[Paleopsych] Routledge: Onora O'Neill: Universalism in Ethics

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Onora O'Neill: Universalism in Ethics
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

      The claim that ethical standards or principles are universal is an
      ancient commonplace of many ethical traditions and of contemporary
    political life, particularly in appeals to universal human rights. Yet
       it remains controversial. There are many sources of controversy.
     Universalism in ethics may be identified with claims about the form,
      scope or content of ethical principles, or with the very idea that
      ethical judgment appeals to principles, rather than to particular
       cases. Or it may be identified with various claims to identify a
     single fundamental universal principle, from which all other ethical
    principles and judgments derive. These disagreements can be clarified,
    and perhaps in part resolved, by distinguishing a number of different
                    conceptions of universalism in ethics.

      1. Form and scope: principles for everybody
      2. Content: formal principles or uniform requirements?
      3. Universalism and particularism: principles and judgment
      4. Fundamental principles: 'golden rules'
      5. Fundamental principles: Kantian universalizability

                 1. Form and scope: principles for everybody

       One distinctive understanding of universalism in ethics is that
       ethical principles are principles for everybody. They prescribe
     obligations for everybody, define rights for everybody, list virtues
     for everybody. The most minimal version of ethical universalism is a
                             claim about the form
       of ethical principles or standards. It is the claim that ethical
        principles hold for all and not merely for some, that is, for
                         everybody without exception.

      Those who hold that ethical principles are universal in form often
    disagree about their scope, that is to say about which beings comprise
      'everybody'. Plato's character Meno tells Socrates that there are
    quite different virtues for men and women, for boys and girls, for old
    men and slaves (Meno 71e). On the other hand, Cicero famously asserted
    that 'there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, now and
     in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law for all nations
     and all times' (De Republica III, 33) (see Cicero, M.T. §2); and St
    Paul proclaimed that 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
    bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in
    Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28). One very influential understanding of
     universalism in ethics, shared by many religions, by the natural law
      and liberal traditions, and by many others, is the contention that
    ethical principles are universal in form and cosmopolitan in scope, in
                        that they hold for all humans.

    However, any cosmopolitan view of the scope of ethical principles must
     note that living up to obligations, virtues and even some rights is
      impossible for human beings who lack mature capacities for action.
       Neither infants nor small children, neither the retarded nor the
     senile, can be held accountable for carrying out obligations, living
    virtuously or exercising certain rights, such as political rights. Yet
    humans who lack these capacities might have other rights, for example,
    to care and protection. Those who can suffer but not act can be moral
      patients but not moral agents, possessing some rights, but not the
     full range of obligations, virtues or rights. The scope of different
    sorts of principles of universal form will evidently have to vary (see
                        Moral agents; Responsibility).

           Many think that the scope of some ethical principles is
      more-than-cosmopolitan. Jeremy Bentham famously declared that the
     criterion of moral standing was 'not, Can they reason? nor, Can they
    talk? but Can they suffer?' (1789: 412, footnote; original emphasis);
     Hindus and Buddhists too extend moral concern beyond humankind; some
    environmentalists extend concern not only to nonhuman animals, but to
    plants, even to species and habitats (see Animals and ethics; Bentham,
     J. §2; Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of; Environmental ethics;
                            Moral standing §2-3).

     Other advocates of principles of universal form join Meno in holding
           that their scope is less-than-cosmopolitan. For example,
        communitarians (who sometimes describe themselves as rejecting
      universal principles) advocate principles of universal form whose
       scope is restricted to particular communities (see Community and
       communitarianism); some virtue ethicists hold similar views (see
                              Virtue ethics §5).

            2. Content: formal principles or uniform requirements?

     A second conception of universalism in ethics emphasizes the content
    as well as the form and scope of principles. Principles which hold for
      everybody will prescribe or recommend the same for everybody (same
       obligations, same rights, same virtues and so on). Advocates of
        universal principles see this as a merit: they see equality of
    requirement and entitlement as ethically important (see Equality §3).
    For example, discussions of universal human rights emphasize not only
     that all humans have rights, but that they all have the same rights.

    Two objections are commonly raised. The first is that principles which
     prescribe the same for all will be abstract and general, so provide
    too little guidance. The second is that they will be too demanding and
      specific, prescribing with senseless and heartless uniformity for
    differing cases and situations. On this account, universal principles
      are either too formal and minimal or else too uniformly demanding.
     Evidently the two criticisms cannot both be true of one and the same
    universal principle. If a principle is so abstract that it provides no
      practical guidance, then it will not prescribe rigid uniformity of
    action; conversely, if it prescribes with rigid uniformity it will not
                            fail to guide action.

