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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.

Ethics Q and A

"Understanding what we ought to do is one thing. Having the courage to do it is quite another. And that is what makes all the difference" --Michael Berumen

Here are some brief answers to basic ethical questions that are more fully and rigorously explored in Do No Evil......

Why is emotivism mistaken? Emotivism is the view that ethical statements are devoid of cognitive content and express only an attitude, preference, or emotion. In fact, ethical statements often say something about the facts, notwithstanding their factual content or the descriptive properties of ethical terms (e.g., good, bad, ought). If one says, "Don't go near the cliff," it can be translated into, "One ought not to go near the cliff." The statement certainly says something about the cliff and the consequences of going near the cliff. The words good and bad and their synonyms, aside from having any descriptive properties, also have an evaluative sense, one that enables people of different perspectives (ethical or otherwise) to communicate with one another meaningfully. Thus, it is incorrect to hold that ethical statements are meaningless or merely indications of psychological states.

Why is ethical relativism mistaken? Ethical relativism holds that there is no preferred, universal standard for judging ethical truths. Ethical judgments are said to be a function of our culture, background, etc., and there is no means of reconciling these different standards by some super-standard of ethical truth, for, no matter what, we are always referring to some standard that is itself subject to cultural norms and subject to criticism by other standards. However, all ethical statements are subject to logical rules, which are universal. In other words, the laws of contradiction and identity, among other logical rules, are constant without regard to time or place. Even though the same ethical terms and propositions might be judged by different standards that depend on culture or background or even individual preferences, logic is governed by one standard. This might not be as satisfying as saying there is one standard to judge all of the content of our moral declarations, but it is better than having none, and it enables us to have a legitimate debate. Relativism also leads to the paradoxical position that, if true, there is no reason to prefer relativism to another theory.

What is the difference between ethics and morals? It is really a distinction without an important difference. Most philosophers use these terms interchangeably, nowadays. Both subjects deal with how we ought to live and what leads to the good life.
What is the difference between moral rules and other kinds of rules of conduct? Moral rules, at least the most important, fundamental kind, purport to be universal. They tell us what everyone is supposed to do, everywhere, and always. They are held to be invariant, much like a law of nature. Moreover, in order for them to make any sense, to be workable, these rules should be rules rational people can understand and upon which it is possible for them to act. Most religious rules, rules of etiquette, and laws, though they sometimes overlap with moral precepts, are not universal and, therefore, they do not qualify as the most important moral rules, despite the common belief that they do. Rules about where or what we worship, customs telling us how to hold our fork or express gratitude, and regulations governing what side of the road we drive on are not universal rules. Moreover, not everyone can understand these rules (for example, by virtue of one's background or culture), and, therefore, not everyone can act on them.

Is morality whatever God tells us to do? No, for to paraphrase Plato, what is good is not good merely because God loves it, but because God recognizes it as being such, and He loves it because it is good. It is not good simply because He loves it.
Is a belief in God or in some other set of ideas (e.g., communism, democracy, etc.) necessary to be moral? Absolutely not. Morality is about action, that is, what we do (or don't do), and it is not merely about what we believe. Interestingly, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, psychologists have shown through experiment that there is no correlation to one's strong religious or ideological leanings, or lack thereof, and the propensity to be honest. Through experiment, the American Psychological Association found that religious people were found to cheat as much as non-religious people. Indeed, historically speaking, people with rigid ideological or religious beliefs seem to have been especially prone to committing all manner of atrocities in the name of their ideals.

Does reason or rationality require us to be moral? Reason says nothing about what ends we ought to pursue, only about choosing the correct means to achieving them. It does not matter to reason that we should prefer one end to another. Rationality, among other things, entails acting in accordance with our own interests, and not in the interest of others. There is nothing inherently irrational about stealing, cheating, and lying, nor are they necessarily contrary to reason.

