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Realizational Ethics

I have long felt that a philosophy of "isms" was a mistake. That is, I actively argued against the practice of philosophy as metaphysical speculation, the kind of thing where philosophers develop systems to explain everything (or at least everything about the world they can think of) and name their particular approach with a term ending in an "ism" (idealism, dualism, realism and the like). But I think I was wrong about the "ism" part for that isn't the issue at all. There is, after all, something to be said for naming a view, not least because, if done well, it can provide a convenient handle for naming the claim or account under discussion. And ending such a name with "ism," doesn't, in itself, imply a metaphysical thesis or claim. This has been brought home to me most recently in my ongoing attempt to tease out a coherent account of the thing we do called "moral valuing" (as in making, arguing about, justifying and recognizing our moral claims).

Since Sean began this site, I have spent a good deal of time trying to develop a coherent account of my own concerning moral claims and many of my entries here have been directed at that objective. Of course, I don't know how well I've actually done thus far. Many of the posts I've put on this site could certainly stand re-writing although, at this stage, I'm unlikely to attempt that -- not here anyway. Nevertheless, going through the exercise of composing these posts has been helpful to me, at least, and at this point I think I have reached a fairly coherent account of what I want to say (though perhaps it will not meet with wide agreement on this list -- whatever really does?).

There is, I think, an important difference between writing (or trying to write) a theory of everything, the usual practice in more metaphysical quarters, and offering an account, even a somewhat lengthy one, of a particular issue in hopes of throwing light on how that issue or puzzle fits with the rest of what we know of the world. Such a more limited account, although it may have certain superficial affinities with the kinds of lengthy systems we find in metaphysics, differs to this extent: It aims to offer an explanation of some matter or activity we are engaged in without, thereby, challenging or attempting to replace the role of the sciences in the discovery and systematization of human knowledge about the world. As such, one would not expect to collect experimental data in order to test predictions derived from such an account as one would with a scientific thesis. Nor would one expect one's account to stand in for or supersede whatever the sciences have to offer on the subject. In fact, to the extent they have information to offer, the kind of account one does in philosophy must reconcile itself with that information. The test of the philosophical account would be to determine the extent to which the account offered seems to make what had once seemed cloudy and unclear a little crisper and clearer. In the course of exploring the ways in which we apply moral reasoning and judgment on this site, I believe I have developed such an account re: the matter of ethics.

It's not an argument per se, although I think one could argue, more or less successfully, for individual points that combine to make it up. Whether they are sufficient or convincing, either individually or in toto to other readers here however, I cannot say. But I can say that, as of now, they seem successful to me. In a nutshell, the account I want to give consists of thirty nine steps, which commence with a breakdown of what valuing, itself, is and proceed to break down the role of agents and the concept of agency which, I think, is implied by the notion of valuing itself (because valuing requires agents and agential action expresses values). Moving from there, my account shifts to the notion of reciprocity which the condition of agency, by the very nature of what it is, implies, on the view I want to present. And reciprocity, itself, implies certain behavioral traits which we can adopt if we desire to and can be convinced to adopt via a kind of informal reasoning which is neither deductive nor inductive but what I would call "realizational."

Hence, my decision to call this approach to moral valuing Realizational Ethics or, more simply, Realizationalism.

Hopefully it's a name that will help distinguish the account I want to give from those offered by others, while providing a ready handle by which those, who desire to criticize what I want to put forward here, may refer to it. Hopefully, too, it will be thought an apt name for the approach.

Thirty Nine Steps


    1. Value claims are claims which place some object or objective, which we can think about securing (obtaining, achieving, acquiring, etc.), on a scale which relates it to other objects/objectives which we can think about in the same way.

    2. Valuing, the activity of making and implementing value claims, is an essential element in reasoning since it provides the means by which we can distinguish different levels of desirability in the things that stand as objects for us.

    3. Valuing consists of speaking about and acting towards the objects of reference we are concerned with in ways that implement and express the valuations we have made with regard to such objects.

