All ethics are both consequential and categorical

Around the breakfast table, in a beautiful nineteen-century-built wooden summer house in Öland, a friend of mine and I engaged in a fierce discussion about ethics. As is expected from such over-the-table talks, the discussion was anything but systematic. However, something specific was mentioned which has stayed with me ever since: A view that there can be an objective preference over consequential or categorical views on ethics, to the extent that denies the necessity of the other. My friend’s preference was the categorical view, but this is not the main point that I want to write about. The issue is that I do not think it is possible to have any objective preference over them, to the extent that denies the necessity of the other. This note is not a response to my friend’s view, but uses that discussion as an excuse to clarify my thoughts on this matter. My general position is like this:

There is no escape from neither the consequential nor the categorical view on ethics. Both views are essentially inseparable, as two sides of a coin. Surely, it is possible to treat them differently and play with their relation, but it is not possible to totally exclude any of them.

Before I explain why I think so, I need to clarify three basic points. First, I clarify that I am not talking about morality, but ethics. Second, I propose an important rule of thumb regarding all types of ethics. And third, I briefly define the consequential and categorical view on ethics.

Ethical and moral behavior
First, I should clarify that I am talking about “ethics” and not “morality”. Both words—moral and ethical—are used to describe the right or wrong human behavior. While there are many ways to distinguish them, I embrace a modern definition which considers moral as a behavior which is dictated by internal standards—that is, a subjective judgment of right or wrong action—and ethical as a behavior which is governed by external standards—that is, an objective judgment of right or wrong action. In this way, contradictory behaviors performed by different persons can all be equally moral, depending on how each of the doers interprets his behavior in his heart.

Practical and impractical ethics
Second, I believe that any meaningful ethical system should allow the possibility of serving as a guide for concrete ethical actions. This means an impossibly unrealistic ethical system which is irrelevant to the worldly actions, is either counter-productive or inherently unethical—or both. For example, a hypothetical ethical system that concludes “the only ethical act is to indefinitely stay at one’s home” is really saying that there is no practical way to act ethically. It is inviting people to act unethically (go outside of their homes) which is self-contradictory, and if imposed is truly unethical. In short, although in seeking to devise ethical frameworks we are allowed to move into the domain of the abstract, but we should always maintain the relevance to the concrete and practical situations in which we are constantly faced and need to make decisions.

Consequential and categorical ethics
The consequential logic on ethics is based on the idea that it is the relative outcome of a behavior that matters. If having more apples is our aim, and we want to choose among two actions A and B which respectively lead to having 100 and 80 apples, then we should choose the A, because its consequence is better—more apples. So, in consequential reasoning, it is important to have an agreed upon view on what is a desirable, measurable, and comparable outcome. Once we have that, we can proceed to assess and compare different actions according to their outcome.

The categorical logic on ethics is based on the idea that the relative outcome of a behavior is not important, but what matters is its type—that is, its category. Some types of actions are OK, while some other types are not. For example, even if having more apples seems to be desirable by many, we should not choose among the actions A or B based on how many apples they yield. The selection should be principally based on their type: If A is of the OK type, then fine go for it, otherwise, forget it, even if it yields thousands of apples.

But can we have a meaningful ethical system that is purely categorical, or purely consequential? I think not. They are inseparable and play a role in any meaningful ethical system. Now that I have gone through these three points, I can proceed with my main argument.

The flaws of purely consequential and purely categorical ethics
The problem with purely consequential ethical systems is that they do not have any mechanism to define the desirable outcome. To do that, they need to rely on some sort of categorical logic. They should make categorical differences between desirable and undesirable outcomes—for example, apples are good. In addition, by totally ignoring the categorical logic, they become vulnerable to naivety and even savagery; for example, by inflexibly favoring undesirable outcomes for a few people, under the pretext of desirable outcomes for many others. It appears to me that the only way to “fix” the flaws of purely consequential ethics is to complement them with categorical logic.

