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Integral foundations of ethics

Last updated on 2023.06.10

Pain is a powerful motivator.

I don’t write about ethics much because it’s a “boring” subject.

It’s boring in two ways.

If you’re poor or your brain is broken from abuse with seed oils and refined carbohydrates, you don’t have the spacetime for thinking about ethics much. It’s also a deeply personal subject, and parachuting doctrine from prophet guru is not the best way to go about it.

But we now have a big hairy question from a longtime subscriber who is in pain:

What’s your view on being a “good” person, by some moral standard—hopefully internally founded but almost certainly externally influenced—and doing what you want (not necessarily just hedonism but perhaps some of that)?

In other words, I feel the need to be moral, but it is certainly a tradeoff that is costing me in various ways.

Can you nudge me in the right direction, here? I’m having a hard time, and your insights always seem principled and Right in some way to me.

Thank you for the great question and the supermassive headache.

I claim no special insight or authority in this matter. I can answer the question only as it is – as to my views on the subject. Nor do I claim that my views are in any sense complete. I’m sure they are full of blind spots and obvious flaws.

Let’s start with the punchline.

The tradeoffs we think we face usually aren’t strictly about moral choices. They are tradeoffs in pain and power. When we think about ethics, keep in mind three key concepts – Integrity, pain and power. Their relevance will become clear as we go.

Ethics is etymologically related to ethos, which can be broadly translated as “way of Being”. “Ethics” can refer to the study of “how to be good” or a set of principles to that end.

In common parlance, ethics and morality are synonymous with each other – for example, “ethics” and “moral philosophy” refer to the same scholastic discipline.

In cognition, however, it is helpful to distinguish between two different orientations in the way we think and feel about what it means to be “good”. One is turned inward – let’s call it morality – and the other is turned outward – let’s call it ethics. They both involve internal attitudes and external behaviors but their focus and objectives are different. They are sides to the same coin, but they are sides. One is about “what (of) me is good for me?” and the other is about “what (of) me is good for not-me?” We get addled, individually and collectively, when we act as if the coin is only heads or only tails.

I will sometimes use the term “ethics” for ethics in the narrow sense, for both ethics and morality, and for the practice thereof. There is no good way to get around this ambiguity. You will have to get the right idea from context.

Coming up with positive ethics is one of the most difficult philosophical exercises. The Golden Rule is a perfect example of this.

“Do unto others as you will have done unto you.”

Go ahead and follow the Golden Rule literally if you want to be despised and excluded.

Other people are just that – other people. They have different preferences and priorities from you. If you treat them as you want to be treated, you will soon end up ostracized, unless you are the most mediocre form of average.

The Golden Rule is not good ethics. It is wilful blindness.

The Golden Rule is unethical because it would literally lead to a societal breakdown if everyone applied it (you may recall Kant’s “categorical imperative” here). Instead of positive prescriptions, it’s often better to think of ethics in the negative – to exclude what is not ethical. We can also look for some general necessary conditions that a system of ethical principles needs to satisfy rather than for hard-and-fast rules.

What are some necessary conditions for ethics and morality?

Morality is about personal Integrity.

Moral principles must be Integral. If they are not Integral, they are not moral or they are not principles.

Moral principles must be Integral in the sense that they must be noncontradictory. They should work together in concert, not in conflict, towards manifesting unity in your way of Being. If your moral principles as they refer to you alone produce a sense of unease or contradiction, you need to get back to the drawing board and figure out why. No-one else can do that for you.

Moral principles must be Integral in the sense that they are essential. Violating a moral principle should produce a feeling of “I don’t want to be this person”. If you violate a moral principle, you are not being the person you want to be – you are being someone else. This is not to say that anything that makes you uncomfortable is immoral (common mistake people make).

Moral principles must also be Integral in the sense that they organize and shape your Character coherently through space and time, even as they evolve. In other words, they should seek to be timeless and valid in any context for you. Over time and through experience, they should seek to articulate the same way of Being, not a broken freak show. However, the way of Being you want to manifest will almost certainly evolve over time, in part guided by applying those same principles. So the principles will have to change too – the guiding system should be adjusted towards the new target.