    4. Statements of value involve using words like “good” and its cognates to designate the value status of such objects of reference. To speak of anything as “good” is just to assert that there is something about it (some feature, property, characteristic, etc.) which is also a reason to obtain, secure, implement, achieve it, etc. (That is, to call something “good” is just to say there is something about it which is also a reason to choose it.)

    5. The reasons we may have to choose anything – what makes something “good” for us by placing it high on some scale of value – will depend on the different ways in which its features affect us.

    6. We are affected by features in a thing to the extent that they prompt us to desire, want, or need them but the levels of intensity will vary.

    7. When such mental features occur in us, they are satisfied by our obtaining what they require, e.g., food to assuage hunger, love to assuage loneliness or passion, a college degree to satisfy a need to get a job, etc., etc.

    8. Valuing serves to rate and organize the potential satisfactions we can secure through those objects we can distinguish discretely enough to measure, obtain, etc.

    9. We can value anything in the world that we can treat as an object of reference, i.e., which we can discern as distinct enough to be measured and, therefore, secured/obtained/achieved and so forth.

    10. The fact that we can distinguish such objects, according to competing requirements gaps that we may have, presents us with one means of differentiating between the objects in question.

    11. Another means of differentiating between competing value claims reflects the differences in degrees of compulsion produced in us by the satisfaction requirements of our different mental features.

    12. Still another means of differentiating between competing value claims arises from the ways the different objects, which have value-eliciting characteristics, relative to some subject, affect one another (some may interfere with others, some may augment, etc.).

    13. Every value claim is also an implicit or explicit action, i.e., an assertion of value re: a thing is also an assertion that, all things being equal, the asserter of value will act to obtain, secure, implement, or achieve the thing deemed to have value.

    14. Anything that can be singled out as an object of reference can bear assignments of value (can be called “good” or tagged with similar valuing terms), but such assignments will depend on the features and type of the objects/objectives – and the ways in which they affect the valuing subject.

    15. The features which prompt a valuing response in a subject will depend on the type of item the object or objective is. (Some objects will have features that offer physically pleasant experiences, others emotional satisfaction while others may offer only cessation of negative experiences, etc.)

    16. Objects and states of affairs (understood as relations of physical objects in the world) will be valued based on how their features affect the subject’s needs/wants/desires and so forth; physical objects present physical features and objects/objectives, whose relevant constituents are not physical in type (e.g., conceptual), present non-physical features.

    17. Every action implemented for a reason expresses a value assigned to an object/objective and such actions will also be objects of reference, too, and thus subject to valuation as an object, itself, with good-making features appropriate to it.

    18. Valuing actions as actions considers each action according to its most comprehensive description. This means not merely looking at the action in terms of its capacity to achieve its object/objective (i.e., its physical efficacy) but also in its role as an expression of the acting agent because actions are not discrete phenomena, the way we think of physical objects, but part of a continuum that reflects the agential self – each action being a momentary aspect of the agential self that occurs in an ongoing way over time. Actions, seen thus, are not merely physical entities, even though they are also physical events.

    19. Because all valuing involves actions, and all actions can be assigned value as objects of reference themselves, independent of the value imputed to what they aim to achieve, valuation of actions overrides the value of the things the actions are aimed at securing and the efficacy and efficiency of the actions involved in securing them. That is, every action, whatever instrumental factors about it render it valuable to an agent, will also have a dimension of valuation that extends beyond instrumental value. This gives moral valuing, as the form of valuing we apply to actions when actions are looked at in their entirety, its special status, i.e., its role as governing the valuations expressed by an action relative to its instrumental value or its proxy value in terms of the things it is directed at obtaining. Since all valued things involve actions at some point, and actions warrant valuation in their own right (as actions in their entirety), the valuation of an action in this more complete sense overrides other valuations which the action may express.


    20. To value an action in its entirety means taking into account the state of the actor, that is, the agent’s intention – which does not exist in isolation from the rest of that agent’s mental life.

