level? If yes, then you’re entitled to make some room for your own comfort or pleasure. But if you’re always submitting to the siren call of self-indulgence, then you should think about reallocating your limited resources so that your life better reflects the value of the other two classes of good. Responding well to the criteria of excellence constitutive of each normative domain – being good to ourselves, to others, and to the world – demands negotiation work such that these three classes of competing goods can be accommodated in a coherent way. Hence flourishing requires us to organise our priorities – not simply in the moment, but over the course of our projects, relationships and identities.

Of course, there will be certain lowest common denominators in each normative domain. No amount of good behaviour will ever entitle you to torture others – at least, not if you’re to be counted a good person and your life a good life. But these absolute constraints are few, and few of us find them particularly tempting, at least in their obvious forms. They are therefore incapable of offering sufficient practical guidance when it comes to the choices that most people make in their everyday lives.

The emphasis on lives, not acts, is a distinctive feature of the virtue-ethical approach in moral theory, according to which our focus should be on a person’s character and life context, not primarily on isolated choices or events. My view, which combines existentialism with virtue ethics, endorses this approach, along with another core feature of virtue ethics: the central place of role models in our moral reasoning. When we feel torn between competing legitimate moral demands both within a normative domain (eg, when we’re claimed by the competing needs of two loved ones) or across domains (eg, when the needs of a loved one compete with the demands of institutional justice), we must think about how to allocate priorities in our lives as a whole, and we regularly take inspiration from the models of excellent lives provided by our moral exemplars. What you choose to do should be guided by your understanding of how those actions shape a life. But understanding how specific actions create a certain kind of life or character is information that we learn mainly by looking to the lives and characters of others. How to find good role models and how to break free of bad ones are of course important questions to address, but those challenges shouldn’t interfere with recognising moral exemplars as a key source of guidance as we navigate this complex moral terrain.

One of the ways in which we learn from others how to succeed at the accommodation and negotiation work made necessary by normative pluralism is in terms of the virtues. The virtues are problem-solving stances through which we address obstacles to human flourishing that are built into the human condition. These obstacles to flourishing include mortality and temporal finitude, material scarcity, and temptations posed by desire for bodily pleasure and aversion to pain. The virtues are character traits – tendencies of seeing, feeling and doing – that enable a good person to respond well to all three normative domains even in the face of these obstacles. For example, patience helps us continue to respond well to self, other, and shared world, despite the temporal limitations that make doing so difficult. By habituating ourselves into these exemplary forms of normative responsiveness, we can better accommodate the different ways that the good reveals itself in our lives. Together with certain absolute prohibitions on a limited set of extreme violations of the good, and moral exemplars who orient us in our striving, the virtues can help us cope with deep structural challenges to flourishing.

The popular ‘combat’ view of morality, wherein agents are constantly torn between immoral desires and the demands of duty, gets much of its plausibility from our normatively plural predicament, which requires us to negotiate conflicts and tensions arising from competing normative resources provided by self, other, and shared world. We are indeed conflicted – torn between comparably legitimate, substantively moral demands – but this is often simply a feature of the messy moral landscape to which we’re condemned, not a sign of intrinsic moral corruption. What might count as a ‘bad intention’ on the combat model is often better understood as the manifestation of another legitimate claim to goodness, one that’s at odds with a value that we ultimately take to have a greater claim to recognition in this context or at this point in our lives. Hence doing what’s right isn’t simply or primarily a matter of silencing an evil desire – though it might be strategically useful to think of goods we can’t realise in this way – but rather a matter of figuring out what’s best now in the context of a well-lived life considered as a whole. And there’s no simple algorithm for knowing how to exercise this moral discernment as we struggle to do justice to all of the sources of value to which we find ourselves answerable.

Am I happy? Am I generous? Am I contributing to the world? The moral struggle we face is finding a way to honestly and accurately answer ‘Yes’ to all three of these questions at once, over the course of a life that presents us with many obstacles to doing so.

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