Mike Hosken's

"Hinges and Loops"



  1. Too Many Systems
  2. Ethical Systems
  3. A First Comparison
  4. Problems
  5. Capital Punishment
  6. Voluntary Euthanasia
  7. Animal Rights
  8. Summary
Virtually every philosopher worth his salt has had a go at the perennial problem of deciding first of all what morality is and secondly what its rules should be. It would certainly seem reasonable to suppose that if there were any universally acceptable solution it would have been found by this time. But the situation that we actually find ourselves in is that there are lots of good ideas but no one of them has come to be respected by everyone in all circumstances.

§8.1 Too Many Systems

Chapter Seven included the suggestion that it might not be valid to go in search of some noun called "the good". But it is possible to approach the subject of ethics from two other contrasting starting points.
  • It might be possible to find out what morality, in the abstract, is all about and then apply it in realistic situations.
  • Generally agreed, perhaps even some universally agreed principles of morality might be analysed in the hope of discovering what they have in common. (It could even turn out that this is a fairly straightforward option since our Deity has vouchsafed some of us some answers already.) Then, the theory goes, those characteristics of the moral can be extended and widened by applying them to other cases in which agreement is lacking.
Both these approaches have been adopted by philosophers: both have yielded results. The difficulty is that those results do not agree one with the other. There is then the meta-question, the second-degree enquiry, "By what criteria do you distinguish a good ethic from a better one?" (I assume that "bad ethic" is a contradiction in terms, though we may have to question even that!) It would seem that any such enterprise could adopt either of two approaches:
  • Can we deduce, in the abstract, what makes for quality in an ethic and then subject our client ethical systems to competitive assessment?
  • Or should we survey the bases for morality that are on offer, attempt to isolate their highest common factor, and see whether that leads us anywhere?
Perhaps as this is no mean undertaking we shall be justified in attempting both. Scene-setting will be easier if we try the survey first. Rather than attempt any comprehensive review of the whole history of moral philosophy, mere thumbnail sketches will have to suffice. The various "-ism" names are useful for cross-reference, but I don't think we need bother unduly with details of who supplied each refinement and caveat.

§8.2 Ethical Systems


Each person should maximise his or her own fulfilment as a human being, acting in all cases reason-ably and so not excessively. The guiding principle should be application of the "Golden Mean" to the satisfaction of the appetites and the carrying out of duties. Gluttony, for example, is an excess to be avoided. Spiritlessness would be a deficiency defect. Between excessive caution and foolhardiness is the desirable mean of care. Charitable giving should be at a moderate level: self-interest should not disappear in favour of total altruism nor be allowed the full rein of selfishness.

Of course care has to be exercised in drawing up the details: there can be no "good" moderate amount of murder. Murder results only from some excessive act and is thus always wrong. Similarly, adultery combines excessive exercise of the sexual appetite with a deficiency of respect for the proper status of the cuckold. Eudaimonism can never justify adultery in any amount.


In the last analysis what we all want is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. So that act is best which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people together with the least possible total of pain. Two ways have been distinguished in which this can be applied:
  • ACT utilitarianism requires the consideration of each act on its own merits, in the particular circumstances of the individual case.
  • RULE utilitarianism prefers to rely on a sort of rule-book in which cases have been fully and calmly considered so that the most utilitarian rules (those producing the most net happiness) can be universally adopted.
To illustrate the difference, it is very difficult to think of any circumstance in which the conscientious rule utilitarian would tell a lie since truth-telling is a good general rule. But it is easy to imagine conditions under which an act utilitarian would consider that the balance of happiness in a particular case could be in favour of telling a (white) lie. We shall not arbitrate at this stage!


Intuitionism consists simply in adopting those ethical principles which seem to be the most intuitively appropriate. It is probably the most idiosyncratic of the systems we are looking at. Inevitably opinions differ, particularly when comparing those of people from different cultural backgrounds and upbringings.


The underlying principle here is that for something to be good it must be possible for everyone to enjoy it. Expressed so simplistically it is nonsensical: it would be immoral to visit the Science Museum on the 6th of June since it is not possible for everyone to do so. The philosopher Kant removed all such bugs in his expression of the principle, which he named "the categorical imperative", the unconditional rule. He did not stick to a single form of words, but a typical version is -

Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law.

As a matter of pure logic murder cannot be universalised. (But neither can "give all ye have to the poor".) Even the adulterer could not will his maxim of action to become a universal law. Universalisability is not as essentially egalitarian (equal shares for all) as its name might suggest since it may be possible to will that rewards be proportional to effort, or merit, or status, or whatever.


