Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton


III. The Principles of Ethics

Ethics is about human beings. The values that we have appealed to quite uncritically in the preceding stories--values of food for the hungry, of fair treatment, of neighborhood peace and respect for rights--are not arbitrary or merely conventional. We can discover their foundations in the life of the human being, and derive them from fundamental aspects of human nature. The human being, and human nature, are endlessly complex, of course; yet the human being is universally recognizable to others of the species, and their preferences are very generally predictable. So if we avoid the complexities of the outer limits of human potentiality, it should be possible to say enough about the fundamentals of human morality just from the easily discoverable truths about the human being. In the course of the discussion, we will make some initial attempts to foreshadow the major ethical orientations which philosophers have, through our history, adopted, as reflective of these most basic moral principles.

Then what are human beings about? Given the normative premise, that moral principles must be appropriate to human life if they are to govern human life, three basic, simple, readily observable facts about human beings determine the structure of our moral obligations:

1. People Are Embodied

People are animals. They have bodies. They are matter; they exist in time and space and are subject to physical laws. These bodies are organic processes, requiring regular sustenance internally, and suffering all manner of slings and arrows of violent change externally. They experience pain, deprivation, and danger. They are prone to periodic failure unpredictably and to ultimate failure inevitably; they are mortal.

Then people have needs that must be satisfied if they are to survive. They need at least food, water, and protection from the elements and natural enemies. That means that they must control the physical environment to make from it the means to those ends. Failure to do so will lead quickly to pain and suffering. These are inevitable in any case; in this way we are reminded of our mortality.

The first and immediate implication for ethics is that, if we have any reason to care about human beings, then the relief of that suffering and the satisfaction of those needs should be our first concern. In philosophical terms, human need and vulnerability to harm give rise to duties of compassion (for suffering), non-maleficence (avoiding harm), and more generally, beneficence: working to satisfy human need, maximize human happiness, optimize human interests in all respects.

In general, the moral reasoning that takes help and harm to human beings as the primary determinant of the rightness of action is called "utilitarianism," following John Stuart Mill's description of that reasoning. (Mill, Utilitarianism, 1859)

2. People Are Social

Social animals regularly live in large groups of their own kind (i.e., in groups containing several to many active adult males); individuals raised apart from such groups exhibit behavior that is, and they are themselves, abnormal for the species. Whatever problems, therefore, that people have with their physical environment, they will have to solve in groups. They will soon discover that this necessity produces a new set of problems; they must cope with a social environment as well as the physical one. That social environment produces two further needs: for a social structure to coordinate social efforts, and for a means of communication adequate to the complex task of such coordination. The need for communication is fulfilled by the evolution of language.

The implication for ethics is that, given that there are so many of us, we must take account of each other in all our actions. We come saddled by nature with obligations, to the group in general and to other members of the group in particular, that we cannot escape or evade. Normal people (not psychopaths) seem to know this without being told. By nature human beings try, most of the time, to do good and avoid evil, in advance of knowing just what counts as good or evil. The attempt to do good, to others as to oneself, involves the adoption of "the moral point of view," or a stance of impartiality with regard to the distribution of benefits and burdens. Fairness, or justice, demands that we subject our actions to rule, and that the rule be the same for all who are similarly situated. What will make an act "right," ultimately, is not just that it serves individual happiness but that it serves the whole community; people are equal, and since equality is itself a value (derived from "equal dignity") the society must deal with them equally unless good reason is given for differential treatment.

A philosopher who has made Justice central to his theory of society is John Rawls; Rawls points out that the duty of justice may require us to favor just those persons who would not succeed in getting their claims recognized if personal power, or even majority benefit, were to determine the distribution. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1970)

3. People Are Rational

Normal adult human beings are able to consider abstract concepts, use language, and think in terms of categories, classes and rules. Since Immanuel Kant, we have recognized three categories of thought that characterize the way human beings deal with the objects and events of the world. These are time (when did something happen? in the past, the present, the future; and how long did it take? duration); space (where is some object? or how far away is it? location, bulk, distance); and causation (how did something happen? what brought it about? antecedents, agencies, powers, consequences). "Rationality," of course, in our ordinary discourse, means a good deal more than the basic ability to think in terms of when, where and how. Ordinarily we use the word to distinguish calm and dispassionate decision making from "emotional" or disorganized decision making; we use it to distinguish people capable of making good decisions from people who are not. But for our purposes here, we need go no further with the word. The creature that is "rational" will think, on occasion, in general terms, about classes and laws, extending over time, space, and possibility, while the creature that is "not rational" will think, if at all, only about particular (individual) objects or events.

