Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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December 2, 1976

A Journal Entry

Case One: Why should someone rationally desire to sacrifice himself for others? (E.g., the soldier and the grenade).

Case Two:
If someone were to find the "Ring of Gyges," what reason would he have not to take advantage of it? (See excerpt, below)


Concerning the first case, Hobbes gives as a good start, but merely this. It is to the advantage of all that each be so conditioned and trained that they would be altruistic and self-sacrificing at tines of trial and moral temptation. Thus, paradoxically, it becomes a natter of rational self-interest to submit to a system of education (indoctrination?) that will produce persons that will be motivated to cat fear others, despite great temptation and trial. (Cf.Michael Scriven. Bill Whisner [University of Utah, Philosophy] objects to this). But am I saying that one should be conditioned to act in such a way that he might not reasonably act if her were looking after himself'? Am I perhaps begging the moral point here? Am I, perhaps, bringing in Plato's "noble lie" that motivates the soldiers in battle? But onward. (77730).

So this is not, as Hobbes describes it, simply a case of giving up some freedom in exchange for greater freedom (or security); this is a case of submitting to training and conditioning so that, in time of great trial, one surrenders the freedom to be a coward for the sake of social benefit (i.e., living in a community oaf individuals willing to sacrifice for the good of all).

Now there seems to be a paradox here, If a person is strongly conditioned to sacrifice himself for the good of the group -- if, in fact, he is sufficiently conditioned that he "could not do otherwise" -- then the act is not free and, if not free, not moral.

In other words, at the moment of self-sacrifice, the individual "has no choice" – he would actually prefer to make the sacrifice than be a coward, because he has (tacitly at least), agreed to the bargain whereby any member would, if faced with such a condition, make the sacrifice.


Consider now the "Ring of Gyges case: The moral person is a person who is so conditioned that he simply will not take advantage of the ring. Now if this were strictly a matter of conditioning, this would not be a moral issue. The moral issue arises when one proposes that persons should be conditioned to accept self-sacrifice -- i.e., that it is desirable that people be so trained that, given the Ring of Gyges, they would not take advantage of it. In other words, if we say that one will follow his conscience and not be immoral if faced with an opportunity to get away with an immoral act, then to say that he was conditioned not to be immoral does not explain why he should not be immoral. However, we can correctly ask: "Why should one be so conditioned?" Why should such and such be the curriculum and aim of his moral education? On this ground we can raise the normative question. We can say that it is good that men be raised to act morally and prepared four self-sacrifice, and this can be argued on Hobbesian terms: i.e., that a community of individuals so instructed and thus equipped with such a conscience, is a better community for each to live in. Thus we arrive at the moral paradox: It is to the best advantage of individuals not to act directly to their personal advantage. (Cf. Garrett Hardin). This applies, of course, to everyday life, not solely to extreme cases such as the "Gyges" and "grenade" paradigms.

Of course, I have not offered an argument here as to why. it is better to live in a community of moral altruists. For this I would want to introduce a "good reasons" justification of the moral point of view.

[Later:  As I have posed the Gyges question in class, another justification for morality has developed: "the management argument."  This is an elaboration of the old maxim, "a liar has to keep track of all his lies, while an honest person need only keep track of the truth."  So even if Gyges did his evil deeds while invisible, he might be unable to "manage" his deceits.  Much elaboration due here, of course.  (2009)]

December 23, 1976


"OUGHT IMPLIES CAN" -- BUT . . . A Problem in Ethical Theory

Consider a person faced with a moral temptation --,e.g., an opportunity to steal with no chance whatever of detection, or again a case where lying would be of great persona. selfish advantage and there is no danger whatever of being caught in the lie (the Ring of Gyges example). Of course, I am simply asking again. "Why be moral?"

Now it seems to be a matter, of moral duty not only to do the "right thing" under these circumstances, but one should also develop habits and conduct oneself in such a way that doing the moral thing becomes automatic, or, if a matter of deliberation, right conduct is nevertheless inevitable -- i.e., because of upbringing, conscience, convictions, habits, or whatever, one is the sort of person for whom it is, practically speaking, impossible to act wrongly. Such a person, is would say, is moral or "virtuous." And yet, and here is the paradox, it would seem that he is determined, that is to say, not free -- "he can not do otherwise." But what is the problem? "Ought implies can" to be sure. But if he must, then clearly he can: The problem, however, is that the full formula should read: "ought implies can and yet might not." This last clause (the less-than-inevitability condition) does not apply in the preceding condition.

