Or Three Perspectives on Ethical Decision
A sketch of some basic moral principles
and how they should be applied
In this lecture I want to raise the following questions: Are there any basic moral principles that we can learn to understand and apply correctly in our daily work and relationships?
And if so, which are these principles and how can we formulate them? I do in fact think that some basic moral principles exist, and I also believe that we know at least implicitly which they are, although we may have great problems in formulating them properly. I presume that these principles are deeply related to the cherished values of justice, love, and freedom. These terms refer to ideals and standards by which we evaluate our institutions and actions and in the light of which we make decisions in moral matters.
These ideals and standards are by nature controversial. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, they are complex phenomena and may seemingly be defined convincingly in various ways, or to put it another way, there is no proper definition of justice, love, or freedom. To take one example, it is not strictly speaking wrong to say that freedom is to be able to do what one wants, but it is quite inadequate if we suppose that that is what freedom is all about. On the other hand, the significance of these ideals is different from one society to another, and from one time to another, depending upon social factors about which we may know very little. To take a second example, love does not seem to mean quite the same thing to the Ancient Greeks, the Christian monks in the Middle Ages, and the Romantic poets of the 19th century. And it probably has still another significance today. Nevertheless, there is a central meaning attached to the word love which presumably is always the same. (Love always seems to have something to do with both desire – Eros – and charity – Agape.)
The complexity and the different significance of these values presents the study of ethics as a theoretical discipline with a threefold task: firstly, it has to describe and explain morality as such and tell us what is morally good or bad; secondly, it must set up the standards by which we are told what is morally right to do; and thirdly, it has to teach us how to avoid corruption and become better people. Accordingly, we can speak of explanatory ethics, normative ethics, and therapeutic ethics. This division reflects the internal complexity of ordinary moral thinking. In daily life we ask what makes life worth living (e.g. is it what I receive from life or is it rather what I create by myself?); we ask what our duties are (e.g. what exactly am I supposed to do as a teacher, as a doctor, as a parent, or in this or that situation?); and we also ask how we are to become virtuous persons (e.g. how am I to get rid of my bad habits or become a better parent?).
I will first describe our common moral situation as I perceive it, and then proceed to discuss two questions that I believe are of great importance to everybody who sincerely wants to come to grips with our situation. The first question is about the basic values of life. The second question is about the main views of morality that are discussed today. And subsequently I will touch upon one urgent ethical issue which is at stake in modern society and presents itself in an acute form within various fields of endeavor.
Nowadays, our ordinary moral thinking is under a tremendous strain, for two reasons. On the one hand, it is brought into a kind of competition with a mode of thinking that is quite different in nature. Of course I have in mind the technological thinking which in our times has become the dominant cast of mind, at least in Western societies. While the main criteria of ethical thinking are good and evil or right and wrong, technological thinking has as its main criteria efficiency and considers only effectiveness in all our operations, how to make things go faster, how to reduce cost, etc.
On the other hand, people today may have to face the fact that their neighbors have quite different moral standards that they may nevertheless have to recognize to be as valid as their own, even if they find them repulsive and unacceptable for themselves. They have to do so because we live in a pluralistic society that seems to admit conflicting moral principles as being equally valid, the same action being accepted as both right and wrong at the same time (e.g. that abortion is considered both morally right and morally wrong within a given society). This contradiction, which seems to be written into contemporary ethical pluralism, has lead many people to think that there are no objective standards of morality, that justice is finally nothing but a matter of convention, if not of taste or, if you like, an arbitrary matter. If I say that something is right, then it is right – at least for me! And you have to respect that it is right for me, even if it is wrong for you. This tolerance is fine – until we realize that it leads us into a position where the objective character of moral standards is denied, and nothing – absolutely nothing – is considered right or wrong in itself, but rather as a matter for arbitrary decision. This leads to an ethical nihilism that has been growing as a natural, but ill-fated, reaction to moralistic paternalism, which tells people how to behave and does not tolerate diversity in customs and life-styles.
