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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Importance of Evil

The Armchair Philosopher (opinion column from The Valley Business Journal)

by Michael Berumen 10-04

There is not enough space for an in-depth philosophical analysis in a newspaper column, and that probably will suit most readers just fine. Thus, I shall get to the point. We need to be more concerned about avoiding evil than we are about promoting good. As Plato said long ago, there are innumerable ways to do evil, while there are comparatively few ways to do good. Moreover, the greatest evils, which I define as death and suffering, generally, though not without exception, are much more intense and long lasting than the greatest goods one can imagine, for example, the various types and degrees of pleasure and happiness. Consequently, the most important ethical rules are those requiring us to avoid causing others harm, not the ones telling us to promote this or that conception of the good. This is why injunctions such as “do not kill” and “do not cause pain” are much more important than rules that require us to perform charitable acts or promote the interests of others.

There is another reason that rules that tell us to avoid causing others harm are more important than rules that require us to promote good, namely, we can formulate universal rules, rules that apply to everyone, everywhere, all of the time, much as physical laws operate in the world of physics. All rational beings can avoid intentionally causing others harm, everywhere, and all of the time, whereas, no one can promote good universally. For one thing, there are obvious physical limitations: one simply cannot promote the welfare of others 100% of the time. For another, there are rational limitations, for promoting the interests of others can be completely contrary to one’s own, vital interests (e.g., starving so that another can eat), or the vital interests of one’s family (e.g., paying for someone else’s child’s education on the basis that more utility will be derived by virtue of his greater intelligence). And, not least important, many of us disagree about what constitutes “good,” whereas all of us, insofar as we are being rational, agree on certain basic concepts concerning our own death and suffering, namely, that they ought to be avoided unless there is an overriding reason.

The most basic principles of morality comport with what most of us would consider to be the very essence of common sense; that is because these basic principles are extensions of the most basic aspects of rationality, which is to avoid doing harm to our own self, unless, of course, one has an overriding reason for doing so. For example, a person might cause discomfort to himself in order to avoid incurring an even greater harm, much as one often does with certain kinds of medical treatment. However, to desire pain or death for its own sake, without an overriding reason, simply would be irrational. These rational prohibitions are egocentric considerations. How do they relate to our treatment of others? Here is where the concept of impartiality comes in: our willingness to extend these rational prohibitions… these rationally required rules of behavior in relation to ourselves… to others, and to do so without regard to who benefits or loses, much as an impartial judge applies the law, or an impartial referee applies the rules of a sport. Combining our rational prohibitions with the conjoint principle of impartiality enables us to develop universal, moral rules, which is to say, rules that all rational people can follow and understand.

Just as we sometimes have an overriding reason or justification to induce our own harm, for example, in order to save the life of another, sometimes there are justifications for violating the general moral principles, rules that govern our conduct towards others. Take the rule “do not kill,” an impartial extension of the rational prohibition against causing one’s own death without a reason. I think most would agree that there are cases of self-defense or of a just war where violating this rule would be appropriate. The same is true of causing pain, for example, when a surgeon causes another to have pain in the course of treatment that is required to avoid even greater pain or worse, death. The key to making such exceptions is to ask ourselves if we would apply the exception in every conceivable circumstance sharing the essential properties of the one at hand, even if one were the potential victim of such an exception. In other words, could we will that the exception become a universal law, given the same relevant facts?

Now, this does not mean that I think that the promotion of various conceptions of good is an unimportant consideration for the formulation of moral principles of conduct. However, I want to make it clear that such concepts cannot be the basis of universal rules, which, it stands to reason, ought to have precedence over rules that do not apply to everyone, everywhere, all of the time, or to rules that all rational people cannot reasonably be expected to understand, agree upon, or perform, as is often the case due to different cultures and backgrounds (e.g., different religious beliefs). Thus, I am suggesting that rules enjoining us to not intentionally cause gratuitous death and suffering, which is how I choose to define evil (though the rules do not depend on this definition), represent the sine qua non of morality, for all rational people are able to understand and act upon them all of the time, in contrast to other kinds of rules that purport to be moral rules.