Ways to Say "Should"

Since I advocate strongly for the Goodness paradigm over the Rightness paradigm when we think about how to conduct our lives(1), it seems appropriate to investigate more fully what I rail against. By “Rightness paradigm” I mean a set of concepts revolving around moral rules and duties. What is morally right, in this view, is what conforms to moral rules, and we have a duty to obey those rules. This way of thinking is called “deontological,” from a Greek word, deon, that means “duty.”

According to this approach, an action is justified, regardless of its consequences, on the basis of a quality or characteristic of the act itself, its conformance to a rule. Morality is concerned with identifying and obeying moral rules. It is right – indeed, it is mandatory – to obey the rules and wrong to disobey them. Any particular act can be judged right or wrong according to whether and to what extent it conforms to the moral rules. A central concern, then, is to identify the rules so you can make sure you obey them.

The problem, of course, is how to determine what those moral rules are. I’ll return to that issue shortly.

It is undeniable that we have moral intuitions, that we have a sense of right and wrong. Lots of psychological research demonstrates it(2) and we each know these intuitions first-hand: we feel self-righteous when we do something right, guilt when we do something wrong, and indignation when others transgress. There are good reasons to believe that these instincts are built into our brains and minds at birth, ready to be channeled by culture into particular forms. We evolved this way because humans have to live with other humans in order to survive, and moral rules regulate how we get along together. A shared sense of morals makes for group cohesion, and those who are members of cohesive groups survive and reproduce better than those who aren’t.

Moral norms have two functions according to Duke professor David Wong, interpersonal and intrapersonal: “The interpersonal function is to promote and regulate social cooperation. The intrapersonal function is to foster a degree of ordering among potentially conflicting motivational propensities, including self- and other-regarding motivations. This ordering serves to encourage people to become constructive participants in the cooperative life ….”(3)

In order to understand these functions, it is helpful to take a closer look at the various types of moral judgements and what they entail for our behavior. In this I am indebted to professor Margaret Little of Georgetown University, who has come up with what we might call a taxonomy of moral concepts. Here is an illustration:(4)

Moral Concept Taxonomy

Moral and ethical judgements are all ways of saying “should”: telling someone what he or she should do (or refrain from doing) or should have done, or telling ourselves the same.(5) Moral rules are in the branch labeled “deontic.” But the deontic is not the only type of “should”; another type is prudential. In deontic cases the “should” is a prescription or even a command. In the prudential case it is a recommendation. The force of our prescription or recommendation depends on the category in which the “should” is presented.

The first category is moral law (Deontic/Moral in the illustration). An example is “Thou Shalt Not Steal” (“should” being stated in its strongest form, “shall”). In this case we feel justified in demanding that someone obey the “should” and blaming them if they don’t. The imperative provokes in us feelings of moral righteousness and indignation. And the imperative has a sense of universality, that it applies to everyone. This is the domain of what I call the Rightness paradigm.

The second category is legal law (Deontic/Legal in the illustration), such as defining misdemeanor or felony theft. In this case we feel justified in demanding that someone obey and not only blaming but punishing them if they don’t. The imperative has force, however, only within the context of the laws of a given political community.

The third category is social convention (Deontic/Social). An example is the rule that if one attends a wedding, one should bring a gift. In this case we may not demand obedience (you can’t demand a gift) but we do feel justified in blaming failure, if not to the offender’s face then in gossiping to others. This is clearly a matter of social agreement, not universal law, and applies only within a given community.

The fourth category is prudential evaluation (Prudential/Commendatory), for example that for good health one should eat lots of vegetables. In this case we may not demand but may certainly advise adherence to such a “should.” And we may not blame or punish failure to comply but may say the choice is foolish. This kind of judgement is in the Goodness paradigm, one of the features of which is that such judgements are objectively verifiable. We can do studies of the effects of diet on health, studies that provide factual evidence, so the recommendation is not just someone’s opinion. The scope of applicability is interesting. Potentially such a judgement could be universal, but in practice it depends on context. Perhaps for a malnourished vegan eating lots of vegetables would not be good, and instead he or she should try some meat. I claim that there is nothing that is good in itself. When you are speaking about goodness, always ask “Good for whom? Good for what and under what circumstances?” if you want to avoid confusion.

This taxonomy gives us some insights into the nature of rights and duties, the objects of moral judgement. There is a quite a large body of literature on the ontological status of moral entities, meaning the manner of their existence. They seem to be real, in that many people recognize them, but they can’t be touched or felt or measured as physical objects can. Do they exist objectively, independent of our perception of them, as physical reality does? Are they merely social conventions? Are they somewhere in between?

There is good reason to believe that moral entities do not exist objectively, because it is a matter of empirical fact that people disagree about them in a way that they do not disagree about physical reality. A study asked respondents in the United States and in India whether it would be morally wrong to steal a train ticket in order to attend a best friend’s wedding. People in the US said it would be wrong to steal; people in India said it would be wrong not to steal, if that were the only way you could get to the wedding!(6) This disagreement is clearly in a completely different category from, say, whether water always boils at the same temperature regardless of atmospheric pressure. You can observe and measure water boiling and come to a decisive answer, regardless of where you live. Cultural differences play no role at all in your answer about physical reality, but they do in your answer about moral reality.