Ethical nihilism is nothing new among those who consider their personal power, fame, or wealth to be the only things worth fighting for. But the fact that many people believe that they can decide by themselves what is right and what is wrong is something new and most peculiar. Technological thinking is nothing new either, and there have always been people who have been fascinated by the latest technological innovations. In fact, there is nothing wrong with that as such. But the fact that many people take technological thinking to be the only rational way of thinking about human life and the universe is something new. It is also profoundly disturbing, because it means putting aside considerations about the complex moral phenomena that pertain to the ideals of justice, love, and freedom, to mention again these three terms which refer to core elements of our moral world.
Of course these terms – justice, love, and freedom – are so solemn, so loaded with meaning, and used and misused to such an extent, that the idea of not having to employ them any more may feel liberating. It is like escaping from terrifying parents who do not let their children lead their own lives. I was in fact terrified of having – in a moment of carelessness, or was it arrogance? – composed the title of this paper, which may sound unbearably pretentious, and wanted to change it to something more neutral, such as “Three perspectives on ethical decision.
Do we seriously want to get rid of these burdensome notions of justice, love and freedom? If so, we only have to give in to the tyranny of the technological mind, which is not only ready to rule the external world of things and products, but also the internal world of our thoughts and desires. A friend of mine, a specialist on commercials, tells me that the ultimate dream in that technological field will be attained when people’s dreams at night will be interrupted every twenty minutes for a commercial break!
Technological thinking is indeed the greatest instrument of liberation at our disposal and we can use it to build up as well as to tear down whatever we fancy. For the last two centuries or so, we have inadvertently been using it to tear down old moral systems, and it is not clear what has replaced them. There is no doubt that what is most needed today is a commonly accepted moral system that people can use within modern technological environments in order to organize and lead their life together without meaningless fights and endless suffering. This is true even from a strictly technological perspective, because technological thought has no means of setting up its own goals. It goes wild and does the most horrible things if it is not led by ethical thinking. To say “this end is worth pursuing”, “this is what ought to be done”, “this is certainly good for you”, requires an ethical thought which evaluates and judges what is truly good and right for living beings on this planet. If modern technology is to be used properly, and we are not to be victims of the illusion of a complete technological control over life, we must reject ethical nihilism and try to see what matters in our morality.
I think there are two questions that have to be discussed, if we are to face our common moral situation and lay down some basic ethical principles. First, is it possible to grasp and explain some essential values that matter in human relationships, whatever people may happen to believe? Second, is it possible to grasp and explain clear ethical positions or perspectives that underlie the apparent moral pluralism of today?
I will try to answer the first question by mapping all possible values in the world, or rather the main areas of values that exist, because there is indeed an infinity of values in life. The time of our lives – by which I mean the real time, the time while we are truly aware of being alive, suffering, creating, or enjoying the moment – that time is measured by our scale of values. If we feel that our life is short, it is because we realize how small a part we have had of the infinity of values that life has offered us. And of course, it is not always easy to see what is truly in our interest. It may, for instance, be better to do a good deed and lose one’s health than keep one’s health and not do the good deed.
It goes without saying that a theory or a classification of the kind I am proposing is not and cannot be exhaustive. Life itself, with good health as its main quality, cannot be caught and put into a theoretical cage; the main characteristic of life is puissance or potentiality, its capacity for new beginnings, and to overthrow all powers that aim to tie it down.
According to my theory there are three basic kinds of values: worldly values, spiritual values and moral values.
Worldly values(like money, fame, and power) may be said to be external because they originate in institutions outside the individual. They are always contingent, limited in number, and people compete for them. Such values are related to us as corporeal beings and thus have a material basis. They may be divided into three categories:
– Economic values, which encompass those values that people need to live as physical beings (food, clothing, houses, tools). These values can be exchanged.
– Political values, powers that make it possible for people to make decisions which concern individuals, groups of people, or the community as a whole. People have such powers in virtue of their position (e.g. the power of a wife over her husband or the power of a prime minister over the members of his government).
– Social values, those values which allow people to enjoy fame or recognition within a given society (e.g. be invited to social events because of one’s name or position in society).
Spiritual values(like art, play, and understanding) may be said to be internal because they depend on people’s capabilities to understand, achieve, and feel. They are said to be eternal (not contingent), unlimited, and people do not compete for them.
Spiritual values are related to our mental faculties, like imagination, understanding, and feelings. They may be divided into three subclasses:
– Games. In this case imagination is the mental faculty which matters most, making it possible to create in one’s own mind a new situation for action and enjoyment.
