Right and Wrong
Perhaps there are certain principles of right and wrong, founded in the nature of things and in human nature, which, changing in their application from age to age, are yet permanent in their central meaning. Nothing would be better worth knowing at the present moment than the answer to this question.284 (William E. Hocking)
If Hocking is correct in his evaluation, we are now ready to formulate one of the most important conclusions of the entire work. A very striking result of the addition of new items of scientific knowledge to those that were previously available is the way in which problems that had seemed hopelessly insoluble clear up as if by magic when they are examined in the light of the new information. So it was with many of the most recalcitrant problems of physical science when the Reciprocal System was first developed. Long-standing questions in physics, in astronomy, in cosmology, some of which had been given up as impossible of solution, were suddenly found to be explainable in simple and logical terms. The same phenomenon is now being encountered in our exploration of the metaphysical realm. In previous chapters, we have seen how the “miraculous” feats of inductive inference and the puzzling aspects of ESP experiments can easily be explained on a logical and purely scientific basis. Now it is clear that the facts brought out in the preceding discussion also furnish an equally logical resolution of the age-old problem of right and wrong.
Here is a problem that has occupied the thoughts of philosophers, of theologians, and of common men, not only for centuries, but for millennia. Distinctions between right and wrong are continually being made by human beings—even by those who have persuaded themselves that such concepts are mere illusions—but the source of the criteria upon which the distinction is based is far from self-evident, and it has been the subject of endless debate and controversy. The words in which John Stuart Mill characterized the state of knowledge in this area a century ago are still just as valid today:
There are few circumstances… more significant of the backward state in which speculation on the most important subjects still lingers, than the little progress which has been made in the decision of the controversy respecting the criterion of right and wrong. From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning… the foundation of morality has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and divided them into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another. And after more than two thousand years the same discussions continue, philosophers are still ranged under the same contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem nearer to being unanimous on the subject than when the youth Socrates listened to the old Protagoras.285
Science has hitherto had nothing to offer in this area, as most of the scientists who have considered the matter freely admit. These comments are typical:
The scientific code of behavior needs a background of an ethics which science has not been able to provide.286 (C. F. von Weizsäcker)
The fact that morality cannot be based on experience or on reason leaves open the question what its basis may be. We are still faced with the problem “How shall I choose?” and I have no solution to offer.287 (Herbert Dingle)
Philosophers have been no more successful in finding a solid basis for a system of ethics than scientists, and in order to have anything at all to say on the subject, they have had to resort to some kind of arbitrary assumptions on which to base their reasoning. The following comments by Alasdair MacIntyre in a review of three recent books on ethics could equally well be applied to almost any philosophical discussion of ethical standards:
All three authors present us with arguments which move—usually, although not always validly—from certain premises to certain conclusions; but whence they derive their premises or why the rest of us should have any confidence in these premises, these are matters on which all three authors preserve an elaborate and discreet silence, broken only by hints and allusions.288
This is indeed a most unusual situation. In the ordinary course of events, if we encounter a problem, our first task is to devise a method by which to approach the question at issue. Then we apply this method, which may be nothing more than logical thinking about the problem or may involve some very complicated procedures, and if the method turns out to be adequate for the purpose, we arrive at an answer. In the case of a reasonably simple question of right and wrong, on the other hand, we know the answer to begin with, and the problem with which we are confronted is to identify the means by which we obtained it. Warren Weaver emphasizes the availability of the information in this comment:
I have many times been uncertain which course of action would best serve a certain practical purpose; but I cannot think of a single instance in my life when I asked what was the really right thing to do and the answer was not forthcoming.289
There is little tendency to deny the validity of the answers that are obtained by this unknown process. Even those who reject all of the religious explanations and regard ethical values as byproducts of social and scientific progress generally concede the point. Jacob Bronowski, for example, makes this significant admission, “I think that we all know the essential values when we can think about them abstractly.”290 The controversial issue is where and how this knowledge originates.
The conclusion of this present work is that it is communicated to human beings from Sector 3 by a process variously termed revelation, insight, or intuition. As brought out in Chapter 4, each level of existence has its own governing laws and principles and, although they differ materially in some very important respects, each of these sets of laws and principles constitutes a self-consistent system. The ethical code is simply a portion of the system of rules which govern Sector 3 and the extension of that sector of existence into human life—Level 3, as we have termed it. From this it follows that “right” is merely an abbreviation for “in conformity with Sector 3 laws and principles,” whereas “wrong” is a term that is applicable to anything that is in conflict with these laws and principles.
