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The Ethical Aspect

(Also called the 'trothic aspect' by J.H. Kok. I like to call it the 'attitudinal aspect' because of ambiguity in the word 'ethical'.)

Briefly ...

We experience the ethical aspect intuitively as attitude and enact it in our lives together intuitively as self-giving love, which has an element of vulnerability and sacrifice. In ethical functioning we go beyond what is due, giving more than necessary, even at expense to ourselves. Ethical functioning is not just overt acts of self-giving, so much as inner attitude, which is often hidden. So might it be better named the attitudinal aspect?

Meaningful in the ethical aspect are properties like generous, hospitable, good (as in "She is a really good person"), voluntary; activities like forgiving, sacrificing, renouncing; things like gift, love (in the sense of Greek agapé rather than philio or eros), and so on. Dooyeweerd's discussion of the ethical aspect, which he also called the 'moral aspect', is mainly in [1955,II:141-160], mostly devoted to its distinction from other aspects. Only on page 151 do we find a clear statement of its kernel as love (agape ).

Like the juridical aspect, the ethical can contribute to societal infrastructure within which social activity occurs. This infrastructure is that of attitude that permeates society, whether that of generosity or self-protection. The boundary between juridical and ethical issues may be clarified by extensive reflections on these two aspects in Volume II of Dooyeweerd [1955].

So two good possibilities seem to be introduced to temporal reality by the ethical aspect: to permeate reality generous attitude, and to bring extra goodness that was not present before. Vulnerable self-giving can change attitudes in subtle ways, which spread throughout communities or society; for example the repentance and forgiveness that defused the anger stoked up by Apartheid in South Africa. This benefits all, including the giver. Extra goodness comes because, unlike juridical functioning in which one good or evil is met with one corresponding one, in ethical functioning, evil can be met with good, and good with extra good, breaking cycles of retribution. This can occur at both personal and societal levels.

Notice the paradox in the ethical aspect: if we give with even the slightest hope that we ourselves will gain so (as in much social 'generosity' or hospitality) then it is no longer true self-giving, but has turned into its opposite. In fact, it has turned into its opposite, self-interest. The negative of self-giving love is not hatred so much as selfishness, self-protection, advantage-taking, competitiveness, uncaringness, and so on, and these are harmful. Kant, of course, recognised and was troubled by this paradox, holding that 'pure' morality was completely without regard for any benefit the subject might receive. However, this gave him problems in understanding motivation and how the ethical aspect relates to hope (pistic aspect).

Self-giving love is the opposite of the Nietzschean idea of power that is prevalent in many fields, and is assumed to be motivated by self-advantage or self-assertion. This is ethically dysfunctional, and will ultimately undermine itself, if Dooyeweerd's insight is correct.

Defining the Aspect x

Kernel: x

rather than:

(See below for Kok's slightly different view.)

Since this aspect is post-social, it means that how we function in this aspect has not only a direct impact on ourselves and those who are objects of our love, but also a longer-term impact on society as a whole. One selfish act can permeate a community or society with an ethos of self-seeking - so can its portrayal on film.

The ethical aspect seems to contain an intriguing paradox. Self-giving returns in benefit to me. Yet, if I do my self-giving in the hope of of receiving such benefit, it is no longer genuine self-giving. Likewise there is a paradox if I am proud of my humility! To function well in this aspect our attention must be turned outwards to the Other and we must forget ourselves. It seems to offer a way of self-forgetting that does not deny the self (unlike Hindu approaches).

Moreover, self-giving is weak as a motivator. By its nature, it does not push itself forward into our affections or attention, and hence does not carry much motivation in itself. This may be seen in practice with the tendency for demise of institutions etc. oriented to self-giving over a long term. Even 'niceness' institutions are in demise. However, when coupled with the pistic aspect, the kernel of which is belief, commitment and vision - and motivation itself - there can be motivation for self-giving. So, those organisations with a mission of self-giving stay successful by continually reinforcing their vision.

Some central themes x

As Peter Singer [1999] has argued, ethics always involves something more universal than the individual or their sectional interests. For example, Macbeth cannot justify his desire to be king in place of Duncan on ethical grounds. Ethics must relate to something bigger than the individual. However, Singer perhaps does not go far enough, because legality also has a universal orientation. Justice - which is of the juridical aspect cannot be justice unless it applies to others in the same way. So what is the difference between justice and ethics? Unfortunately, what many call 'ethics' is often justice. Dooyeweerd highlighted the difference as one of self-giving. Justice treats everyone the same; ethics sacrifices the self for the sake of the others.

