Virtue, Purpose and Knowledge

We may intellectually understand morality, but moral choices are rarely simple matters of cold calculation. In the real world, we will face situations of such great complexity and ambiguity that a precise moral answer does not present itself no matter how long we consider the situation. Let us consider if there is a systematic approach that can aid us.

So far our definition of what is good has been presented as a set of desired consequences and outcomes of human action. Simply, we act in a way that protects our fellow humans and preserves life. An individual act, a choice, a deed, whether our own or another’s, is good or bad by this standard. We’re judging an action based upon its consequences. In philosophy, this is commonly termed consequentialism. The Life-Ethic is, in part, a consequentialist approach.

There are some strong arguments for this. Certain other presentations of morality, such as one’s that focus solely on intentions, look suspiciously like a recipe for a morality based around self-serving justification. A negligent killer might easily convince themselves “sure I caused the death of people, but I didn’t MEAN to do it”. Consequentialism is resistant to self-justifcations and rationalizations – the follower cannot give the excuse that their intentions are pure, if they have a negligable or negative effect on the world. Some degree of consequentialism provides a sort of anchor for a moral system to make sure it has some weight and is not merely constructed for social or pyschological purposes.

However, pure consequentialism suffers from some problems – problems serious enough to justify drawing on other schools of thought a little. One central issue is that in any given situation there are an infinte number of potential paths of action we might imagine ourselves taking. For each possible action we consider, there will be consequences which we must weigh up. However, such consequences are not perfectly known to us in advance. Attempts to comprehensively calculate moral consequences are usually impossible. We are forced to take guesses, make estimates, draw more general conclusions.

As a further complication to this is human sociality. People’s behaviours are closely causally linked to one another. When someone performs an action of great moral significance, whether positive or negative, that will almost certainly effect the actions of others. So the calculation is not the effects of one action, but of an unpredictable network of related actions. New questions arise like “in an isolated way this might appear good, but what if EVERYONE behaves similar to this?”

Additionally it is important to understand that human behaivour is deeply habitual. If faced with a rational, moral option, and a habitual option, humans will often choose habit, particularly in any instance where there is doubt or uncertainty. They will often rationalise the sub-optimal decision after it is made because they simply cannot avoid the power of their own habitual pathways – this is a central component of normal human behaivour. Consequentialism ignores the power of this process, considering only the rational, logical human processes and ignoring the instinctual reality, right or wrong, of how humans make decisions. Ungoverned, habits are the mortal enemy of morality. It is vital to morally guide our habits to bring human emotion and rationality into relative harmony.

The danger of habits is that they become more rigid through each repitition. Human life is not always so rigid, however, and where cicumstances drastically change humans can have immense difficulty adapting. If our mental habits form around practical, temporary applications of our morality, then a changing environment creates an internal struggle between morality and habit. Habit, if strong enough, will make an ally out of perverted rationalisations and morality will be overwhelmed.

So we must begin to formulate an antidote. One such formula is the use of moral principles. Moral principles are abstract rules of behaivour chosen because they give us the best chance for good consequences. So in the case of human citizenship, our principles are defined as those that history and reason have shown us to best preserve humanity, preserve species, and preserve life.

If we centre our mental habits around a broad, abstract set of principles, then we need not fear time or changing circumstances. Abstract moral principles, if correctly formed, adapt themselves to many different scenarios. These principles are not specific, physical instructions; they relate to our emotional states, motivations and basic patterns of thought. They manifest the morality that broadly orientate our action towards other humans and other organisms.

It is important too not only consider this from the perspective of our own experiences and our moral successes and failures in the past. We must also consider things from an external and more objective perspective if we can. So, we should ask our imagination – “what principle would systematially produce good outcomes if everyone behaved that way”.

So what we are aiming for is a timeless universal framework; a set of principles that embody how the life-ethic is applied in everyday life.

This is not entirely a new endeavour. Philosophy and religion have studied moral behaviour and abstracted moral principles from them for millenia. This study is far from perfect, but it is a very large pool of human experience that’s worth drawing upon. They found that certain moral habits and character traits, woud very often bring harm upon others or disaster upon one’s self – even when those with these habits attempted to apply consequentialism.

The more formal version of this sort of thought exists in philosophy as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics sometimes centres around lists of mental or behavioural qualities that were desirable or undesirable. Negiatve ones were presented as “sins” or “vices”. Other habits were positive. Such “virtues” were generally recipes for success, benefit and harmony for one’s self and others.

