Part 1: Ethics and Human Acts, Ends and Means, What do We Mean by “Good”?

BY JONATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.

A Brief Introduction to Ethics

PART ONE

  • Ethics and Human Acts
  • Ends and Means
  • What do We Mean by “Good”?

Ethics and Human Acts

Generally speaking, ethics is the philosophic science that deals with human acts. This definition, however, is too broad and essentially incomplete because ethics doesn’t really deal with all human acts, but only those which are voluntary, proceeding from deliberation, and ordered toward some important goal or purpose. There are many human acts which do not concern ethics because they are involuntary, do not involve moral concerns, or do not have significant consequences.

We will define ethics here in a very specific manner: Ethics is the science which deals with those acts that proceed from the deliberative will of man, especially as they are ordered to the ultimate end of man. Ethics, as we understand it, has for its primary concern the ultimate end of man and the principles of ethics to be discovered are of concern only as they apply toward that ultimate end. In another very practical way, the science of ethics can be considered to be the foundation for the art of living well.

The method used in the science of ethics is human reason based on human experience. Through the use of the rational faculty of man, the basic principles of ethics are derived from ordinary experience and then applied to the multiplicity of human acts which can be performed. Ethics does not result in a set of specific rules for human behavior, but in general principles to be applied in practical situations.

Ethics, therefore, does not deal in matters of “absolute” truth.

  • First, the subject matter of ethics is variable, since it consists of free human acts.
  • Second, the universal principles in ethics have an element of uncertainty about them.

The reason for this element of uncertainty is simply because the general principles (which may be quite “certain” as a statement of objective validity), when applied to a specific human act, must take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the act. As the circumstances surrounding the act become more complicated, there may be more and more uncertainty in evaluating the morality of the act. It might be nice if every human act came in a simple, uncomplicated package, but reality teaches us that this is seldom so. An example may suffice to explain this.

Most of us agree that the principle stealing is wrong is certain, at least in the sense that it is sufficiently defined and explained so we understand it. We may use this as a general principle of ethical behavior. But should this principle be applied as an absolute in all situations? Let’s take the case of a man lost in the desert who is starving. He hasn’t eaten food for four weeks. He comes across a campsite where lots of food is available but the campers have taken off for a hike. Can our starving man help himself to the food he needs without waiting for the campers to return and give him permission to use some? He doesn’t know, of course, how long this would be. Maybe the campers went to town for an overnight trip. What is permissible in this case?

Most of us, I think, would agree that the starving man could ethically help himself to the food he needs to survive. It may be technically “stealing” but the principle that says stealing is wrong must, in this case, give way to a more important principle, the “right” of the man to survive. The application of the ethical principle regarding stealing must consider the circumstances in which the act is performed. This matter of circumstances is recognized even in criminal law with the distinctions made, for example, between murder in the first degree, which is premeditated and deliberate, and murder in the second degree, which is committed out of passion, on the spur of the moment, without proper deliberation.

As we have said, ethics deals with deliberate and voluntary human acts that are ordered toward some ultimate end. The matter of the ultimate end becomes important because it is the goal or purpose toward which all human acts, in the long run, are directed. Furthermore, it is the ultimate end which must direct us in the art of living well. We have lived well if the ultimate end has been attained. It is to this subject that we now turn our attention.

Ends and Means

We are dealing with human actions because it it only through our actions or activities that we can live well. Living well is not, in other words, a state of affairs; it involves a series or set of actions. When we get into human actions, we get into the matter of ends and means. An “end” is something we seek for itself. It is a very general term and may apply to an object, an idea, a state of affairs, or anything else for the sake of which we might act. We know from our experience that every one of our actions is ordered to some “end.”

A “means” is something we seek for the sake of something else. Again, we know from our experience how this general term operates in our activities. We all know we do some things for the sake of something else. I earn money (a means) to put food on the table (an end).

The distinction between ends and means, however, is not an absolute distinction in the sense in which we experience these in everyday life. It is probably more accurate to speak of some things as “pure” means, that is, something we will only for the sake of other things, and “end-means,” something we will for itself, but also for other things. Let’s consider one example of this.

We earn money (a means) to buy clothes (an end). We buy clothes (a means) to make a good appearance (an end). We want to make a good appearance (a means) in order to get a better position in the company we work for (an end). We want a better position in the company (a means) in order to make more money (an end). And on it goes. Every “end” here can be used as a “means” to another end.

