By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.

Please Note: This essay is a work in progress. It's still pretty rough!
There are many typographical errors and even some philosophical ones! You may use this to advance your philosophical education, but please don't print it up and sell it without my permission. It's not copyrighted so I rely on your moral conscience.


1. Introduction

2. Conscience and Intuition

3. Prescriptive Theories

3.1 Teleological Ethical Theories

3.1 2 Egoism and Altruism

3.2 Deontological Ethical Theories

3.21 Divine Command Theory

3.22 Natural Law Theory

4. The Five Moral Principles

4.1 Principle of Utility

4.12 Classical Utilitarianism

4.13 Preference Utilitarianism

4.14 Cost-Benefit Analysis

s 4.2 Liberty Principle

4.3 Principle of Beneficence

4.4 Principle of Nonmaleficence

4.5 Principle of Justice

5. Social and Political Philosophy

5.1. Liberalism

5.12 Libertarianism

5.13 Welfare Liberalism

5.2. Communitarianism

5.21 Republican "Virtue Ethics"

6. Legality and Morality

The purpose of this essay is to provide a theoretical basis for approaching public and private moral issues. The need for "grounding" our moral judgments in theoretical terms is based, I think, on the liberal notion that public morality must be based on an "overlapping consensus" forged in open to public debate. This assumption is not intended to discredit private moral judgments based on religious, emotive, or intuitive grounds. One would be foolish and naive to underestimate the role that these types of moral judgments have played in the history of personal and public morality in the United States. However, moral pronouncements based solely on personal revelation or religious authority are, by their very nature, not often open to public debate. For many of us this constraint does not pose a serious problem as we are already convinced that our own private moral points of view are true and therefore we see no need to subject these opinions to public scrutiny. Indeed, as Americans we have a legal right to harbor private moral beliefs based on personal revelation or the authority of others. As a philosophy professor at a Roman Catholic liberal arts college, I am deeply committed to protecting this right. But in a pluralistic democratic society, it is also important to recognize that the revelations of persons from different religious, social or cultural orientations do not always agree on what is right or good. In short, moral authorities, like scientific authorities, are prone to disagreement. My modest aim in this brief essay is merely to provide a very basic framework so we can identify points of moral disagreement and discuss them with one another based on recognizable concepts and rational principles. This is not to say that, in the end, we will all be able to arrive at a consensus on the most important moral issues of our time.
Issue to Think About
Have you ever found yourself engaged in a heated discussion of a moral issue? How often has that discussion ended up in a debate over religious principles? Have you ever encountered persons who espouse non-Western religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism?
On matters of right and wrong, we often invoke the authority of our conscience. When questioned on the basis for our adherence to the authority of our conscience, we often say that we know it by intuition. It's like mathematical truth: 7+5=12, or that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." You just know that these statements are true without invoking any logical or empirical arguments. Unless you are in a philosophy class, you are rarely called upon to explain the basis of intuition to others.
In general, our conscience works by making us feel good when we do what's right, and feel bad when we do the wrong thing. The study of these psychological aspects of morality is called moral psychology. While there is reason to suspect that all human societies experience these kinds of moral feelings, cultural anthropologists are quick to point out that that these feelings are not always experienced in reference to the same kinds of acts. Indeed, women in the United States do not feel guilty if they leave their home without a veil. Moreover, many individuals living in our society do not share the same moral intuitions as the rest of the community. Hence, your conscience might bother you after cheating on your income tax return while someone else's conscience might not. Indeed, at least some libertarian philosophers would argue that you ought to feel guilty about paying your taxes! (more on that later.) Whose conscience is right? And where do our consciences come from?
Many theologians believe that God gave us a conscience so we can discern right from wrong. But there is often an important difference between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it. How many times have you given into the temptation of doing something that your conscience forbids you to do? Among many religious traditions, sin is generally thought to consist in willfully disobeying your conscience. Many philosophers and theologians also point out that conscience is itself conditioned by social forces (and perhaps even biological forces) and therefore it is either our moral responsibility, or someone else's (e.g. parents), to inform it. This suggests that it might be possible to misinform one's conscience. But what is the standard? We might say that we have an obligation to inform our conscience, either in accordance to a standard set by a person that God has chosen to lead us, or perhaps God may speak to us directly. I think revelation that is probably the basis of all religious belief. (But you might think otherwise!)
Of course, there are three obvious epistemological problems associated with relying on revelation. First, as far as relying on the revelations of others, we have no reliable way of knowing whether God really revealed anything to that person or not. Secondly, the problem with relying on our ur own personal revelations is that we can't really know whether we really experienced the word of God. Perhaps it was either a dream or an hallucination? Finally, we might also ask, "What happens if the contents of your personal revelation conflicts with the revelation of some external religious authority?" Do you go with the dictates of your own conscience or do you re-inform it down lines suggested by the external authority?
Atheists often point out that many religious teachings contradict common sense or reason. Today the teachings of some religious groups contradict well-established scientific knowledge. Conservative Christian fundamentalists, for example, argue that evolution is false. They want "Scientific Creationism" taught to their children instead. Rational (or public) argument over the authenticity of personal revelation and the authenticity of revelations declared by religious profits and/or their sacred texts is probably very limited.Therefore, many philosophers and theologians, conclude that at some point we must simply rely on faith. But whose faith?
Many philosophers and scientists reject the religious grounds for morality. Sociobiologists, say that much of our conscience has a genetic basis: the historical legacy of our speciesí long struggle for survival. Hence, human beings generally feel bad when they kill other human beings because those feelings have proven to be successful survival strategies for our genes. Most sociologists argue that consciences are forged by social and cultural training. That's why some individuals and groups are not constrained by their consciences not to kill other human beings. Their consciences, they might argue were not informed.
If you find all this ambiguity about the nature of conscience troubling, rest assured that philosophical certainty eludes all forms of human knowledge, except perhaps mathematical knowledge. Even scientific knowledge based on sense experience is subject to the same epistemological limitations. But you already know this from your introductory philosophy course. Right?
Issue to Think About
Are there any specific moral issues where your conscience leads you to disagree with the teachings of the authorities in your church? How do you reconcile this conflict?
Prescriptive moral theories explain why certain actions are good or bad, right or wrong: that is to say that moral theories justify our actions. For example, you might ask me to justify why I didnít tell my wife that I spilled coffee on our computer keyboard this morning. I might say: "It is true that my wife and I have agreed, in principle, not to withhold information to one another on issues of mutual interest. However, since I bought the computer and replaced the keyboard with my own money, there is no reason to tell her! Besides that, she wouldnít care anyway!" In other words, I justified my actions based on the principle of private property, which my wife and I agree upon. The main difference between descriptive scientific theories and prescriptive moral theories is that scientific theories contain statements using the word "is" and moral theories contain the word "ought." So Prescriptive ethics or normative ethics deals with the question of what kinds of behavior ought to be positively and negatively reinforced by a society.
In the United States, slavery is illegal and considered immoral. We believe that even though it is a fact that slavery exists in some places (even in the United States!), it is, nevertheless, wrong. Therefore, we loathe the practice of slavery, empathize with its victims, and hold the slavemasters legally and morally responsible for it. When we find slavery being practiced in other cultures, we condemn it and often try to convince them that it is also wrong for them. We might even attempt to force them to abandon the practice. Moral realism holds that, at least some, moral statements are true or false in the same sense that scientific statements are true or false, and that moral laws are universal in the same sense that the laws of nature are universal. Moral realism and universality, however, pose some interesting problems.
Relativist moral philosophers argue that there are no universally accepted moral beliefs and that good and bad behavior are always relative to a given culture, and practiced at a specific time and place. Therefore, they insist that there is no way to make universal moral judgments in regard to other cultures at other places. Cultural relativists, therefore, hold that our belief in the immorality of slavery is a product of our own particular culture and therefore it cannot be used as a standard for judging the morality of slavery in other cultures. Just because we Americans believe that slavery is wrong doesn't mean that other cultures ought to follow our customs and practices. Slave-holding societies might accuse the United States of practicing "cultural imperialism" by insisting that they bring their cultural beliefs into conformity with ours.
Historical relativists claim that we in the present cannot judge the morality of practices of previous cultures based on our current standards. Hence, in the present we have no basis for judging the morality of slavery as it existed in nineteenth-century America. They were only acting on their own particular moral standards. At least some egoistic relativists (or subjectivists) will argue that judgments of good and bad behavior are matters of personal and individual choice and that just because I personally believe in the immorality of slavery, it doesn't mean that an unrepentive slaveholder, must accept my judgment. If you believe that slavery is morally acceptable, then that's your business. If you like Pepsi and I like Coke there's no contradiction there. It's all a matter of taste. Realist moral philosophers argue that the problem with both forms of relativism, is that they contradict our moral intuition, which says that there are, at least some, universally true or false prescriptive moral judgments. Furthermore, if we were to admit that no universal moral standards exist, there would be no just reason for us to attempt to convince other cultures and individuals that intuitively repugnant practices such as slavery, infanticide, and discrimination against women are morally wrong.
