Category Archives: Morality and Ethics

Moral Complexity and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism – Part 2 of 5

This is the second part of a five-part essay comparing and contrasting the moral systems of the Dalai Lama, Andre Comte-Sponville, and Viktor Frankl with regard to how well (or poorly) their respective moral systems fare against morally complex situations.


The Dalai Lama’s Moral System (based on Tibetan Buddhism)

We can categorize the Dalai Lama’s moral system as one that is deontological in nature. Deontological ethics, recall, has two key interpretations. One interpretation defines deontological ethics as a method that helps us to understand what is morally required, forbidden, and permissible in a particular situation or event. Morally required actions, insofar as they are completed, are morally good; these are often referred to as obligations or duties. Morally forbidden actions, however, ought to be avoided and are morally bad. Morally permissible actions, then, are neither morally good nor morally bad; they are either morally void or morally neutral actions.

A second interpretation defines deontological ethics as a method that focuses on whether or not specific and explicit moral rules or principles were followed in completing a particular action or set of actions. Deontological ethics then uses these specific and explicit moral rules and principles to determine the moral worth of an action or set of actions (henceforth referred to as ‘set’). If the specific moral rule or principle is observed during the action or ‘set,’ then the action or ‘set’ can be said to be morally good. If the specific moral rule or principle is not observed during the action or ‘set,’ however, then the action or ‘set’ is morally bad.

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Making the Acquaintance of Moral Complexity – Part 1 of 5

This is the first part of a five-part essay comparing and contrasting the moral systems of the Dalai Lama, Andre Comte-Sponville, and Viktor Frankl with regard to how well (or poorly) their respective moral systems fare against morally complex situations.


     Moral complexity is both a fact of reality and an obstacle that persistently bedevils the formation and function of our moral systems. By moral systems, I mean the totality of methods, assumptions, principles, rules, and obligations that are meant to guide, regulate, and formalize our interactions with other living beings as well as with our environments. Moral systems come in a variety of different forms and can be either secular (natural, material) or sacred (religious, supernatural) in composition. They also have varying degrees or levels of comprehensiveness in content and scope. That is to say, some are more developed or nuanced than others. Examples of some moral systems include Divine Command Theory, the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, the 10 Nonvirtues of Tibetan Buddhism, and so on.

     Given that at least one purpose of moral systems is to guide, regulate, and formalize our interactions with other living beings as well as with our environments, we can assess the worth and utility of a moral system insofar as it is relatively more adept at handling complex moral situations than its competitors.

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Classical Views on Free Will

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Hard Determinism

In his work “The Delusion of Free Will”, Robert Blatchford argues that human free will is a delusion; all of our desires come from within (heredity/temperament) or from without (environment/training). Blatchford claims that even though we think we choose freely, we do not. When we are faced with different choices, our choice is selected by either our heredity, such as our personal preference of sweet over sour, or our environment, such as why it is acceptable to be individualistic as opposed to collective in terms of attitude. The heredity factor is influenced by our genetic makeup; the environment factor is influenced by the culture and society in which we live. Blatchford states that whichever one of these two forces is stronger, in a given situation, it will make our decisions for us.

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A Summary (of the first portion) of “Frontiers of Justice” by M. Nussbaum

     Martha Nussbaum sets out in “Frontiers of Justice” to challenge the Social Contract tradition, the current paradigm in political philosophy insofar as it relates to theories of justice, by defending her own approach which she refers to as the “capabilities approach.” She begins by describing the historical development of the Social Contract tradition, focusing on certain writings of philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and most recently, John Rawls.

After briefly describing how the Social Contract tradition has come to exist in its contemporary form following the influences of John Rawls, Nussbaum levels some very strong criticisms against this philosophical tradition. In particular Nussbaum focuses on how proponents of the Social Contract tradition have (not) responded to the needs and interests of disabled individuals, the global community/nationality, and non-human species.

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Contra Ainslie: Multi-variable Measures of Akrasia

Throughout his explanation of akrasia as hyperbolic discounting, Ainslie focuses on the temporal dimensions of the discounting process, noting that when the possibility of experiencing satisfaction from a particular reward is less delayed, then the agent is more likely to engage in akratic actions or be swayed by akratic behavioral dispositions.