Since people are rational, they can make rational choices. When people think about action they think in terms of classes of acts as well as individual acts. For instance, if my neighbor has a particularly attractive knife, and I desire to take it from him, and am currently making plans to do so, I shall make my plans based on what I already know about all cases of people taking things from other people. And I can contemplate not only those past acts of taking, and the present plan to take that knife, but all cases that will ever be of taking, especially of knives--future acts as well as past and present acts. But in that case I am thinking of action not yet taken, of action therefore undetermined, for which real alternatives exist. Since people can conceive of alternatives, they can choose among them--having thought over the circumstances, and deliberated on the outcomes, they can decide what to do. Put another way: I do not have to take that knife, if I have not yet done it. People are free, as we say, or autonomous moral agents. But then they can also realize that they could have done differently--I did not have to take the knife, and given my neighbor's understandable grief and anger at its loss, maybe I should not have. That is, I can feel guilt and remorse and assume responsibility for having chosen as I did.

As far as we know, we are alone among the animals in possession of this ability. And since people can conceive of classes of acts for which alternatives exist, they can make laws to govern acts in the future, specifying that the citizens (or whoever may be bound by the law) ought to act one way rather than another: for instance that no one ought to take things that do not belong to them, and that such takings, henceforth to be called "theft," shall be collectively punished. General obligations can be formulated and articulated for a whole society. Collectively (acting in their groups), people make collective choices, especially choices of rules, rather than relying on instinct; and they are then collectively responsible for those choices and individually responsible for abiding by them.

Rationality's implication for ethics is that, as freedom of choice is the characteristic that sets humans apart from the other animals, if we have any duty to respect human beings at all, it is this choice that we must respect. Persons are categorically different from the things of the physical world: they have dignity, inherent worth, rather than mere price or dollar value; they are bearers of rights and subjects of duties rather than mere means to our ends or obstacles to our purposes. Our duty of respect for persons, or respect for persons as autonomous beings, requires that we allow others to be free, to make their own choices and live their own lives; especially, we are required not to do anything to them without their consent.

Just as utilitarianism makes human happiness central to ethics, and the Rawlsian account of fairness makes justice central, a complete theoretical account of ethics can follow from the value of human autonomy. The philosopher most identified with the centrality of autonomy and moral agency to ethical theory is Immanuel Kant (Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)

4. The Human Condition

In summary: By 3, above, humans have minds, or as the philosophers call it, a rational nature; and by 1, above, humans have an apparently limitless capacity for physical and psychological suffering. Rationality and suffering are not found together anywhere else; possibly the angels have the first, and surely all beasts possess the second, but only human beings appear to be able to reflect upon their own suffering and contemplate the suffering of others of their kind, and that sets them apart from all creation. By virtue of rationality, human persons possess dignity and command respect. Ultimately, that respect entails the willingness to let other people make their own choices, develop their own moral nature, and live their lives in freedom. By virtue of that abysmal capacity for suffering, the human condition cries out for compassion and compels attention to human well-being and the relief of pain. And by 2, above, this condition is shared; we are enjoined not only to serve human need and respect human rights, but to establish justice by constructing a political and legal structure which will distribute fairly the burdens and benefits of life on this earth in the society of humans. These most general concepts: human welfare, human justice, and human dignity--are the source and criteria for evaluation of every moral system authored by human beings.

The same concepts are the source of every moral dilemma. Attention to human welfare requires us to use the maximization of human happiness (for the greatest number of individuals) as our criterion of right action; attention to the needs of groups, and of social living, requires us to set fairness for all above benefit for some as our criterion; yet duty can require that we set aside both the feelings of the groups and the happiness of the individual in the name of respect for human dignity. To protect the welfare of many it is often necessary to limit the liberty of the individual (the liberty to operate dangerous or noisy vehicles without a license, for instance). On the small scale as well as the large, to respect the liberty of persons is not always to further their best interests, when they choose against those interests (for instance, by taking addictive drugs or by spending themselves into debt). To maintain a rough equality among persons, it is often necessary to put unequal demands on the interests of some of them (by progressive taxation, for example). To preserve the community, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the interests of the few--but that course seems to discount the worth of the few, and so to violate justice.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998





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