An Essay Concerning Morality

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(An essay written for John Locke Competition. Question is: “Are you more moral than others? How do you know? Should you strive to be more moral? Why or why not?”—admittedly, it is a brutal question and quite confused, but nevertheless interesting. Unfortunately, because of the limit of the essay (and considering the palate of the judges) I had to cut the argument down into its bare bones, making it much less interesting than it can be. But, it is what it is…)

What constitutes morality? 

Morality’s etymological root is mor-, denoting custom. If functioning as custom, however, any moral structure can be replaced by any other—for example, how The Raft of Medusa’s crew replaces Christian love with cannibalism.[1] Morality as custom, therefore, is circumstantial; grounded not in the individual, nor their actions, but in a nebulous “They.”[2] To be a moral individual, as the questions require one to define, one must, instead of following custom, will one’s action in a way akin to creating a metaphor, where unrelated signifiers are linked to birth a new creation; it is in the creation caused by individual action that we move into the domain of morality—where we go from amoral to the binary, moral/immoral.

To investigate, it is best we return to Plato and Aristotle’s moral theory. For both, morality is constituted of two interlinked dimensions: thought and action. Thought searches for the abstract good, while action deals with a particular acting-towards-the-good. It is upon developing techne that the Philosopher-King can dedicate themselves to sophia;[3] it is in distinguishing phronesis and sophia, as Aristotle does in the Ethics, that we can unite the person acting thoughtlessly towards a given end and the philosopher, immersed in thought but with no action accomplished;[4] that is, only when the two are combined do we come upon the moral individual.

While in agreement with the thought-action dyad, I disagree with the Greeks’ characterization of morality as cross-cultural, i.e. their belief the moral individual strives towards a culturally decontextualized and universal good/virtue. Instead—as Marx,[5] Freud[6] and, Nietzsche[7] demonstrated—individual morality is inescapably subjective: we have only our opinion and cannot divine pure knowledge. Understanding that morality must be both individual and context-specific, I believe Heidegger might aid our inquiry.

How can we be moral?

For Heidegger, we Daseins are beings thrown into a world forged by our understanding of being—culture.[8] Though condemned forever to only approach the world through our parochial cultural understanding, we can nevertheless achieve a certain inter-cultural objectivity that lets us examine our culture from within without “falling” into the “They”—customs followed because “They all do it.”[9]

This inter-culturally objective state depends on authenticity. Heidegger argues that the authentic Dasein is one who is anticipatorily resolute—the phrasing corresponding to the prior distinction between thought and action. Anticipation, the authentic being-towards-death, looks into the ontological future, deciding resolutely on the role one wishes to assume as a being thrown into the culture with full knowledge of, the angst-provoking possibility of individual and cultural death, and the groundlessness and import of each decision. Authenticity is possible in one’s realization of the cultural contingency into which one is thrown, even though one cannot, in anticipatory resoluteness, jump out of one’s culture altogether but only, through exercise of limited will, affirm some aspect of the culture worth affirming. In doing so, one reciprocally rejoins one’s culture. This reciprocal rejoinder is a dialectical relationship between the individual and the culture where, having taken from culture an understanding of being, the individual rejoins resolutely on their role in the culture, thereby giving back to the culture in thanks and also transforming it through action.[10]

Though difficult to achieve, Dasein carries this potential because “culture” is always an abstraction, constantly contradicting itself. Consequently, individual consciousness, being the “absolute dialectical unrest, this medley of sensuous and intellectual representations whose differences coincide,” gains its agency by dwelling within these cultural chasms and transforming from within.[11] It is this “dwelling in possibility”[12] that is anticipatory resoluteness, the necessary condition to be a moral individual.

Dasein’s telos

In After Virtue, Macintyre argues that each action becomes meaningful only in its relationship with the broader context of one’s life.[13] One can therefore only make moral evaluations only by situating a person’s actions under the larger aim, the telos, of their life. I can only say “Shakespeare is a good poet” if I understand the telos of poethood. It is thus not surprising that “sin” came from the Greek word hamartia, which means to “miss the mark”, to miss the end that one is striving towards.[14] Accepting this, I will try to give an account of the telos of humans. 

For Heidegger, “care” is the fundamental mode of comportment. Such care is ontological in that it is in care that we humanly perceive and act. Through care’s attention towards beings we create a “clearing,” a field within which entities appear in their nature.[15] Without Dasein, for example, a hammer has no being—only in Dasein’s existence as care, its understanding of being, does the hammer come into being as equipment for-hammering. In use, we “free” the hammer, allowing—as Aristotle argues—for virtue, its achievement of its ends, it full hammer-ness.[16]

Dasein’s telos is authentic care: the freeing into being of individuals able to manifest themselves. As such, Dasein becomes the “persona of being,”[17] the dramatic mask through which Greek actors voiced themselves. The human end is to speak out beings, reveal beings in their voice. This is why humans are the “zoōn echon logon”, and why “in the beginning was the word”, for in language and authentic care we mediate being in its truth (alethia, revelation). This is felt in the improvisation of jazz, the wholehearted attention paid to others in conversation, the writing and recitation of poetry, and when one voices one’s voice high against injustice. At our best we become such a persona in anticipatory resoluteness, in reciprocal rejoinder to the world that gave us being. 

