THE ESSENCE OF MORALITY
Morality concerns the fundamental reason why some actions are good and others are evil. It is a test to find out what acts are good and what acts are evil. It is a search for criteria to assess the goodness or badness of human action. There are several schools of thought on this issue.
Utilitarians claim that the test of goodness or badness of a human action is the usefulness of the action. This is largely a teleological theory. An action is morally good if it is useful and morally evil if it is not.
There are two kinds of utilitarians:
They differ only on the notion of usefulness. One is Individual utilitarianism and the other is Social utilitarianism.
Individual utilitarianism, or hedonism, originated with Epicurus. It also was popular in France during the nineteenth century. It holds that an action is intrinsically good if it is useful for or brings pleasure to the individual. An action is morally evil if it destroys or diminishes a person’s pleasure. Actions that initially bring pleasure but subsequently bring pain or punishment are good or evil according to their most pronounced effect. For example, a person drinking alcohol may derive certain pleasure, but a subsequent hangover may bring pain or driving-while intoxicated arrest may result in punishment. The most pronounced effect determines the morality of the action of drinking alcohol.
Social utilitarianism, or altruism, holds that an action is morally good if it is useful for the community: the greatest good for the greatest number. Actions are good or evil in as far as they advance or hinder the happiness or good of the community. Advocates of this theory include John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
Herbert Spencer combined these two theories. He stated that an action is good if it brings pleasure to the individual and simultaneously promotes the good of the community. Actions are good if they increase life, but evil if they decrease life. Spencer admitted there may be conflicts between what is good for the individual and what is good for the community, because we have not yet evolved sufficiently to achieve perfect harmony between the individual and the community. Until the human race has sufficiently evolved, we must compromise, deciding the morality of the actions involved.
The main criticism of utilitarianism in general is that it often promotes selfishness. It also assumes without proof that people can satisfy their needs for the perpetual good in their lives. Individual utilitarianism provides no advance guarantee that an action will bring pleasure or pain; often a person must act before experiencing pleasure or pain. If pleasure is the sole criterion of moral goodness, every act, including stealing, murder, and so on, can be moral. The same argument applies to social utilitarianism— that is, every act done for the good of the community is moral. Social utilitarianism also destroys the dignity of the individual and makes people cogs in the wheel of human progress.
Intuitionism claims we know that ethical principles are valid and universal by intuition. Human beings have a special sense faculty that enables them to perceive directly what is right and what is wrong. Just as human beings have a sense of taste by which they can distinguish what is bitter from what is sweet, so too they have a moral faculty to enable them to distinguish what is right from what is wrong. What brings pleasure to this moral faculty is good and what brings displeasure is evil. Another version of intuitionism claims that the ultimate criterion of morality is common sense. People have principles that they form instinctively but cannot explain. These principles enable them to instinctively or intuitivel feel what is good or what is evil.
The main problem with intuitionism is that it attempts only to tell us how we know what is good and not what is good. It offers no proof tha we have a moral faculty or instinct that tells us what is right and what is wrong. It is true that human beings have consciences, but consciences do not work automatically and are not instincts.
Moral rationalism is the theory of Immanuel Kant. It is a deontological theory. Kant disagreed with the two theories above discussed. He claimed that no action is moral if it is done for pleasure or any other motive than duty or respect for the law. In practical reasoning human beings have among the twelve a priori gates what Kant called the Categorical Imperative. This Categorical Imperative orders a person to d good and avoid evil. Acts are good or bad as out of respect for the Categorical Imperative or not. An act is good according to the motive of the actor; the only motive that makes an act good is respect for duty or law. Acts are good, according to Kant, if they can be universalised—that is, we should act in the way everybody else in the same circumstances would act. The essential element in determining morality is human reason Thus, the ultimate test of goodness or badness of human actions is the Categorical Imperative of practical reason.
The criticism of Kant’s theories applies here. There is no evidence that the Categorical Imperative exists. If it does exist, it would not explain the morality of actions taken when no law exists to command such actions. Kant’s canonisation of human reason as the sole and infallible interpreter of morality is flawed.
Scholastic philosophers maintain that the essence of morality lies in human nature considered in its totality—that is, in all its parts and all its relationships, including those with other human beings, the universe and the supreme being. Human beings have a rational nature, as psychology established. Once we know the nature of something, we can come to know its purpose and what will help it to attain it. For humans, it is proximately a rational nature that determines what is good and what is bad. Borrowing from theodicy, the scholastics go one step further and argue that the decision on the morality of human action rests with the supreme being, on whom humans ultimately depend.
The criteria for assessing the morality of human action are a fundamental issue that has intrigued philosophers. Philosophers have focused on and put forward several different criteria for assessing morality, but a single criterion of pleasure and the existence of a Categorical Imperative are insufficient explanations of morality. Scholastic theory is more comprehensive. It considers several criteria, including the body and soul, the intellect and senses, human relationships with various entities and the circumstances in which humans find themselves. It is reasonable to consider all elements in determining what is right and what is wrong. Both the deontological and teleological schools of thought probably concur on this point. Yet the teleological school might consider departing from this theory if it limits the application of criteria to an action before commission, as opposed to concomitant or subsequent application.