Dorothy Emmet (1904-2000): The Moral Prism


Dorothy Emmet was born in England in 1904; she published The Moral Prism in 1979.

I. Virtue Theory:

In recent ethical thought, virtue theory has become very popular. According to virtue theory, the basic question in morality is not: How should I act? or What are the rules? Instead, it is: What kind of a person should I be?

In other words, before doing an action, we should always ask these questions:

  • What sort of a person will doing this make me become?
  • Do I want to become that sort of a person?
  • Would any (rational) person want to become that sort of person?

For example, suppose you are considering whether to cheat on an upcoming test. You would ask yourself,

  • What sort of a person cheats on tests?
  • Do I want to become the sort of person who cheats on tests?
  • Would (any) rational person want to become the sort of person who cheats on tests?

I think that we have something valuable in virtue ethics. The rules are still important; however, virtue ethics recognizes that a person with a good character is more willing to obey rules that are just.

II. The Prism Metaphor

Ms. Emmet uses a metaphor of a prism in her work. If you pass a beam of light through a prism, what was white light (or light with no colors at all) is shown to consist of a rainbow of colors. Something that seemed simple is now known to be complex.

Moral growth is similar. A child may see things in black and white; however, growing up morally means being to able to see various shades of gray. The morally mature person becomes aware that moral issues are often complex and require careful reasoning.

III. Three Ways of Looking at Morality

There are at least three ways of looking at morality:

  1. Custom (Ethical Relativists). This emphasizes the way that we have always done things. This is something that is needed in complex societies. People need roots — even moral roots. Changing things too quickly can upset people.
  2. Reciprocity and the Use of Reason to See Where Reciprocity is Involved (Kantians). This way emphasizes reason. Immanuel Kant attempted to make morality completely rational; in fact, to make it scientific. All actions must be consistent with the Categorical Imperative if they are to be considered moral.
  3. Generosity. This means being humane in our ethics. If we are generous, we go beyond what we are obligated to do. People have no right to our generosity, yet we can give it if we feel like it.

One thing that we have to decide is when each of the above three ways of looking at morality fits a certain situation. At a job interview, you would do what is expected and wear nice clothes. When borrowing money, you would be sure to pay back your debt. And at certain times, you may decide to be generous and give more than is strictly required (for example, occasionally when buying a present or giving money to charity).

IV. Just Actions

According to Emmet, just actions have four qualities. As Donald Borchert, Alburey Castell, and Arthur Zucker, the authors of the textbook An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, put it, just actions

  1. Increase our abilities to see complexity.
  2. Allow us to see the importance of mutuality over self-interest.
  3. Make clear the need for mutual trust.
  4. Allow us to enlarge our imagination and thereby develop true sympathy for those in need.

In addition, they add, “Emmet’s morality tries to give us the ability to know when to shift back and forth between custom, reciprocity, and generosity.”

Virtue ethics actually began in ancient Greece, with the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote about moral virtue and intellectual virtue, and how to acquire them.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose, by David Bruce

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Wilfred Owen: Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose, by David Bruce

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
         This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.