Your moral principles should evolve over time, “but not too much”. With experience, you will find some principles lacking. You will find flaws in your principles because you will find flaws in your Character, arising from those principles (or lack thereof). You will feel that “this is not me” and you will want the better me. So you will seek better principles. The trajectory of your principles will become the trajectory of your ideal Character, or vice versa.

If morality is about your individual Character, why is there such a thing as “public morality”?

Because people like to have opinions about everything.

Imagine a Buddhist monk who has vowed to spend the rest of his life secluded in a cave. The cave in the middle of a wild forest where no other people go. Beyond that decision, nothing the monk does should be of any concern to “people”. But before going into seclusion, the monk was known for being incredibly lazy and doing nothing all day. People will imagine him being lazy in the cave and regard his imagined behavior as morally questionable anyway. This is clearly not an ethical judgement because nothing the monk does affects them in a material way – they can’t even observe it.

This (mis)behavior is likely a product of social evolution. Masculine strength was commonly considered a moral virtue in ancient societies. Enforcing that moral standard provides a supply of better soldiers for the battlefield. Societies which enforced such a moral standard would have a better chance at survival than societies that didn’t. Yet, if you look at the language surrounding this virtue in ancient writings, you will probably see that it’s often focused on the individual and that strength is often seen as a moral choice (personal) rather than an ethical one (communitarian).

This example is a clue that public morality might have something to do with power. Strength as a public moral virtue would increase the power of the collective, even if it somehow impinges upon the power of the individual to make moral choices.

Accept that people will – consciously or not – pressure you into adopting their moral frameworks even if your actions in context have no material relevance to them. Don’t let them bully you.

Other people should be relevant only when you’re making clearly ethical choices, and even then in a very specific sense.

Ethics is about shared Integrity. It’s about the Integrity of the community. It’s about connecting in an Integral way. Community here can mean any layer of the onion – from your children, family and friends to society in general – any individual or group of people who are not “you”.

Ethics is about shared Integrity in that it answers the question “what types of behavior are conducive to a ‘good’, healthy community?” Violating an ethical principle by doing X should result in a feeling of “if everybody did X, that would produce a community in which I’d rather not live”. A key requirement here is that the feeling must be driven by the consequences of X, what X says about the community in general, rather than any moral repugnance of X itself.

Suppose you’re tough and not easily bothered, and consider a community in which it’s common practice to bully and undermine each other. Even if you personally couldn’t care less about the bullying, you may find that behavior unethical because it makes it difficult to organize people and make them work towards shared goals. You have a grand Vision and you want to do big things. You know you will need to get other people involved to manifest them, so you’d rather live in a community where it was easier to get people to work together. You feel the behavior is ethically objectionable because it forces a lot of people to lead small, parochial lives, where only the closest friends and family are worth anything.

Ethics is about the Integrity of the community in the sense that it should result in behavior that’s good for the community and promotes a “healthy” community. Imagine a farmer who takes to dumping toxic pesticides into a well at the end of his property and everybody else’s aquifer is downstream from his ranch. His behavior is unethical because it makes the community sick, undermining its Integrity in a very literal way.

Ethics is about connecting in an Integral way in that it should make your relationships with other people genuine. In other words, the Character you project in your relationships with others should be the same Character you manifest when you are alone. Many things you do on your own affect others and shape the community, but this is also a key way in which moral choices take on an ethical dimension. Lying about your moral choices is unethical because it undermines the Integrity of the community and the authenticity of your relationships.

A community where people didn’t pretend to be someone else would probably do better than a community where everybody lied about their moral choices and pretended to conform to the same moral principles. The people in the “honest” community would have a larger menu of moral principles readily available to choose from. They would be able to observe the consequences of moral choices more accurately and, therefore, to make better choices about which moral principles to adopt. The “honest” community would evolve and grow faster; it would be able to deal with challenges better. The “pretend” community would struggle and stagnate, its members confused about what would work best for them and what wouldn’t.

