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This entry is a follow-up to The Road To Hell, insofar as it concludes with an outline of Edgar Sheffield Brightman‘s Moral Laws. gavel1-md Brightman, as I noted in that earlier post, is the man that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King went to Boston University to study under for his (King’s) Ph.D. On this account alone, Brightman is one of the most singularly influential figures in American thought. So it is more than a little disturbing that he is not given a single mention (to say nothing of an article) in either of the main online encyclopedia’s of philosophy. But leaving that travesty aside, I thought it might be useful to embed the outline of Brightman’s argument in a larger discussion about the nature of philosophical ethics. Specifically, how ought one teach it (note that that “ought” is itself an ethical imperative), and what ought one to teach? As usually happens, these questions are not unrelated.

Now, the “bread and butter” courses in philosophy taught at every college &/or university, the courses whereby philosophy departments (or merely professors if, as happens at smaller colleges, the philosophy instructors are too few to have their own department, and are thus folded into some other organizational unit) are these three introductory sections: Intro Philosophy, Intro Ethics, and Intro Logic/Critical Thinking. Many places will break out the last into two different classes, but for my purposes they are most appropriately viewed as part and parcel of a unitary pedagogical theme. For reasons that I will essentially skip over here, I am deeply suspicious of the value of Intro Philosophy classes for non-philosophy majors. These are mostly historical glosses that do not provide non-majors much in the way of educational benefit, beyond what any other peculiarly focused history class might provide. That makes the last two the really important ones, and it is to the nature of Intro Ethics I turn now.

Every person that has ever taught such an intro course has faced the questions of “how?” and “what?” How am I, as the professor, to approach this subject in a manner that will best facilitate my students’ comprehension and growth? How might I best present materials, historically, thematically, or is there some balanced combination of both, and if so, what is that balance? What materials do I use to present the subject – do I lean more upon original texts (in translation, as needed), or do I turn to secondary glosses? How should I distribute materials between theory and practice? And so on.

I submit that these questions do not admit of a single, univocal answer. For one thing, these issues will resolve themselves in better and worse ways depending upon the very specific talents and inclinations of the professors facing the questions. A heavy emphasis on theory might not – nominally – be the best approach for most Freshman students. But professors with a real fire for theory can only seed their students with that fire by pursuing the thing they love best. Yet I also submit that there is one question that must be answered before any of these “how” questions can even be approached, and that is WHAT am I teaching? And this question breaks out most essentially along the following lines:

Am I teaching standards and rules?


Am I teaching methods of inquiry?

It is my suspicion – a suspicion admittedly a product of my own distaste for such places, that only right-wing private colleges that focus on a dogmatically religious agenda take the first approach, even implicitly. In this regard, I remind the reader of Altemeyer’s discussion of Right-Wing Authoritarians in his excellent work The Authoritarians. In most every other classroom you encounter, the inquiry approach will be dominant.

But it will still be deeply problematic.

This is because (and this must be understood as fundamentally limited by my own experiences) the inquiry approach is left implicit. Students taking Intro Ethics classes are almost invariably persons working to knock out required classes prior to focusing upon their majors, and so they are most likely early in their college career. It does not take much to alert them to the fundamental difference between a product such as a rule, and a process of inquiry. But until and unless the difference is pointed out, there will be a tendency to trample over the distinction altogether. Yet I’ve seldom seen this distinction made explicit in an Intro course (that I was not teaching.)

As Philosophy Professors, it is no part of our business to tell students what is “right.” But qua Philosophy Professors, it is our essential duty to profess – to speak – on the various “hows” of inquiry into the ethical.

With that in mind, I present Brightman’s Moral Laws in outline form, as a systematic program of ethical inquiry. Again, I remind you that THIS is what Dr. King went to BU to study.

(The primacy of the laws runs from the top down; thus, the FORMAL LAW, The Law of Autonomy, takes precedence over the AXIOLOGICAL LAW, The Law of The Best Possible. The text here has essentially been copied straight out of Brightman’s book. The portions in all-caps and bold lettering are major section headings, the numbered and underlined portions are chapter titles, the italicized text is Brightman’s own compact statement of the law, and the numbers in parentheses are the pages (from the 1933 Abingdon Press issue) where the statement is made.)


1) The Logical Law: All persons ought to will logically; i.e., each person ought to will to be free from self-contradiction and to be consistent in his intentions. A moral person does not both will and not will the same ends; this property of a moral person is called his moral rightness. (98)

2) The Law of Autonomy: All persons ought to recognize themselves as obligated to choose in accordance with the ideals which they acknowledge. Self-imposed ideals are imperative. (106)


3) The Axiological Law: All persons ought to choose values which are self-consistent, harmonious, and coherent, not values which are contradictory or incoherent with one another. (125)

4) The Law of Consequences: All persons ought to consider and, on the whole, approve the foreseeable consequences of each of their choices. (142)

5) The Law of the Best Possible: All persons ought to will the best possible values in every situation; hence, if possible, to improve every situation. (156)

6) The Law of Specification: All persons ought, in any given situation, to develop the value or values specifically relevant to that situation. (171)

7) The Law of the Most Inclusive End: All persons ought to choose a coherent life in which the widest possible range of value is realized. (183)

8) The Law of Ideal Control: All persons ought to control their empirical values by ideal values. (194)


9) The Law of Individualism: Each person ought to realize in his own experience the maximum value of which he is capable in harmony with moral law. (204)

10) The Law of Altruism: Each person ought to respect all other persons as ends in themselves, and, as far as possible, to cooperate in the production and enjoyment of shared values. (223)

11) The Law of the Ideal of Personality: All persons ought to judge and guide all of their acts by their ideal conception (in harmony with the other Laws) of what the whole personality ought to become both individually and socially. (242)