What is Right?

What is ‘good’? What is ‘right’? How should human beings behave toward others? These questions are not just the stuff of religion. Indeed, they belong most properly to the realm of ethics, and Humanism is, at the very least, concerned with ethics and ethical conduct. However, is it at all possible to speak meaningfully of anything being ‘good’ or ‘right’ in a post-postmodern world?

Most theories of ethics, in particular, those based on religion, are normative, that is, they are concerned with what human beings supposedly ought to do. All such theories are fundamentally flawed, being guilty of moralism, subjectivism, pragmatism and what Professor John Anderson of the University of Sydney used to refer to as ‘relativist confusions’. The latter term refers to illogical confusion about ‘qualities’ and ‘relations’, that is, the qualitative question, ‘Is X good?’, is wrongly confused or amalgamated with relational questions about X's being wanted, or supported, or being brought about by human beings.

What is required, and what Humanism offers, is a positive, objective, realistic, non-moralistic, non-prescriptive, secular theory of ethics, but I would first like to refer to some of the more common theories of ethics that are clearly flawed and unacceptable.

FLAWED THEORY No. 1 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it is of such a kind as to evoke the approval or admiration of the majority of people.

There are a number of problems with such a theory. First, it totally avoids the real question of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’, with its self-serving democratic (whatever that means) appeal to whatever meets with widespread approval or admiration. However, we cannot possibly say that the majority and not the minority is necessarily right about any particular issue unless we have first considered the issue in question. If, for example, a majority of people is in favour of a military strike against Iraq, does that make it ‘good’ or ‘right’? Intuitively we know that such an approach, with its effervescent appeal to and reliance upon public opinion polls, cannot be the correct one. For one thing, the theory rules out as literally meaningless any attempt to alter so-called majority belief by moral argument.

Furthermore, how are we to determine what constitutes the majority, and what about changes in attitudes over time? And are the views of a minority necessarily ‘wrong’ and to be dismissed out-of-hand? Of course, not.

There is a further problem, one of relativist confusion. As John Anderson pointed out, nothing is constituted by, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things. Goodness or rightness is constituted by the approval or admiration of people--even a purported majority of people--nor can it be defined by or extrapolated from its relations with those who admire or approve a thing because it is supposedly good or right.

FLAWED THEORY No. 2 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if the person who uses the word has or tends to have a feeling or attitude of a certain kind about what that person pronounces ‘good’ or ‘right’.

In other words, if you think it is ‘good’ or ‘right’, or feel ‘deep down’ that it is, well, it is! The war cry of the 1960s, still very much with us. ‘There are no absolute values … Everything is relative.’ Well, if there are no absolutes, you cannot make a statement of that kind. If you do, there must be at least one absolute, namely, that there are no absolutes. The truth is, even if there be no absolutes, that does not necessarily mean that there are no objective standards. Objectivity is something altogether different.

Theory No. 2 is pure subjectivism, pragmatism and, once again, relativism. Two people would never mean the same thing when they pronounced something good, since either would just mean, ‘That is approved (disapproved) of by me’. Indeed the same person would not necessarily, if ever, mean the same thing by an ethical judgment on two different occasions.

Furthermore, if ethical judgments are simply about our own actual feelings or attitudes, why should we ever invoke, as we constantly do, their likely consequences for others, which is certainly not evidence about our own feelings or attitudes?

The most fundamental objection to this theory can be illustrated this way. The sky does not become any bluer because a person believes it to be blue. Further, the proposition--the sky is blue--does not become any truer because a person believes it to be true.

FLAWED THEORY No. 3 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if an impartial, objective bystander would adjudge it to be ‘good’ or ‘right’.

Although this theory also suffers from relativist confusion, it has enormous appeal to judges and lawyers generally, who constantly invoke the so-called ‘reasonable person’ test in legal decision-making in the largely misguided belief that such a person actually exists in the real world. In law, the ‘reasonable person’ is a notional (that really means fictitious!) person who is capable of reasoning, and who does so appropriately with the knowledge of all relevant objective facts.

