How do we measure the value of a human life or any life? This is an extremely important question that affects everything from whether or not we wear a mask when asked to how much money we’re willing to spend to prevent Afghanistan from falling into the hands of cruel and heartless despots. So far, we’ve looked at methods of economic valuation and in a broad sense how life itself is defined. What we’ve found so far is that there is no straightforward answer and the best we can hope for is to gather all the information we can and try to make an intelligent and reasonable decision.
Intelligent and reasonable. Those are important words and, as with much of what we’ve discussed, not everyone agrees on their definition. When we look at the state of the world in its current form, one might make the argument that we are dangerously short of both. We’re failing in fighting the opioid crisis. The US, and arguably the world is in a pandemic spiral, either unable or unwilling to control new variants as they arrive. Weather is more extreme and climate change is more drastic than even the worse predictions imagined. And by all accounts, twenty years of war in Afghanistan proves to have been a colossal waste of time, money, and lives as the country once again is overtaken by the Taliban, one of the most repressive and inhuman regimes to ever exist.
When we look at the status of the world around us, we find plenty of what we might call “bad” actors, people, and organizations who not only put their personal interests above others but do so in a way that intentionally puts others at risk or commits deliberate harm. Those are people whose value we would question. Does the world need “bad” people? What positive contribution are they making to the world by inflicting so much pain on others?
Perhaps more importantly, we might anxiously ask where all the “good” people are and why aren’t they making more of a difference? After all, most of us like to think that we’re “good” and would probably give the same label to most other people we know. We’re hesitant to call someone “bad” until they’ve proven repeatedly that they are a threat to the peace and happiness of others.
In our valuation of life, it seems natural that “good” people are worth more to society than “bad” people, despite the fact that “bad” people take up more of the conversational news space. The challenge we’re faced with, though, is how do we define “good?”
The answer lies in a discussion of morality and, once again, we find ourselves faced with a variety of definitions that not only present different points of view, but at times flat-out argue with each other. How we adapt these different philosophies of morality shapes not only how we behave but how we judge and value the behavior of others.
There is a lot of ground to cover here. Any of the topics I’m about to raise are more adequately covered in very large books with longer words than I use, which is quite a feat unto itself. We’re not going to be complete. What I want to do is give you enough information for you to ask yourself questions about why you are good and how you value those around you. Let’s get started.
Morality Imposed By Deity
For large portions of the world, morality is something imposed by religious edict, a set of rules or laws handed down by the favored deity or deities dominating the worship of a country or a region. Despite the substantial differences in what they believe constitutes moral versus immoral, or good versus bad, what they all hold in common is that they look outside humanity to an unseen force who is allegedly in control of the world, who knows what’s best for everyone and everything living on Earth, and decides what we should or should not do. This is known as Divine Command Theory. Morality is set, firmly, by a god.
Obviously, this immediately presents a number of issues. Who gets to define the deity laying down the laws? There are billions of people who would seem to worship the same deity, but their perspectives of that deity differ to the extent that wars are fought over who’s view is correct. Some see their god as strict, aggressive, blood-thirsty, and vengeful. Others see their god as forgiving, lenient, and loving. The morality drawn from those different views is light-years apart.
Then, there’s this problem identified by Socrates and defined by Plato known as the Euthyphro problem. The basic question is whether right actions are right because god commands them or are right actions commanded by god because the actions themselves are right? Be careful about how quickly you answer because that question has been argued by religious scholars for over two thousand years and we’re no closer to a final answer now than when Plato first codified the matter.
There are two well-known and often engaged horns to this problem. The first is that if something is right, or moral, or pious because the deity commands it, then morality is arbitrary, subject to the whims of the deity issuing the command. For example, in one place a deity commands that killing is wrong, but then in another place demands that lives of hundreds or thousands of people be taken because they don’t believe in that deity. Deities are notoriously inconsistent and prone to changing their mind as it suits them. So, if the gods are the ones defining what is good, then what is good becomes totally arbitrary and subjective.
The second horn, however, is that if morality is a law unto itself and that deity is simply adhering to that law, then the deity itself is not sovereign and, quite honestly, unnecessary. This raises some uncomfortable questions. Are there things that deity can’t command? If the deity is not the source of morality, who or what is?