Statistically, I think most cultures worldwide believe that killing without a good reason is morally wrong. However, there is very little agreement, even within the United States, as to what constitutes a good reason. That's why, we Americans argue almost endlessly over abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and even animal experimentation and factory farms. Some extreme pacifists argue that killing human beings is categorically wrong and that there are no good reasons for doing it. They believe the moral rule "Thou shalt not kill" is a universal moral law that everyone ought to comply with and that anyone who believes otherwise is simply wrong and/or immoral. Hence, they oppose all wars, capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. In sum, both cultural relativism and egoistic relativism (or subjectivism) are based on descriptive facts and therefore identify good and bad behavior with what a culture or an individual actually practices.
Moral realists argue that just because a culture or individual believes that a practice is morally acceptable, does not necessarily mean that it is, in fact, morally acceptable. Realists claim that, in the final analysis, morality is not based on opinion, but rather on a correspondence between moral beliefs and the universal moral facts. Similarly, the mere fact that I believe that water boils at 300 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level does not mean that my belief is true, even if all my friends also believed it. The relationship between descriptive facts and moral values is of great philosophical interest. If science is purely descriptive and can provide us with universal knowledge about the way things are, can science also tell us universally what all human beings ought to do?
Issue to Think About
In the Netherlands, physician-assisted suicide is a legal and widely accepted medical practice. In the United States the AMA says that physician assisted suicide is immoral and it is illegal in most states. Who is right?
All descriptive theories attempt to explain and/or predict natural phenomena. Human behavior is a natural phenomenon and therefore subject to descriptive theorizing. We regard some human behavior as good and praiseworthy and other behavior as bad and blameworthy, therefore moral philosophers or ethicists propose both descriptive and prescriptive theories. Descriptive ethical theories explain and predict existing beliefs about good and bad behavior. Prescriptive, or normative ethical theories, explain, or justify, why certain acts ought to be considered right or wrong. There are basically two kinds of prescriptive ethical theories: teleological and deontological theories.
Teleological ethical theories are trace moral goodness to the consequences of our actions. All voluntary human actions are teleological in the sense that we reason about the means of achieving certain ends: goal-directed behavior. I have ice in my gutters right now. I am deliberating about how to get that ice out in order to prevent water damage inside the house. There are many strategies I might employ. I finally decided not to climb up on the roof because it is slippery and I might fall. Hence, I took into account the consequences. There is nothing inherently wrong with climbing on the roof . What made it the wrong thing to do were the possible consequences. So from the teleological point of view, human actions are neither right nor wrong in and of themselves. What matters is what happens as a consequence of those actions. Thus, it is the consequences that make the actions are either good or bad, right or wrong. Stealing, for example, is right or wrong depending on the consequences of doing it. Suppose I am contemplating stealing a loaf of bread from the neighborhood grocery store in order to feed my starving children. My motive alone would have nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the act. What really matters lies in the potential consequences. Would the loaf of bread actually prevent my children from starving? Would my act significantly harm the grocery store? What would be the odds of getting caught? If I got caught, what would happen to me? Would I go to jail? Get fined? If I went to jail, who would take care of my children? Therefore, even if my motive (preventing my children from starving) was praiseworthy, the act of stealing might still be wrong because other actions might be more cost-effective in bringing about the desired consequence; perhaps signing up for food stamps or asking the store owner to give me day-old bread. On the other hand, suppose that there were no other options and that I invented a fool-proof system for stealing bread. Would I be wrong for doing it?
Teleological theories generally require that you anticipate how pleasure and pain (or happiness or unhappiness) will be re-distributed as a consequence of your action. Therefore, teleologists, are usually hedonists who believe that all morally good acts promote pleasure and avoid pain. In the social context, the obvious question is whose happiness counts in this cost-benefit analysis? An egoist believes that moral decisions ought to be based on how oneís personal happiness or pleasure is effected by that decision. An altruist thinks that moral decisions ought to take into account how other people are effected. More on that later.
There are many philosophers who reject the entire teleological agenda by arguing that moral goodness has nothing to do with the pleasure or happiness associated with consequences of the act. Deontological theories are by definition duty-based. That is to say, that morality consists in fullfilling moral obligations, or duties. Duties are most often associated with obeying moral rules. Hence, human beings are morally required to do (or not to do) certain acts in order to obey a rule or law. The rightness or wrongness of this rule or law is determined independent of its consequences or how happiness or pleasure is distributed.
It's not difficult to see why philosophers would be drawn to this position. In ordinary life, we often encounter situations where doing our duty toward others does not necessarily increase pleasure or decrease pain all around. In early nineteenth-century America, many members of the anti-slavery movement argued that slavery was wrong, even though slaveholders benefited from it. A deontologist would argue that even if the American government conducted a detailed cost/benefit analysis and decided that slavery created more pleasure in society than pain, it would still be wrong. Suppose, the slaveholders were also able to use behavioral conditioning to in such a way that the slaves actually enjoyed living under slavery. From a teleological perspective, slavery would appear to be an ideal human institution. But a deontologist, like Immanuel Kant, would argue that the act of using human beings solely for the purpose of increasing the pleasure of others is simply wrong, even if they consent to such an arrangement. Therefore, deontologists believe that right and wrong have nothing to do with pleasure, pain, or consequences. Morality is based on whether acts conflict with moral rules or not, and the motivation behind those acts. An act is therefore, good if and only if it was performed out of a desire to do one's duty and obey a rule. In other words, act out of a good will. Hence, slavery is wrong, not because of it's negative consequences, but because it violates an absolute moral rule, "Never treat a person as a means and always treat a person as an end." The problem here is: "How does one generate absolute moral rules apart from the distribution of pleasure and pain?" In the Western tradition there have been two approaches to the establishment of deontological principles: divine command theory and natural law theory.
Divine Command Theory states that the moral goodness of an act is based on religious authority alone. Hence, for many Christians, killing another human being is wrong simply because it violates the Judeo-Christian God's 6th commandment. In short, the rightness or wrongness of the act is based on the pronouncements of an outside authority, that is to say, "It is wrong because God or one of God's designated spokespersons said it is wrong." If it is true that we were all created by the same God, then moral goodness must be universal. However, in the history of the human race, many religions have held their own particular religion to be true and everyone else's false. Even though many of us approach morality from the standpoint of divine command theory, we must recognize that the only possible basis for rational discussion and debate is over the actual meaning of the moral rule. We might, for example inquire whether acts such as: killing in time of war, killing a fetus via abortion, or executing a convicted mass murderer are violations of "Thou shalt not kill?" Or, we might ask whether a specific person or group, that interprets this moral rule, speaks with legitimate religious authority. Sometimes divine command theory also relies on teleological considerations. For example, many religions also use the omniscient, omnipotent, and goodness of God as a means of rewarding compliance and punishing non-compliance. God rewards believers and punishes non-believers. Sometimes these positive or negative consequences are felt in this life, (in the form of good or bad fortune here on earth); sometimes the consequences are felt in a subsequent life (in heaven, or hell where either eternal reward or eternal punishment is administered by God.)
In the Western deontological tradition moral rules have also been derived from nature. The fundamental assumption here is that moral goodness can be derived from some set of natural facts. This approach has always been attractive because, like divine command theory, it claims to provide an objective and universal standard. Moral rules based on natural law, like the dictates of science, can be understood to stand independent of personal, social, or cultural beliefs. Indeed, naturalism underlies much of the moral and reasoning in the American constitution.
The key is to identify natural attributes that provide the basis for knowledge of moral goodness. We might argue, for example, that human beings are rational by nature and therefore any act that is performed after sufficient and effective thought, is good. The assumption is that all rational persons will arrive at the same moral conclusions if only they reason properly. Moral disagreements, therefore turn out to be a conflict between rational and irrational thought patterns. Hence, suppose I were to discuss the issue of slavery with a slave-holder and attempt to convince that person to liberate his/her slaves. If we are both rational, eventually I should be able to convince him/her that slavery is wrong. Then again, I might decide that the slave-holder is simply irrational, unable to know what's right. Therefore I might decide to forcibly liberate his/her slaves. I might even decide that the irrational slave-holder is not a person worthy of moral consideration and simply kill him/her in the process.