The do-as-you-would-be-done-by, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" principle is close to universalisability but it rather assumes that we are all pretty much alike in our individual needs and preferences. So the golden rule, too, needs careful wording, perhaps along the lines of "You assist me in my personal development and I'll help you in yours."

Closely related to the golden rule is the role-reversal test: "How would I like it if I were on the receiving end of my action?" This does again tend to rely on all our interests and emotions being similar unless, again, sensible refinements are built in.


This is not the place to go into the matter of the reliability of personal revelation. From the purely ethical point of view we must, however, take account of the fact that for many people all the things we have discussed so far are irrelevant. What matters to them is the moral code which has been given to them and which they know to have originated in their God. The classic cases are of course in the Koran, and in the texts of the Jews and Christians with their Ten Commandments and the New Testament Sermon on the Mount.


At the other extreme, and as our single example of a one-man ethic, Nietzsche considered that the good was that which fostered the advancement of humanity on the grand scale. The herd of ordinary people should be exploited if doing so developed the interests of the historically significant master class. It spawned Hitlerism.

§8.3 A First Comparison

The next stage in our enquiry was to have been the extraction of the highest factor common to all these systems. In even briefer summary:
Eudaimonism -
Utilitarianism -
Intuitionism -
Categorical imperative -
Golden rule -
Will of God -
Will to power -
- Self-fulfilment
- Greatest net happiness
- What seems best
- Universalisability
- Reciprocity
- Obedience
- Human advancement

It would seem that the nature of our task does not lend itself to finding any such highest common factor: that is a pity. When, in almost any situation, it becomes patently obvious that a question is not just difficult but that it is impossible to answer then the only available conclusion is that we have evidently asked the wrong question. However, ours is too important a project to be abandoned without further enquiry.

Some of us, of course, know what the answer is even without knowing what the question was! For true believers the will of God is known. Logical without need of logical justification; self-verifying for its followers; divine ethics answer all ethical questions whatever they are.

But the rest of us are in a less happy situation and must return to the problem from a different direction. We need a new question. Plan A, the search for the highest common factor, having obviously failed we need a Plan B. But it just could be that the fault may lie with the oversimplification we have adopted. Might there be something hidden among the fine print which could help us?

§8.4 Problems

In the first run-through of our seven alternatives the only examples given were the absolute minimum needed, murder and so on, to see how the ethic worked. It may be that a different insight will be forthcoming if we give each one a few more realistic general cases to consider. We might, for example, consider such vexed questions as capital punishment, voluntary euthanasia, and animal rights. All three are serious matters involving life and death choices.

§8.5 Capital Punishment


It could probably be argued that a criminal who has ignored the rule of the golden mean so seriously as to carry out a murder, let us say, must be removed from society as a criminal. In that case he or she would be prevented from further fulfilment by being confined in prison, and would need the services of warders whose productive fulfilment as fellow human beings may well be questioned by themselves or by others. So although there is no absolute black and white case to be made, it seems likely that the eudaimonist would approve of the judicial taking of the life of a criminal in some cases at least.

Clearly extinction by death cannot rehabilitate the criminal: it is retributory rather than corrective so far as the individual is concerned. What is much less clear is the range of crimes which would justify such an outcome and the possible circumstances which might extenuate. Capital punishment is said to have some deterrent effect on the rest of society. Eudaimonism as such would have no view on that side of the question.


Here we have a much more clear-cut case. If the normal law-abiding citizen is happier with murderers, rapists and the like removed beyond harm's way and does not want to pay for their indefinite incarceration then extinction is the obvious way out. One must presume that the same verdict would not apply to people who park on double yellow lines, but in general the mass of the citizenry will be happy to leave to their Members of Parliament and to the judges the question of how far down the scale of criminal behaviour the death sentence should extend. After all, that's what the legislators and judiciary are paid for.

So even after deducting the bit of pain caused (justly caused?) to the criminal and his/her loved ones if any, it is quite clear that the calculation of greatest net happiness is totally in favour of capital punishment for all sorts of things.


It all depends how YOU feel about it.


We have got to be a lot more careful of our interpretation here. We can't risk a nonsense like having a crowd at the Science Museum! So let us be guided by the precision of Kant: can we act according to a capital punishment maxim and at the same time will that that maxim shall become a general law? The criteria of our "willing" must be a matter more of logic than of sentiment though intuitive, emotional elements may well come into the assessment.

