Moral Principlism: a General Solution to the problem of formulating non-religious ethics

Lecture presented to the Atheist Society, 11 November 2014.

More than ten years ago, I wrote an article innocuously titled "Humanism and morality", which was published in the Australian Humanist. In it I outlined the proposition that using a set of moral principles, in practical decision making, is superior to relying on any particular moral theory. I referred to a set of eight principles as defined by David Resnick in his book "The Ethics of Science". I argued that this was a comprehensive set of principles and that it provided a guide to a general moral system. I explained why such system was superior to any religious form or conception of morality. I thought my proposal would provide a solution to the problem the lack of an agreed definition of ethics by humanists and atheists. I attempted to demonstrate this by redrafting the principles in the form of a legalistic document paralleling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I grandly titled this document The Universal Declaration of Moral Obligations.

I thought to myself, good I have solved the problem of morality, now let's move on to the next problem. Well, I did not exactly expect the world to be a path to my door, but, I did perhaps expect a degree of support that would help move the proposition forward. Both that article and its associated declaration have been on my website for the last ten years for all the world to see. The response has not been overwhelming. I have included the article and the declaration, in the last chapter of my book. (Coincidentally, I have copies for sale). Suffice to say that it appears the world is still lacking in its recognition of a universal definition of morality.

So I would like to use this occasion to restate my case, and note what I have learnt over the last ten years in response to my proposals, and also to note the continuing deficiencies in the proposals and the arguments put forward by others.

Over these years I have referred, however briefly, in almost everything I have written, to the superiority of ethics based on "the universal principles of compassion, honesty, freedom, and justice". This is a simplified version of my proposal. It demonstrates, by my merely saying it, that there is an alternative to religious ethics, that religion is not required for morality.

I have never encountered any objection to these four principles. Even religious opponents, I have found, seek to identify with these principles, even though their particular forms of religious morality deny such principles or indeed violate them egregiously. When it comes to the proposition that these principles should be given some kind of formal recognition, however, people have difficulty, I have found.

I have engaged in discussions with philosophers and others about these principles on numerous occasions. I always start by noting, to pre-empt objections, that the principles are not rules. I then almost invariably observe a curious phenomenon. After discussion, people object to my proposals on either the grounds that the principles are rules, or that they are not rules, or both. This leads to a circular argument, where I restate my contention that the principles are not rules and not intended to be rules. At this point, I have noticed that people can sometimes react emotionally to what I am saying. I find this inexplicable, but I can only guess that thinking about morality can affect an emotional part of the brain. As this situation has occurred with such regularity, I am led to think that there is something wrong with how I am explaining myself. Failing that I can only speculate about psychological explanations and motivations.

Therefore before we get bogged down in issues of objectivism, subjectivism, absolutism, and relativism, let me try to explain what is meant by the word "principle" this case. A dictionary definition is "a general truth doctrine or proposition". It is something that may be true in general. It is not an absolute rule or a moral fact. Is not meant to be.

The idea of using principles as a method of moral decision making is nothing new. It is a standard treatment of ethics in text books used in medical schools. The first principle, nonmaleficence, means do no harm, as per the hippocratic oath. The other principles used in biomedical ethics are: beneficence: help yourself and others; autonomy: allow rational individuals to make free informed choices; and justice: treat people fairly, treat equals equally, unequals unequally.

The use of these principles in particular circumstances involves the process of moral reasoning. This involves gathering relevant information, evaluating it and making a decision. Describing this process by using the word "principlism" may be less familiar. That word was not used by David Resnick in his book, although he did devise the eight principles to which I refer.

To these four principles already mentioned, Resnick added the following four principles. Utility: maximize the ratio of benefits to hands for all people; fidelity: keep your promises and agreements, honesty do not lie defraud deceive or mislead; and privacy: respect personal privacy and confidentiality.