A significant point in this connection is that those decisions which are commonly regarded as involving moral issues are decisions between only two alternatives. The issue in each case can be expressed as: Is this right or wrong? In non-moral matters there may be many choices. For example, if an individual has a sum of money available for spending, he has many alternatives—choices as to what to purchase, as well as the possibility of saving the funds for future use. On the other hand, the question as to whether a person should take advantage of an opportunity to acquire such a sum of money by dishonest means is recognized by everyone as a moral issue, and here, as in moral issues in general, the choice is specifically between the two alternatives of right and wrong. Here we are dealing with a choice between two codes of conduct, two different sets of rules, not with the kind of a decision that is involved in determining how one’s money should be spent.
The definition of “right” as conformity with the laws and principles of Sector 3 does not necessarily conflict with the religious doctrine that “right” means “according to the will of God.” The will of God, if it exists, can just as logically be expressed in the form of a set of laws and principles applicable to Sector 3 existence in general as in the form of a code by which to judge right and wrong directly. The present investigation does not resolve the issue as to the ultimate origin of the moral code, but it does advance the consideration of the matter by a few important steps. It shows that there is an intelligent existence outside space and time, which may have the characteristics attributed to it by the theologians. It shows that communications from this outside sector of existence can be and are received through the processes variously termed revelation, insight, etc., and it shows that the notions of right and wrong are based on the laws and principles governing the outside sector, transmitted to the human race by intuition and revelation.
In view of this substantial area of agreement, it must be conceded that the religious answer to the question of moral judgment—the question: Upon what principle do we discriminate between right and wrong?—is consistent with the scientific findings herein presented. But this is likewise true of some different explanations. Immanuel Kant, for instance, rejected the religious answer and advanced the contention that the moral code is an inherent endowment of our consciousness, part of a store of a priori knowledge that is available to us simply because we are rational beings. This is correct, but the reason why our status as rational human beings gives us the answers to moral questions is that human beings are in communication, through intuitive channels, with Sector 3, where the moral code originates.
Theories based on ethical relativism, the system of thought which holds that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, and that the proper criteria for ethical judgments vary with the culture involved and with the individual circumstances, are in direct conflict with the results of this investigation and must be rejected. Support for ethical relativism stems largely from the observation that man’s ideas of right and wrong depend to a considerable extent on the particular culture in which he lives. Religious prohibitions with respect to the eating of certain foods are frequently cited as an example. These prohibitions have the force of moral law for the believer, but they are meaningless to those who do not subscribe to the religious beliefs that are involved. From such items as this, the relativists have concluded that moral principles in general have no objective status but derive their validity from the particular cultural setting in which they exist.
The positivists and allied philosophical groups carry this argument still farther and contend that the existence of so many conflicts and uncertainties in the various moral codes is sufficient evidence to show that there is no such thing as a definite standard of right and wrong. According to A. J. Ayer, “It is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments… because they have no objective validity whatever.”177 The following statements by Richard von Mises reflect this same viewpoint:
One can point out in detail innumerable cases in which the uncertainty in the judgment of single ways of behavior contradicts the existence of an inborn norm, common to all people.291
The second, religious, conception of the moral laws is invalidated by the fact that the allegedly revealed commandments are so vague and incomplete that their application requires continually new interpretation which, after all, is a work of the intellect.292
The weakness of the foregoing arguments can easily be seen by reference to the discussion in the earlier chapters. As there brought out, the moral codes promulgated by the religious authorities are by no means confined to the principles which the founders of the various religions formulated as a result of insight or revelation. All religious organizations find it necessary, or at least advisable, to issue numerous edicts and rules for the guidance of their members, and in order to invest these instructions with a maximum of authority, it has been customary to add them to the moral code and to give them the same, or approximately the same, status as the basic moral principles.
Such priestly codes lump together conventional observances, ancient tribal taboos, and moral precepts and attempt to enforce them all indiscriminately.293 (J. H. Randall, Jr.)
The food prohibitions and similar items belong in this category. The original objective of such a prohibition was usually connected with the health of the community, but enforcement of health regulations in a primitive community is a difficult undertaking, and since the civil and religious administrations were either combined or closely associated in these communities, invoking religious authority to facilitate enforcement was a very natural development. Then, as time went on and the origins of the accepted religion receded into the past, the distinction between truly religious doctrine and the secular rules appended to that doctrine for convenience in enforcement was gradually blurred. After a few centuries, all of these pronouncements came to be accepted as essential elements of the religious faith.