Other natural law theorists say that all human beings naturally seek to possess private property and therefore any act that interferes with the pursuit or holding of property is wrong. So if you try to steal my guitar, you are violating the natural and moral law that states that I have a right to keep property that I own. The slave-holder, might argue that my attempt to liberate his slaves violates his right to own property. I might retort that slaves are not property but persons. Yet other natural law philosophers are hedonists, and therefore argue that human beings naturally pursue pleasure, and therefore acts that promote pleasure are naturally good acts that promote pain are naturally bad. All forms of Naturalism or Natural Law are problematic.
The first problem is deciding which human acts or attributes are empirically consistent with our nature. Are human beings really naturally rational? Do we really naturally pursue private property? Are we natural hedonists? Suppose we are, in fact, all three. What happens when those natural impulses conflict? Is it not possible for me to irrationally pursue property or pleasure? What happens if my lifelong pursuit of private property interferes with my personal happiness? Even if we could establish an exhaustive list of natural human attributes, how would one go about deciding which ones can serve as the grounding for human morality. After all, one might argue that human beings are also selfish, xenophobic, erotic, sexist, and violent by nature. Some philosophers have attempted to contrast natural acts with unnatural acts, arguing that human beings by reason of rationality, alone are capable of acting unnaturally. This line of argument is often linked to theological premisses that blame our propensity to perform unnatural acts on the fact that God granted human beings freedom of the will. Unnatural acts, for example, might be attributed to our failure to subject our free will to other natural constraints such as reason or conscience. However, once we become engaged in the theological debate over freedom of the will, the prospects for arriving at a consensus on a specific moral issue becomes much less likely.
We might also argue that just because human beings are naturally prone to perform certain acts, it does not necessarily imply that those acts are morally good. That is, there may be a difference between an "is" and an "ought." Philosophers call this the is/ought gap. To confuse the two, they argue is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. For example, if it is true that human beings are, in fact, naturally selfish, does that fact necessarily imply that selfishness is morally good? Does that fact necessarily make egoism true? Again, what happens when natural selfishness conflicts with other natural human attributes such as our natural propensity to live in communities or possess private property? Despite its inherent vagaries moral philosophy probably cannot altogether avoid naturalism in the sense that we surely must take into account natural human attributes in deciding what we can reasonably expect in our treatment of one another. Indeed, the history of human moral codes suggests that it possible to conceive of absolutely binding moral rules, based on natural law, that ordinary individuals, because of their biological or social nature, simply cannot live up to. A moral rule is called superogative or idealistic if it calls for a level of moral turpitude beyond the reach of us ordinary individuals. Many philosophers argue, for example, that it is simply overly idealist to expect teenagers to refrain from engaging in sexual activity. Its natural behavior. However, many deontologists would argue that, just because teenagers find sexual activity pleasurable and pre-marital celibacy to be difficult, if not impossible to live up to, doesn't mean that the moral rule is invalid. The rule is right their acts are simply wrong.
Deontologists tend to couch moral arguments in terms of rights. The concept of a right is an outgrowth of liberal individualism, which itself is a product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The idea back then was to buttress moral, political, and social arguments by insisting that at least some moral claims naturally demand the unquestioned cooperation of others. Hence, rights contrast with privileges, personal ideals, and optional acts of charity which do not require our absolute adherence. As you may have noticed, many contemporary issues in the United States focus upon purported rights such as the right to life, right to die, right to privacy, etc.. To many deontologists, a right implies an absolute universal claim. However, rights cannot be construed as exceptionless unless we can also establish a corresponding universal exceptionless duty on the part of others..
The absolute right to life, for example, is meaningless unless we can also affirm an absolute duty on the part of others to refrain from killing. However, that duty is often suspended, especially in cases of self-defense. We have a moral dilemma when two moral rules seem to apply to the same act but invoke us toward conflicting behaviors and our intuition does not obviously lead toward us toward any one particular solution. Moreover, rights often conflict with other rights; as in the case of abortion where the fetusí right to life may conflict with the mothers right to privacy. Therefore, some deontological philosophers conclude that that rights are best construed as prima facie universals, in the sense that they are to be treated as universals unless they conflict with other universals. Hence, it is a universal moral rule to tell the truth, but sometimes telling the truth might result in harm to innocent persons. Since occasionally we cannot be truthful and protect innocent lives at the same time, we must choose which moral rule to uphold. Intuitively, we would probably agree that protecting innocent lives is more important. But I'm not sure why. Are you? .
Many believe that abortion is the most perplexing moral dilemma of our time. So when deontologists invoke the language of rights, they necessarily also invoke duties and obligations on the part of others. A positive right is a right to actually "possess" a social good and therefore it asserts an obligation on the part of others to actively assist. In contrast, a negative right is a right to "pursue" a social good. It merely entails an obligation on the part of others to refrain from interfering in that pursuit. If a person has a positive right to goods or services such as medical care, then others have a positive obligation to provide them. If a person has a negative right, others merely have an obligation not to interfere.
In general a society devoted to negative rights (see: libertarianism) will be marked by individualism and be rather competitive. Conversely, a society heavy on positive rights (see: welfare liberalism) will be less so. Rights and their corresponding duties must somehow be grounded. That is to say that, there must be some sanction or enforcement associated with that right. Divine command theorists ground human rights in the dictates of God, and threaten the wrath of the deity as enforcement. Natural rights theorists ground human rights in natural processes and warn of impending natural consequences for rights violations. Hence, if we do not take care of the earth, nature will retaliate with ecological disaster.
Philosophers have also attempted to ground rights in either a legal system or in a moral system . Legal rights are enforced by governmental authority and their violation usually carries a legal sanction or punishment. If you steal my guitar and get caught the government will throw you in jail! Moral rights are based purely on culture and tradition and are sustained by social behavior. We praise individuals for morally good acts and blame them for transgressions. If you steal my guitar, and get caught the community will blame you and perhaps ostracize you. Moral rights enforced only through moral sanctions are, obviously, rather precariously perched since many unsavory individuals are impervious to public sentiment. That's why many of the most important moral rights, such as the right to private property, and the right to life are also protected by legal sanctions. On the other hand, there are also many laws on the books that violate widely held moral beliefs. After all, slavery was once legal in the United States. It is now legal for politicians to accept campaign donations from major corporations. Is that morally acceptable? The relationship between legality and morality is philosophically intriguing. Issue to Think About Are you a teleologist or a deontologist: that is, are you more prone to make moral judgments based on consequences or conformity to rules?
Like all areas of philosophical discourse, ethics is a discipline marked by varying points of view. Interestingly, there is, I think, substantial agreement among ethicists concerning the main moral principles. In fact, I would argue that there are only five universal moral principles. They are: Utility, Liberty, Beneficence, Nonmaleficence, and Justice. Although I think most philosophers agree that these are the main moral principles, they disagree on the relative weight to be afforded each principle when moral conflicts occur, and they often disagree over which formal principle is applicable in any given material situation.
The principle of utility, states that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. Hence, utility is a teleological principle. This once again raises some of the same basic issues of associated with hedonism, as discussed in the earlier section on Teleological Theories. Recall that a hedonist believes that the good life consists solely in the pursuit and experience of pleasure or happiness. The feelings of pleasure and pain are biological events involving our central nervous system, which are controlled by our cerebral cortex. We obviously experience pleasure when we perform certain acts that fulfill biological functions such as eating, drinking, and having sex. We also experience pleasure when we perform certain intellectual activities, such as reading a philosophy textbook, playing guitar, or drawing a picture. We sometimes, but not always, experience pleasure when we do the right thing. Conversely, we experience pain when these functions are left unfulfilled.
Many utilitarians believe that pleasure and pain are objective states and can be, more or less, measured or weighed. Hedonistic terms like intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood, imply that pleasure can be measured quantitatively, perhaps on a scale from 1-10, as part of a hedonistic calculus. For example. Some pleasures are more quantitatively more intense than others. Human orgasm is a relatively intense form of pleasure. Some pleasures have a longer duration than others. Even though the pleasure derived reading Aristotle is less intense than orgasm, it has a much longer duration. Some pleasures are more fruitful than others. Earning a college degree will lead to the experience of many other pleasures in life, including more disposable income and a greater appreciation for the liberal arts. Finally, some pleasures have a greater likelihood of actually being experienced. Winning the lottery would surely generate intense, enduring, fruitful pleasure. But you are not very likely to win. You might experience some vicariously intense pleasure as the result of gambling your entire paycheck away on lottery tickets. However, that pleasure would most likely, be outweighed by the inevitable pain associated with not being able to eat or pay your bills. The "right thing to do," according to the hedonistic calculus, would be the alternative that brings about the greatest sum total of the four quantitative dimensions of pleasure.
