- In Chapter 2 I argue that we can have moral knowledge. The criteria for determining whether a particular moral judgment is true or false are discovered by seeing how we argue in moral debate. These criteria are the reasons we give for our positions: the considerations on which we ultimately fall back to justify our conclusions. These criteria constitute the most fundamental moral principles. Moreover, they are truth conditions of moral judgments and determine their meaning. I maintain that meaning is similarly determined in all areas of discourse, not just in ethics.
- The meanings of moral terms and what counts as a fundamental, meaning-determining principle could change, just as meanings and basic beliefs may change in other fields. But in ethics there are limits to what changes are likely to occur. These limits are set by the underlying purpose for which we have ethical systems. Ethical systems develop out of the desire all people have to realize their own goals and get what they want. Since people's wants and goals often conflict, they look for ways of protecting their interests against the encroachments of others. Thus moral rules are made which set limits on what people are allowed to do to others.
- Some moral rules, however, may not be acceptable to everyone. No one likes to have his purposes thwarted, but most people are willing to give up a few things they might want if they can
… (1) see that everyone's following the rules will bring significant benefits and
… (2) know that the rules apply to everyone alike.
In other words, the rules are acceptable if they are beneficial and fair. These criteria of beneficence and fairness are used to judge rules as well as actions. If rules fail to satisfy these criteria, they are often criticized, at least when people have the freedom to say what they think. As a result of such criticism rules may be abandoned or changed. Often people accept a rule uncritically until they come in contact with other societies which do not follow that rule, yet appear to get along at least as well as they do. Thus new information about how others live can result in changing moral standards. Of course, rules may be abandoned just because people don't want to be bothered with them; however, they, or replacements for them, are likely to be (re)adopted if they are missed: if people then see that they are better off having such a rule.
- A rule which people keep for long periods of time, versions of which are found in many and various societies, and which survives criticism in places where open debate is encouraged, is what I call well-established. An adequate moral theory is one which will enable us to explain well-established beliefs and rules. A theory that is in conflict with, or leaves out, some well-established moral tenets is suspect. Utilitarianism, for example, has often been criticized because it seems to require us to do things that most of us think are unfair: e.g., to hurt one person terribly if this will bring great benefits to many people. Whether this criticism is just or not, ignoring the well-established view that people should not benefit at the expense of others would be a reason to reject any moral theory.
- In Chapter 3 I argue that there are two basic moral principles which together can account for all well-established moral beliefs and rules. That is, these beliefs and rules can be seen as applications of the two principles. One of these principles is that of beneficence: we should do things to bring happiness to people and avoid causing unhappiness. The other is that of fairness: we ought not to increase the happiness of some when this makes it difficult or impossible for others to achieve a like degree of happiness. Happiness at a given time may be approximately characterized as wanting things to continue as they are. Happiness over an extended period is the relative proportion of time that a person is content with her situation. People can be made more or less happy by what would make them content for a larger or smaller proportion of the time. In practice people are happy when they are active: enjoying what they are doing and deeply involved in it, or pursuing goals which are important to them and which they have reasonable prospects of reaching. They are unhappy when they don't want to be doing what they are doing, yet can't avoid it or see it as leading to something they do want. They are also unhappy if they spend a lot of time wishing things were different, but are unwilling or unable to change their situation.
- The two principles of beneficence and fairness are in turn applications of a single principle which I call the central purpose of morality. This purpose is to promote the happiness of everyone to the greatest extent that is compatible with a like degree of happiness for all. This purpose is not necessarily something people have in mind when they are deciding what is right or wrong to do. Like many purposes, it is often only recognized in the breach: when we see that doing something would lead to a situation we believe to be wrong. For example, people quite rightly think it good to earn money for the security of their families. Yet some ways of earning money may make it impossible for others to make a decent living at all. So if Peter owns a sweat shop and is able to get very rich by paying his employees Paul and Paula starvation wages, Peter is increasing the happiness of himself and his family at the expense of Paul and Paula. In other words, Peter's benefiting himself and his family to a very high degree results in his employees' being unable to come even close to achieving such a level of happiness. He is following the principle of beneficence in a way which violates fairness unacceptably. The central purpose of morality enables us to see here where beneficence should be limited by fairness.
- To take another example, suppose Paul and Paula, enraged over the injustices of people like Peter, join a revolution which overthrows the government and destroys Peter's factory, his mansion, and everything else he owns. Now they are no better off, and Peter is just as miserable as they are. Is this a better situation? According to the central purpose of morality, it isn't. Morality is concerned with making people happy and can't be furthered by making others unhappy. If Peter can be rich without causing others to be poor, that is all right. Everyone doesn't have to be equally well off in a morally acceptable world; this would be an impossible goal. Destroying what someone has just to bring him down to the level of others when the destruction does nothing to help those others, is merely spiteful.