– Science. In this case understanding is the mental faculty which matters most, making it possible to discern the causes of things.
– Arts. In this case feeling is the mental faculty which matters most, making it possible to receive the effects from and interact with the various phenomena of the world.
Moral values are neither external nor internal, but originate in our dealings with each other, i.e. in human relationships; they may seem both limited and unlimited, and sometimes people compete for them. These values are related to us as physical and spiritual beings. The moral values are, so to speak, situated between worldly and spiritual values.
There are basically three kinds of moral values depending on the kinds of relationship we may have (relationships between people in general, people who may know nothing about one another; personal relationships between friends and in groups like families; one's relationship to oneself).
– Justice is desirable in all relationships between living beings, because injustice creates evil both for those who commit evil and those who suffer it. Justice is thus the most important factor in all relationships between living beings.
– Love, faith, and friendship are desirable in all intimate or personal relationships, because it is natural for everybody to want tenderness and give it to others.
– Freedom and good judgment are desirable for all, because they are necessary for people to stand on their own feet and evaluate the values of life.
In daily life all these values – worldly, spiritual, and moral – mix and are not independent from one another. There is always a danger that our standards of evaluation, which of course are different from one area of value to another, get “mixed up” in such a way that we treat all values in the same way, for example spiritual and moral values as if they were worldly values, and worldly values as if they were spiritual or moral values. Then our value-judgments become confused or twisted. The main practical problem for every individual is to develop his or her own sense of the various values, and not to fall into the trap of concentrating on one set of values to the exclusion of others. All values are, or may become, important for each individual. But some values are obviously more important than others. For instance, it can hardly be doubted, in my view, that moral values are more basic than others: the distribution of all values, be they worldly or spiritual, is a matter of justice. It is a matter of justice that people have access to worldly values (say money) and spiritual values (say science).
One great problem of our welfare society is precisely the fact that people do not realize the importance of moral values or may believe wrongly that they have already been secured once and for all. Many people also believe falsely that our access to worldly and spiritual values guarantees the position of moral values in society. The fact is, that an abundance of worldly and spiritual values may make us blind to moral values and lead to corruption.
There is also the danger that we overestimate a specific moral value, say love, at the cost of other moral values, say justice and freedom. I take love as an example because of its central position in human lives. People break moral rules out of love, not realizing that by doing so they are doing wrong to those they love, e.g. when a parent covers up for the crimes of its child, thus aiding the child in becoming a criminal.
Before I try to explain how justice, love, and freedom have to be combined, let me turn to the second question I raised, namely how it is possible to grasp and explain the ethical positions or perspectives that underlie the apparent moral pluralism of today.
It seems to me that people’s ethical thinking falls into three categories or perspectives which I will here present in the form of three different views about how we should proceed when we make ethical decisions.
The first of these I call the role-specific view. According to that view, people have rights and duties because of, and according to, the position they hold in life, e.g. by being children, parents, teachers, nurses, doctors, patients and so on, to name just a few moral positions which we occupy either naturally or by our own decisions. (It does not really matter here whether it is natural or by one’s own decision.) These rights and duties, which define the various positions people hold in relation to one another, are objective in the sense that they are not just made up by us, but we discover them as specific facts of human life. People either see that such rights and duties exist, or they deny these facts. Of course we do not see these facts with our bare eyes, but that is also true for a lot of other facts. We do not see the force of gravity, although we see things fall to earth. In fact men did not have any idea of gravitation for thousands of years, although they knew that it is natural for things to fall down. In a similar way, people generally recognize that there is something appalling about killing newborn children or, in general, to taking people’s lives, or mutilating people or animals – although such things have been, and still are, practiced according to very questionable, man-made conventions. There has never been a society which does not have some ethical foundations in the rights and duties of people, according to their respective positions.
The second moral perspective I call the social contract view. According to that view, people have discovered that in order to survive in this world where life in its natural state is “nasty, brutish and short” – to quote one famous proponent of this view – people must make a contract to respect the lives of one another. The origin of morality is then considered to lie in the mutual interests of people in creating law and order to guarantee peace and security in the life struggle. Without such a contract each of us would be endangered by everybody else. Moreover, there exists a kind of natural equality among people, since we never know who will be the strongest and who will be the weakest in the end. To safeguard our interests we must take into account the possibility that we may be the weakest and make a contract that would assure the rights of those who have insufficient means to fight for themselves.