A long line of philosophers have qualitatively distinguished lower physiological pleasures (having sex) from higher intellectual pleasures (reading Aristotle). They would argue that even if some acts turn out to be quantifiably more pleasurable, other acts are qualitatively superior. Hence, even though eating pizza and drinking beer every night might generate more pleasure quantitatively, reading Aristotle is qualitatively more pleasurable. In sum, the key to utilitarianism is that you must be able to make quantitative and/or qualitative distinctions between conflicting pleasures in order to "do the right thing."
If you are a hedonist, the most important question is: "Whose pleasure counts the most?" Classical utilitarians are altruists to the extent that they believe that the standard of right or wrong is not the agent's own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Therefore, the "Good" increases the number of persons experiencing pleasure among members of a specific group. The "Bad" increases the number of persons experiencing pain. There are several interesting problems here.
Here in Cincinnati government officials are currently planning to have the community vote on whether to use the proceeds from a proposed sales tax increase to build two new sports stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. A classical utilitarian would have to examine how such an expenditure will effect everyone in the community. This entails calculating beforehand the amount of pleasure and pain that members of the community will experience as a result of building those stadiums; then decide whether the benefits (pleasures) outweigh the costs (pains)? Of course the primary beneficiaries of the larger more modern stadiums would be the wealthy team owners, players, downtown restaurant owners, parking lot owners etc.. If the levy fails, at least one of the teams will probably move to another city. That will cause pain to some members of the community including fans, venders, parking lot attendants etc. Defenders of the tax argue that even the retailers in the suburban mall will benefit economically from keeping the sports teams. If they move they will lose customers on game days. The fundamental problem for utilitarianism is justifying the altruistic principle of self-sacrifice in order to benefit others. Since, I do not attend the games played at the stadium, and will not benefit from hot dog revenues, why should I contribute to either project? Under classical utilitarianism, at least some members of the community must sacrifice his/her own interests for the interests of others without benefiting personally. Indeed it is often the case that what turns out to be in the public interest conflicts with the private interests of some individuals. How can one justify such altruism based on utilitarian principles?
Sometimes, it is possible for an act to provide a large amount of quantifiable pleasure for a few persons at the cost of a small amount of quantifiable pain for everyone else. Suppose, for example, we have a small, but significant number of homeless children that could be helped by imposing a small tax on everyone in Cincinnati. A utilitarian would not be able to justify imposing that tax, unless it could be shown that more people are helped than harmed. One way to get around this would be to count not only the number of persons that experience pleasure and pain, but also weigh the intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood of the pleasures involved. Hence, we might argue that if we weigh the amount of pleasure that homeless children experience, as the result of providing them shelter, against the minimal pain that tax payers experience, then we might rationally justify building that shelter at public expense. The problem with this approach is that at any given time, many individuals might benefit from a specific policy. Suppose that only the wealthy team owners would substantially benefit from building the stadium and that the tax was very small, wouldn't we be able to justify building the stadium for that wealthy team owner at the cost of a majority? If so, on what basis could we justify building the shelter and not the stadium? Therefore, if utilitarianism assigns weight to particular pleasures and pains, rather than merely merely count heads, then we would be obligated provide benefits to a host individuals and minorities, regardless of need. How about a tax to buy a new Volvo for every philosophy professor in Cincinnati? Obviously, the economics of the debate turn out to be enormously complicated. This inherent complexity undermines at least one of the major attractions of utilitarianism, its purported simplicity.
In real life we don't often have enough time to actually apply the hedonistic calculus. Itís just too complicated. Therefore, some recent philosophers have equated "utility" with "preference." Preference utilitarianism denies the objectivity claims of classical utilitarianism and simply equates "the right thing to do" with what a majority prefers. Suppose we were to agree to resolve to debate over capital punishment. A preference utilitarian would simply take a poll and ask everyone whether they prefer a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. The basic problem with preference utilitarianism is that our preferences are not always well informed. The community might mistakenly believe that capital punishment deters crime. Isnít it true that our uninformed preferences often conflict with what might, in fact, be more pleasureable for us. We do, after all, make mistakes. In sum, utilitarianism faces five serious questions.
First, is whether pain and pleasure are really as objective and measurable as utilitarians say they are.
Second, is the fact that we are often faced with moral decisions where we cannot predict how an action might impact others. We often just don't know whether one act or policy will promote more pain than pleasure. But what about those cases where we just aren't certain? What do we do, guess? In cases of uncertainty, like the sports stadiums, it would seem that the utilitarian would have to resort to intuitionism or some other principle.
Third, many deontological theorists say that utilitarianism often conflicts with our moral intuitions and can be used to justify some acts that would intuitively seem to be obviously immoral. For example, if I were an extraordinarily clever shop-lifter, I might be able to justify my thefts based on the fact that I would not get caught or that the store might not keep accurate enough inventory to detect the loss.
Fourth, utilitarians, and all altruists, cannot explain why we should be morally obligated to act in the public interest at the expense of our private interests. If the utility of moral self-sacrifice is its only justification, then it would seem to follow that each of us would be more likely to approve of self sacrifice in others before we would approve of it for ourselves.
Fifth, utilitarianism seems to have a built in bias (or sometimes a preference) against individuals and minorities. What happens when it seems to be in the public interest to inflict extreme hardship on an individual or minority in order to advance the public interest? For example, based on utilitarian reasoning, Japanese Americans were hoarded into detention camps during World War II because the government feared that some of them might support Japan and perhaps engage in terrorist activities. Indeed, the greatest happiness principle has often been used in support of totalitarian schemes in which the price paid for collective happiness has been personal freedom. Thatís why there is a consensus among contemporary philosophers that utilitarianism cannot operate without other principles, especially justice. But once utilitarians admit this, the doctrine loses even more of the simplicity that attracted us to it in the first place.
Issue to Think About
As a utilitarian, how would you go about reasoning about drug laws in the United States. Should we legalize all drugs? How about abolishing the practice of requiring a doctorís prescription for some drugs? .
In ordinary language, the term beneficence (or sometimes called benevolence) suggests an obligation to "advance the most important interests of others and remove harms;" That is, to perform some acts of mercy, kindness and charity. Exercising beneficence, then can entail either the provision of something good or the prevention of something bad. It is sometimes construed as a teleological principle calling upon us to increase pleasure and reduce pain in others. Sometimes it is treated as a deontological principle requiring absolute adherence. Of course an extreme egoist might argue that we have no obligation to help others unless it also helps us.
Assuming that we can justify the principle of beneficence, the most obvious question is how far are we obligated to go in order to fulfill it. Are there circumstances, for example, when I might be morally required to impoverish myself or my family in order to fulfill the duty of beneficence? Suppose that I meet a street person downtown, desperately in need of expensive dental work. Am I morally required to provide it, even if it means me taking out a loan? In order to resolve this apparent dilemma, some philosophers differentiate between perfect duties and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are duties that are absolutely morally binding and require one specific action in order to be fulfilled. For example, we have a perfect duty not to unjustly kill other human beings. Imperfect duties are also absolutely binding, can be left unfulfilled when in conflict with other duties. Moreover, imperfect duties do not imply any one particular way to fulfill them.
So beneficence is an imperfect duty in so far as it is up to me to decide how to fulfill it. Hence, I may exercise beneficence by either helping our elderly street person with dental problems simply by explaining the provisions of Medicare. In the very least I might decide to buy him a bottle of Tylenol. I might decide do nothing for this particular man and exercise my beneficence by donating either my time or my money to other causes I deem more worthy. An important moral issue often arises when we seek to exercise beneficence toward others who do not want us to advance their most important interests or remove their harms. Hence, beneficence often conflicts with the liberty principle. We act paternalistically when we coerce people into accepting a benefit or the removal of a harm, against their will. Some forms of paternalism are morally justified on the basis of other moral principles. In general, most liberals accept the principle of paternalism when the intended target of our beneficence is incompetent, which is called soft-paternalism. Hard-paternalism, is exercised when an individual or an institution provides an unwanted benefit or removes a harm against the stated wants and desires of a competent person. Most liberals loathe hard paternalism.
Issue to Think About
Can you think of an example where an act of beneficence might conflict with the principle of utility?
The principle of nonmaleficence requires that we refrain from harming other persons. But what does it mean to harm someone? Some philosophers argue that we harm others when we invade their interests. An interest is anything we have a stake in and is usually identified with common interests or needs. Generally, we all have a common interest in staying alive, experiencing pleasure, avoiding pain, being healthy, and keeping our possessions. Many philosophers contrast interests with mere wants or desires. Hence, although I want a new ES-335 electric guitar, it is not really an interest, so I am not harmed by not owning one. I do, however, have an interest in consuming a certain minimal amount of food each day. If I donít eat for a week my interest in living would be seriously invaded.