Oh dear, that's a pity! Here we were thinking that systems of ethics were supposed to tell us how to behave, and Kant simply presents us with a way of asking us how we should behave. This is evidently not an enquiry for the faint-hearted, so let us see whether progress may be possible. We may at least be able to distinguish two extremes.
  • It shall be a universal law that all criminals shall be extinguished. This would seem to be lacking both in humanity and in logical justification.
  • It shall be a universal law that all properly convicted murderers who have killed their mothers-in-law for the benefit of the insurance money and dissolved the bodies in acid and .... so on shall be judicially extinguished by some means or other. This is, hopefully, a law with but a single application and is thus not a test in accordance with Kant's principle.
So if the test is to be both meaningful and acceptable it must lie somewhere between the two extremes. But neither Kant nor I can offer any advice as to where within the range the necessary line should be drawn. Is that all a matter of personal opinion? - of idiosyncratic intuition?


If you were to catch me having killed my mother-in-law or my best friend, or having parked on double yellow lines, I should prefer NOT to be hanged. Therefore and by extension, no form of judicial extinction can ever be acceptable. (But does this mean that no form of punishment can be justified under this ethic?)


General rules like "Thou shalt not kill" need to be interpreted. Some would suggest that God wills one hundred percent application to human life in all circumstances: others would not, while a third group would see the need to extend it to the whole animal kingdom. Just to make the point, a literal interpretation of the rule as it stands would also include vegetation and bacteria.

Having once admitted the need for interpretation it would seem that in this particular ethic there can be only one next step - ask. Where any doubt can exist, prayer is the clear means to the answer albeit not necessarily the means to the clear answer. If you don't believe that then you don't believe the ethic and the problem of the effectiveness of prayer simply does not arise.


Anyone who inhibits the proper development of humanity deserves to be eliminated. That will be a member of the common herd since by definition members of the superior class engage only in activities that foster the advancement of humanity. So by all means dispose as cheaply as possible of unwanted herd members. If it suits you to erect a facade of herd justice so that the extinction can be publicly termed "judicial" then that's alright too.

8.6 Voluntary Euthanasia


It could well be supposed that pain may play some purposeful role in the human condition. But when life itself is ebbing away in such agony that further human fulfilment is quite impossible then the balance of benefit must undoubtedly lie with bringing forward a peaceful end. This would not be the case with mere temporary injury, painful though that may be, since recovery is virtually certain and further personal fulfilment would be likely to follow.

Borderline terminal cases would fall into one of a number of categories.
  • Where the patient is sufficiently well adjusted to make his or her own conscious decision then that should be respected.
  • With cases of mental illness or total disability the helpers must (especially if the patient had earlier indicated a willingness) take the responsibility and act accordingly.

The only problem with the utilitarian approach to euthanasia is distinguishing between real and imagined pains, considered in some detail in Chapter Seven. Against the pains of the patient have to be set those of the sorrowing friends who are (one must presume) most unhappy to see the patient go. But a moment's reflection reveals that the alternatives involve postponement of parting rather than cancellation. There is certainly no principle of utilitarianism which could impose any blanket approval or prohibition of euthanasia. Each case would need its own analysis: the "felicific calculus" - the calculation of total net pleasure or total net pain - may well need to discover the least-negative rather than the more usual most-positive solution.


It all depends how YOU feel about it.


It would be difficult to discover any universal logical reason to prohibit voluntary euthanasia for terminal cases - why such cases should not be relieved of intolerable pain by bringing forward the inevitable. The emphasis would have to be on the voluntary aspects of course, with appropriate safeguards. Assuming one might rely on a medical opinion as to whether a case is terminal or not, the only difficulties in principle are the necessary rulings on -
  • whether or not the pain is intolerable. One would presume that sheer boredom would scarcely qualify for example, but it would be difficult to define any realistic threshold.
  • who decides whether the pain is intolerable or not. The first choice must be the patient: in cases where this is not possible is it a fair responsibility to give to the medical adviser?
In short, voluntary euthanasia would seem to be universalisable in principle but with difficulties in practice.


To a large extent this is another ethic which depends on how you feel about it. If you were the case in point you couldn't be grateful in death for being dead (I think most of us presume) but would you now wish to think that in the final agony some kind person would have enough practical pity to help you over the threshold of oblivion? Or are you scared that the moment you get a bit non-compos some needle-happy medic may take it into his or her head to clear the bed for the next patient?


As with the earlier argument, this is a real problem with no universal solution. But for the faithful among us prayer is again a means to an answer.