Jesus Christ told a story of a manager who hired unemployed people at different times of the burning hot day, but paid them all the same. If we are appalled at this apparent injustice, we are looking at it from the juridical aspect; but it makes sense from the ethical aspect, which sees the needs and has compassion on those who suffer.

Note: SInce this aspect is post-social, the full development of these themes and kernel issues involves society. There is a personal element (such as an individual's generosity or sacrifice), but much of this aspect can only be understood in terms of society. For example, a selfish act by someone in leadership institutes widespread changes among people as a whole, engendering for example cynicism and a general atmosphere of looking after Number One. Leaders beware!

'Ethical capital' is built up over decades by people giving of themselves rather than protecting their own interests. Then that capital is drained when someone takes a lead in self-interest or competition. Example: Ian McKellar's 'Boot Room' essay about how people in the Arctic began using each others' boots rather than their own, until the whole system broke down. My opinion: Today - post Thatcher! - the U.K. is in ethical deficit.

Ethical Relationships: I-Thou

In juridical aspect of relationships, each party should receive its due, so the relationship is symmetric. But in the ethical aspect of relationships there is an inherent assymetry, between I and the Other. I forget about my own due, and focus on what is due to the Other, and indeed go beyond what is due, in self-giving. Martin Buber understood this well, when he emphasized the I-Thou relationship.

So did C.S. Lewis in a different way. Obedience, in the context of marriage, is usually seen as contemptible by people today, but in That Hideous Strength (p.89) obedience is "like a strange oriental perfume, perilous, seductive ...". True obedience of this kind, as abandonment or 'surrender', is part of good self-giving and is what makes marriages sing. It is the centre of the healthy I-Thou relationship.

(Why, then, has it been so maligned? Maybe partly because of the Aristotlean idea of monarchianism. Maybe partly because of the emphasis today on Freedom as the antithetic, absolutized pole in the Nature-Freedom Ground-motive, which leads people to ignore the ethical aspect of self-giving and take advantage of each other, especially of those who show any obedience to them. .

Common Misconceptions x

The Aspect Itself

Stafleu [2007] provides a useful discussion of the ethical aspect.

Non-Absoluteness x

Interestingly, Dooyeweerd in one place [NC II:144] said "love is the very totality of meaning, the religious radical unity of all temporal modal diversity of law-spheres", indicating (whatever else he meant) that the ethical sphere does have a special place. However, he criticised Buber for absolutizing the ethical I-Thou relation, so he cannot have thought that this aspect is absolute.

Special Science x

Each aspect is what makes a different science meaningful, each with its own different best research method. The ethical aspect is very difficult to research properly. This is because (a) it is difficult to measure and even to identify, (b) it is easy to mistake pretence or seeming as the real thing.

Difficult to measure - and difficult to identify - because of the innate fuzziness of the aspect. Its paradoxical self-abrogation means that it is almost always below conscious action, underlying it, flavouring it, but deeply hidden. It must be identified indirectly via evidence of attitudes, which are themselves only indirectly indicoated. The ethical aspect is usually exhibited as the flavouring of functioning in other aspects.

Easy to mistake, especially in interviews and questionnaires, because: (a) Language cannot fully express such hidden things. (b) People tend to want to show themselves or those they like as generous rather than mean, so what they say in interviews or public writing, or in answers to questionnaires, tends to have an ethical gloss, which might or might not fully represent what is there underneath. Researchers might call it "empathy" or "altruism", but it is more than that. Empathy and altruism can still be self-centred.

Therefore there are great challenges to researching this aspect, which have yet to be seriously met, as far as I know.

This means that the functioning of the ethical aspect is too little recognised in most other research areas, especially sociology, psychology and human physiology. Researchers often under-research the ethical aspect in such things as ADHD.

Institutions x

Contribution to Shalom x

An example: Web site design for a company is much affected by the underlying attitude of the company - whether self-giving or self-seeking.