Since some interests are greater than others, some harms are greater than others. Rational human beings try to avoid major harms whenever possible. However, in real life we must often sacrifice our lesser interests in order to serve greater interests. For example, I got the flu shot this year. It hurt for a couple of days. It took about a half hour of my day that I could have spent reading or playing guitar. But it was a rational decision. Who wants to be sick for two weeks? An irrational, however, person risks major harms for reasons that most rational people do not find particularly compelling. Suppose I know that I get the flu every year but I refuse to get the shot because Iím afraid of needles. Is that a good reason? Is it irrational? Is it irrational for a person to knowingly have unprotected sex with a person infected with the AIDS virus?
There are several species of harms that most rational persons generally seek to avoid, unless they have a good reason not to. These objective harms are death, pain, disability, and loss of freedom or opportunity. Death is usually thought of the ultimate major, objective harm. After all, once youíre dead you no longer have any interests. (Interestingly, you cannot harm the dead either!) However, there are good reasons why rational persons might choose not to avoid death. For example, in time of war, I might rationally choose death rather than divulge national security secrets. Pain is also an objective harm but there are many good reasons for not avoiding pain. An appendectomy is a painful experience, but it is preferable to than dying. Disability is an objective harm, but many people choose to suffer a minor permanent disability, like loosing a tooth, in order to avoid the excruciating pain of a tooth ache. When I pay the dentist I might suffer from the loss of pleasure or opportunity associated with spending that money on other things. In sum, the principle of nonmaleficence demands that we not needlessly kill, inflict pain, disable, or deprive others of their liberty. Some objective harms are greater than others and are, therefore, avoided by most rational persons under most circumstances.
 Issue to Think About
Are there some levels of pain or disability that are worse than death. Under these circumstances, is it rational to choose death over life? If it is sometimes rational to choose death over living in pain or with a disability, is suicide sometimes a rational act?
Liberty is the principle of self-direction. Liberals believe that human beings ought to be able to do, pretty much, whatever they want. Many philosophers believe that utility and liberty are mutually supporting principles. After all, if a happy society is necessarily composed of happy individuals, if we as individuals, know what kinds of things make us happy and other people and the government do not, then civilized society must protect an individual's right to pursue the things that make her/him happy. But as we have already seen, sometimes the pursuit of pleasure by some individuals conflicts with the pursuit of pleasure by others. Of course, there are varying degrees of conflict here. After all, in modern society it is almost impossible for us to act without interfering with another individuals private pursuit of pleasure. For example, my elderly neighbor finds her pleasure working in the tranquil and serene confines of her garden. I enjoy playing electric guitar at a near-deafening volume level, but my elderly neighbor complains that my playing is both physically and aesthetically painful to her. Another neighbor experiences pleasure from raising vicious pit bulls, while my children derive pleasure running around the neighborhood playing "Capture the Flag" on warm summer evenings. Any society committed to the private pursuit of pleasure or happiness and the liberty necessary to sustain it, must provide for the resolution of this natural conflict between private and public interests. So over the years, philosophers have proposed a variety of liberty limiting principles..
Libertarians recognize only one liberty limiting principle, harm to others. Their plan is to distinguish between self-regarding acts that do not harm or violate the rights of others and other-regarding acts that do. They argue that a liberal society may regulate other-regarding acts which violate the rights of others, but not purely self-regarding acts. Of course, it takes "thick skin" to live under a libertarian regime. My children and I must tolerate my neighbors vicious barking dogs, unless I can prove that it probable that they might escape and harm my children. My elderly neighbor might occasionally have to wear ear plugs to blot out my loud guitar playing, barking dogs, and screaming kids. At any rate, unless there is harm to others involved, these kinds of disputes are to be resolved by the individuals involved and not by the coercive power of the state. Of course, if my dog-loving neighbor's pit bulls periodically escape and bite my kids, then the government could justify regulating his actions (or the actions of his dogs). Liberals consider speech acts to be (almost always) self-regarding, in the sense that words rarely "harm" other persons. (Remember when we were kids we used to say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!") Many liberals defend free speech on utilitarian grounds by saying that by leaving speech unregulated we are more likely to find the truth in a diversity of opinions.
But clearly, some forms of speech do harm others. If we falsely yell, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater our words may harm others. Sometimes in the exercise of free speech, we harm others by making false derogatory statements or by advocating violence against them. Some forms of speech might harm public institutions. For example I might make a public speech in which I advocate tax evasion as a means of protesting tax policy in the United States. However, if harm to public institutions were used to limit free speech, many morally repugnant institutions (such as slavery) might never have been repealed. Finally, some philosophers argue that the government ought to protect individuals from self-inflicted harms.
As you already know, the liberty-limiting principle known as paternalism involves violating a moral principle, usually liberty, for beneficent reasons. Another often proposed liberty-limiting principle is the offense principle, which states that I am at liberty to pursue my own private happiness as long as I do not "offend" others in the process. The difficulty with applying this principle is the fact that we all have different levels of sensibility. What I consider to be offensive might not be offensive to others. If someone else. At least some people are offended by find rap music, public nudity, burning the American flag, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and houses painted pink. Therefore, the acritical application of the offense principle can potentially lead to a pretty dull life. That's why offense must necessarily build on some objective, mutually agreed upon, public standard. One such principle might be voluntariness. Hence, we might argue that public acts that offend a large number of people can be restricted, only if, they are imposed on others without their consent. For example, if you voluntarily attend an art exhibit knowing that it contains homo-erotic material, then you cannot subsequently claim to be offended. Nor can I claim to be offended if I choose not to enter. Logically, you cannot be voluntarily offended! But voluntariness alone doesn't seem to solve much. At least some people are offended very easily. For example, some are offended by mothers breast feeding their children in public places. They insist that it ought to be performed only in private places. But if we regulate public places in such a way to avoid all possible sources of offense, our collective liberty would be severely curtailed and our public places would not be much fun for anyone.
The liberty-limiting principle known as Legal Moralism holds that civilized society can justifiably enforce rules of morality. Hence, advocates of this principle believe that the liberty of individuals can be justifiably limited by a moral code imposed and enforced by government, even if there are no harms or offenses committed. For example, I cannot buy beer on Sunday morning in Cincinnati. The city cannot justify that law by arguing that buying beer either harms or offends others. Apparently the law exists because the city simply believes that it is immoral to purchase beer at that time when you ought to be in church. Some forms of legal moralism also encroach upon the private, self-regarding, sphere. Laws against, polygamy, fornication, and sodomy might be good examples. The basic problem with using the power of government to enforce morality is determining which moral principles to enforce. Given the variety of moral convictions expressed by the numerous religious groups practicing in the United States, legal moralism could also make for a very restrictive public and private life. In summary, there have been many proposed liberty-limiting principles. The more the government limits liberty in public and private spheres, the less room there is for individuals and groups to pursue happiness as they see fit.
Issue to Think About
Can you think of an example where the liberty principle might conflict with the principle of beneficence? Utility? Nonmaleficence?
If Charles Darwin was right, we can expect a biological world characterized by scarce resources and competition between organisms to possess those resources. For human beings and some animals, possession of resources generally brings pleasure and the lack of resources pain. Nature distributes resources based on "natural selection;" the strong get the resources and the weak generally do not. The principle of distributive justice comes into play when a group of persons decides collectively not to live under Darwinian rule, but instead, decides to redistribute resources and the pains and pleasures associated with them.
In making moral decisions involving the distribution of scarce resources, the formal principle of justice states that "equals should be treated equally and unequals should be treated unequally," or that one "ought to receive no more nor less than he/she deserves." This formal principle obviously leaves us in the dark as to which individuals are, in fact, equals and how much pleasure or pain they deserve. Material principles of justice link the formal concept to the real world. There are several material principles that are often employed. The principle of equality states that at least some resources ought to be distributed equally; to each person an equal share. We might decide to divide up a pizza based on this principle. The principle of need states that resources ought to distributed to each person according to individual need. Hence, we might decide to give the most pizza to our friend that hasnít eaten in a week. Generally we distribute welfare payments based on need. The principle of social utility holds that we ought to distribute pains and pleasures in such a way as to maximize a favorable balance between pain and pleasure in the whole community. Hence, we might decide to immunize all children in Cincinnati against certain diseases in order to minimize the social costs associated with treating them later. Finally, the principle of merit says that we ought to distribute pains and pleasure in such a way that the best people receive the most resources and the worst people get the least. Hence, an organization might decide to give an academic scholarship to whoever scores the highest on a given test. Of course, the basic problem is how to determine which material principle is relevant to the distribution of any particular resource. If I were to offer a scholarship to attend the Mount, should I award it based on equality (have a lottery), merit (administer a test), or need? Who deserves that scholarship? Unfortunately, it is often the case that the most meritorious students are not always the neediest. Hence, different individuals often benefit from employing different material principles. Who deserves the scholarship?
