By Michael De Dora

The history of Western moral philosophy includes numerous attempts to ground ethics in one rational principle, standard, or rule. This narrative stretches back 2,500 years to the Greeks, who were interested mainly in virtue ethics and the moral character of the person. The modern era has seen two major additions. In 1785, Immanuel Kant introduced the categorical imperative: act only under the assumption that what you do could be made into a universal law. And in 1789, Jeremy Bentham proposed utilitarianism: work toward the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (the “utility” principle).

These attempts, while worthy, have failed, if only because moral philosophers have tough standards — and for good reason. Each proposal has been fully deconstructed, and shown to have flaws. Many people now think projects to build a reasonable and coherent moral system are doomed. Still, most secular and religious people reject the alternative of moral relativism, and have spent much ink criticizing it (among my favorite books on the topic is Moral Relativism by Stephen Lukes). The most recent and controversial work in this area comes from Sam Harris. In The Moral Landscape, Harris argues for a morality based on (a science of) well-being and flourishing, rather than religious dogma.

Harris’ book has drawn much criticism, most of it focused on his claim that science can determine human values. I do not wish to consider that here. Instead, I am interested in another oft-heard criticism of Harris’ book, which is that words like “well-being” and “flourishing” are too general to form any relevant basis for morality. This criticism has some force to it, as these certainly are somewhat vague terms. But what if “well-being” and “flourishing” were to be used only as a starting point for a moral framework? These concepts would still put us on a better grounding than religious faith. But they cannot stand alone. Nor do they need to.

The idea I would like to propose is that while each ethical system discussed so far has its shortcomings, we can assemble a mature moral outlook by piecing together parts of each of the different systems put forth by philosophers over the centuries (plus some biology, but that’s Massimo’s area). The following is a rough sketch of what I think a decent pluralist approach to ethics might look like.

The most basic claim is the one made by modern utilitarians and virtue ethicists: that morality ought to function to increase the well-being (the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous) and flourishing (to grow, to thrive) of conscious creatures and societies. Of course, this is open to some interpretation. What does well-being mean? What does it entail? Who gets what? In its purest form, you might say, it is still the mob rule of early utilitarian writing. But what if we fleshed out the framework with a couple of additional moral concepts? I would propose at least these three:

1. The harm principle bases our ethical considerations on other beings’ capacity for higher-level subjective experience. Human beings (and some animals) have the potential — and desire — to experience deep pleasure and happiness while seeking to avoid pain and suffering. We have the obligation, then, to afford creatures with these capacities, desires and relations a certain level of respect. They also have other emotional and social interests: for instance, friends and families concerned with their health and enjoyment. These actors also deserve consideration.

2. If we have a moral obligation to act a certain way toward someone, that is often reflected in law. Rights theory is the idea that there are certain rights worth granting to people with very few, if any, caveats. Many of these rights were spelled out in the founding documents of this country, the Declaration of Independence (which admittedly has no legal pull) and the Constitution (which does). They have been defended in a long history of U.S. Supreme Court rulings. They have also been expanded on in the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the founding documents of other countries around the world. To name a few, they include: freedom of belief, speech and expression, due process, equal treatment, health care, and education.

3. While we ought to consider our broader moral efforts, and focus on our obligations to others, it is also important to place attention on our quality as moral agents. A vital part of fostering a respectable pluralist moral framework is to encourage virtues, and cultivate moral character. A short list of these virtues would include prudence, justice, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and courage. One should study these, and strive to put these into practice and work to be a better human being, as Aristotle advised us to do.

As you have likely noticed, this pluralist approach does not include all moral theories (I mean, did you really expect me to bring up divine command theory?) The most notable omission is consequentialism, as far as it is distinct from utilitarianism. I’ve previously written about that here. As it relates to this essay: I think we should indeed try to imagine, and then achieve, the sort of outcomes we want. But consequences often do not match one’s original intent, as many factors are out of our control. Furthermore, our judgment of which consequences are desirable largely depends on our prior conceptions of harm, rights and virtue.

Still, some say that irreconcilable tensions can arise between the different conceptions of ethics, which may mean that ethical pluralism is doomed. At least two examples are discussed in chapter 8 of Michael Sandel’s Justice, as they relate to the relationship between justice and law (an unavoidable issue when it comes to ethics).

The first example highlights a potential tension between the utilitarian and virtue views. Aristotle believed that law was meant to inculcate moral virtue and make good citizens. What then about well-being? Aren’t these two different approaches to ethics? Not exactly. Law can be about instilling moral worth as a necessary step toward increasing our well-being, the overarching function of morality. The second example pits virtue ethics against rights theory. Aristotle believed the purpose of law was more to form an upstanding populace, and less to create rules and rights. But it goes both ways: forming good citizens with upstanding character requires a certain level of protection of rights; and cultivating virtue is a good way to make sure we support the correct rights.

A third potential tension has been mentioned in criticisms of Harris’ book. It is between utility and rights theory. Imagine if scientific data proved that slavery leads to greater societal flourishing. Would slavery then be moral? No. The point of a pluralist approach is that you do not rely on a single universal rule. Slavery might increase the collective well-being, but it would do so by limiting an essential right. And you don’t take away peoples’ rights just because the majority would be happier that way.

Indeed, each aspect of a pluralist ethical approach is intricately tied to other aspects. The way to increase well-being and flourishing is to feel obligated to accord conscious beings a certain level of respect and rights, to not cause harm to them without very good reason, and to actively work toward building moral character so that these promises are fulfilled.

I think most people already are ethical pluralists. Life and society are complex to navigate, and one cannot rely on a single idea for guidance. It is probably accurate to say that people lean more toward one theory, rather than practice it to the exclusion of all others. Of course, this only describes the fact that people think about morality in a pluralistic way. But the outlined approach is supported, sound reasoning — that is, unless you are ready to entirely dismiss 2,500 years of Western moral philosophy.

Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in May 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.