Philosophical Bases for Moral Values

Philosophical bases for moral values include social contract theory, rights theory, and utilitarianism; they justify the Golden Rule.

Numerous philosophers have thought about, and written about, ethics.  The prime interest for this book, as already explained, is in the need for agreed standards of behaviour.  Political philosophy, which attends to theories about how people should govern their affairs, is directly relevant.  There are three main schools of political philosophy, as described by Andrew Levine in his book Engaging Political Philosophy: from Hobbes to Rawls [page 128]:

“Contractarians would uphold individuals’ interests by imagining how idealized, rational agents would look out for themselves in hypothetical states of nature.  Hobbes was a contractarian; his social contract was a pact individuals enter into because it is straightforwardly in their interests to do so.  Rousseau was a contractarian too…”

“Rights theorists uphold individuals’ interests by according priority to morally primary rights, interests that take precedence over other considerations.  Locke was a rights theorist…”

“John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was neither a contractarian nor a rights theorist.  He represented the third major, modern moral philosophical position, utilitarianism.  Utilitarians would accommodate individuals’ interests in a very direct and commonsensical way – by seeking to have them be as well satisfied as possible.”

Levine’s use of the term ‘contractarian’ illustrates a problem in its use: it refers to “hypothetical states of nature” whereas this book, because it is concerned with actual negotiation in real situations, avoids using the philosophical term.  The three schools of thought that he identifies are not mutually exclusive.  They represent three different philosophical bases for moral values, each of which provides a rational justification for its position.  Each of the four philosophers referred to above advocated a form of the Golden Rule:

●  Thomas Hobbes, at the end of chapter 13 in his book Leviathan, argued that rules of behaviour – “Articles of Peace”, or “Lawes of Nature” – are necessary. He enumerated 19 such laws in chapters 14 and 15, and argued (on page 121, PDF page 153) that they could all be summarised with an articulation of the Golden Rule:

“Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe”.

●  In the first part of his book, 2nd Discourse, Jean Jacques Rousseau expressed the rule differently:

“It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species.

Do to others as you would have them do unto you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect indeed, but perhaps more useful; Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others.”

●  In Chapter 2, section 4 of his book, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke quoted Hooker:

“His words are, The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?”

●  In chapter two of his book, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill quoted the Golden Rule (without mentioning that it pre-dates Christianity):

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.  To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”.

Immanuel Kant was not categorised by Levine as a political philosopher, but he too advocated a form of the Golden Rule in his “categorical imperative” – as defined in the first section of his book, Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysic Of Morals:

“I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

This argues that one should ask oneself whether one would want everybody to behave that way.  It calls for reciprocity – and ‘the ethic of reciprocity‘ is another name for the Golden Rule.

There are well-documented circumstances where philosophies differ – so none can claim a monopoly on wisdom.  One such example was ‘the lifeboat case’, where a cabin boy (who was an orphan, and was dying anyway) was sacrificed to save other crewmembers who had families.  This was an actual case brought to court: The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, in 1884.  Michael Sandel used the example in a Harvard lecture, The Case for Cannibalism, to illustrate the difference between utilitarian and other philosophies.  The BBC summarised his argument like this (in a transcript that is no longer available online):

“A utilitarian might say that the sacrifice should be made, to benefit the greater number.

A rights theorist might argue that the rights of the cabin boy cannot be infringed.

A Kantian approach might argue that killing people is not an acceptable practice, so it is not right for any of the crewmembers to kill each other.”

Despite the differences between them in such an extreme situation, all these quoted philosophies would usually agree about moral behaviour in everyday circumstances.  They can all be taken to be consistent with the Golden Rule.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4231a.htm.