The problem with purely categorical ethical systems is their utter detachment from the practical circumstances. How can a human-based logic—we keep the discussion about the God aside—be able to define an absolute which is completely exempted from comparison and compromise vis-à-vis the alternatives, and yet pertains to every concrete circumstance? Such claims are typically the result of ignorance or arrogance—often both—and are vulnerable to dogmatism and totalitarianism. The purely categorical ethical systems are vulnerable to naivety, detachment from reality, and eventual impracticality; for example, if we give absolute ethical value to preserving the life of innocent citizens, then there is no practical way of allocating societal resources in an ethical way. Whatever short of allocating all the societal resources to curing the people with rare deceases will be unethical (how can you let them die?), but even doing so is also unethical, since people begin to die in other parts of society due to neglect. It appears to me that the only way to “fix” the flaws of purely categorical ethics is to complement them with consequential logic.

In conclude that as a general principle we need to unapologetically consider both consequential and categorical logics in all ethical discussions.


  • The selected painting is called “The School of Athens” by Raphael Sanzio (1505). 

Attack on our vernacular democracy

Yesterday’s terrorist attack in Tehranwhich occurred simultaneously in the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian parliament, and shed the blood of several innocent peoplewas a direct attack on the indigenous and rising democracy of Iran. What other meaning such selection of targets could have possibly had? I think these locations were not selected arbitrarily or lightly. On the contrary, they were carefully and deliberately selected in order to send a clear and bloody message to the Iranian people and also to the World.

In order to understand this message, we should pay attention to the core and the essence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian society has a unique historical desire and a strong will toward creating a socio-political system that is both vernacular—domestically and indigenously brewed—and democratic. The Islamic Republic is the fruit of this desire and will. Arguably, nothing more than Khomeini—the founder and the leader—signifies the vernacular dimension of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the parliament—or the house of people as described in Farsi—is clearly a symbol of its democratic dimension.

The vernacular democracy of Iran surely suffers from serious shortcomings and is faced with huge challenges. Nevertheless the Islamic Republic is neither an imported commodity nor a purchased product that can be returned or replaced because of its flaws. Instead, it is part of a dynamic process which is energized by the desire and will of the Iranian people and can continue to grow and flourish. This is a long journey filled with fear and hope.

Roozbeh and the Confused PhD Student

This is a short play that my PhD colleagues performed during my PhD celebration fest. I put it here with their permission.

The Narrator (Noel)

As a PhD student, at one time or another, you get to the point where you feel confused, or lost, you just need to talk to someone to get some advice and get back on track. Now our friend and colleague Roozbeh is the kind of guy who’ll always be happy to have a conversation, to support and to discuss, and he does it, in a very special way that we have all come to appreciate and like about him. In this small play, we want to re-live some real or fictional encounters with Roozbeh, where he’s helped us along in one way or another.

The Confused PhD Student (Jonathan)

Oh man, this PhD thing is tough, I just feel confused by all the reading and the writing and courses. [Sighs] Well, for what it’s worth, the last thing that goes is hope. So I can hope that I’ll manage it somehow. And then, there’s always hope for… [Pause] cake at fika.

Roozbeh#1 (Simon)

Is it, though? Is hope the last thing that goes? If you can’t manage the PhD, is it really hope that is what remains before you tell your supervisors that you can’t make it? I’m not so sure! It could be that it’s just your sense of commitment that keeps you going. Well, little buddy, whatever it is that keeps you going until the end, I, as a Doctor, can tell you that it’s totally worth it. Maybe, you just need to relax, get your mind off of it for a bit, maybe watch a good movie?

The Confused PhD Student

Yeah, maybe I just need to get away from it for a moment. Do something totally else. I think I’ll go watch an animated movie, since all academics are real humans, I probably can’t get much farther away than that. I’ll watch “Inside Out”. Being inside a human sounds fun!

Roozbeh#2 (Matilda)

But what is the purpose of animated movies? Think about it? Are they really saying something? If you compare with the ones being produced now with the ones from before, they had a meaning, right!? What is the purpose now? Is it the animation Technology, just showing of? Think of it like PhD studies: Are you just taking a certain topic because it’s cool, it’s trendy and has all kinds of special effects? Or do you want to tell a story, make a difference? A PhD should not be a flashy animated movie. If you take that into account, you’ll surely not get lost in the process.

