Bioethics: A Return to Fundamentals

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Bioethics: A systematic approach - Oxford Scholarship

Robert M. Veatch Senior Editor One of the most exciting and important developments in recent ethical theory—especially bioethical theory—is the emergence of the concept of "common morality. This issue of the Journal is devoted to these developments. The core idea of a common morality is that all humans—at least all morally serious humans—have a pretheoretical awareness of certain moral norms.

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The claim is that normal humans intuit or in some other way know that there is something wrong with things like lying or breaking promises or killing people. These purportedly universally shared insights can provide the raw data from which ethical theories are constructed.

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As such, they are perhaps analogous to the raw sense data that are relied on in the natural sciences to launch the construction of scientific theories and accounts of the nature of reality. Some common morality theorists suggest an analogy between the natural and the moral sciences. In the natural sciences there is a widely shared belief that some raw sensory data are perceived by all normal humans and provide the basis for the construction of various scientific theories. For example, it is widely believed that all normal humans looking at the top light on a traffic signal perceive something that in English is called "red.

They may parse the boundaries differently varying on the exact borderline between red and orange , provide widely differing accounts of why the experience of "red" occurs, and eventually generate significantly different theoretical formulations to explain the experience of redness. Moreover, some individuals may look at that top light of the traffic signal and not see color at all. One generally, however, does not account for this by denying there is any objective, generally shared basis for the experience that produces a sensation of redness in normal people.

One simply explains the experience of the one who fails to see color by positing a defect in perception, called "color-blindness. Some moral theorists suggest that something analogous happens when humans look at the moral scene. The claim is that all normal humans in all places and cultures "see" certain moral requiredness. They see that some behaviors are, in some sense, generally wrong; that other behaviors are generally right; that [End Page ] some character traits are generally praiseworthy, others blameworthy.

No sophisticated common morality theorist denies that, as with color-blindness, there may be occasional outliers who for one reason or another fail to intuit or perceive these simple, abstract moral norms.

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Certainly, people in different cultures will define the terms differently, will recognize different limits on the norms, and will construct different theories to account for their experience. It also means that the philosopher's systematic and explicit account of morality will be grounded in the ordinary practice of morality. This system of morality must not go against the firm and basic intuitions expressed in ordinary morality.

In that sense, the philosopher "discovers" or, perhaps, "uncovers" morality rather than invents it. It makes no sense to speak or think of "inventing" morality. Such a morality would have no purchase on human behavior, no authority, no basis in the expe- rience of human purposes, interactions, and emotions. Morality is a phenome- non that has existed from the beginning of human history, a phenomenon that we must try to understand more thoroughly.

Any result of reasoning that goes against basic moral intuitions throws great suspicion on that line of reasoning or on the theory that embodies it. Beginning, as we do, with the ordinary under- standing and practice of morality, insures that our account of morality will ring true to the human experience of morality. There will be no problem of "princi- ples" or "axioms" so abstract or so general that their application to real prob- lems turns out to be nearly impossible.

As indicated above, ordinary moral rules and ideals are not one's only points of departure for understanding morality. There are other commonly accepted features of morality, such as that it is rational, beneficial, impartial, and applica- ble to all persons, all of the time, in all times and places. This is not to say that it is universally agreed that there is a universal code of behavior that answers all questions, but only that everyone who is not a moral skeptic believes that these features are essential characteristics of morality.

The system of morality must be a public system; that is part of the very meaning of morality. It is a public system in that it is known to all to whom it applies. It also applies to everyone impartially; to say that morality requires this or encourages that is to say that it requires this or encourages that for everyone in those same morally relevant circumstances. In being systematic, one dare not be content with the commonly employed ceteris paribus clauses "all other things being equal" , which effectively hide the problem of having to determine precisely what those other things are that have to be equal.

It is crucial that what counts as "the same morally relevant circumstances" be specified. Be- cause humans do not and cannot have complete knowledge and because they are fallible and narrowly focused on their own concerns, they need a public system to guide them. In order to avoid bias, to gain perspective beyond their own self-serving interests, and to regularize their behavior in the face of inade- quate knowledge about the present and the future, this public system must ap- ply impartially to all.

