Natural law ethics

As far as secular moral philosophy is concerned, during most of the 20th century, natural law ethics has been considered a lifeless medieval relic, preserved only in Roman Catholic schools of moral theology. It is still true that the chief proponents of natural law are of that particular religious persuasion, but they have recently begun to defend their position by arguments that make no explicit appeal to their religious beliefs. Instead, they start their ethics with the claim that there are certain basic human goods that we should not act against. In the list offered by John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), for example, these goods are life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion. The identification of these goods is a matter of reflection, assisted by the findings of anthropologists. Each of the basic goods is regarded as equally fundamental; there is no hierarchy among them.

It would, of course, be possible to hold a consequentialist ethic that identified several basic human goods of equal importance and judged actions by their tendency to produce or maintain these goods. Thus, if life is a good, any action that led to a preventable loss of life would, other things being equal, be wrong. Natural law ethics, however, rejects this consequentialist approach. It makes the claim that it is impossible to measure the basic goods against each other. Instead of engaging in consequentialist calculations, the natural law ethic is built on the absolute prohibition of any action that aims directly against any basic good. The killing of the innocent, for instance, is always wrong, even if somehow killing one innocent person were to be the only way of saving thousands of innocent people. What is not adequately explained in this rejection of consequentialism is why the life of one innocent person--about whom, let us say, we know no more than that he is innocent--cannot be measured against the lives of a thousand innocent people about whom we have precisely the same information.

Natural law ethics does allow one means of softening the effect of its absolute prohibitions. This is the doctrine of double effect, traditionally applied by Roman Catholic writers to some cases of abortion. If a pregnant woman is found to have a cancerous uterus, the doctrine of double effect allows a doctor to remove the uterus notwithstanding the fact that such action will kill the fetus. This allowance is made not because the life of the mother is regarded as more valuable than the life of the fetus, but because in removing the uterus the doctor is held not to aim directly at the death of the fetus. Instead, its death is an unwanted and indirect side effect of the laudable act of removing a diseased organ. On the other hand, a different medical condition might mean that the only way of saving the mother's life is by directly killing the fetus. Some years ago before the development of modern obstetric techniques, this was the case if the head of the fetus became lodged during delivery. Then the only way of saving the life of the woman was to crush the skull of the fetus. Such a procedure was prohibited, for in performing it the doctor would be directly killing the fetus. This ruling was applied even to those cases in which the death of the mother would certainly bring about the death of the fetus as well. The claim was that the doctor who killed the fetus directly was responsible for a murder, but the deaths from natural causes of the mother and fetus were not considered to be the doctor's doing. The example is significant because it indicates the lengths to which proponents of the natural law ethics are prepared to go in order to preserve the absolute nature of the prohibitions.

Ethical egoism

All of the normative theories considered so far have had a universal focus--i.e., if they have been consequentialist theories, the goods they sought to achieve were sought for all capable of benefitting from them; and if they were deontological theories, the deontological principles applied equally to whoever might do the act in question. Ethical egoism departs from this consensus, suggesting that we should each consider only the consequences of our actions for our own interests. The great advantage of such a position is that it avoids any possible conflict between morality and self-interest. If it is rational for us to pursue our own interest, then, if the ethical egoist is right, the rationality of morality is equally clear.

We can distinguish two forms of egoism. The individual egoist says, "Everyone should do what is in my interests." This indeed is egoism, but it is incapable of being couched in a universalizable form, and so it is arguably not a form of ethical egoism. Nor is the individual egoist likely to be able to persuade others to follow a course of action that is so obviously designed to benefit only the person who is advocating it.

Universal egoism is based on the principle "Everyone should do what is in her or his own interests." This principle is universalizable, since it contains no reference to any particular individual and it is clearly an ethical principle. Others may be disposed to accept it because it appears to offer them the surest possible way of furthering their own interests. Accordingly, this form of egoism is from time to time seized upon by some popular writer who proclaims it the obvious answer to all our ills and has no difficulty finding agreement from a segment of the general public. The U.S. writer Ayn Rand is perhaps the best 20th-century example. Rand's version of egoism is expounded in the novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) by her hero, John Galt, and in The Virtue of Selfishness (1965), a collection of her essays. It is a confusing mixture of appeals to self-interest and suggestions that everyone will benefit from the liberation of the creative energy that will flow from unfettered self-interest. Overlaying all this is the idea that true self-interest cannot be served by stealing, cheating, or similarly antisocial conduct.