What are some examples of irrationality? One example would be to hold a belief we know or that we ought to know (by virtue of our capacity and experience) is untrue. Another example would be to harm ourselves without another, overriding reason. Specific examples would include wanting to kill ourselves without a reason (e.g., unless it is to avoid disability); wanting pain without a reason (e.g., unless it is to avoid death); wanting to have less freedom without a reason (e.g., unless it is to avoid pain); wanting to have our possessions taken from us without a reason (e.g., unless it is to promote the welfare of someone else); wanting to be deceived without a reason (e.g., unless we are at a magic show); and wanting to have someone violate an obligation that will cause us harm (e.g., unless the harm we will suffer is less than it would be if they kept their obligation). In other words, desiring our own harm, or more specifically, desiring or causing our own Death and Suffering without another reason, is irrational.

Is it irrational to harm others? Rationality and reason do not require us to be compassionate or charitable towards others, or even to have a good reason for not harming others; in other words, rationality will allow us to be uncompassionate, even sadistic (which is not the same as saying it requires it). Indeed, while it is reprehensible from a moral perspective, harming others can at times even be to our benefit, in our self-interest. It is for this reason that rationality, alone, does not require morality. On the other hand, it most certainly would be irrational to not want others to behave morally towards us, to harm us in some way, that is, unless we had an overriding reason, for rationality requires us to desire that others not do us harm without justification.

If rationality does not require morality, how, then, do we derive moral rules? A universal moral rule must be something everyone can understand and act upon, always, and everywhere. Everyone who is rational does intentionally (as opposed to accidentally) avoid causing himself harm without a reason, and this, in fact, is something one can do all of the time and everywhere. We make the leap to morality by extending these prohibitions to others. Now, in order for the rules to be truly universal, they must apply to everyone, without regard to who benefits or loses from applying them. In other words, we must be impartial, much as a judge of the law or a referee in a game should be. Impartial rationality, therefore, requires us to extend our prohibitions to all who can die or suffer.

What are the moral rules? The general rules are Do Not Kill, Do Not Cause Pain, Do Not Disable (deprive of liberty), Do Not Deceive, Do Not Steal, and Do Not Violate Obligations. Berumen refers to these as the Moral Imperatives, an obvious play on Kant's categorical imperative. They derive strictly from conjoining the principle of impartiality with our most basic rational prohibitions.

What is evil? It is a lot like asking, "What is good, " and, as such, very difficult to answer. A definition that most might find acceptable is that good is what we seek to have, whereas, evil is what we seek to avoid. This fits neatly with a biological definition, for all creatures, even the simplest organisms, would seem to follow this dictum. Now, all rational people seek to avoid their own death or suffering, unless there is an overriding reason. Death and suffering and the things that cause them are irrational objects of desire. One might therefore define evil as death and suffering. By extension, all moral people (with the conjoint principle of impartiality) seek to avoid evil, the death and suffering of others, that is, without an overriding reason.

Is causing evil ever morally justified? It is an unfortunate reality that we must often choose the lesser of two evils, or choose an evil in order to promote a greater good. This is why it sometimes makes sense to violate a moral rule. For example, we cause others to suffer when they undergo certain medical treatments (their suffering is still evil, however, for it is not something one would want for its own sake, but only for a reason; it is simply less than what presumably would otherwise occur). We certainly cause other people to die (an evil) in what we believe to be a just war or in self-defense.

How do we justify exceptions to the moral rules? We must ensure that the exception is something that impartial, rational observers would accept. Impartial, rational observers would want to invoke reason and possess factual information. They would want us to satisfy the basic requirement that, given similar circumstances, the same rule would always apply. In other words, we must be willing to adopt the exception as a universal rule in conformance with logic, given the same universal properties of the relevant facts. Thus, to justify killing someone in self-defense, one must be able to will that the same action would apply universally in similar circumstances, which would include taking the point of view of the intended victim if the roles were reversed. In order to justify expropriating someone's property (e.g., to tax a portion of his income) to support a social good, we must be able to universalize our action, taking into account the taxpayer's relevant perspectives, as well. We cannot will taxation of others unless we could will it for ourselves, not simply from our own perspectives, but adopting the relevant perspectives of others.

