In Normative Ethics, Shelly Kagan writes:

I have suggested that the central question of moral philosophy as a whole, and of normative ethics in particular, is how one should live. I take this question to be sufficiently general that it is an open matter what an adequate answer would concentrate on. Plausibly enough, one might think that an adequate answer would primarily be concerned with issues about what one should do and how one should act. But one might hold that an adequate answer would concentrate instead on describing what kind of person one should be, rather than what one should do. And there are other possibilities as well.

What are these other possibilities? And what is the precise difference between "describing what kind of person one should be" and "what one should do"?

I don't understand this passage because it seems to me that "what one should do" covers everything.

Here is my reasoning: "what I should do" covers all my actions. The things about me that I do not "do" are my current state, my involuntary behavior, and my internal involuntary reactions (e.g. my heart beating, spontaneous thoughts).

I have no control over my current state; it's just how I am at the current moment. I can control my future state only via things I "do". Similarly, the only way I can control my involuntary behavior and internal reactions is also via things I "do" in the present (e.g. deep breaths to slow my heart rate) to change my current state and indirectly affect my future involuntary behavior. Because this behavior is involuntary I can never affect it directly.

So it seems that "what kind of person should I be?" is the same as "what should I do?" since the only way I can affect what kind of person I am is by doing things. And everything I do affects what kind of person I am in the future.

What am I misunderstanding about Kagan's claim that there are multiple possible focuses for answers to the question of how one should live?

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    The issue here may be the idea that only by doing stuff can we change ourselves. In fact doing nothing is remarkably effective. It seems to me you're exploring the different approaches of 'East' and 'West' to ethics. For the former the first rule of ethics would be 'know thyself', I don't know about 'multiple possible focuses' but there are certainly the two you highlight. They are sometimes called the way of the saint and the way of the sage where (oversimplifying) the former battles with their ego to control behaviour and the latter lets behaviour take care of itself while learning to be.
    – user20253
    Sep 22, 2018 at 11:40
  • @PeterJ I mean to include "doing nothing" in the set of acts that "what should I do?" refers to. In my question, and in Kagan's text, "do" is a shorthand for "how one should live", which includes all possible behavior, including doing nothing. 'Doing nothing to know oneself' is still behavior. Unless we are catatonic we can't avoid doing things. Sep 23, 2018 at 3:03
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    I feel the situation is more complex, but it's a big topic.
    – user20253
    Sep 23, 2018 at 11:50
  • I don't think morals revolve around "I". The whole purpose of all normative theories is to make others act in desired way. Or to receive a response showing an error.
    – rus9384
    Sep 25, 2018 at 9:25
  • @rus9384 to quote again from Kagan's book, Normative Ethics is about "how to act, how to live, or what kind of person to be". Ethical theories apply equally to ourselves and to other people. They are not about making others act a certain way. It's highly doubtful that the great moral philosophers ever thought their theories would change others' behavior in a significant way. Sep 25, 2018 at 18:22

4 Answers 4


The distinction concerns what the object of normative evaluation is. On some accounts, the object of normative evaluation---the thing we praise or blame---is the action or the type of action itself. On other accounts, the object of normative evaluation is the character of the person doing the action. The former sort of theory will focus on the question "what should I do?" and the latter on "what kind of person should I be?"

The canonical example of an ethical theory that focuses on "what kind of person should I be" rather than "what should I do" is Aristotle's virtue ethics. Aristotle argues that what gives an action moral value is that it flows from a fixed character trait. For Aristotle, it's not the type of action that is praiseworthy, but rather what kind of character trait underlies the action. So for example, it is not the act-type lying that matters, but rather it matters whether you're the kind of person who can reliably use your own practical judgment and recognize a situation in which lying might be the appropriate thing to do (e.g., when a crazed murderer knocks on your door looking for someone to kill). Whereas theories that focus on "what should I do" will try to find some proof that lying is wrong, Aristotle will look for the kind of character trait one should develop in which you use the character trait of honesty appropriately given the context.