The Confused PhD Student

Okay, first a movie, now not an animated movie. I’m not sure where this is going. Anyway, Roozbeh, I read your book and I saw all the crazy analyzes and everything you did. You seem to be really good with numbers. See, I’m just doing my literature search, and I get this huge number of hits that I really need to narrow down.

Roozbeh#3 (Sally)

So you mean that you have a big number? What is actually a number? We use numbers every day, but take a step back, what are they, really? Why do they do such good job of helping us explain the universe? Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points — but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? This is essentially an ontological problem, where we’re left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible. I think that’s the central point here in all of this!

The Confused PhD Student

Wow, Roozbeh, way to confuse me. [Sighs] Well, now I feel I really need a break. [Looks at watch] Oh wow! It’s 2.30. Someone’s bringing kanelbullar today!

Roozbeh#4 (Linn)

Yes! Kanelbullar! You know what I sometimes wonder? Are kanelbullar really the right choice? Think about it! It’s just a bun with sugar and cinnamon, I’m not sure that will get you to your PhD, my friend. Just consider the number of bullar you eat over the five years! Is that really what we should be doing? Consider the old Greeks, they made such progress in understanding the world and the universe, all without kanelbullar! Maybe, your confusion would be lower without all the sweets clouding our minds.

The Confused PhD Student

Well, Roozbehs, I really appreciate the talk, but I’m really not sure how not focusing on hope, not watching animated movies, not trusting numbers and not eating kanelbullar will get me through my PhD. [Turns to real Roozbeh] Regardless, we know that we still have time to understand all the things that you’ve already understood.

We’re just really glad that you’ll stick around for at least a few more years, now that you’re a Doctor, so that we can continue to have our talks, that we can help each other in our work, and we can benefit from your great knowledge and the magic of your mind, that never stops to wonder. Congratulations on making it, Roozbeh, we’re all very proud of you!

A couple who broke a modern taboo

Sara and Gabriel Chrisman have committed a great sin.

They are researchers interested in the Victorian era near the end of the nineteenth century and like this particular period so much that have decided to “live in it“. About five years ago, they purchased a 19th century-built house in Port Townsend, Washington State and got rid of most (or all) of the contemporary tools and gadgets and replaced them with things such as icebox, mechanical clock, fountain pen, and oil lamp. They have lived a Victorian life since then.

You may think of their attempt as interesting, funny, in vain, or irrelevant. Nevertheless, you most likely agree with me that trying to live by Victorian tools is a harmless and innocent hobby that should not make anyone angry. However, although most people treat Sara and Gabriel with respect, there are a few who do their best to make their lives as miserable as they can. These are people who swear at their face or send them hate letters with death threats. It seems that some people simply cannot tolerate what Sara and Gabriel do, that is, living a happy life in such a way that seems to be very different from the rest of us.

But why? What is the reason for such anger, violence and irrational behavior? What is in Sara and Gabriel’s way of life that makes it so unacceptable in the eyes of some?

I tend to agree with John Greer that it has something to do with the fact that this couple have broken one of the prevalent taboos of the contemporary modern cultures. They, by choosing to live a Victorian life, have shown that it is ultimately up to each of us to select the set of tools by which we would like to live. In other words, they tell us that we are free to choose or reject any of the advanced contemporary technologies.

But the idea that we can actually chose the technologies that shape our living style is a modern taboo. You cannot say or do such things as “we have a choice in accepting or rejecting advanced often professionally prescribed technologies”, because by saying so, you are implying that we have genuine choice, hence, there is a real possibility of not choosing some or all of the advanced technologies.

Sara and Gabriel has broken this taboo in an irrefutable way. Their practical message to others is not “hey! you should also join us and live a Victorian lifestyle!”, but is something more radical. They are saying “instead of following the lead of professional marketers and technology brokers you can take control of your own life. You can choose!”.

The idea that one is free to accept or reject advanced technologies is a modern taboo. The view that one can live without TV, computer, smart phone, cars, etc. is a “modern heresy” and whoever commit such a heresy, in words or deed, will face punishment: they shall be violently humiliated and marginalized.