This kind of framework has several very useful qualities. Firstly, in morally complex situations where accurate calculation of consequences becomes very difficult, we can draw upon a the distributed wisdom of the moral aspects of religions and philosophies that have been exposed to a large number of empirical tests. Their accuracy is by no means assured, but we can grasp a partial understanding of their systematically applied consequences when we look at the moral achievements of great historical societies (usually more evident in the everyday conduct of citizens rather than the actions of most historical institutions).

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, virtues and vices provide us with a tool that is much more resistant to motivated reasoning and rationalizations. As we apply them as a cognitive schema and integrate them into our decision making process, we help develop mental habits that help us make moral decisions. They basically help us to get into the mental habit of doing the right thing. There will be times where sound consequentialist reasoning is some unambiguously clear that it demands our attention, but for the majority of the time it is very useful in fighting against one of the greatest moral perils – our own moral echo chamber, constructed from habitualised moral rationalizations (the moral version of wireheading).

I’ll share with you now my thoughts on what a list of this kind might look like. Let’s start with the vices that systematically applied constitute the path to moral ruin:

Malicious will (enjoyment of suffering)
Through unfortunate genetics, injustice or through disconnection from consequence, an evil person secretly enjoys the suffering of others. Those who desire only power work towards the failure of even their friends.

Indifference to the wellbeing of others – Those who are indifferent to others make poor friends in times of need, and will oft stumble upon the ruin of their peers merely by chance.

Ignorance of the wellbeing of others – If effort is made to understand the lives of others, harm can be avoided. Without effort, a person is evil, but imagines themselves good.

Ignorance of the world – A person without broad knowledge of their world blunders through life with only their good intentions, thinking themselves useful, supporting the wrong causes, living a fantasy of virtue.

Irrationalty – Consequences are understood only through intellectual effort. Irrationality is the perverted, fictional, wishful story that serves in its place. If one wishes to feel like one is good rather than to actually be good, then good deeds are rarely done.

Cowardice – To give-in to fear, when what is right and neccessary beckons, is cowardice.

Rage – Injustice provokes anger, but anger must never control our actions. Such rage is ruin. When one acts to resolve injustice, the anger is gone.

Dishonour – Where two good people cannot tell eachother the truth, cannot honour an agreement, good intentions are not enough for a good outcome.

Vanity – The vain are great in appearance and in their own mind. But unlike true greatness, their self-deception requires the submission or admiration of others rather than the proof of good works.

Wastefulness – Life was forged in scarcity. Wastefulness is the disdain for the conditions that shape life.

Arrogance – A lack of caution and humility is always hidden from oneself, less often from others, but never from the reality of consequence.

Love of the non-living – To love what is dead that masquerades as life, is a path to ruin. Those who care deeply for their possessions leave no room to love what lives.

However these virtues light the way:

Love of other lives and their wellbeing Take a moment to bask in the glow of a life. Be happy that your fellow human thrives. Be happy that life thrives. Remember that life is precious. Take action accordingly.

Knowledge – Know how things work. Know what affects you. Know what affects others. Know what affects life.

Intelligence – Strive to increase your ability to fully understand complexity, causality and consequence. Practice learning new things.

Rationality – Rationality is basing belief on evidence, reasoning on logic and actions on consequences. Bias, fear,desire and unneccessary attachment are its enemies. Love the truth, and do no favours for your beliefs.

Determination – Do not give up. If it is right, it will also be difficult.

Skill – It is not enough to know, you must apply. (Bruce Lee)

Courage Courage is not an absence of fear. Fear is normal. Sometimes it is rational. But when given a choice between doing what is safe, and doing what is right, courage sends us down the latter path.

Honour Friendship and great works alike require cooperation, and in cooperation we always rely on the true word and deeds of our peers.

Virtues and vices are our moral guides in the complexities of everyday life. That is not to say consequences should be forgotten – indeed we should incorporate them into our decision making wherever we can. Reason is the virtue with which we remind ourselves of the importance of considering of consequence. We should never be lazy in our pursuit of consequential understanding. However, where our everyday decisions involve the kind of complexity that negates consequentialism, habituating ourselves to a virtuous life is one of the single most effective methods of achieving good.

We instill good in ourselves by reminding ourselves of the virtues and vices. We can recite the virtues and vices to one’s self, for example, before sleep. We can also display reminders of virtue and vice in prominent places in our home or work environments. It is important to not just recite a virtue or vice repetitively, but to try to contemplate its meaning each time. When an ambiguous or morally complex situation is confronted, this quick familarity becomes a sharpened sword to cut through poor choices and the rationalisations that plague humanity like a unfortunate comedic stage-play.


