by Ted Honderich

This is a recent statement of what is taken to be the fundamental principle of right and wrong, the Principle of Humanity. It is preceded in the book from which it comes by a consideration of other ways of answering the question of right and wrong -- negotation and international law, UN resolutions, human rights, just war theory, the politics of reality, conservatism and liberalism, and democracy. All of these answers, it is argued, fail to supply a general principle of right and wrong, an absolutely  necessary part of a defensible decision-procedure in morality. The statement of the Principle of Humanity given below is followed in the book by a consideration of its consequences with respect mainly to judgements on terrorism and the American and British war in Iraq. The book is the one titled in the United States Right and Wrong and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... and elsewhere titled Humanity,Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... You can also turn now to the original statement of the Principle of Humanity, first published in the philosophical journal Mind and then revised in the book On Political Means and Social Ends.

           There is a morality to which we are all committed, by two things. The first is the great goods of our lives, the objects of our great desires -- which great goods issue in each of us making and being certain of moral judgements about our having them ourselves. The other thing is our minimal rationality, just the fact of our having reasons, including moral reasons, necessarily as general as any other reasons. In short we are committed to a morality of good consequences by our human nature.         

            We all desire the great good of going on existing, where that does not mean a lot more than just being conscious, being in the world. As you can also say, to the same effect, we want a personal world to go on longer. We have the same desire for those close to us, our children first. This desire can sometimes be defeated by others. It comes to mind that a lot of American men and women would have ended their own worlds, carried out suicide missions, to prevent the 2,800 deaths on 9/11. Nonetheless, despite exceptions, this existence is something almost all of us crave. We crave a decent length of life. Say 75 years rather than 35.

            A second desire we all have is for a quality of life in a certain sense. This is a kind of existence that has a lot to do with our bodies. We want not to be in pain, to have satisfactions of food, drink, shelter, safety, sleep, maybe sex. As that implies, and as is also the case with the first desire, we also want the material means to the end in question, the material means to this bodily quality of life. Some of the means are some of the consumer-goods, so-called, easier to be superior about if you have them. You are likely to lack these means if you are in poverty.

            A third thing we all want is freedom and power. We do not want to be coerced by personal circumstances arranged by others, bullied, subjected to compulsion, unable to run our own lives, weakened. We want this voluntariness and strength in a range of settings, from a house, neighbourhood and place of work to the greatest and maybe most important setting, a society in a homeland. It is no oddity that freedom from something is what is promised by every political or national tradition or movement without exception -- and secured to some extent if it is in control.

            Another of our shared desires is for goods of relationship to those around us. We want kinds of connections with these other people. Each of us wants the unique loyalty and if possible the love of one other person, maybe two or three. We also want to be members of larger groups. No one wants to be cut off by his or her own feelings from the surrounding society or cut off from it by others' feelings. This was a considerable part of why it was no good being a nigger or a Jew or a Paki in places where those words were spoken as they were.

            A fifth desire, not far away from the one for relationship, is for respect and self-respect. No one wants to feel worthless. No one is untouched by disdain, even stupid disdain. No one wants humiliation. Persons kill themselves, and others, because of it. We do not want humiliation for our people either. As in the case of all these great desires, this one for respect and self-respect extends to others close to us, and in ways to other people, and it goes with desires for the means to the ends.

            Finally, we want the goods of culture. All of us want at least some of them. Many of us want the practice and reassurance of a religion, or the custom of a people, or indeed a kind of society. We may want not to live in what we take to be a degraded society, maybe one that gives an ascendancy to buying and selling in its social policies and has a public preoccupation with sex. All of us with a glimmer of knowledge want the good of knowledge and thus of education. All with a glimmer of what is written down want to be able to read. We also want diversion if not art.

            These, by one way of counting them, are our fundamental desires for the great goods. Certainly they are interrelated goods. If the first is necessary to all the others, and several are in other relations of necessity, there is no great point in trying to rank them. You may if you want speak of these fundamental desires as needs. But the usage obscures a little the plain fact of them. The desires are a premise of fact for other things, a premise in which no disputable moral standard has a part, or such an uncertain idea as what is called flourishing, the result of having needs satisfied.   

           A bad life, we take it, is to be defined in terms of the deprivation of some or all of these goods, the frustration of some or all of these desires. A good life is defined in terms of satisfaction of them. There is a need for decision here as to bad lives and good lives, as well as the registering of facts. That is what you would expect in the formulation or stating of a moral principle, which is what we are now engaged in. A bad life, we will take it, quickly here, is one that lacks one or more of the first three goods -- subsistence, a bodily quality of life, all freedom and power -- or a life of subsistence that is only minimally satisfied with respect to the other five goods. Good lives are had by all other persons.

            The Principle of Humanity has to do with bad lives. It is not well-expressed, indeed not expressed at all, as the truistic principle that we should rescue those with bad lives, those who are badly off. It is the principle that we must actually take rational steps to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.          

