Guide to Basic Moral Systems

Guide to Basic Moral Systems


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Morality is subjective (주관적). It’s a feeling, or a set of prejudices or a group of habits. Because of this, the first thing a philosopher must do is choose a basic moral assumption. Once the basic assumption is chosen, then the philosopher can make logical choices about morality. By contrast, a person who talks about morality without choosing a basic assumption is basically talking out of his ass (개소리를 치다). As such, I have prepared a list of common moral systems, their assumptions and criticisms.


Kongzi, philosopher of the golden mean.

1. The Golden Mean 금은색 평균/중용: This idea comes from several cultures. Aristotle used bravery as an example. Too little bravery is cowardice and cowardice is evil. Too much courage is recklessness and recklessness is also evil. It is only when we use a medium amount of bravery that we achieve courage and goodness. This idea assumes that evil comes from extremes and good comes from moderation.

You can find this idea in Christianity, Judaism, classical Greek philosophy, Buddism’s “middle way”, Confucianism’s (유교) “doctrine of the mean” and  Islam. It is often associated with ideas of beauty, virtue and sophistication. Confucianism, for example, says that the Golden Mean is very important for becoming a “superior man” (우수한 사람).

Criticisms of The Golden Mean: The most obvious criticism is that “medium” is subjective. An action that seems very extreme to me might be normal to you. For example, in 8th century Saudi Arabia, you could get the death penalty (사형) for stealing another person’s water. This was because in 8th century Saudi Arabia, it was very hard to get water in the desert. In 21st century Korea, the death penalty would be a very extreme punishment, but it was normal in different contexts.

Another problem is the idea of extremes. Is it wrong, for example, to be extremely educated? Is it evil to be extremely good at soccer or extremely bad at singing? Some philosophers think that “good” should be independent of extremes. If good is independent of extremes, then the golden mean is wrong.


A “veiled” man.

2. The Veil of Ignorance 무지의 베일: Imagine there are four possible lives. You and three other people each have a 25% chance of being a king/queen, a 25% chance of being a public official, a 25% chance of being a laborer or a 25% chance of being a slave. You and the three other people then negotiate the rules of your society. Whatever you decide is “good.”

A philosopher named John Rawls created the veil of ignorance to determine good and bad. He thought that if the people cannot know their positions (maybe slaves, maybe kings), they will make all the positions fair. Evil is only possible when one person knows he will be king/slave/etc. This is because he can take advantage of the other people to make unjust negotiations.

Rawls gives the example of slavery. Slave owners thought that slavery was good. They had many reasons. They used the Bible, the Koran, science and tradition as reasons for slavery. However, if they might become slaves, the slave owners would give up their reasons and oppose slavery. Therefore, the slave owner can only make evil when he knows his social position.

The veil of ignorance is commonly used in economics. Similar ideas were used in the Age of Englightenment. The veil of ignorance is very important for Social Contract Theory. 

Criticisms: The first problem with the veil of ignorance is that we can never forget what our social position is. We have to pretend we’re ignorant, but we still know. This means that we can never reach the ideal “ignorant” condition (원벽하게 무지한 상태/원초 상태).

The second problem is that even in the ideal condition, people might still be prejudiced. For example, maybe I hate laborers. I hate them so much that I think they should be put in jail. My hatred is so strong I will punish laborers even if I have a 25% chance of being a laborer.

There are historical examples of prejudice, too. 50 years ago in Korea, most people would choose to arrest homosexuals even in the veil of ignorance. 120 years ago in America, most people would choose to persecute (박해하다) Asians. 500 years ago in France, most people would choose to punish Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.


Immanuel Kant

Categorical Imperative 정언 명령: This is probably the most common moral system right now. It is the morality you learn most in middle and high school ethics classes. Invented by Immanuel Kant, the first part says that we should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” This means “if everyone did this action to you, you would be satisfied.” Even simpler, “don’t do things you don’t want other people to do.” Doing something to another that you don’t like is evil. Doing something you do like to another is good.

The second part says “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” This means, it is evil to use people like tools.

The third part of the categorical imperative says “therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” This means “pretend all your actions are universal law.”

Criticisms: The categorical imperative does not care about results. For example, it is wrong to force a soldier to fight because that is using him as a tool. However, not using soldiers like tools can destroy countries. The categorical imperative does not allow you to hurt one person a little bit to help many people a lot. A second example is lying. It is wrong because allowing everyone to lie would be a terrible universal law. Now, imagine a scared man says “I’m hiding from a murderer, please let me hide in your house.” You let him hide. Then the murderer comes and says “I’m looking for a scared man, did you see him?” You cannot lie to the murderer because lying is wrong.



Propriety 적절성: This is the most common system of traditional Korea. Propriety means “humbling yourself and honoring others.” It focuses on group cohesion (화합) over individual rights. Confucius (공자) believed that “good” was harmony, like a good family. When people use propriety, their goal is to make other people happy. If we always focus on other people’s happiness, we can avoid selfishness, cruelty and ambition. Confucius’ ideas are the most important in the history of China, Korea and Japan, but they were also very important in the European Renaissance.

