Foldvary on the Universal Ethic
|February 17, 2003||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Universal Ethic
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Policy involves ethics. When we talk about economic and political policy such as tax reform or foreign policy, this involves ethics and values. Human rights imply some moral basis for rights. But people have many different and conflicting ethical beliefs, so whose moral standards should we use for global or even national policy?
If we use the ethic of any particular individuals, cultures, or ideologies, this ethic then becomes arbitrarily imposed by force on those with different ethical views. For universal social justice, we need to use an ethic that applies universally. Such a universal ethic (u.e.) does exist, and we need to understand where it comes from, if we want social justice.
The universal ethic cannot come from any culture, so it must derive from something more universal to humanity: human nature. The two aspects of human nature that the philosopher John Locke used are independence and equality. Locke wrote: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
This “law of nature” or natural moral law is formulated by rules that make up the universal ethic. The ethic assigns the moral values of good, evil, and neutral to all human acts. But where do these values come from? The premise of independence, that persons think and feel independently, implies that values are ultimately subjective, coming from individual desires and feelings. The premise of human equality gives these values an equal status.
The universal ethic’s rule for moral goodness is that acts which are welcomed benefits to others are morally good. Helping another person the way that person wants to be helped is a good act. If you think you are doing something for another’s own good, but he does not think it’s good for him, then by the u.e., it is not good.
The rule for evil is more complicated, because there are two types of acts that individuals feel are personally bad. One is an offense that exists within the subject’s mind, and the other is an invasion into the person’s body and possessions, thus involving more than just his mind. For example, if someone wears a T-shirt with a message that some find displeasing, that is an offense, since whether one is pleased or displeased depends on one’s personal viewpoint. In contrast, if one person shoots a bullet into another person’s body, that is an unwelcomed invasion. For the universal ethic, only unwelcomed invasions are evil, while mere offenses are morally neutral. Also, acts which only affect yourself are either neutral or good, but not evil, since there is no invasion into another’s domain.
We now have the three basic rules of the universal ethic:
- Acts are good if and only if they are welcomed benefits.
- Acts are evil if they coercively harm others as invasions.
- All other acts are neutral.
A society has complete liberty or freedom if its laws prohibit and punish evil as prescribed by the universal ethic, and if any act which is good or neutral is allowed but not required. The u.e. also tells us what our human or natural rights are: we have the right to do anything that does not coercively harm others, and the right to be free from coercive harm.
We have a property right to our own bodies and lives, since if some control others, this violates the premise of equality and becomes an invasion. This self-ownership right implies a property right to our labor and the products of our labor. But self-ownership does not extend to what labor does not produce: natural resources. The premise of equality implies that all persons have an equal property right to the benefits of nature other than our own bodies. These benefits are manifested in the rent that folks bid to use nature. So equality is satisfied only if communities share the rents due to nature and community. The universal ethic therefore prescribes a fiscal policy of public and community revenue from rent, along with voluntary user fees. The taxation of labor and produced goods is an invasion into what properly belongs to the producers.
For social policy and civil liberties, the universal ethic prescribes that there should be no law where there is no victim of an invasion, thus no victimless crimes. Everyone should be free to do what she or he wants so long as they do not coercively harm others. There should also be no restriction on honest and peaceful enterprise. This implies true free trade: no barriers of any kind.
There are of course many complications in applying the universal ethic to our personal lives and for social policy, such as the rights of children, environmental policy, and the punishment of crimes. The u.e. provides the general framework that can be applied to particular topics, leaving scope for judgment and circumstances. This framework enables our widely differing cultures to live together in social harmony. The best way to implement the universal ethic for social justice is to make it a permanent part of a country’s constitution, along with a decentralized political organization that lets the people rather than moneyed elites control the governance and policy.
Only when much of humanity recognizes the existence of the universal ethic and applies it to personal and social life will there be universal justice, peace, and harmony.
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Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieveal system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.