Totalitarian systems are of the second variety. There’s a reason totalitarian states cannot grow and develop like free-speech communities can. They can rarely be cutting-edge.

Note that this process of moral evolution requires that we recognize a diversity of moral principles as necessary. In other words, you don’t have to wear your moral principles on your sleeve and badger everyone else to adopt them. This process makes-unethical lying about your moral choices, but it also makes-unethical forcing other people to make the same moral choices because that undermines the Integrity of the community (you may recall Harris’s “moral landscape” here).

Ethical principles must be Integral, but unlike moral principles, they don’t have to be the same in every situation. The set of ethical principles that applies to your family doesn’t have to be the same as the set of ethical principles that applies to your business partners, even if the two sets have a lot in common. However, ethical principles must conform to a sort of nested Integrity. For example, if everyone’s applying the same ethics to their family as you do to yours would result in a society you don’t want to live in, the principles you apply within your family probably aren’t ethical.

Masks are a good example of the distinction between an ethical and a moral choice as to my subjectivity.

Now, now, don’t get triggered. It’s just an example to help you get the distinction between moral and ethical. I’m not trying to convince you one way or another.

In my subjectivity, I couldn’t care less if I wore a mask or not, even though it surely is more convenient not to. If I didn’t wear a mask during the plague, I would never get the feeling of “I don’t want to be this person”. In this sense, wearing a mask is not a moral choice for me. It’s largely irrelevant to my individual moral Integrity as I see it. But I made a point of wearing a mask early and often, and talking about it, because of my ethics. Early on, I wore a mask even when it was not necessary – e.g. outside and on my profile picture – in order to lead by example. The goal wasn’t to signal that I’m a “nice” person, but to demonstrate ethical behavior and encourage others to do the same. Why was that an ethical choice for me? Because a community riddled with the plague is of inferior Integrity relative to one that isn’t. Because a community which cannot act in concert to combat the plague is of inferior Integrity relative to one that can’t.

We ought to care about moral principles because they are vectors whereby our Character evolves. We ought to care about ethical principles because they are vectors whereby our communities evolve. Yet, we are often deluded to conceive of morality and ethics as rules set in stone rather than vectors and tensors in their own right. Because it’s easier to adopt a received set of rules rather than do the real work of thinking and facing your own demons.

Vectors of consequences are Integral to Integrity, which is Integral to ethics.

We do things because we want to get a result, even if the result is the action itself. We instinctively feel that doing things in absolute mindlessness probably isn’t a good thing. If when taking action you are wilfully blind to the consequences, your action lacks in Integrity. If your principles are wilfully blind to the consequences, they lack in Integrity. Therefore, they are not ethical.

Integrity requires unison of intentions and consequences. If we do something just because we “like” it, because it feels good, but disregard the other consequences, Integrity is compromised. If what we do has “good” consequences but our intentions are malicious, Integrity is compromised. In either case, we are not making good ethical choices.

So much about Integrity, but what about pain?

When we think about consequences, we often jump to thinking about pain because we are conditioned to be afraid of pain. In western cultchurns, this is reinforced by intellectual movements such as utilitarianism and rigid analytic philosophy. In eastern cultchurns, the fear of pain is not reinforced in the same way, but they may still prioritize not inflicting pain on others in their ethics (e.g. some strands of Buddhism).

Unless you adopt a moral principle that you should NEVER experience pain (take a moment to imagine what sort of Character such a principle would articulate), there is no strictly moral tradeoff between acting on your moral principles and putting yourself in a painful situation. That’s a tradeoff between your moral principles and something else – pain.

The gods don’t care for prayers, they want sacrifice.

Unless you adopt an ethical principle that others should NEVER experience pain as a consequence of your actions (take a moment to imagine what sort of community such a principle would articulate if everyone adopted it), painful consequences for others don’t necessarily imply that your actions are unethical. Pain can be a good indicator of unethical behavior only if it’s the only consequence, at every scale and in every dimension, or if pain is all you care about (for example, if you act only with the malicious intent to cause pain).