           That is, we should take steps that are rational in the ordinary sense of actually having a good probability of securing the consequence. These are not steps that are pieces of self-deception, pretence or speechifying, but steps that you can actually reasonably believe will be effective, will serve the end. In being rational in the ordinary way, of course, they will also be something else in addition to being effective, quite as important. They will have to be well-judged, sensible or economical in terms of well-being, not be likely to cause more distress than they prevent, not be self-defeating in that way.

          The Principle of Humanity, to state it a bit more fully, is that the right or justified thing as distinct from others -- the right action, practice, institution, government, society or possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational one in the sense of being effective and not self-defeating with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.

            The principle covers positive acts or commissions and the like -- detonating the bomb, firing the missile from the helicopter gunship, financing ethnic cleansing, taking over the airliner, hunting killers, starting a war, lying about it, fighting back against occupiers, blowing up yourself and the people in the subway train, guarding the city against more attacks. The principle also covers those other actions that are omissions -- not stopping the bomber you can stop, not stopping the helicopter pilot, not doing what could be done to make a world not so unjust or vicious that it provides a context for such horrific acts as the flying of airliners into towers, not being vigilant, not doing what would make war less likely, not trying to improve your democracy, not calling the police or saying something about racism.

           That is to say that the principle is about actions or conduct in general and the things into which they enter. It is about our behaviour that is intentional in some way and degree. Acts and omissions, which shade into one another rather than fall into two categories, are distinguished by their intentions. Acts are likely to be fully intentional -- they are behaviour whose natures and consequences are represented and desired in the intentions of the agents. What we call omissions, in contrast, may be actions that are partly intentional -- actions whose natures and consequences are not pictured and desired by the person acting, but as a result of earlier intentions and actions of the person.

              For example, I do not contribute to a famine charity by using the money in another way, going on a holiday. What the omission comes to is not attending to the action in its nature and consequences as an omission, not attending as a result of earlier intentions and actions. For another example, a leader or an electorate does something that is also failing to stop genoicide because the leader or the electorate have earlier done something like resolve to give their awareness to other things.

             There are also unintentional omissions. Here the fact that the nature and effects of an action are not in the agent's intention is not the result of his or her earlier activity. They are of importance, and should claim attention. But we do not need to dwell on them now.

            There have been attempts to find a difference of fact between acts and omissions such that there is a general difference between them in terms of rightness and wrongness. The attempts have never come near to succeeding. There have been attempts to show that any act whose probable consequences are identical with those of an omission can be wrong while the omission is right. No attempt has succeeded.

            The most important attempt, having to do with intentions, fails for the reason accepted in ways by all of us, that what makes actions right is not intentions of agents. It is clear indeed that two actions can both be wrong, one of which is done out of the best of intentions and the other the worst. The simplest case is where the best intention is conjoined with a terrible but not a culpable mistake in belief. Very commonly, as well, people do the right thing out of a low intention. That I get no moral credit at all for the action does not make the action wrong. Nor does integrity or character help any more than intentions with right actions. Hitler's actions would not become more right by way of an absolute proof of his integrity, his having remained true to his deepest principle.

           The Principle of Humanity does give an importance to intentions, however, and to the moral responsibility of people for their actions, and to the standing or decency or humanity of people over time. It gives these things importance in relation to what is fundamentally important -- securing the right action, practice, institution, foreign policy, contribution to a kind of world. And with these actions and the like, to repeat, it does not make any general difference in rightness between acts and at least partly intentional omissions.

         The principle is not unusual in this. Who thinks, or who says when they are thinking, that it is all right for you to let someone or half of a people starve to death if you have arranged to have your mind on something else? Who thinks it is all right to carry on your life, maybe your political life, while the large-eyed children in those photographs fade away into their deaths? If conservative philosophers of property can be found to excuse and justify us, morality and moral philosophy in general are in this respect not so brazen in their exonerations as they used to be.

         There is a somewhat related and smaller matter that needs to be noticed here. You will of course have understood that the Principle of Humanity is to the effect that we are to consider all the foreseeable consequences of an action in terms of bad lives. To act on the idea of considering only bad lives of Muslims, or bad lives of Jews, or of any other group, would be to go against the principle absolutely. It is the preventing of bad lives that is fundamental. Relatedly, there will be no possibility at all of saying that firing a missile or setting a bomb is to be considered only in terms of deaths that are in some sense or other intended, as distinct from other deaths foreseen but in some sense not intended, deaths of innocents somehow understood. This matter, which arises with more moralities than that of the Principle of Humanity is one we will be coming back to.

            To leave the attitude of the Principle of Humanity to acts and omissions, another large truth about it is its end or goal. If it is the fundamental principle of justice or decency, its end or goal is not equality. It is not the end of getting everybody on a level, let alone making everybody the same. The end is not a relational one at all, not what has been objected to in egalitarianism. It is not open to the question 'What is so good about making people equal if they could all be unequally better off?' The end, as stated, is the end of saving people from bad lives. It would demand urgent action, exactly as urgent, in a world where everyone had perfectly equal lives, all equally bad. So it is a principle of humanity, fellow-feeling or generosity rather than of equality -- despite the great importance of certain equalities, notably in freedoms. These equalities are greatly important as means to the end of the principle.