The third moral perspective I call the happiness view. When people are to make moral decisions they should use as a guiding principle the idea of what is truly good for people and makes them happy. Neither the positions of people nor their contracts are sufficient grounds for a proper ethical decision. This way of looking at morality is closely related to what is known as utilitarianism, whose principle has been stated by one of its leading expositors as follows: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
The role-specific viewstates: “Act always according to the criteria or duties which define the position you hold in life.”
Problem: How can we be sure that we are acting according to the criteria or duties which define our position?
Solution: The rule, which you are to follow, shall be valid for everybody who holds a similar position.
The social contract viewstates: “Act always according to the rules which secure people’s mutual interests.”
Problem: What shall I do if our interests do not seem to be in accord with one another?
Solution: What you do not want others to do to you, you shall not do to them.
The happiness view states: “Act always according to the rules which lead to increased happiness for all living beings.”
Problem: How do we know what happiness is and what makes people happy?
Solution: Look at one’s own happiness as equivalent to the happiness of anybody else.
The principles of generalization, reciprocity, and equivalence are intended to help us understand moral rules and the different aspects of morality.
Now these three views are apparently in conflict with one another. If you apply the role-specific view, you may have to reject the other two. Underlying the ethical pluralism of today we encounter at least three fundamentally different perspectives on morality. This I find unacceptable. The question thus arises whether it might be possible to reconcile these different views, and if so, how exactly that could be done.
I would like to risk putting forward an hypothesis which at this stage I am afraid I cannot really prove, but which nevertheless I certainly think worthy of an argument. The idea is this: Each of these three views is in fact built on one basic ethical value. The role-specific view rests on the idea of justice, the social contract view on the idea of freedom, and the happiness view focuses on the idea of love.
Let me explain this in more detail. I will illustrate what I have to say by taking, as an example, the moral positions and relationships of people in health-care facilities. So, the role-specific view, as I have presented it, tells us that rights and duties are constitutive parts of the position we hold in relation to others in a specific context of human life. To see what is just is to know exactly what are the rights and duties of the people involved in this specific context: e.g. in a clinic, justice can only be done if one knows the rights and duties of the participants involved, i.e. of the patients, the doctors, the nurses, and so on. Everybody in that context is acting out a role, performing a specific function that has a definite moral meaning and significance that we have to learn. A person has to learn to be a patient and he or she can be a good or a bad patient in the same sense, morally speaking, as a doctor can be a good or a bad doctor. There exist objective criteria which allow us to judge who is playing his or her moral role properly or not. There may of course be disagreement about these criteria and they may be heavily contested. But there is, in general, common knowledge within an institution which people are doing their duties properly and which are neglecting them; and that knowledge of people presupposes that we know beforehand what the duties are. Justice will never prevail in a given institution or society if people in general do not fulfill their duties and enjoy their rights.
If we turn now to thesocial contract view, it becomes immediately obvious that it is founded on the idea that people are free agents that on their own initiative make deals and contracts to assure their interests. Nobody can make a deal if he is not free, i.e. standing on his own feet and making his own decisions for reasons that he recognizes as valid. Indeed, the whole idea of the social contract view is to secure once and for all the freedom of the individual, which is only an empty ideal, if not a pure illusion, if it is not made real by a rule or a law which all free people recognize as a guarantee for the freedom of each and every person. To be a person is to be able to make a deal with, or a promise to, another person by referring to a rule that we accept to follow. This means that when I enter a clinic as a sick person I am not to be treated simply as a patient who must stick to his role. I must be treated as a free person who has made a kind of a moral deal with every other person. Therefore you are not allowed to do anything to me without my consent. And as a free person I can always withdraw my consent. One problem of course is that in a hospital clinic I may not know when it is truly in my interest to do so. Am I always to trust the advice of my doctors?
