A complete moral framework can consist of three basic principles

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people debate the morality of particular actions. Many times they were domestic and foreign policy actions of either the Australian state or some other state, often the U.S. There were so many debates and so few consensuses that, for a long time, I had the impression that morality was too complicated to ever be properly understood and that we’d have to debate these actions and disagree about them forever. Fortunately, though, it seems to me now that we can in fact have a complete moral code if we live by only three principles of morality.

First, if something’s wrong for you it’s wrong for me, and if something’s right for you it’s right for me. This, as Noam Chomsky has said, should be the core of any serious moral code, and has a clear relation to Immanuel Kant’s principle of Universalizability.

Second, it’s immoral to deliberately act or fail to act when you know that the consequences of your decision will cause avoidable harm to another person or other people. Therefore, for a person’s actions to constitute immoral behaviour, (1) the person must be aware that the consequences of their decisions are harmful to others, otherwise what they did was an accident and accidents, though they can be damaging, can obviously never be immoral, because there’s no intent. (2) Despite this knowledge, they must deliberately behave in ways that bring harm to other people, whether by causing or simply allowing it to occur. (3) The harm which they inflict on others must’ve been avoidable, otherwise no one can be responsible for an unavoidable outcome.

Third, as much as they can, people should, but don’t have to, help others and contribute to the common good for the benefit of all. While not a moral obligation, this is one of the chief means by which solidarity’s cultivated and humankind makes progress, since it promotes caring about one another, helps to reduce, and perhaps one day eliminate, the many barriers by which the world’s people have long been divided, and myriad other benefits.

I feel that a person with and committed to these three principles has a complete moral foundation to deal with any situation the world can concoct. Although, as always, I’m open to the idea that I’m wrong, and happy to discuss situations which people think cast doubts over or disprove the moral framework. For the moment, though, I don’t see any good reason why these principles shouldn’t be enough to guide people through their lives and stick to, or at least be conscious of, what’s morally right and wrong for a person to do in whatever circumstances they face. Hence, in my view, a complete moral framework can indeed consist of just three basic principles.

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3 thoughts on “A complete moral framework can consist of three basic principles

  1. Good reflection. Thank you. Help me to understand ” if something’s right for you it’s right for me.” The Tea Party movement in the US think it’s right that 1% hold the wealth and are not obligated to care for the common good in a just way, because they have earned their excess. This belief is not right for me.

    • Thank you, I appreciate it very much. If you want to apply the framework I propose to your case I’m happy to do so, but perhaps before we do we should clarify the first two principles, since they’re the ones which relate to whether something is moral or immoral. The third principle, on the other hand, only describes how people can act morally, if they choose, claiming that people should do as I suggest as a matter of human decency and in the interest of the public good, but not enjoining people to do what I recommend. I think that should at least show that the first and second principles are fundamentally different from the third, so I’ll now clarify the first two principles individually in order to further explain them both and then apply them to your case.

      In terms of whether something’s moral or immoral, the first principle says that if something’s right for me to do to you, it’s therefore also right for you to do to me. Naturally, the same is true for things which are immoral, i.e. if something’s wrong for me to do to you, it’s also wrong for you to do it to me. Put another way, whatever someone does to you is right for you to do to them, and whatever you wouldn’t allow someone to do to you isn’t okay for you to do to others. It’s a bit convoluted, I know, and I’m sorry about that, but it’s really very simple when you get past the semantics, and can be useful for people to think about before they act. Basically, it’s a simple guide to bear in mind if we ever aren’t sure whether what we’re thinking of doing is morally decent or not, as well as having lots of other possible functions and virtues in terms of explaining and debating morality.

      In terms of committing immoral acts, the second principle provides strict conditions for what constitutes an immoral action. Namely, an action is only immoral if the agent of the action deliberately acted or neglected to act, knowing that the consequences of their behaviour would bring avoidable harmful to another person or group of people. This doesn’t include things like mistakes, accidents or unavoidable misfortunes, which I personally don’t think can be properly regarded as instances of immorality. But I suppose that in time we’ll see whether or not I’m right about that.

      If we then apply this to your Tea Party example, I think the situation’s pretty simple in terms of morality.

      I recommend, according to my third principle, that people cooperate with and support one another, as well as the common good, as much as they are possibly able. However, as I said above, this doesn’t oblige people to do anything, only recommends what they should do if they wish to behave like morally decent human beings. This certainly applies to the ultra wealthy people you’re talking about, who unfortunately have chosen to hoard and indulge their wealth without giving back to society, but it doesn’t make what they’re doing immoral, just selfish.