Is it therefore the case that the general moral imperatives, e.g., Do Not Deceive, are not really absolute or inviolable? Yes, otherwise our moral reasoning would lead to ridiculous outcomes, for such general maxims cannot possibly treat all situations from a moral perspective. For example, we would be prohibited from lying to a known murderer who is inquiring into the whereabouts of his intended victim. We could not defend ourselves from a malefactor who would cause us harm, lest we cause him to suffer. Therefore, each moral imperative also must include a qualification, "Do not do X, unless you can will an exception that conforms with logic for all circumstances sharing the same, relevant universal properties." These more complete universal prescriptions, then, become absolute to the extent we have formulated them correctly. Obviously, we must have general imperatives, for the number of specific ones would be endless, impossible to master, and therefore not workable. An empty formula will not suffice as a means of learning morality. It makes more sense to have general rules and to develop criteria that help us to analyze specific situations and to tell us when a violation is permissible.

Who is a moral agent? One who is capable of having both rational and impartial judgments.
Are there not degrees of rationality? Certainly, but most adult humans can understand the objects of irrational desire...that which they ought to avoid without a reason... and most can also understand what it means to apply something impartially, without allowing our biases to dictate the outcome. One of the reasons our basic moral rules ought to be very simple is to ensure that the least capable among us is able to grasp them. Complexity tends to come into play when we begin to consider exceptions.

Are rational people the only ones entitled to moral conduct? The key to moral behavior is to avoid causing the death or suffering of others, without regard to who gains from the action. Other beings certainly do die and suffer; impartiality, by definition, requires us to apply the rules of morality without bias, which would include whether or not someone is rational. The key consideration is whether they be harmed, can they die or suffer, not whether are they rational. The tricky part is how to compare the death and suffering of other creatures to our own death and suffering.

What is the significance of death insofar as morality is concerned? It is not death, per se, as much the permanent loss of consciousness that we seek to avoid, the loss of our self-awareness, memory, personality, our sense of self, along with the capacity to have experiences impressed upon us. Not all animals have self-awareness or consciousness. Organisms without consciousness or self-awareness do not die in the same way other organisms do. By definition, they do not "experience" a loss. Species apparently have varying degrees of consciousness or self-awareness. This suggests an order of precedence in killing other life forms, insofar as morality is concerned. It is clear that a conscious, human life ought to be of greater concern than, for example, the life of an insect. Our moral judgments must take consciousness and self-awareness into account when we consider terminating the life of another being.

What about suffering? Many animals can suffer, perhaps most notably from physical pain (emotional pain is more problematic, but presumably this is present in species other than our own, particularly primates). The capacity to suffer is no doubt related to the development of an animal's nervous system. Science is an imperfect guide, but our best one in determining another animal's capacity for suffering. Morality, specifically, the principle of impartiality, requires us to take the suffering of other animals into account. We must avoid causing other animals to suffer unless we can justify it as a universal rule in the given circumstance. It seems clear that equal suffering ought to be treated equally. It is reasonable to assume that higher levels of consciousness entail a greater capacity for suffering or loss, especially when we take emotional suffering into account, though it seems unlikely that physical pain is itself a function of intelligence.
Must I promote the welfare of others? One might have a specific obligation, say, one that results from a contract or from a law requiring one to look after the welfare of someone else, in which case one certainly has a moral duty to act accordingly. However, in the absence of a specific obligation, a prescribed duty beyond the moral imperatives themselves, there is no universal moral requirement for us to promote the welfare of others. In other words, there is no universal requirement to be benevolent. What impartial rationality does require, however, is that we avoid causing others harm.

Why isn't the principle of utility a good basis for morality? If our principal guide to morality were simply to maximize utility, whether in order to increase pleasure, happiness, or some other desired end, we could justify any number of horrible things. For example, we might justify enslaving a small percentage of the population in order to increase the average happiness of the whole. Utilitarian considerations might well play a part in granting exceptions from the moral rules, but only to the extent we can will that our proposed action becomes a universal law. This is different from using utility as the basis for forming the first principles of conduct.
Isn't compassion the real foundation of morality? Compassion might well motivate us to be moral, but it is insufficient for formulating universal moral requirements. The fact is that few among us have compassion for everyone. Most of us lack Mother Theresa's outlook. We tend not to be impartial in our demonstrations of caring for others. Impartial rationality requires moral behavior towards everyone without regard to our sentiments. Morality is about action, doing or not doing things. Having feelings about things is not enough.