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God does not need rules or a public system. The Content of Morality An important conclusion, based on our systematic and explicit account of mo- rality referred to above is that the purpose of morality is to minimize the amount of evil or harm suffered by those protected by morality. We use "evil" and "harm" interchangeably. Given the finitude of human beings, this requires a set of moral rules which, the more they are followed, the more the amount of evil or harm in the world will be reduced. The evils humans care about avoid- ing comprise a specifiable and finite list.

These are harms that all rational per- sons want to avoid unless they have an adequate reason not to. Therefore a rational person has a strong self-interest in having others act in accord with the moral rules, namely, in order to avoid having harm caused to himself and those he cares about. These evils are death, pain, disability, loss of freedom, and loss of pleasure.

They are not ranked in the same way by everyone. Although every- one agrees that some harms are worse than others, rationality does not require that any one kind of evil always be considered greater than some other kind of evil. This fact lies at the source of many moral disputes, in which the partici- pants fail to understand that, although there will be some rational limit on what counts as an acceptable ranking, there is no objective ranking of the various harms to be avoided that will resolve all controversies. Each general moral rule takes the form of a prohibition; each either pro- scribes the causing of one of the evils on that finite list of evils on which all rational persons would agree or proscribes kinds of actions that generally in- crease the amount of harm.

Acting in accord with these moral rules is what is required by morality.

Because they are in the form of prohibitions don't kill, don't cheat, don't cause pain, and so on anyone can follow them, all the time, toward everyone, equally thus satisfying several key features of morality. Meeting these basic requirements of morality does not usually involve great dedication, inner strength, outstanding character, or noble virtues; it simply in- volves abstaining from causing harm.

Anyone can do it, although admittedly occasions often arise in which it is very tempting to act immorally. As we have stressed, however, the moral rules are not all there is to morality. To be sure, obedience to the moral rules is required of everyone, but since the moral rules are basically proscribing specific actions, one could conceivably be perfectly moral by staying home in bed. On our account these kinds of actions are an essen- tial part of morality.

The exhortations to prevent those very harms that the moral rules require us not to cause, we call "moral ideals. It is praiseworthy to follow moral ideals, whereas it is simply expected that everyone obey moral rules indeed, in many cases, punishment seems appropri- ate if one violates a moral rule. The key difference is that morality requires that the moral rules be obeyed toward everyone, impartially, all the time. Clearly the moral rules can be obeyed toward everyone, impartially, all the time, but that is not true of the moral ideals. Even if one spent a significant part of one's life preventing evil, it would not be humanly possible to be doing it for everyone, impartially, all the time.

There is another perspective from which to grasp the orientation of our ap- proach to morality. This begins with the fundamental realization that there is a finite core of evils that all rational persons would avoid unless they had an adequate reason not to. These harms the deliberate nonavoidance of which constitutes the very meaning of irrational action—as discussed in Chapter 2 would naturally form the basis of a morality wherein not causing these harms to each other is required and helping each other avoid these harms is encouraged. It would be irrational not to agree with such a public policy.

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Traditionally, philosophers sought "the greatest good," believing that once that was discovered, all the rest would fall neatly into place. From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum, or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought.

But there is no agreement on what that greatest good is; rationality requires that certain evils be avoided, but there is no universally agreed upon ranking of the evils, nor is there any agreed-upon ranking of the various goods. All rational persons would agree on what the goods are freedom, pleasure, and abilities insofar as they are the "opposites" of the evils.

Further, no rational person would avoid these goods unless he or she had an adequate reason to do so. Nonetheless, gaining these goods is far less important than avoiding the evils, in the development of a moral system that rational persons advocate as a guide for the behavior of everyone. Conse- quently, the hard-core foundation of morality is what all rational persons can agree they would want to avoid unless they had an adequate reason not to , namely those specifiable evils: death, pain, disability, loss of freedom, and loss of pleasure.