            The Principle of Humanity is indeed fundamental to the morality of humanity. It is a summary of a kind that is necessary to any morality. It is its basis and rationale. That is not to say that it is anything like the complete morality in itself. A further and necessary understanding of the morality of humanity is to be had first by way of a number of policies and practices that give further content to the principle, and then by way of an account of its character.

             The first policy is to transfer certain means to well-being, material and also other means, from the better-off to the badly-off. These are means whose transfer would in fact not significantly affect the well-being of the better-off. An immense amount of these means exist. They are now wasted. Remember what we throw out, and, more importantly, what our businesses and corporations discard, leave to decay or ruin. Think about the industry of packaging things, of the costs in commercial competitition that are of no benefit at all to most of us.

            The second policy is means-transfer that that would reduce the well-being of the better-off, but without increasing the number of bad lives. The people from whom the means would be taken would still have good lives. An immense amount of these means exist. As in the case of the first policy, some consist in land, and land of a people. For this reason among others, what you are hearing about is not Rawls's theory of justice or a variant of it.

            The third policy, of great importance, is about material incentive-rewards. It would reduce them to those that are actually necessary, and actually necessary in terms of the goal of the Principle of Humanity. They will not be the rewards now demanded.  They will not be the incentive-rewards that issue in the best-off tenth of Americans having 30% of the income and 70% of the wealth while the bottom tenth has 2% and none. They will not be the rewards called for by the most absurd of propositions in our lives, that the rich have to be just as rich as they are in order for the wretched not to be more wretched. They will not be the rewards and lack of them suddenly visible to all in New Orleans after the hurricane in 2005.

            You will naturally take these three policies to exclude something else. But this exclusion had better be stated explicitly as a fourth policy. It is that in general means to well-being are not to be redirected to the well-off unnecessarily, as supposed incentives or as anything else, say proper taxation policies, so as to improve their already satisfied lives. This fattening is excluded.

            The fifth policy, also implicit in the others, is against violence and near-violence. Therefore it is against terrorism and war. But like all such policies rightly called realistic, it cannot be an absolute or completely general prohibition. Like all of them, it accommodates some possibility of justified war. Like fewer alternative policies, including one to be taken from the U.N. Declaration of Rights, it can contemplate the possibility of justified action that falls under the name of terrorism. If it may give some limited role to a distinction between official and non-official killing, it does not immediately exclude some things mentioned earlier, including violence by victims whose oppressors leave them no other option and then sanctimoniously condemn the violence. Also, the policy sees the need for police forces, some punishment by the state, some self-defence, and so on.

            A further understanding of the Principle of Humanity, as necessary, comes from what can be distinguished from policies, which is practices.

           You have heard that the end or goal of the principle is getting people out of bad lives, not getting them into equal lives -- whatever large side-effects of equality there may be of progress towards the end or goal. The end is not at all open to the objection to egalitarianism that it does not matter in itself if someone has more or less or the same as someone else, but how much they have. But the end of humanity is consistent with something else. It is that we are to use the means of certain practices of equality to get people out of bad lives. Practices of equality are not the only but they are the most important of the practices serving the end of saving men, women and children from deprivation, distress and wretchedness.

              A main point here was in view in connection with the argument for a good democracy. The first way to secure the moral rights of those with bad lives is to give them equal voices. Another way is for them to claim their moral rights by themselves making their voices heard. What they must have is the same hearing as the rest of us, or rather some of the rest of us. Any practice of equality that serves that intermediate or instrumental goal, an advance in democracy, must be something that serves humanity.

               There are other practices of equality as important. One is a true equality of opportunity. It will certainly include special opportunity for those who have been deprived of the means of developing and displaying their abilities. Other practices have to do with the fact of our common membership of a species. We must, despite all differences between us, have common needs. That fact brings with it a truth to the effect that to seek to make bad lives good must be to proceed on the basis of an assumption of equality about, first of all, food.

              To which needs to be added a large proposition that no doubt you will remember. Freedom, a great part of a good life, is one with equality, or at least dependent on it. How much you have of freedom depends on how much I have. The means to freedom is equalities. That does not make equality, a relative good, the end of a struggle for freedom. It leaves freedom as the end of the struggle, something that is a place on a scale, a fact of voluntariness or non-compulsion, not itself a relationship to other places on the scale.

             All of this statement of the Principle of Humanity, anyway most of it, might suggest that it is a principle for one large side of life but not a complete principle. You might get the idea from its focus and concentration, and in particular the public policies, that it does not cover private life, or relations between people all of whom have good lives, or relations between men and women, or matters of religion, or contracts between individuals, and the like. That is not true, for several reasons.

            For a start, there are bad lives in all sides or parts of our existence. Further, if you suppose that a morality needs to have in it particular sections concerned with private life, relations between people with good lives and so on -- rules or ideals or whatever having to do with these -- that does not go against the Principle of Humanity. What it requires is that whatever is said and done about these things is to be consistent with the principle itself, serve its end.