Imagine a father is taking his 10-year-old son for a long trek in the mountains. In their community, painkillers are legally available to everyone and have no physiological side effects. People can have painkillers for breakfast, lunch and dinner without adverse medical consequences. The trek will be long and arduous, overlooked by the vicious summer Sun. They will be in pain all the way to the summit of the mountain. If the father didn’t feed his son full of painkillers before the trek, would that be unethical?

When we think about pain, we should also be careful to distinguish between pain, harm and suffering. You don’t have to inflict pain in order to do harm. Likewise, inflicting pain doesn’t always imply harm in the vector of events or to your Character (as in the trekking example). Suffering does not require pain, nor does pain necessarily imply suffering. Suffering is not a direct result of being in pain. Suffering is the result of cognitive attachment to or identification with the difference between what is (happening) and some imagined alternative. You can welcome pain. You can laugh at pain. The suffering is optional, and always available. You aren’t missing out.

Suffering requires the cooperation of the “victim”. Identifying as a victim is a common way to inflict suffering, and not only. You can’t make anyone suffer if the subject isn’t willing to participate – to attach and identify. Perhaps some people are genetically incapable of non-attachment. Perhaps only biochemical intervention or massive amounts of pain can make people suffer if they know better. In other words, only in extreme cases can you definitely hold yourself accountable for their suffering. You can educate them about suffering and non-attachment, but you can’t make them learn or practice those teachings. It has to be their choice and application. Is it moral or ethical to hold yourself responsible for others’ choices? Open question for you.

Direct pain and potential suffering are not good guideposts for ethical behavior. When we think about ethical choices, it’s best to consider harm instead. We often inflict direct harm in order to get indirect benefit. When your personal trainer recommends progressive overload for muscle gain, is she being unethical? The “overload” bit is literally intended to harm your muscles in order to make them regrow bigger and stronger.

We must learn to think about our ethical choices in vectors of events. Not as a one-time thing, but in the consequences of their consequences. Not in linear narrative or one-cause-one-effect, but as an interactive system unfolding in space, time and choice. We must learn to see them in an Integral way.

This Integral approach to ethics is less complicated and more difficult in practice than it seems.

It’s less complicated because most of the time we inevitably resort to heuristics. Otherwise, we would soon get bogged down in indecision.

It’s more difficult because it takes time and experience to fine-tune those heuristics to our ethical principles. We must make an effort to apply out principles consistently and pay attention to the consequences. We must learn to live with choices which are revealed as unethical only in retrospect.

This is also why ethical laziness is immoral. Take a moment to consider what Character would arise of someone adopting not caring about ethics as a moral virtue. We have a word for that Character – the sociopath. Ethics thus takes on a moral dimension. For some of us.

Nietzsche once said: “What is happiness? – The feeling that power is growing.”

Happiness is a mushy word without real meaning, but young Willi is on to something here. He is pointing to the observation, and not only in this quote, that there is something uplifting and essential to that feeling of growing power, to the sensation of power itself. The Will to Power is Integral to a healthy and meaningful way of Being.

Oh yeah? Why?

Will is directed intention. Without Will, the bond between intention and action is severed. Our actions become haphazard and circumstantial relative to our intentions. The moral unity between intentions and consequences withers brittle and broken. We intend one thing, but too often we end up doing another. We lose our Integrity.

When people try to impose on you a set of moral and ethical principles, they are projecting power – and not just in the immediate sense. To have power is to shape behavior. To shape behavior effortlessly is to have more power. It’s much more efficient and effective to upload into you a set of principles that you mechanically execute on than to micromanage your behavior. The more power and control your puppet master is trying to exert, the more specific and constraining those principles are going to be. That’s just an observation, not a judgement.

Every set of ethical or moral principles is a system of power. It’s a different matter if it works well or it doesn’t. It’s a different matter if it serves you or it doesn’t. It’s up to you to create an ethical and moral system that enhances your power. That process too takes Will. Especially that.

