Does the end really justify the means?

It is September 1666, and the Great Fire of London has broken out in a bakery. For four days flames rage uncontrolled through thousands of wooden homes. Though few perish in the fire, enormous numbers are homeless, possessions lost, with nothing to eat and no work available. Many of them die during the winter months. Almost immediately after the fire rumours swirl that the blaze was begun by Dutch or French Catholics. Mobs roam the street demanding an arrest. The authorities fear large scale civil unrest.

Then a simple-minded man confesses. He is Robert Hubert, believed to be a French Catholic. Hubert soon retracts his confession but he is brought to trial, convicted by the jury, and the death sentence passed. It is what the crowds wanted, and they disperse. Next month Hubert is hanged.

It would seem justice was done. But it wasn’t. Hubert certainly did not start the fire. He couldn’t have because there was incontrovertible evidence he was at sea on a ship when the fire began. London had already been burning for two days before he arrived in the city. The authorities always had doubts about Hubert’s guilt, but his conviction prevented riots, and it was better that one die than many.

Why tell that story? Because it illustrates what can happen if the rightness of actions is judged by how good or useful their consequences. Philosophers have a name for that kind of moral theory: consequentialism. One kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which I will explain later.

I imagine you’re telling yourself: ‘I wouldn’t hang an innocent man under any circumstances – I’m not a consequentialist!’ But I’d be ninety-nine per cent sure you are a consequentialist, probably quite often. My mother was when it came time to remove a band-aid plaster from my knee. ‘If I do it quickly it won’t hurt so much,’ she’d say. That’s consequentialism – let’s do the hard thing now because it’ll be better later. And we’re consequentialists any time we pay a false compliment about someone’s clothes or hairstyle, or cross our fingers while saying we like their friends. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, so we tell them what they’d like to hear. That’s consequentialism – we’re focused on outcomes, especially happy ones.

If you’ve been following recent blog posts, you’ll know I’ve been studying the philosophical issues around (what’s called) dirty hands. Dirty hands refers to doing something bad, but we do it because we believe it’ll lead to a good outcome. The situations I’m looking at are usually a lot more serious than hurting someone’s feelings. Two posts back ( I shared an often-quoted imaginary scenario, which is this:

  • a terrorist is arrested while planting a bomb
  • the authorities learn there are more bombs, all with timers to go off soon
  • the terrorist won’t say where they are
  • if they torture him to get that information they will save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives
  • but torture is evil and illegal, so only the most extreme of emergencies could possibly justify its use
  • might saving a thousand lives be such a situation?

That’s the standard imaginary story to explain the dirty hands dilemma. You could say it’s about doing wrong to do right, about doing a bad thing for a good outcome. But can really dreadful things like torture ever be allowed, no matter how good the goal? That’s what I’m studying, and I’m asking if there is any moral theory that has the answer.

Before going further, I recognise some are fascinated by subjects like this, and others are switched off. I’d encourage you to keep going. The issues are actually very important. But don’t feel bad if this subject is not for you.

In the last post I looked at one theory. It’s about rule-keeping but goes by the fancy name of deontology. (See:  A very famous 18th century philosopher called Immanuel Kant believed no act was right unless you could will that everyone behaved that way. For example, he didn’t believe the world could function if everyone lied, so, for him, lying was always wrong no matter the consequences. That might mean telling a murderer where his intended victim is hiding. But, the question I asked was: how could a lie be more important than saving someone’s life?

Consequentialism isn’t about obeying rules. What’s right is doing what gives the best outcomes / consequences. Therefore it seems exactly right for dirty hands issues, because they’re about doing bad things to achieve good outcomes. Hence, can you torture a terrorist if that’s the only way to find and diffuse bombs? Some think that, in these circumstances, it’s the right thing to do; others think torture is always wrong.

The first person to organise consequentialist thought was a strange man. Well, I think someone is strange who writes in his will that, after death, his head should be preserved and placed on his body, seated upright on his usual chair, so he could join meetings of his ‘disciples’ when they gathered together.