The Character of the Principle

            There is something as important to the morality of humanity as what we have -- the principle about bad lives that summarizes it, its view of omissions, its policies and its practices. There is what can be called the character or nature of the principle and the morality. That character or nature, as with other principles and moralities, has a good deal in it.

            It is not unreflective about morality or about itself. It is, to speak plainly, not ignorant, naive, simple, self-serving or political about the nature of all moral principles, judgements and the like. It is saved from unreflectiveness by knowing  a little philosophy. 

            If it sees that a decent moral principle is rightly called that, exactly a decent moral principle, and that some such thing is as important as truth itself, it also sees any such principle is an attitude -- an attitude capable of being supported by facts and by a general logic. It takes any attitude whatever to be a valuing of something and hence to involve desire, which valuing may or may not conceive of the thing clearly and entirely.

          Thus the Principle of Humanity does not begin to suppose that alternative or competing moralities and politics, of any kind, can be different or have any other standing or be in less need of the support of facts and logic. It does not at all contemplate that it faces alternatives or competitors that have any sort of higher or deeper authority, certification or imprimatur. It does not half-respect the ordinary stuff of most politicians, their self-defensive argot for a time, maybe that this or that is unacceptable. In general the principle does not pretend a piety about morality that no one who is reflective can sustain.

            Morality is not something given by God, or ancient texts, or any religion high or low. It is not given to persons of special perception and sensitivity of whatever kind. Nor is morality something given to a social class or a tradition of one people, or proved by their special success, least of all their material success or vulgarity. It is not owed to any other special fact about a people, such as their power or weakness. As you have heard, morality is not the property of a political tradition or inclination, or of a commitment to democracy, let alone democratic politicians.

            Do you recall my remarking in connection with the politics of reality that there have long been denigrating utterances about morality as consisting in mere value judgements, subjectivity, emotive meaning and the like? There is a distinction between all that and what has just been said. It is that morality is no more than and no less than attitudes capable of being supported by facts and logic.

           A second point about the Principle of Humanity is that is in a way a literal one. It is not the sort of thing uttered in much the same words by the estimable Bill Clinton, as indeed it was, or conceivably by Brown of the New Labour Party, he of whom some have hopes despite the fact that he has not yet by any public action distinguished himself from his leader Blair. You can say the principle is a different speech-act than theirs.

            It does imply, for a start, that we are to hold our leaders and those around them morally responsible when they violate it in the way that we have feeling against lesser wrongdoers in our jails. The principle does not presuppose a difference in kind in this respect, whatever else can be said, between a prime minister and a pornographer, or a prime minister and a child-molester, rapist or murdered.

            Nor is the principle meant to be an exhortation already understood as not likely to be acted on in fact, let alone understood as something that cannot be acted on in fact. We are actually to do what is actually rational to get and keep people out of bad lives, not engage in substitute-behaviour, maybe giving undertakings to estimable rock stars arranging concerts about African poverty, just in time for the world's richest nations to meet again and do nothing much about it.

            The principle, as you will have taken in, is not that of conservatism or liberalism. Something close to the principle or very like it has been the source and inspiration of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, many U.N. resolutions, and a clear and essential part of the rest on international law. Also, I think, the doctrine of the just war. The principle has indeed been the guide or ideal of the Left in politics so long as the Left has been true to itself.

           That is not to say, you will gather, that it sanctions all the theory, commitments, practices and other means of all the traditions, parties and persons within the history or the present of the Left in politics. The principle it itself and not another thing. Its explanation depends on no other ideology. It is not vulnerable to objections owed to mistakes made about it or in trying to act on it. It would be absurd to suppose it is so much as touched by the fact that a Wall fell down as an empire ended.

           The principle, as you will also have taken in, has the fourth distinction of not operating with a merely generic notion, say happiness, well-being, deprivation, justice, fairness or the like, let alone the common good or community. It is not theoretical in a way that lets the world slip out of view or out of focus.

           So it is not like utilitarianism or some morality of economists, which by going on about general happiness or satisfaction or whatever makes it more possible, even with good will, to slide by individual costs of a general happiness, to overlook victimization if not actually justify it. Rather, the Principle of Humanity fixes attention on realities that do not so easily allow us to overlook the lives of others, rise above or disregard them. It is in its character closer to life, closer to other lives than our own.

           The principle is also clear. It does not have the hopeless indeterminacy of Kant's celebrated injunction that was also called the Principle of Humanity. That was the injunction that we are to treat each person as an end and not only as a means. It can be understood to mean almost anything, down to a mild piece of advice to respect everyone, a piece of advice consistent with leaving them in misery. Nor does our principle have what is effectively the vapidity of 'Love your neighbour', however related it may be in spirit. It has more in it than the well-meant help of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

       The Principle of Humanity, sixthly, to come on to something still larger, is a principle of truth, in several ways. In fact, a commitment to truth is just about the bottom of it.

