Purity Ethics vs. Responsibility Ethics

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Purity Ethics vs. Responsibility Ethics

Post by Darklight » Fri May 02, 2014 1:23 am

This is just a little idea I've been working on for a bit. It's still a bit of a work in progress, in the sense that I'm still trying to figure out if I'm on to something or if this is just another silly pet theory.


The various systems of morality are commonly divided into three camps: Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue Ethics. This division is based primarily on the apparent features of the moral system. An alternative method of categorization is instead proposed, which is based on the purpose or motivation of the moral system.

In this alternative categorization, we look not at the apparent structural features, but instead at what underlying assumption drives an intelligent agent to be motivated to act according to the moral system. In this, we can identify two different motivators or purposes: Purity, and Responsibility.

Purity Ethics are those moral systems which pursue morality for the sake of some notion of purity. Such moral systems are traditionally the Deontological systems, and the Virtue Ethics. To them, what motivates and justifies the system is the adherence of the internal state of the agent to an ideal. The sense of purity causes us to act in a way that appears to have integrity and consistency. We feel a need to maintain moral purity whether to justify ourselves, or as a signal to others. This feeling drives us to take moral action.

Responsibility Ethics are those moral systems which pursue morality of the sake of some notion of responsibility. Such moral systems are traditionally Consequentialist. To them, what motivates and justifies the system is adherence of the external state of the world to some ideal conception. The sense of responsibility causes us to act to actually change the world, because knowledge grants us power, and power comes with responsibility. We feel this responsibility, often because of empathy, and it drives us to take moral action.

Purity Ethics

Kantianism for instance, believes that our motives must be “pure” that a moral action is only moral when we do so out of a desire to be moral. Kantianism further reifies the concept of the “good will”, and argues that the most moral of agents is one that possesses this virtue. Kantianism is purist, and also, irresponsible. It doesn’t matter to a true Kantian what actually happens to others because a Kantian denies that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, as the universe is apparently outside our control. Thus, the experiences of others are made into a means to serve the ultimate purpose of being morally rational or pure.

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics similarly considers that our motives should be “pure” in the sense that our motives should come from virtuous character. Aristotelian Virtue Ethics thus reifies the concept of “virtue”. It is, once again, purist and irresponsible. The experiences of others are not valuable in and of themselves, but rather solely because it is an exercise of virtue to be charitable and benevolent. The ultimate purpose is to be virtuous so that one can achieve the state of Eudaimonia. Again, purity of virtue is the all-important focus.

Confucian Virtue Ethics similarly, have the main motivation of the moral system set up as a method of being a “noble one” or “gentleman”. Once again, the goal is to achieve a particular internal state of being. It is about a sense of purity with relation to this ideal.

Christian Divine Command Theory is also a Purity Ethic, one that sees “holiness”, or “obedience to the Will of God” as being the ideal internal state.

As you can no doubt notice, a Purity Ethic will share some commonalities. They tend to concerned with strict adherence to principles such as rules or virtues. Their justification is ultimately self-interested, whether it’s “to go to heaven” (Christianity), or to “achieve Eudaimonia” (Aristotle), or “to be perfectly rational” (Kant). Furthermore, the moral system often expands beyond what’s properly moral, towards defining certain kinds of conduct, such as sexuality, to be immoral simply because it seems impure, and with generally forced reasoning.

Responsibility Ethics

Utilitarianism is not at all purist. It often espouses to do what to a purist would be questionable deeds as long as the “ends justify the means”. Instead, Utilitarianism is responsible. Responsibility is the core motivation, in the sense that responsibility represents our concern for the external state of the world. Classical Utilitarianism sees us as being directly or indirectly responsible for the emotional states of everyone, and therefore, this sense of responsibility motivates the Utilitarian to act to optimize the world.

Ethical Egoism is also impure, and yet it shows in a way, a limited degree of responsibility, based on the mistaken belief that one is responsible only for oneself, and not for the circumstances of others.

Ethical Altruism is similar, except that it is the opposite extreme, where it considers one to be responsible to others, but not to oneself.

Interestingly, Rawls’ Theory of Justice appears to be a form of Responsibility Ethics. It is primarily concerned with the achievement of an external world state, one that is “just”. It also seeks to optimize the world, using the Maximin procedure.

Responsibility Ethics also appear to share some commonalities. They tend to be concerned with the cause and effect relations of actions to the world. Their justification is not necessarily self-interested, and is often strikingly selfless. Rather than having many potentially competing rules or principles, there is more often one primary rule or principle, and this usually takes the form of some optimization function. Responsibility Ethics also tend to be much more demanding than Purity Ethics, in the sense that they concern themselves with more than mere personal conduct, but also with the proper state of the world.


Ultimately, any coherent system of morality is either Pure or Responsible. It will either concern itself with the purity of motives and actions according to some standard, or it will concern itself with the responsibility an agent has towards entities in the universe.

While both Purity Ethics and Responsibility Ethics will stake a claim towards being the One True Morality, it is Responsibility Ethics that have the stronger claim, because they are oriented towards the actual world. Being Pure is ultimately a subjective realization, while Being Responsible is objective actualization, in the sense that it truly concerns matters beyond the self as being intrinsically important.

One could hypothesize other moral systems which would be Responsibility Ethics, such that they concerned themselves with our responsibility to non-sentient entities like rocks, but they would appear to show forced reasoning. While it can be argued that the sun has a responsibility to the planets that orbit it, because of its gravitational power, this falsely assumes that the sun has any choice in the matter. Choices are only available to sapient beings. Responsibility requires sapience. Moral responsibility furthermore requires that the entity one has responsibility over is in some way related to the experience of a sentient being. Morality is after all, fundamentally concerned with subjects capable of experience.

To ask which Purity Ethic is the “most pure” is a futile endeavour, because purity is subjective, and each Purity Ethic will claim to be most pure by its own standard. This is probably why many people find themselves believing moral relativism. However, to ask which Responsibility Ethic is “most responsible”, is actually a reasonable and answerable question. Different Responsibility Ethics tend to encapsulate different degrees of responsibility, and it appears that Utilitarianism is the most all-encompassing Responsibility Ethic, along with Rawls’ Theory of Justice. However, Rawls’ Theory suffers from being both an incomplete moral system, and being more complicated than Utilitarianism, which is thus favoured by Ockham’s razor.
"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life." - Albert Einstein

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Re: Purity Ethics vs. Responsibility Ethics

Post by RyanCarey » Fri Sep 19, 2014 8:24 am

This is an interesting perspective. This contrast has some similarity to Haidt's Moral Foundations theory, which you might find value in. It's important to note that utilitarianism doesn't have to be a responsibility ethic, as arguably egoism is not. Utilitarianism can be simply about making the world better than it is, something that people might have all manner of good reasons to do, not all of which they would describe as relying on their responsibilities. For instance, a non-moral-realist utilitarian might say that they want to make lives better for others, and this drives their actions, and it would be disingenuous to disqualify them from moral discussion just because they do not use the language of responsibility.
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