Inasmuch as these secular additions to the religious doctrines were aimed at meeting specific environmental and social problems existing at particular times and particular locations, no uniformity between different religions arising in different parts of the world and under different conditions could be expected, nor could it be expected that any justification for these regulations would be found if they are examined critically in the light of the conditions that exist today. The true significance of the “contradictions” that loom so large in the thinking of present-day critics of religion is thus altogether different from that envisioned by these critics. Instead of indicating that the religious directives do not embody any valid moral standards, these contradictions merely emphasize the extent to which secular additions to these directives have accumulated over the centuries and the necessity of getting down to the genuinely religious elements before attempting to draw any conclusions as to the validity of the moral standards.
It is true that, even in the definitely religious areas, the directives are often “vague and incomplete,” as von Mises asserts. But “vague and incomplete” is by no means synonymous with “incorrect,” and the positivists who pin their faith on science and call for less metaphysics and “more scientifically disciplined thinking” should be the last to suggest anything of the kind, as it would be hard to find anything more vague or less complete than some of the current theories in the scientific field that have originated from the “disciplined thinking” which they advocate so strongly.
Of course, the relativists are correct in asserting that the purely secular rules that have been attached to the moral code for the convenience of the civil and ecclesiastical rulers have no moral significance other than whatever obligation an individual may have to conform to the laws and customs of the society in which he lives. But they go far beyond this, and contend that no action has any moral status other than relative to those laws and customs.
Everything in the mores of a time and place must be regarded as justified with regard to that time and place. “Good” mores are those which are well adapted to the situation. “Bad” mores are those which are not so adapted.294 (W. G. Sumner)
This relativist viewpoint provides no explanations at all for the fact that those who are most concerned about moral issues in any society generally condemn some of the mores of that time and place. “There have been men in all ages,” says W. D. Ross, “who have… practiced, or at least preached, a morality in some respects higher than that of their race and age.”295 Nor does the relativist thesis account for the further fact that a society that once changes its judgment on a clear-cut moral issue in response to these dissenting views seldom, if ever, reverses that decision. “Infanticide, slavery, and witchcraft” are cited by Sumner as practices which “must be regarded as justified with regard to that time and place.” But slavery once abandoned is never reinstated. Later generations agree with those who insisted, even when it was sanctioned by the prevailing mores, that it is never morally justified at any time or place. The degree of compliance with the “official” moral code is highly variable; periods of strict enforcement alternate with periods of laxity; but the code itself moves unidirectionally, and this constant direction is inconsistent with the relativist hypothesis. It is difficult to find any logical basis for a viewpoint which interprets this continuing change in the moral climate as anything other than an improvement.
This is an appropriate point at which to make some comments regarding the use of the terms “ethical” and “moral.” Both in their derivation and in customary usage, the two words are practically synonymous, and that is the way in which they have been used in this work. “Ethical” is primarily a philosophical term, while “moral” is more common in religious usage, hence in those instances where there is a definite philosophical or religious context, the corresponding language has been employed. Otherwise, the two terms have been used interchangeably.