The key term in all human relationships is this one syllable word: trust. In hospitals, I think that many moral problems and difficulties would evaporate if we knew how to trust one another and to what extent we have to trust one another. I am afraid there exist several deformations of the trust-relationship. One classical example is when the patient denies his own responsibility, believing that it is the doctor’s duty to decide alone what is to be done for him. Here trust is a cover for irresponsibility, which I believe is still common among patients. A different and contrasting example is when the doctor denies his responsibility by sharing with the patient all kinds of medical speculations about the patient’s condition, as if the patient could tell the doctor what he should think is best for the patient. Instead of an immoral paternalism we have an immoral infantilism.
The specialists in every field of human activity are supposed to be able to tell us what is for the best in their domain of specialization, and they are of course also supposed to do what is for the best. The happiness theory is based upon this indisputable fact of life. We usually try to do what is best for those we care about or those we love. Thus in order to act properly, to do what is good, we have to love the people we meet and get to know them more or less intimately in the course of the various relationships we enter. This was Christ’s basic moral teaching, and he even ventured so far as to claim that we should love our enemies. One may not find this very realistic, and that is certainly true. From a realist’s point of view our morality is full of vices such as arrogance, hate, immoderation, greed, rage, laziness, and excessive ambition. The question is what we are going to do about this. In fact our morality – and I mean our morality as individuals, as groups or as whole nations – does not remain stable, but goes through periods of decline or improvement. This is so because to be a moral being is to intend, and to try, to do what is right and good. The essence of morality is the effort of becoming a moral being. And to be a moral being is to treat everybody as a friend, as somebody we love even though we have never met him before. But in order to meet him as a friend we must certainly first take into account which positions he occupies and must also treat him as a free person, if we understand him to be capable of standing on his own feet.
Drawing upon what I have now explained, each of the three ethical theories presented earlier is, in fact, concerned with one of the three moral values that are necessary in human relationships if they are not to degenerate into fights where people show their wickedness. And if that is right, we do not have to choose between them but have good reason to think that the three perspectives in fact support one another and are to be applied collectively. There is even a kind of logical order as to how the principles of the different theories should be to applied when we have to make an ethical decision. The order is this: First we shall look for the basis of justice in the rights and duties of the people involved; then we have to apply the principle of reciprocity and be careful not to go against anybody’s freedom by our decision and not to give up totally our own freedom either (because that would mean demolishing our possibility of developing ourselves as moral beings). When these two conditions have been met, we should apply the principle of the happiness theory and treat people as friends.
The main reason for this way of proceeding is to avoid the danger, which I mentioned earlier, that people, when they act out of love, do things which are either unjust in the sense that they break some basic moral rule, or do not take into account people’s freedom or accept the fact that nobody can, morally speaking, make a decision for another free being. Love as a principle of ethical decision comes after freedom and justice as principles of moral action.
But I shall certainly admit that it would not be wrong to look at these values the other way around and say that in order to develop oneself as a moral being, one first has to learn to love and become friendly with those who happen to be one’s neighbors. And by doing so, people will develop their sense of freedom and justice.
One problem is still unresolved and that is: What accounts for the unity of Justice, Love, and Freedom? How, in fact, do we go from one to another of these basic values? Where do they meet? This problem may appear as a theoretical speculation that lacks any practical significance. I do not think so. I believe that, in the field of ethics, the distinction between the theoretical and the practical does not exist. In ethics, nothing can be right in theory but wrong in practice! And if something is theoretically important in ethics, it is ipso facto very important in human relationships.
When I think about the question of what connects justice, freedom, and love, self-respect is the term that comes the most often to my mind. I would have to go on much longer here, if I were to try to spell out the ethical significance of this beautiful thing – self-respect – which does not only mean respect for oneself, but respect for everybody who is himself or herself. In order to respect one's self and other selves, one has to love oneself and others, one has to be fair and just to oneself and to others, and one has to recognize one’s own and others’ freedom. Finally, justice, love,and freedom come together as aspects of the respect that we owe to life and to ourselves as living beings. At this point, I remit to the reader's hands the task of realizing the unity of justice, love, and freedom in his or her own life in the form of one's own self-respect and respect for others.
Revised and updated.
 I speak about views rather than theories because such views are typically held by ordinary folk who have not formulated them for themselves as anything that would properly be called a theory, nor is there any reason why they should necessarily do so. As far as theories go, each of these different views has been explained and developed by different theories (for instance, there are a number of different utilitarian theories).
 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863), Chapter 2.