As this example illustrates, what starts out as a defense of ethical egoism very often turns into an indirect form of Utilitarianism; the claim is that we will all be better off if each of us does what is in his or her own interest. The ethical egoist is virtually compelled to make this claim because otherwise there is a paradox in the fact that the ethical egoist advocates ethical egoism at all. Such advocacy would be contrary to the very principle of ethical egoism, unless the egoist benefits from others' becoming ethical egoists. If we see our interests as threatened by others' pursuing their own interests, we will certainly not benefit by others' becoming egoists; we would do better to keep our own belief in egoism secret and advocate altruism.

Unfortunately for ethical egoism, the claim that we will all be better off if every one of us does what is in his or her own interest is incorrect. This is shown by what are known as "prisoner's dilemma" situations, which are playing an increasingly important role in discussions of ethical theory. The basic prisoner's dilemma is an imaginary situation in which two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the prisoner who confesses will be released immediately and the other who does not will spend the next 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held for a few months and then both will be released. And if both confess, they will each be jailed for 15 years. The prisoners cannot communicate with one another. If each of them does a purely self-interested calculation, the result will be that it is better to confess than not to confess no matter what the other prisoner does. Paradoxical as it might seem, two prisoners, each pursuing his own interest, will end up worse than they would if they were not egoists.

The example might seem bizarre, but analogous situations occur quite frequently on a larger scale. Consider the dilemma of the commuter. Suppose that each commuter finds his or her private car a little more convenient than the bus; but when each of them drives a car, the traffic becomes so congested that everyone would be better off if they all took the bus and the buses moved quickly without traffic holdups. Because private cars are somewhat more convenient than buses, however, and the overall volume of traffic is not appreciably affected by one more car on the road, it is in the interest of each to continue using a private car. At least on the collective level, therefore, egoism is self-defeating--a conclusion well brought out by Parfit in his aforementioned Reasons and Persons.

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Contents of this article:

    The origins of ethics
       Mythical accounts
          Introduction of moral codes
          Problems of divine origin
       Prehuman ethics
          Nonhuman behaviour
          Kinship and reciprocity
       Anthropology and ethics
       Ancient ethics
          The Middle East
          Ancient Greece
    Western ethics from Socrates to the 20th century
       The Classical Period of Greek ethics
       Later Greek and Roman ethics
          The Stoics
          The Epicureans
       Christian ethics from the New Testament to the Scholastics
          Ethics in the New Testament
          Aquinas and the moral philosophy of the Scholastics
       Renaissance and Reformation
          The first Protestants
       The British tradition: from Hobbes to the Utilitarians
          Early intuitionists: Cudworth, More, and Clarke
          Shaftesbury and the moral sense school
          Butler on self-interest and conscience
          The climax of moral sense theory: Hutcheson and Hume
          The intuitionist response: Price and Reid
       The continental tradition: from Spinoza to Nietzsche
    20th-century Western ethics
          Moore and the naturalistic fallacy
          Modern intuitionism
          Universal prescriptivism
          Modern naturalism
          Recent developments in metaethics
       Normative ethics
          The debate over consequentialism
          Varieties of consequentialism
          An ethic of prima facie duties
          Rawls's theory of justice
          Rights theories
          Natural law ethics
          Ethical egoism
       Applied ethics
          Applications of equality
          Environmental ethics
          War and peace
          Abortion, euthanasia, and the value of human life
       General works
       Origins of ethics
       History of Western ethics
       Indian ethics
       Chinese ethics
       Ancient Greek and Roman ethics
       Early and medieval Christian ethics
       Ethics of the Renaissance and Reformation
       The British tradition from Hobbes to the Utilitarians
       The continental tradition from Spinoza to Nietzsche
       20th-century Western ethics
       Normative ethics
       Applied ethics


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