    21. Intentions are not particular things or features in actors but occur as an array of mental states (e.g., feelings, beliefs, desires, needs, etc.). The ability to refer to such mental phenomena is to objectify them but this is not accomplished by observing discernible dimensions in space/time, as when considering physical entities, but by recognizing such subjective features through the behaviors (including reports of the actor) observed.

    22. Since no mental state is a discrete thing, valuing such states involves valuing the entire flow of states in the self and to value a self, whether oneself or another, we must have a picture of that self, a picture which consists of the knowledge we develop, through awareness of that self’s particular mental state(s).

    23. A self cannot, however, value itself if that valuing is conditioned on what it, the valuing self, is (what it feels, believes, wants, etc.) at any given moment for this is the very aspect of the self that is to be valued and so could only serve to express the current state of the valuing self, i.e., its current range of values, without any standard against which to measure them. Since valuing requires a standard external to the valued item, something by which the valuer can measure an item’s value to the valuer, we must distinguish between the valuing self as the agent engaged in doing the valuing of the given action and the valued self (the aspect of that self engaged in the action being assessed). That is, the valuing self must be able to consider those momentary aspects of itself which correspond to each action in light of their potential to contribute to the relative state of the ongoing self.

    24. A standard must therefore be identified against which the ongoing valuing self can assess the aspect of itself which is to be valued, i.e., the intentional state underlying each act as a distinct expression of value – for all agential acts, being intentional, serve to express the intentions which prompt them.

    25. The state of the momentary self, which has value to the ongoing self (the valuing aspect of that self) will thus reflect that condition of the self which satisfies what the ongoing self requires to fully realize its subjectness as a self in the world.

    26. Subjects are distinguished from other entities by the fact of having a mental life which consists of experiences, awareness, thoughts, feelings, etc., etc. These all involve the capacity to think about other things (so-called intentionality) which underwrites the capacity to form the intentions expressed through actions.

    27. To the extent a subject’s mental life is sufficiently sophisticated to be able to recognize intentionality in others (that is, to recognize that some other entities are subjects, too) it will also recognize the presence of a mental life in those others, for intentionality implies subjectness: a mental life. (The breadth of the recognized intentionality in the other will, of course, depend on the scope of the other’s mental capacities as evidenced in its observed behaviors.)

    28. If a subject recognizes a level of intentionality in another subject that is roughly comparable to its own, then the very nature of that recognition requires the recognizing subject to do more than just admit that the other subject has a mental life. It must grant it.

    29. But granting cannot be done by descriptive assertion alone, nor merely by verbal assent or pro forma acknowledgment. To grant is to express recognition through one’s actions.

    30. Thus a subject’s intentions, the aspect of its mental life that underlies its own actions, must express, through those actions, the recognition of subjectness in the other.


    31. We express the recognition of another’s subjectness by acting in ways that reflect our realization of the other’s needs, wants, desires, etc., i.e., that they are subjects like ourselves. That is, we come to “stand in the other's shoes,” “see the world through the other’s eyes,” in short we adopt a policy of empathy.

    32. Empathy is not just some particular feeling we may happen to have towards the other; it’s a complex of feelings and behaviors directed towards others, stemming from our willingness to acknowledge the other’s situation as being like our own. It includes the feelings we find in ourselves produced as an outcome of a decision to grant the other’s subjectivity.

    33. Empathy can be developed in ourselves by adopting certain ways of behaving towards others (certain attitudes).

    34. And it can be understood as the intentional state which the acting self, as subject, must be in, in order to be a subject in its own right. While an agent can choose to refuse to acknowledge that state, to varying degrees (to disregard the subjectness of others who, by their nature, are subjects too), doing so is tantamount to rejecting the agent’s own subjectness because intentionality is a reciprocal condition: subjects (with adequate capacity) recognize subjectness in others when it is observably present.