I would suggest the following resolution. "Being moral" is an ambiguous phrase which may apply either to an action or to an achievement. Interpreted as an achievement, a moral "choice" displays, virtues -- virtues, moreover, that are the result of the person deciding (tacitly, perhaps) that he intends to become the sort of person for whom an immoral choice is practically (but not logically) impossible. This is, of course, an ideal; yet, if the person directs the conduct of his moral education effectively every attempt he sakes to achieve this ideal of incorruptibility is a choice-situation wherein he freely chooses to become incorruptible.1 Upon achieving this ideal status, then to say that he is "moral" is not to say that the act was moral (in the sense of displaying a free choice to do right), but rather that the act displayed virtue -- i.e., that it was the act of a moral person. The moral approbation applies, not to the act, but to the achievement of conscience and will in the person.

Looking at this another way, one might say that a person may be so morally trained and has a sufficiently strong conscience that it is impossible, in fact, that he commit an immoral act. Nonetheless, one might say that "ought implies can and yet might not" in the sense that there are empirically conceivable and technically possible options. Now, in the case of our moral exemplar, his personality is such that it is "impossible" for him to do wrong. But the contingency resides in the circumstance viewed objectively. -- not from the point of view of his will and conscience. I.e., this is a situation in which certain less exceptional individuals could act several different ways, some of them contrary to moral duty. In other words, there are several courses of action which are empirically possible and consistent with the physical conditions and mental capabilities of the agent. The impossibility, then, resides, not in the objective circumstances, but in the character of the individual. It is, after all, the character that receives moral, praise or blame, not the objective circumstances. In short, the possibility lies in the objective circumstance; the impossibility lies in the moral character.

(This resolution, I seem to recall, is similar to Kant’s treatment of "the antinomy of freedom").

April, 1977

Jock Glidden [a Weber State colleague] asks: What might be the difference between game-playing and the rationale of morality?

How about this:

a) Game Playing is (often) competitive behavior set in a broader context of cooperation. (I.e., agreement to play according to the rules).

b) Morality is cooperative behavior in a broader context of competition. (Cf. Hobbes and the state of nature and Rawls (Chapter 1) on competing interests in a state of moderate scarcity.

Of course, there is much more to be said in answer to the question. But this is, I believe, a significant ingredient of the answer.


Excerpt from "The Ring of Gyges" --. The Republic of Plato

. . . we imagine two men, one just, the other unjust, given full licence to do whatever they like, and then follow them to observe where each will be led by his desires. We shall catch the just man taking the same road as the unjust; he will be moved by self-interest, the end which it is natural to every creature to pursue as good, until forcibly turned aside by law and custom to respect the principle of equality.

Now, the easiest way to give them that complete liberty of action would be to imagine them possessed of the talisman found by Gyges, the ancestor of the famous Lydian. The story tells how he was a shepherd in the King's service. One day there was a great storm, and the ground where his flock was feeding was rent by an earthquake. Astonished at the sight, he went down into the chasm and saw, among other wonders of which the story tells, a brazen horse, hollow, with windows in its sides. Peering in, he saw a dead body, which seemed to be of more than human size. It was naked save for a gold ring, which he took from the finger and made his way out. When the shepherds met, as they did every month, to send an account to the King of the state of his flocks, Gyges came wearing the ring. As he was sitting with the others, he happened to turn the bezel of the ring inside his hand. At once he became invisible, and his companions, to his surprise, began to speak of him as if he had left them. Then, as he was fingering the ring, he turned the bezel outwards and became visible again. With that, he set about testing the ring to see if it really had this power, and always with the same result: according as he turned the bezel inside or out he vanished anal reappeared. After this discovery he contrived to be one of the messengers sent to the court. There he seduced the Queen, and with her help murdered the King and seized the throne.

Now suppose there were two such magic rings, and one were given to the just man, the other to the unjust. No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men's goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a god. He would behave no better than the other; both would take the same course. Surely this would be strong proof that men do right only under compulsion; no individual thinks of it as good for him personally, since he does wrong whenever he finds he has the power. Every man believes that wrongdoing pays him personally much better, and, according to this theory, that is the truth. Granted full licence to do as he liked, people would think him a miserable fool if they found him refusing to wrong his neighbors or to touch their belongings, though in public they would keep up a pretense of praising his conduct, for fear of being wronged themselves.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .