Absolute Moral Rules

Currently, I am taking a Coursera (online university courses) on Practical Ethics. Next to lectures and readings the course also consists of writing assignments, this is the first one. In this short essay, I am defending absolute moral rules. Disclaimer: I have yet to figure out for myself the position I want to take concerning morality/moral rules, but this one comes pretty close.

Do any moral rules hold without exception, no matter what the circumstances?

Moral rules are concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour. They define in a broad sense what behaviour is looked up to, and what behaviour people condemn. According to James Rachels, a person, a moral actor, is perceived to, at the very least, to guide one’s conduct by reason while giving equal weight to the interests of the people affected by the decision. David Hume states that reason is the consequence of our passions, our behaviour follows from them and thus also morality. Emmanuel Kant opposes this position and states that we can have a universal moral law. In this short essay, I will defend this last position by defining, examining and defending a universal moral rule.

Doing justice is one of the 13 moral rules that have guided one of history’s greatest men; Benjamin Franklin. In doing justice he means that you wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty. With this, he means that a person is not to bodily harm another person, and thus doing injustice to the other and yourself. Also when you have benefits that are your duty to give to others, it is morally wrong to omit it from them. Doing justice here is an absolute moral rule, it is a principle that ought never to be violated.

There are two main objections to the use of absolute moral rules. The first is concerned with the use of the rules; is it applicable to everyone?. The second is concerned with the consequences of the rule; what about the consequences? I will defend the use of absolute moral rules using the example of doing justice.

It is true that not everyone does justice, and even the people who do justice, do not do this all the time. In different cultures, people have defined specific cases of justice on different terms. Even over time, the notion of justice has had changes. These changes, however, are subtle and are concerned with specific cases and not the idea behind doing justice. Take for instance the benefits of your labour, to whom do you distribute them? If a person decides to give everything away to charity this can be conceived to be a morally just decision. At the same time, a person who only spends his money on his own family is not doing something wrong morally. But when a CEO receives a large bonus whilst his company is losing money, everyone can agree that this is morally wrong.

What if everyone does justice? This opposition is concerned with the consequences of the moral rule (which in itself is deontological). Imagine that you are in a room with a terrorist and the only way to get to know where a nuclear bomb is hidden is via physical torture (i.e. doing injustice to the terrorist). The moral rule can still apply here, based both on deontological and consequentialist reasons. Concerning the former, it can be stated that doing any bodily harm to anyone is wrong in that it violates the rights a person has, terrorist or not. Holding onto a moral rule can, therefore, be seen as more important than the catastrophic outcomes of a particular (hypothetical) situation. Concerning the latter, you do not know if the terrorist will give the right information. Taking both positions together, doing injustice is a means that is not defendable by its ends.

Some moral rules hold without exception. Doing justice is one of the moral rules that endures criticism and is universally applicable. It is true that not all proposed moral rules hold without exception. Some examples of questionable moral rules are; have patience, be loyal. Other moral rules are very much debatable as to whether they hold without exception (e.g. do not gossip, be forgiving). Next to doing justice other moral rules also make intuitive sense and equally successfully can stand opposition; respect others, be dependable, humility.

Having all moral rules be dependent on the consequences of a situation is the opposite view of the one being defended in this essay. This is essence is a consequentialist argument. There are two problems with this kind of an argument. The first is the extent to which you define consequences, for who, when, where, etc.. The second is the practical application of consequentialist thinking, it is not practically possible for a person to, for each decision, to determine and weigh the effect of his actions. Therefore using a consequentialist approach to moral rules is both impracticable and unclear in its definition of what is right and wrong.

Doing justice is a moral rule that holds without exception, no matter the circumstances. This moral rule, and others, can help us understand better and let us live a moral life.