The philosopher was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Though his wish was extremely odd, it was granted and his auto-icon (body preserved and displayed as still living) is on display to this day in the Student Centre of University College London.[1]

Bentham was a pioneer in developing philosophical method. In the 17th century Francis Bacon had brought orderliness into scientific investigation, and Bentham wanted to do the same for philosophy. His key interests were morality and justice, so he wrote a book called ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’. It very nearly never got published. He had it ready in 1780 and, as many authors do, he let his friends read it in advance so he could make any corrections. These friends were unsparingly honest with Bentham, and pointed out so many imperfections Bentham confessed he believed the book ‘doomed to oblivion’. But he kept working at it, and it was published nine years later. But – being an odd man – Bentham wrote into the book some of his own criticisms of it. Over the years he continued to make corrections for a new edition which finally came out 34 years later.

So, what was Bentham’s moral philosophy?

He considered human beings to be governed by pain and pleasure. And his principle of ‘utility’ (usefulness) – hence the name utilitarianism – approved or disapproved of actions according to how much they increased or diminished the happiness of an individual or community. If an action produced benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, then it was right. It could also be right if it prevented mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness. He defined six circumstances which could affect the value of pleasures or pains for an individual – see the footnote below for the details.[2] Then he specified an exact way of working out whether an action tended towards good or evil when everything was taken into account. His method is amusingly or frustratingly complicated – again, see below for details.[3] He didn’t believe his process could be followed before every moral judgment, but said the more precisely his method was observed, the more the result would be exact.

You might think that’s quite enough. Not for Bentham! What follows in his book are nine pages of kinds of pleasures and pains. There are 33 different lists. I have only skim-read them, and that left me exhausted.

To be kind to Bentham, his method and lists were an attempt to stimulate legal reforms and regularise sentencing in the justice system. But he was also trying to bring a more scientific process to moral decision-making.

His attempt at a method was applauded and criticised. It was impractical, and Bentham’s focus on calculating rightness on a numerical basis left open the chance of great evils. For example, was it right that slaves and Christians were tied up in Roman arenas so large crowds could watch them torn to pieces by wild animals? Bentham’s system would seem to say ‘yes’, because for a few there was extreme pain, while for the many there was great joy and excitement. Far more had pleasure than the number who suffered pain. And that’s what Bentham said was the way to judge rightness.

Jeremy Bentham was great friends with a man called James Mill, and he tutored James’ son. That boy became an even more famous philosopher than Bentham, and sought to rescue utilitarianism from the crude versions of consequentialism. His name was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

His father decided that John Stuart would have a genius intellect. He was put through an immensely rigorous training, which John Stuart detailed in his autobiography. From Wikipedia, here’s how it began:

At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon‘s Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.[4]

Lists of his immense learning cover several more paragraphs. It’s a massive amount and range of academic knowledge. Then, aged 20, John Stuart Mill contemplated suicide. He’d realised the direction his life was taking would not bring happiness. What brought him back from the brink was the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Mill became an MP for a short time, but he made his greatest impact through his writings on several branches of philosophy. His book ‘Utilitarianism’ continues to fascinate me.

Mill was unquestionably a man of great learning. He was also shrewd, and he affirmed, adjusted and added to Bentham’s views to make them better.

Affirmed    He agreed with Bentham’s way of deciding between right and wrong. Here’s how Mill puts it: ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’.

Adjusted    Bentham had given all forms of pleasures the same value, so critics said many of them were no better than beasts would enjoy. Mill adapts the understanding of pleasure by arguing that the quality of pleasure matters as well as the quantity. In other words, there are ‘higher pleasures’ (such as those of the intellect, morality and aesthetics) and ‘lower pleasures’ (such as those of the body and senses). That allows Mill to say: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Mill’s view smacks of elitism, but allows him to elevate his utilitarianism above the crudity of consequentialism.

Added    Bentham’s system involved calculating the happiness or usefulness of each act for most people. But his formula was tedious to calculate, and allowed the Roman masses to revel in watching people mauled to death. Mill, wisely, did not reject all that, but he added something that transformed it: the idea that it is not individual acts that should be assessed for pleasure or pain, but the assessment should be made of ‘rules and precepts for human conduct’. What that means is this: if a moral rule is widely accepted as good, and an action fits within that rule, then that action is morally good. For example, if there’s a rule that says ‘It’s a good thing to assist the poor’ and you take a loaf of bread to an impoverished neighbour, you no longer need to assess the moral rightness of your gift of bread because it’s already covered by the ‘assist the poor’ rule. That makes sense.

