What is ‘Good’?

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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 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.

We often use the words Ethics and Morality interchangeably, and a Moral Philosopher studies Ethics. In this essay, I am going to define Ethics as being about behaviour in a social context – the principles and reasons for our conduct. Morality is about personal codes – about something being right or wrong – and therefore provides a standard against which to measure behaviour. Today, Morality is often (but not always) concerned with religious belief, whilst Ethics is often embodied in Codes of Conduct. It is also worth noting that whilst something might be legal, that does not mean that it is ethical.

An excellent source of practical materials is at Ethics Unwrapped, hosted by McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. This includes a glossary of terms.

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 or 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 – the is/ought 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’ have 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, and here are some practical examples:

  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.

Brent Stirton. 2007. Gorilla in the Congo.

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

Eddie Adams. 1968. Saigon Execution.

He goes on to advocate the use of the 10-point Systematic Ethical Analysis (SEA). This 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.

Image from https://stanzzascorner.wordpress.com/the-potter-box-model-of-reasoning/

Lester defines SEA as:

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 –  an objective, rational, necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow), 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 fundamentally Western. Additionally, the SEA does not directly cover cultural differences, power relationships, network propagation or the ethical implications of changing people’s views and actions. I will return to those issues in other posts.

Today, there are three popular ways of considering how morality impacts our actions, ‘normative’ ethical systems.

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. These may not be mutually exclusive propositions.

Interestingly, the SEA framework above only explicitly includes examples of Utilitarian and Deontological ethical philosophies.

Taking a broader view, philosophy has always had a connection with religious and spiritual thought, since the time of the Vedas, Plato and Buddha. This carried through into Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The philosopher’s job is to unpick the ethical and logical threads from religious beliefs. The Dalai Lama expresses it thus:

There is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation … an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer, and so on.

Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however.

There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities‘. (1999: 22)

The work of the Dalai Lama suggests that it is in these spiritual aspects, alongside the rigour of logic, that ethical ideas appear.

There are also some critical foundational differences between Western philosophy and Eastern (Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian). Since the Enlightenment, 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).  Chenyang Li (2006) comments that harmony is both a metaphysical and ethical concept – how the world works, and how we should behave. It by definition needs different kinds of agents involved, and it is sustained by a kind of creative tension – like the ingredients in a  soup. Yet it implies restraint, to get to some form of common ground.

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 Noble path is seen as congruent with ‘the middle way’ of moderation, between extremes of indulgence and self-mortification. A similar concept appears in Confucian thought – the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) – moderation, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety (Analects, Book VI, 29) – carried out with harmonious ease (Analects, Book I, 12).

To Western scientific thought, always focusing on a Mean or Middle way arguably can slow down original thought and innovation. Even Mao Zedong thought that too much harmony could hinder dialectic and thus Chinese progress – ‘Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend’ (Mao, 1966: 302). His openness was short-lived, sadly.

Philosophically, many of  the ideas of Confucius and Buddha can be seen as a form of Virtue Ethics. Confucian thought tended to take an elitist view, rather than suggest a way of living which applies to everyone, as Buddha does.

Buddhism can have many forms.

Mick Yates. Tea. 2019.

In Nichiren Buddhism (Japan), Harmony with nature is considered Oneness of individual and environment as well as Harmony within the self. Chan Buddhism, a firm of Mahayana, developed in China, and moved to Korea and Japan, becoming Zen Buddhism. Zen places great store by the aesthetics of action – the harmony, reverence, purity and tranquillity of the Tea Ceremony, for example. From the non-religious and philosophical standpoint, Julian Baggini notes that:

To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with appreciation of beauty. – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it is centred on the experiential‘. (2018: 294).