     The charge that ethical principles which prescribe the same for all
    abstract from differences between cases is true, but not damaging. No
      principle of action - whether of universal or non-universal form,
      whether of cosmopolitan or lesser scope - can prescribe with total
        specificity; even very explicit principles abstract from many
      circumstances. It follows that principles of action can always be
     satisfied in varied ways. A principle such as 'Tell the truth' does
     not prescribe what we must say to whom or when; a principle such as
    'Pay your debts' does not determine the means or manner of repayment.
     Principles of action, including ethical principles, constrain action
    or entitlements, rather than picking out a single, wholly determinate
      line of action. Abstract principles can therefore guide action yet
    allow for flexible interpretation or application that takes account of
     differences between cases. So an ethics of universal principles can
        readily avoid both barren formalism and doctrinaire rigorism.

          3. Universalism and particularism: principles and judgment

    Since universal ethical principles are always to some extent abstract
     or indeterminate they must be supplemented by judgment in selecting
       among possible implementations. This point is recognized, indeed
    stressed, by advocates of universal principles. Kant (1781/1787), for
     example, insisted that there cannot be complete rules for judgment,
      and that principles cannot entail their determinate applications,
                  which require judgment (see Kant, I. §12).

    The serious disagreement lies not between those who think that ethics
     needs only principles and those who think it needs only judgment of
    particular cases, but between those who think principles and judgment
      are both needed and those who believe that judgment alone will be
      enough. The deepest opposition to any sort of ethical universalism
          comes from ethical particularists who hold that unmediated
       apprehension of particular cases can guide ethical life. Ethical
     particularists seek to anchor ethical judgment in perception of and
      responsiveness to the particular, in attentiveness to the case at
    hand, in the salience of the personal relationship and its claims (see
      Friendship; Impartiality §4). They usually hold that ethical life
     revolves around character and virtue. The most radical cast doubt on
    the very conception of following a rule or principle; the less radical
     cite the issues of §2 as evidence that an ethics of rules and duties
                   is inadequate (see Moral particularism).

        Both ethical particularists (who appeal only to judgment) and
      universalists (who argue that judgment is used in combination with
      principles) have found it difficult to explain how judgment works.
        Some particularists describe it as analogous to perceiving or
    attending or to the exercise of a craft skill. Some universalists see
        judgment as the skill of identifying acts that fall within the
      constraints set by a plurality of principles (see Moral judgment).

                  4. Fundamental principles: 'golden rules'

    Other conceptions of universalism in ethics combine views of the form,
    scope and sameness of content of principles with ambitious claims that
     a single fundamental universal principle provides the basis for all
     derivative ethical principles and ultimately for ethical judgment of
                              particular cases.

      Often the proposed fundamental principle is a version of a 'golden
       rule'. Variously formulated golden rules are found in Hindu and
       Confucian sacred texts, and in many other traditions, including
    natural law and popular ethical debate. One well known golden rule is
     Christian with Jewish antecedents: 'Do unto others as you would that
    they should do unto you' (for specific formulations see Matthew 7:12,
       Luke 6:31; for antecedents Tobias 4:15). Others are prohibitions
    rather than injunctions, such as 'Do not do unto others what you would
                         not have them do unto you'.

       These would-be foundational principles have been criticized for
     linking ethics too closely to agents desires or consent. Why should
        willingness to be on the receiving end of like action make it
    permissible? If masochists are willing to suffer others' sadism, would
    that make sadism right? More generally, can acceptance of being on the
              receiving end of like action legitimate anything?

     This problem can be overcome only by building additional constraints
    or complexities into the idea of considering what one would desire or
     consent to when putting oneself into another's shoes. This has been
      attempted in various principles, which are first cousin to golden
      rules, that have been influential in secular work in ethics. Most
     famously J.S. Mill asserted, in Utilitarianism (1861), that 'in the
     golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the
      ethics of utility'. The link Mill draws between utilitarianism and
         golden rules arises only if agents consider not what they as
       individuals would want if on the receiving end, but what they if
     taking account of all others' desires would want if on the receiving
     end. Only then can a golden rule reflect everybody's desires, and so
    be thought of as aiming at the greatest happiness (see Utilitarianism;
                               Mill, J.S. §10).

