Moral Expressions In Liberal Society: A Tri-Paradigmal Model

Moral Expressions In Liberal Society: A Tri-Paradigmal Model

By David Metcalfe

June 5, 2019


I want you to imagine that you have a certain goal- let’s say, to lose weight. You go to your doctor, tell him your desire to lose weight, and ask his advice on what you can do. He asks you some questions about your current diet and exercise habits, and makes a recommendation: cut out red meat and high sugar foods, and exercise 30-60 minutes per day. You struggle with the temptation to eat fast food, and sometimes getting up and going to the gym is difficult. But ultimately, you develop the will to follow through on the doctor’s recommendation, and over the course of a year, you lose the desired weight.

I could’ve used any goal as an example- career, money, relationships, etc. When you want to achieve something, you set an over-arching goal, develop certain rules or principles that enable you to achieve that goal, and then develop the internal virtue to faithfully carry out those principles. So, what we have is “the goal”, “the principles”, and “the virtue”.

Let’s now consider this in the context of society as a whole.

The Goal

People come together in a society out of necessity (we need each other to survive) but also out of how it can benefit each individual to achieve greater things- family, friends, technology, talents, etc. All of these are facilitated within a society in some respect. In a liberal society, people have the freedom to pursue any of these things in whatever capacity they want; “the pursuit of happiness” is considered an inalienable right.

The overall purpose of a liberal society is for people to be happy.

The Principles

The unfettered pursuit of happiness doesn’t get too far when one person’s pursuit may infringe on another’s. For this reason, there are laws to state when an individual’s right is being infringed, and what should be done in response. An essential concept for a liberal society is “the rule of law” i.e. that all people are subject equally to a set standard of conduct, enforced by the state. These rules are made to allow each individual to pursue the goal of happiness.

The purpose of a liberal state is to develop and enforce the rule of law.

The Virtue

While the rule of law may be able to enforce and promote certain results, it cannot do anything to develop virtue within the individual. An individual may reject the rule of law and decide to commit crimes instead. Or, an individual may follow the technical rule of law, but still cause others a great deal of unhappiness (for example, it’s not illegal to cheat on your wife with a consenting partner, but it will likely cause her great distress). Or, an individual may only follow the rules because of the threat of getting caught, and if there is no one to catch them, would act against those principles. For these reasons, the society is dependent on individuals developing internal virtue for the sake of overall happiness, and the state is dependent on individuals developing internal virtue for the sake of preservation of the rule of law.

The purpose of the individual in a liberal society is to develop internal virtue consistent with their own happiness, and the happiness of others.

Separate Moral Philosophies In The Goal, The Principles, and The Virtue

There are 3 major moral philosophies in existence: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Consequentialism is the result principle- moral good is in the result a certain action causes. Deontology is the rule following principle- moral good is in following certain rules. Virtue ethics is the good person principle- moral good is in the individual’s heart.

A common and simple example is the trolley problem, and the accompanying hospital problem. In the trolley problem, there are 5 people on one track, and 1 person on the other track. The train is about about to hit the 5 people, but you control a lever that could move the train to the other track, and thus kill just 1 person instead of 5.

The rule is that murder is wrong, so technically by pulling the lever, you are murdering that 1 person. But, if you don’t pull the lever, 5 people will die. This is a decision between consequentialism (the result) and deontology (the rule). Most people choose to kill the 1 person instead of the 5.

In the hospital problem, there are 5 patients who all need a different organ transplant. Would a doctor be morally correct to kill the janitor at the hospital and use his organs to save the lives of the 5 patients? This, again, is a decision between the rule (do not murder) and the result (saving 5 people’s lives). Most people choose not to kill the janitor, and to instead allow the 5 people to die. This, of course, contradicts the former majority opinion in the trolley problem.

Virtue ethics is ambiguous on these problems, but would manifest in some kind of quality showing the goodness of the person’s heart. For example, the individual may allow the 5 people to get hit by the train, but would then launch a campaign for train safety. Or the doctor may kill the janitor and use his organs to save the 5 patients, but would send money to the janitor’s family, and make a speech at his funeral about how brave he was to sacrifice his life for the patients.