Here are some ways in which functioning with or against the self-giving norm of the ethical aspect can affect the design of websites and even our relationship with customers.
Issue Self-seeking attitude Self-giving attitude
General attitude to customers by the company, when specifying what the website designers must do. "We must attract customers so that their money comes to us rather than to competitors." "We are here to serve customers, along with other suppliers."
Website designers must decide to which information to give priority (on home page, making it most visible and attractive). "Information we want to give them and make sure they take on board." "Information they most need."
Attitude of website designer toward the person seeking information. "If they need the information they will make the effort to search for it. It's up to them. All I need to do is provide the website to specification." "I must take pains to think about and find out what information they are likely to need, and design the website carefully to make all that information available in multiple ways. Go beyond my duty to the specification."

Which website would you rather order products from?

Harm x

Three types of harm associated with this aspect: going against its norms, absolutizing it, and false versions of it. First, about going against the norm.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis [1969/1942:92] expressed well via the senior devil, Screwtape, that going against the norm of love is not hatred, but self-interest, competition:

"The whole philosophy of Hell [the place of evil] rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. 'To be' means 'to be in competition'."

Now some notes:

Absolutizing the Ethical Norm of Self-Giving is harmful because 'shalom' is hurt when one aspect overrides others.

False versions of ethical self-giving are often harmful. The harm comes not directly but indirectly in that it undermines the genuine generosity that should pervade societies and communities:

Contributions from the Field x

See discussion of the ethical aspect relevant to Defence Strategy.

"It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained," wrote [Georg Hegel [1967, 233] "... the individual who has not staked his or her life may, no doubt, be recognised as a Person; but he or she has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness." Though this is also of the pistic aspect, the actual risking of life is ethical self-giving. Hegel understood something of these two aspects.

True Generosity

True generosity is more than merely giving away to or giving into someone. What might appear to be generosity on the surface is in fact not so, because the motive or attitude is important. In particular, true generosity does NOT come about because of: These types of pseudo-generosity may look the same on the surface, but are not the same and will not lead to the same results. Maybe this is why sometimes it may seem that generosity has not always led to a better situation.


The Aspect Among Others

Role of Aspect Among Others

Ethical aspect needs pistic aspect in order to be effective; pistic needs ethical in order to be good (not harsh, repressive).

Perhaps the role of the ethical aspect among others is to enable things to be truly good. Good in anything qualified by the X aspect is not when it perfects and maximizes X but when it exercises X in the service of, and for, all other aspects. For example a poem that maximizes playfulness of words, or style, for its own sake, is a poor poem compared with one that uses playfulness of words and style in service of, for example, helping the reader grasp more fully the meaning the poet was engaging with. Technology for technology's sake is not good; technology for sake of justice is good. The ethical aspect thus demands that all aspects reach out beyond themselves in the service of all others.

For example, in creating web pages, or any publicly available text, I can have two attitudes:

In both, writing and reading are functioning in the lingual aspect, but the flavour of them is set by this ethical aspect. One is good functioning, the other is dysfunctioning in the ethical aspect, however good the lingual functioning might be. These Dooyeweerd pages, to date (13 July 2013) have been designed with the first attitude, and for that reason no advertisements appear on them. Contrast that with sites designed to attract, and which are full of adverts.

The founder of Wikipedia remarked that not having adverts on Wikipedia was either the dumbest or the smartest decision he ever made - only time will tell which. If the above is true, it should prove a smart move in the long run.

On the Need for This Aspect x

Of the need for an ethical aspect, Dooyeweerd said [NC II:148]:

"This is demonstrated by our previous analysis of the anticipatory moments in the modal structure of the legal law-sphere, which, as soon as they are realized in a positive legal order, appear to open and deepen the retributive meaning of this modal sphere. Modal meaning-figures, such as juridical guilt, good faith, good morals, equity, and so on, undeniably refer to a later modal aspect of experience which cannot be designated by another term than the moral or ethical sphere. The anticipatory meaning moments concerned refer neither immediately to the faith-aspect,nor immediately to the central religious sphere. In pre-juridical aspects, such as the psychical, we have also discovered anticipatory relations with an ethical law-sphere. This does not prove the existence of a natural morality apart from the religious centre of human existence. It proves only that in the temporal modal horizon of experience there exists a modal ethical aspect which is not to be identified with the super-modal sphere of religion, nor with the aspect of faith."

Stuart Diamond is a negotiator. One might expect negotiation to be qualified by the economic or juridical or even formative aspects (working to achieve exchange that is fair). But, in an interview [BBC Radio 4, Saturday Live], he emphasised the ethical aspect of self-giving. Successful negotiation involves understanding the other person's point of view and truly sympathising with it, rather than always pushing or protecting your own. "If you use power against them, they'll fight to the last man."

