UNIVERSAL ETHICAL PRINCIPLES: DO THEY EXIST? IF NOT, DOES IT MATTER?

by michael on January 2, 2011

HAPPY NEW YEAR
FIRST POST 1-1-11

I share an exchange I had over the past two days with a reader. I am pleased the reader absorbed by book—or sections of it—with a critical and challenging mind. I disagree with his assertions and conclusions. The reader raised provocative issues that merited a reply. The issues are of such significance that I took more time on my response than I might otherwise be inclined to spend.
I thought readers of this blog might find instruction in the exchange, so I produce it here in its entirety, except for the reader’s name.

READER COMMENT:

I was visiting a friend at Fireside Books & Coffee this evening when I spotted your book, The Good, The Bad and the Difference. Admittedly, I did not read much of the book due to the short time I had, but I stuck mostly around pages 40-55 (the chapters concerning “What is Good” and “A Measurement for Good”). What I found confusing is your claim that no universality exists. It seems to me that a book with this premise would have to submit to some kind of universal principle, though it appears that you deny any such principle. A page or two later, you claim that we ought to teach our children ethics in order to “elevate” the world. How can we speak of elevating the world when we deny universal principles? To what end do we elevate? The idea of progress seems to rest on the notion that actual measurement can occur, which of course is dependent on some kind of universal truth or standard. We cannot progress towards a point that does not exist.

I just wanted to get your opinion on this point of ethics sans universal truth and how one can actually teach their child to “do good” in a framework where good isn’t real. Please forgive me if you address this explicitly and I simply did not get to that section. I appreciate your efforts and would value your response.
END READER COMMENT

MGS REPLY

Thank you for taking the time to read parts of my book with such a critical mind.
I endeavor to respond to your comments.

You are correct to state that I deny that universal ethical principles exist. I do not comprehend your implication that ethical integrity requires that my book assert the existence of universal ethical principles.

I see no logical, deterministic or coherent relationship between ‘elevating the world’ and your requirement for the existence of universal principles.

The ends to which we seek to elevate the world—justice, honor, respect for life—are not dependent upon or determined by a universality standard. Good exists whether or not that good is universally accepted.

I do not accept your assertion “The idea of progress seems to rest on the notion that actual measurement can occur, which of course is dependent on some kind of universal truth or standard.”

I agree that “The idea of progress seems to rest on the notion that actual measurement can occur,”

I do not accept your deduction that the measurement of progress “which of course is dependent on some kind of universal truth or standard.”
Progress is not a function of universality. Never was. Never will be.

I do not accept your logic that good isn’t real unless there are universal principles. I am not willing to outsource morality to the rest of the world.
Let’s analogize
There are no universal political systems, but no person could rationally argue that the morality or achievement or productivity or liberty of different political systems cannot be measured.

There are no universal political economies, but no rational person could argue that progress and relative good cannot be measured.

Good and evil do not depend on universality. To hold such a view would allow some cave dwelling sociopath in Afghanistan to negate all morality. I find such a proposition untenable.

The notion of universal ethical values is like a crutch used to avoid critical analysis of reality and to avoid making hard judgments about a fractious and polarizing world. The resort to the assertion of the existence of universal values or ethics is a rhetorical trope used to attempt to enhance the power or integrity of an argument or of a position. It is an emotional effort, not one based on logic or evidence.

It is true that an abstract notion of ‘good’ or ‘honor’ or ‘justice’ or ‘love’ may be held universally, but their meaning and their measurements are not universally shared. Some notions of justice are pernicious and vile; some notions of love for a child are beneath contempt.
That a word is used universally does not signify that the values linked to the word are universally accepted.

I conclude that the notion of universality is wholly irrelevant to the existence of good or to measuring good or to reality.

The overarching theme of my book is that good is measured by testing an action or a thought against identifiable ethical principles and virtues, principles. Whether these principles and virtues are universally accepted it irrelevant for determining good.
I hope this helps.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Autoverz January 26, 2011 at 3:23 pm

you are good. write more

Reply

michael February 16, 2011 at 3:23 am

Thank you for your uplifting remark. Always good to read another favorable comment.
MGS

Reply

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