Thus, on such a theory, what counts is developing moral agency (i.e., being the right kind of person who can respond to a context-sensitive understanding), rather than determining from a theoretical standpoint what the right types of action are. The right types of action will vary by context, and what matters on Aristotle's theory is whether you're the kind of person who can read that context and respond appropriately and fluidly.

You are correct to point out that what you develop your character traits by doing things. So for example you develop the character trait of bravery by doing brave things over and over. But for Aristotle the moral status of the actions that lead to the character trait are not on the same level as actions that flow forth from the character trait. Suppose you do a brave thing simply because your parents forces you to, and it pains you to do so. You have done the right thing, but for Aristotle your action has no moral value yet, because it didn't flow forth from the kind of person you are. For Aristotle, it is only once you have been habituated to acting bravely and take pleasure in doing so that your action is praiseworthy.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful answer (upvoted). The one thing I don't understand is what "not on the same level" means referring to "the moral status of the actions that lead to the character trait". Do these actions lack moral worth entirely, or are they just worth less? Sep 25, 2018 at 3:54
  • Upvoted. I'd suggest that Aristotle's idea is standard stuff among Perennialists. It is just that our motivation would be what counts, which is similar but not quite the same thing as 'the kind of person you are', We would work to improve the kind of person we are in order that our actions are well-motivated and, just as important, well-informed. .
    – user20253
    Sep 26, 2018 at 12:28

Most anyone can be conditioned or programmed to behave according to society's (the majority's) wishes, and thus meet their approval while obtaining some level of tolerance and acceptance (doing, based on reward/punishment model).

But happiness and free will requires a well-developed conscience for self-control (being, based on genuine -- as opposed to false -- pride).

Referencing Hume:

A great number of individual character traits are listed as natural virtues, but the main types discussed in detail are greatness of mind (“a hearty pride, or self-esteem, if well-concealed and well-founded,”

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hume's Moral Philosophy (First published Fri Oct 29, 2004; substantive revision Mon Aug 20, 2018)

  • Thanks for your thoughts and your reference to the SEP. I read several of the key paragraphs from the Hume's Moral Philosophy article but they weren't very helpful in answering my question. I am interested in understanding Kagan's claim as discussed in my post, not in the requirements for happiness. Sep 25, 2018 at 7:55

There is no precise distinction between 'what kind of person one should be' and 'what one should do' when discussing the morals of others, because we have no access to their inner experiences. The distinction is only apparent in reference to our own moral philosophy.

What kind of person I should be refers to how my inner experiences such as attention, thoughts, decision-making and self-awareness should contribute to a sense of identity.

What I should do refers to how this sense of identity should interact with the universe - my actions.

If I determine that what I should do is always tell the truth and do no harm, then there will be occasions when I am conflicted, and the right action is unclear. With a focus only on actions, this area of moral philosophy is often influenced more by how actions are perceived in the community than by personal beliefs.

If I determine that the kind of person I should be is honest and kind, then the right action may still be unclear, but I can recognise this inner conflict as evidence of my kindness and honesty, even before I act. Because the focus is not on actions but inner experiences, this area of moral philosophy is influenced more by personal beliefs and self awareness.

So we can discuss what kind of person one should be, but any assessment of what kind of person one is can only be approximated by observing what one does, which cannot present the whole picture. Exploring or communicating inner experience, therefore, seems to be a crucial element of this area of moral philosophy.

  • Thanks for your contribution (!) but this doesn't answer my question. I am looking for help understanding the passage from Kagan quoted in my question, whereas your answer seems to be mostly based on your own opinion. Note that many philosophers do seem to make a precise distinction between "'what kind of person one should be' and 'what one should do'". We don't need to have access to other folks' inner experiences to make judgements about them in the abstract. Sep 25, 2018 at 8:04

Before you read:

I haven't read Kagan's book, this is just my interpretation based on the small quote in the OP's question.

So it seems that "what kind of person should I be?" is the same as "what should I do?" since the only way I can affect what kind of person I am is by doing things. And everything I do affects what kind of person I am in the future.

What am I misunderstanding about Kagan's claim that there are multiple possible focuses for answers to the question of how one should live?