To differentiate this ethical aspect from juridical aspect, consider the following:

Law-dependencies x

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x

An example: In February 2011 a group of Chinese people were employed by gangmasters to pick cockles on the flat sands on the Cumbrian coast. On these sands the sea comes in very fast, and they all drowned. The gangmasters were seen to be to blame. Some suggested arresting them. But a comment was made [BBC Radio 4, Today Programme 5th Feb 2011] "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem."

This is because the problem is a dysfunction in the ethical aspect while arresting is a solution of the juridical aspect. The attitude of the gangmasters is one of selfish disregard for others, considering only their own interests. No amount of juridical action can solve the problem of self-centredness, which is the key ethical dysfunction. It might also be partly a pistic problem, in the gangmasters' view of what life is about: competing with other gangmasters and serving one's own interests.

Notes x


Dooyeweerd pointed out that a Kantian view of ethics allows only two irreducible aspects in our experience: is and ought. This lies at the root of many of our problems, especially the Fact - Value Dualism, in which we separate and oppose 'facts', the way things are, from 'values', or private opinions and preferences. We place 'ought' into the latter sphere. And, starved of the richness of a multi-aspectual perspective, we use the word ethics for the 'ought' side.

But, to Dooyeweerd, 'ought' is partially juridical (to do with what is due), and partially is multi-aspectual, in that harm comes when we go against or ignore any aspect or its laws. Prising 'ought' away from ethics frees ethics to be centred on what Dooyeweerd proposes: self-giving love.

Dooyeweerd in fact integrates 'is' and 'ought'.

Agape Love

Dooyeweerd's ideas on the difference between the kernel of ethics as self-giving love and 'ought' or law come from Biblical Christian thinking, in which the difference between ethicality and law is pronounced, and the idea of agape love gains prominence. This is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus Christ, who, as fully-God and fully-human, gave his life for us. But ordinary humans are also capable of this kind of self-giving to some degree, and it goes way beyond 'what is due'.

'To some degree' means that we are never fully altruistic in our love, as Terry Waite found, when he said,

"One of the things I discovered in my introspection [during captivity] was the insight, not earth-shattering but nevertheless important, that there is no such thing in me as a purely altruistic motive. We like to put the best front to the world, and it's very pleasant when people say of us, 'What a fine fellow!'."
I find this too. Every word I speak or write - including these - are tainted with such things. Think about our own words - are they spoken to impress, to bully, to get your own way, and so on? Ever so slightly? Even though all people can do some good, as they think without God, at the end, it requires God's own action in us to do good without any taint.

Ultimate Love

The ultimate in self-giving love was when God himself came into the world as a human being, and suffered and died to take upon himself all the suffering and evil of the world. So as to free us (juridically) and rid the universe eventually of evil. He showed clearly and publicly our need for his pro-action of this kind by giving a people his laws and protection. Yet they still did not have the power to keep them, and continually turned away from him. We are all like them. Law cannot prevent harm nor make people good. Instead, self-giving love is needed, and that pro-actively from God.

Kok's Interpretation

In Perspectives in Philosophy, lecture notes for the a course on Philosophy, John Kok outlines the aspects and calls the ethical one 'trothic'. He defines its kernel to be "trust and faithfulness in friendship, marriage, family and e.g. husbandry". His word 'trothic' is presumably linked with the marriage vow, "I plight thee my troth".

His view and mine would coincide in making marriage to be qualified by this aspect, and indeed his view more closely captures the commitment side of marriage and good friendship. But where, then, comes self-giving love? My own view is that faithfulness and trust belong more to the pistic aspect, and allows the word 'faith' to be linked more meaningfully with 'faithful', because both are to do with active commitment.

But this needs further work and thought.

Real Downsizing

'Downsizing' is a term often heard after the boom of the 1980s. It meant reducing the size of companies, and that, by assumption, meant throwing lots of people out of work. But there is a proper meaning to downsizing which recognises that the company's products or services are less widlely appropriate than they used to be.

In real downsizing an organization plans to reduce its size, not because of market forces, but because of ethical considerations. It accepts that it has served the world well for a time and its particular services are no longer needed. There is an element of self-sacrifice in real downsizing that is replaced by self-seeking in normal downsizing. This self-sacrificial element is part of the kernel of the ethical aspect.

