It was 250 years ago when Immanuel Kant proffered his brilliant thoughts on right and wrong. What we now call Kantian Ethics carries impressive weight in our classrooms and courtrooms, even today. Kant’s Principle of Humanity argued that life-forms should be treated humanely by saving them when we can and alleviating suffering – proper respect for the miracle of life. And that is indeed a fundamental of a righteous society. Of course it was also Kant who proposed that moral expectations are based on what he called the Categorical Imperative. Unethical behavior, Kant said, violates this societal imperative and is therefore not rational.
Bernard Gert grew famous in part because he expounded that there are no true ethical rules of good will at all – only ethical ideals. Our obligations in a moral society, he surmised, are defined by shunning injury and acts of bad will. Gert’s opinion was that we share no obligation to promote good – but rather to minimize the causes of evil. Those of rational mind would treat all of life with the aim of non-injury. Gert argued with great passion that causing harm is immoral.
Over the extent of recorded human history plenty has been written – and much wisdom can be mined – from the cogency of those of considerably brighter mind than our own. From Confucius to Aristotle, from Descartes to Socrates, dozens of intellectuals have proffered enlightened points of view on the matter of exactly how an ethical society ought to behave.
But at some point in the human future, we fully anticipate that heads will nod in agreement with John Stuart Mill’s clarifications of Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. This belief touts that the moral worth of any action is determined by its resulting outcome. Injured fools need not apply. Future debates will surely rage on just how much suffering and death can be rightfully meted out upon other life-forms. Mill, who expanded much of his inductive logic from Avicenna, ancient Persia’s finest philosopher, argued that moral thinkers had scribed a litany of unconvincing and unimpressive theories, that could be better whittled into a single standard of ethics – one that allows society to more readily determine what is right and what is wrong. He proffered the Principle of Utility – the “greatest happiness” theorem – as the basic foundation of ethical behavior. Conduct is moral in proportion to its provision of happiness for everybody else.
Behaviors are immoral, he said, if they produce less happiness among the rest of us.
This offers up an uncomplicated proposition – a dispassionate assessment of a better path for humankind may lie in acts which contribute to overall wellbeing and reduced suffering.
Mill’s utilitarian advocates believe that conduct is right – graded on the curve of other possible conduct – if it leads to the optimal balance of societal tranquility. Conversely, an action is wrong to the extent that it results in societal distress. Mill refined his argument further by stating that the concepts of duty and obligation are secondary to – and driven by – that which increases happiness and diminishes harmful outcomes to the rest of society.
Consider this for a moment: ever-growing pockets of fomenting resentment – for any reason – have no choice but to generate a toxic environment. The scientific specialty of brain plasticity tells us that changes in the environment create changes in the neural pathways of the brain. As negative behavior socially accumulates, mutations within some brains invariably short circuit rational thinking.
The subsequent incivility and inhumanity we see today – even in grade school classrooms – quite naturally pass on to the next generation, guaranteeing a constant withering of human decency; first as sub-cultural tendencies; eventually as a species commonality.
Those who “love” to kill and rationalize the demise will – by all measurable criteria – live to out-breed the well-adjusted who don’t. Thus the conundrum.
At some point in America’s future, we envision a sea-change in what law-abiding citizenry will tolerate. They just might demand those governing the masses seek peace by inflicting ever more painful consequences on those who kill for fun. We suspect they will do so in part by once again acknowledging the unflinching laws of nature that have been so respected in the past – one of which is this:
“Specific elimination of maladapted individuals from a population is natural selection.”
So the simple question here has at last been whittled down to its most basic thought:
Did this dentist killing this lion add to the net “good” of humankind?
Are we a better version of ourselves – or measurably diminished – because of this incident?
Of the two, which of these life-forms is maladapted?
You tell us.
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