Welcome Reader

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.

Do No Evil--A Primer

"Let me give you a definition of ethics: it is good to maintain and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life."
-Albert Schweitzer

Foundations of Ethics
Michael Berumen's book, Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business, begins by taking issue with moral relativism and emotivism. Using techniques of analysis developed principally by R. M. Hare, he argues that ethical propositions are governed by logic, which itself is governed by formal, universal rules. As such, an ethical proposition is subject to a preferred standard of reasoning and is not entirely relativistic. Moreover, certain moral terms (e.g., good and bad) have evaluative properties, much in the same sense terms such as larger or smaller have. Because moral propositions are subject to logic and certain moral terms have an evaluative sense, meaningful ethical discourse is possible. Berumen claims this remains true even though people might disagree about the descriptive properties of moral terms, and notwithstanding the absence of a preferred standard for ascertaining the truth or falsity of their claims.

In contrast to the emotivists, Berumen claims that ethical "ought" statements have meaning, not because they directly correlate to facts, but because they say something about them. For example, in the proposition "One ought not to go into the burning house," the term "ought" says something about the facts, even though it does not correspond to a state of affairs in the world, much in the same sense that certain logical terms also do not have descriptive properties (e.g., all, if, some); nevertheless, these formal terms do say something about other facts. Moral propositions (most of which can be put into the form "You ought to do such and such" ) also say something about the facts, whether or not the moral terms themselves refer directly to facts about the world.

Normative Ethics

Having shown that ethical statements are at once meaningful and, at least in some sense, non-relativistic, Berumen proceeds to set forth a normative system of ethics. First, he argues that reason does not require morality, and that rationality (in the self-interested sense of the word) does not require moral behavior. In fact, many immoral acts are quite rational. Berumen believes that one can make the ethical leap to universal moral rules only when one conjoins certain of our rational requirements with the principle of impartiality. By impartiality, he means the rules are applied without regard to the outcome, that is, without bias for who stands to benefit. He says the only solid justification for accepting impartiality might be Henry Sidgwick's intuition that, from the perspective of the universe, one person is no more important than another.

Berumen states that a universal system of ethics, by definition, means that all moral agents must be able to understand and act in accordance with the rules everywhere and all of the time. So what system of rules can be employed universally? We cannot implement our various conceptions of "the good" all of the time, for people disagree about what constitutes good, and not everyone is even capable of having the same understanding by virtue of geography and background; therefore, promoting good cannot be an acceptable basis for deriving universal rules. Also, it is physically impossible to maximize utility all of the time, and it is perhaps even irrational (against one's self-interest) to try and do so; consequently, utility cannot be the basis of universal rules. What everyone can understand and act upon all of the time, however, is that we ought to avoid intentionally causing others harm (death or suffering) without a reason, which is to say, without justification.

According to Berumen, the universal rules derive from combining the rational prohibition against harming ourselves without a reason (something all rational people understand), with the principle of impartiality, which, by definition, extends the prohibition to others, and without regard to who gains or loses by applying the rule. For example, to desire one's own death, without a reason, is irrational - to desire a limit on one's present liberty, without a reason, is irrational. On the other hand, one might rationally desire death because it's preferable to extreme pain, or one might desire a limit to one's freedom for greater security, in other words, for a reason. These reasons can even be incorrect, for that does not necessarily make them irrational. Once we conjoin these principles with impartiality, to kill others or to disable them without justification (a reason that impartial rational people would accept) is immoral.

Universal ethical rules, therefore, can be derived by impartially extending our rational, egocentric constraints to others. Berumen comes up with a short list of rules against death, causing pain and disability, deceiving others, theft, and violating obligations. Their force is roughly in that order, though there are exceptions (e.g., death can be preferable to pain or disability). One needs general rules or maxims in order to have a practical system that everyone can easily understand and act upon. Making exceptions to these general rules, however, is the key to understanding Berumen's system.

The general maxims are not themselves absolute or inviolable. One can violate them whenever exceptions would be acceptable to impartial rational people. The means of doing this is to be able to will a universal prescription in conformance with logic, one that would apply to everyone in similar circumstances. He differs from Kant and borrows from Hare in this application, in that he requires us to employ specificity and to take into consideration the facts that obtain in that particular circumstance as well as all similar ones. Thus, each general moral rule, e.g., "Do Not Kill," actually has what amounts to a qualifier appended to it, i.e., "...unless you can will a universal exception, taking into account the relevant universal properties of the circumstance, including the perspectives of the potential victims, and including oneself as a victim."