Morality conceived as telos answers the second part of the question: striving for morality is necessary because it is our end. It is felt in the fulfillment we derive in meaningful activity, for it makes us fully human.

Detailing the moral state

Inauthenticity—the amoral drifting alongside the winds of culture—is the most automatic state. How then can the individual arrive at anticipatory resoluteness? How can they be sure their actions are moral? To answer, let us return to the Greeks and how their discussion on thought and action corresponds to anticipation and resoluteness.

Contemplation is labor towards sophia, the approach to the ultimate certainty of the good through thought. In pursuing knowledge, thinking questions everything; it allows the individual to converse with their culture from within, establishing a “freedom in which free human nature may abide”[18] within the culture. In this, it “frees” the individual from the “They” into morality, and reveals being in its truth as freedom. Both thinking and thanking came from the Old English thanc, and in this sense we can say thinking is the individual’s reciprocal rejoinder to the culture: as a “gadfly,”[19] the individual stirs culture from its dogmatic slumber of the “They” into the process of becoming.[20]

However, thinking—as the Socratic dialogues testify—ends always in aporia; the search for knowledge necessarily destabilizes everything into groundless and uncertainty. The thinking individual is the “stingray”[21] who paralyzes both others and themselves into inaction. This is why, as Plato remarks, the pursuit of philosophy looks like the pursuit of death.[22] In itself, thought catapults the individual into anxiety and prepares for the anticipatory being-towards-death. However, even as it reveals beings and moves the thinking Dasein towards its telos, thought lacks the ability to act.

Being-moral requires action because action reveals entities. It is apropos, therefore, for Aristotle to describe eudaimonia, the blessedly moral life, as activity conducted in accordance with virtue.[23] Morality, therefore, requires not just thought but also phronesis, the non-reflexive and embodied doing of virtue conducted by one’s character and techne. Hence, Politics, the study of people acting together, is preceded by the Ethics. Action is the resolute deciding upon one’s role within community that follows the paralyzing exercise of anticipation.

Mediating thinking—which deals with universals—and action—which deals with particulars—is judgment, the ability to simultaneously be informed by thought while treating subjects in their individual, concrete particularity; thus Aristotle describes justice as particulars judged “according to right reason.”[24] For Kant, judgment is the faculty which allows one to view the same phenomenon from myriad cultural viewpoints, thereby forging a common sense that transcends an individual’s limited opinion into an inter-cultural objectivity that informs particular decisions.[25] This is Dasein’s telos: the more angles from which one examines and judges a particular being, the more of that being’s truth is revealed.  

Mediating thought and action, judgment dialectically amends the perils of both. Thinking, in its obsession with the universal, can lose its bearings in reality—in thought, Heidegger convinces himself of the Nazi regime; while action, in its immediacy, can go astray without thought—in action, Eichmann and his collaborators bureaucratically, unthinkingly, consign millions to death.[26] By applying the apparatus of thought to particulars, judgment culminates in the anticipatorily resolute Dasein’s reciprocal rejoinder: the transformation of culture (through action) from one’s standpoint within it (via thought).

To be anticipatorily resolute in thought, judgment, and action is to fulfill our telos as the mask of being


Let us examine Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of the anticipatorily resolute Dasein. In thought he saw, and begun to question, the contradiction within his culture between the Christian teaching of equality-before-God and the practice of racial discrimination. He resolutely assumed his role as champion of racial equality, working to reconcile the contradictions within the culture, thus transforming the culture and giving back to it in care. In this process, his judgment ensured he was not blinded by outrage towards the injustices confronting him, leading to his affirmation of non-violent, Christian, protest, which ensured that he was not combating—as Heidegger did—evil with evil, but acting as a moral individual. We see in Dr. King’s last speech that such fulfillment of one’s telos is intrinsically meaningful: “[I]’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there…but I’m happy…I’m fearing no man.”[27] 

This allusion to Moses is not accidental. Moses’ search in Exodus for a promised land is a parallel documentation of escape from cultural tyranny into the desert of anxiety; wherein the thinking and judging anticipatory Dasein, through listening to the culture—the complaints of the Israelites—becomes the mask of being, the prophet, in a resolute act of affirmation. Thus climbing Mount Sinai where Dasein mediates the voice of culture (God) and the truth of being (the commandments) into speech for his culture, transforming and morally improving it therein. 