            As you will anticipate, it is not respectful of any orthodoxies of opinion and reaction that have been put in place or at any rate come to be in place, many about supposed facts, in particular supposed necessities. It does not always call terrorism something else, such as resistance, thereby tending to leave out the killing and maiming. Nor does it fail to see that terrorism can also be something else, say resistance to ethnic cleansing. It does not leave out half the facts in looking at any matter. It does not look at things from your local point of view. It disdains the denials, evasions and forgettings of truth that go with taking only some lives really to matter. It is the very contradiction of what it regards as the viciousness of what certainly is no mere statement of a right of self-preservation, the declaration on behalf of a people that 'our lives comes first'.

             The principle is not deferential to any of the kinds of our societies' convention. If its commitment to reflection and argument, and of course to rationality, and in particular to argued endorsements, stands in the way of engaging in direct or indirect incitement, it is not deferential to the fact that some answers to questions have been proscribed as terrible. It is not respectful of the powers that be, including the democratic powers, but cynical at least about their self-deception.  It does not accept a politician's edict with respect to certain moral judgements, say about killing, sometimes to the effect the that we are all to eschew them, sometimes to the effect that we leave to the politician a monopoly on engaging in them however evasively. It is prepared to think about atrocities, if not on the day 9/11 or the day 7/7 then sometime after. If not on a day in the refugee camps of Sabra or Shatila, or on a day in Bagdad, then sometime after.

               The principle, as you will expect, is for public inquiry that issues in relevant truth, for public conduct of public business that issues in relevant truth. The principle is an attitude antithetical to to the inanely resolute one of the Blair government on television in 2006 and before then. That is the attitude, in opposition to the whole history of intelligence, that the response to a question is a speech of diversion.

               The principle, less importantly, can tell the difference between proper philosophical civility and sucking-up. Also the difference between considering other views and pretending that all of them are worth respect. It asserts that Nozick's picture of the perfectly just society is to be thought about with contempt. 

           Does the principle not only engage in and recommend truth but also rest on a foundation of it?

The Strength of the Principle

           Life would be easier if morality were simpler. But the conclusions to which we are already well on the way, about the horrors of Palestine, 9/11, Iraq and 7/7 and the rest, and the light thrown on the later by the earlier events, will not depend just on the foundation of the Principle of Humanity as stated. In fact there are things that are clearer and stronger than any general principle, necessary though a general principle may be. That a man's torturing a child for the purpose of sexual excitement is monstrous in its wrong is evidently a kind of truth, somehow as strong as a plain truth of fact. It is more the case that the Principle of Humanity depends on such a moral truth than that the moral truth depends on the principle.

            The morality of humanity, like any morality, has as its content and recommendation the sum of the propositions in it including its principle, and also its nature or character. Its policies and practices are part of its content. So too are the specified consequences of the principle, some being consequences that are only such in a formal sense, and stand on their own as moral truths.

           Some consequences, whether or not they have that strength, are about terrorism and war. Another is the wrong of our hierarchic democracy. It is not only dim, but also a violation of the Principle of Humanity in its inequality and unfreedom, and yet more so in its products, the human facts owed to or recorded by the distributions of wealth and income. There is also the moral responsibility of its beneficiaries, those who propose to maintain it in perpetuity. You learn more of the morality of humanity by learning of such consequences. Its content is to some considerable extent given by them.

            Still, for all of that, it is the Principle of Humanity that sums up the rest and offers the possibility of consistency among all certainties and judgements in the morality. Such a general principle, as you have heard, is essential. It is essential for other cases than those of absolute certainty, which is to say most cases.

          Is there a general argument for the Principle of Humanity? Could there be what can have the name of being a proof, as has sometimes seemed to me possible? You heard at the start that we are all somehow committed to the Principle of Humanity. There is an argument from our human nature. It has to do with our fundamental desires, our desires for the great goods, and also with our being rational in the minimal sense of our having reasons for things, sometimes moral reasons.

           Fundamentally it is an argument from consistency resting on strong premises. It cannot actually stop people from being inconsistent. No argument for anything, however good, can in itself be anything like a necessitating cause. But there is a price to be paid for inconsistency that few want and are able to pay. It is that if you say something is right, and then you also somehow say a thing of that same kind is wrong, you say nothing. A contradiction asserts nothing, gives no reason whatever for anything. And a reason is what you want to have, what you are claiming to have. That is true of all of us.

          The argument from consistency for the Principle of Humanity has a number of premises in it. They can be put in terms of certain situations of choice.

            Your human nature is such, you will agree, that if there is a choice between (1) your being got out of a bad life into a good one, and (2) somebody else having an good life made still better, you want the first thing to be done. Further, you give the reason that this is right. It is right that your being helped out of deprivation, misery or agony comes ahead of someone else's still fuller satisfaction in the great goods of life. This reason for having help for yourself is of its nature general. All reasons are. From your conviction about yourself, your rightful claim, arguably you are on the way to the Principle of Humanity, or at least faced in that direction.

           By way of a fast example, you believe it is wrong for you to be slowly starved for a month, put in danger of your life, in order that I have my own car rather than have to go on getting to work by bus. Let alone that you be starved in order for my family to have two cars. By way of another example, you believe it would be wrong for you to be sexually degraded by Americans in a prison in Bagdad if what is gained is just my adding to the satisfactions of my good life in Washington.