But Sara and Gabriel are also interesting from another perspective. In choosing a less material and energy intensive life style, they join the pioneers who acknowledge the demise of the epoch of abundance of concentrated energy, resources and wastefulness. Don’t let their 19th century living style deceit you; they are neither seeking to move back in time nor try to act as present-day Luddites, but, through radical reduction of their material and energy consumption they have their gaze toward future. Sara and Gabriel based on the material heritage of their own culture have taken a brave step toward exploring ancient and new ways of being human and less wasteful.

The rise of the system era

This short text is inspired (and in part summarized) by Ivan Illich’s view on the history of tools and the rise of a new epoch which according to him, the concept of the system represents. I have freely paraphrased, summarized, and modified the text as narrated here.[1]

One of the key concepts of our age is the concept of “system”. System, not in the sense that we refer to “system of thought” or “system of bookkeeping”, but rather in the sense that was first used in the science of cybernetics. System, in this sense, is a metaphor for the world of the computer, genetic engineering, and information technology. The rise of a system-based worldview represents the end of an era, which Ivan Illich calls “the age of instrumentality”, and the beginning of a new epoch. The age of instrumentality was an era in which our relationship to the outside world was mediated and shaped via our tools. Tool, in the vocabulary of Ivan Illich, encompasses a wide-ranging meaning and refers to any engineered device. Before the beginning of the age of system, the key characteristic of tools was their distinctness and disconnectedness from their users. Something which Ivan Illich refers to as “distality” or being “distal”. But in systems, there is no such distality.

Before the 12th century, tools were considered as extensions of the human body. However, gradually since that time, a clear border between the tools and their users was formed. This marked the rise of the age of instrumentality (tools as distal instruments). However, in systems, this distinction is removed. The human becomes part of the system and operates within the system.

Insofar as there is a distality between human and her tools, tools can encompass some of the intentions of its user. Tools are subjected to our free will and act as instruments that help us to achieve our intended purpose. For example, a knife, depending on the intention of its user, can be used for preparing food, self-defense, or decorating a garden.

But this is not true for systems. Whatever purpose they are designed for, they encompass us. The user of the system, not only operates within it but also follows the function which the system is designed for. In other words, a system does not follow the intention of its user, but only operates according to the nature of its design. Our use of a system is done within its parameters.

The importance of this change is due to the impact that it will have on our view of ourselves and our surrounding world. When the world is viewed as a vast and interconnected system, which covers the microscopic realm of cells and the macroscopic realm of the biosphere; the earth, as an external reality on which we are standing, disappears from beneath our feet. The system is a fundamentally abstract concept. It is not based on any stepping stone, and there is no external point of reference on which we can stand and allow us to look at it from outside or to influence it.

Within a period of one or two generations, the computer has become a key metaphor for our awareness towards ourselves and the world. The same way that the invention of the wheel allowed us to speak of “wheel of fate”, or the invention of writing allowed us to speak of the “book of nature”, the rise of computer allows us to have a cybernetic view of the world: world as network, as eco-system, as a genetic text.

This new image of the world is deeply changing us. We are no more standing with one foot in the world and one foot outside it, as we did previously as the readers of the book of nature or people with written destinies. Instead, we have become part of the system.

  1. Illich, I., 2000. Corruption of Christianity. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, Ont. 

Removing Knowledge

“About five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning, including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet… Whether one figures by acquisition rate, by holding size, or by contributors, the classified universe is, as best I can estimate, on the order of five to ten times larger than the open literature that finds its way to our libraries. Our commonsense picture may well be far too sanguine, even inverted. The closed world is not a small strongbox in the corner of our collective house of codified and stored knowledge. It is we in the open world—we who study the world lodged in our libraries, from aardvarks to zymurgy,wewho are living in a modest information booth facing outwards, our unseeing backs to a vast and classified empire we barely know.”[1]

The author starts by estimating the extraordinary size of the classified knowledge, and uses the classified theory of knowledge to explain the concepts such as “subjective secrets”, which are compact, transparent, arbitrary, changeable, and perishable; and “objective secrets” which are diffuse, technical, determinable, eternal, and long lasting qua secrets. Objective secrets can create more difficult problems, while subjective ones can cause deadly harm. Therefore, the control over the transmission of knowledge, the extensive measures which are used, and its internal paradoxes and ironies are explored. In other words, the author gives an overview on the hidden side of knowledge, the secret world of anti-epistemology, and the monopolistic vision on knowledge transmission.