BATMAN To your doubts, Batman's got the answer

Here is my take on this. "Being" is an internal trait, while "doing" is completely external; it doesn't matter how mean or greedy a person "is", the world around them is only affected by what they "do".

Let me give an example:

A man could be outwardly kind and compassionate towards everyone, but inwardly only be doing it in self-interest, perhaps he has read some article somewhere that says that pretending to be kind is the best way to manipulate people. He goes to poor villages in African and helps build homes, but he doesn't really care about them, only goes so that he can sell them his new invention that allows them to filter dirty water. He helps a homeless man realize his potential as a movie actor (I'm just making up examples by the way) but then profits off him because he knows the homeless guy will be grateful and indebted to him for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, a person could be like Batman, who outwardly is a rich stuck up jerk who often profits in ways that hurt other people, and that is how everyone perceives him, but in reality, he is a crime-fighting vigilante that truly cares about his city.

However, notice the difference between the Batman example and the first example. In the first, I contrasted between what a man thought (bad) and what he did (good). In the second (Batman) I contrasted between what he seemed to do (rich jerk), and what he ACTUALLY did (fight crime dressed like a bat).

Batman doesn't seem like a counterexample to the first example after all, does it? He still DOES GOOD, people just not know about it.

Let's give the extreme example of religious fanatics who commit acts of terrorism. They do evil, lots of it, and inwardly think what they are doing is with good purpose, which would make them "be" a good person...but no one would ever say they were...

Two more examples:

Economics in a capitalist world is often said to be "evil", as its based on a philosophy that people should primarily work for themselves and not for others. However, if so much social benefit has come from it (and argue as people might capitalism HAS proven itself to be the most effective economic and political system in the modern day) can we really say it is evil? This makes me think of the idea of the "Invisible Hand", as quoted from Wikipedia:

The invisible hand is a term used by Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits of an individual's self-interested actions.

Finally, let's take religious members of society that participate in religious missions and charity work daily. In "The Brothers Karamazov", (THIS IS NOT MY BELIEF, JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE) Ivan suggests that people are only kept in check because of their fear of God. We can apply this same logic to these hardworking members of society, saying they only work for others because of their fear of death. That is, they believe that by being good they will reach immortality, and therefore want to work for the social benefit of everyone else: solely because it benefits them as well. Inwardly, they may be thinking "Ugh, I freakin hate these disgusting street kids" and "I sure wish they would all just get malaria and die" (allthough I said upward that this wasn't my belief, I really HAVE heard people say those exact words), yet they go on church missions to build schools in Central America. Are these still good people?

To conclude, although there is a difference between who you are (inside) and what you do (how you affect the world), at the end of the day it doesn't really matter: it is only your actions that really determine whether what type of person you are.

To quote Batman: "It's not who I'm underneath, but what I do that defines me"

Thanks for reading! Hope it was of use!

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    While the quote is prevalent in many philosophies, StackExchange is a bit more on the serious side of the internet and hardly the place for witty movie quotes without further (philosophical) context. The content, as appropriate as it is, can only be the start of an answer. You may want to read the articles of the help center to get a better feeling for how this site works and what is expected. It would be appreciated if you could add the aforementioned philosophical context, since otherwise, the answer may be deleted. Welcome regardless!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 22, 2018 at 7:04
  • @PhilipKlöcking agreed completely, thanks for the constructive criticism (really wish more people gave it before just deleting an answer). Will update answer immediately. Sep 22, 2018 at 11:54
  • @JoshuaRonis thanks for your answer, and welcome to SE! To be honest, it wasn't helpful to me; I am looking for something at the same level of academic sophistication as Shelly Kagan's book, but I did upvote you to counteract the downvotes since I'm not sure you should lose points just for attempting to contribute. As written, your answer does not answer my question. I am looking for help understanding Shelly's claim whereas your answer seems to be mostly based on your own opinions about morality. Sep 25, 2018 at 4:06
  • @MaxWallace that's aright, thanks for upvoting! Yea, I haven't read the book, sorry about that, I should've mentioned it at the beginning of my answer to not waste people's time should they want an answer specific to the book; in fact, I think I'll do that now! Sep 25, 2018 at 9:11

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