          Your reason for what you desire, not to be starved or put on a leash naked, because of that reason's general character, commits you to other propositions about other people with respect to additions to bad lives and good lives.That there is room for argument here does not much affect things.

           But, it may be said, there is a difficulty. Something else is also true. If there is a choice between your already good life being improved, and somebody else being got out of a bad life, maybe nearly a good one, you may want the first, and argue that there is some moral reason for this. You may talk of desert, or family lineage, or race, or ethnic group, or democracy, or even a piece of ancient history. You will be very far from alone.

           You can be faced with an objection. It will be to the effect that in what are argued to be relevantly identical situations, but where you happen to be in the bad position rather than the good one, you would judge differently. That is, you can be reminded of the first choice situation. But it will not be easy for the objector or you to succeed in this dispute, which will become one about whether the two situations are relevantly identical or close enough. Let us leave this difficulty unresolved and consider some other situations.

         Suppose you contemplate two other people to whom you are not at all connected in terms of particular sympathy or degree of identification. If your choice is between an escape from a bad life for one, and an improvement of an already good life for the other, you will want the first to happen and take it to be right. That will be your tendency despite ideas of desert or whatever. Few of us talk about private property in connection with the children with the large eyes.

            Consider a third situation. If your choice is between possibilities having to do only with yourself, a possibility where you escape from a bad life and a possibility where your already good life is improved, you will opt for and justify the first. If there are some exceptions to this policy of what is called maximinning, exceptions having to do with the attraction of taking a chance or gambling, they can surely be set aside as not of great consequence. Think of a choice between escaping river blindness and getting a faster car.

             It is not perfectly clear how to use these situations in order to try to construct an argument for the Principle of Humanity. There is no neat proof. The argument will be to the effect that our natures are such that we give a precedence, if not a complete one, to reducing bad lives rather than improving good ones. The argument will not make the principle into an ordinary truth entailed by premises shown to be ordinarily true. But the argument may establish the principle as what is most consistent with judgements about ourselves that are, so to speak, the stuff of our humanity. They are real foundations, premises of ordinary truth. No other principle of morality, you can think, has such foundations.

        Are they enough to allow us to speak of the principle's moral truth? How good does a general argument for a principle have to be? That is not obvious. It does seem that these considerations of our human nature do better to support the Principle of Humanity than any other considerations, of human nature or anything else, support any other principle.

             There is one more thing. We all do accept the Principle of Humanity in another way, one that is less theoretical and perhaps is more telling. We accept it in actual lived disputes as distinct from reflection about imagined disputes. If you are engaged in real-life argument with somebody about right and wrong with respect to large questions, and you announce yourself as proceeding from or basing yourself on something like the Principle of Humanity, you are very likely indeed to hear from the other side, at any rate in the end, that the very same is true of it.

           What neo-Zionist who is a serious adversary in argument depends on an ancient piece of religion about a people chosen by God? Or a proposition about a ancient Jewish kingdom easily met by other historical propositions? What neo-Zionist who is a serious adversary, in order to establish a right centuries later to disperse further another people and do worse than that, claims that right on the basis of a divine ordinance accepted by no one else, or half of a declaration by the British foreign secretary Balfour, or because of a fact of democracy? Does he say that it is because somebody paid money to an absenteee landlord in Paris that a peasant family is driven out and has to die in a refugee camp?

          You will hear from such an adversary, rather, about many lives of his own people taken in the recent past, about danger and safety now, about freedom, respect and being unhumiliated, about his people being together, their having their culture. You will hear about things that matter.

         So with those who defend Islamic terrorism, and those who justify the war in Iraq. They show by their recourse to argument from the great human goods that other considerations, say international law or religion or whatever in themselves, are not taken by them to be true foundations of argument. With the war in Iraq and international law, does Blair serve as a stark example? Having started with the justification of international law, he got around to justification of humanitarianism.

          The Principle of Humanity is not itself a general truth of fact. Like all other such things, it is an attitude, as you have heard. But it is a unique one. It would indeed be entirely misleading to dismiss it as just another value judgements, subjective, a matter of relativity in morals, or emotive meaning.

The Ends and the Means Justify the Means

          A grand division used to be made or anyway attempted among various moralities and moral philosophies. Sometimes it still is. Deontological moralities and moral philosophies are said to assert duties, obligations and principles that do not have anything to do with the foreseeable consequences or results of actions. They have to do with values entirely different from the great human goods and lesser such goods.

            The clearest of these may be duties or more likely rights that are said to exist just on account of our relationships to others, say our children. Other principles may seem to make sense in asserting that good intentions, maybe the pure good will, or integrity, or moral intuition, or a hold on the virtues, are fundamental to how we ought to live our lives. Or we may hear of the value of justice, where that has to do with the law rather than the good of the law, or rights, where those are taken seriously without being given a basis that explains why by recourse to something like the Principle of Humanity.

            Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, asserted that the pure good will is the only thing that matters. Also that promises should be kept despite bad effects of doing so, even catastrophic effects. He asserted too that all criminals are to be punished to the full extent of the law even if, as would ordinarily be said, no good whatever comes of this. Desert or retribution, and not anything like the prevention of offences, is the only justification of punishment in a society. If an island people decide to bring their society to an end, scatter themselves through the whole world, so that they no longer have any social purpose at all, it is their obligation to execute the last murderer in prison before getting into the boats.

            In contrast with all this, we hear, are what used to be called teleological and now are called consequentialist moralities and moral philosophies. They assert principles, duties and so on that do have to do with foreseeable good results. The theories that try to justify punishment by its prevention of offences are plain examples. The English moral philosophy of utilitarianism, disaster though it was, is a large example. It still influences a certain amount of political, bureaucratic and like thinking.

            For several reasons the division between the two things has become at least uncertain. One plain reason is that deontological moralities were dragged into the 20th Century. They had to admit that it cannot be right simply to ignore the coming bad  or appalling effects of actions in considering whether they are right or wrong. So promises can sometimes be broken, and punishment has to do some good as well as be deserved in order to be justified. But to my mind, the deontological parts of the updated moralities do not fare at all well. Let us consider the matter.

            What is it to give as a reason, for the rightness of someone's getting or having something, that he deserves it? No satisfactory answer, necessarily an answer that does not beg the question by understanding a deserved thing to be right by definition, has ever been given. As for reasons for doing a thing because of your relation to someone else or others, your child or your people, it is perfectly possible to accomodate these to a considerable extent in the moralities concerned with good effects. And, as can certainly be argued, to go beyond this extent of accomodation is not to do something that can be defended morally.

         That is, the morality of humanity allows and enjoins me to look after my children in particular, partly by way of its practice of equality. But it does not allow me to make them fatter while other children starve. A deontological morality may say in effect that I can make them fatter while other children starve. It may do so by way of the intoned or declarative reason 'They are my children'. What can that be but a selfishness? Is it made less so by feeling or pompousness?

            It is possible to suspect, as indeed I do, that all deontological morality is in fact lower stuff, dishonourable stuff, an abandoning of humanity, of the decent part of our nature, and an attempt to make that abandoning respectable to oneself and others. It is possible to think that what all of us are moved by is the great goods and the means to them, and related lesser goods, and that these give us our only reasons for actions, moral and other reasons. So when a deontological morality purports to give some entirely different reason for action, something else is going on under the words.

           If, with punishment by the state, no worthwhile analysis can be given of the reason 'It is right to punish him because he deserves it', who can escape a certain thought? It is that what is going on is punishing in order to give satisfaction to ourselves, satisfaction in the distress of another.

           As for promise-keeping, Kant's supposed proof that all promise-breaking is self-contradictory and that promise-keeping has nothing to do with good effects has convinced no one. And who would choose a world full of good intentions but also full of agony, distress and other deprivation against a world of bad intentions where things never the less work out very well in terms of the great goods? It would be just mad to do so, wouldn't it?

             The morality of humanity is indeed a consequentialist morality. It does indeed judge the rightness of things by certain anticipated consequences. It judges the rightness of actions, policies, practices, societies, and possible worlds by certain anticipated consequences of those things, and, as it may be worth adding, in those things. What makes a thing worthwhile may be the doing of it, where that is of course not the intention with which it is done, or just its being in accordance with a duty or principle or relationship, but the great good of doing it -- where real good is understood as the sort of thing exemplified by the great goods of the Principle of Humanity.

           You have heard some objection to what is opposed to consequentialism, deontology. It is a good idea, too, to spend some time on what is said against consequentialism. It has been supposed to be at least suspect, not the kind of thing to be tolerated in higher philosophical, ethical or religious company. There are books that report on its rejection, supposedly by a significant number of moral philosophers. There are several familiar lines of resistance to particular consequentialisms, or, more likely, consequentialisms in general, bundled together and not distinguished.

            The most common line of resistance is in the utterance that consequentialism as understood takes the end to justify the means. In one way this is plainly true. Any consequentialism takes some end to make some price paid for it worthwhile. A satisfaction or achievement makes a cost, dissatisfaction or pain worth putting up with or enduring. But what is the objection to this? The common line of resistance sounds as if there is some quite general objection to consequentialism. It has to be to that effect. Is there?

            There just can't be a general objection to consequentialism since innumerable cases of it are accepted by everybody all the time. Going to the dentist is the usual example. Others are using forceful action to stop a man lying on the ground being kicked in the head, or saying something rough and tough to stop some bullying of a child. Or having a police force. It cannot be that there is a general objection to all consequentialism.

             The consequentialism of the Principle of Humanity, as hardly needs to be made more explicit, is in fact not safely expressed as being that the end justifies the means. Rather, it is that the ends and the means justify the means. You have heard enough about the necessity of having means that are not self-defeating, not themselves useless makers of bad lives. That was in there from the start.

            An objector to any decent consequentialism must then have in mind that some particular end does not justify some particular means, or some particular group of means. He will have to show this particular want of justification, provide an argument. As the thinking and conduct of everybody shows, he cannot take his proposition to follow from some general truth. There is no such thing.