But, surely there are times when rules can’t be kept, such as the need to lie to someone intent on murder? Mill picks up on exactly that famous case I mentioned in the previous post. Yes, lying is wrong, but Mill says that even such a sacred rule has to allow exceptions. One of his examples, unsurprisingly, is that lying would be justified to ‘preserve someone from great and unmerited evil’. There can’t be rule-exceptions for self-interest, such as to avoid embarrassment, but, to save someone else from harm, a rule could be broken. Though that is a very reasonable position, Mill was criticised that he made his rules useful when convenient, but abandoned when inconvenient.

Eventually – in the late 1950s – Bentham’s views were labelled ‘act utilitarianism’ and Mill’s views ‘rule utilitarianism’. Not many today advocate the ‘act’ version, but plenty still identify with ‘rule utilitarianism’. It’s a softer, more reasonable form of consequentialism.

My special interest, of course, is whether any moral theory helps us justify a ‘dirty hands’ action, such as torturing a terrorist to find the bombs he’s planted.

A raw version of consequentialism would simply say, ‘Of course torture is justified providing more people benefit than suffer’. That’s straightforward, but no better than justifying slaughter in a Roman arena to amuse the crowd. No moral judgment is being made about the torture, only a calculation about how many gain from it.

I think Mill’s rule utilitarianism helps, but only goes so far. Here’s what I mean. Unquestionably torture would be against any normal moral rule. So, on that basis, you should refuse torture. However, you only remove the immoral action. You don’t remove the immoral consequence of inaction. By not torturing, you allow bombs to explode and many hundreds die.

So you have to resort to claiming this dreadful scenario needs one of Mill’s rule-exceptions. You could argue for a ‘supreme emergency’ exception to the no-torture rule. But who gets to define what is a ‘supreme emergency’? It’s not hard to imagine that many situations could be claimed as a supreme emergency. After all, that’s the line of thought which authorities, faced with mobs in the street, used to convict and hang Robert Hubert for starting the Great Fire, even though he was innocent.

My final conclusion will not be that consequentialism is the moral theory that resolves all dirty hands issues.

One more major moral theory to go still. It’s not remotely a religious theory, but some words of Jesus could sum it up: ‘Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ Matthew 7:17-18). I shall explain next time.

[1] See:,both%20in%20life%20and%20death. Understandably the head now on his shoulders is made of wax.

[2] His six are: 1. intensity 2. duration 3. certainty or uncertainty 4. propinquity or proximity, 5. fecundity (‘more of the same’ to follow), 6. purity (unlikelihood of opposite sensations following). If the issue concerned a group, Bentham had a seventh: extent (the number affected).

[3] Here’s how Bentham instructs his readers to ‘take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act’. It is to be an exact process: value each initial pleasure and each initial pain; then secondary pleasures and pains. Then total the values of the pleasures against the values of the pains. If the balance is on the side of pleasure, there is a good tendency to the act, and a bad tendency to the act if the balance shows pain. Also, consider how many people are affected by the act, and do the calculations again for each one. Then do the ‘balance sheet’ calculation again to calculate if the tendency is good on the whole or bad on the whole. Where the balance lies will show whether the act has a good tendency or an evil tendency.

[4] From:

‘Never tell a lie’ – but what if telling the truth will cost a life?

On the whole, philosophers are polite. So, why would one philosopher describe another this way: ‘a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his theory, and instead grotesquely defends the inhumane’?  

That’s hard-talk. And I agree with most of it (though might be more respectful). The clue to what that devastating criticism is about is in the heading of this blog. I’ll explain all shortly.

