One Universal Principle
Which Still Makes Sense
By John C. Morgan
“The attempt to find a common point of view is better than manipulative contempt for it.”
--Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University, England
One major ethical dilemma today is that many many believe everything is relative. According to this modern view, there are no universal truths; hence everything is determined by culture, history or individual quirks.
When no truth is more important than any other, nothing finally matters because there is no way to judge anything as being more important than anything else. A cartoon expresses this idea: Charlie Brown is seen at a school play. Dressed in a witch doctor’s outfit, he says to the audience: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.”
Typically the more cynical in our midst use ethical relativism as justification for their actions. They may cheat, steal or lie because in the scheme of things no actions are more ethically correct than any others because nothing really is right or wrong, good or bad.
I find the modern view that we cannot judge behaviors by any universal standard to be intellectually lazy and morally bankrupt. If you don’t believe this, I would challenge you to compare those who murdered some fourteen million people in the Nazi campaign to eliminate Jews, dissidents, and others, to those who at great peril to themselves rescued countless thousands from ending up in concentration camps.
If you have never visited a holocaust memorial, you should to remind yourself of what happens when people are treated as less than human beings. Or, read the story of slaves in our country to see that it can happen here. Closer to home, think what happens to our values when only profits rule without any concern for people. It does matter what you believe.The difference between people who believe there is no price to be put on a human life and those who believe some lives aren’t worth much is greater than the difference between our galaxy and one light years away.
One of the greatest of all philosophers, Immanuel Kant, coined the term, “categorical imperative” to mean that there was a universal ethical law. Without waxing academic, one might describe this law in words your mother might have used before you did something to someone or to yourself that might trouble you later. Mother would ask: “What if everyone did that?”Ask Kant’s question the next time you think about cheating on someone or stealing or lying or worse, abusing another person: “What if everyone did that?”
Once upon a time most of us knew the Golden Rule, even if we didn’t practice it as often as we might hope: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I believe the Golden Rule is universal, thought it has been stated differently in many ways.
Here are a few:
* What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others.(Confucius, 6th Century, B.C.)
* Do not do unto others all that which is not well for oneself. (Zorastrianism, 5th Century, B.C.)
* Hurt not others with that which pains thyself. (Buddhist, 4th Century B.C.)
* May I do unto others as I would that they should do unto me (Plato, 4th Century, B.C.)
* Do naught to others which if done to thee would give thee pain.(Hindu, 3rd Century, B.C.)
* What is hateful to yourself, don’t do to others. (Judaism, lst Century B.C.)
* Whatsoever ye would that others should do to you, do ye also even to them. (Jesus, 1st Century, A.D.)
* Treat others as thou wouldst be treated thyself. (Sikhism, 16th Century, A.D.)
* What if everybody did that? (Kant’s ethical principle called the “categorical imperative,”
* Don’t mess with others as you wouldn’t want to be messed with yourself (street philosopher, Philadelphia, 21st Century)
(John C. Morgan is a Contributing Editor to the Herald and also teaches philosophy and ethics at a community college.)