What is ‘Good’?

mickyates Buddhism, Cambodia, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Ethics, FinalMajorProject, FMPWeek1, Ideas, Philosophy, Society Leave a Comment

Sir William David Ross (1877 – 1971) was a Scottish philosopher who is known for his translations of Aristotle and his work in ethics. He developed a form of pluralist, intuitionist ethics, noting that actions are right or wrong against a series of intuitive principles rather than consequences. This was in opposition to G. E. Moore’s influential consequentialist intuitionism, where the likely results drove the ethical process.

Intuitionist ethics essentially refer to ‘common sense’ – that with a little thought, some propositions become ‘self evident’ rather than are derived from either a complex analytical system or a constructed set of moral laws. For example, in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that ‘the decision rests with perception‘ (Ross, 1925: 37). If you are a person of good judgment and character, then you’ll probably agree with most other people on what is the right thing to do.

Pluralist means that there are multiple influences on the ethical principles, depending on context and relationships.

Ross defined 5 core ethical principles. Non-maleficence (not doing harm), promoting maximum good, fidelity (faithfulness), reparation (making amends) and gratitude (thankfulness). And these are not all equal.

Ross holds that the duty of non-maleficence is more important than the duty to promote a maximum of aggregate good, and he suggests that the duties of fidelity, reparation, and gratitude are in general more weighty than the duty to promote the good.

Unlike the duty to promote the good, the duties of fidelity, reparation and gratitude rest on personal relations with others, which generate special rather than general duties. It is important to Ross that we can stand in the obligation-generating relations ‘of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like’. (Skelton: 2012).

Ross agreed with G.E. Moore’s notion of the naturalistic fallacy – that attempting to define ethics in terms of statements about the natural world is a logical falsehood. In turn, Moore’s view relates to David Hume‘s comment that too many people derive what ought to be from observations about what actually exists (is) in the world – a category error.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. [my emphasis]

… For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason [my emphasis]’. (Hume, 1738: 469).

These ideas can be combined with Hume’s Fork to suggest that statements about ‘ought’ really have very dubious validity.

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact [my emphasis]. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing‘. (Hume, 1777: 25).

Hume concluded that moral distinctions are not derived from rational analysis but rather from sentiment. Cohon comments:

Causal reasoning … does infer matters of fact pertaining to actions, in particular their causes and effects; but the vice of an action (its wickedness) is not found in its causes or effects, but is only apparent when we consult the sentiments of the observer. Therefore moral good and evil are not discovered by reason alone‘. (Cohon, 2004).

I am laying out this points to suggest where my ‘ethics mindset’ sits, very much in the common sense yet contingent school, which has a bearing on how I consider photography.

Last week I was at an EU SHERPA meeting, in my role as Stakeholder Board Member. In my opening keynote, Ethical Questions about Artificial Intelligence, I noted a few ways that we use the word ‘good’. The meaning of ‘good’ changes according to context, a comment that Wittgenstein would smile upon. But it is not just a language game. Here is a fuller list:

  1. This restaurant has good (tasty) food.
  2. The restaurant has good staff with impeccable behaviour.
  3. This is a good restaurant for the community, as it trains young people.
  4. This restaurant is a good place to discuss business, or a good place to have a romantic date.
  5. My wife and I find this restaurant a good, comfortable place to discuss family matters.
  6. This restaurant (and its ambiance) make me feel good, energised and ready for what I have to do next.

Items 1, 2 and 3 can be subject to empirical testing by others, and that is the basis of, for example, TripAdvisor reviews.

4 is somewhat subjective, but can also be tested over time – noisy, calm, unobtrusive service and so on.

5 and 6 are quite personal and subjective, yet also contingent and contextual – it depends who else is in the restaurant and what mood they are in, perhaps.

It is easy to apply such differential thinking to critical theory about photography. For example:

  • This photograph has good compositional technique.
  • This photograph offers a good (accurate) narrative.
  • This photograph deals in a good way with its subject.
  • This photograph has a good (individual as its) subject.
  • This photograph was created in a good (socially responsible) way.
  • This photograph makes a good impact – the viewer stops and thinks.

Paul Martin Lester (2018) suggests that there are five broad areas of ethical concern in the media:

  1. Victims of violence, including humanitarian disasters
  2. Rights to personal privacy – explicit and implicit
  3. Subject, image and context manipulation – the perennial issue of photography
  4. Persuasion – both ‘positive’, to support concerned causes, and ‘negative’, politically
  5. Stereotyping – of all kinds

He goes on to advocate the use of the 10-point Systematic Ethical Analysis (SEA), which has its roots in The Potter Box (systematic investigations about Facts, Values, Principles, and Loyalties, without a right or wrong answer) developed by Ralph P Potter, Professor in the Harvard School of Divinity.