Now, there is plenty of wiggle room in arguing for or against Divine Command Theory. One guy, Robert Adams, argues “… that an act is wrong if and only if it is contrary to God’s will or commands (assuming God loves us).” This opens the door to the concept of ethical wrongness, things that are wrong in a specific situation even if there is no specific deific command defining the wrongness.
At the end of this endless argument, however, one has to address the issue of why deity is necessary at all in order to define morality or goodness. Is what is good a universal truth? Can we define goodness for ourselves? We’re far from being done. Let’s move the question forward in time a bit.
Being Good Is Natural
Divine Command Theory was the morality GOAT that everyone pretty much followed, unless they were atheists, up until the mid-13th century when an Italian Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas said, and I”m paraphrasing, “Hold up a minute, we’re wrong about what’s right.” Aquinas was perhaps a little smarter than the average 13th-century bear and was fortunate enough to have the weight and power of the Catholic church behind him at a point in history where that really mattered. He looked at the problem of Divine Command and decided that there were too many flaws with that reasoning to allow it to go forward without challenge.
Aquinas was of the opinion that humans have a default factory setting, if you will, that inherently hardwires a specific universal morality that is applicable regardless of which deity one follows, or even if one doesn’t accept the presence of deity at all. His theory stems from the belief that everything God made is good and so, therefore, there must be inherent good in all things.
This belief led Aquinas to identify what he called The Basic Goods. These are, accordingly, the foundation on which everything good is built. Here they are:
- Life. Life is the ultimate good. Every life is inherently good at its origination.
- Reproduction. Being that life is good, it should duplicate itself, thereby duplicating goodness.
- Educate. We teach our offspring so they can survive and reproduce. Surviving is good.
- Seek God. Everyone needs to find that source of power that exists outside themselves and Aquinas believed that power was God.
- Live in society. Being a part of something bigger than yourself, lending your goodness to others, is itself a basic good.
- Avoid offense. Pissing off other people isn’t good, even if you didn’t do it on purpose. The good is actively avoiding offending anyone, anywhere, anytime.
- Shun ignorance. This is a callback to the whole Educate thing. The extension is that it’s not enough to simply know how to survive but to understand what’s going on in your society and determining for yourself what actions are good.
At its base, Aquinas’ Natural Law Theory holds that instinct, not a book, not a religion, tells us what is good and reason allows us to derive natural law from those basic goods. Violation of natural law happens out of ignorance and emotion. Emotion was considered a bad thing, generally speaking, because emotion overpowers reason. That’s a tough point to argue. We all know that when someone is upset reason goes on vacation. We’ve watched it happen.
Of course, as with everything else we’ve looked at, there’s a problem. Several actually. Perhaps the biggest is what philosopher David Hume called the “Is-Ought Problem.” Now, listen/read carefully because this can get confusing.
Hume postulates that just because we observe something, what we’ll call an “Is,” doesn’t mean that what we observe is necessarily right, or that we “ought” to engage the thing that Is. He creates a distinct separation between facts and values. Just because something exists, he says, doesn’t make it right. So, to use a common example, while our ancestors ate meat and flourished (the is) doesn’t mean that we, in this modern age where red meat consumption is both unhealthy and bad for the planet, should continue eating meat. In fact, the morally good thing to do may be the exact opposite.
We’ll avoid getting caught in trying to bridge the Is-Ought gap for the moment and focus on the more foundational issue that because life exists does not necessarily make it good, as Aquinas claimed, even if we tend to give a child the benefit of doubt. Nonetheless, Natural Law theory ruled the day until the 18th century, when a German philosopher comes along and upsets the whole apple cart.
The Imperative Good
The underlying problem with both Divine Command and Natural Law theories is that they’re based on a specific religious belief, even if those belief systems allow for some difference. In both of those theories, if there is no God, there is no good. Does anyone else see the problem with that? Yes, actually, a lot of people see the problem with such an approach, and one of those outspoken people happened to be Immanuel Kant.
Kant found that a morality based on a religion, any religion, was problematic in that it produces different and often conflicting rules as to what is or is not appropriate behavior. Instead, Kant said that morality must be absolute, that what is right cannot be a matter of choice. The matter is not up for debate in his opinion. Furthermore, he held that moral law is knowable by intellect, making it binding on everyone regardless of their belief system or their level of education.
