For Kant, for an action to be morally good, “it is not enough that it should conform to the moral law-it must also be done for the sake of the moral law. It is similar to the concept of following God’s commandments because they come from God. For Kant, the motive that confers moral worth on an action is the motive of duty, by which Kant means doing the right thing for the right reason.” This goes to his belief in the inherent value of life. Most people choose to live because they enjoy life; it has meaning and purpose. They live, not because of the categorical imperative to live, or God’s commandment to choose life. But, for someone who has lost hope and wants to die, choosing to live, to overcome the desire to die, is an example of doing the right thing for the right reason: you live because it is your duty to live in Kant’s ethical system and it is an obligation in the Judeo-Christian ethic. I think this is one of the most difficult ethical concepts to internalize and accept. You live because it is the right or moral thing to do and has nothing to do with the fact that you enjoy life. For Kant and God, you behave morally because it is your duty, your obligation to behave that way.
Kantian secular ethics and religious based Judeo-Christian ethics are similar in their expectations. Yet, I think it is far more difficult to live under a secular ethical system like Kant’s than to live with the Judeo-Christian ethical system as the foundation of our culture. Human beings are imperfect. We are bound to morally fail. There is no mechanism for repentance and then forgiveness in Kant’s secular ethical system. The Judeo-Christian ethic is based on the knowledge that we are imperfect and provides the path to forgiveness, redemption and hopefulness, through ritual, symbol, tradition and prayer
Now it is time to look at ethics of entitlement. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English moral philosopher, conceived the doctrine of Utilitarianism, moral relativism, sometimes referred to as situational ethics. He taught, “The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure over pain” (Sandel, p34). Utilitarianism uses feelings as the arbiter of decision-making, individually and universally. This ethical system prioritizes whatever produces happiness and pleasure over that which causes pain and sorrow. How would one define a human being in this system? Is a human being defined by what it gives to another, its extrinsic value, as a means to an end?
In a community the Utilitarian ethic of happiness is based on delivering the greatest good for the greatest number. With this ethical system based on subjective feelings, desires, wants or preferences it is difficult to develop universal moral laws because feelings, desire, wants and preferences are constantly changing personally and culturally. Happiness is personal. It is all about “me.” Happiness for one may be a big car and for another a large house. As the basis of this ethical system is subjective, all preferences count equally which makes it as a non-judgemental system unlike Kantian or the Judeo-Christian ethic.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was also a proponent of Utilitarianism. He wrote that “the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded-namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things…are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” This behaviour is “self-regarding.” As long as one’s actions do not bring harm to others, each of us has the right to do as we see fit. One’s “independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” There appears to be no finite definition of human in Mills’ ethical system.
There is another ethical debate that belongs here; the sanctity -of -life ethic versus the quality -of -life ethic. “The world no longer needs all the individuals we are capable of bringing into it-especially those who are unable to compete and are an unhappy burden to others. If the size of our families must be limited, surely we are entitled to children who are healthy rather than defective.” In this system the definition of human changes. It is based on each individual’s definition of healthy and defective. Brown eyes might be considered defective. A girl might be considered defective. Once we take away anything sacred about human beings, it is so much easier to rid ourselves of those not acceptable to the ideal of that particular generation. Then there are those who argue that “humans are no different in any essential moral respect from other animals.”
The beginning and end of life are fragile moments. Without a finite definition of human we can choose to end a pregnancy because it is a girl and we want a boy and we can rally around a parent’s choice to end life because they seem to be unhappy.
I don’t believe that morality based on happiness and individual rights make us better or more compassionate. I make a judgement, here. I assume that a compassionate society is the best society. I fear Utilitarianism in all its forms because it is based on the greatest good for the greatest number. Who defines the greatest good? When the definition of good changes, then what? If ethics have no extrinsic or intrinsic substantive base, then ethical decisions will be made by those in power who can impose their beliefs on others. What if the majority’s definition of good tramples the needs of a minority?
Are we as a society better off since the rise of the ideologies of Jeremy Bentham? An ethical system that lacks an absolute definition of what it means to be human is open to crimes against humanity. Under Stalin, millions starved-they weren’t worthy of life; they didn’t fit Stalin’s vision. Mao Tse Dung destroyed millions when he re-organized society based on his vision, a vision which lacked any sense of compassion for those he forcefully transported. They were a means to an end; his happiness based on his idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. In Rwanda, 1994, the Hutus carved up the Tutsis with machetes. This heinous act was made possible by teaching the Hutus that the Tutsis were vermin, not human. Yet, it was almost impossible to distinguish a Tutsi from a Hutu. To know for certain, one had to look at each person’s papers to see the tribal designation. And then there is hitler. His idea of the greatest good for the greatest number was to rid the world of Jews.He was able to murder six million Jews by spreading propaganda over many years that redefined Jews as vermin, rats, garbage. From there it was but a few steps to the incinerator. I think the rise in entitlement ethics is leaving us bereft of compassion and empathy. We seem to be pulling away from any moral obligation to those with less, the weak, the infirm and the different.