Is the Golden Rule a sufficient guide to moral behavior? The Golden Rule tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It is often a good rule, and certainly one worth using in teaching children how to behave. However, it is not wholly adequate as an ethical principle. For example, if we were to follow it strictly, it might require us to let thieves and murderers go free; if we were in their position, it is reasonable to suppose we would desire that freedom for ourselves. A sado-masochist who used this rule might think it entirely appropriate to cause others pain; after all, that is what he would want for himself. It is not always a good idea to treat others as we would have them treat us if our situations were reversed. The requirement to universalize our prescriptions makes us examine things from the perspectives of all of the participants.

Are the Ten Commandments moral rules? Not all of them. Rules about honoring one's parents, keeping the Sabbath, taking the Lord's name in vain, worshiping other Gods, and coveting another's possessions are not moral rules; they are religious rules, rules of conduct that derive from principles other than what impartial rationality requires. Rules prohibiting killing, theft, stealing, lying, and breaking promises (as is the case with adultery in most cultures) certainly are moral rules. As with religious rules, rules of etiquette, cultural norms, even laws are not necessarily moral rules. Indeed, such rules are sometimes contrary to morality (e.g., requirements to harm non-believers; genital mutilation; laws protecting slavery).

Are there natural rights? There is no evidence that rights (morality by another name) inhere in nature. Moral rights would seem to be the prescriptive judgments of human beings. At a minimum, impartial rational people would say that everyone is entitled to the rights conferred by the moral imperatives. The moral imperatives themselves, when expressed a different way, represent our most fundamental rights. The imperative "Do not Cause Pain (without justification)," can be easily restated to say, "We have the right not to be caused pain without Justification." Note, as is the case with any right, there is an implied duty, which in this case is nothing less than the original imperative, "Do not Cause Pain without Justification."

What about property rights? There is no reason to suppose that labor confers ownership. If that were the case, how is it that oxen are not also entitled to property by virtue of their efforts? If one were to say, as some do, that we have the right simply because we are rational, then one also would have to explain why rationality is so cosmically significant, and why those with greater rationality ought not therefore to have greater claims. It would appear that property rights simply derive from the prescriptive judgments of human beings. Impartial rationality protects everyone from having possessions they have fairly acquired taken from them, that is, without justification. In other words, if one acquires property without having caused someone else to suffer unjustifiably, then one can also fairly claim to own it in the sense that someone else has no right to take it from him without an overriding reason. It would be irrational to want one's own possession to be taken without a reason (for example, someone else has a greater claim on it). Thus, impartial rationality would prohibit taking another's possession without an overriding justification.

Are all social contracts ethical by virtue of the will of the majority? Social contracts are made to serve the interests of the parties involved, whereby each party takes on a right or a benefit in return for a corresponding duty. This is a very rational approach, and one conducive to social cooperation. But moral behavior is not equivalent to rational and cooperative behavior. Some of the greatest misdeeds in history have resulted from agreements made by rational people, followed by their cooperative efforts to cause others harm. Theories that base moral claims strictly on unanimity or the will of the majority are necessarily flawed.

Samples of how Berumen evaluates economics from an ethical perspective....

Why is capitalism the default position of morality? Impartial rationality requires us to avoid taking another's possessions, his fairly acquired property, without justification, and to avoid restricting his liberty, which would include his ability to exchange one capital good for another. The pillars of capitalism are private property and free trade.

Is capitalism justifiable on utilitarian grounds? Perhaps capitalism can be justified on utilitarian grounds from an economic perspective, or so the empirical evidence would suggest; however, even if this were not the case, that is, if socialism were preferable from a utilitarian standpoint, if it were more efficient and effective in distributing goods a greater number, morality would still require us to respect another's right to his property and his freedom to exchange it for something else. In other words, the rights to private property and free exchange do not depend on utilitarian grounds insofar as morality is concerned.

Why is socialism problematic? Because one would have to universalize each particular instance (or class of instances sharing the same characteristics) of limiting property and exchange. While socialism is theoretically possible from a moral perspective, it is very unlikely that one could justify an entire economic system of redistribution and public ownership, for every fair acquisition and exchange would have to be nullified in perpetuity, a difficult state of affairs to imagine.

