3: Moral Sphere Theory: Summary

1. The MST Formula: “Good Lives”

The view of values and ethics developed in the preceding sections may be described as a “moral sphere theory” of the right (or right action) supported by a “dimensional theory” of the good (or value). Since a convenient name is needed for the entire view, we might refer to it as the “moral sphere theory” of the good and the right (or MST). The view may be summarized in a formula that requires fleshing out, but captures its spirit:

(The MST Formula) “Strive to lead a good life that is objectively worthy of being lived and strive thereby to realize goods by virtue of the living of such a life that are objectively worthy of being realized.”

The notion of a “good life” in this formula is to be understood initially in terms of the first three dimensions of value. Thus, good lives will tend to have a greater balance of basic value experiences over disvalue experiences in the first dimension of value; and the basic value expe­riences of such lives (that are not overridden in higher dimensions) will be first-dimensional “goods” realized in those lives.

Good lives will also include personal projects and fulfilling personal relations and associations that contribute to faring well in the second dimension of value—meaningful work, friendships, special relations to children, spouses, parents, extended family, communities, associations, and so on. The existence of these personal relations and the success of personal projects will be second-dimensional goods realized in those lives when not overridden in higher dimensions.

Good lives in the third dimension will in addition include playing valued roles in forms of life with which one identifies and exemplifying various ideals through which persons define what they are (their “practical identity,” as some call it)—being a caring parent, loyal employee, a courageous soldier, grateful friend, generous donor, fair judge, responsible citizen, and so on. Playing such roles and exemplifying such ideals involve exhibiting virtues that define what we are and our place in the world and in the human communities in which we live.

In addition, good lives in the third dimension will include pursuing diverse forms of excellence in practices and traditions in those forms of life—physics, medicine, law, violin-making, paint­ing, architecture, and many more—practices and traditions through which humans go about achieving diverse kinds of goods. The virtues and excellences thus achieved that are not over­ridden are third-dimensional goods realized in the forms of life in question.

In general, humans pursue the good in these first three dimensions of value, not in the abstract, but rooted (as they necessarily are) in webs of relationships and in practices, traditions, cul­tures and forms of life through which they seek to express the meaning of their lives, exercise their rational and creative abilities, engage in satisfying personal relations and associations, play valued roles that exhibit virtues and seek various forms of excellence of achievement. In all these ways, they seek to exercise their natural human capabilities.[i] Doing so involves the exercise of distinctively rational capacities in theoretical and practical reasoning, as ancient thinkers emphasized.

But human beings are more than merely rational beings. They also have distinctively human ways of sensing and experiencing the world, of emotionally reacting to it and acting upon it. So the fulfillment of their nature also involves an integration of the rational aspects of their nature with other aspects, emotional, active and sensory or experiential.

Plato called this integration of the varying aspects of the human sensorium, a “harmony in the soul” and regarded it as essen­tial to the good life. Aristotle designated it by the term “eudai­monia,” a Greek term literally meaning “good spirit,” which is usually translated into English as “happi­ness,” though many scholars prefer to describe it more broadly as designating a “flourishing human life.”

2. Objectively Worthy Lives

Such in summary is the “theory of the good” in the first three dimensions of value supporting the MST formula just given:

“Strive to lead a good life that is objectively worthy of being lived and strive thereby to realize goods by virtue of the living of such a life that are objectively worthy of being realized.”

The theory of the good represented by this formula, however, cannot be defined in the first three dimensions of value alone. The fourth dimension must also be factored in; and that is where the qualifying phrases of the formula come into play: Good lives must also be “objec­tively worthy of being lived,” if the goods realized by those lives in the first three dimensions of value are to be “objectively worthy of being realized”—that is, worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view, and not merely from the points of view of those living the lives. Thus, the joy of the lost child when she is found and nurtured would qualify as such an objectively worthy good, but not the delight the torturer takes in torturing his victim.

The basics of this account of objectively worthy ways of living in the fourth dimension are as follows. Ways of life (and plans of action generally) fail to be “objectively worthy of being lived” (or pursued) if they are moral-sphere breaking and hence involve treating others as mere means and not as ends (in short, if they violate the Ends Principle). And goods realized by such moral sphere-breaking ways of life and plans of action are not “objectively worthy of being realized.” They are, as we often say “ill-gotten gains” or goods and thus are not deserved (i.e., worthy of being realized).

If persons are motivated by an aspiration that they and their ways of life have a worthiness that requires that they be treated with openness respect by other persons, they will strive to do what is necessary to be so worthy. And this will mean striving to treat all persons as ends and none as a mere means, as the Ends Principle requires. If their lives did require using other persons as mere means to their own ends, their lives would not be deserving of being recognized by all persons from all points of view as worthy of being pursued and hence would not be objectively worthy in the sense intended by the MST formula. To say that lives are “objectively worthy of being lived,” according to the formula, is to say that they are worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view, and not merely from the points of view of those living the lives.


[i] A “capabilities approach” to human welfare and development consonant with these claims has been defended in well-known works by Sen (e.g. 1999) and is applied to women’s affairs by Nussbaum 2000.

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