The Big Question: Who ought I be?

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I introduced the idea of “Big Picture” meta-ethics in an earlier post. In Western philosophy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (approx. 384–322 BCE) is usually seen as the first to go down this route (or the earliest whose ideas survive). Rather than seeing morality as being about a bunch of rules or propositions, he suggested that it is more about the “Big Questions” that we ask ourselves.

Here’s today’s moral dilemma: Hundreds of families, many with small children, present themselves daily at the American boarder fleeing violence and political oppression at home. [1] A common first response to any ethical dilemma facing us is to ask ourselves a “meta-ethics” question:

“What should I do?”

Aristotle’s ethical innovation in response to that question was to insist that what we do is predicated on who we are. That is, the kind of virtues that form our character will necessarily impact, by their habitual practice, how we subsequently act in difficult situations.

Aristotle presented his essential virtues as making up the character of humans in varying degrees. The four he ranks the highest are courage, justice, prudence and temperance. With all these virtues, he stressed the goal of personally achieving an optimal mean, rather than an excess on either extreme. For instance, while courage is a virtue, an excess of this virtue results in rashness, which is as bad, in his view, as a deficit of courage, which we call cowardice.

Jesuit ethicist Kenneth Overberg gets more precise about the key meta-ethics question, which he phrases as moving away from this “What should I do?” question in two steps. First, we should ask whether we have come to grips with, “Who am I inside?” Am I a good person or not? How should the “good person” in me act? [2]

Thus, in this first step, we move from the question, “What should I do?” to a slightly-better question:

“Who should I be?”

However, this “intermediate place” leaves us with the baggage-laden term of “should,” which often conveys the connotation of “what my mother told me I should do,” or “what the priest says I should do.” In other words, we are not “owning” the ethical decision with the word “should,” rather we are passing the blame off to someone else.

So next, Overberg suggests replacing the word “should” in our “Big Question” with the word “ought,” which for many has a “higher” connotation, one with more self-ownership than the word “should.” And thus, this second step brings us to the essential meta-ethics “Big Question”:

“Who ought I be?”

In other words, what actions can I take here that would best exemplify my best vision of the person I “ought to be.” How would “the person I ought to be” handle the problem of refugee children, for instance?

In my view, comporting with a recurring theme in this blog, there is a biological probability function at work here. Discipline and habits may mean that, most of the time, we act in accordance to the scale of virtues that have been instilled, by past practice, inside us. But not always. From this perspective, if I both internalize the virtues espoused by Aristotle, and I also confront the “Who ought I be?” question before the next “Big Ethical Dilemma” hits, I am probabilistically more likely to prepare the biology of my brain for making a better ethical decision, through whatever biochemical or spiritual process that may take.

To do, or to be? Besides recalling Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on this question, an old ethicist joke is that this is called the “Frank Sinatra question,” where you have to sing the answer: “Do be do be do…”


  1. For reference, poorly understood, people who present themselves at the border for humanitarian asylum have committed no crime. Even immigrants who are in this country without proper documentation are, at worst, guilty of a misdemeanor the first time they are charged.
  2. Overberg, Kenneth R., S. J. Conscience in Conflict: How to Make Moral Choices. St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006.

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9 thoughts on “The Big Question: Who ought I be?

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