Out of all of the theories that have come into prominence in philosophical thinking, the one that comes the nearest to the findings of this work is the “intuitionist” theory of right and wrong, which regards human intuitions as the source of the moral code. Indeed, about all that this present work adds is an identification of the origin of the intuitions. But this is a very important addition, as it remedies the weaknesses of the intuitionist theory as it has heretofore been presented. The principal objection that has been raised against the theory is the subjective and uncertain nature of intuition. The widespread conflicts between the intuitive moral judgments of different individuals are sufficient in themselves, say the critics, to show that intuition is not a reliable source of ethical information. Alexander Macbeath gives us the following assessment of the situation, based on an examination of the beliefs of people of different cultures, particularly primitive populations:
Most of the moral rules, for which self-evidence has been claimed, are not really self-evident in the sense that they are recognized as such by all who understand them and have attended to them. And if we accept the view, as I think we must, that a satisfactory ethical theory must be consistent with the moral judgments of all men everywhere, this means that intuitionism cannot in any of its forms be regarded as a satisfactory ethical theory.296
Another common objection to the intuitionist theory is that on this basis, “An act is supposed to be intuitively certified as right without having to produce further evidence.”297 In the words of Abelson, those who argue that knowledge of right and wrong is intuitive are “placing a logical barrier in the way of rational inquiry into the grounds of our ethical judgments.”298
The results of this present investigation, which have shown that intuition is not a source of information, but a transmission mechanism whereby information is obtained from the Sector 3 source, demolish both of these objections. As brought out in Chapter 11, all incoming information, regardless of whether it arrives through the senses or through intuitive channels, is subject to some degree of uncertainty unless, and until, it is verified, because its reliability is dependent on the capabilities of the receiving equipment. The information derived by revelation, insight, or intuition is, in general, less reliable than that received through the senses simply because the intuitive abilities of the human race are, as yet, in a relatively primitive state of development. Most of the information with respect to complex matters that is received through these channels is wrong, or at least incomplete, as few of the recipients are adequately prepared to receive the message. Reception of relatively simple ethical precepts is, however, within the competence of the great majority of the inhabitants of the modern world, and the general agreement that should exist among these individuals with respect to the right and wrong of uncomplicated situations actually does exist. As Bronowski admitted in the statement quoted earlier in this chapter, “We all know the essential values.”
Where difficult questions are involved, it must be expected that the intuitive answers will differ, not because the source is unreliable, but because the individual capability of receiving the transmitted information is highly variable. Furthermore, the discrepancies between the moral judgments of the members of modern society and those of primitive people, upon which Macbeath and others of similar views base their rejection of intuitionism, are also to be expected on the same grounds. The average individual of the present day is better qualified to receive the intuitive communications than his distant ancestors. Continued progress has taken place in the ethical field as well as in all other aspects of human existence.
The barrier to “rational inquiry” with which Abelson is concerned is likewise removed by the finding that, although the source of the information received through intuition is infallible and the intuitive process is capable of transmitting the information accurately, there is no guarantee that it is received correctly. As pointed out in Chapter 9, all inductive insight—scientific, religious, or other—is subject to the limitations of the mind which receives it. The product of such insight may therefore be complete and accurate, or it may be entirely erroneous, or it may be anywhere in between. In the case of a simple question of right and wrong, the person who feels certain of his intuitive decision can usually rely upon its validity, but where more complicated issues are involved, or where the certainty is absent, the intuitive information must be tested in some appropriate manner before its validity can be regarded as established.
The standard test of science, comparison with the observed and measured facts, is the simplest and most direct of the available methods. Unquestionably, therefore, this test should be applied wherever the existing state of knowledge makes such a test feasible, and every effort should be made, as in this present work, to extend the area to which scientific testing is applicable. Nevertheless, the contention that our thinking should be confined exclusively to those items that are currently within the purview of science is wholly unjustified. There are valid items of knowledge outside the boundaries of physical science, and there are methods by which the validity of items of this kind can be appraised. Any arbitrary restriction of thought to a limited area, whether that area be physical or non-physical, simply places unnecessary obstacles in the way of the development of human knowledge.
It must be conceded that the criteria of validity that we have thus far been able to establish for application to information from metaphysical sources are quite limited, and they can give us unequivocal assurance of the authenticity of intuitive information only in the case of a relatively small proportion of the total number of items involved. Fortunately, however, this small proportion has a significance that is much greater than might appear on first consideration, since we have ample evidence to indicate that the underlying truth from which the intuitive information comes constitutes an integrated and self-consistent system. We can establish the nature and general characteristics of the portion of this system that constitutes the moral code by means of those items of intuitive information that can be directly verified, and once this basic pattern has been established, we can test other items claimed to have been received through metaphysical channels by determining whether they fit into the established pattern.