    35. The reason to be empathetic then is that this is the most complete expression of what it means to be a subject. It’s just to be, in the fullest possible way, what we are. The rejection or diminution of it undermines our own capacities as subjects.

    36. It is this state of reciprocal recognition of subjectness that underpins the moral valuations we apply to actions (i.e., when we value them in their entirety, from intent to outcome, and not just as a means to, or as a proxy for, something else).

    37. Feelings of empathy are thus expressed in those behaviors which are performed by an agent for the satisfaction of the needs, wants and desires of another rather than for his or her own satisfaction. Morally good acts are those which either express that state of self or are conducive to its occurrence. This commitment to empathy forms the basis for a large class of moral rules, beliefs and practices which humans have historically relied upon and accepted across cultures and over time and which have a universal character because of that.


    38. This does not imply a knock down/drag out argument for a particular kind of goodness which we think ascribable to actions, however – an argument that hinges on a claim of logical necessity. Nor does it make an inarguable case for adopting some particular code of ethics, consistent with just such an idea of goodness, over others. But it shows that choosing good actions, in a moral sense of good, is to choose to be empathetic and that this choice depends on realizing what we, as subjective entities, are. This argument for realization hinges not on the compulsions of necessity or of fact, but on the role of acknowledgment in the choices an agent makes in seeing his or her own situation in a particular way. Such choices are not arbitrary or unmotivated, however, because they are made for a reason which can be argued for: the acceptance of, and so the decision to fully operate as, the type of entity we are.

    39. Because this is about realization and acceptance rather than logical necessity, however, the discourse associated with this kind of judgment will find its most natural home in the myths, motifs and practices of the religious/spiritual kind – where realization, rather than evidentiary investigation or logical argument, holds sway. This helps account for the manner in which moral judgments are often made, as if from some deeply inspired place within ourselves (in sympathy with certain sacred models of the saintly self) while also serving to clarify the close link between moral concerns and religious teachings that has obtained throughout human history. In so doing, it shows why the summons to religious “truth” so often seems to go hand in hand with the making of moral claims.

My approach has affinities with a number of other approaches as follows:

1) It's consistent with the naturalistic notion, that moral goodness equates to that which is good for humans as humans – although it’s emphasis is not on a “natural” referent in the traditional sense (some physical phenomenon, feature or state of affairs we desire) but on a psychological referent: intentions. This does not, however, require rejection of the idea that such “mental” phenomena are also physical in a fundamentally causal sense, i.e., that brains are the operant cause of the mental lives we experience; in fact, it presumes that they are.

2) My view also aligns with an intuitionist account like G. E. Moore's, because it holds that we recognize good acts, when we encounter them, not by applying sets of moral rules or standards we have learned, memorized or been conditioned to obey (or by recourse to reasoned argument) but by immediate apprehension, if and when we are in the right state of mind. In this it is consistent not only with Moore but with an account like James Q. Wilson’s evolutionary biological theory of morality.

3) My view also has a rational basis, both because it stands on an account of how reasoning, itself, works in creatures like us (valuing is seen as an indispensable part of our reasoning capacity) and because the decision to value the trait we call “empathy” can be rationally argued for as a function of our being the subjective creatures we are.

4) This does not contravene the core Humean insight, however, that valuing, and especially moral valuing, is grounded in sentiment – although it provides a basis for arguing in favor of adopting and cultivating the sentiment which underlies our core moral judgments – and asserts that we can do so – neither of which Hume’s account provides.

5) It also agrees with the account offered by Wilson’s anthropological/sociological approach, that the elements underlying our moral claims and practices are to be found in the type of creatures we are – although, unlike Wilson, I argue that there is one critical sentiment underlying the core moral case (putting others’ interests ahead of our own in certain circumstances) which is not simply derivable from the other inclinations and affinities we have as part of our social nature.

6) Finally my view has a religious/spiritual aspect in that it grounds our actual judgments of moral value in the notion of personal realization rather than logical compulsion, i.e., in having a certain kind of experience of the other – and in recognizing the value of having it.

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