Although the central purpose of morality provides us with an overall moral guideline, we are not required to spend our lives pursuing it. There are three categories of moral judgments:
… Those saying what is best to do.
… Those saying what we ought to do.
... Those saying what we are obligated to do.
What is best for someone to do is what will most contribute to promoting the central purpose. What she ought to do is what is necessary for her to do to avoid hindering the central purpose. What she is obligated to do is what she not only ought to do, but for which there is and ought to be a sanction against her failing to do. For example, the best thing Alice might do is to go to some third world country and spend her life serving the poor. Yet if she doesn't do this, she won't be responsible for any poor person's going hungry, and she won't be doing anything wrong by choosing a different career. We might say, though, that she ought to give some of her time or money to help people who are worse off than she is, because unless people in general do this, much misery will go unrelieved. Furthermore, it would be unfair for people with means not to take on a share of the burdens of helping the less fortunate. Yet the extent to which people ought to contribute to charity is not clearly defined and there certainly is much freedom to choose which charities to support. The situation changes, however, if Alice makes a commitment to do or give something specific for a given cause. She then becomes obligated, and if she fails to do what she promised, she will be deserving of criticism, and surely will be criticized.
- This three-fold distinction among different types of moral judgments enables us to see how a person may be good and decent without being a saint. It allows us to distinguish situations in which a person is worthy of blame for her failings from those in which she simply misses opportunities to do good. These distinctions will be useful when we come to discuss practical questions. Furthermore, they provide us with a means of classifying rights: rights may be either background rights or institutional rights. An individual has a background right to something if others ought not to interfere with his having it and there ought to be sanctions (i.e., blame or punishment) against those who do. He has an institutional right if there not only ought to be sanctions, but there are sanctions.
- In Chapters 4 and 5 I try to show how this theory can be applied to solving a complex moral problem: whether or not to perform surgery on a severely retarded baby. In order to deal with such problems we need to assess the effects of different courses of action on the happiness of a given person, and we also need to balance the happiness of different people so that the interests of one will not be promoted at the expense of another To do this is not easy, partly because it is hard to tell just how happy a person is. We need to observe someone very closely indeed to have even a rough idea of how content he is. Even if he tells us about his feelings, these reports may not be accurate. Moreover, we cannot always know how much some event in the future will contribute to his contentment.
- People can react very differently to the same sorts of happenings — e.g., one person loses a job and is thrown into despair; another loses a job and turns this setback into a golden opportunity. These reactions depend not only on the person's own makeup but on countless accompanying events, many of which we may know nothing about.
- While we must admit that it is often very difficult and even impossible to know how our actions will affect the happiness of individuals, and thus difficult or impossible to know whether a given course of action is right or wrong, all is not lost. We cannot directly affect the happiness of others very often, but we can do much to provide people with, or take from them, the means of happiness. There are many things that contribute in different degrees to the happiness of anyone. Some things are necessary if happiness is to be possible at all: e.g., being alive and having the things that keep one alive, such as food, protection from the elements and life-preserving medical care. I call these Level 1 goods. Others goods people might be happy without, but their chances of happiness are markedly hindered by their absence. These goods include health, education, the love and esteem of other people, opportunities for achievement, and freedom of action. These I have called Level 2 goods. Still other goods enhance happiness, but are usually not major contributors to it. Typically, the extent to which they add to happiness differ widely with the individual. A person who loves the outdoors will find much more happiness in a backpacking trip to the mountains than someone who values physical comfort very highly. Goods of this sort I call Level 3. Sometimes what are usually Level 3 goods can become Level 2 goods. For example, automobiles would usually count as a Level 3 good; however, for a community economically dependent upon the automobile industry, or for people whose work depends on being able to travel long distances frequently, they could be a Level 2 good.
- Goods at all three levels are frequently measurable in objective terms, even though their effects on happiness for a given individual may not be. We can also assess what level a given good is for a given person and thus see what might be more important for his wellbeing. And in situations where the interests of different people conflict, we may at least see that it is wrong to sacrifice the Level 1 goods of some to bring Level 2 goods to others, or force some to give up Level 2 goods so that someone else may have Level 3 goods. There are many ethical problems that cannot be resolved by assessing goods in this way, but that sometimes answers are not available is a sad fact with which we must live.
Part II: Theory and Justification
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)