Ethics and Economic Theory

Berumen then analyzes various economic principles and finds that capitalism is the least problematic economic system from a moral perspective, which is to say, it is the system most consistent with the moral rules required by impartial rationality. He says that in effect it is the "default position" of morality. We are ethically obligated to refrain from taking the property of others or limiting their freedom (e.g., to trade), without a reason we can universalize. Property rights and the right to exchange are not unlimited or absolute, however, for our actions must comport with the moral rules. We can limit our rights when all rational participants, including potential victims, would prescribe that limitation as a universal rule given the specific, relevant universal properties of the circumstance. Berumen also analyzes competition and the condition of economic inequality, and shows how both can be compatible with morality.

Berumen is a Lockean in the sense that he believes property rights derive from historical facts (acquired in accordance with morality) rather than being based on an end-state theory or what Robert Nozick calls a "pattern." However, unlike John Locke (or Ayn Rand), he does not believe they derive from nature or some mystical mix of man's labor and material or his capacity for rationality. They result primarily and simply from the moral rule: do not steal, a principle that is itself derived from the impartial extension of a rational prohibition (i.e., no one would rationally desire what he possesses to be stolen without a reason). Like Nozick, he does not believe a historical justification is without difficulty, as in cases where property was originally stolen (e.g., land taken by conquest or art stolen by Nazis), but that has been exchanged or handed down fairly afterwards. In such cases we must employ logic, law, and morality to resolve issues as best we can.

Ethics and Business

In the last part of the book, Berumen examines the business enterprise. His principal focus here is on fiduciary responsibility. He calls a fiduciary anyone who has duties towards others by virtue of their relationship, and when others have reasonable expectations by virtue of that relationship. He makes a number of observations about corporate structure (specifically, governance and the roles of officers versus board members) and also about duties towards the environment, future generations, and animals. In the case of animals, he states that the proper object of ethics is to avoid causing suffering, and that impartiality requires us to take into suffering of animals into account in proportion to their consciousness and their capacity for suffering.

An important feature of Berumen's business ethics is that a corporate veil offers no moral protection for moral fiduciaries whose actions can cause death or suffering, even when it is indirect, to the extent that the fiduciary knew or should have known the result. Thus, a company that manufactures weapons shares in the responsibility for the death and suffering they might eventually cause, and it must be in a position to justify these outcomes through a kind of cost-benefit analysis using prescriptive universalization.

An equally important aspect of his philosophy is full disclosure. With few exceptions, Berumen clearly prefers rigorous disclosure of adverse consequences to buyers...in both precise and understandable terms...to the government regulating what one can sell or buy, including drugs, sex, guns, etc. Even if a specific activity is immoral, he finds government regulation or, more accurately, government power to be highly problematic. A notable exception is when a business puts unwilling participants (present and future generations) in harm's way through acts that we cannot will as universal prescriptions. An example would be if a business activity caused untoward effects on the environment, where the costs outweigh the benefits. This is one of several examples where Berumen believes there is a legitimate role for the government.

Moral Agency and the Moral Realm

Unlike many, perhaps most, philosophers, Berumen does not believe that morality pertains only to rational beings. He believes that rationality is a requirement for moral agency, but not for membership in what he calls the "moral realm," which can include other animals and future generations, or anything capable of losing consciousness or suffering. Because other animals can die and suffer, these things must be taken into account before violating the general maxims of morality. This has interesting consequences with respect to the food industry and the environment, generally. His views in this regard are not dissimilar to Peter Singer's, the noted utilitarian and animal rights proponent.

Berumen believes that death and suffering are what constitute "evil" in a non-theological sense; at least, that is how he chooses to define evil. That which is evil must be that which all creatures seek to avoid, and what they seek to avoid the most is their own harm. Moreover, it is what morality requires us to avoid causing others. He contends that far too much attention has been paid by philosophers and others to promoting good, which cannot form the basis of a universal code of conduct. He maintains that promoting good is not nearly as important as avoiding or preventing evil, which has a much greater impact on the world. Thus the title of his book.

Some Sources

M. E. Berumen
Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business, iUniverse, 2003 Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification, Oxford University Press, 1998.
R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Clarendon Press, 1952.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Immanuel Kant, collected works on ethics in Practical Philosophy, Translated and Edited by Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge University Press.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, An Economic and Sociological Analysis, Translated by J. Kahane, Liberty Fund, 1981.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971.