But what can ‘impartial’, ‘objective’ or ‘reasonable’ mean here, in the context of Theory No. 3? It is equivalent to saying that something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ when it is approved by somebody who only approves what is really ‘good’ or ‘right’ (for the so-called reasonable person could do nothing but that, otherwise he or she would not be ‘reasonable’). This is obviously circular, and altogether unsatisfactory except to some black-letter lawyers of whom, regrettably, there are far too many in existence.

There’s another problem with this theory. It assumes that the reasonable person or objective bystander will always infallibly make the right decision as to what is right or wrong. No one is infallible in that sense or otherwise.

There is a variant of this theory which states or at least assumes that whatever a particular culture or group of people think is ‘good’ or ‘right’ is so. This sort of theory is popular in an era of cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Again, the problem is that no culture or group of persons is infallible in this respect or otherwise.

FLAWED THEORY No. 4 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it has satisfying consequences (‘works’) for a person or persons.

There it is again. Plain, old-fashioned pragmatism. However, a thing has satisfying consequences BECAUSE it is ‘good’ or ‘right’. It is not ‘good’ or ‘right’ by reason of it having satisfying consequences (whatever that means). Indeed, a thing might still be ‘good’ or ‘right’ EVEN IF it does not have satisfying consequences. Enough said. Good night, William James.

FLAWED THEORY No. 5 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it (a) promotes the most pleasure and/or causes the least pain, or (b) fulfils peoples' preferences without frustrating the preferences of others, or (c) satisfies our or one's desires in the long run.

These are all various forms of utilitarianism, and there are enormous problems with them all, just as there were with the moral pragmatism of Theory No. 4. What is meant by ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’, and how does one measure them (assuming they can be quantified at all)? It is trite to say that what gives one human being pleasure may well be entirely painful to others. Are we to once again engage upon some exercise in democracy, and count heads? Can preferences be ranked and weighed in the balance, especially as regards others? Who will keep score of all the supposed preferences, and for how long? And how ‘long’ is the ‘long run’? It is all impractical and unworkable.

FLAWED THEORY No. 6 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it is in conformity with evolutionary development.

At first glance this sounds appealing, especially to Humanists, with its salutary appeal to human evolution. However, the theory doesn't really take us anywhere. After all, whatever happens can be said to be in accordance with evolutionary development, otherwise it could not happen at all. Worse still, we can end up with some pernicious form of Social Darwinism, not to mention economic rationalism and the more undesirable aspects of globalisation. Be careful.

FLAWED THEORY No. 7 -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it is commanded or required by X (X being God/Buddha/Jesus Christ/the Pope/the Bible/the Koran, or whoever or whatever).

‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ Really?

This theory---and there are a great number of variations of it---amalgamates the two otherwise distinct notions of ‘being good’ and ‘being required/commanded’. If we ought to do X because we are commanded or required by someone or something supposedly in or of ‘authority’, that can only mean that we are commanded or required by X to obey the commands or requirements of X.

That is not a theory of ethics at all, for if ‘good’ or ‘right’ is whatever is commanded or required by someone or something supposedly in or of ‘authority’, who or which, of course, only commands or requires what is ‘good’ or ‘right’, the most that we have is an arbitrary and meaningless tautology.

More significantly, it is not possible to argue logically from the fact that because something is commanded or required---irrespective of who or what commands or requires it---to a value judgment that what is commanded or required is ‘good’ or ‘right’ or that it is morally right to obey the command or comply with the supposed requirement.

There are a great many other so-called theories of ethics, but, for the most part, they are all combinations or variations of some or all of the above. So, is there a Humanist theory of ethics that is positive, objective, realistic, non-moralistic, non-prescriptive and secular? In my view, there is, and it may be expressed as follows:

A HUMANIST THEORY OF ETHICS -- Something is ‘good’ or ‘right’ if it is objectively ‘good’ or ‘right’.

At first glance, this theory appears to be circular just like some of the flawed theories referred to above, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is we as human beings are acquainted with certain things directly by experience (eg the colour ‘red’). We know sufficiently what ‘good’ or ‘right’ is by the experience of apprehending ‘good’ or ‘right’ things, as to see a red rose is also to see what redness is. ‘Goodness’ or ‘rightness’ is there to be recognised, as an occurrence in time and space ... as a fact. It is something with which we have long been in certain ways acquainted.