It is inevitable that sometimes in life, our motivation can fail us. We can give in to hedonistic desires, or we can act out of insecurity and fear. Improving ourselves, creating a strong sense of purpose, takes time and repitition. This powerful will is not incidental, it is a habit in thought created by repeated decisions to push forward. It is a result of the images and information we expose ourself to.

When we are investigating or learning about humanity or other species, our brain processes the information both factually and, for most people, morally. During this time we are activating in us the awareness of our place in the world. This brings out a special and unique purpose in us – our will for survival for humanity and life. In order to build up a sense of purpose, take the reigns of your intellectual environment and what you expose yourself to. Then, allow yourself to translate that into purpose.

There are some excellent tools available to help us in this step:

Affirmation – By stating our goals clearly and repeatedly to ourselves, and where appropriate, to others, we activating a deep desire in our brain to meet our commitments.
Ritual – planned regular habits, alone or in a group, designed to reinforce the purpose and meaning of our activities. Physical gestures and symbolic acts are performed that evoke emotions of nobility, purpose and commitment.
Contemplation – Regularly considering the substance of what motivates us towards noble goals. For example, taking time to appreciate nature, or noticing the suffering, determination or kindness of a person, or considering deeply the implications while learning about a new topic.

To achieve your potential it is useful to develop your own personal portfolio of regular mental activities – affirmations, rituals and contemplation – that you know are able to instill the motivation you need to succeed. Choose what, over time, best results in action; in steps down the path to knowledge, productivity and preservation of life.

One of the simplest and most direct ways is to adopt a ritual and affirmation that declares your committment to the life ethic and its core principles. It can be optionally combined with a physical posture that emphasises its significance, such as a meditative kneeling position. I’ll leave the specifics of that to you, but you might like to consider a mental image that is solemn, social, shows fraternity with nature, and perhaps integrates modern technology in a useful way.

Here is a little affirmation of my own. Perhaps you will make it your oath. This affirmation is not a philosophical reference – it does not guide reason. It is an emotional declaration of commitment, purpose and meaning.

You can say the words to yourself silently, aloud, or as part of a group. When you do so you are making a commitment to the world; you are joining with a group that share your commitment; you are affirming the Life Ethic as your guiding purpose.


I am human. I am a seeker of the truth. From knowledge, to morality, to action – I am a citizen of humanity.

My struggle, our struggle, is survival – for my fellow human, for our fellow species, for my species, for life itself. With all my thoughts, my duty, my will, my virtue, with all my heart. Arbor Vitae.



It is noble to be virtuous, but if our knowledge is limited or our beliefs incorrect, we will not achieve anything of worth. Ultimatetly, morality is totally dependent on knowledge. Knowledge is an important virtue because it lights the way for the other virtues.

The pursuit of knowledge, that is, true beliefs, is the passion of every good and decent person, of every good citizen. Each citizen can develop a set of skills for the fierce pursuit of the truth. There is much to be learnt from watching and considering how others do this. Additionally, humanity’s determined pursuit of knowledge has yielded a series of general principles that serve to enhance human capabilities in discovering the truth. Study and application of these principles lays out a path to very high levels of knowledge.

The core principles that apply to everyone are:
-observe carefully
-test methodically
-use caution/skepticism in relation to the beliefs of others
-gather a wide variety of opinions
-understand bias and how it works, both in relation to yourself and others
-spend time in contemplation, to organise your thoughts properly


One of the central skills in organising thoughts correctly and coherently is logic. The skill of logic relies on no special knowledge to derive, it is simply the abstraction of careful thought, but the study of logic aids us by drawing on the skill of others who have spent considerable time on age-old problems. The study of logic and fallacies [wikipedia] aids immensely in your thought and contemplation.


Knowledge derived from others, whether directly through discussion or indirectly through media such as books, is social knowledge. Social knowledge is both vital to the development of sophisticated ideas and making the best use of your time, and also fraught with errors, distortion and hidden dangers. Knowledge is often passed on many times, and so is almost never untouched by bias. Therefore, in assessing that information, it is useful to know what you can about how humans develop knowledge and opinions, and how they sometimes falter in pursuit of truth. The fields of social science and psychology are the key to unlocking a new standard of knowledge that many people are denied.

A more detailed discussion of bias is here.

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