In the last blog post I mentioned that I’m currently studying ‘dirty hands’ which I described this way: ‘You get dirty hands by doing something morally bad, but which is necessary to achieve a good outcome (or to minimise a bad outcome).’ I used an imaginary scenario of a terrorist arrested while planting a bomb. The authorities discover there are six or more other bombs, all hidden but all on timers to explode within 24 hours. Interrogating the terrorist isn’t working. He won’t talk. The last resort is torture. Torture is both evil and illegal but, in these circumstances, where the lives of at least hundreds are threatened, could torture be justified?

The answer to that question may lie in what this blog post is about: rules.

We have had lists of rules from ancient times. The Judeo Christian tradition has its Ten Commandments; Islam its Shariah law from the Quran and the Hadith; the United States its Constitution; our roads and streets the Highway Code; our homes their ‘commandments’ about dirty laundry or mobile phones at the dinner table. Rules – loved and loathed – are an inescapable aspect of life.

So, if we are rule-observing people, and there is a rule (law) against torture, the dilemma with the terrorist is solved. He can’t be tortured. Issue over.

Except it isn’t.

Before we get to why it isn’t, who is the philosopher whose moral theory is described as ‘inhumane’?

In some ways this philosopher seems an odd candidate to arouse wrath. Born in 1724, he lived and died in Königsberg, Prussia.[1] Though his town was a busy centre with a population of 50,000, it was remote from the economic and culture centres of German life. As a young man, our philosopher altered his birth name because he preferred a more accurate Hebraic form.[2] He was no more than five feet tall, always suffered poor health, and was so regular in his habits it was said neighbours set their watches by his comings and goings. His early lecturing was on subjects as diverse and strange as fireworks, fortifications, and physical geography.

My guess is that the image you’re developing is not of a giant among philosophers. But Immanuel Kant is thought of as one of the greatest philosophers ever. One writer calls him ‘the central figure in modern philosophy’ and another says he provided ‘some of the most powerful and influential ideas in the history of moral philosophy’.

Why is Kant so influential, and why so controversial? I can answer that, but I’ll limit my explanations to issues related to moral decision-making, especially as it affects dirty hands.

Kant was a deontologist[3]. That kind of philosophy focuses on duty. For anything we do to have moral worth, it must be done exclusively because of duty. It can’t be because we feel good, or from sympathy, or for self-interest – just from duty.

What exactly will that mean? Here are three short scenarios that explain Kant’s thinking.

The shopkeeper    A child enters the shop who doesn’t understand what things cost. The shopkeeper could easily overcharge him, thus making more profit. But he realises that if people find out, it’ll damage his reputation and his business. So he charges the child only the correct price.

Wealthy woman 1    This wealthy woman loves her riches and has no sympathy for the poor. She wants to keep all her money for herself and let the poor get by as best they can. But she recognises she has a duty to help the needy, so supports the impoverished in several ways.

Wealthy woman 2    The second wealthy woman also enjoys all the good things her money provides, but from her youth she has sincerely cared for the poor and finds deep contentment in supporting those who have little.[4]

Now, from the information I’ve given about Kant, which of these acts would he believe had moral worth?

My first answer was Wealthy Woman 2. I liked her attitude and her concern. But that’s not Kant’s judgment. All three – he would say – did what duty required (they all acted in accordance with duty) but only one acted solely from duty. And that person is Wealthy Woman 1.

What was wrong with the others?

For Kant the shopkeeper’s actions lacked moral worth because he was motivated by self-interest. He only charged the fair price because it might have harmed his business if he didn’t. His self-interest might just as easily have led him to overcharge if he’d believed he could get away with it. Hence, Kant doesn’t credit his action as morally worthy.

Kant’s reason for not acknowledging moral worth in the actions of Wealthy Woman 2 are, strangely, not much different from the case of the shopkeeper. Kant recognises her virtuous instincts, but to do something kind because you are attracted to do it, because you find pleasure in doing it, is to act out of self-interest. To do good because it feels good doesn’t generate actions of moral worth. He writes: ‘All so-called moral interest consists solely in respect for the law’. Notice the word ‘solely’ in that sentence. No motivation carries moral worth except that which is done solely to respect the law. For Kant, pleasure and pity are no better than acting out of self-interest, so the actions they inspire are morally worthless. The law must be the motive. Our duty is to obey the law, no matter what we think or feel. (By the way, by ‘law’ Kant usually does not mean the law of the land; he means the moral law – doing what is right.)