The economic principle of free-market capitalism demands that society refrain from all redistribution schemes (equality, need, utility, merit) and allow the market place to decide who gets what. In a free market, I can own a Mercedes Benz automobile, or perhaps more likely, a Gibson ES 335 electric guitar, if I am willing to pay the market price for it. Hence, we might decide that giving scholarships to anyone is inherently unfair. More on capitalism later.
Issue to Think About
Can you think of an example where the principle of distributive justice might interfere with the principle of beneficence? Nonmaleficence? Liberty? Justice?
Historically speaking, moral theories and principles become imbedded in comprehensive doctrines containing full-blown social and political philosophies. Social philosophy has to do with those general issues relating to how individuals and communities interact; political philosophy addresses the question of who rules and why. Because these two sets of issues are so intimately related, philosophers put them together into one discipline called social and political philosophy. There are many factors to take into consideration in deciding the question of sovereignty, or who should rule.
First is the matter of the number of rulers. A regime is a monarchy if one person rules, a oligarchy if a few persons rule, and it is a democracy if everyone rules. Second, is the matter of the governing principle. Generally if the ruling principle is considered unjust, the regime is called a tyranny. If the regime maintains absolute and total control over the lives of its subjects it labeled totalitarian. Otherwise, there have been four main kinds of (more or less legitimate) kinds of political regimes: theocracy, aristocracy, capitalism, and socialism. Theocracy and aristocracy are probably the oldest, while capitalism and socialism are comparatively recent regimes dating back to the Western Enlightenment of the late 18th century. Theocracy and aristocracy probably date back at least to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where civilization first took hold. Theocrats drew their authority from divine command; which is to say, a few individuals were able to convince the rest of the community that leadership by them was willed by God, or that they themselves were Gods incarnate. In theocracies, policies are often derived from divine revelation and/or religious texts as interpreted by these religious leaders. Today the most powerful theocracies can be found in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first theocracies eventually became oligarchies as the number of rulers multiplied to the point where there was a ruling religious class, or priesthood. Eventually, some rulers were able to establish sovereignty and hold political power without invoking divine command. The first aristocrats were probably scribes that held power by monopolizing knowledge through their ability to read and write. In ancient Mesopotamia, many religious leaders were also associated with astrologers, who professed the ability to prognosticate future earthly events, based on their knowledge of celestial events. Knowledge of celestial events was also important in order to establish a calendar. Knowledge of the art of war was always valuable to political leaders. Fascist regimes are by military leaders who often hold power by force. Many philosophers believe that all political power ultimately relies on military power. All oligarchies, especially aristocracies, have always been marked by a concentration of wealth and power. Over time, membership in the ruling class often became hereditary, thus solving the basic political question of who should rule. Many Today, many countries in South and Central America are ruled by aristocratic wealthy families. Closely related to the question of the regime, is the matter of economic philosophy. In the Western hemisphere, most countries today are ruled by capitalism and socialism, which are both species of the comprehensive doctrines of liberalism and communitarianism, which are themselves products of the the Enlightenment and Reformation.
Issue to Think About
In what sense is the city of Cincinnati an Aristocracy? Theocracy?
Traditional liberalism builds upon the descriptive theory that human beings are atomic individuals by nature, and that living the good life depends upon an individual having the liberty to satisfy an his/her wants and needs. Historically speaking, many liberals have argued that in the state of nature, human beings lived independently in pursuit of self-interest. The first groups, families, clans, and communities we formed voluntarily out of self-interest; that is, they rationally decided that under some circumstances, living and cooperating with others can be advantageous. The greatest advantage was probably mutual protection from other predatory individuals and groups. Under liberalism, friendship and all other forms of association, are born out of mutual self-interest, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours!".
With the advent of liberalism during the Enlightenment, government was no longer thought of as a matter of divine right to be exercised by superior individuals, but rather as a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. The concept of a contract is quite simple. Rationally self-interested individuals come together to form communities in order to maximize self-interest. This often requires individuals giving up certain rights to the group that they ordinarily would exercise on their own in the state of nature. (e.g. The right to personally enforce justice.) Enlightenment social contract theorists often differed in what individual rights they thought individuals ought to turn over to government, and therefore they also disagreed over what they expected out of the contract. The authors of the United States constitution, the crown jewel of Enlightenment liberalism, promised its citizens "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Other Enlightenment philosophers merely sought governmental protection from those who would seize their private property, others sought a more comprehensive set of rights. (Hence the difference between libertarians and welfare liberals. More on that in a minute.) Before the advent of voluntary communities, social distinctions were based on natural attributes. Hence, the Darwinian phrase, "survival of the fittest."
Liberalism acknowledges that although social distinctions are probably inevitable, all citizens should nevertheless be treated as political equals, even though they may not be natural equals. Hence, democracy, together with the concept that "the ruled rule the rulers," became the key political tenets of liberalism. So in order for liberal democracies to function, the government must treat its individual citizens as if they were, in fact, equals and therefore, exercise impartiality. Impartiality requires, that the government treat everyone as if they were equals. Hence, what is "right" is considered independent of whatever social distinctions and personal relationships that may arise within any particular regime at any particular time. So doing what's "right" is considered prior to what any concept of the "good," which always imbedded in family, culture, friendship, or locality. That's why we find it morally repugnant for public officials to hire their relatives. Nepotism involves treating one's family and friends better than others, regardless of other more salient attributes.
Under liberalism, at least some social goods are to be distributed impartially. The problem here is that impartiality seems to undermine the basic concepts of family and friendship, which entail that we sometimes treat relatives and friends better than other persons. In fact, my family and friends would be disappointed if I always treated them the same as I do strangers, even if I treated strangers extraordinarily well. Indeed, family and friendship demand that we treat our closer acquaintances better than everyone else. Would you be more likely to exercise beneficence toward family and friends or strangers? If it is true that human beings naturally operate on the principle of rational self-interest, and if human beings, by virtue of being human, share these attributes, then liberal values must be universal. The most important of these universal liberal values are: liberty and equality. There is, however, an important rift within modern Enlightenment Project liberalism between libertarians and welfare liberals that can be traced back to the early social contract writers. Although, both camps embrace democracy and agree that liberty and equality are important social and political concepts, they disagree on how far communal interests can encroach upon individual interests and therefore, they disagree as to what liberty and equality entail in terms of government.
Libertarians, following John Locke, are fiercely committed to individual liberty and the private ownership of property. Human beings, they argue, naturally pursue ownership of their own private resources, which in turn satisfy their own personal needs and wants. If human beings are subject to natural selection, human needs and wants often exceed the supply of resources necessary to fulfill those needs and wants. Therefore, competition is inevitable. Under competitive conditions, libertarians call for equality of opportunity, or procedural justice. They think justice entails that individuals compete under a set of very basic impartial ground rules. Locke, for example, believed that human beings acquire unowned natural resources by mixing their labor (which they own) with that resource. The principle of equality, therefore, applies only to the conditions under which individuals compete, but it does guarantee equality of results in the outcome of that competition. As long as the right to mix oneís labor with unowned resources applies to everyone equally, the resulting distribution is fair. Once resources are owned by individuals, they have the liberty to exchange those resources with others, without outside interference. Hence, individuals compete with one another for each otherís resources. e.g. If I own a car, I ought to be able to sell it to whomever I choose. Hence, contracts between consenting individuals are essential to the libertarian plan for the distribution of social goods. The most important rule governing the orging of contracts between individuals is that the contracts must be voluntary. This means that both the buyer and the seller must be truthful when revealing exactly what the other will get out of the exchange. Fraud occurs when either the buyer or the seller with hold information that the other might require in order to make a voluntary, rational, self-interested decision.