Rosslyn Ives stated in her challenging article, ‘How Shall We Live? An Exploration of Humanist Ethics’ (Australian Humanist, Autumn 2002), that the criterion for a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ action is the objective effect of that action on human well-being. Whatever improves human well-being or decreases human misery is ‘good’ or ‘right’; whatever reduces well-being and increases human misery is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.

Human well-being is something that is palpably discernible and objective. Indeed, it can be assessed and appreciated in terms of adequate food, clean water, clean air, ecological sustainability, reasonable housing, good health, fair education, and so forth. There may be some argument about what is ‘adequate’, ‘reasonable’ and ‘fair’, but there can be little or no argument about what improves human well-being or decreases human misery in the sense described above.

I wish to point out that we are not talking utilitarianism here ... pleasure, pain, happiness, personal preferences, and so forth. We are talking about actions and consequences of actions that are universal and the same for all human beings. We must simply ‘look and see’.

In this theory of ethics, the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of a thing is not dependent upon or constituted by being liked or wanted or believed in, for, at the risk of repeating myself, NOTHING is constituted by, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things.

Here we have a theory of ethics that is objective and realistic, and which altogether avoids the ‘relativist confusions’ of most of the other so-called theories of ethics which speak in terms of what we ought to do. We are to do, not what is commanded or required, not what others think is ‘good’ or right’, not even what we ourselves think is ‘good’ or ‘right’ nor what supposedly accords with the genetic theory of natural selection. We are to do that which is objectively ‘good’ or ‘right’, that which is intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘right’, that which has the natural quality ‘good’ or ‘right’. In short, in the words of songwriter Irving Berlin, from the musical play Annie Get Your Gun, we are to do ‘what comes natur'lly’ in the sense just described.

In my respectful submisison, this is the only satisfactory basis for a Humanist theory of ethics.

Finally, I want to say a few words about those objective values--there are many of them--which take the form of self-evident truths. There are a number of concepts, propositions and principles that we can readily affirm as true. (Note. This is not a matter of belief.) We can affirm them as true because they are true, in that for the most part they are convictions in the nature of self-evident truths or what may be called axiomatic eternal verities. While some of the concepts, propositions and principles we can affirm are what one may call 'working hypotheses,' the majority of them, as already mentioned, are self-evident truths. A self-evident truth is one that is such that, if you understand it, you are justified in believing it.

Here are a couple of self-evident truths which we can affirm as true: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We can also affirm that unnecessary suffering, as well as the unnecessary destruction of value, are wrong. (Yes, I admit that there are some problem words there. There always is, and always will be.) We can affirm the right of conscience, the democratic process, and the right to pursue a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We can affirm the principle that equals should be treated equally, and like cases should be treated alike. We know these convictions to be true. Those convictions that are not expressly or obviously self-evident or axiomatic we can come to know as true by a process of free inquiry and the use of reason (in other words, by evidence).

Note. This post expands upon material contained in an article written by the author entitled ‘Doin’ What Comes Naturally: Toward a Humanist Theory of Ethics’, which was published in the Autumn 2003 edition of Australian Humanist.


lev.lafayette's picture

> I want to say a few words about those objective values--there are many of them--which take the form of self-evident truths.

I don't think there are objective truths in moral reasoning, insofar that I understand truth to be factual statements about the objective world. The presence of a murdered body, for example, tells us nothing about whether or not murder is right or wrong.

However, I do think there are moral universals. There is a subtle difference here.

Firstly we accept that tastes differ in other people. However the tastes themselves are not morals, but rather the sensual side of aesthetics.

Where aesthetics crosses into morals is when it starts to affect other people. At that point relative aesthetic desires or expressions may come into conflict. That conflict can only be resolved by informed agreement between the participants. Where the agreement exists, moral activity has occurred; where it does not, it has been breached.

Thus relativism in the aesthetic tastes in the subjective world, moral universalism in procedures of our intersubjective environment, and ultimately factual truths in the objective world.