Step1: What are three significant facts in the case?
Step 2: What are three facts you would like to know?
Step 3: What is the ethical dilemma?
Step 4: Who are the moral agents and what is their role?
Step 5: What are the stakeholders and what is their role?
Step 6: What are all the positive and negative values of the agents and stakeholders?
Step 7: What are the loyalties of the agents and stakeholders?
Step 8: Consider against 6 ethical philosophies – Golden Rule (do as you would be done by), Hedonism (do what makes you happy), Golden Mean (Aristotle – find a middle ground), Categorial Imperative (Kant’s deontology – evaluate motivations for action), Utilitarianism (maximise good), Veil of Ignorance (anonymity).
Step 9: What creative and/or credible alternatives could resolve the issue?
Step 10: What would you do?

Yet, however helpful this logical structure is, the ethical models embedded are just a few of what are available even amongst European / American models – and remain profoundly Western.

There are some important foundational differences between Western (post-enlightenment) philosophy and Eastern (Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian) philosophy. The West takes the view that personal freedom and liberty is a fundamental principle.

The East offers that harmony is fundamental – not in the sense of merely obeying the rules, but in the sense that humanity should be in harmony with nature (Laozi) or that humanity should operate in harmony with each other as a prerequisite to be in harmony with nature (Confucius).

Harmony also appears in many forms in the various strands of Buddhist teaching. Buddhists follow the Noble Eightfold Path – good beliefs, speech, actions, work, efforts, mindfulness, strength of purpose and self-understanding (meditation). Wisdom and compassion are considered the natural consequence of harmony with nature.

This can be seen as a form of virtue ethics, one of the three currently ‘popular’ ways of considering normative ethical systems, about how morality impacts our actions.

First, there is Utilitarianism – where the consequences of doing something maximizes well-being. Second, there is Deontology, where agents act according to some set of defined moral rules, however they are arrived at. For example, Kant argued that central to ethical systems is the categorical imperative, which applies to everyone, regardless of personal interests or desires. And, thirdly, there is Virtue Ethics, which considers the moral character of the individual person concerned, leading to concepts such as benevolence. Interestingly, the SEA framework above only explicitly includes examples of Utilitarian and Deontological ethical philosophies.

David Ross, whilst profoundly influenced by Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, did hold that there are certain fundamental rules or duties that are self-evident (intuitive), that we are obliged to uphold.

Virtue Ethics also fits quite well with Confucius. The latter however takes an elitist view, rather than suggest a way of living which applies to everyone. as Buddha does.

Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, and has been since at least the 5th century. Buddhism is enshrined as the official state religion.

Buddhism has several varietal forms.

In Nichiren Buddhism (Japan), Harmony with nature is considered Oneness of individual and environment as well as Harmony within the self.

Mahayana (the predominant Greater Vehicle) considers that there are many transcendent beings and realms. A Bodhisattva, someone seeking enlightenment, is also doing so for the benefit of all sentient beings, which opens up the possibility of teaching others to gain enlightenment. And they have the possibility to gain full Buddha-hood. There are many paths to enlightenment, beyond meditation and study. Zen Buddhism, which has its roots in Mahayana, places great store by the aesthetics of action – the harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility of the Tea Ceremony, for example.

Theravāda is the Buddhist form in Cambodia, which is the oldest, strictest form of Buddhism. This is focused on personal enlightenment gained either by insight via meditation or study and critical reasoning (philosophy), or both.

The Gatiloke ‘Folk Stories’ are a traditional way to hand down the wisdom of Buddha in a digestible format. Gatiloke can be translated as ‘the right way for the people to live’. For centuries, all schooling was built around the Buddhist Pagoda and carried out by Monks. Sadly, to a large extent the stories have also provided a long-standing way for the elites to control society.

Modern day Cambodia is a complex mix of traditional Buddhist beliefs and the harmony and order of naturism, spiced with an increasing influence of Western individualism. Any discussion of ethics has to address this complexity.

Stepping back, Eastern ethical thought has a strong sense of its social and harmonious dimensions (back to David Ross, to a certain extent). Current Western thought tends to focus on individual rights and responsibilities.

Simply applying this mainstream ‘Western view’ on photography (or any other subject, for that matter) is, in a very real sense just another form of colonialism.

I will explore these issues further as the MA progresses.


WD Ross Photograph. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._D._Ross#/media/File:W-D-Ross.jpg (accessed 18/05/2019).