I’d like to argue with Kant on some of those points, and especially about Wealthy Woman 2! But, for now, what matters is only to understand that Kant is committed to the view that morally right actions are done from duty, and from no other motive.

So – skipping past much of what Kant says about reason and the good will – I’ll jump to the maxim he laid down as the dominating principle for deciding between right and wrong actions. It’s called the categorical imperative.

It’s very short, so please read it, after which I’ll explain what Kant means. Here is the categorical imperative: ‘I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law.

By ‘maxim’ Kant means a plan of action or conduct. So, divided up, what he’s saying is this: Your plan of conduct / is right only if / you can will that plan of conduct / to be right for everyone.

In other words, no action is right unless you could intend that everyone else should behave the same. His imperative is often called the universalisability principle: what is right for you must be capable of being right for everyone everywhere.

Kant explains his point by using promise-keeping, or, rather, promise-breaking. Promise-breaking can’t be right because you can’t wish for everyone to promise-break. If no-one kept promises, no-one would make promises because no-one would believe them.

So, for Kant, no action is right unless you can will that action to be done by everyone. He is hard-line about that. He is often called an ‘absolutist’; for him there can be no exceptions to obeying the moral law.

During Kant’s lifetime people argued that his principles were too strict. And the instance that was often mentioned was about lying. Surely, they said, there must be times when lying is exactly the right thing to do. Kant answered his critics with a short essay titled ‘On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives’. In it, he imagined a situation to illustrate how someone must tell the truth no matter the consequences to themselves or others. Essentially his story is this:

There’s a loud banging on your door. You open it, find a man there in a panic because he’s being pursued by a murderer. Clearly he’s serious. He must hide. So you bring him into your home. A minute later, there’s more loud banging on your door. You open it, and here is a man already covered in blood, wielding an axe, and demanding to know where his victim has gone. How do you answer him?[5]

Realistically, there are only two possible responses. One is that you misdirect the murderer – tell him his fugitive ran up the street, then turned left. The other is that you admit you have him in your home, and the murderer steps inside. What follows is bloody.

Kant is unwavering. The householder must tell the truth, even knowing the fugitive will immediately be murdered. Kant cannot allow a lie. He writes: ‘To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is… a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency’.

Thus, doing what’s right, what the moral law dictates, is for Kant ‘a sacred unconditional command …not limited by expediency’. No thought at all should be given to the consequences of your action. It doesn’t matter how convenient, how attractive, how important they are. None of that is the point. All that matters is that you do what’s right. And what’s right is what the moral rule requires.

So ask Kant if a terrorist should be tortured in order to find unexploded bombs? The answer would be a firm ‘no’.

What about all dirty hands issues? There are at least three clear conclusions which we can draw from Kant’s rule-keeping principle.

  1. Since every dirty hands action is normally morally forbidden, Kant’s absolutist position would reject them all.
  2. Since a moral act takes no account of outcomes, the fact that bombs will explode if not found quickly is irrelevant. All that matters is that whatever is done must pass the universalisability test. You couldn’t will that everyone be tortured, so it would be wrong to torture the terrorist. Of course that means dreadful consequences may follow, but, for Kant, no fault will rest with the person who followed duty.
  3. Kant’s absolutism can actually increase the number of wrongs. If the terrorist is not tortured, one evil act is prevented. But when the hidden bombs explode, hundreds or thousands of evil acts (deaths) will occur. Avoiding one wrong will have allowed many wrongs.

My guess is that many of us would agree that moral rules should be kept, but at least some of us would allow for exceptions in extreme circumstances. That might not be an exception for torture, but could be permission to lie to save the life of the fugitive sheltering in your house.

Kant, of course, would allow the bombs to explode and the fugitive to be murdered. That’s why the critic called him ‘a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his theory’. She went further by referring back to the persecution and extermination of Jews in Germany and other countries by the Nazis, and asked if those who were hiding Jews in their homes should readily have admitted their presence to any Nazi who asked. How could Kant justify a moral theory that would send even one Jew to the gas-chambers?

