THE MORAL PRINCIPLES
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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
5.13 Welfare Liberalism
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?
2. CONSCIENCE AND INTUITION
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?
3. PRESCRIPTIVE THEORIES
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?
4. TELEOLOGICAL AND DEONTOLOGICAL
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
4.1 TELEOLOGICAL ETHICAL 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.
4.2 DEONTOLOGICAL THEORIES
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.
4.21 DIVINE COMMAND 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
4.22 NATURAL LAW THEORY
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
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?
5. THE FIVE MORAL PRINCIPLES
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.
5.1 PRINCIPLE OF UTILITY
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
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."
5.12 CLASSICAL UTILITARIANISM
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.
5.13 PREFERENCE UTILITARIANISM
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
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? .
5.2 PRINCIPLE OF BENEFICENCE
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?
5.4 PRINCIPLE OF NONMALEFICENCE
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?
5.5 THE LIBERTY PRINCIPLE
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
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?
5.6 PRINCIPLE OF JUSTICE
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
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?
6. SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY:
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.
5.13 WELFARE LIBERALISM
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
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
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?
5. 21 REPUBLICAN VIRTUE ETHICS
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
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?
6.0 LEGALITY AND MORALITY
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?