Ethics - A Dooyeweerdian View
Dooyeweerdian thought provides a rich foundation for a number of ways of understanding and discussing ethics. This page first summarises three Dooyeweerdian notions of ethics - the so-called ethical aspect, the notion of multi-aspectual ethics of shalom, and the orientation of the human ego. Then it briefly suggests how seven or eight other approaches to ethics might link with the Dooyeweerdian view.
1. A Dooyeweerdian Approach to Ethics
Hume, then Kant, separated Is from Ought, so that we assume that the existence of a thing or a process is ethically neutral, and that ethical demands are merely 'bolted on' at the whim of the people concerned. But increasingly this is seen as an unsustainable position because in real life both Existence and Ethics are intertwined. Dooyeweerd, however, provided a way of fundamentally accounting for this intertwinement: both Existence and Ethics arise from a law side which is a framework of aspects. This leads to at least three things to say about a Dooyeweerdian approach to ethics.
As Peter Singer  has argued, ethics always involves something more universal than the individual or their sectional interests. Ethics must relate to something bigger than the individual. For example, Macbeth cannot justify his desire to be king in place of Duncan on ethical grounds. However, Singer perhaps does not go far enough, because justice (which he links with equality) also has a universal orientation, and 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, which is of the juridical aspect, 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.
Other related pages:
- On Virtue - how Dooyeweerd can address many issues that have arisen over the last 2,500 years.
- Some notes on Normativity - How determinism and freedom can come together.
- The Shalom Principle - A key to understanding multiple factors in success and failure.
The So-Called Ethical Aspect
Dooyeweerd called his second-last aspect the ethical. By this he did not mean Good versus Bad, right or wrong, but self-giving, self-sacrifice versus selfishness and self-seeking. This relates somewhat to Kant's notion of ethics as going beyond what is natural to us, going beyond what is due, to give of oneself, but is more centrally based on the Greek word
agape. The person who sacrifices themselves (and does not do so grudgingly nor to achieve benefit!) is almost universally considered Good. This insight links with Dooyeweerd's second-last aspect. But this is only one aspect of ethics as we mean it here. The fuller view is to consider all aspects: multi-aspectual ethics.
Ethics as Shalom: Multi-aspectual Ethics
This is what some have called the Shalom Principle. Here is a summary: Each of the aspects is a sphere of law that pertains. The later aspects are normative and as such serve to define what is Good for the cosmos as a whole and us individually as part of it. When we function in line with the laws of aspects, aspectually defined Good repercussions will result; when we function in a way that goes against the laws of any aspect, that Good is jeopardised. If we function in line with the laws of all aspects, then shalom will result, being Good, well-being etc. in all aspects in integrated harmony.
Multi-aspectual functioning relates to the everyday.
Note that under this view, aspectual law is not seen primarily as authoritative command but as promise of a Creator who is faithful, and designed not to secure our obedience but to secure blessing, benefit and joy for the whole Creation, rather than their opposite. Law is seen as the Creator's gift to the Creation, not his demand on it. Each aspect defines a distinct type of Blessing and Bane, Good and Evil, a different type of ethics, such as:
(See response to this below from email.)
Ethics as Heart Orientation
But aspectual goodness does not exhaust Dooyeweerd's notion of what is Good, especially if we bring God into the picture. The human ego is orientated, at a trans-aspectual level, either towards the True God or to some substitute for God. This affects all we are and do.
It relates to our religious root, and to the presuppositions we make. It relates to the ground motives of society. It also relates to our deep attitude of meekness versus hubris, humility versus pride, treating ourselves as part of the cosmos versus treating ourselves as deity. If we are orientated towards God, who created an interconnected cosmos, then we will have an attitude of heart that is meek (not weak), humble, engaging, and this will tend to lead to the shalomic virtues, such as loyalty, self-giving, giving what is due, harmony, frugality, friendliness, etc.
According to Christian Scriptures, what God judges is the heart. "God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble." This idea doubtless influenced Dooyeweerd's thinking here. It accounts for why it might be possible for a person to function poorly in various aspect and yet still be welcomed by God.
2. Comparison with Conventional Approaches to Ethics
If we consider the following views of ethics, of what it means to be ethical, we can see that all of them can be related to various parts of the Dooyeweerdian view expounded above:
- Ideas of what is Good.
- Deontological views (a thing is Good to the extent that it adheres to laws or principles that are Good, e.g. Kant's categorical imperative, some interpretations of the Ten Commandments) - echoes the Dooyeweerdian notion of aspectual laws that pertain. See the idea of multi-aspectual laws in shalom above. But there is a huge difference: deontological ethics tends to conflate laws that pertain with human understanding thereof and even societal formalising thereof, whereas Dooyeweerd sharply distinguishes two sides of temporal reality: subject-side norms, principles and rules that are socially constructed, versus law-side aspectual norms that we can never fully understand theoretically nor express in language.