I agree that an absolutist deontology – like Kant’s – is intolerably severe. A theory capable of maximising rather than minimising harm can’t be right.

There are deontologists who are not absolutist. They allow exceptions in extreme circumstances. Then there are others who call themselves threshold deontologists – they adhere firmly to rules until the consequences reach a pre-determined level of awfulness, after which they take whatever is the best action. A similar view holds that there’s a sliding scale for decision-making: stick to the rule when harmful outcomes are minor, but when the harm builds and becomes unacceptably dreadful, do whatever gives the best outcome.

Some, of course, accuse those who allow exceptions as not rule-keepers at all. If you believe a moral rule is right, then it’s always right.

But what might be called common sense morality doesn’t hold that view. Life is messy, and we have to change course in the light of fresh circumstances. A current TV drama includes a story about a nurse falling short in her duties, almost being fired but reprieved when the boss finds out the nurse is suffering domestic abuse. Theoretically, because the nurse failed in her work, she should still be fired, but mercy prevails over justice and she gets help as well as retaining her job. That’s a low-level yet real circumstance, but at all levels exceptional situations occur and we may never know for sure what we’ll do until they happen.

In the next blog I’ll consider a different moral theory: consequentialism. It is not at all about rules, other than a principle to do whatever leads to the best outcome. Sounds promising? It is. But it’s also highly problematic…

[1] Today Königsberg is Kaliningrad, Russia.

[2] He changed it from Emanuel to Immanuel.

[3] The word deontology blends two Greek words, deon (‘duty’) and logos (literally ‘word’, but may also mean ‘science’ or ‘study’). Hence a deontologist studies duty.

[4] I’m indebted to Alex Barber of The Open University for these examples.

[5] This is Kant’s scenario, but I have added details to make it more vivid.


The year is 1346, the location is Crécy, and the Hundred Years’ War between France and England has begun. The French and English armies face each other. Between them lies an estuary of salty marshes; not a good place to fight.

This is the age of chivalry, and a French knight rides out. He halts his horse, and shouts a challenge. Would any English knight dare to joust three times with him? There is silence. No-one moves. Then a voice – an English voice – roars that he accepts the challenge. The two knights take their places. Each army cheers for their hero. The knights charge. Their lances glance off shields, but no-one falls. They pick fresh lances, and again they charge. Lances strike shields, and the English knight’s shield shatters. He picks his third lance, but now has no shield. To fight on is to die. Yet he will. His code says he must. But another code saves his life. The French knight dismounts. His sense of chivalry will not let him take advantage. He will not attack a defenceless opponent. The knight walks to his foe and announces the fight over. The Frenchman is a warrior with a deep sense of fairness, a man of virtue.[1]

Virtue feels like it’s in short supply these days. Politicians seem willing to take advantage whenever they can. Top executives are applauded for ruthlessness.  Cheating happens in many sports. Footballers ‘dive’ in the penalty area, countless dark arts are practised in rugby scrums, Lance Armstrong was never the only cycle racer using drugs, cricketers have been guilty of roughing the ball with an abrasive. Golf is, to some extent, the exception. It has had cheats, but most judge it one of the fairest sports because players will penalise themselves for actions no-one else could have seen. I’m glad to play a virtuous sport.

(The next paragraph gives some ‘ancient’ background about virtue – skip ahead if you wish.)

More than 2000 years ago, Greek philosophers had much to say and to debate about virtue. Virtue, they argued, was essential for a life of well-being. Plato (writing around 380 BC) believed there were four virtues: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice (justice for Plato meant acting in ways that produce well-being). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, thought a life of virtue was crucial for what he called eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well. Writing in 325 BC, Aristotle said that ethical virtue is not ours by nature but acquired and developed by practised habit. Virtues are choices which create the kind of disposition, or inclination, that makes a human being good. In other words, the virtuous person will make good moral decisions.

Personally I like Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue as a choice and a practised habit. But the hard reality is that we live in a world where many neither make that choice nor discipline their lives to be virtuous.

