Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Importance Of Evil

A Précis of Michael E. Berumen’s Ethical System

Death and suffering, which both represent objects of irrational desire, are central to understanding our most fundamental ethical requirements. I choose to define “evil” as consisting of such objects of irrational desire; in other words, the things that all rational people avoid. Philosophy has seriously neglected evil in favor of good, perhaps because it is only natural for us to focus on that which we desire, those things that we apprehend as good. Nevertheless, the fact remains, the greatest evils leave a much greater impression upon us and they can have more lasting effects than the greatest goods. To illustrate, one need only compare in our mind’s eye the most extreme and constant pain imaginable to the greatest pleasures that we might desire. It is doubtful that anyone would willingly endure the former even in order to attain the most perfect bliss. Also, as Plato said long ago, there are a great many modalities for bringing about evil, while there are comparatively few ways to promote good. Therefore, it seems only fitting that ethicists should pay even more attention to evil. What is more, I think we shall find that evil plays a more important role, at least as I have defined it, in formulating the most important ethical rules, which I call the moral imperatives.

Ethical systems requiring us to promote this or that good cannot represent the basis of the most important moral rules, namely, those rules that apply to everyone all of the time, or so-called universal rules. Very simply, not everyone shares the same understanding of what is good, nor does everyone have the same opportunity to understand it as others would have it understood. While there are many common features amongst the various theories of the good, there are also many areas of disagreement, and there is simply no possibility of consensus on a preferred, objective standard for judging them. Moreover, aside from such definitional problems, it is physically impossible to promote good all of the time. Thus, the promotion of good is simply inadequate as a basis for formulating universal moral rules, rules that everyone can follow all of the time.

Some philosophers have said that the underlying principle of ethics ought to be the maximization of utility across the greatest number, where, more often than not, utility is construed as human happiness or pleasure, loaded terms with meanings about which people have divergent views. If one were forced to maximize average utility, however it is defined, one often would be in the unnatural position of forgoing one’s own interests, or the interests of those about whom one is most concerned (e.g., family members), in favor of those who might derive a greater benefit from one’s efforts. It might well increase overall average utility, for example, if one were to give up all of one’s worldly goods in favor of a village in Somalia. Similarly, with such a principle, the money one might set aside for the education of one’s child might well be better used to feed several families in India.

Utility presents other problems, too. If average utility were the underlying principle of universal morality, it could be used to justify obvious evils. For example, one might justify enslaving a small percentage of the population in order to increase the average happiness of the majority. Indeed, such logic has been used in history time after time to justify the oppression of others for the “greater good.”

In contrast to various theories of the good and the principle of utility, it is possible for all rational people to avoid intentionally causing others harm (one really need not use the term “evil” in order for the theory to work) all of the time. In other words, we can formulate universal rules of conduct centered on this principle. All rational people avoid death and suffering for their own sake, that is, without an overriding reason. One might desire the pain of surgery to correct a malady, but no rational person desires pain for its own sake. Even the masochist desires it only for another reason, namely, pleasure.

Rationality, however, does not require us to avoid causing others harm, only ourselves. In order to move from the egocentric posture, we must adopt another principle, namely, the principle of impartiality, which extends our rational prohibitions to others without a bias for any particular outcome. In other words, the conjoint principle of impartial rationality requires us to apply the prohibition against harm to others, unless there is an overriding justification, and without regard to who benefits from the rule. Thereby, we are able to make the leap from the rational requirement that we avoid our own death and suffering to moral rules pertaining to how we treat others.

While death is of a singular and final nature, suffering comes in various forms, degrees, and durations. It can be categorized into five major types, namely, suffering resulting from pain; disability (a loss of freedom); mistaken beliefs; loss of possessions; and that which is caused by another’s failure to adhere to an obligation. The force of their impression is generally in this order, though one can imagine exceptions, for example, where death might be preferable to pain, or pain even to disability. Each constitutes an object of irrational desire, something no rational person desires for its own sake. Impartiality, by extension, enables us to formulate the moral imperatives: Do Not Kill; Do Not Cause Pain; Do Not Deny Freedom; Do Not Deceive; Do Not Steal; and Do Not Break Obligations.