A broad general principle of great significance is the one that we know as the “Golden Rule.” Most of the great religions express this principle in essentially the same terms, and those that do not state it explicitly give us a number of separate rules and precepts from which a general rule of this kind can be inferred. Here is a rule that meets all of the tests that we have been able to formulate. It is included in all of those religious revelations that we have reason to believe are the most authoritative; all of the different versions are essentially in agreement; and none of the negative items against which we are on guard is applicable. Furthermore, the rule is an “admission against self-interest,” as self-interest would not ask for equality of treatment between self and others; it would ask for preferential treatment. The very few objections to the Golden Rule that can be found in philosophical literature (aside from those advanced by critics such as Nietzsche who object to it on non-moral grounds) are generally of such a frivolous nature that it is questionable whether their authors are actually serious. T. H. Huxley, for instance, points out that
If I put myself in the place of the man who has robbed me, I find that I am possessed by an exceeding desire not to be fined or imprisoned.299
The moral code is the code of Sector 3 by which the actions of ethical men are governed. If anyone puts himself “in the place” of the robber, as Huxley suggests, he is not, for the time being at least, an ethical man—he has chosen to follow the code of the animal—and neither his actions nor his desires have any relevance to the moral code or to the status of the Golden Rule as part of that code. Henry Margenau produces an equally absurd “application” of the rule:
Consider healthy competition for worthwhile ends, which most people will regard as ethically desirable. The Golden Rule does not permit it, for if I want to get ahead of my competitor, I must let him get ahead of me.300
No ethical man would take this attitude. If he entered into a competition, he would want to win, if possible, but he certainly would not want his competitor to turn the whole activity into a farce by letting him win. Consequently, he is under no obligation to let the competitor win. The Golden Rule makes no such demand. The mere fact that nothing more to the point can be found by those who are looking for a negative argument is, in itself, rather eloquent testimony to the soundness of the rule.
We may thus conclude that the Golden Rule constitutes a part of the set of principles that govern Sector 3: the code of ethical man. Here we have the nucleus of the new “rules of the game” that supersede the rules of Sector 2, the laws of nature followed by the biological world, when the transition to ethical man takes place. From this point on, then, we have another test that can be applied to purported revelations or intuitions concerning these rules, a more specific test than anything previously available, as any proposed addition to the known rules must be compatible with the rule that we have already verified. The first question to be asked when any such addition is suggested will be, “Is this consistent with the Golden Rule?”
For example, Kant proposes what he calls the “categorical imperative,” in which the criterion by which we identify a moral action is a decision as to whether we would be willing to make this type of action a universal rule. It is clear that this criterion is in harmony with the Golden Rule throughout the area covered by the latter—indeed, it has been called the Philosophical Golden Rule—and it also passes the other tests that we have defined, providing that we specify collective judgment rather than individual judgment and require substantially complete agreement on each separate issue before accepting this item as a part of the code, just as we should do where we are dealing with religious revelations.
In applying this criterion, we are, in effect, taking the stand that those items which ethical men agree should be part of the moral code are, in fact, part of that code. On first consideration this may seem totally unscientific, since science deals with things as they are, not as anyone thinks that they should be. But we have found that the control unit of ethical man has direct access to knowledge of what is, even though the individual cannot identify the source of his information. This means that when human beings are dealing with matters that are within their comprehension, as is generally true with respect to basic moral principles, that which men in general feel should be true actually is true. Some philosophers have already arrived at this same conclusion without the benefit of the new knowledge revealed by the present investigation. W. D. Ross, for instance, says this:
I would maintain, in fact, that what we are apt to describe as “what we think” about moral questions contains a considerable amount that we do not think but know, and that this forms the standard by reference to which the truth of any moral theory has to be tested, instead of having itself to be tested by reference to any theory.301
It does not follow that the moral code is subjective. Such concepts as that of William James, who asserts that “Nothing can be good or right except so far as some consciousness feels it to be good or thinks it to be right,”302 are completely at odds with our scientific findings. Man’s intuitive apprehension of right and wrong is not a subjective conclusion of his own; it is knowledge of an objective fact that is transmitted to him by the intuition process.
Many of those who deny the reality of metaphysical existence, and therefore cannot accept religious or other metaphysical explanations of the source of the moral code, are reluctant to concede the existence of intuition, largely because of their apprehension (which our findings show is justified) that such a concession might open the door to a metaphysical explanation. As an alternative, some attribute moral judgments to conscience. Herbert Feigl, who is an adherent of humanism, which will be discussed in Chapter 22, has this to say:
So I think that a unified set of supreme moral values can be empirically discerned as inherent in the conscience of man, even if it is not always displayed in his behavior.303
But what difference is there between saying that the moral code is “inherent in the conscience of man” and saying that it is recognized intuitively? There is no general agreement as to just what conscience is. Freud regards it as nothing but an aggregate of attitudes that have been implanted in the individual by the influence of his parents and associates. This view, widely held today, ignores the crucial question as to how the moral standards, the standards of one’s conscience, originate. As pointed out by Herbert Dingle in the statement quoted earlier in this chapter, they cannot be based on experience or on reason. But unless they do originate in some manner, they cannot be passed on by or to anyone. Those who do face the issue of the origin of the moral code squarely either have to concede that it originates from metaphysical sources or resort to euphemisms such as “inherent”or “a priori” powers which utilize the absence of precise definitions to conceal the presence of metaphysical elements in the concepts that they are using.