Criticisms: Some people think that individuals cannot trust groups to make them happy. Therefore, if we use propriety and other people don’t, we get cheated constantly. Further, if we only focus on making other people honored and happy, we cannot fight evil. In summary, people say that propriety makes it too easy for evil people to hurt good people.


Margaret Mead was an important anthropologist who helped to popularize moral relativism.

Moral Relativism: Moral relativism says that right and wrong come from our childhoods and our cultures. Because morality is different in every situation, if we are Jewish or Muslim, it is wrong to eat pork. However, if we are Buddhist or Christian, eating pork is fine.

Modern moral relativism comes mostly from anthropology (인류학). Anthropologists studied many different cultures in places like the Amazon Jungle and tiny Islands in South Asia. They found that moral behavior was always different. For example, in some societies, it is very immoral and cowardly if men refuse to accept painful cuts from village leaders. In other societies, it is considered respectful to eat the bodies of your enemies.

Even in modern countries like Korea and England, morals are different. Imagine this situation. A group of old men is sitting in a coffee shop. They are drunk and they are cursing loudly (욕치다). They are making the other customers very uncomfortable.

In Korea, it is moral to endure those drunk, cursing men and respect them, because they are old. If a young person confronted them, it would be disrespectful. If a young person threatened them and made them leave, it would be extremely disrespectful.

In England, it is moral to make them leave because the uncomfortable customers are more important than the drunk old me. It would be considered cowardly for the young men in England if they DO NOT make the drunk old men leave.

Criticisms: If everything is determined by a culture, there is no way to judge that culture’s morals. For example, in Mexico 400 years ago, Aztecs thought it was moral to sacrifice thousands of human beings in religious festivals every year. In another example, Japanese people in the 1940’s believed it was their moral duty to destroy “broken” cultures in Asia and make everyone culturally Japanese. In yet another example, members of ISIS believe it is moral to kill people who are not Sunni Muslims.

If we say that morality is only from culture, how can we say that the Aztecs, Japanese or ISIS members are wrong? They are simply doing what their cultures say is moral and we should accept them, right?

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  1. I scanned all of this and read only a small amount because of time constraints today. However, I suscribe to the Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” leading to an “original position” proposition because it was nothing but a mental exercise designed to bring one, if he is intellectually honest, to understand the most basic principles of justice defined as fairness–equality of access to the same liberties all others have and an economic/social system of equity (that the distribution of wealth and advantages benefits everyone NOT EQUALLY, but equitably), e.g., since it is the workers who produce value, which in turn produces wealth via their labor, and the value/wealth increases by 10%, worker income should increase accordingly. Today, since the rise of the neoconservatives and Reaganomics, virtually all the wealth/value produced goes to the already wealthy. It’s been a wealth redistribution upward.

    Quite obviously then, the U.S. is not a just society/nation, simply because, I think, we are often driven by impulses that once where survival instincts, such as self-interest, greed (offset to some degree with the impulse to cooperation), aggression, territoriality, etc.). I often say that although the world is advancing in its sense of justice and the ability to overcome our more base impulses, it is likely that we have at least another millennium to go before our sense of reasoned ethics evolves to the degree that empathy and fairness becomes universal.

    1. I arrive at a similar conclusion for completely different reasons. We should perhaps discuss this via email. 🙂

  2. “Morality is subjective (주관적). It’s a feeling, or a set of prejudices or a group of habits.”

    Really, nothing more than this? Don’t you think, at the least, that there is some type of universal moral minimum representing the basic conditions that are required for human flourishing? Is it really just a feeling or prejudice that societies permitting rape and torture are worse than those that value safety and security? Does science really have nothing to say about what we should or should not value?

    1. Unexamined, yes. Morality is nothing.

      Examined morality can be quite a bit more, but even these systems rely on whim as their start. So does everything, so that’s not an attack.

      As for universal morality, I’m generally not a fan, though I have played with the idea of (families, species, societies, individuals, ideas) continuing to exist as the universal good. My reason for saying this is that without continued existence, nothing else is possible.

  3. “I have played with the idea of continuing to exist as the universal good.”

    Presumably you claim universality for arrogance at least 🙂

    1. Not sure what you’re trying to say.

  4. Clearly I misunderstood your statement “I have played…”. Please disregard and/or delete the comment.

    1. Ah! You thought I meant my own, personal continued existence?

      While I certainly do consider that a good thing, I was talking about continued existence in a broader sense. Ie, a society cannot be good in any meaningful way if it cannot continue to exist. As such, I’m playing with the idea that if there is a fundamental good in the universe, it might be continued existence.

  5. I used the word ‘flourishing’ rather than existence. Who wants to just exist?

    1. I’d posit that it’s a prerequisite to flourishing, and thus the ultimate good.

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