When you come up with strong ethics and apply them viciously, you must get that feeling – the feeling that power is growing. When you apply your moral principles, you may feel pain, but you will feel power too. Empowerment is key. If your sense of empowerment does not grow as you grow into your principles, you are doing it wrong. You must adjust your principles to fit you better, you must adjust your attitude to fit your principles better, or you must apply them more viciously, and to yourself first. Weak attitudes do not fit strong principles. You have to figure it out. Otherwise, the pain and unease may dwindle, but your power too will fade and you will become a faded shadow of a Being.

If you’re downloading morality wholesale from elsewhere or your ethical system doesn’t work well for you, you will feel uneasy, choked and unnatural, and this unfitting will only deepen. The word the early Buddhists used for “suffering” is dukkha – unfitting. If your ethics are vague or incoherent relative to your Character, you will most genuinely suffer, if suffering can ever be genuine. Yet again, this is a vector, a direction, a process, not about your first contact with your principles or their first contact with the consequences. It will unfold in time.

When we think about ethics, we often think in terms of making people happy or decreasing their suffering. We try to micromanage their attitudes and predict their reactions. We try to make them feel a certain way, and we fail to acknowledge the arrogance and presumption in assuming that we will be able to do so consistently.

We fail to acknowledge the level of self-mastery we ought to achieve with our own feelings before we should attempt something like that at scale.

Instead, we should provide ethical compass and embody our moral principles first. Instead, we should consider ethics thusly.

The opposite of suffering is not happiness. The opposite of suffering is Authenticity.

We cannot make people happier or less suffering – consistently, in an Integral way – any more than we can make them more authentic. You may succeed in treating the symptoms for a while, but over time you will fail, and fail you will more miserably. You will come to loathe yourself or they will come to loathe you.

You can provide compass by embodying Integral ethics and leading by example. You can show people skilful means and inspire the energy to learn them. You can seek to connect with people in an Integral way. But you can’t really make people be more authentic if they don’t Will it. They have to participate in the whole authenticity business for it to work.

On the flipside of this understanding is lying. Think again of their Character in an Integral way – visualizing it as a branching tree of choices and consequences and consequences and choices. Lying is like cutting off some of the branches or adding dead branches or twisting and disfiguring the entire tree. Lying deprives people of an authentic menu of choices and authentic feedback on those choices in terms of consequences. “Hey, I’m doing great (I fracking hate you for what you said yesterday).” Do this often enough and the individual becomes stunted just like the “pretend” society in the earlier example became stunted. His ethical and moral principles cannot evolve properly. His Integrity is undermined. Lying is infectious not just in the direct mimetic sense.

But if people make you feel good, shouldn’t you make them feel good too, even if that involves some lying and restraining your “morality”? Reciprocity is probably the most widespread practice among people around the world. Isn’t it an essential ethical principle?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: no.

Why no, depends on what you mean by reciprocity.

If you mean reciprocity in a literal, specific sense, it’s a ritual. It’s signaling that people who don’t know each other deeply can work together on a rudimentary level – or at least not kill each other. One tribe provides so much fish, the other tribe provides so much venison. Exchange happens. Good times. You’re not wild beasts (or at least can pretend that you’re not). Nothing unethical if one tribe wants to provide the fish as a gift. In some cultchurns, gifting back to the tribe might even be considered an insult.

If you mean reciprocity in a more general way or as a repeated interaction, it’s still neither required not sufficient for ethical behavior. Do you know what else is based on reciprocity? Corruption. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.”

Reciprocity is fuzzy. It might make you feel good. It often makes me feel good too. But it guarantees nothing with regard to ethics. And typically it’s not required. Don’t get boggled.

I’ll stop here.

If you’ve got anything from all this, now you ought to understand why I keep saying that parents shouldn’t lie to their children.

If you have questions or suggestions, hit REPLY and let me know. The more critical, the better.

Feel free to share this missive far and wide.

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Live long and prosper,


Your Daemon

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