I can’t solve that. There’s no pill and no process that produces virtuous people. But, in what follows, I want to make a case for why virtue matters. It might inspire us to choose virtue as our default ‘disposition’.

Virtue matters because where would we be without it?

I was playing in an important golf match. Joe was my fellow player, and we were marking each other’s scorecards. I drove my ball right and it rolled just off the edge of the fairway. Joe had gone left and was far away from me. I looked at my ball, and saw a small twig lying beside it. The twig wasn’t touching the ball, so I moved it out of my way. But immediately my ball then rolled about an inch (2.5 cm). A small leaf of the twig must have been underneath the ball, hence it moved when I took the twig away. I put the ball back, played out the hole, and told Joe I had scored five.

Joe looked at me quizzically. ‘Surely you had four?’

I explained, ‘I picked up a twig and my ball moved. I replaced the ball before playing but I have to add one penalty shot’.

But Joe said, ‘Alistair, you don’t need to do that.’ He meant I shouldn’t bother about it.

I insisted. ‘I have to do it. I couldn’t be at peace putting in a score that I knew was wrong.’

‘Well’, Joe said, ‘you might be the only golfer here today who’d do that.’

Really? Sadly, yes. The vast majority of golfers wouldn’t breach any major rules, but Joe was right that many would ignore small infringements, especially if they hadn’t gained any advantage.

I’m not wired that way. I want everyone to play to the same rules because, if they don’t, the outcome can’t be fair. And if people breach minor rules, perhaps they also breach major rules. Then the person who wins is simply the best cheat. And that can’t be right.

That was exactly the point of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), when he defined right actions on the basis of a categorical imperative. Here’s Kant’s formula for deciding right or wrong actions: ‘I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law’.

His meaning is actually very straightforward. He’s saying: My action is right if I could want everyone to do it. Therefore, lying must be wrong because, if everyone lied, all normal human interactions would be impossible.

And Kant would say cheating at golf must be wrong because you could never want everyone to cheat. Competitions would be ruined if everyone cheated.

Kant’s principle is relevant in countless situations. If everyone broke speed limits, there would be carnage on the roads. If everyone stole from their neighbours, communities would be destroyed. If shops faked their weighing scales or checkout scanners so that you were under-supplied but over-priced, customers would flee. Hence – by asking if we’d want everyone to do something – we know whether it’s right or wrong.

We need virtue. We must believe most people are telling the truth, charging us fairly, and keeping to common-sense rules. Without virtue ordinary human relationships would be impossible.

Virtue creates better leadership

Harry fitted perfectly the profile of a results-driven leader, a man who (metaphorically speaking) would kick down a door rather than waste time finding a key. He demanded his staff do whatever was necessary to achieve goals, even if that meant cancelling vacations and working all hours. He shouted cruel insults at under-performers, and forced his staff to ignore inconvenient procedures and regulations. Staff trembled when Harry came into their office. He was feared, disliked, and lacked any respect from his team. Here’s the odd thing. Harry didn’t achieve great results. In fact his department’s performance was below average. Why? Several reasons. First, the most talented staff were also those able to get another job, so they left. Second, his team strove to have work done by Harry’s deadlines, but could never do their best work under that pressure. Third, some were so offended by the person they called hellish Harry, they refused to sacrifice themselves just so he could look good. Harry had a serious virtue-deficit, and after three years he also had an employment deficit.

Contrast Harry with any manager or executive you’ve known who was known for her virtues. Perhaps she took time to know her team, cared about their well-being, ensured they had a healthy work-life balance. Perhaps she made sure the work-flow was evenly distributed. Perhaps she praised people for great work, and was gentle with corrections. Perhaps she got everyone together for a snacks and celebrations event whenever a project was successful. Perhaps she defended her staff when top management were critical. Perhaps she knew the names of her team’s partners, spouses and children. Is it any wonder that leader’s team performed well above average. They enjoyed their work, respected their leader, and gave their very best every day.

It’s obvious which of these leaders radiated virtue. It’s not surprising which was the better leader.