Ainslie uses the term “imminent” to describe how strongly an agent may feel an internal pull towards a particular reward and its accompanying satisfaction (Ainslie 30). “Imminent,” when properly understood within hyperbolic discounting, includes but should not be limited to temporal considerations. Akratic actions involve internal calculations guided by desire or emotion with an emphasis on, or at least a preference for, the likelihood of certainty in obtaining satisfaction from a reward. This aspect of certainty is what some psychological experiments mentioned by Ainslie fail to properly take into account.

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An Introduction to Akrasia

Skele Akrasia has traditionally been defined as “incontinence” or “weakness of will” and occurs when an agent, endowed with certain rational and volitional faculties (deliberation and free will), chooses a poorer course of action. Akrasia has wide-reaching implications for topics such as motivation (what causes akratic actions?), impulsiveness (how does one prevent akratic actions?), moral accountability (is akrasia similar enough to addiction or compulsion to warrant lesser moral culpability?), and the like. As scholar George Ainslie points out, the practical application of akrasia has been, and is currently being, studied by scholars coming from numerous disciplines including philosophy of mind, sociobiology, economics, neurophysiology, and cognitive psychology (Ainslie 7). The importance of understanding the concept and what it means for human beings should not be understated.

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Criticisms of the Use of the ESD Doctrine in Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)

The most commonly raised criticism against the national consensus test of the ESD doctrine is that it constitutes an ongoing saga of judicial activism. Judicial activism occurs when a judge/justice upholds his or her own political, legal, religious, economic, or other beliefs contra society, thereby substituting the objectivity of existing laws for the subjectivity of personal preferences. Some may not feel that judicial activism is all that subversive. But judicial activism not only forces the judge/justice’s will on the people, but also it can greatly limit the legislative branch’s ability to function. The blurring of judicial and legislative lines can result in political stalemate, voter apathy, and a general distrust of government. Kimberly Bliss comments that under a democratic system “legislatures, not courts, are constituted to respond to the will and consequently the moral values of the people” since the former has more contact with the people and has, in theory, been elected by the voters (1334).

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Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008) – US Case Law Overview

In 2008, proponents of capital punishment for rape believed they had a winning case that would allow the use of capital punishment for some nonlethal crimes. Patrick O’Neal Kennedy from Harvey, Louisiana was sentenced to death after he was convicted of raping his eight-year-old stepdaughter. The rape was uncommonly brutal in its severity. The injuries that Kennedy’s stepdaughter sustained from the repeated rapes required emergency surgery. Kennedy initially maintained that the battery was committed by two neighborhood boys. He even refused to plead guilty when a settlement was offered to spare him from a death sentence. In 2003, Kennedy was convicted and sentenced under a 1995 Louisiana law that allowed the death penalty for the rape of a child under the age of 12. The Court did not share the same optimism that proponents of capital punishment did. The majority, relying on the precedent of the ESD Doctrine, overturned the death penalty since the rape, though it did involve a child, did not result in the death of the victim (544 U.S. 407).

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The Historical Development of the Evolving Standards of Decency (ESD) Doctrine in the U.S. Supreme Court

One of the most controversial elements of the U.S. Bill of Rights is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment which states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (U.S. Const. Amdt. 8). Whether the use of the death penalty is an instance of cruel and unusual punishment has been the subject of sustained and intense debate given that there have been over 16,000 legal executions in the United States from 1700 until 2019 (TIME). Continue reading

Contra Haidt: A Short Critique of Schwitzgebel and Rust’s Empirical Studies

From Haidt’s impassioned rejection of the “rationalist delusion,” it is difficult to discern why Schwitzgebel and Rust would place such significance on the aforementioned behaviors as they pertain to ethicists versus non-ethicists. There are more morally egregious behaviors that ethicists could engage in would serve to overwhelmingly confirm the fact that they do not act more morally than others despite their professional status as moral philosophers. Yet, in the various articles published by Schwitzgebel and Rust, very little explanation is provided as to why these are truly relevant to determining whether moral philosophers behave better than those who may not have as extensive training or education in moral reasoning. In an article about the library habits of ethicists versus their non-ethicist counterparts, there is only one sentence provided as to why failure to return library books is bad (Schwitzgebel 714). Rather than justifying their choice of moral behaviors to research, Schwitzgebel and Rust spend most of their published articles explaining the methods they use.

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