‘Conflict and the Search for Standards’ by J.E. Tiles

Tiles, J. E. 2000. Conflict and the Search for Standards. In Moral Measures: An Introduction to Ethics West and East, 70–95. London: Routledge.


There were many interesting themes, examples and arguments given in this paper. I raise here a few areas of particular note, to provide a basis for discussion at the Speaking Ethically Across Borders Seminar coordinated by CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 12th of February 2013.



Tiles’ focus in this paper is on the sources of justification for moral systems. As he says, “To attempt to give an account of the sources of validity that might be claimed for one’s own concrete morality is to begin to engage in ethical theorising” (p. 71). Tiles claims that people are moved to give such accounts when they face uncertainty, an important source of which is conflict. It is on these situations of conflict that Tiles narrows his focus. In the face of uncertainty and conflict, diverse cultures have drawn on the same metaphor: the sorts of standards used in the building trade. This provides an analogy that Tiles draws on and discusses in the paper. He argues that there are important lessons to be drawn from this analogy that can help us in understanding the sources of justification for moralities.

In Tiles’ discussion, two examples are focused on. The first is Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita and the second is Euthyphro in the Socratic Dialogues. Arjuna clearly sees himself in a situation of conflict. Euthyphro, on the other hand, sees himself self-confidently as doing the right thing. Socrates tries to open Euthyprho’s eyes to the conflicted position he is in fact in.

Tiles then turns his attention to the building trade analogies that are commonly made when justifying concrete moralities. He discusses measures, rules and exemplars. He addresses the knowledge, judgment and expertise required to apply the standards in question. The concern that standards always require judgment to apply is highlighted by Tile’s discussion of the Socratic method, whereby an exemplar is suggested and then it is shown that Socrates’ interlocutor doesn’t understand the principle underlying it.

Tiles examines the Platonic route of addressing conflict which is to first get clear about what you are trying to do and then to assess how well you do it. He also examines Confucianism where, instead of the abstractions and generalisations encouraged and thought necessary by Plato, extensive experience and exposure to diverse situations is emphasised.

In his discussion of a perceptual model of morality, Tiles questions the direction of fit that morality involves. In the perceptual case we try and get our perceptions to match the way the world is. In the case of morality, however, we try and make the world match the things we desire and reject. The mind-dependence or mind-independence of morality is therefore questioned.

Finally, Aristotle is discussed, who viewed ideal dispositions as constituting the standards by which to judge morality. Practical wisdom, phronesis, involves acknowledging that what is good will differ in different contexts.

Tiles therefore identifies three standards: (1) criteria for applying terms of appraisal; (2) the character traits of human beings; and (3) accounts of goals and objectives. He argues that they are all different devices for evaluating human conduct. He claims that we do not need just one standard, just as a builder does not only need on tool. There are different dimensions to a problem.


Points for Discussion


Tiles’ premise is that usually people “live within their concrete moralities as comfortably (or otherwise) as they live in their houses or tents. They do not feel called upon to justify their practices and attitudes” (p. 71). It is in situations of conflict that they are called upon to justify their moralities. Specifically, this conflict can occur on the social level: either between individuals in a society or between societies; or it can occur on the individual level: as an inner struggle between different aspects of a person.

A question here is whether conflict is the paradigmatic or only situation where justification is called for or presented. Another issue is that Tiles goes on to focus on conflict on an individual level. The question remains therefore as to whether what applies in the individual case is applicable on the societal or interpersonal level.



As Tiles makes clear, the judgment required to apply a standard is important to note. Standards need interpretation as they always, implicitly, have situations and contexts in which they don’t apply. Tiles notes that, in a situation of conflict, the relevant standards often have not been applied before. This is reminiscent of the Wittgensteinian rule-following paradox, an interesting overlap with philosophy. Tiles discusses a potential solution involving seeing what a courageous, self-controlled or fair-minded person would do in a situation that required knowing what the courageous, self-controlled or fair-minded thing to do is. The problem is that we would still need judgment to know how a courageous, self-controlled or fair-minded person – or more generally, someone with good judgement – would act in the situation in question.


The Building Trade Analogy

The building analogy plays an important part of Tiles’ discussion, which comes in and out of focus throughout the paper. The examples that Tiles gives fall into three broad (and, in some cases, overlapping) categories: procedures for assessing a given feature, exemplars and the knowledge to apply the standard/measure. An interesting question concerns the purpose of this analogy and what makes it a good analogy for the purposes to which Tiles puts it.

For example, Tiles discusses the ‘perceptual model’ of justification of concrete moralities, for example Realism (involving cognitive insight) and Platonism (Forms/Ideas). Both involve authority and hearing the call for dis/approval. The question remains how this related back to the building standards analogy. It is perhaps supposed to form a contrast, but in that case, it is unclear which has more authority: perceiving that something is straight or testing that it is.

Also, at the end of the paper, Tiles argues that just as we wouldn’t ask the builder to use just one tool, we need not choose between the three standards he identifies that can be appealed to in order to justify the validity of our own practices and attitudes. However, while there are advantages to this view, there are interesting questions that arise:

1)     Do these three standards provide a solid, clear taxonomy of different sources of justification?

2)     Has it really helped us to resolve conflicts? Is it clearer what Arjuna should do? Does he now have the tools to settle the matter?

3)     Has it answered the questions of whether our measures and standards really are ‘right’ or ‘proper’? Do we need to test our criteria and measures against one another? What do we do if there is conflict on this level?

Claire Benn

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interdisciplinary studies in ethics