Okakura Kakuso, in his 1906 The Book of Tea, builds the case that a better understanding of each other’s philosophies would prevent much conflict in the world. He notes that:

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful amongst the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order‘. (1979: 1)

In other words, the aesthetic dimension has ethical implications, and, as Baggini notes, challenges Hume’s ‘Is/Ought’ fallacy. He comments that:

‘Superficially an ethics based on an aesthetic attention  … is .. jumping to conclusions about what is right based on what we take nature to be like, In fact, the connection between is and ought is very different in this context … because there is no logical inference being made at all. The whole point of the aesthetic approach is to replace rational deduction with aesthetic sensibility‘. (2018: 298).

So, harmony with nature is a concept which does not contradict ‘Western logic’ but adds to it.

This led to a very interesting discussion with David Norfolk around environmental aesthetics – my main point being that the East has a long tradition in this arena, whereas the West does not. It is only now getting fashionable philosophically because of eco-concerns.

Returning to Buddhism, 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. In Korea, Seon Buddhism address some of the perceived inconsistencies in the Mahayana, and is closely related to Zen.

Theravāda is the oldest, strictest form of Buddhism, and is the official religion of Cambodia, where my MA project is situated. Theravāda is focused on personal enlightenment gained either by insight via meditation or study and critical reasoning (philosophy), or both.

Cambodia’s 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.

Although Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, there is a historically strong tradition of animism and naturism. Kbal Spean, just north of Siem Reap, is a site dating from the Angkor Empire. For an extended stretch of river, sculptures and lingas are carved into the river bed, and water flows over them freely. The ‘1,000 lingas’ are attributed to a minister of King Suryavarman I during the 11th century.

Keo Sarath. Kbal Spean. 2019

As noted by BunRong Kuoy:

Water, as an element of nature, is given a high value, not only because of our dependency on it to maintain physical life, but also as a spiritual cleaning substance. A prime example of this phenomenon can be found in the Kbal Spean River. The water flows over sculptures carved directly into the stone riverbed. These sculptures represent Brahmanic mythological scenes‘. (2013: 50)

Dance is an important aspect of all East Asian cultures, and in Cambodia’s case one can see a strong animist thread. Prumsodun Ok, a leading classical dancer, who also is a champion of LGBTQ rights in Cambodia, comments that:

When you look at a Khmer classical dancer, you will find a strong aesthetic of curves. There is an arching in the back, a bending in the knees, and a curling of the toes. In the arms there is a hyper-flexing of the elbow and the fingers are flexed back in an extreme curve often mistaken for double-jointedness. Moving slowly, lower body grounded but upper body more fluid, this gives the dancer a serpentine impression. This is significant as, before the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, our ancestors practiced ancestor worship and animism‘. (2018: 7)

Modern day Cambodia is thus a complex mix of Buddhist beliefs, the harmony and order of naturism, animism and an increasing influence of Globalism and Western individualism. In the front of almost every household there is a shrine, part Buddhist, part animistic. The god living inside is called ‘Preah Phumi’ (the earth).

In any geography, discussion of practical ethics has to address such local and cultural complexity.

There is some common sense congruence on  the bigger principles of morality across the world (‘do not kill’?),  Bernard Gert, mentioned in Lester’s arguments towards an SEA, defined a ‘Common Morality’ with a list of 10 principles which are superficially easy to agree with – 7 prohibitions and 3 positives. Do not kill, do not cause pain, do not disable, do not deprive of freedom, do not deprive of pleasure, do not deceive, do not cheat and do keep promises, do obey the law, and do your duty.

Yet beyond the rather negative nature of Gert’s list there is significant open-endedness about, for example, the definition of freedom, the law and duty. Human Rights are implied but not codified.

And nowhere in this list is the positive concept of harmony, either socially or with nature.

Eastern Ethics have a strong sense of social and natural context, and ‘rightness’ (back to David Ross). Western thought tends to focus on rules, rights and responsibilities. And in discussing harmony, Hall and Ames describe the difference between East and West as way-seeking versus truth-seeking.

As BunRong concludes:

The pillar of [Cambodia], which also contributes to natural prosperity, is culture. Folk dancing, proverbs, festivals, and architectural style illustrate how the Khmer have maintained a relationship with their lifelong partner, nature‘. (2013: 50)

Simply applying a rigid 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.


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


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