Morality is surprisingly consistent with common sense, for it is but an expansion of the most sensible rule of them all, which is to not intentionally inflict harm to ourselves without justification. This is why most systems of morality share these basic rules in one form or another. The more difficult part of morality is agreeing upon the facts pertaining to a situation and then determining when to make an exception to the moral rules. There are times, for example, when following a moral rule will result in a greater evil, or when disobeying a moral rule is required in order to produce a greater good. For example, one might justify telling a lie to a murderer inquiring about the location of his intended victim, for telling him the truth could surely result in an even greater evil. It also might make sense to limit liberty in order to provide greater security or even to promote the welfare of others, as in the case of having one’s property expropriated in the form of taxes to support the common defense or basic sanitation.

However, having said this, we must take great care before we violate a moral rule. We must make certain that our deviation comports with both reason and the principle of impartiality. With this in mind, I have adopted a modified version of Immanuel Kant’s system, whereby an exception to a moral rule is permissible only if we can also will its universal application, one that applies to everyone whenever the essential, relevant facts of the situation are the same, and even if our loved ones or we ourselves are the victims of such a prescription. In other words, we are prevented from prescribing an exception merely in order to produce an outcome that we desire for ourselves or for those about whom we are concerned. This is not merely another version of the Golden Rule, for one must not only put oneself in another’s shoes, one must also examine it from the perspective of all potential victims.

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all, however, is not formulating justified exceptions to moral rules, but actually acting morally when it goes against the grain of social pressures, or when it requires great personal sacrifice. Doing so requires something more than mere understanding. It requires a special kind of courage, and not just fearlessness or boldness, but moral courage. This is what separates the true moral heroes, the moral saints, from the rest of us. They are able to act as morality requires even when it is most difficult to do so.

Businesses have considerable opportunity to harm others, both through intentional acts and through negligence, for they touch so many aspects of people’s lives. This means that people in business have great moral responsibilities towards others. They are more than mere legal fiduciaries, they are moral fiduciaries, and they have duties that arise out of the reasonable basis of trust or expectations that others have in them by virtue of their position. People in business cannot be content simply to stay out of court or avoid fines or jail. Obeying the law is but one requirement. They must take into account how their actions can harm others. Among other things, they must take special pains to ensure that they disclose relevant facts and risks that could not be reasonably expected to be understood by the average consumer.

A central feature of my theory is that capitalism, the private ownership of property and the freedom to dispose of it or exchange it as one wishes, is the default position of morality. This is primarily the result of the rules that enjoin us from taking another’s possessions and from restricting their freedom. While not theoretically impossible, it makes a truly robust form of socialism problematic from a moral perspective, for one would have to make a great many universalizable exceptions. However, our rights to property and its uses are not absolute, for one cannot willy-nilly use one’s property to harm others, and there are even cases where the needs of society can outweigh the needs of individuals. However, the justification of expropriating another’s property or impeding his freedom to use it only can arise through a universal prescription for all similar circumstances, one that is at once impartial and in conformance with reason.

Competition is simply an efficient means of allocating finite resources, and it is necessary in any kind of social arrangement, even a state-run economy where people must still vie for resources and positions in society. People who deplore competition and want to replace it with cooperation misunderstand that these are not opposites, but complements, for cooperation is required in order for competition to work, and, without it, chaos will quickly ensue. In both the marketplace and in society at large, there must be agreed upon rules and a means of impartially judging outcomes. Again, however, while the free market might be the most effective means of delivering the most economic benefits to the greatest number, there are limits to what ought to be permitted, for efficiency is always trumped by morality.

For a more in-depth treatment of Michael Berumen’s theory, see his book, Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business, which is available at major bookstores and online from www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. Also see his website, http://www.meberumen.blogspot.com

see Philosopedia

copyright © 2003 Michael E. Berumen

Berumen in Free Inquiry (article on Bertrand Russell)