Philosophers seem to like making lists: the Ten Commandments, the Basic Goods, two horns, three prongs to Hume’s fork, and so on. Kant jumps on that bandwagon with a list of what he calls the four Categorical Imperatives that define what is moral. These are set forth as formulas that should influence our intentions when we act.
The Formula of the Law of Nature: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
The Formula of the End Itself: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
The Formula of Autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.”
The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”
Kant goes further by defining Perfect and Imperfect duties. Perfect duties are those things that are inherently good that we should do all the time, such as telling the truth and not killing other people. Imperfect duties are the things that are inherently good but we may not be able to do them all the time, such as giving to charity, helping our neighbor, or mowing the lawn before the city posts a warning on your door.
With all these things, what stands out is that one’s intention in their action is as important, perhaps more important than the action itself. For example, complimenting a friend to help brighten their day is good. The intention is to make them happy. However, complimenting a friend simply because you expect them to give you a compliment in return is not good.
There’s also the fact that if something cannot be applied universally, then it’s not a valid part of the “kingdom of ends.” For example, that we shouldn’t kill other people is easily applicable universally. No one should kill someone else, period. However, saying that jazz music is the only form of free musical expression would not be valid because it cannot be applied universally no matter how much I might argue for it.
As is the case with most things Kant said, the devil’s in all the linguistic details and when it comes to Categorical Imperatives there are a ton of details, which means we’ll have to leave the matter here for now. Know that if you’re confused at this point, you’re not alone. In fact, you have a great deal of company.
The Pleasure of Utility
A frequently asked question in high school history classes or undergrad religion classes is whether, if given the opportunity, one would go back in time and kill Adolph Hitler as a baby, knowing the pain he would inflict on the world. The fact that we ask the question at all is born out of Utilitarianism. Are you better for not killing anyone, or are you guilty for not stopping atrocious genocide when given the opportunity?
The concept at play here is based not on logic, reason, or deific command. Rather, it’s based wholly on what makes us happy. We can easily trace the idea all the way back to the mid-third century BC when Epicurus was running around spouting radical ideas such as, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself,” and “We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.”
However, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Jeremy Bentham and then John Stuart Mill going into the 19th century, that what we know as Utilitarianism was given the larger codification by which it is now known. They fleshed out the premise that morality should apply equally but be grounded in the primal desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is often misunderstood and misappropriated to a foul end. They didn’t mean to imply that we should pursue pleasure only for ourselves or that our personal pleasure justifies whatever actions we might take. Rather, that we pursue pleasure that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.
In fact, despite its reputation for happiness and pleasure, Utilitarianism can be quite selfless at times. For all this happy talk, Bentham and Mill, among others, find that if greater social happiness and well-being requires personal sacrifice, then one is obligated to make that sacrifice for the sake of the public good. You are no more special than anyone else.
Need a contemporary example? How about wearing a mask when you’re out in public and getting the vaccine like everyone and their dog has told you? Those would both be examples of Utilitarian principles. If we can do something to make things better, we must, even if it requires doing something we personally find distasteful.
Utilitarianism emphasizes long-term thinking over short-term. The question is never what is going to make me happy at the moment, but rather what action is going to produce the greater prolonged happiness over time? Therefore, for example, investing in relationships with people I care about takes precedence over a one-night fling with someone I just met. Long-term relationships are going to produce a greater amount of good and happiness and therefore require the dominant action.
There are a ton of Utilitarians running around in government offices these days, but hold on, there’s another concept I think you’ll find even more familiar.
Contractarianism and the Republic
If all these various concepts of morality are starting to feel confusing, you’re not alone. There is a lot to consider and each philosophy we’ve mentioned has various offshoots and permutations developed by thinkers over the centuries who tweaked ideas to fit with the realities of their contemporary societies. But, there is one that is perhaps more fundamental, definitely more influential to our modern democratic existence than any other: Contractarianism.
Yes, the name is a mouthful which may be why more people are familiar with its founder, Thomas Hobbes. For an entire generation of people, who aren’t exactly young at this point, the name Hobbes is more likely associated with a cartoon cat, a stuffed toy by common perception, but a living being in the mind of a young boy named Calvin. Yes, the choice of two opposing philosophers was intentional. And yes, the cat does reflect Contractarian philosophy in ways that are both humorous and thoughtful.