This leads some to deny any reality to moral entities at all, and to label all moral judgements as false because they refer to fictional entities. This position, known as “moral error theory,” goes a bit too far, I think, as it ignores our indubitable intuitions of right and wrong. (Not that the content of such intuitions is indubitable, but that we do have them is not to be doubted at all.) We could say that moral entities are just social conventions, but that is not strong enough. We do not get together and decide what we shall regard as right and wrong as we do in deciding when to have tea every day. We really do seem to recognize something that exists independently of whether or not we agree that it exists.

My take on it is this: Moral entities are realities that are intersubjectively constituted within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society. By that I mean that within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real.

The term “constitute” comes from the phenomenological insight, verified by cognitive psychology, that in large part our minds concoct what we perceive. We don’t just see physical things; we make up what we see, based on sensory input that we do not make up. There is a large cognitive component in our experience, which we mostly overlook, but which sometimes becomes startlingly obvious.

Here is an example: A woman I know was walking across her ranch one day and stepped over a hose. Then she thought “That’s odd. What is a hose doing here?” She turned and looked and saw that it was a snake. (Fortunately, she was wearing boots.) Before she recognized that it was a snake, she had constituted it as a hose. Was it really a hose? No. Did she really see a hose the first time? Yes, she did.

Similarly, we really do intuit that some things are right and others wrong, that some deeds are obligatory and others forbidden, that some actions can be demanded of us and others cannot, that some behavior is blameworthy, some praiseworthy and some neither. And considering the effects of honoring those intuitions or not – namely, the reactions of others in the community – their objects really do have reality.

Does that mean we are stuck with the morals our society constitutes for us? Not at all. Now that we recognize the true nature of moral entities, we can choose what to do about them.

But how shall we choose? This actually presents a bit of a conundrum. Rationally, the sense of what is right and wrong, of what is our duty, loses its obligatory force. Constructed socially, moral entities are real but do not constrain our actions as physical reality does. When we recognize this state of affairs a sort of spell is broken, and we do not see our world the same way as before; we are no longer taken in by moral reality. We are able to choose, within the constraints of our emotional and social conditioning, which duties to obey, or even whether to obey any at all. And we have this freedom even if we would rather not have it. You can’t go back; you can’t undo a realization about how the world works. As the existentialists say, we are condemned to be free.(7) Second-order mentation, our ability to consider in thought and imagination not just the world around us but ourselves as well, can seem like a burden because emotionally we still feel the force of these moral intuitions. We may know intellectually that it is not always wrong to steal a train ticket, but we still cringe at the thought of doing so. We seek a way to reconcile the antinomy of freedom and facticity.

Here is where the Goodness paradigm becomes useful. Since sensitivity to moral concerns is a part of our biological inheritance it is difficult to imagine that we could ever get rid of it even if we wanted to. And we might not want to; moral intuitions enable us to live with others without having to think what to do all the time. So it behooves us to choose wisely what duties and rules to live by. And the way to choose wisely is by considering the effects of our choices.

Consider the injunction against stealing. Even though there could be some short-term gain for the thief, it is in a person’s long-term interest to live in a society where people are honest. And being honest produces in us a greater internal harmony of feeling than being dishonest. There are benefits to playing by the rules. An honest person will be better off in the long run, even though in certain instances it might seem disadvantageous.

So if you are wise you will notice the moral urge to be honest, the call of conscience, and decide to accept it. Even though it is a triggered response, you will let that response happen. You will adopt a policy of accepting such responses, of refraining from taking what is not yours even if the opportunity arises, and you will enjoy a happier life as a result.

Recall the function of moral norms: to promote social cooperation and well-being. Moral rules that promote well-being are worth following; moral rules that don’t, aren’t.

And if you feel the need for an overarching duty, a sort of highest principle, let me suggest this: The best duty is the commitment to find ways to live that promote the well-being of yourself, your community and your environment. The highest and noblest endeavor, which we are free to regard as a duty if we wish, is to work for the good in all things.



(1) See my paper on “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.

(2) See, for instance, the works of Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser, among others.

(3) Wong, “Making An Effort To Understand,” p. 13.

(4) Adapted from Little, Margaret, “The Moral Right to do Wrong.” Little’s examination shows the strength of analytic philosophy: by clarifying conceptually what we are talking about, we can avoid confusion and make progress toward insight.

(5) I do not distinguish between “moral” and “ethical,” although some philosophers do, reserving the former for the Rightness paradigm of rights and obligations, and the latter for any situation in which advice or command is appropriate.

(6) Wong, “Making An Effort To Understand,” p. 12.

(7) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”


Haidt, Jonathan, and Graham, Jesse. “Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality.” On-line publication, URL = http://ssrn.com/abstract=980844 as of 12 April 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan. “On the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.” On-line, URL = http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html as of 12 April 2012.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Little, Margaret. “The Moral Right to do Wrong.” Lecture presented at the 2012 Royal Ethics Conference, University of Texas at Austin, 25 February 2012.

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct”. On-line publication, URL = http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html as of 12 January 2008.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” On-line publication, URL = http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 17 September 2011.

Wikipedia. “Moral skepticism.” On-line publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_skepticism as of 12 April 2012.

Wong, David. “Making An Effort To Understand.” Philosophy Now Magazine, Issue 82 (January/February 2011), pp. 10 – 13. London: Anya Publications, 2011. Also on-line publication, URL = http://www.philosophynow.org/issues/82/Making_An_Effort_To_Understand as of 12 April 2012.

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Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.

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