Such is the individual’s path towards morality. However, because the criteria to judge the morality of individual action is clouded by both the culturally omnipresent “They”, whose voice Heidegger identified as our conscience, and the internal divisions within the culture—Dr. King was highly controversial in his time and deemed morally deplorable by many in the culture—[28]one cannot compare one’s morality to others, and therefore cannot know whether one is more moral than others. One can, however, like Moses or Dr. King, strive to become the individual authentic Dasein through thinking, acting, and judging, fulfilling one’s telos by revealing being’s truth in reciprocal rejoinder. But any assessment of the individual’s morality requires a return to the dialectic between the individual and culture that begun our inquiry. 

A living Dasein is constantly becoming, at once an individual, at once falling back again into the “They”. Only in death does Dasein become a fixed essence who can be morally assessed; this assessment, however, can be assessed only by Dasein’s culture, which Dasein has changed and brought into more proper being, reflecting back onto the moral assessment of Dasein ex post facto. This is why Moses glimpsed the promised land, which he worked his entire life towards, in his death. 

I do not know whether I am more moral than others, although I do strive towards being more moral, towards Dr. King and Moses. I do so because being-moral is the end of human beings as the mask of being who reveals the truth of being. And such striving is what I can control; not whether I shall, post mortem, be much more moral than others. 

[1] Great Art Explained, “The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault: Great Art Explained,”, July 17, 2020,

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (United States: Harpers, 2008), Sec. 27.

[3] Plato and C J Rowe, Republic (London ; New York: Penguin, 2012), 267–75.

[4] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (London: Penguin, 2004), Book 6 Sec. 5.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Vintage Classic, 1848).

[6] Sigmund Freud, Ego and the Id. (S.L.: Clydesdale Pr Llc, 1923).

[7] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Vintage Books, 1969).

[8] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (United States: Harpers, 2008), Sec. 45.

[9] Ibid. Sec. 27, 38.

[10] Ibid. Sec. 62.

[11] Georg Hegel, Arnold V Miller, and J N Findlay, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), Sec. 205.

[12] Emily Dickinson, “Poetry Foundation,” Poetry Foundation, 2019,

[13] Alasdair C Macintyre, After Virtue a Study in Moral Theory (London Bloomsbury, 2014), 263–83.

[14] Ron Edmondson, “Hamartia – New Testament Greek Lexicon – New American Standard,” Bible Study Tools, 2019,

[15] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (United States: Harpers, 2008), Sec. 41.

[16] Ibid. Sec. 15.

[17] Martin Heidegger and Jesse Glenn Gray, What Is Called Thinking? (New York Etc.: Harper Perennial, , Cop, 2004), 62.

[18] Ibid. 132-33.

[19] Benjamin Jowett, “The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato,”, 2009,

[20] Martin Heidegger and Jesse Glenn Gray, What Is Called Thinking? (New York Etc.: Harper Perennial, , Cop, 2004), 145.

[21] Plato, Meno. (S.L.: Digireads Com, 2019), 79e80d.

[22] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 81.

[23] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (London: Penguin, 2004), Book 1 Sec. 8.

[24] Ibid. Book 6 Sec. 4.

[25] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. (S.L.: A & D Publishing, 2018), Sec. 20.

[26] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin, 2006)

[27] Martin Luther King, Jr., “‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, May 10, 2017,

[28] “Curry, Izola Ware,” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, May 9, 2017,


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1958. Reprint, Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press, 2018.

———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Arendt, Hannah, and Jerome Kohn. The Promise of Politics. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London: Penguin, 2004.

“Curry, Izola Ware.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, May 9, 2017.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-In-The-World : A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Mit Press, 1991.

Edmondson, Ron. “Hamartia – New Testament Greek Lexicon – New American Standard.” Bible Study Tools, 2019.

Emily Dickinson. “Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, 2019.

Explained, Great Art. “The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault: Great Art Explained.”, July 17, 2020.

Freud, Sigmund. Ego and the Id. S.L.: Clydesdale Pr Llc, 1923.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Walter Kaufmann. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Georg, Arnold V Miller, and J N Findlay. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Hegel, Georg, Arnold V Miller, and J N Findlay. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Heidegger, Martin, and Albert Hofstadter. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2013.

Heidegger, Martin, and Jesse Glenn Gray. What Is Called Thinking? New York Etc.: Harper Perennial, , Cop, 2004.

Jowett, Benjamin. “The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato.”, 2009.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. S.L.: A & D Publishing, 2018.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, May 10, 2017.

Macintyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue a Study in Moral Theory. London Bloomsbury, 2014.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: Vintage Classic, 1848.

Plato. Meno. S.L.: Digireads Com, 2019.

Plato, and C J Rowe. Republic. London ; New York: Penguin, 2012.

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