            Does the objector perhaps suppose instead that some means are so terrible that no possible end could justify them? Well, he will have to show that. He may well be right. But he will face the difficulty that whatever he takes to be unthinkable about a means, say torture, may be avoided to a greater extent in the end in question than in any other end. In any case, he has no general argument against consequentialism.

            There is also a greater difficulty for him if he is indeed questioning consequentialism in general. In any particular case he only has the hope of an objection to that particular consequentialism -- and out of that objection a different consequentialism is certain to emerge. If he objects to slavery as a contemplated means to an end, he will hear in a minute about a consequentialism that excludes as wrong any actions and policies whose means include those of slavery. It will exclude the slavery, of course, on consequentialist grounds.

            Another objection or resistance to consequentialism is that it does not really ask what is right, engage in proper moral thinking. Rather, as some say, it turns to calculating what can be gained by doing something. It looks to profit and loss. It engages in cost-benefit analysis or social engineering or collateral damage discounting or whatever.

           A consequentialist can best ask what these pieces of jargon come to, what objection they are supposed to contain. Or he can make a jibe in reply, perhaps that his opponent does not look at human facts, but allows himself to be distracted. Maybe distracted by the past, as in talk of desert, or ties of relationship, as in the case of a certain extent of loyalty to one's own child or one's own people. The consequentialist can insist that he never turns away from the question of what is right, the moral question, but answers it in what is the human way. Clearly this kind of exchange of jibes settles nothing.
You can suppose that something lies behind or in the jibe that consequentialism does not ask what is right but calculates what can be gained. One thing is the idea that all consequentialism is or anyway is something like something already mentioned, utilitarianism. That was and remains a disaster, despite a clarity and an estimable human feeling in it.

            The principle of utilitarianism or greatest happiness principle is roughly that the right thing is what is likely to produce the greatest total or maximum of satisfaction taking into account everybody affected -- usually the greatest balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction. This it may do and be committed to doing, as is well known, in an intolerable way, an unfair or unjust way, perhaps by itself making or producing bad lives. What is called punishing the innocent is one way of doing so. In recent philosophical jargon, what we need to do instead is protect certain rights, put what are called side-constraints on the aim of maximizing satisfaction. More plainly, we cannot have as our end the mere maximization of satisfaction.

          This response to consequentialism, confusing it with utilitarianism, is baffling at best. Consequentialism as we have been understanding it, and presumably as it is usually understood, is not utilitarianism. As you heard, consequentialism is taken to be judging the rightness of actions and the like by probable consequences. Consequentialism is the genus or family of which utilitarianism is a species. Nor are many of the other species close to or like utilitarianism. Almost all are against it.

          Certainly the Principle of Humanity is against it. In any situation, the Principle of Humanity asks the following question of fact, of ordinary truth or falsehood: what action or the like will be best in terms of effectiveness and costliness in serving the principle's own end, getting or keeping people out of bad lives? That is not at all the question of whether or not an action maximizes the total of satisfaction or happiness. You could sometimes do that maximizing by making good lives still better, perhaps by accepting a means that actually makes for wretchedness.

            Another nearby resistance to consequentialism must call up a very firm reply. It is that of course the Principle of Humanity takes more bad lives as worse than fewer bad lives. Of course the Principle of Humanity takes an appalling massacre of hundreds to be worse than a single killing. Of course the Principle of Humanity takes a stupifying number of deaths by famine to be worse than a few such deaths. Of course it takes us to be obliged to choose the least bad upshot.

            Is there really anybody, whatever they take to be bad, who doesn't take such a view? Well, some delicate and some tough philosophers have tried to pretend otherwise. They speak in a suspicious way of any maximizing principle, as if any such thing had a character repugnant to decent persons. But in fact maximizing, so called, enters into and is the rule in almost all ordinary moral thinking and feeling. It is barely separable from the rationality of taking effective and economical means to an end. If you think abortion is wrong in itself, presumably you want fewer abortions.

            Perhaps the real resistance to consequentialism is just a confusion that has to do with that very name given to it, and a description of it that we have gone along with. The name suggests that certain moralities fix their attention on consequences or ends to the exclusion of means, or at least fix their attention more on ends than on means. And if you describe consequentialism as morality that judges the rightness of things by their anticipated consequences, you also allow the idea that attention is given to ends rather than means or that too much attention is given to ends.

            No doubt there have been some moralities that do this. Mistake and blunder turn up everywhere. But in fact it is absurd to suppose that the Principle of Humanity, for example, does not give full attention to means. On the contrary, full attention to means is explicitly written into it. It specifies from the start what means are all right and what means are not. Means must not be ineffective or self-defeating. In fact the principle is as much concerned with means as end -- both are considered in terms of getting or keeping people out of bad lives.

           What the principle does is indeed to take the end and the means to justify the means. It requires that the end and the means together do that.

           Could it be that if a philosopher had not attached a name to some moralities, various objections and confusions would have been left behind sooner?

There are some further thoughts on the principle in an interview of Ted Honderich by Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, editors of the book U.S. State Terrorism, Morality, Justification and Responsibility (Pluto Press)

HOME to T.H. website front page