ARISTOTLE. 1925. Nichomachean Ethics. W.D. Ross, translator. 2009 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BUKKYO DENDO KYOKAI. 1991. The Teaching of the Buddha. Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai.

CARRISON, Muriel Pashkin. 2011. Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke. Boston: Tuttle.

COHON, Rachel. 2004. Hume’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Revised 2018. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/hume-moral/ (accessed 11/09/2018).

CONFUCIUS. 2013. Analects, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Edward Slingerland, translator. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

HUME, David. 1738. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. Selby-Bigge, L.A., 1888. 2010 Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HUME, David. 1777. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Ed. Selby-Bigge, L.A., 1893. 1962 Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HURKA, Thomas. 2015. Moore’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/moore-moral/ (accessed 18/05/2019).

KANT, Immanuel. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2002 Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Available at: http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Kant%20-%20groundwork%20for%20the%20metaphysics%20of%20morals%20with%20essays.pdf (accessed 17/05/2019).

LESTER, Paul Martin. 2018. Visual Ethics. New York: Routledge.

MOORE, G.E. 1912. Ethics. 2nd Edition 1966. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ROSS, David. 1939. Foundations of Ethics: The Gifford Lectures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SKELTON Anthony. 2012. William David Ross, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Summer 2012 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available at:  https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/william-david-ross/ (accessed 18/05/2019).

SUZUKI, Daisetz T. 1959. Zen and Japanese Culture. 1994 printing. Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle & Company.

WARNOCK, Mary. 1960. Ethics since 1900. 2007 Edition. Mount Jackson: Axios Press.

Narrative versus Story

mickyates Book Design, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, FinalMajorProject, FMPWeek1, Narrative, Photography, Stories Leave a Comment

I bought a copy of Lewis Bush’s Metropole at Paris Photo, intrigued by his use of semi-abstracted or manipulated images to tell the story of urban development. The book also uses both black and white and colour images.

Lewis Bush. 2018. Metropole Sumner.

Yesterday, Bush wrote an article on narrative versus story, where he suggests that photographers too easily confuse the two terms.  He wrote:

One story can spawn many narratives, a fact that, in contrast to photography, is well understood in literature and cinema’. (2019).

I am guilty of this confusion. Prompted by this, the story that I am pursuing is of Sarath’s survival of the Genocide years – exemplified by his own personal stories of that time – and his subsequent dedication and activity in education.

As I understand it, a narrative is a choice – it is about which events to include and how to execute them. A narrative is thus representing the story in some way, although it is not the story. It is also possible to change the sequence of events, which would yield a new narrative of the same story. Put another way, narrative is chosen information which can influence the way an audience responds to the story. You can reverse the narrative sequence, and still have the same story.

The Beemgee website, whose business is in helping people to tell stories, has this helpful graphic.

© Beemgee 2017. https://www.beemgee.com/blog/story-vs-narrative/

Within Sarath’s overall story, there are thus many possible narratives – our family involvement with Sarath, his biography, the school building program in the Reconciliation Areas,  and so forth. How I choose those and sequence them will impact the way the project is received.

Bush goes on to talk about the power of editing and sequencing. He notes:

We well understand now that single images are not reality, they are a representation of it. In a similar sense, sets of photographs as a fragmentary and incomplete record of something are always a narrative of a story or event, never a full reflection of the thing itself’. (2019).

He suggests several reasons why photographers do not always get the theory right.

First, photographs can appear in a multitude of places – multi-media, book, exhibition – which each raise particular issues.

Second, historically photography has focused on analysing specific images, rather than looking at a series as a whole. This is as true of the analysis of the iconic image, as it is of Barthes creating his views on photography based on a picture of his dead mother.

Third, from its beginning, photography has been pre-occupied with its role as a fine art, rather than looking in depth at its unique possibilities.

Finally, photography theory is often over-focused on its own form, rather than considering influences and theories of cinema, writing, dance and so forth. Three cheers for interdisciplinary thinking!

Bush is running a small workshop at his home studio in June. I might see if I can join.


BUSH, Lewis. 2018. Metropole. London: Overlapse. Images available at: http://www.lewisbush.com/metropole/ (accessed 03/05/2019).

BUSH., Lewis. 2019. Photographic Storytelling: A Poverty of Theory. Available at: https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/photographic-storytelling-a-poverty-of-theory-2def0ba48031?fbclid=IwAR09lgkDOOPHX6z751heO6SgGn6bcx9kUO3X00Lc3yhyg_P0Jsm5IwLYXkc (accessed 03/05/2019).