      According to my first principle, we would determines whether or not what the ultra rich people you’re referring to are behaving immorally by asking to them whether or not they think you would be justified doing to them what they do to others. They would probably ask what it is exactly that they’re doing, and we’d reply with something like, ‘deliberately creating or maintaining a system in which groups of reigning aristocrats, oligarchs and privileged elites exploit the majority of the people in order to consolidate and expand the security of the ruling class (incidentally, I’ve just done a very long post to do with the concept of classes and class warfare that has a lot to do with this topic, but I’ll get back to the point). It would be a complicated discussion and we’d need to prove that what we’re alleging is true, but assuming that we’re correct they’d eventually be left with a choice to make: either it’s right for them to deliberately create or maintain a system within which they exploit others for their own gain, and it must therefore be right for the people they exploit to do the same to them; or it’s wrong for them to create or maintain such systems if repression and exploitation and they’re guilty of behaving immorally toward others. If the rich decided that they didn’t mind if people did to them what they do to others (setting aside, for the sake of simplicity, that we almost surely couldn’t trust them if they gave us this answer), we’d be forced to accept that their actions are inconsiderate and selfish, but not immoral according to the first principle. But if, on the other hand, they decided that they would actually mind if people exploited and repressed them in the way that they do those things to others (which would almost certainly be the answer they would have to give if they were being honest), then we could straight away conclude that their actions must therefore be immoral according to my first principle. As you can see, the argument we’d get into by using the first principle is somewhat flimsy and complicated, but that’s not too much of a problem, because the argument is much simpler when we apply the second principle and easily shows that the actions of the ultra rich people whom the Tea Party supports are blatantly immoral, which I’ll explain now.

      When you apply the second principle, you need to consider three things. One, was the person whose actions brought harm to others aware of the consequences of their actions before they acted? Two, did they deliberately behave so as to bring about this outcome? And three, was the harm that the person’s actions brought avoidable? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, then the person or people in question acted immorally, no matter whether or not it was through action or through failure to act. And when you apply that to the ultra rich people whom the Tea Party supports, it’s very clear, I think, that they satisfy both criteria. For instance, economists are well aware of the harmful consequences of corporations and their behaviour in the real world, which often harms innocent third parties in predictable ways, which economists call externalities. A good example of this is the tons of pollution sent into the atmosphere every day that is a growing danger to the very survival of our species due to climate change. But beyond this, it’s fundamentally true and very well known that the state-capitalism on which the U.S. is founded has the predictable consequence of creating inequalities in wealth, which in turn produces inequalities across the board, such as with access to healthcare, education, nutrition, housing, etc. The issue is bigger and even more heinous than I’ve briefly described, but the important point to take away is that anyone who has experience with the system is familiar with the fact that it brings benefits for a select few people in exchange for harmful consequences for the vast majority, and that the harm that is brought is made entirely by greed and selfishness, and thus is certainly avoidable. Tying this back to the rich people supported by the Tea Party, any people who’ve made fortunes in business will be aware of these realities, and therefore must be guilty of having committed many immoral actions. Thus, although the elites whom the Tea Party supports can’t be immoral when you apply the third principle (and nor can anyone else), and although the moral argument posed against them by the first principle is not exceedingly strong or simple (though it could still work if we put it to the test), neither of these things matter, because when you apply the second principle it becomes clear very quickly that those rich people are perfectly guilty of immoral behaviour. And since you only need to be convicted by either the first or the second principle in order to be guilty of immorality, it must be true, if my framework is correct, that those wealthy and powerful elites you mention are flatly guilty of behaving immorally.

      To sum up, then, and to apologize for the length of is response, after applying my framework it seems clear, at least to me, that you’re right in saying that those rich people have behaved and continue to behave immorally, though perhaps not exactly in the way you had first been describing. Sorry for rambling for so long, but I hope this was of some help. All the best and thank you for reading. Matt

    • I might just add that my moral framework doesn’t require people to care about or actively work to benefit the public good. Although you would hope that people would do both of those things to the degree that they’re able, which is what my third principle recommends, I don’t think something can be considered morally unjust unless it’s dealing with avoidable harm that has been deliberately brought upon a person or group of people by someone who was aware of the consequences of their actions. So in the sense that you were talking about before, no, I don’t believe my principles argue that it’s morally unjust for rich people to care only about themselves, though the third principle does imply that such people are terribly selfish and inconsiderate, and thus ought to be ashamed of themselves, for whatever that’s worth to self-centred elites. I hope that this addition puts my earlier and much longer reply in a clearer light. Thank you again. Matt

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