Let’s now consider this in the context of a liberal society.

The goal is operating on a consequentialist ethic; it’s all about whether the result of a happy society is being fulfilled.

The principles is operating on a deontological ethic; it’s all about whether the rule of law is being followed.

The virtue is operating on a virtue ethic; it’s all about whether the individual’s heart is in the right place.

Defining Moral Good In Practice

To effectively evaluate the moral good of a liberal society, one must consider the ethical framework of the issue at hand. For example, Norway and Finland rank near the top for overall happiness of the people in their nations. This means they are doing substantial moral good as a society. Their economic principles, although operating in a free market, have done many things unconventional by American standards- they have socialized many industries, increased taxes for wealthy people, and substantially funded many social programs like education, healthcare, prisons, etc. But while certain “rules” of capitalism may be getting broken, the result of the welfare state is clearly a positive one.

The overall goal takes precedence over any specific principle. Let’s go back to the example of losing weight. If the diet your doctor prescribed isn’t working practically, it doesn’t matter whether you follow it or not. But if it works to produce the desired result, that means the rules were good ones. Economics can be thought of in the same way: if the result is good, the principles were good, and should continue being followed.

But while an individual in Norway or Finland may have every economic benefit from the society and effective enforcement of rules by the state, it does not mean they will operate in a morally good way. Someone in Norway or Finland may cheat in a game of cards or tell a girl they love them and then abandon them after a one night stand, or any other number of legal, but non-virtuous things. It is up to the individual to figure out for themselves how they can conduct themselves in a morally virtuous way, along with help and guidance from those around them.

So, what we may say in the tri-paradigmal model of moral philosophy for liberal societies is that Norway and Finland are morally good as a society for developing a high level of happiness, morally good as a state for effectively carrying out the rule of law, and somewhat morally good for individuals, depending on the person.

As we go down the list of nations in this year’s “World Happiness Report”, we see America at 17th, Saudi Arabia at 33rd, South Africa at 105th, and Burundi dead last, at 156th. This is our best guess at the effectiveness of these various societies, and the principles they operate by. These principles, however, are not always followed. For example, while nearly every country claims to be democratic, there are varying degrees by which countries actually follow their rule of law in that regard.

This year’s “Democracy Index” ranks Norway at the top, America at 25th, Saudi Arabia at 159th, and Burundi at 153rd. It’s not exact, but there is a strong correlation between how well a society follows democracy and how happy their citizens are. This means that democracy is a fairly consistent principle in creating happiness. Since the goal is accomplished (consequentialism), the rule is a good one to adhere to (deontology).

Regardless of what society an individual exists in, they can still act personally moral. Although, in many nations with restricted freedoms, the individual is not able to act according to their own moral compass, but instead is forced to operate on the one enforced by the state (which may or may not be a good one). This forces a state run, deontologist ethic to the individual, and limits their opportunity for personal virtue.


When the society, the state, and the individual operate in their proper moral paradigm, people benefit greatly. In addition, we can use our understanding of these varying paradigms to evaluate and make effective changes in policy.

The overall goal of the society is to enable and develop general happiness for its citizens; this is a consequentialist ethic- judged by its result. In seeking to achieve this goal, they must follow certain principles; this is a deontologist ethic- judged by its rule adherence. For an individual’s personal life, they may pursue happiness as they see fit; this is a virtue ethic- judged by the individual’s heart.

While many people in the world do not currently benefit from the effective implementation of these moral paradigms, we have already seen the amazing results possible, as exemplified in certain societies, in varying degrees. Laws are like a diet- the rules are only as good as the result they produce. Excessive rules in places like North Korea and the Soviet Union have made for significant unhappiness for their citizens, and can be judged as poor societies. Increased freedoms with a minimum of rules, based in the goal of making people happy, in places like Norway and Finland have made for significant happiness for their citizens, and can be judged as good societies. Whether the individual chooses to be virtuous is hoped for in any society but cannot be enforced without infringing on their fundamental rights, and, in the long run, reducing individual and general happiness. All that can be enforced is the outward result, according to the law, with some degree of virtue in intentions to be considered, at most.




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