The same can be applied not just to business. For instance, if a professional body of engineers voluntarily decide to reduce their influence, for good ethical reasons, and this involves true self-sacrifice (rather than a tactical withdrawal) then this is part of the ethical aspect.

Related Views

Rudy Hayward sent an email (March 2005) which included:

"In Given Time Derrida lays out the "logic" of "the Gift" concluding that the Gift is impossible. (This is something like agape love.)"

In response to my asking for more information, Aaron E. sent the following list and comment:

"I am not sure Derrida ever calls 'the Gift' agape love, but his commentators have. Here is a list of some relevant works on what might be called agape love in Derrida: "Also, I meant to mention that I have just finished reading an essay by M. Jamie Ferreira, in which she distinguises Kierkegaard's conception of the Gift, which she explicitly (and he implicitly) identifies with agape love, from Derrida's conception of the Gift. If you are familiar with Kierkgaard it may shock you that he has written a work called Works of Love; it has been largely marginalized until recently. And Buber, Levinas, Alasdair MacIntyre and others have misread Kierkegaard. M. Jamie Ferreira's commentary on the work is called Love's Grateful Striving. The essay mentioned above is ch. 10 of that book, "Love's Gift." This essay hints towards a very helpful evaluation of Derrida from a Christian perspective."


Gilder G (1992) Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise. San francisco, USA: ICS Press.

Georg Hegel, 1967, The Phenomenology of Mind, 233, cited by Terry Miller.

Lewis, C.S. 1969/1942. The Screwtape Letters.

Lewis, C.S. n.d. That Hideous Strength.

Singer, P. (1999). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, UK.

Stafleu, M.D. (2007) Philosophical ethics and the so-called ethical aspect. Philosophia Reformata 72(1), 21-33.

Back to Aspects Index.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 13 April 1997. Last updated: 31 May 1998 (added Real Downsizing). 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 18 January 1999 added True Generosity. 25 January 1999 added re Argyris, and also reformatted the text a bit. 15 October 1999 link to is.ought. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 4 May 2001 shalom saying 'please'. 20 May 2001 harm example El Paso. 31 January 2002 Viktor Frankl. 14 March 2002 sacrifice and generosity added. 10 July 2002 added the impact permeating society. 15 July 2002 hospitality. 14 September 2002 Note after themes about being post-social. 23 September 2002 a bit more re that. 4 March 2003 refce to Buber I-Thou, and quote of Dooyeweerd, .nav. Added Need section. 10 March 2003 shalom example: Great Northern railroad. 20 May 2003 Domain Field sacrifice. 10 July 2003 In others' shoes, Levinas. 18 August 2003 Japanese car industry. 18 September 2003 Gilder's entrepreneurial virtues. 20 January 2004 more harm. 2 April 2004 paradox in kernel. 28 April 2004 elitism. 14 August 2004 more shalom and harm; link to defence strategy; Removed a duplicated section that had crept in; contact. 11 October 2004 Reduction to juridical; attitude. 14 March 2005 'Others' section, listing other thinkers. 24 August 2005 new .nav,.end. 23 November 2005 link to u-net moved to demon. 12 December 2005 ethical capital, thatcher. 12 June 2007 diff jur. 9 July 2008 more shalom. 19 August 2008 role. 10 November 2008 attitude, harm to society, competition. 25 April 2009 types of harm. 5,9 October 2009 capitalism. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's rendering. 23 October 2010 negotiation. 4 February 2011 Stafleu ref. 5 March 2011 link love. 14 November 2011 aleitheia attitude. 11 December 2011 reduction to jur: driving up stds in care homes. 28 January 2012 table comparing attitudes in website design. 28 May 2012 peacock tails and blue ocean; new names added. 22 July 2012 obedience as seductive. 25 November 2012 tears to eyes + tidying. link with pistic. 13 July 2013 attitude to reader + #wikipedia. 14 January 2014 singer ethics as universal. 1 October 2014 weakness of self-giving as mvtr. 11 February 2015 Harvard Business School. 12 May 2015 Hegel. 25 May 2015 longstanding error at start (faith aspect!) removed. 12 November 2015 CSL quote re. hell being competition; refs. 17 November 2015 Cockle-pickers gangmasters. 21 September 2016 briefly, rid counter. 14 September 2017 difficulty with research into ethical aspect. 21 September 2017 Kant, Insole.