  1. Galison, P., 2004. Removing Knowledge. Critical Inquiry 31, 229–243. 


These notes are from the “The logic of sufficiency” [2] as described in [1].

The idea of sufficiency begins to shift to the principle of sufficiency when structure is needed for enactment, when more than sensory perception of “enoughness” or “too muchness” is needed to recognise excess and to act. Unlike the normatively neutral concepts of efficiency and cooperation, Thomas Princen contends that sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration risks important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion: “when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized”. Princen sets out an argument for the installation of social organizing principles attentive to risks, especially those risks that are displaced in time and place, are desperately needed in the belief that sufficiency principles (as opposed to mere efficiency) such as restraint, respite, precaution, polluter pays, zero, and reverse onus, have the virtue of partially resurrecting well-established notions like moderation and thrift, ideas that have never completely disappeared.

Princon’s mentions a few real world examples where the logic of sufficiency has already been embraced by companies or communities as the basis of doing well. With examples ranging from timbering and fishing to automobility and meat production, Princen shows that sufficiency is perfectly sensible and yet absolutely contrary or modern society’s dominant principle, efficiency. He argues that seeking enough when more is possible is both intuitive and rational –personally, organizationally, and ecologically rational. And under global ecological constraints, it is ethical. Over the long term, an economy –indeed a society– cannot operate as if there’s never enough and never too much.

[1] J. Barry and P. Doran, “Refining green political economy: from ecological modernisation to economic security and sufficiency,” Analyse und Kritik-Zeitschrift fur Sozialwissenschaften, vol. 28, no. 2, p. 250, 2006.

[2] T. Princen, The logic of sufficiency. MIT Press, 2005.

Nuclear Sustainability

I came across the Energy Architecture Performance Index 2013 report (evaluation of energy systems of 105 countries) done by World Economic Forum. From the summary:

The EAPI measures 16 indicators aggregated into three baskets relating to the three imperatives of the energy triangle to which energy architecture should contribute: economic growth and development, environmental sustainability, and access and security of supply. The EAPI both scores and ranks each country’s current energy architecture based on how well it contributes to these imperatives.

It is interesting that according to this aggregated index, France’s energy system architecture ranks 3rd. About 80% of France electricity is from Nuclear power. So the alchemy of “energy triangle” lies in nuclear power?!

Grain and root farming

The distinction between grain- and root-farming cultures has been cited as the basis of fundamental differences of outlook between Occident and Orient. Briefly, the thesis is that the root crops of southeast Asia required fewer and simpler techniques of cultivation, were perennials instead of annuals, stored less well than grain, concentrated less energy than grain, were grown in small, mixed assemblages instead of large monocultures, required less irrigation, and fermented differently. The result is that the husbandry of Asia was more in harmony with the inward and passive mysteries of the feminine principle. The Great Mother in the West was more readily subordinated to the calculating and regimenting masculine ideal. Even today, the maternal figure in Asia keeps an energy that in the West was swept away by the conquest of the Mycenaeans by the Achaeans and in the Levant by the collapse of the autochthonous temple cities of the river valleys. (Diamond (1981)[1] in Shepard (1998)[2] )

  1. Diamond, S., 1981. Culture in history: essays in honor of Paul Radin. Octagon Press, Limited. 

  2. Shepard, P., 1998. Nature and madness. University of Georgia Press. 

From nomadic foraging to sedentary village life

Shift from hunter-gatherer to initial forms of village life demanded different style of consciousness: emergence of sedentary village life from nomadic foraging… Changes in thought, perceptions of the outer and inner world, and premises and assumptions … These shifts have to do with the quality of attention rather than ideas; with the significance of place rather than the identity of nations; with the theme of duality; with the subtle effects of food and trophic patterns on thought and expression; with the accumulation of made things and possessions that was part of village life; and, finally, with some of the subtler influences of domestication on the ways people saw themselves and the land, as well as their plants and animals.[1]


  1. Shepard, P., 1998. Nature and madness. University of Georgia Press.