Is the right to property absolute? No. Because I own my house, I do not therefore have the right to set it on fire and risk burning down my neighbor's house. The fact that I own a cane does not give me the right to beat someone over the head with it. Property rights are limited by the moral imperatives, which enjoin us to refrain from causing others to suffer unless we can will that the act become a universal law, taking into account the perspectives of the participants.

Is inequality in economic holdings moral? As Robert Nozick observed, "equality is often assumed but rarely argued for." Impartiality, by definition, requires equal treatment insofar as we apply the moral rules. However, the moral rules do not require us to distribute holdings equally, or to expropriate from some in order to provide to others. Indeed, to the extent holdings are acquired in accordance with morality, it would be immoral to expropriate them without justification in accordance with universal prescriptivity. We may consent to obligations (e.g., laws agreed to by society) that require a redistribution of wealth, but even these must be justified in accordance with impartial rationality. However, there is no first principle of morality that requires equal holdings.

Is competition inherently immoral? Competition is simply one way of describing how we allocate the available resources in society. All things remaining equal, a person who arrives at the box office first is more likely to get a seat than the one who arrives last. It is impossible to imagine any social construct, including socialism, where individuals seek to satisfy a finite number of possibilities without competition. What distinguishes competition in a free market from the sort of competition that might obtain in an alternative economic setting is the fact that individuals are largely left alone to pursue and satisfy their interests with a minimum amount of interference and a maximum amount of individual liberty, all within a framework of morality, and, thereby, society is generally able to satisfy the wants and needs of a greater number of people.

Should government regulate economic activity? Private property and free exchange are the default positions of morality. Consequently, morality requires careful consideration and rigorous justification before we are in a position to restrict what others can do, even if this restriction is prescribed by a majority. The clearest example of when a government (society) ought to interfere is when private actions cause others to risk incurring unjustifiable harm. However, unless it can be shown that impartial rational people would impose such a restriction, the government should leave people alone to dispose of their property in the manner they see fit. Some situations are a close call, but even in these, the disadvantages of ceding too much power to government, or for that matter, to any authority with monopoly power, often outweigh the advantages. In other words, individual liberty should be given the benefit of the doubt except in the clearest cases, for the coercive powers of government, no matter how well intended originally, can become abusive and oppressive, and the medicine can be worse than the cure.

Samples of Berumen's ideas about ethics in relation to the business enterprise.........
Is a business property? A business is property in the same sense a car, house, or shovel is property. A business, as in the case of other kinds of property, can be used to affect others either positively or negatively. And, as with our use of any property, the use of a business is subject to the moral rules.

Why is stakeholder theory mistaken? Some philosophers have spotted an opportunity to fulfill their vision of a just society by transforming the business enterprise into what amounts to a small, quasi-state. They imagine the reconstituted business as a place where workers and managers will pursue the common good, one sanctified by a democratic process, or what they imagine to be analogous to a social contract, whereby employees and other interested parties...stakeholders...have an equal voice in controlling how it operates. In other words, these theorists would effectively transfer the power of the owners of the firm to everyone with an interest in the firm. Managers no longer represent the owners, but all of the stakeholders. These theorists see businesses as republics in miniature. However, a business lacks the coercive and nearly absolute power that a state has over an individual, including the power to administer justice and to protect and punish citizens. Businesses lack the authority to establish laws and relations that pertain to all members of society. Unlike businesses, states exist in order to serve the members of society. A business exists to serve the interests of its owners, and serving the interests of others is often a by product, but not its founding principle, despite the rhetoric of annual reports and sales literature. A business is property, the property of owners, and a person's property is his to have and dispose of in the manner that he sees fit, but only to the extent that he does not violate morality, including any of his obligations, some of which are prescribed by law. When an employee enters into an agreement with an owner of a business in order to deploy the latter's property in accordance with a particular plan, the owner of the business does not thereby cede the determination of the nature of what is to be done with his property, either by the employee or others.