Hobbes the philosopher, on the other hand, was a bit wordier. In April of 1651, he published a book commonly known as Leviathan (click the link for a free eBook version), also known as The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. The book lays out a startling concept. Hobbes held that Natural Law, which was still pretty influential at the time, puts freedom above security, allowing the biggest bully to dominate everyone else. Hobbes bristled against such Authoritarianism. By his reckoning, morality emerges from free, self-interested, rational people who cooperate with one another. This produces an equitable state of morality, rather than a top-down judgment from a deity or monarch.
The whole concept centers around the making and fulfilling of contracts between people. Hobbes identifies two kinds: implicit contracts are those we did not directly create for ourselves but are nonetheless bound by them. For example, when one is born within the geography of a given country, one is bound by implicit contract to the laws of that country. Just because no one asked us if we agree doesn’t mean we are not still required to uphold those contracts.
Explicit contracts are those we enter into knowingly, such as the terms of service for literally every piece of software, every digital device, every app, every delivery service, and all that online shopping we’ve been doing. Didn’t read them? That’s on you because you were given the opportunity, even if the print was small and the link difficult to find.
Note that Hobbes invokes the concept of cooperation. He understood that cooperation requires trust in the other party. He also expects that both parties are rational. Apparently, he knew a lot more rational people than most of us do today. Both of those elements are critical for contracts to work. If the people involved are not rational, they cannot be expected to negotiate reasonable contracts. If a person cannot be trusted, then the contract is meaningless.
What really took a stab at the status quo was the concept that contractors must be free. Hobbes believed that contracts cannot be forced and the persons entering into the contract must be better off with the contract than without it. That meant no slavery. No indentured servitude. Hobbes declared both to be immoral.
Can you see where this philosophy sparked revolutions? Both the founders of the United States and the drivers behind the French Revolution had read Leviathan thoroughly and discussed its merits as a form of government. When paired with Plato’s concept of the Republic, a new form of government was born.
Here’s the kicker: Hobbes believed that there is no morality until we make it. Morality can change. Your grandparents’ morality may not be, does not need to be your morality. You make your own contracts. You are then obliged to keep your own contracts. This presents an opportunity for unlimited and ever-evolving freedoms, but it also establishes an expectation of obligation, that one will fulfill the contracts to which they enter.
While this may seem commonplace now, it was a provocative premise for the latter half of the 17th century and in just over 100 years it would change the course of the entire world, much to the chagrin of both monarchies and religious hierarchies that could no longer exercise moral authority without being challenged by the people they were trying to control.
A Philosophical Buffet
So, we’ve tossed a lot of words at you and you may be sitting there, I hope you’ve not been standing this entire time, thinking that you don’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with any of it but that bits and pieces here and there kind of make sense. If so, you’re not alone. Morality in the 21st century has definitely followed Hobbes’ concept that we decide for ourselves what constitutes good and that the definition changes both from generation to generation as well as between societies and governments. At the same time, we’re not anxious to completely abandon Kant’s idea that there are some moral absolutes that apply to everyone, and we definitely like the Utilitarian idea that to be good requires in the best interest of the whole, not just the individual. Now, toss in a little religious flavor for those who believe, and what one ends up with the philosophical buffet that composes 21st-century morality.
The downside to this approach is that finding those Kantian absolutes that carry across generations and social entities becomes frustratingly difficult. Those who have mixed in some portion of Natural Law or Divine Command are likely to insist that there are some basic rules that are simply not up for debate. Younger, contemporary Contractarians are likely to reject that notion, however, and say that everything you thought you knew is up for question, including that basic idea of whether or not killing is ever good.
The presents a valuation dilemma. If a good life, as defined by its morality, is of greater value than one void of morals or purposefully denying them, then whose set of morals take precedent? Is there some cosmic scorekeeper who posthumously decides who was good and who wasn’t? Do we judge players of the past by our contemporary moral standard or are they inextricably tied to the dominant moral philosophy of their day? How is a person or being, including some future AI entity, under the moral code of a Divine Command supposed to interact with a Utilitarian whose concept of what is good is substantially different? Is one more valuable than the other?
This whole question doesn’t get any easier, does it? But then, easy answers are too often the wrong answers. We’re not playing with simple mathematics, but the valuation of billions of people and billions more other forms of life. We can’t afford to cut any of the corners. So, we will continue to ask the hard questions even if we don’t find any firm answers.