- Teleological views (a thing is Good to the extent that it yields Good consequences or utility, e.g. ; also called utilitarian, instrumentalist, functionalist, consequentialist) - echoes the Dooyeweerdian notion of repercussions of our response to the aspectual law-framework. See the idea of multi-aspectual repercussions in shalom above. But there is a huge difference: teleological ethics presupposes that we can in principle recognise, theoretically think about, discuss the consequences or utility and justify such discussion, whereas to Dooyeweerd consequences occur by virtue of our actual temporal engagement with aspectual law, which can never be fully understood by theoretical attitude of thought (see 'Knowing Aspect Kernel Meaning'). (Singer saw his approach to ethics as utilitarian - perhaps he was blind to the distinction between ethical and juridical aspects.)
- Axiological views (a thing is Good to the extent that it contributes to human or social happiness; e.g. cheerfulness, wittiness, 'magnificence', which are often not immediately thought to be 'moral') - echoes of the Dooyeweerdian notion of shalom (full-orbed, multi-aspectual well-being), and of the normativity of certain aspects especially the sensitive or aesthetic. See the idea of multi-aspectual goodness in shalom above. But Dooyeweerd goes further, in offering us a way to differentiate various types of these, especially with the social aspects (social, economic and aesthetic).
- Virtue ethics: Concerned with the character of the person or other subject who is acting. Character of course involves memory, habits, preferences, beliefs about values, predisopsition, etc. The challenge is to try to identify which character traits are virtuous. This may be assisted with Dooyeweerd's aspects, in that for example, loyalty is a pistic virtue, selflessness, a virtue of Dooyeweerd's ethical aspect, honesty, a lingual virtue, thrift, an economic virtue, etc.
- 'Critical ethics of care': We do not know what is good by theoretical means like those above, but takes a phenomenological approach that starts from how we experience our ethical lives; "moral behaviour is embedded in everyday life" [Adam 2005]. "This kind of moral thinking encourages us to see such problems not only as moral but also as social and political." [Robinson 1999:40]. So, for a critical ethics, we must expose structures of oppression. This echoes Dooyeweerd's contention that for a full ethics we must consider all aspects, including the social and societal aspects. But it conflates the different types of structure, whereas Dooyeweerd distinguishes juridical, ethical and pistic aspects thereof as being irreducible to each other.
- Ideas of how we experience or know Good.
- Lingusitic Analysis views (we determine what is Good by being a critic or spectator who makes judgements about an agent or their actions) - echoes of the cosmic role of the lingual aspect to signify meaning, and of theoretical attitude.
- Existentialist views (we determine what is Good by being confronted with a moral problem; authenticity) - echoes of Dooyeweerdian notion of multi-aspectual functioning as direct engagement. See link to engagement in shalom above.
- Phenomenological views (we determine what is Good by means of our pre-conceptual, pre-analytical engagement with morality, and by accurate descriptions of these) - echoes of Dooyeweerdian notion of everyday attitude. See link to everyday in shalom above. See also critical ethics of care above.
- Other views.
- Marxist views (for emancipation of the oppressed) - echoes of Dooyeweerd's juridical aspect. See the juridical aspect in the table in shalom above.
- Lonergan's notion of longer cycles of decline or creation and healing (due to 'general bias', very long term) - echoes of Dooyeweerd's notion of ground motives which are spiritual driving forces over a long period. See the link to ground motives in heart attitude above.
Jural and Ethical
Response to table above from Alan Cameron (legal theorist), 10 May 2005:
"Nothing could be more important (well almost nothing!) in D's philosophy than the distinction between the ethical and the jural and the content he gave to the respective aspects. It goes so much against Western thinking, especially Kantian-based, which still dominates, to observe for example that care, good faith, honesty are distinctively ethical norms but that 'justice' 'fairness' 'equity' are just as distinctively jural norms, albeit opened up in an ethical manner. Yet it is an insight that is so important to a deep understanding of both law and ethics in so many different ethical-jural contexts.
"I would just say that it is a distinction which practically-legally speaking is actually often recognised. The prevailing ethical theory and legal doctrine and theory just never seem to get a grip on that practice."
Adam, A. Against Rules: the ethical turn in information systems. p.123-51 in Howcroft, D. & Trauth. E.M. (eds.) (2005). Handbook of critical information systems research: theory and application. Northampton, Mass: E. Elgar Pub.
Robinson F (1999) Globalizing Care: Ethics, Feminist Theory and International Relations. Boulder, CO, USA: Westview Press.
Singer, P. (1999). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, UK.
This page, "dooy.info/ethics.html",
is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.
Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext, in the style of classic HTML.
Created: 3 May 2005.
Last updated: 4 May 2005 Is+Ought. 10 May 2005 added response by Alan Cameron. 11 May 2005 better on Shalom. 28 September 2009 labelled table.good.bad. 12 October 2010 critical ethics of care, plus some differences of extant from Dooyeweerd. 11 October 2013 slight changes to bane. 14 January 2014 Singer and universality of ethics, but distinction from ethics, with ref and another piece. 31 January 2018 corrected 2.sized to 2sides; new .end, .nav. 18 December 2018 corrected heart.html to self.html. 1 May 2019 virtue ethics; new .end.