       Other approaches of this sort have recently been advocated by P.
     Singer (1972), R.M. Hare (1975) and A. Gewirth (1987), each of whom
    recognizes affinities as well as differences between his proposal for
     the foundations of ethics and traditional golden rules. For example,
       Gewirth suggests that a rational golden rule would read 'Do unto
        others as you have a right that they do unto you', while Hare
        advocates a universal prescriptivism by which the fundamental
         criterion for ethical judgment is that agents be willing to
     universalize their judgments, that is extend them to all situations
      identical in their universal properties (see Prescriptivism; Hare,
      R.M. §§1-2). There has been much discussion of the plausibility of
       these proposals, which generally reject the emphasis traditional
      golden rules give to what one would have if the particular victim
     reciprocated, and introduce some reference to what one would want if
    one's own principle were to be universally adopted or if one's desires
    took account of others' desires. These writers advocate a strong form
         of ethical universalism: not merely do they defend a single
     fundamental ethical principle, but they insist that it refer to the
             desires that all hold, or ought if rational to hold.

            5. Fundamental principles: Kantian universalizability

      An alternative conception of universalism in ethics rejects golden
     rules and seeks to anchor all ethical justification in a more formal
     fundamental universal principle, which does not refer to desires or
        consent to fix the content of ethics. The most famous and most
    ambitious attempt to go further is Kant's 'categorical imperative', of
      which the best known version runs: 'Act only on that maxim through
    which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal
    law' ([1785] 1903: 421). Kant claims to show that 'all imperatives of
       duty can be derived from this one imperative as their principle'
    (421). He insists that in such derivations no reference be made either
     to anyones happiness or desires, consent or agreement, and that the
      categorical imperative is not a version of a golden rule (which he
         dismisses as trivial, 430, footnote). Kant's views have been
    influential: a German scholar recently commented that 'Kant succeeded
        with his objection almost in invalidating the golden rule and
    disqualifying it from future discussion in ethics' (Reiner 1983: 274).

        English language philosophy has been less convinced that Kant
    undermined golden rule approaches. J.S. Mill was neither the first nor
     the last to think that Kant's claim to derive all principles of duty
      from the categorical imperative was complete nonsense. He wrote of

      when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties
      of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would
      be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical)
      impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most
      outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the
      consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one
      would choose to incur. (1861: 207; original emphasis)

     There has been widespread scepticism about Kant's supposed claim to
    show that 'immoral rules of conduct' are self-contradictory. However,
     he in fact makes the more circumspect modal claim that we should not
     act on principles which we cannot simultaneously 'will as universal
    laws'. An example of such a principle is that of false promising. Kant
       holds that false promisers who try (incoherently) to will false
    promising as a universal law thereby will the destruction of the very
    trust on which their own attempts to promise falsely must rely. Hence
            when we try to act on such principles Kant holds that

      we in fact do not will that our maxim (principle) should become a
      universal law - since this is impossible for us - but rather that
      its opposite should remain a law universally: we only take the
      liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves (or even just
      for this once). ([1785] 1903: 424; original emphasis)

       In 'deriving' an 'actual principle of duty' from the categorical
      imperative, Kant takes it that agents not only seek principles of
      universal form and cosmopolitan scope which prescribe the same for
    all, but shun any principles which cannot be willed for all'. Kantian
    justifications of such principles, unlike golden rule justifications,
     do not appeal to either the desires, the happiness or the acceptance
     of those on the receiving end, nor indeed to actual or hypothetical
     desires of any or of all agents. The distinctive modal character of
    Kantian universalizability is its appeal to what can be willed for all
    (rather than to what actually is or hypothetically would be willed by
       all). It remains a matter of considerable controversy whether a
       strictly Kantian approach can be used to construct an account of
     specific principles of duty, virtue or entitlement, or whether it is
         indeed too formal and minimal to sustain these derivations.

    See also: Critical Theory; Intuitionism in ethics; Theological Virtues

                        References and further reading

      Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and
    Legislation, ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart, revised F. Rosen, Oxford:
        Clarendon Press, 1996. (Classic statement of utilitarianism.)

    Cicero, M.T. (54-51 BC) De Republica, trans. M. Grant, On Government,
      Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, books III, V and VI. (Early form of
                universalism about scope of moral principles.)

    Gewirth, A. (1987) 'The Golden Rule Rationalized', Midwest Studies in
                            Philosophy 3: 133-44.