Some extreme libertarians would argue that if either the buyer or the seller is deceived, then its the fault of the individual parties themselves: "Buyer Beware!" and that the government still has no right to get involved. In late nineteenth-century United States, the conditions for economic activity were based on this laissez faire governmental policy. As a result, consumers were never really sure what they were getting for their money. This was especially problematic in the patent medicine industry, which sold "medicines" by promising unsubstantiated miracle cures. That's why today we have the Food and Drug Administration, which protects us from false advertising of drugs and medical devices. For a libertarian, life is like a game of chess. The participants play by the same impartial rules. However, these rules themselves do not guarantee that any one particular individual wins or loses, but only that the competition is conducted fairly. Of course, some players may come to the game with more experience, skill, and/or intelligence and therefore they may be more likely to win the game. Libertarians, therefore, believe that winners and/or losers, in either chess or life, are part of the game. Since the concept of fairness is rooted the rules of competition, the purpose of government is limited to assuring fair competition for scarce resources.
The economic system known as market capitalism is a mainstay of libertarianism. Capitalists believe that all human beings naturally seek ownership of private property. This often precipitates competition for the most coveted, and therefore most valuable resources. Hence, in order for an individual to privately own any resource, it is often necessary to expend one's own time and/or already held resources. Hence, if I want to eat lunch in a fast food restaurant, it is necessary for me to exchange three or four dollars with the owner of the restaurant, who in turn must pay his suppliers and employees. Since the restaurant owner owns the hamburger that I want he/she therefore has a right to either sell it to me or not. If the hamburgers are especially good, then competition ensues. If more people want these burgers than the owner can produce, the rationally self-interested burger capitalist will probably the price of his product as high as possible in order to maximize his/her self interest and gain the greatest profit. I may either, choose to pay the higher price or spend my three or four dollars at another restaurant where the burgers are cheaper. If the quality of this competing capitalist's burger is high enough, other rationally self-interested burger freaks will gravitate toward the lower price. Value under a capitalist regime, then, is purely a function of what people are willing to pay. Is Deon Sanders worth $35 million? Of course, it may be that no capitalist is willing to make the burger transaction on my terms. If there is no one around willing to exchange the amount of money that I want to spend for a burger, then I must either reallocate my personal resources (skip a video rental for tonight) or save up more money. If I were starving to death, the restaurant owner may choose to give me a hamburger, but that would be considered a voluntary act of charity and therefore, not morally required. Libertarians believe that all acts of charity must be voluntary and that the government oversteps its boundaries when it taxes some of its citizens in order to provide charity for others.
Welfare Liberals acknowledge that competition for most scarce resources is probably unavoidable. However, they believe that, at least some very important resources (or needs) ought to be distributed equally and not simply awarded as prizes in open economic competition. They often point out that all competition occurs under unequal circumstances. If I were to play chess against Bobby Fisher, even though the rules of engagement seem impartial, I cannot reasonably expect to win. Indeed, some of us are naturally advantaged with unearned genetic and/or social advantages such as intelligence, speed, agility, and even good looks. Others are disadvantaged. As long as Bobby and I are competing for some trivial award, there is no problem. However, if the stakes include needs, or those resources essential to the preservation of our lives, then competition between us is considered to be unfair. Even though we might play by the same rules, we come to the game with unearned and unequal natural attributes. While libertarians believe the function of government is to preside over a mediated form of Darwinism, where the naturally advantaged win and the naturally disadvantaged lose, Welfare liberals argue that the primary function of government is to redistribute, at least some resources.
Therefore, if libertarians favor small government with minimal interference in voluntary choices of individuals, welfare liberals favor intervention by government on behalf of the least advantaged segments of society: the poor, the sick, the elderly and children. Welfare liberals often defend this view based on rational self-interest: "Since any one of us can become disadvantaged at any time, even those of us who are presently greatly advantaged, it is in our collective rational self-interested to agree to contribute toward welfare." So for libertarians, the rights of individuals are generally construed as negative rights, which guarantee only a right to compete for scarce resources without interference from others or the government, unless that pursuit harms others. Welfare liberals, claim at least some positive rights for all citizens, which guarantee actual possession of at least some resources, without having to compete. Welfare liberals, therefore, must necessarily use the power of the government to (sometimes forcibly) take resources away from advantaged individuals (usually through a progressive income tax) and redistribute some of those resources to the least advantaged. Some commonly proposed positive rights or entitlements include: the right to basic health care, the right to competent legal assistance, the right to a sufficient quantity of food, and the right to basic shelter. Issue to Think About Are you a libertarian or a welfare liberal? If you are a welfare liberal, which, if any, of the following do you think the government ought to distribute equally: education, basic health care, basic housing, economic security in old age, clean air and water, competent legal representation, or a safe workplace.
Historically speaking, liberalism was a product of the Enlightenment. Communitarianism was primarily an outgrowth of the Reformation. If liberalism sought to emancipate individuals, communitarianism sought to emancipate groups or communities. Recall from your history classes that prior to the Reformation the Catholic church monopolized religious life throughout Europe. Any religious groups and/or individuals that disagreed with church authorities were subjected to coercive measures and forced into conformity. Remember Galileo? The Reformation broke the monopoly held by the Catholic church and opened the door for the creation of hundreds of protestant religious groups beginning with Lutheranism. Hence, governmental toleration for religious groups became more common. In contrast to the atomic individualism characteristic of both strands of liberalism communitarianism emphasizes our social or communal nature. Communitarianism, therefore takes the view that human beings are not really natural atomic individuals at all, but rather imbedded selves; that is, our actual wants and desires are conditioned by our social interaction within a community.
My boys both wanted Starter Jackets. Why? Because a large number of students in their school have them. Indeed their taste in clothing and music is largely dictated by the community of students at school. Strictly speaking, then, their desire to own a Starter Jacket or listen to the music of Green Day, it are not really a matter of free choice. Their community at schoolís taste in clothing, in turn, is conditioned by television advertising. Catholic schools seek to minimize the communal effect of advertising on the minds of students by requiring uniforms. They don't see it as violating the personal liberty of students, since student wants are not an expression of atomic individuality, but rather blind conformity to corporate advertising. Communitarians regard liberalism's commitment to unembeded individualism ,conceived independent from its social context, as a convenient myth at best. Are most of your individual wants a matter of personal choice or are they the product of manipulative advertising? Association and relationship with others, communitarians argue, is natural, a part of the good life, a virtue, and can be conceived of as an "end in itself." Moreover, they believe that it is possible to prescribe a single concept of the good life that all the individuals in a given community ought to pursue. For example, here in Cincinnati, pornography is regarded as incompatible with community standards and therefore discouraged by zoning laws. Boys high school sports, especially football and basketball, are encouraged by the community.
Obviously, the problem here is deciding who sets these community standards? Critics of communitarianism argue that community standards are ultimately set by a few powerful individuals, who may or may not believe that they are setting those standards objectively. Hence, communitarians often advocate legal moralism as a liberty-limiting principle. Politically, communitarianism tends toward aristocracy (or theocracy) rather than democracy. Here in Cincinnati many of these communitarian attitudes are cultivated by the local newspapers. Although some argue that the local newspaper merely reflects community values, liberals say that the newspapers are forcing their own personal perception of the good life on the rest of us. Defenders of communitarianism say that tradition, more than anything else, frames the good life for a community. Therefore, some social practices become imbedded in the community over a long period of time. Critics, however, say that tradition is often little more than a reflection of the effectiveness of a community's coercive measures, and are and not necessarily indicative of objective "Goodness." Communitarians regard the satisfaction of at least some collective wants and desires as "positive rights;" but these rights are not grounded in a theory of justice, but rather in the love, care, and friendship of others. Hence, the most important values for communitarianism are: community, friendship, caring, and conformity. Of course, in reality not all communities exemplify these values.