As an economist, Resnick's use of utility is a principle immediately resonated with me. The concept of utility, and individual utility maximization, is rife through out economics textbooks. The concept of general welfare maximization is also a fundamental underpinning of economic thought. As you may know, economic analysis contributes a great deal to how modern societies are organised, to our considerable benefit, I might add. The principle of utility was first enunciated by Jeremy Bentham one of the founders of economics. You can still actually get a glimpse of him, sitting in a glass case, at University College, London, which right next to my old alma mater, Birkbeck College.

Seeing Resnick's incorporation of utility as one of his principles fired my imagination for two reasons. Firstly it sets economic thinking within a wider moral context. Secondly incorporates utilitarianism as a principal within the system. Likewise, other moral theories can be incorporated by reference to other principles. This principlism is more general then any particular moral theory because it generalises all of them.

It is in this sense that I use the words General Solution in a title of my talk. Note that I do not use the words General Theory in my title. It is not that I would not be so pretentious as to equate my work with that of Albert Einstein, in his General Theory of Relativity or of John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money.

I have great respect for both of these figures, whose intellect is far superior to mine. However what I am proposing here is not a theory. It is a solution.

I use the words general solution for another reason. It is a term commonly used in mathematics, for example for systems of equations. In probability, we have maximum likelihood. In economics, we have many kinds of maximation and optimisation. The non- mathematically minded may not find this accessible, but I find it useful to conceptualize morality as a multidimensional maximization problem, where each of the defined principles provides an axis of dimension.

Seeing it this way at least distances the problem from the binary choice fallacy, that humans seem so prone to being trapped by. In moral questions, it is almost never a case of right or wrong but a question of better or worse. Likewise, it is not a binary choice between objective and subjective. It is a question of using one's best subjective judgement in the light of all the objective evidence.

I also use the words general solution for a further reason. I contend that the principles can provide both necessary and sufficient conditions to define a general solution. That is, if a particular principal is neglected, when relevant, then the moral solution arrived at will necessarily be deficient. The principles and necessary. Likewise when considering principles to arrive at a moral decision we do not need any moral theory. The principles are sufficient. QED.

I would like to comment on some reactions I have had and also on some past speakers to the Atheist Society. Firstly the initial reaction from Stephen Stuart of the Humanists was rather dismissive, but not uncommon, to the effect that the principles were arbitrary, subjective and therefore the approach was inconsequential.

Secondly, I gave a paper at the Conference of Heterodox Economics, emphasising the role the principles of utility and autonomy (self interest) which are rife throughout economic theory and practice, and therefore provided a useful framework for integrating ethics and economics. My proposals were rather indignantly rejected by Goeff Harcourt. I found these criticisms unfair, as had already anticipated them and sought to pre-empt them.

Russell Blackford presented a lecture to the Atheist Society in 2010 "Living in a world without objective values". I suggested that his use of the term "objective" was perhaps misplaced, as the word "absolute" was more descriptive of his argument. He suggested that this was the term used in literature, however Resnick, who I quote, is careful to distinguish between strong and weak objectivity. A subsequent discussion with Russell proved rather circular, which I find frequently happens in this context.

Jonathan Rutherford presented a lecture to the Atheist Society in May 2014 entitled "God and the Subjectivity of Ethics", in which he was dismissive of any or all moral theory on the grounds that everything is subjective. I agree with both Russell and Jonathan that there is inevitably a subjective element, but disagree that therefore there are no useful objective criteria and that any quest for then is pointless. The best solution is the principles approach, although limited, to a certain degree, as it necessarily is.

What I object to most about the contentions of atheists such as Blackford and Rutherford is that in saying that in contending that there is little or no basis morality from an atheist perspective, they are unnecessarily damaging atheism and playing right into the hands of our religious opponents.

I therefore restate my contention. The universal principles of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice (an abbreviated list), do provide a non-religions basis for moral judgements, which when used in moral reasoning, is far superior to that provided by any religion.

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