The virtuous person is trusted

Once I could afford better than ‘hardly-fit-for-the-road’ cars, I’ve dealt with car salesmen. (Why do so few women sell cars?) Almost all these sales people were perfectly groomed with sales pitches perfectly presented. Whichever car I looked at was the perfect car for me. Everything was utterly wonderful about it. And there were amazing finance deals on that car. Nothing would be a barrier to me buying there and then. One younger salesman in America told me we would definitely agree on a price for one of their brand new cars before I left the showroom. I offered $1000. He didn’t agree. I left the showroom.

Over-hyped sales presentations turn me off. But when I dealt with Jim and (some years later) with Mark, I met salesmen who’d clearly never been to sell-them-quick school. They were almost reserved and totally devoid of hype. They listened when we told them what kind of car we wanted, what our price goals were, what car we’d be trading in. When we looked over cars and took them out for a test-drive, they gave honest answers to questions about a car’s reliability, fuel consumption, servicing needs. If I criticised something they addressed the issue but they didn’t deny any problem existed. Above all, each of these two gave us time, and not once did they try to pressurise us into a decision. Guess what? We bought cars after dealing with Jim and Mark. In fact, because Mark had looked after us so well, I asked to speak to his manager, and told him that Mark was exactly the kind of salesman we found helpful, and that his approach had seriously influenced us in buying our new car. I hope Mark got a bonus.

Because of the qualities they showed, we trusted Jim and Mark. How can anyone buy from a person or business they don’t trust? Whether it’s a salesperson or a company, a good reputation is crucial to make sales or win contracts.

In short, the virtuous person is trusted. And trust is the essential basis of a relationship for business, for friendship, and for marriage.

The virtuous person will tend to make good decisions

That’s exactly the logic behind what’s called ‘Virtue Ethics’. If we follow Aristotle’s view: a) that virtue is a choice, and b) it must be developed by practised habit, then we have the following:

  • A person who wants to be virtuous
  • A person constantly developing a virtuous attitude
  • Consequently we have a person who will make good, virtuous decisions.

They won’t be infallible. No-one is perfectly virtuous, so no-one’s decisions will always be good. But the virtuous person’s decisions will more often be right than the decisions of people with no concern for virtue.

For many years after I made my Christian commitment (which was at the age of 18), I wondered how to make right choices. Late teens and early twenties are a time of many major decisions – some related to work, then about going to university, which courses to take, where to live, how to spend money, about girlfriends, and eventually about getting married. But how could I know the right decisions? As well as obvious things to do – including prayer and asking friends – I finally settled on a good thought: I’ll almost never have one hundred per cent certainty, but if I sincerely want to do right and to honour God and then make choices that fit with that ambition, then I will never go too far wrong. I could put that in fewer words: if I always seek to act virtuously, my decisions will never be far off the mark.

I believe that how your life is centred determines your choices. There’s an old saying which goes something like: ‘Samantha’s life was bounded on all sides by Samantha’. In other words, Samantha was utterly self-focused. Everything had to be done for her pleasure, to suit her desires, to prosper her ambitions. Every decision reflected where Samantha’s life was centred.

But what if Samantha’s life was centred on virtue? Then Samantha’s choices would be very different. Instead of being selfish, they’d be selfless. Instead of being indulgent, they’d often be sacrificial. Instead of using others, she’d often serve others. And so on.

Good decisions flow from a life centred on virtue.

To sum up, I believe it’s time for virtue to be revived. We may not adopt medieval chivalric norms, but we can choose lives of integrity and worth. Virtue is so needed today: for relationships with neighbours, colleagues, business partners, fellow students, communities. We also need virtue in wider society, for civility in discourse, for honesty in government, for fairness in business. And we need virtue in world affairs, to be able to trust what world leaders say and respect what they do, for trade to be conducted fairly, for action to be taken so that especially the world’s poor are benefitted.

I looked up virtue in dictionaries. The eighth meaning for virtue listed in one dictionary was ‘valour’, and valour comes from the Latin valēre, to be strong. I like that. To think and act with virtue/valour shows strength. Why? Because the self-discipline and courage required for virtue comes at a price which only the strong will pay. May God help us.

[1] The account of the two knights is borrowed from The French Knight’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford, Apparently the two knights became lifelong friends.