One of the big stumbling blocks that stands in the way of a clear understanding of the basic principles of morality is a widespread impression that if a moral law is valid at all, it must be absolute, or, as Kant expressed it, categorical. This conceptual error leads to confusion in both directions. It leads those who do not think things through in a comprehensive way to adopt dogmatic points of view and to insist on the application of certain laws or commandments under conditions where the consequences are definitely harmful. On the other hand, it leads many of those who recognize the undesirable consequences of this rigid dogmatism to take an equally extreme viewpoint and to deny the existence of fixed moral laws.
The finding of this work is that the moral laws are, indeed, fixed and unchanging. These laws are the governing principles of Sector 3, and they have the same permanent status as the governing principles of the other two sectors of our universe. No one contends, for example, that gravitation is merely a transient phenomenon which will sooner or later be superseded by some other type of behavior of matter, nor is it seriously suggested that some other factor may ultimately replace survival as the controlling element in the biological evolutionary process. The laws of Sector 3 are no less constant. However, the situations to which these laws apply are generally of a complex nature, and their practical application is therefore subject to a number of different considerations.
It is often claimed that the moral laws are inherently different in character from the physical laws, inasmuch as the latter are essentially statements as to what will happen under specified conditions, whereas the moral laws are statements as to what ought to be done. No such distinction needs to be drawn. Human beings have the option of following the laws and principles of Sector 3 rather than those of Sector 2, the “tooth and claw” rules of the biological realm. If they elect to do so, the moral laws are statements as to what will happen under specified conditions, just as is true of the physical laws. If they choose not to follow the code of Sector 3, then the biological laws specify what will happen.
Henry Hazlitt makes this observation: “Morality is primarily a means rather than an end in itself. It exists to serve human needs… a society of angels would not need a moral code.”304 But according to our findings, a society of angels, if there be such, has a moral code. Sector 3 is governed by a set of laws and principles, just as the physical world is governed by a set of physical laws and principles. The moral code is part of the governing laws of that sector, and the hypothetical angels will follow the code, not because they ought to follow it, or because they are commanded to follow it, but simply because this is the way that Sector 3 existences act, just as matter conforms to the gravitational law because that is the way matter acts. A society of ethical men will follow the same code for the same reasons, and the “ought” concept does not enter into this situation either. But ours is not yet a society of ethical men, in the full sense of the term, and we are therefore subject to the additional considerations that were discussed in Chapter 11.
The analogy with the physical laws illustrates clearly what is wrong with the contentions of Kant and others who insist that at least some of the moral laws are of such a nature that they must be followed without regard to conditions or consequences. “The categorical imperative,” Kant tells us, “is restricted by no condition. As absolutely, though practically, necessary, it can be called a command in the strict sense.”305 But this is not at all true of physical laws. For example, the law of heat transfer states that heat will flow from a body at a higher temperature to one at a lower temperature. But in the familiar desert water bag, the water is kept cool by heat transfer against the temperature gradient. The explanation is, of course, that heat is actually being transferred from the air to the water in accordance with the heat transfer law, which is in full effect, but under the existing conditions another physical law, that governing evaporation, is also effective, and the overall result is that the net transfer of heat is from the water, the cooler body, to the air, the warmer body, until an equilibrium temperature is reached.
Many of those who realize that strict adherence to all of the individual rules of morality is impractical conclude that it is essential to allow some exceptions to the moral laws. Because of “the complicated nature of human affairs,” says J. S. Mill, “rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions.”306 Ewing regards the need for exceptions as self-evident. “When this [a conflict between two moral laws] happens we must admit an exception to at least one of the laws.”307 What all those who share this point of view fail to recognize is that the result of a conflict between two moral laws, like that of a conflict between two physical laws, is quantitative. Whether an action is right or wrong depends on the net balance of the right and wrong aspects of the different moral elements that enter into the action as a whole, just as whether a physical object will gain or lose heat depends on the net result of the different physical laws that apply under the existing circumstances. The cooling of the water bag does not result from an exception to the laws of heat transfer; it is the net result of that law acting in conjunction with another physical law that comes into play because of the special circumstances. Ethical matters are subject to the same considerations. There are no exceptions to the moral laws, but the effect of one of these laws under certain circumstances may be to reverse or modify the action that would normally result from some other equally valid and equally applicable law.