There is nothing sacred about life itself. When all usefulness has gone the right and sensible thing is for the person concerned or their friends to end any form of suffering in the most final way possible. One can be thankful for a life well spent: one should not need to fear a life painfully prolonged for its own sake.

§8.7 Animal Rights


Human happiness and fulfilment are the sole concerns of eudaimonic ethics. Plants, brute beasts, pets and pests are irrelevancies.


There may be a bit of nit-picking here, so an extra authority will be a sound precaution. Although he wasn't the originator of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill is usually taken to be the founder of the modern version of utilitarian ethics. So we might take a strict definition from the words of the master:

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,
wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

"Utilitarianism" (1863), Chapter 2.

There is no mention of our happiness, or of human happiness: actions are right as they tend to increase the universe's net flux of that valued commodity we call "happiness". Anyone who has seen a dog at play, witnessed a cat luxuriating in the warmth of a sunny windowsill, or had dolphins sporting around a bow-wave knows that happiness is not confined to one rather pompous self-important erect bipedal species of mammal. This is not an argument to prove that lions are immoral: if they were to stop their carnivorous killing they would themselves die and perhaps the happiness flux would actually decline. But we humans have a choice. We are omnivorous: we can eat both flesh and vegetation. That means that we can stop our killing of fellow-creatures and eating their muscley bits. The flux of happiness would benefit with no penalty of increasing the flux of pain in the universe. Utilitarianism says we should therefore do so. Vegetarianism looms.

But what of egg production? Can milk for drinking, milk for butter, milk for cheese, milk for a little luxury cream be taken from family pets alone? Commercial farming exploits animals even before it kills them - as it inevitably will when they are too old to bear yet another pregnancy or survive an extra laying season. We cannot ask these animals whether or not they are happy, but the dogs, cats and dolphins give us enough clues to force us to realise that animal exploitation is not animal utilitarianism. The only moral course is veganism.


It all depends how YOU feel about it.


On a par with sexism and racism, the question of animal rights is sometimes referred to as speciesism. Expressed in those terms, the categorical imperative must be as follows:

Act towards other species according to the maxim
by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a law for all species.

This is then open to two opposing interpretations:
  • All carnivores exploit, kill and eat prey species. Omnivores such as bears may not hunt in the way that wolves or lions do, but they do certainly kill when the chance of a meat or fish meal comes their way. Obviously we would not "will" that cattle and sheep should become killers. But humans are more on a par with bears so there is certainly no moral reason to think that human kind should give up their inbuilt eating habits. Let nature have its way for all species, universally.
  • "Species A exploits, enslaves, hunts, imprisons, controls, feeds, tends, makes sport of, and/or kills species B". This can be moral ONLY if A and B are universalisable in principle. The human species is unwilling to play the role of B and therefore has no right whatever to be A. Veganism is the only nutritional right for a morally responsible species.

Apart from those humans who try and maintain that the fox enjoys The Hunt, it would seem that do-as-you-would-be-done-by points unequivocally to veganism - unless we are content for Animal Farm to exploit us.


A biblical answer is simple: God created the animals at least partly for the service of man. It would be blasphemous to use any part of His creation to generate evil, but within the scope of what is necessary and natural we may use animals for power, food and clothing. Sport is more borderline.

A distant though parallel Buddhist answer is even more simple. At least some of the animals are the incarnations of our ancestors. It would be anathema to exploit, let alone kill any of them.

The Koran is silent on speciesism.


A useful dog or a powerful horse or a productive cow has the same rights as any other good servant. End of story: don't make an issue out of it.

§8.8 Summary

Eudaimonism Sometimes OK. Generally OK. Irrelevant.
Utilitarianism Yes, fine. It all depends. Veganism for us.
Intuitionism Depends on you. Depends on you. Depends on you.
Universalisability Unclear alternatives. OK but difficult. Conflicting interpretations.
Golden Rule Never. Depends on you. Veganism for us.
Will of God Pray for a guide. Pray for a guide. Conflicting views.
Will to Power Yes, fine. Yes, fine. Servile.

We seem not to have arrived at the clear picture that we had hoped for. But we can hardly leave it there so we had better re-group for a fresh attack in the next Chapter.

< < < < < < < < < <+> > > > > > > > > >

Please contact Mike Hosken at
[email protected]
with your observations, comments, criticisms and suggestions, or to request an A5 printed copy of "Hinges and Loops".
The next chapter continues the search for a Coherent Morality.
Hinges and Loops CONTENTS