There are two main rifts within communitarianism. The first is over scale (or size) of the ideal community, the second is over the role of free will and democratic political institutions. The issue of scale recognizes that there are differing views concerning the possibility of creating large-scale, or even global, political structures that actually promote human fulfillment. Large-scale communitarians believe that it is possible to form large political units that promote human well being. e.g. Communist China or the old Soviet Union. On the other side there are small-scale communitarians who find human fulfillment only in small, intimate, inter-personal relationships as found in families, religious organizations, and local communities. Interestingly, libertarians and small-scale communitarians, therefore, share a deep suspicion of increased power of the central state and view the proliferation of large-scale bureaucratic institutions as a potential threat to the existence of these smaller, more intimate communities that truly define human fulfillment and individuality. Critics, of small-scale communitarianism, including some welfare liberals and socialists, point out that even small groups, especially the patriarchal nuclear family, can be incompatible with human fulfillment. They, therefore, seek refuge in larger-scale political entities that protect them from the tyranny of small-scale communities. Other critics of small-scale communitarianism argue that the proliferation of independent, autonomus, self-defining communities invariably leads to large-scale relativism between those communities and the denial of any universal, inter-communal concept of the good. Hence, any collection of small-scale communities will end up competing with each other for scarce resources and eventually end up at war. The American Civil War was a good example of how large-scale federalists conflicted with small scale communitarians who advocated states rights. A second point of philosophical contention between communitarians is a disagreement over the use of coercive measures. Of course, most communities are formed around common belief systems. Indeed all communitarians embrace these community values over individual values. However, if individualism and free will are totally rejected as moral values, then the political question arises as to what kinds of techniques can a community employ in its attempts to insure conformity to their collective beliefs. For example, some religious groups employ well-known psychological techniques to produce conformity; known as "brain-washing" or "indoctrination." Other religious groups do not employ such coercive methods but merely rely on education. However, critics point out that as a community grows in population and geographical expanse, the more difficult it becomes to maintain voluntariness. Indeed communitarian regimes, may impinge on voluntariness in at least four ways.
First, many such communities use highly sophisticated techniques of indoctrination that make defection to another community psychologically difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, liberal regimes tend to regulate "brainwashing" as practiced by its communitarian sub-communities. Of course, the line between brainwashing and legitimate education will always be murky. Second, some particular communitarian regimes occupy geographical space. (e.g. an Italian-American neighborhood). The larger the area consumed, the more difficult it may become for discontents to leave that community because of transportation and/or moving costs. Hence, large public schools and public school districts tend to limit institutional options for those students that cannot afford to move to another district. Third, as common interests are identified (e.g. common defense needs) any confederation of communitarian societies will probably generate movement toward federalism. In the United States, this movement has fostered a longstanding debate over the nature and extent of federalism vs. states rights. Alexander Hamilton, among others realized that there would always be non-liberal forces at work to install one communitarian regime. The goal of liberalism is to resist this. Fourth, a confederation of voluntary communities would invariably include voluntary intolerant communities such as the Neo-Nazis. Depending on how this intolerance is exercised in relationships with other voluntary communities, these groups may precipitate eminity between opposing groups and perhaps even civil war. e.g. present day Bosnia. However, if the expression of intolerance is restricted to the area of speech, then a liberal society would be obligated to respect it. Of course, this would require a rock solid distinction between speech and acts, which modern liberalism has been unable to sustain. Recall that liberalism, with its respect for free will and individualism, eschews all coercive measures and all forms of association are purely voluntary. Communitarians, however, are divided. Some are social determinists and deny free will altogether and therefore they may not embrace democratic principles. Politically, they tend to favor theocracy or aristocracy. However, some communitarians accept at at least a sliver of free will and individualism. Therefore, they limit the coercive power of government and defend democratic political principles.
Issue to Think About
Do you think human beings are "atomic individuals" or are they "imbedded in communities?" How do each of these views imply different political orientations?
Many communitarians favor a republican form of government, which requires the cultivation of certain qualities of character among its citizens. So in contrast to liberal democracies where "the right preceeds the good," in a republic, "the good preceeds the right." Republican communitarians, therefore, seek to promote standards of excellence consistent with the good of the whole community. These standards are most often found in the ethical writings of Plato and Aristotle called virtue ethics. In the broadest sense, virtue means excellence. Hence, anything subject to degrees the degrees of good, better, and best has virtue. Although we can talk about the virtue of a specific kind of computer over others, the Greeks most often referred to virtue in the context of human behavior. They believed that moral virtue consists in choosing the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Vice consists in choosing either excess or deficiency. Hence, the virtue of courage lies midway between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Moral virtue, according to the Greeks, is an intrinsically good character trait. It is a disposition of an individual to act in a certain way, under certain circumstances. These habits or dispositions are promoted in culture through social institutions, especially institutions of education.
The idea is to encourage desirable habitual behaviors (virtuous) behavior and discourage undesirable (vicious) behaviors. For example, the virtue of courage leads to good behavior and cowardice leads to bad. The standard of the virtue of courage varies between individuals and in different kinds of situations. For example, under conditions of war, the standard of courage would be different for soldiers and civilians. There are situations in war where acts are foolhardy and the courageous act consists in retreat. It would be irrational to expect soldiers and civilians to act the same way under battle conditions. Moral education must begin at an early age and consists in developing the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes. Moral character is, therefore, cultivated in children by teaching them to emulate the behavior of virtuous adults. A child becomes virtuous when he/she habitually does the right thing and experiences pleasure upon doing it. Although knowing what the right thing to do is a necessary condition for virtue, it is not sufficient. You must also do the right thing. Hence, Aristotle made a distinction between virtue and continence. An incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but is unable to do it because he/she is driven more by base feelings than reason. A continent person knows the right thing to do and even succeeds in doing it, but he/she does not feel pleasure upon doing it. In contrast, a virtuous person is not driven by base feelings and therefore feels good upon doing the right thing. A adult habitually prone toward excess or deficiency has a vicious character and will always act that way. Rehabilitation is rare. That's why both Plato and Aristotle were advocates of rigorous childhood moral education. While the Greeks favored Aristocracy as a form of government, some recent communitarians advocate cultivating character traits that are essential for participation in democratic self-government. For example, they argue that democracies must cultivate civic virtues such as friendship and caring in children in order to prepare them to cooperate in a communal setting. When children are raised in a culture based on self-interest, meaningful communal relationships become difficult to sustain.
Issue to Think About
Do you use the word "virtue" in your everyday moral discussions? What are the Christian virtues? Should the government attempt to shape the character of its citizens?
Moral philosophers often debate the conceptual relationships legal acts and moral acts. There are many ways to approach these issues. First let's look at the common ground. First of all, both legality and morality are prescriptive concepts, which means that they point to the way things ought to be, and not necessarily the way things are. Of course we can describe the legal codes and moral codes of any social or cultural group. "Abortion has been legal in the United States since the 1970s." That is a true statement!
However, many argue that the fact that it is legal act does not mean that it is a moral act. Therefore, its important to recognize that there are differences between legal and moral acts. Obviously, not all legal acts are moral acts and not all moral acts are legal acts. It would be perfectly legal for you to cheat on your ethics exam, in the sense that you will not be prosecuted under any local, state, or federal United States statutes.(It is, however, illegal here at the College of Mount St. Joseph.) Cheating is obviously immoral by most moral standards, but it would not be immoral if you did so in order to avoid violating another more salient moral principle. Hence, you may cheat on my exams if the mafia forces you to do it at gunpoint.
Philosophically there are two different ways of looking at legality and morality. They correspond to the difference between teleological and deontological theories, which I discussed earlier in this essay. Based on teleological principles, the difference between legality and morality can be reduced to how the rules are enforced. We might argue that a legal act is enforced by some form of government by invoking legal sanctions such as fines, or jail time; while a moral act is enforced by tradition by invoking moral sanctions such as labeling violaters as "bad" or "immoral." Obviously, the biggest problem for enforcing moral laws is that many people don't care if we label them immoral, or shun them. That's why we transform many of our most salient moral principles involving the harm principle are into legal principles enforced by legal sanctions.
Based on deontological principles we can follow Immanuel Kant and make a distinction between a good person and a good citizen. A good person is someone who does the right thing out of duty in accordance with moral principles. A good citizen is someone who does the right thing out of fear of getting caught and punished by government. A good person is internally motivited while the good citizen is externally motivated.
In the final analysis, questions of legality and morality boil down to political philosophy. In totalitarian regimes morality is enforced through legality. In liberal democracies, only the most salient moral principles are enforced by government. Most human actions are regulated through tradition. However, do not underestimate the power of the public sanction. As John Stewart Mill pointed out, democracy can lead to a different form of tyranny, called "tyranny of the masses." Indeed, many communities can regulate the behavior of their members without the benefit of legal sanctions.
Issues to Think About
1. Should abortion be made illegal and enforced by government or should it be left a moral issue that is decided by individuals and sub-communities?
2. If there is a conflict between your moral convictions and a particular civil law, should you act in accordance with your moral conscience or your civic duty? Do you have a moral obligation to get bad laws changed? What is a bad law?