Now we get to an interesting question. Could we continue endlessly willing one thing as an end to another thing, this thing as an end to still another thing, and so on? If we really mean “endlessly,” then it seems that we would not be able to will any one thing as an end, that is, simply for itself alone. But unless we will at least one thing simply for itself alone, we won’t be able to will any thing else as a means toward it.

Confused? I hope not, but let’s consider this last point again because it is very important to the foundation which is the basis for the art of living well. We find it easy to see how a means can lead to an end and how that end, in turn, can become a means to another end which, in turn, becomes a means to another end, and so on and on. Each of these ends is not sought for itself but as a means to another end.

Somewhere, however, this progression of means and ends has got to stop. There has to be at least one end that is willed for itself alone and cannot become a means toward another end. The reason for this is really simple but can easily allude us. We always act for some end. If this end can become a means toward another end, then it is not really an end in itself. If we cannot will an end for itself alone, we could not act in any fashion whatsoever.

We are virtually forced to admit that there must be at least one thing which must be willed for itself alone and not for anything else. There must be at least one thing which is an end and which is never a means. We are going to call this end the “ultimate end.” This will be the end toward which all of us strive. This will be the end which is the final reason why we act at all.

If there is at least one end for everything that we do and for the sake of which we will do everything else, it would seem that this end would be the most important one to us. We are now faced with the following question: Is there such an end as the “ultimate end” for all of our actions? Before we get into answering this question, we need to deal with one more important item which will become very important in our further discussions about our actions and why we act the way we do.

What do we mean by “Good”?

We need to pause here for a few minutes and discuss a word which will be used again and again in our discussion and which seems to cause a great deal of confusion among a lot of people. That word is the word “good.” It is such a common word in our language that, if we’re not careful, the term can become virtually meaningless.

The word “good” can be used as a noun or as an adjective in English. As an adjective, we commonly use it in phrases like “a good person,” “a good candy bar,” and “a good action.” We are using the word to describe or modify something. Later we will be using this form of “good” as it applies to human acts. We say some human acts are good and others are bad and we usually mean some acts are right and some are wrong. It should be clear from the context of the discussion when we are using the word “good” in this way.

There is another use for the word “good,” and that is what primarily concerns us now because it’s easy to get confused about what it means in the context in which we will be using it. The first meaning of “good” as we will be using it is very broad. It just means anything that appears desirable to us. Whatever is good is identified with whatever is desirable. This is easy to see from our daily experiences. We do whatever we do because of what we desire, and what we desire we have perceived as good for us.

We are not using the word “good” here in the sense of “right” or “morally proper” or “ethical.” We are simply saying that the meaning of “good” in this context is identified with the word “desirable.” This identification brings us to the following important principle which can be applied to every action in our life: We all seek the good.

I can now hear some objections out there and we need to clear these up. The first objection commonly made against the principle “We all seek the good” is that it is too general and thereby doesn’t have any real value. It is admitted that the principle is very general, but then all first principles really are. It is like the principle of identity or the principle of contradiction in science and philosophy. They are very general principles, but if they are not accepted as true, nothing else can be true in science or philosophy. A very general first principle must set the stage, so to speak, for all other principles and truths to follow.

The first principle we need to accept to make sense of human actions is that we all seek the good. If we do not accept this principle, there is no use talking about living well or living the “good” life. The full meaning of this basic principle will become apparent as we journey further into the art of living well.

A more common objection to our first principle of human action is that we often desire what seems to be evil for us rather than what is good. This causes a lot of people to be confused. We must realize, however, that we are defining the word “good” in the broadest way possible and we are identifying the word with the word “desirable.” We do desire what we desire and what we desire is good because good and desirable are the same thing. We are stating no more than this.

Now whether what we desire is really “good” in the sense of “right” and “morally proper” is another question. The point here is that we do not desire what is in fact evil except as it appears under the guise of being good. If a person desires to commit suicide, for example, he desires that because he perceives it as “good” or as “a good” for him. The moral ramifications do not enter into the situation at this point. We will deal with them later.

What is important here is to recognize that the word “good” will be used with at least two distinctive meanings and, in most cases, you will be able to figure out which use is appropriate from the context of the discussion. For the moment, a “good” is anything we desire. Later we’ll see how the word “good” applies to human actions as far as evaluating these acts as being “right” or “wrong” and “appropriate” or “inappropriate.”

We now return to our discussion about ends and means and whether or not there is such a thing as an ultimate end. This is important because every “art” has an end (or “purpose,” in a loose sense) and the end in this case would be “living well.” We need to know what “living well” means, if anything, and if it is simply a means to an end or an end in itself.


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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.


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