Are employers morally obligated to operate a business for the benefit of others? There is no universal requirement to satisfy the interests of others, to be beneficent, but only to adhere to the moral imperatives, including the fulfillment of specific obligations (e.g., the law, agreements with employees and customers). An employer has no duty to abandon her property or to cede control to others by virtue of their having agreed to perform work in exchange for compensation. That a man simply wants or needs to have or use another's property is insufficient, even when his need for it is greater than the owner's. People are not required to give up their property or to perform labor simply because others derive some benefit from it. At the same time, owners and their agents (e.g., managers) cannot use their property in a manner that violates the moral rights of employees.

What is a fiduciary and what is the importance to business? A fiduciary is a person who holds a position of trust in relation to another person, whereby the latter has a reasonable basis for expecting certain things from the former. In the broadest sense, all of us are moral fiduciaries. Business people have specific duties, some of which are explicit, as in the case of a contract, and others of which are implied, as in the case of a general manger or someone in a position of authority. In addition to the moral imperatives, fiduciaries in business have the following specific duties:

  • Fiduciaries have a duty to take into account the reasonable expectations and interests (e.g., providing optimal investment returns for investors, disclosure of dangers to customers, a safe work environment for employees) of others who place their trust (on reasonable grounds) in them.
  • Fiduciaries have a duty to ensure they are sufficiently competent and knowledgeable to execute their duties in accordance with the reasonable standards of their capacity, e.g., professional requirements.
  • Fiduciaries have a duty to disclose to relevant parties any conflicts of interest, limitations, or impediments that might interfere with executing their responsibilities.
  • Fiduciaries have a duty to not misuse information or to take advantage of their relationship in a manner that could be injurious or betray the confidences of those who are in a position of trust.
  • Fiduciaries have a duty to comply with the law.
Why is the mission or overall goal of a business important from a moral perspective? Quite aside from how an enterprise conducts itself in executing its ordinary business affairs, the principal function and mission of a business has an important moral dimension, especially when the fulfillment of its principal objective entails harming others. We might be honest as we go about the business of manufacturing and selling radioactive cubes, but the very nature of our business activity might be morally questionable. It will not do simply to say that it is the buyer's choice or that the business intends no harm. By making or selling a harmful product, a business is potentially a significant contributory factor in the chain of events that leads to death or suffering. As such, its actions are subject to moral scrutiny.

Does this mean that society ought to outlaw businesses with ends that are decidedly immoral? The law tells us what we will do, whereas morality tells us what we ought to do. A strong case can be made for outlawing some kinds of businesses (e.g., manufacturing nuclear weapons for sale on the open market); but there are relatively few circumstances where outlawing a particular kind of business activity can be justified. One ought to be very careful before limiting another's liberty, whether he is the buyer or the seller. When sellers disclose all of the relevant facts, and if buyers subsequently freely choose ends we disapprove of, they have done nothing immoral, provided they do not adversely affect others in an unjustifiable way. For this reason, laws that prohibit the sale of drugs and prostitution are problematic. On the other hand, laws that state that drug and sex sellers must disclose relevant facts, for example, the dangers associated with using the drug or sexually-transmitted diseases, are clearly justified from a moral perspective. Similarly, laws that restrict buyers of drugs from driving under their influence (as with alcohol), or that restrict buyers of sexual services from abusing children, are also justified because of the harm they can cause others.

Is it permissible to use psychology in selling? The idea that all psychological manipulation is inherently immoral would leave us in a very difficult state, for there is hardly an area of social intercourse where rational adults do not employ at least some knowledge of human behavior to affect how others feel, think, and act. We use our knowledge of human psychology consciously, or, in some cases, unconsciously, in nearly all of our dealings with our children, parents, friends, enemies, associates, bosses, and even with total strangers. What is immoral, however, is to use psychology to cause others to suffer intentionally or negligently (e.g., to deceive them). Salespeople, more than most business people, understand that we are fundamentally resistant to change, we do not want to appear mistaken, we seek the approval of others, we desire empathy, and we often make decisions for both emotional as well as rational reasons. It would be silly of anyone whose job requires him to communicate effectively with other people, on any level, not to take into account these facts of nature in structuring the manner in which he communicates.

For more information on Berumen's Theory of Ethics: Ethics
Philosophy of Business