      NOTE: (Modern form of universalism, with affinities to golden

         Gewirth, A. (1988) 'Ethical Universalism and Particularism',
        Journal of Philosophy 85: 283-301. (A universalist approach to
                              ethical judgment.)

        Hare, R.M. (1963) Freedom and Reason, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
                  (Basic source on universal prescriptivism.)

       Hare, R.M. (1975) 'Abortion and the Golden Rule', Philosophy and
      Public Affairs 3: 201-22. (Application of universal prescriptivism
         to problem of abortion; includes discussion of golden rules.)

       Herman, B. (1993) The Practice of Moral Judgment, Cambridge, MA:
                           Harvard University Press.

      NOTE: (Insightful discussions of difficulties raised about Kantian

        Kant, I. (1781/1787) Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, trans. N. Kemp
           Smith, Critique of Pure Reason, London: Macmillan, 1973.

       NOTE: (Locus classicus for Kant's insistence that there cannot be
                         complete rules for judgment.)

        Kant, I. (1785) Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, in Kants
        gesammelte Schriften, ed. Koniglichen Preußischen Akademie der
       Wissenschaften, Berlin: Reimer, vol. 4, 1903; trans. H.J. Paton,
      Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (originally The Moral Law),
         London: Hutchinson, 1948; repr. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

        NOTE: (References made to this work in the entry give the page
      number from the 1903 Berlin Akademie volume; these page numbers are
       included in the Paton translation. Classic, short, if difficult,
                         exposition of Kant's ethics.)

        McDowell, J. (1979) 'Virtue and Reason', Monist 62 (3): 331-50;
       revised version repr. as 'Non-cognitivism and Rule Following', in
        S. Holtzman and C. Leach (eds) Wittgenstein: To Follow a Rule,
                 London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 141-62.

          NOTE: (An influential statement of a radical particularist
       position, which questions the very possibility of following rules
                                or principles.)

       Mill, J.S. (1861) Utilitarianism, in J.M. Robson (ed.) Collected
      Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 10, Essays on Ethics, Religion and
       Society, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969. (Account of
                     utilitarianism expanding on Bentham.)

         O'Neill, O. (1987) 'Abstraction, Idealization and Ideology in
       Ethics', in J.D.G. Evans (ed.) Moral Philosophy and Contemporary
           Problems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (What is
         abstraction? Is it avoidable? Is it harmful? In asking these
         questions, this essay is particularly relevant to §§2 and 3.)

      O'Neill, O. (1989) Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's
         Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
        (Papers on patterns of universalist ethical reasoning that use
                        Kant's categorical imperative.)

      O'Neill, O. (1991) 'Kantian Ethics', in P. Singer (ed.) A Companion
      to Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, 175-85. (Overview of Kant's position
                       and some well-known criticisms).

       Plato (c.386-380 BC) Meno, in Protagoras and Meno, trans. W.K.C.
        Guthrie, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956. (Discusses the nature of

      Potter, N. and Timmons, M. (eds) (1985) Morality and Universality:
           Essays on Ethical Universalizability, Dordrecht: Reidel.

       NOTE: (Useful papers on different conceptions of universality in
                         ethics; large bibliography.)

       Reiner, H. (1983) 'The Golden Rule and the Natural Law', in Duty
          and Inclination: The Fundamentals of Morality Discussed and
         Redefined with Special Regard to Kant and Schiller, trans. M.
       Santos, The Hague: Nijhoff, 271-93. (Historical overview; useful
                 references especially to German literature.)

      Singer, P. (1972) 'Famine, Affluence and Morality', Philosophy and
                           Public Affairs 1: 229-43.

        NOTE: (Well-known utilitarian argument to show that beneficence
      should have cosmopolitan scope: the affluent should help the hungry
                        however far away they may be.)

         Wattles, J. (1996) The Golden Rule, Oxford: Oxford University
      Press. (Examines the principle 'Do to others as you want others to
      do to you' in contexts of psychology, philosophy and religion, from
          Confucius, Hillel and Jesus to R.M. Hare and Paul Ricoeur.)

       Wiggins, D. (1980) 'Deliberation and Practical Reason', in Needs,
        Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value, Aristotelian
      Society Series, vol. 6, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987; revised edn, 1991.
              (A particularist reading of Aristotle on judgment.)

      Williams, B. (1985) Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge,
               MA: Harvard University Press and London: Fontana.

      NOTE: (Particularist criticism of aspects of ethical universalism.)

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