Where a complex ethical situation involves a number of the moral laws in one way or another, a valid judgment as to the proper course of action—the action that is in accord with the laws and principles of Sector 3—can only be reached by evaluating the impact of all of these relevant laws and arriving at an understanding of their joint effect. Here, again, the conclusions of the present work were anticipated by W. D. Ross, who states the case in these words:
Every act, therefore, viewed in some respects, will be prima facie right, and viewed in others, prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong.308
This concept of the morality of an action as the net resultant of the right and wrong aspects of all elements of that action, in the same manner that the effective force acting upon a physical body is the resultant obtained by combining all of the separate forces involved, implies that the long controversy between the supporters of the “act” theories of ethics and the “end” theories has been a waste of effort. Actions in general cannot be judged wholly on their status as actions, nor wholly on their consequences. In some cases, only the act has a moral aspect; in other cases only the consequences; but it may equally well be true that both act and consequences have a bearing on the morality. And not infrequently there are one or more secondary consequences that must be taken into consideration in order to arrive at an accurate judgment.
Furthermore, the question as to whether there were any possible alternatives to the course of action that was taken is always pertinent. For example, the intentional taking of another person’s life is condemned in all systems of ethics, but self-defense is recognized, both legally and morally, as a legitimate justification for the act. Before we accept the self-defense plea, however, we inquire into the question as to whether the homicide was, in fact, necessary; that is, whether there was any feasible alternative. Thus, a proper assessment of the morality of an action may not be possible without a full consideration of the entire setting in which the action takes place. A summation of the right and wrong aspects then gives us the answer as to the morality of the action as a whole. Self-defense is no exception to the rule that homicide is wrong. That rule always holds, but continuity of one’s own existence is more right, according to present-day thinking (which, we will find in Chapter 21, is supported by our theoretical analysis) than the homicide necessary to maintain that continuity is wrong, and the net result is a judgment that the particular action is right. Most of the philosophers’ classic examples of “exceptions” to the moral laws involve similar balances between the right aspects and the wrong aspects of the actions in question.
One of the most serious objections to ethical theories of the “end” type—those which hold that an act is to be judged solely by its consequences—is that it opens the door to the pernicious doctrine that the “end justifies the means.” It must be admitted that in a great many instances, including the self-defense situation just discussed, the end does justify the means. But in many other instances, the immorality of the act far outweighs the morality of the consequences. Then, too, in actual practice, the “ends” which are supposed to justify the means are not usually the true consequences of the act but the objectives at which the act is aimed. All too often, the ultimate consequences have no resemblance to the original objectives.
Furthermore, a wrong action taken for commendable purposes may have secondary or collateral consequences of a very serious nature. For example, in order to increase the effectiveness of their advocacy of certain social changes, a number of religious leaders have, in recent years, advanced the contention that they have a moral right to decide which laws they will obey and which they will disobey. In their intense concentration upon the immediate goal, these individuals have lost sight of the fact that they cannot restrict the exercise of such a prerogative to a chosen few. If it is permitted at all, others will insist on making the same choice, and not all of these choices will be socially desirable. However pure their motives may be, those who preach defiance of the law under the banner of “the end justifies the means” must accept a major share of the responsibility for the civil disorders and terrorism that inevitably follow.
One of the basic reasons for the breakdown of the moral structure of society that has been such a prominent feature of modern life is the general lack of recognition of the complexity of moral decisions in this era when all phases of human activity are so closely entwined and interrelated. The simple rules of morality that are taught by the world’s religions and are embodied in the elementary ethical systems developed by the philosophers are just as valid as ever in application to simple situations, and in application to the separate features of complex situations, but the special needs of the intricate social mechanism of the present day cannot be met unless it is recognized that most of today’s moral judgments must be reached by a process of summing up the right and wrong aspects and striking a balance. Unfortunately, those individuals who, by virtue of their roles in society, have the responsibility of keeping the moral codes equal to their task have, on the whole, failed to understand and appreciate this situation. Some further comments on this subject will be made later in the discussion.